Tag Archives: Behavioral euthanasia

Pit Bulls in Shelters: The Pit Bull Problem in the USA

Pit Bulls in Shelters: The Pit Bull Problem in the USA

Currently in the United States, pit bulls make up a considerable portion of the dogs in shelters. Some estimates put the number at 40% to 60%, but I have seen statistics as low as 20%. While accurate numbers are hard to come by, one only needs to look at adoptable animal listings in their area to discover that most pounds and shelters have many, many pit bulls in their kennels looking for homes.

What is a Pit Bull?

The pit bull is a group of dog types originally descended from the crossing of bull-baiting dogs and terriers. (http://love-a-bull.org/resources/the-history-of-pit-bulls/). Currently, there are a few dogs within this family of breeds, including the American Staffordshire terrier, which is recognized by the American Kennel Club, the American bully, the American pit bull terrier, and the Staffordshire bull terrier. All of these breeds come from the same original stock, and all are muscular, tenacious dogs with a propensity to animal aggression. Many argue as to whether or not the above dogs should all be considered pit bulls. I think it is reasonable to class all as pit bulls, in the same way the Malinois, the Laekenois, the Tervuren, and Groenendael are all called Belgian Shepherds, even as the Malinois is being moved more toward a schutzhund and police dog and other varieties are being bred for other tasks such as the show ring.

US Pit Bull Population and Shelter Population:

I have seen many different numbers on what percentage of the US dog population is made up of pit bulls. The most commonly stated number is 6% (https://dogbitelaw.com/vicious-dogs/pit-bulls-facts-and-figures#:~:text=Pit%20bulls%20are%20less%20than,of%20the%20country’s%20canine%20population.) It must be recognized that this source is adamantly anti-pit bull, but with this being said, even pro-pit websites seem to use this statistic (https://pawsomeadvice.com/dog/pit-bull-statistics/#:~:text=15%25%E2%80%9320%25%20of%20dogs,the%20breed%20is%20quite%20broad.) Still, I wonder if the number of pit-bulls is higher than this, simply because I tend to see A LOT of this type of dog. Anti-pit bull activists have interest in reporting a low number for the total pit bull population, as then the number of attacks become more significant. Still, there is a huge variety of dogs in the USA, and most are not pit bulls, but I suspect the number may be closer to 8 – 9%, especially in certain regions of the country.

An article by the ASPCA from 2014 states that the dog most commonly relinquished to shelters was the pit bull type dog. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190731184541/https://www.aspcapro.org/blog/2014/05/15/filling-pit). This lines up with my own experience when searching for a new dog. I started off my search by looking at shelters, only to discover that the vast majority of shelter dogs are pit bulls. The shelter I adopted Raina from 12 years ago, is now entirely made up of pit bulls, when at the time of her adoption I don’t remember even one pit bull being on the shelter’s floor.

When researching for this article, I decided to look at Petfinder’s listings. Now, these numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt: shelters seem woefully inadequate at labeling their dogs correctly. For example, I saw several German Shepherd pups labeled as Pumi mixes, and several pit bulls labeled as Affenpinscher crosses. Shelters commonly list pit bull type dogs as lab mixes or just plain old mixed breeds. Additionally, the numbers are not mutually exclusive of one another: if a dog is listed as a golden retriever pit bull mix, I believe it would register in both categories. Even with these things considered, the number of dogs labeled as “pit bull terriers” on Petfinder’s site (looking nationwide) is staggering. The website lists 17,434 pit bulls as up for adoption. Compare this to Labrador Retrievers, which make up 14,320 of the dogs registered on Petfinder as up for adoption. Considering the fact that Labrador retrievers are the most popular breed in the United States (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/dog-breeds/the-most-popular-dog-breeds-of-2020/), one would suspect they would make up the biggest percentage of dogs in shelters if no other factors were at play.

In summary, I think accurate numbers on the total population of pit bulls are incredibly hard to ascertain, but what we can know is that they are not a rare type of dog by any means, and that pit-bull type dogs find themselves in shelters at a higher rate than many other popular breeds of dog.  

Why Do Pit Bulls End up in Shelters and Pounds?

There are many, many reasons as to why pit bulls are so commonly found in shelters. Here, I will give some of the reasons I have come across, along with some of my own theories.


