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September 25, 2014

Larger-Than-Life Lap Dogs: Pit Bull Myths Debunked

Pit bulls as nannies and national "spokes-beings?" Who knew? (I did.)

Dr. Pia Salk
Pets Contributor
pets-easter-0015-s109168.jpg Photography by: Erik Ekroth

Pit bulls.


What just happened as you read that? Did your hair stand on end with fear, or did you fill up with a warm sense of love and comfort? Sadly, many among us have been negatively conditioned by the myriad sensationalist pit-bull-related stories put forth in the media. Whether you love the breed or not, it is important to know that the vast majority of these stories are misinformed partial accounts that have come to represent a minority of incidents. The fact-based reports and statistics on this breed offer an entirely different picture.


For starters, you may be surprised to learn that in the 1940s and '50s, pit bulls were affectionately referred to as "America's nanny dog." Their stability, natural affinity for humans, and good nature with kids had many American families employing pit bulls to watch over precious new family members. And if any of you have had the good fortune to know a pittie personally, you'll agree that their ongoing wish to make their love and affection known with kisses likely kept these kids "well groomed" to boot! But the impressive history of this now-maligned breed does not stop here.


Pit bulls not only have been trusted to care for human infants, but large companies -- and even countries -- have branded them as "spokes-beings" for their products and causes! Their professional portfolio includes serving as the face for Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and they were America's choice to convey loyalty and integrity on WWI and WWII campaign posters to enroll troops.


President Woodrow Wilson's best friend was not only a pit bull; he was also a war hero. Canine Sgt. Stubby served our country in WWI and was reportedly wounded in action twice. Stubby actually captured a German spy and succeeded in saving his entire platoon by warning them to retreat from a poisonous gas attack. If that doesn't define "man's best friend," what does?


Woodrow Wilson was not the only national leader loved by a member of this breed. As a young boy, Jimmy Carter had a loyal pit bull companion. And General George S. Patton's faithful bull pooch, Willie, was noted to have mourned his master's loss for a long time after the general's passing.


Helen Keller also shared her life and travails with a beloved pit bull companion. And who can forget the famed Petey from "The Little Rascals"? More modern celebrity figures, such as Jon Stewart, Brad Pitt, Jessica Alba, Mary Tyler Moore, and Justin Timberlake have been seen out and about, walking proud with their rescued pit bull companions.


My own work helping rescue animals after Hurricane Katrina had me working side by side with actress Linda Blair (of "Exorcist" fame), who also came to the Gulf Coast to help rescue animals. Linda was right there in the trenches and is so committed to these canines that she runs her own not-for-profit rescue group to help the breed. So if history is any indication, I'd say we have a lot to learn about this misunderstood breed. Pit bulls even misunderstand themselves: They seem to be confused as to their size. Most believe they are cuddly little lap dogs and see no reason why they, too, can't accompany their human everywhere in a chic little purse.


I know you to be a crowd always up for debunking myths about our fellow animals, so I vote that we spread the real story on this dogged dog. Hopefully we can educate others missing out on the "bottomless pit" of love these guys have to offer the world.

Dr. Pia Salk
About the Author
Dr. Pia Salk is a psychologist, animal advocate, and expert on the human-animal bond. Salk's media interviews include regular appearances on "The Martha Stewart Show," promoting the importance of pet adoption and the recognition of companion animals as members of the family. Dr. Pia covers topics ranging from the loss of a companion animal and raising compassionate kids to ... Read More

Comments (58)

  • kkbowen628 17 Feb, 2015

    With all of the wonderful dog breeds available, why this article? As someone who has experienced severe trauma from a Pit Bull, I find this to be woefully misleading. If you need proof of the ridiculous nature of this commentary, feel free to google the breed. In doing so, you will learn that every 15-18 days someone is killed by one of these dogs that you are irresponsibly representing as a "family" type pet. Every five days, a human loses a limb... Irresponsible article at best.......

