Friday, October 4, 2013

Pit bull advocacy and basic statistics

There have been 400 disfiguring or fatal US pit bull attacks on humans so far in 2013.

In the aftermath of each attack, news sites that report the attack are invariably besieged by an army of relentless pit bull advocates doing damage control and PR, delivering prepared and well-practiced talking points which usually boil down to one or more of the following, in some form:

  • It was the attack victim's fault; It was the pit bull owner's fault
  • Blame the deed, not the breed! (What does that even mean?)
  • How do we know it was a pit bull? (It was a pit bull, not a unicorn!)

One of the most popular types of talking points involves a personal anecdote, usually involving one or more of the following elements:
"I've had pit bulls all my life and I've never been bitten by one, but I was viciously attacked by a <arbitrary breed name here>. My pibble is harmless. He wouldn't hurt a fly."

The pit bull lobby always tries to emphasize atypical behaviors - for instance, a seemingly mild-mannered pit bull. But when a pit bull advocate trots out an anecdotal tale of a pit bull that didn't attack, thinking it to be some sort of game changing revelation, what they're really saying is that they have no concept of statistical distribution.

While there may well be some "family pit bulls" that don't attack, there is absolutely no way to predict whether such a pit bull will attack tomorrow, since virtually all attacks by such pit bulls are completely random, sudden and unexpected. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that there are pit bulls that don't attack. This is no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Living creatures are not identical automatons. For every trait, there is variation along some curve. Pointers were bred to point, but you might occasionally find a pointer who fails to point. Pit bulls were bred to attack, torture and kill weaker creatures for no particular reason, but you might find the odd pit bull that doesn't appear to have that inclination. 

At any rate, the pointer that doesn't point, the lab that doesn't swim, and the pit bull that doesn't torture and kill are statistical outliers. The fact that such pit bulls might be observed is often used by pit bull advocates to insinuate that all pit bulls are harmless, but all it really does is illustrate the properties of the well known bell curve.

The bottom line is this: Any particular single observation or measurement could be nearly anywhere on the map. A single data point is always inconclusive. But once you have a large enough sample size, every distribution starts looking like a bell curve. (More info on this at Khan Academy)

So, when pit advocates trot out the apocryphal account of a meek pit bull (assuming it's true in the first place) we're talking about something not representative of the breed in general. When they trot out their tale of an attack by an aggressive large retriever (again, assuming the story has any basis in fact) it is a statistical outlier. When pondering what breed of dog you would like to adopt as a family pet, it would be extremely foolish to focus on an aggressive breed and assume you'll end up with one of the safe "duds", and it would also be a mistake to avoid a known safe breed because you heard a story about someone being bitten by one. 

As long as we're dealing in personal statements about pit bulls, consider this observation from a long time pit bull fancier and breeder: "Any pit bull that hasn't killed another dog is a pit bull that hasn't been let outside". Isn't that lovely? The pit apologists will howl in protest over that statement, but it has every bit as much validity as the hackneyed "my pit bull wouldn't hurt a fly" shtick. 

Anyone can make a statement of belief, and anyone can relate a personal anecdote, but if we want an accurate view of reality, we need to look at the big picture, not just our own personal experience. Using a search engine can be a useful first step in such a quest. Google is your friend!


  1. this would be a fantastic blog post for oct 26th.

  2. Thank you for this, I've rarely seen it explained so clearly.

  3. i really dont care about the so called nice pits that have supposedly never hurt a person or animal. its the other ones that look just the same as the innocent pits , that i have a problem with. same with their owners ....if they have a pit on the other end of the leash , they are the enemy , as far as im concerned . simply because i cant know otherwise .

  4. Brilliant! I've been thinking something similar, but you constructed this dynamic with the kind of objectivity, data, and intelligence it takes to really give a point some oomph.

    The squishy-wishy passive-pibble-cheeks defense... it just boggles my mind that people think that is a relevant indicator of congruent and future animal behavior. Never mind the reformed nutters who lived the horrors of substituting such personal fluff over the facts. Nevermind the fact that idiopathic aggression cannot be tested for. Never-mind the fact that being once-upon-a-time-well-behaved dogs is NOT mutually exclusive from explosive violence.

    Once upon a time, Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer, Luka Magnotta, Scott Peterson, etc. were harmless babes capable of great affection and years of passivity and non-violence. would anyone argue that these murderers couldn't possibly commit these crimes because they hadn't killed anyone for the first 5-10 years of their lives, or that they are victims of a "media-frame-up"?

