What is the most dangerous dog breed?

Everyone and their mother has a story about being bitten, scratched, or even attacked by a dangerous dog.

It can become such a problem that some areas have even enacted breed-specific legislation (BSL), outlawing breeds of dogs that we think of as dangerous, like pit bulls, Doberman pinschers, and German shepherds.

But, which breed of dog is actually the most dangerous one? Let’s try looking at actual data rather than coming up with emotional judgements about Petey from The Little Rascals.

Which dog breeds are the most aggressive?

Luckily, we don’t have to rely on anecdotal evidence like your Uncle Bob’s stories to get to the heart of the matter (No, Uncle Bob, the fish was not five feet long!).

A 2008 study actually did a survey about breed differences in canine aggression. There are some flaws; because this study relied on survey data, there’s no way to verify the dogs in question really were the breed their owners thought they were, or acted how their owners were interpreting things. It’s also just one small slice of data from a very big world, but it can give us an idea about what’s really going on.

What the researchers found was surprising. There was huge variation in dog aggression within each breed. Still, some breeds really were statistically more aggressive towards some targets when you looked at the group as a whole.

For example, beagles and cocker spaniels were more aggressive than most dogs towards their owners. Akitas, Australian cattle dogs, Australian shepherds, German shepherds, Jack Russell terriers, and pit bulls were more aggressive towards other dogs than most. Australian cattle dogs, Australian shepherds, Doberman pinschers, and German shepherds (but not pit bulls) were rated as more aggressive towards strangers.

And what about tiny dogs, you may ask? Dogs like dachshunds and chihuahuas were rated as the most aggressive dog breeds towards almost everything.

But, this might occur for several reasons: it’s easier to let small dogs get away with being aggressive, because the consequences of a nippy chihuahua are not the same as with a nippy mastiff. As a society we typically don’t focus on training these little guys very much, and life really is tough as a small dog in a big world, according to Dr. Jessica Hekman, a dog researcher.

Which dog breeds are most dangerous?

Of course, aggression is only part of the issue. A tiny ankle-biter may be more aggressive, but it isn’t likely to kill you.

In general, big dogs are more dangerous. But, is the legislation against certain big dog breeds warranted?

Why are pit bulls often targeted with breed-specific legislation?

It’s time to separate fact from feelings. According to a 2000 study, more than half of dog-related deaths between 1979-1998 were reportedly caused by pit bulls or Rottweilers. However, more than 25 different breeds of dogs were implicated in dog-caused fatalities as well.

Most dogs that actually cause deaths have certain physical characteristics. They’re large, very muscular, have a low center of gravity, and extremely powerful jaw muscles. Many of these dogs were even bred to attack and protect other animals and people.

It sounds pretty bad when you look at it on the surface like that. So, let’s dig in deeper.

First, it’s pretty hard to identify pit bulls in the first place. Don’t believe me? Check out this site. It’s sort of a generic term to begin with, and doesn’t really apply to any one breed of dog except the American Pit Bull Terrier. In fact, one 2013 study showed that it was actually pretty common for media and official accounts of dog breed to vary in cases where people had been killed by dogs.

Second, there are millions of pit bulls in the U.S. right now. Most are loving family members. So, what causes a good pit bull to go bad? The same study pointed out a host of factors that led to people being killed by dogs.

Most dogs who kill people share common backgrounds: they’re usually left chained up outside, away from the family where they would develop normal social behaviors towards people (it really is tough to master human social interactions; just ask any introvert like myself). Many are also abused by their owners. Most people who are killed by dogs tend to be small kids who wander onto the dog’s property, and the dog, who’s never seen anyone else and is suddenly trapped, freaks out.

According to Dr. Hekman, some people also get pit bulls precisely because they have a reputation as a “vicious dog.” They then house them in these exact conditions, and boom! Before you know it, you have a perfect storm headed on a collision course for eventual disaster.

Of course, some dogs do attack outside of these circumstances. For the most part, though, dog deaths boil down to a simple factor: mismanagement and unfortunate circumstances. The good news? We can guard against this as a society—but maybe not how you’d think.

Does breed-specific legislation really work?

In a word, no.

Some places, like Manitoba, actually have seen successes with breed-specific legislation. In many other places, though, they’ve failed. Why? It turns out that there are several reasons.

The major reason why breed-specific legislation doesn’t work is that it doesn’t treat the cause of the problem. The cause is not pit bulls themselves, the cause is mismanagement by owners—many of whom happen to be attracted to “scary” dogs like pit bulls and put them in high-risk environments.

By focusing on the thing that isn’t causing the problem, local governments are actually shifting resources away from more effective preventions, like finding and fixing bad-owner situations.

Furthermore, breed-specific legislation trains people to view the entire breed as bad, when that’s simply not the case.

Finally, banning one breed won’t solve the bad-owner problem because if you outlaw one breed, they’ll just find another one. For example, if you outlaw the American Pit Bull Terrier, then someone may just get a Presa Canario or a Cane Corso instead—two other dog breeds with “vicious” reputations.

So, what is the most dangerous dog breed in the world?

Here’s the surprising answer: none.

“Dangerous” breeds like pit bulls are not actually more aggressive towards people than any other dog breed on their own, as we saw in the dog aggression study. The fact that they do cause most deaths does point to a larger problem: dog owners.

It’s actually a complex interplay between genetics that give dogs the tools to be dangerous, and people who actively nurture those qualities where they might not otherwise have developed.

What the real question should be is, “How can we train people to be better dog owners?”

Written by Lindsay VanSomeren

Lindsay graduated with a master’s degree in wildlife biology and conservation from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She also spent her time in Alaska racing sled dogs, and studying caribou and how well they are able to digest nutrients from their foods. Now, she enjoys sampling fine craft beers in Fort Collins, Colorado, knitting, and helping to inspire people to learn more about wildlife, nature, and science in general.

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