  • zori2414 20 Feb, 2015

    I am truly sorry for some who has ever been attacked by a DOG notice I didn't say Pitt but dog. Im not saying that your experience is not worthy but i am saying*t happens now dont you go getting mad at me hey someone had to say it. Pitt's are nit the only breed that attack people and you also need to look at the background who are the owners what have they tought the dog what ways have they disciplined he animal... Just saying. And dont slam the entire breed.

  • Itspurple 11 Feb, 2015

    I rescued a bull terrier and had no idea it is part of the pit bull breed. His owners didn't teach him any thing not even his name. He has been a handful trying to teach a 1 1/2 year old terrier manners BUT never once showed an ounce of aggression towards anything or anyone. I had 3 dogs and 5 cats when I took him in he is wonderful. I can take food, toys, etc. without any problems. I can let all my dogs and even one on my cats eat from the same dish. IT'S THE OWNERS FAULT NOT THE BREED.

  • 1Livey 29 Nov, 2014

    There are still too many pit-bull advocates regurgitating the nanny myth. It was started by a pit bull breeder as an advertising gimmick in the 70's to sell more pit bulls. Stop spreading misinformation: UPDATE 5/21/13: Two years and nine months after the Nanny Dog Myth Revealed was first published, BAD RAP, a major pit bull advocacy group publicly announced that it will no longer support the Nanny Dog myth because it endangers children. While it is too late for many children, hopefully many wil

  • WingedUnicorn 29 Apr, 2015

    That is absolutely right. Extensive searches of historical public records from Britain, America and Canada have revealed that the breed was NEVER known as a 'nanny dog'. The first usage of the term was found in the 70's and that was in reference to the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Another mention of it was found in the 80's and again that was about the SBT and not the APBT. I am against BSL, but I can acknowledge the truth and will not perpetuate myths.

  • PRO-PITTY 6 Oct, 2014

    For those of you pity haters, I pity you because you will never know the pit bull dog. We got an abused pit bull at the age of 9 months. He was the MOST LOVING DOG I have ever owned. I have owned every kind of dog from a Poodle to a Saint Bernard. We named him Pete like the Little Raschals because he had the same sort of markings. He was abused, my children used to pull and tug on him as kids do, and he never even grold at them. Dalmatians and little dogs are biters not pit bulls.

  • NevadaAmes 1 Oct, 2014

    This shameful tripe reads like a compendium of pit bull myths.

    Pit bulls were never known as "nanny dogs." This widely-regurgitated myth has never been substantiated with even a single original source.

    Stubby was not a pit bull. The Smithsonian Institute, which houses Stubby's mounted remains, has him catalogued as a mixed breed. Authoritative and period texts on Stubby list him as a Boston terrier.

    Helen Keller owned a Boston terrier named Sir Thomas, but never a pit bull.

  • mandideb56 7 Nov, 2014

    Nevadaames you are absolutely wrong!! Helene Keller most definitely had a pit bull! She had a Bosten Terrier too
    but at different times in her life. That is a fact!!!

  • pitlove7 11 Feb, 2015

    Most "Pit Bulls" are mixed breeds. "Pit Bull" is a generic name given to a number of breeds -- and mixed breeds. You have proven nothing.

  • joebsearcy 11 Feb, 2015

    No kidding. That's why they are not a breed and breed specific laws should no apply to pit bulls.

  • Sandra Deutsch 18 Aug, 2014

    The is NOT a PB - stop is too tall. Peety was Amer. Bull - jowels.
    Your "expert" is a fool & total idiot. Her info is misleading, incorrect & potentially lethal. PBs were bred for bear baiting. Both live animals were placed in a large pit (hence the name) and fought to the death.
    I personally experienced a family PBpet jump out of its car, run full speed at my small leashed dog to rip her throat and go after me. Owner threw her body on top of PB, wrestled to the ground, lay on top, chokeheld

  • joebsearcy 11 Feb, 2015

    Sorry for your loss. Please know one bad dog doesn't make a bad breed. I was attacked by a St. Bernard when I was eight. She tore into my leg. 15 stitches and two days later out of the hospital I was okay. She wasn't a bad dog, just handled by a bad owner. Thankfully the dog was not put down.

