What’s a pit bull?

Zuri, a brown and white pit bull looks at camera

October is National Pit Bull Awareness Month. At Animal Humane Society, we like to bring positive awareness and attention to pit bulls and their pet parents all year round.

Despite everything that's been done to reduce discrimination against pit bulls, there are so many misconceptions about their traits and characteristics (No, they don’t have locking jaws).

Over the years, we've learned that there can be a lot of confusion around what a pit bull is and isn't.

So... what's a pit bull?

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Is this doggo a pit bull?

Photo credit: American Kennel Club

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What about this good boy?

Photo credit: Dogster

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How about this one?

Photo credit: New Castle Beach

Is pit bull a real dog breed? 

The answer is yes ... and no. The term “pit bull” usually doesn’t refer to a single dog breed. Pit bull is generally used as a broad description for a type of dog. Many dog breeds may be classified as pit bulls, including: 

  • American Staffordshire Terriers
  • American Bull Terriers
  • American Pit Bull Terriers
  • American Bulldogs

So when you hear about pit bull bans, pit bull bite statistics, and pit bull abandonment rates, they all refer to a much larger group of dogs than you’d imagine. And grouping so many dogs together under one label can skew statistics and lead to harmful stereotypes.

For example, in 2018 Delta Airlines announced a ban on all bully breeds stating that even service or support animals classified as “pit bull type dogs” weren’t allowed on their planes. But how did Delta determine if a dog is pit bull? It was entirely visual.

(Delta's pit bull ban was lifted in January of 2021. Delta has banned all emotional support animals from their flights, however service animals are allowed regardless of breed, to fly in the cabin alongside their handlers.)

And visual identification can be tricky. Pit bulls are known for their muscular builds, large blocky heads, and often shorter snouts. So are the dogs below pit bulls, too?

More on breed classifications

Just as herding dogs and hound dogs can refer to a vast array of breeds and mixes, “pit bull type dogs” can vary greatly in their personality, demeanor, and appearance.

It’s important to understand some basics about breed classifications when thinking about adopting. For instance, hounds will likely howl and herding dogs are likely to be athletic. But the most important thing we can do as animal lovers and responsible pet owners is to treat every dog as an individual.

Any domestic dog breed has the potential to be your best friend. Discovering your new pal’s personality is what makes having a pet so wonderful!

How does AHS determine dog breed?

Determining dog groups and breeds can be difficult and confusing, especially in a shelter environment. Learn more about how AHS and other shelters determine dog breeds.

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