Perhaps the most important characteristic of pit bulls is their amazing love of people. Many people are surprised by the loving personality of these dogs the first time they meet one. Pit bulls are remarkably affectionate and truly enjoy human attention. They are wonderful cuddlers and love nothing more than a belly rub. In fact, most pit bulls think they are lap dogs!

As Dunbar (1999) writes, “Today, a properly bred pit bull is so exuberantly happy upon meeting her owner’s friends (or even friendly strangers) that new owners sometimes worry that their dog is too sweet and fun-loving to protect their home and family… A multi-talented companion, the well-trained pit bull is suited for a variety of exciting activities. He excels at obedience, agility and weight-pulling competitions, events which showcase intelligence, trainability and strength. In addition, the pit bull’s pleasant nature makes him an ideal candidate for therapy work with people.”

Traits like human aggression, severe shyness and instability are not typically found in the breed, nor are they acceptable. Dogs with these traits are not good representatives of the breed and we do not recommend that they be placed into adoptive homes.

Those who wish to label these breeds as “dangerous” are often quick to insist that the dogfighting aspect of their history somehow means that they are inclined to “fight” humans. This is simply wrong. A central fact of pit bulls’ history is that their lineage actually makes them less inclined to be aggressive toward humans. For over 160 years, they have been systematically bred away from human aggressiveness.

As Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers) explains in an article published in The New Yorker in 2006: “Pit bulls were not bred to fight humans. On the contrary: a dog that went after spectators, or its handler, or the trainer, or any of the other people involved in making a dogfighting dog a good dogfighter was usually put down. (The rule in the pit-bull world was ‘Man-eaters die.’)”

So while human aggressive pit bulls were actively culled from bloodlines, traits such as gentleness, temperamental stability, and the desire to be handled by humans were emphasized. These qualities are the foundation of the “pit bull” breeds. It explains why footage of pit bulls being rescued from horrific circumstances usually features skinny, scarred-up dogs with wagging tails and happy tongues joyfully greeting law enforcement officers. “A pit bull is dangerous to people,” Gladwell concludes, “not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it.”

What is “essential pit bullness?” It’s difficult to express the personality of any breed in words, but for pit bulls it comes down to a certain joie-de-vivre and a magnetic attraction to humans. First, pit bulls have a constant desire to be close to humans, even if that means lying by your feet as you use the computer; they are not overly independent dogs and want nothing more than to be active members of your “family.” Second, pit bulls are outgoing, eager to meet new people, and generally trusting of strangers. Finally, this innate desire for human contact and outgoing nature adds up to the ultimate “people dog” — pit bulls are truly in their element when snuggling on the couch, hopping in the bed on a cold morning, getting rubbed on the belly or scratched behind the ears, showing off a trick, going for a car ride with their family, or playing a fun game.

Contrary to myths propagated by the media, human aggression occurs in all dog breeds. Canines can exhibit many kinds of aggression: human-, dog-, territory-, and food-aggression, to name a few. These are independent behaviors. For example, feral dogs can be good with other dogs but highly aggressive toward humans. By the same token, a dog with dog aggression isn’t by default also human aggressive.

Pit bulls test well above average in temperament evaluations. To date, every shred of empirical evidence we have suggests that pit bulls are the same as, if not better than, other breeds when it comes to human interaction.

Each year, the American Temperament Testing Society holds evaluations across the country for dog breeds and gives a passing score for the entire breed based on the percentage of passed over failed within total number of the particular breed tested. As of 2011, pit bull breeds achieved a combined passing score of 86.7 percent. To put these figures into context, the combined passing rate of all breeds was 83 percent. The Collie, an icon of obedience, passed at a rate of 79.9 percent, and the beloved Golden Retriever scored at 84.9 percent. As you can see, by these measures, the pit bull breeds make fabulous family pets!

Pit bulls are wonderful, loving, and very loyal companions; however, it is important to understand the breeds’ nature, to provide a structured environment, and to establish a positive leadership role. In order to do so, pit bull owners must understand the original purpose of the breed, respect its limits, and help it fulfill its tremendous potential. This is sound advice for dog owners of any breed.

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