  • mindymayhem 17 Aug, 2014 The State of the American Dog is an excellent article on PBs I recommend. It's a very sad thing that in this country, PBs have gone from war heroes to being banned as pets on military bases. We have to begin to put blame where blame is due and raise our dogs right, not try to bring them to extinction! I really knew nothing about them when I found a litter of newborn pups In a garbage bag, but once you go PB, you can never go back.

  • mindymayhem 17 Aug, 2014

    As a PB owner, I am frustrated by rescue groups that act like owning a PB is like owning any other dog. You WILL be judged and ostracized by society in a way that limits socializing your dog, which is imperative. I have never met a Vet who didn't love PBs, but I have found that people either love or hate them, and they seem to know which is which! I'm not going to lie: My dog is not always an angel, but he is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and the reason that I am alive, today.

  • mindymayhem 17 Aug, 2014

    Pits ARE America's most popular dog - and not always for the right reason. As such, we kill them more than any other breed -- and for every one that hurts someone, there are millions that never will.

    You folk talk about misinformation, but don't mention that most of the Pits that have attacked people are unneuteured/neglected. PBs are active, people-loving, Separation Anxiety-prone velcro dogs, NOT guard dogs or animals to be eternally trapped /chained in the yard! Neglected, they go insane.

  • JOEL - BABE 16 Aug, 2014

    THANK YOU for your positive article on one of the BEST breeds of dogs I have I have been BLESSED to have as a companion for me and my family. Most bad dogs equal BAD OWNERS!

  • jtrent002 15 Aug, 2014

    As with all dogs, breeding is critical to the character. If breed for temperment (rather than aggressive behavior), you should have an awesome dog! I used to own a wonderful Pit Bull mix (Staffordshire + Lab). She was spunky, fun, playful, busy (a working dog), & so LOVING. When I had my babies she was absolutely awesome with them. To her, I was the Alpha Female, & she was the Beta, guarding my "pups" when I showered, etc - sitting by the baby bed until I could give them my full attention.

  • 68bolt 15 Aug, 2014

    If you need any more proof why pit bulls are amazing dogs just watch episodes of the Dog Whisperer where Cesar Millan uses his pack of pit bulls to rehabilitate other dogs-not to mention see how many other breeds like to bite and attack people- or read about the amazing outcome of Michael Vick's seized fighting dogs, known as the "Vicktory Dogs":

  • WingedUnicorn 29 Apr, 2015

    So you are a fan of Cesar Millan? A man who continues to think that dogs are like wolves (despite this myth being debunked), who continues to use punitive training methods (despite the fact that science has proven that positive reinforcement does more good to a dog in the long run) and a man who has gotten himself bitten more than a few times because he can't really read dog body language properly? I even heard him advise that a dog be tethered in the house to assist with toilet training!!

  • WingedUnicorn 29 Apr, 2015

    Did you know that during the rehabilitation of those dogs that one dog broke out of its cage in order to attack another dog and the other dog was literally decapitated? I'm not saying that all the dogs that were rehabilitated are like that, but I am just saying that when they become aggressive they can become extremely violent.

  • 68bolt 15 Aug, 2014

    Thank you dlmaddie for the informative link. It is still bugging me that people still have such a negative perception of pit bulls. The most vicious dog I have owned is my chihuahua. She has bitten my mom twice and one of my friends, not to mention myself several times. Most of those times has been when she felt threatened-which is most of the time! I know other people that have similar stories yet I don't see a national campaign to eradicate the breed because they are small & their bite is too

  • dlmaddie1018 15 Aug, 2014

    For detractors of pit bulls how about you read the ASPCA's position on pit bulls here:

  • dlmaddie1018 15 Aug, 2014

    Position Statement on Pit Bulls (

    Dog breeds are characterized by certain physical and behavioral traits. Each breed was developed to perform a specific job, whether that job is hunting rabbits, retrieving downed birds, herding livestock or sitting on people’s laps. When developing a breed, breeders selected only those dogs that performed their job best to produce the next generation.