Many apartment complexes do not allow pit bulls, along with a myriad of other breeds, including Cane Corso’s, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds. (https://www.apartmentlist.com/renter-life/breed-restrictions). As such, when people move, they might be forced to give up their dog. Still, Rottweilers in 2020 ranked at number 8 in popularity by the AKC (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/dog-breeds/the-most-popular-dog-breeds-of-2020/), and my simple Petfinder search only showed 1,261 available Rottweilers being up for adoption. German Shepherds are the 3rd most popular breed by the same AKC source, and my Petfinder search produced 5,963 homeless GSDs. So, by no means are Rottweilers and German Shepherds rare breeds, but they are not finding themselves in need of a homes to the same extent that pit bull type dogs are. From this, I really doubt housing breed restrictions are the sole reason pit bulls are ending up in shelters as such high rates.

No-Kill Shelters:

There was a time when any pit bull type dog that entered a shelter or pound was basically guaranteed a death sentence. I could not find the article, but several months ago I read a piece in which a shelter worker talked about how in days gone by, pit bulls that entered shelters were automatically euthanized. Now, with the no-kill movement, this doesn’t happen. Pit bulls may seem to be more common in shelters simply because they are not being killed on sight. There are obviously good outcomes from this, as more friendly, adoptable dogs are being saved. I talk a little bit more about the problems with this below.

Irresponsible Owners and Misconceptions of the Pit Bull Type Dog:

This is largely based on my own readings and observations, but I believe the biggest reason pit bulls find themselves homeless is because of irresponsible owners and misconceptions about these types of dogs. Many stupid, ignorant people buy and indiscriminately breed this dog type. These people are not looking to better the breed, they are looking to make a quick buck. Consequently, the pups have the worst genetic package possible. Unsuspecting dog lovers, who are uneducated on breed traits, buy these pups to give them a good life. These owners think breed characteristics are non-existent, and they don’t have the foggiest clue on how to handle a dominant, strong breed like the pit bull. The dog grows into a monster, due to poor bloodlines and poor rearing, and ends up in the shelter system.

The misconception that a dog’s personality and temperament is completely dependent on rearing and environmental factors is one I often see touted by well-meaning dog lovers, most often when talking about pit bulls. While this sounds nice, it is totally inaccurate. If this were true, we wouldn’t even have dog breeds, we would simply have a basic, domesticated dog that could be trained to do anything. There would be no Labradors bred for seeing-eye dogs, no bloodhounds bred for search and rescue work, no Border Collies for herding sheep. One could just take a husky and train it to herd livestock, or take a Golden Retriever and train it for protection work. Faced with these scenarios, it become obvious that breed traits do exist, and the argument that they do not is a silly and ridiculous proposition.  

Pit bulls were selectively bred for aggression for generations, plain and simple. The ancestors of the pit bull were bull baiting dogs. This bull baiting history is where these dogs obtained their desire to bite and hold (Dog: The Definitive Guide for Dog Owners). When bull baiting became illegal, these bull dogs were crossed with terriers to compete in the sport of ratting. Eventually, they began to breed the dogs to fight other dogs as well (http://love-a-bull.org/resources/the-history-of-pit-bulls/). As such, pit bulls tend to be more aggressive than breeds such as the Golden Retriever. With this, it is understandable why so many people who may be able to properly raise and train a Golden Retriever may be completely unable to handle a pit bull or related breed. Even well-bred pit bulls, American Staffordshire Terriers (Am Staff), can become dog aggressive at any point in their life, as noted on the AKC website:

It must be noted that dog aggression can develop even in well-socialized Am Staffs; an AmStaff should never under any circumstances be left alone with other dogs. (https://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/american-staffordshire-terrier/)

Considering even well bred pit bulls should be expected to develop some sort of aggression, one can imagine the bad outcomes when poor breeding practices are in place.

The indiscriminate breeding of these dogs is a huge issue. It is estimated that 80% of pet dogs in the US are spayed or neutered (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/is-spaying-neutering-always-the-best-choice/#:~:text=It’s%20estimated%20that%2080%20percent,branded%20an%20irresponsible%20dog%20owner.), but many suspect that the number of pit bulls that are spayed and neutered to be much lower. It seems many pit bull owners are reluctant to spay and neuter their animals, even when the service is free (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VuFHZeZ0kA) Some estimates put pit bull spay and neuter rates at as low as 25% (https://newspaper.animalpeopleforum.org/2011/10/01/editorial-the-shelter-killing-of-pit-bulls/). I don’t know what the accurate number on the spay and neuter rates for pit bulls is, but I assume it is lower than the rates at which other dogs are spayed and neutered, simply because so many of these dogs are ending up in shelters. This trend certainly does not represent responsible, well-controlled, limited breeding practices common in many other breeds.