    None of these men were born with the undeniably compelling power of overwhelming animal instinct and genetic conditioning. Pitbulls cannot be effectively manipulated by communication and social mores. Pitbulls can't be intimidated by the threat of jail or other negative consequences. Pitbulls can't absorb societal and cultural concepts about right and wrong. There's no true deterrent for an errant fighting dog.

    and lately, it seems a lot of the p-nutters are trying to mitigate the spread of information and safety advocacy somewhat by acknowledging pitbulls are not appropriate for children, because they are "unpredictable animals". This is meant as a means to try to gain credibility via using a tiny sliver of truth, to excuse and deflect the breed-inherent component of brutal attacks.

    How is it, then, that they insist personal anecdote establishes valid grounds for pro-pit doctrine when they themselves cannot deny the fickle potentialities. unpredictable behavior us just that--UNPREDICTABLE. but they turn around and "predict" what their animal will and will not do.

    again, love this post! <3

  5. Your obscuring points are invalid your ignorant smoking kill people and so does beer if you ask me we are the worst creatures alive we create war and thousands of deaths from them should we kill ourselves or jail everyone no same with pittbulls there defending themselves

    1. It's a shame this article was over your head. What was the point of your comment? It's difficult to determine. What I hear you saying is that bad things happen and people are bad, so we should all kill ourselves. Well, that's an interesting philosophy of life, I guess.

      Your last comment is absurd. Do you actually suppose that when grippers break into a pasture to spend an agreeable afternoon tearing the faces off of alpacas, and breaking their legs, that they are "defending themselves"? From what, pray tell? When a pit bull gets loose, and works it's way into a yard or a house to torture and kill all the harmless little dogs inside, it's defending itself?


      Folks, this is the sort of monstrous cruelty and ignorance that we are up against. I rest my case.

  6. The reason you don't get it is because your a damn fool like the rest who believe this trash

    1. Hi Sammy. How are you?

      What do you mean by trash, exactly? By "trash", are you referring to the cruel joke about pit bulls being "nanny dogs"?

      Or are you disputing the fact that pit bulls all too often do what they were designed to do - namely, to commit atrocities against helpless animals (?)

      Here are some links to help you out:

      The purple testament of bleeding war"

      3 Chihuahuas killed in their home

      Pit bull home invasion attacks

  7. I disagree with a number of this group's premises. I've worked with dogs for a very long time, met probably thousands of all types, and while we could attempt to convince each other, I won't be convinced because of all I have learned, and to those unfamiliar with dog behavior, most of my explanation would go over your head.
    I'm wondering though, if pit lovers and haters alike could team up to restrict pit bull breeding. Too many BYBs crank out pups with tenancies toward bad temperaments, and then give them to terrible owners who will teach them to do horrible things or neglect the dogs before discarding them. Pits make up about half of shelter dogs. I'm sure you can agree you don't want these dogs thrown at bad owners, and any one else willy-nilly. Pit advocates are so sick of this too, and seeing so many pits put down because there is a huge pit overpopulation.
    The world is turning, and more BSL is being repealed that instituted, because BSL just isn't helping. If your organization were to try and create legislation that regulated pit breeding, however, I would happily jump on board, as would many other pit lovers
    I feel many advocates and non-advocates are so busy fighting each other that we aren't targeting the people we both know are making things worse. Maybe it's time for all of you focus on something that we all will fell good about before fighting each other.

    1. We normally don't publish comments on stale articles, but we were intrigued by your suggestion that you are so well educated that you're completely unable to communicate with ordinary people like ourselves.

      I would encourage you to go ahead and state your case. Trust me, there are some extremely knowledgeable, experienced, dog savvy readers here, and we've heard it all.

      We'd be interested in an explanation of why the type of dog which came from centuries of careful selective breeding for violent bloodsport is actually no more dangerous than a poodle.

      Frankly, we'd expect the usual nonsense - e.g. "pit bulls used to be nanny dogs", "they don't have locking jaws", "nobody can identify a pit bull", "pit bulls aren't a breed", or "it's all in how they're raised".

      But if in actuality you do have something new and fresh to bring to the discussion, please do. We think you'll find the readers here are more than capable of understanding and evaluating your arguments.

      Awaiting your reply -


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