  • tishytooJoin 15 Aug, 2014

    It seems that folks still continue to confuse the pit bull with the American bulldog. It is the American bulldog -- which is completely unrelated to the pit -- that was dubbed "the nanny" because they -- as well as the English bulldog -- are great with children.

  • 68bolt 15 Aug, 2014

    Thank you Dr. for your brave article about pit bulls! Wow! Some of the comments on here are more vicious than the myth of the pit bull! I have first hand knowledge of what a loyal and loving animal the pit bull is. Your comment about how they think they are lapdogs made me laugh because my own pit does that and there is nothing like 60 pounds of solid muscle jumping on your lap to give you kisses! Unfortunately too many people would rather believe the media hype than the truth. Sad.

  • DhyanaStarr 15 Aug, 2014

    I am sure Pitbulls can be playful and lovable. They are also powerful dogs that are capable of killing. Time magazine had run statistics on the breeds of dogs that kill people. Pitbulls were way ahead of any other breeds. Take into consideration that they do not rank high on the list of breeds owned by Americans. I have no problem at all with a person who knows how to handle dogs and is a responsible pet owner having one. Problem is lots of people who own these dogs want to intimate.

  • Madgepie 15 Aug, 2014

    I adopted a pit bull at the shelter 10 years ago, she's 11 now and it was the BEST choice I've ever made! I will never own another kind of dog other than a pit. I know tons of responsible pit bull owners who have the most loving, gentle dogs who bring great joy to their families. Sadly I know there are a lot of bad owners out there who are not responsible and mistreat and abuse these dogs and the dog is the one who suffers. Judge the deed not the breed just as we should with humans as well.

  • plaiddog 21 Jul, 2014

    Two children killed by pit bulls this weekend. Take down this story, and fire this "vet." She's clearly not qualified for the job. "Nanny dog" is a myth that kills children.

  • Julia Green 17 Jul, 2014

    Oh, my. I stopped reading when I got to the "nanny dog" nonsense. And you are a Vet? I have to wonder how much harm that particular lie has done to children. The pit bull was NEVER considered a nanny dog--far from it, in fact. That myth got its start in 1971, when Lillian Rant, a pit bull breeder was interviewed for an article in the NY Times by Walter Fletcher. Even pro-pit bulls groups have said it's not true. Please stop promulgating this ridiculous lie.

  • Dash w 15 Jul, 2014

  • Dash w 15 Jul, 2014

    After seeing too many pits turning on family, killing children (two now in my area in just the past 6 months by "responsible" owners and an elderly woman) and being attacked myself for no reason along with my mother, I'm done supporting the breed. I love dogs, like you wouldn't believe... but this particular breed does not love us back. It's just bread to be that way.

  • plaiddog 6 Jul, 2014

    terrible myth puts children in danger. no dog is a nanny!!!

  • Susan DeVilder1 29 Jun, 2014

    I saw you on Fox and Friends. It was all you could do to keep that pit bull under control. At one point, when it couldn't chew on the picnic table, it tried to chew on your leg. It liked to chew on wood, reminding me of a 2014 pit bull attack on a family who had recently adopted a pit bull from a shelter. The pit bull chewed through two doors to get to the family while they waited, terrified, in a basement for help to come. And you continue to push this breed off on unsuspecting families.

  • DBO Hater 27 Jun, 2014

    Susan DeVider , you need mental help . Anyone who lives their life to bash pit bulls is nothing sort of a moron .

  • Susan DeVilder1 27 Jun, 2014

    pitmom,I don't hate pit bulls but I do hate the fact that they keep attacking people, especially children. I do blame irresponsible articles such as this that seem to suggest that pit bulls are just like every dog and that they make great family pets. The truth is that these dogs are different and they are not for everyone. And reckless articles like this give people the wrong idea about the breed. Then when people get them, they realize they have been duped and pits end up in shelters or dead.

