Pit bulls (American Staffordshire Terriers) have caught the media's attention recently after the disbandment of a pit bull fighting ring a sports star was involved in. The media's eye continues to focus on this breed, especially with regards to dog bites and mauling.
With all this attention, it's no surprise that people are beginning to discuss banning the breed in a number of municipals. Kansas City recently followed suite after Denver and Ontario banned pit bulls and many other cities are considering banning their ownership as well (Fox News, Balko, Sept 25 2006).
In my opinion, pit bulls are a greatly misunderstood breed. Although a relatively recent breed, the American Staffordshire Terrier was derived from incredibly old domesticated lineages. Unlike Dingos, Basenjis, or German Shepherd dogs which may have a feral aspect to their genetic lines from breeding with wild varieties, pit bulls have a long history and working relationship with humans. While it is true that American Staffordshire Terriers were bred to be fighting dogs, they were not bred to be attack dogs or in any way hostile toward humans. Rather, they were chosen for the pits because of their compactness and efficiency and were taught to be aggressive toward other dogs, not man. Traditionally, the opposing owner was allowed to wash the competing pit bull before a match (to ensure that no drugs or powders were present on the fur). If that dog was aggressive toward the opponent owner in any way the game was called off, and if it attacked the opponent owner it was put down (How to Speak Dog, Coren, 2000). Obedience and biddablity are vital traits in powerful breeds which must be handled even in the middle of a dog fight. These dogs had to therefore be very docile and loyal toward humans while at the same time champions in the ring (Animal Planet, Dog Breed Profiles, 2007).
Their later breedings in the 1940s focused on and attempted to bring fourth these more loving characteristics as they became more popular as family pets. Pit bulls were never meant to be aggressive toward man and even their aggressive nature toward other dogs can be remedied with proper socialization from birth. Dogs that are reared well almost always behave properly, regardless of their lineage (Before and After Getting Your Puppy, Dunbar, 2004).
It is my suspicion that the reason for pit bull attacks have a lot more to do with human psychology than genetic factors. Many people look at pit bulls as icons of masculinity, as the classic city "though guy" dog. For this reason, they might be brought up to be nasty, trained to be aggressive, or simply neglected and treated as the accessory that too many people see them as.
By what I've seen of the American Staffordshire Terrier, both at the local shelter and in my own home (my mutt is predominantly pit bull and heeler), I'd say this breed has great potential and it would be a tragedy to discontinue their heritage. Breeders who focus on the strengths of the breed are abound, and I feel it has a great future as one of America's favorite family breeds.
Here is an interesting clip from CNN.com about the subject (although be patient, you must sit through a commercial fist):