Indiscriminate breeding can be an issue in any breed of dog, but is especially bad for pit bulls. When collies saw a surge in popularity, poorly bred dogs were known to be aggressive and nippy. The same thing happened with German Shepherds and Cocker Spaniels during different time periods. Each of these breeds was bred for a variety of tasks, not just aggression. In the case of pit bulls, aggression was the desired trait. Take this foundation and add current poor breeding practices to the mix, and what one is left with is a disaster. This disaster is being seen in the flooding of shelters with pit bulls and pit bull mixes. These dogs often have a variety of behavioral problems from bad breeding and bad rearing combined.

To top it off, the worst offenders are not being euthanized, but instead “rehabilitated” because of the no kill movement (https://www.vin.com/vetzinsight/default.aspx?pId=756&id=7218009).  Frankly, I believe too many aggressive dogs, pit bulls and unrelated mixes, are passing through the shelter system and being sent to live in unsuspecting homes when they should be humanely euthanized. These dogs are returned when bad behaviors rear their heads, and the cycle that should have never started goes on and on. Good pit bulls with good temperaments should be placed in loving homes with owners who know how to handle dominant breeds. Pit bulls, or any dog for that matter, with serious behavioral issues should be humanely euthanized and never adopted to the public.


The state of shelter pit bulls is a very sad one. Too many of these dogs are being produced by irresponsible people and are being sold to individuals who cannot handle a strong dog with aggressive tendencies such as the pit bull terrier. The only way this problem ends is with people spaying and neutering their pit bulls, and people who are not prepared to handle this type of dog not buying them in the first place. Along with this, shelters need to euthanize dogs with serious behavioral issues so more healthy, stable dogs can be adopted out.

Behavioral Euthanasia: When it’s the Only Option Left

In this post, I am not going to tell anyone if they should or should not euthanize their dog for aggression issues. I am going to share the story of my hound dog, Cooper, who I had to euthanize due to his aggression toward members of my family. I hope this post will help someone else facing this difficult decision.

Cooper’s Story:

Ever since I was a child, I loved hound dogs. I love pretty much every type of dog, whether it be a mutt or a purebred, but I was always strongly drawn to the hound group when the conformation shows would come on the TV on Animal Planet. I would watch all the dog shows on Saturday mornings, first with my dog Lady, and then with Lady and Raina. When the hound group would run around the ring, I was continually enthralled. I know they might not seem special to some, but I just love the floppy ears and jowls on hound dogs, their silly baying sound, and their desire to forever have their nose to the ground.

When I was 13, I remember seeing a large stray hound running through our yard, and I remember secretly hoping I could keep him. Now, growing up loose dogs often would come through the neighborhood, but they rarely stayed long. I already had 2 dogs, but I couldn’t help but want this one too. As the months rolled by, he started to hang about the neighborhood more and more, and it became obvious he didn’t have an owner looking for him. It just so happened that when I would take Lady and Raina on their daily walks, he started to follow along, and he eventually let me pet him.

As the time went by, this dog, who I named Cooper, began to stay in our yard or the neighbor’s yard and wait for me to come outside. We started putting food out for him beyond the normal scraps my parents would toss out for the critters. My parents really didn’t want another dog, as we already had a couple along with several house and outdoor cats. Then one day, after months of Cooper following me, Lady, and Raina around, Cooper bolted in our house when he heard a firework go off… Cooper was scared of loud noises, as we discovered that day. After that, Cooper became one of our official dogs. We got him a license, he walked with me on a leash, and he slept in our kitchen on a large white comforter.

For the first several months, Cooper was a good dog. He was pretty quiet for a hound, he never tried to bolt outdoors, and he was housetrained relatively quickly. He walked well on leash, he was super chill at the vet’s office, and he left our cats alone. He got along well with our other dogs… well, Raina didn’t like him, but she is picky about who she likes. The worst thing he did was stealing and destroying shoes, but putting those away was an easy fix. Also, he loved to counter surf, but putting food away stopped this. Overall, he was a good boy, and I was very excited to have another dog.

Slowly, traits of Cooper’s personality began to show that we were not originally aware of. He began to growl at certain visitors. This was easily fixed, though, as we simply put him outside when company came over. This went on for quite a while, until one day Cooper began growling at my mother. As the months went by, he also began growling at my brother. These instances came out of nowhere; my family wasn’t mean to Cooper, and he almost seemed to be in a trance when aggressive. Eventually, he lunged at my brother, and we had him humanely euthanized nearly 3 years after he joined our house.