  • Susan DeVilder1 27 Jun, 2014

    AnonymissForTheVoiceless You are the one who needs to learn their history. Pit bulls were bred for bull baiting, bear baiting and then dog fighting. They were never bred for farming or as a companion. That is just ridiculous. The very fact that to this day they are the choice of dog fighters, (a blood sport) should be a tip off to you. Dog fighters breed thousands of these dogs a year for DOG FIGHTING. That was what they were bred to do and that is why they are so proficient at it.

  • Susan DeVilder1 27 Jun, 2014

    caterpillar girl. First, the woman did not die. She is still alive and in the hospital. And NO, her dog was not a pit bull. The three dogs that attacked her were but her dog that is dead was not. So you got two things wrong about that story and that makes everything else you write completely suspect. And what I wrote about Petey is true. What has been said about Petey is propaganda. If would be helpful to you if you could learn the difference.

  • Susan DeVilder1 27 Jun, 2014

    caterpillar girl. First, the woman did not die. She is still alive and in the hospital. And NO, her dog was not a pit bull. The three dogs that attacked her were but her dog that is dead was not. So you got two things wrong about that story and that makes everything else you write completely suspect. And what I wrote about Petey is true. What has been said about Petey is propaganda. If would be helpful to you if you could learn the difference.

  • AnonymissForTheVoiceless 27 Jun, 2014

    Futher to note... to the one who said they were bred for blood sports first. WRONG, they were simple farming and companion dogs first. Learn your history.

  • WingedUnicorn 29 Apr, 2015

    I have read countless breed histories and there have been NO mentions of them being used for farm work or companionship. They WERE originally bred for blood sports!!

  • AnonymissForTheVoiceless 27 Jun, 2014

    I'm with the rest of the people here... Even the haters about the Nanny Dog term (which I'll scrub my eyes later). You realize it was just coined up as a term of endearment right? Pits were never ever a Nanny dog. and this term should never ever be used. As there is So many irresponsible people out there who get this dog just so they can have a built in babysitter because they hear this word so OFTEN. It would be wise to reword/write this article with actual true ref's instead of The ND term.

  • KarenBatchelor 27 Jun, 2014

    Thank you Pia, our pit bulls need all the help they can get. It's incredibly heartening to see people such as yourself in high-profile positions helping to get the truth about the temperament of this very sweet breed out there. Bless.

  • caterpillargirl 27 Jun, 2014

    The "Nanny Dog" thing is unsubstantiated. However, this breed didn't go through a 're-branding' as someone stated. They were popular in the early part of the 20th century as a farm and family dog.

  • caterpillargirl 27 Jun, 2014

    Susan DeVilder you are FULL of it.

    First off - the 71-year-old woman who died. Did you neglect to notice that the dog who died trying to protect her was her own pit bull?

    Also, please validate your claims about Pete the Pup (one of many dogs who played the role, BTW, not just one). "The Little Rascals: The Life & Times of Our Gang" makes no mention of this. SO, until you do, I will assume it's another lie.

  • Pitmom 27 Jun, 2014

    OMG. I own a pit bull, I love pit bulls and you may make me have to stab a fork in my eye because at least to some degree I have to agree with these raving idiots who hate pit bulls. To state that pit bulls were a nanny dog and were trusted with kids is just stupid and irresponsible. NO dog should ever be left alone with children. Pit bulls were NEVER called nanny dogs. Don't try to help us if you are going to spread untruths. Thank you for trying, but major fail.

  • Maria Escobar 27 Jun, 2014

    Now let's be clear, Ms Pia is NOT A DVM, NOT AN MD, NOT A PSYCHIATRIST.
    The DR. preceeding her name likely refers to a PhD. But issuing college info = 0
    Qualifications (w/o corroboration)
    Expert on human-animal bond.
    Trained in family systems theory
    appears on Martha Stewart Show
    "Some wonder if Pia's dedication to healing is part of her DNA"(because) she is niece of Dr Jonas Salk.

