The term "pit bull" is not a breed. Neither "pit bull" nor "pit bull terrier" is recognized in any breed registry.
Bully breed enthusiasts often use the term "pit bull" as shorthand for American Pit Bull Terrier, but over time the term has become a nickname to describe any dog with a block head; medium to large size; smooth, short coat; stocky, muscular build; and whip tail. Not surprisingly, this general description can be used to describe several different breeds, including the American bulldog, dogo Argentino, boxer and bull terrier.
Many municipalities that ban or restrict pit bulls usually list these three breeds in their legislation: American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier.
However, bans on pit bulls do not keep people safer. A few months ago, a vicious collie mauled a young boy in Waterford Township, where they ban pit bulls. In 2005 two Siberian huskies killed another child in Waterford. Cities need to enforce responsible pet ownership laws and ban dangerous dogs regardless of breed or type. All dogs are individuals and need to be treated as such, based on their individual actions, not on what they look like.
Based on physical descriptions alone, it is difficult for most people to tell these three bully breeds apart. All three breeds have a medium length head; broad skull; distinct stop; pronounced cheek muscles; short, smooth glossy coat that is close to the skin and stiff to the touch; and deep chest. They are also very similar in height, ranging from 14 to 21 inches tall.
If visual identification is unreliable, maybe you can test a dog's DNA to tell if it is a pit bull.
What if a dog is mostly Labrador retriever and part American pit bull terrier? Is that a pit bull?
How about a Staffordshire bull terrier mixed with a poodle with a wavy coat, broad skull, and deep chest? Is that a pit bull?
The Mars Wisdom Panel genetic test detects all AKC breeds, covering more than 250 breeds and varieties of dogs, but they don't test for American pit bull terrier or American bully, both recognized by the United Kennel Club. When I asked Mars why those two breeds are not included in their testing, they said the American pit bull terrier "signature is still too diverse to be uniquely identifiable."
So if you can't identify a pit bull by its DNA using the "gold standard" of genetic breed identification and you can't reliably identify a pit bull by how it looks, maybe you can identify a pit bull by its temperament.
When you compare the general characteristics of these breeds, you'll see similarities like: love of children; strength; courage; excellent family companions; eager to please; trustworthy stability.
The American Temperament Test Society provides a uniform national program of temperament testing of purebred and spayed/neutered mixed-breed dogs. If you compare the temperaments of the three bully breeds to the three most popular breeds in the United States, the "pit bull" stacks up quite favorably.
Pit bull owners know their dogs best and routinely use words like: loyal, friendly, great with children, sensitive, athletic, teacher, couch potato, kissy monster, snuggly, friend, smiley, goofy, smart.
The best definition of pit bull is dog. A pit bull is a dog that needs proper socialization, exercise, training, nutrition, shelter, and a responsible owner ... just like any other dog.
Michelle Spranger is a volunteer on the board of directors of Detroit Bully Corps, a nonprofit organization that specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating bully breeds, especially the American pit bull terrier.