What We Did:

Prior to making the hard decision to put Cooper to sleep, we tried to work on Cooper’s issues. We would have my mom give Cooper his meals and special treats. We took him to obedience school, hoping the trainer would have some advice, which he really didn’t. I tried making sure we had clear rules, so Cooper would know we were the leaders in the house. He was never aggressive with me. I could take away his favorite bone or toy, put my hands in his bowl while he ate, and pretty much do anything to him, and he would simply wag his tail at me and wiggle about like a puppy. When he would growl at others and I would scold him, he would seem confused, like he didn’t know why he was acting out in the first place. Knowing when Cooper was going to become aggressive was impossible, as the incidents were random. Sometimes, he was perfectly fine, and other times it was like he just switched into a different dog. My mom would say he was like having Jekyll and Hyde in the house.

Cooper and his pal, Oscar.

What Caused Cooper’s Issues?

I will never know the answer to this question. Perhaps he was abused, or maybe he was just born with an unstable temperament. He did come to us with shotgun pellets under his skin, a piece missing from he ear, arthritis in his elbow, and he was blind in one eye, so I have always speculated that he was mistreated prior to joining our house. Whatever the cause was, there was no clear way to modify his behavior and make him into a trustworthy dog.

Making Hard Decisions:

The choice to euthanize a dog for aggression issues is not an easy one. While it might seem like a clear-cut decision from the outside, it is incredibly difficult to put an animal down, especially an animal that is physically sound. Cooper was approximately 6 years old when we put him down, and he didn’t have any major health concerns, but emotionally he wasn’t stable.

Despite Cooper growling at my mom, even she felt bad about having to euthanize him. When he was calm and well-behaved, which was most of the time, she would just say, “Why can’t he always be like this?” For anyone who has/had a dog with random aggressive outbursts, this is the question, but we can’t talk to dogs and ask them why they do what they do, and frankly, I think that dogs with this type of random aggression don’t know why they act out. Some dogs have specific fears, such as men with beards or hats, or strangers. But what causes a dog to go after people he lives with day in and day out who are never mean to him?

Many people who we talked to about the situation had opinions on what we should do. Some people said my brother should find his own place after Cooper lunged at him. So, apparently to some people, kids should be kicked out of the house when a dog is going after them even though the person didn’t do anything to warrant the dog’s aggression. Also, apparently the growling at my mother was a non-issue to these individuals as well. One person in particular thought we should take him to the dog pound or a shelter instead of euthanizing him, as this person believed a dog should never be put to sleep for non-medical reasons. This to me seems much crueler, as this would put someone else in the position to adopt and grow to love Cooper, only for his aggressive tendencies to surface after the bond had been formed.

No one we spoke with suggested euthanizing him. Every book and article I could find said that “any dog can be trained.” Concluding that euthanasia was the only option was extremely difficult, and I felt like a complete failure to my dog, and that I was betraying his trust. That is why I am making this post. Hopefully, someone in my same position will read about Cooper, and find some comfort in the fact that they are not alone, that euthanizing a pet for aggression does not make them a bad person, and that sometimes training, love, and structure isn’t enough. If your or your loved ones’ safety is at risk, hard decisions need to be made to keep you and your family safe, and sometimes that means euthanizing a dog who becomes aggressive for no reason.


I will not sugar-coat this: the guilt after putting Cooper down was terrible. It was hard to even properly grieve losing him, because I felt I didn’t have the right to grieve since I was the one who made the decision to put Cooper down. I had nightmares for a long time after euthanizing Cooper. Possibly worst of all, is that I felt guilty about being relieved that I didn’t have to worry about him hurting my mom or my brother. I felt guilty that I was more relaxed without the tension in the house of Cooper making life hell for my family.


Yes, I regret that my wonderful dog needed to be euthanized for aggression, but I do not regret my decision, as it was the right one. I am so thankful I didn’t dump him in a shelter and not disclose his aggressive tendencies for someone else to go through the same hurt I did. It was incredibly painful to be there when Cooper was put to sleep by our vet, but I am thankful I was there with him in his final moments. I am thankful that Cooper never actually bit anyone. I do regret not euthanizing him sooner, as it was wrong for my mom and brother to have to live for over a year with a dog that would randomly growl at them for simply walking about in their own home. It also wasn’t fair to Cooper, as he had to be in a crate whenever I wasn’t around to make sure he didn’t follow up his growling by biting someone. I regret that I couldn’t change his behavior, but I also don’t think anyone could have helped him. For reasons I will never know, Cooper was mentally broken, and sometimes, training can’t solve the problem.

I still miss Cooper and will always be thankful for my time with him. Like all my wonderful dogs, I learned so much about love, loyalty, and devotion from him. Unlike my other dogs, from his life I learned the painful lesson that some issues cannot be fixed, and the right thing to do is often the hardest. I hope his story can help someone else facing the decision to euthanize their aggressive dog. While nothing takes away the pain of losing a devoted pet, hopefully Cooper’s story can ease someone’s guilt who has to part with their dog for the same reasons.