    So, here's the conclusion;

    If you have questions or comments you can email her at;

  • Susan DeVilder1 27 Jun, 2014

    mc_rm- You say people are responsible for aggressive dogs. Hogwash. Google Darla Napora. She was a pregnant pit bull advocate who was torn apart by her pit bull that she had raised since it was a puppy. She didn't raise it to be aggressive and she didn't raise it to kill her. These dogs attack and kill because that's what they were bred to do. It is genetics and certainly this "vet" should understand how genetics play a role in shaping dog breeds' behaviors.

  • mc_rm 27 Jun, 2014

    people are responsible for an aggressive dog, not the dog

  • Mary Ann Redfern 27 Jun, 2014

    Dr. Salk, you asked what reaction I had to the words, "pit bull". Hair standing up on my back? No. Warm, fuzzy feeling? Definitely no. When I read those two words, "pit bull" I was reminded of the hundreds of pit bull terrier victims I have read about over time. When I read those two words, "pit bull" I thought of Daxton Borchardt, Beau Rutledge, John Harvard and Mia Derouen, just a few of the very young children killed by pit bull terriers, but not just killed, torn beyond recognition.

  • Susan DeVilder1 27 Jun, 2014

    The more I read this, the more disgusted I become. You say that pit bulls were entrusted with children! Do you realize that pit bulls have been responsible for the deaths of 10 children this year so far? And last year, it was 18. For you to suggest that anyone should EVER go off and leave children unattended with this breed is appalling. You should be ashamed of this article. The only reason I can see for you to write this article is that you are getting paid to do so by the pit bull lobby.

  • Susan DeVilder1 27 Jun, 2014

    And the true story of Petey is as follows: Petey from Our Gang was a fighting dog bred by one of the most notorious dog fighters of the day. Carl Switzer, (Alfalfa) would admit years later that Petey had bit him. Thomas Ross Bond (Butch) said he dreaded going on the set because of that dog. He was so hated that he was killed by someone on the set. This article is so full of propaganda, half truths, lies and misinformation, that to not immediately take it down is journalistic malpractice.

  • Susan DeVilder1 27 Jun, 2014

    This article is completely irresponsible considering that just last week, there were over 10 reported pit bull attacks, many of those attacks were to children, elderly women and other dogs. Recently, a 71 year old woman was attacked by 3 pit bulls while doing yard work. She is in grave condition with hundreds of puncture wounds and six hunks of flesh torn from her body. Her dog, who tried to protect her, is dead. And pit bulls were NEVER nanny dogs. That is a myth that gets children killed.

  • b-i 27 Jun, 2014

    I call baloney. Shame on Martha's editorial team for not fact-checking this.

    Exhibit A:

    Exhibits B & C:

    (The RCA Victor dog and Sgt. Stubby barely resemble, morphologically, what we commonly refer to as "pit bulls" today.)

  • mc_rm 26 Jun, 2014

    plaiddog you are sick

  • mc_rm 26 Jun, 2014

    plaidog you are sick

  • mc_rm 26 Jun, 2014

    Las personas que convierten a estos cariñosos perros en agresivos, son los que están enfermos

  • mc_rm 26 Jun, 2014

    Las personas que convierten a estos cariñosos perros en agresivos, son los que están enfermos

  • plaiddog 26 Jun, 2014

    Shame on you, Martha Stewart. Pit bulls were never a nanny dog, and even pit advocates have stop making the bogus claim. The "nanny dog" myth was created along with a false history back in the 70s when breeders re-branded the dog. The history of this type of dog is clear: they were used in blood sports, first baiting bulls, bears, then each other. They are a fighting breed. Google "pit bull attacks" and you will see the faces of children, dead and mauled by this dog. You need to vet this "vet."