Can My Pit Bull be a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal

With so much stigma facing pit bulls these days, a question many people are asking is: “can my pit bull be a service dog”? While the answer should be simple, there are a number of factors that come into play.

What’s a pit bull anyway?

Pit bulls carry a bad reputation, but the truth is, they are highly misunderstood. With approximately 18 million pit bulls in the US, making up 20% of all dogs, it’s important to understand the facts. First off, ‘pit bull’ isn’t even a breed, it’s a catch all name that includes the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bulldog, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

Four breeds of pit bull, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bulldog, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier
Clockwise from left to right, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bulldog, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier

Pit bulls used to be “America’s Dog”

They were highly regarded as the best dog for kids.

1940s picture of baby girl sitting with large pit bull
Pit bull poses with baby

During WWI a pit bull was even featured on a US war recruitment poster. “Neutral, but not afraid of any of them.” and “We’re not looking for trouble, but we’re ready for it.” These words describe the gentle but strong nature of the breed.

WWI American recruitment poster featuring a pit bull
Watchful Waiting WWI Poster

According to Vetstreet data, even today, pit bulls rank top 3 most popular breeds in three states and rank #1 in Rhode Island. Beloved brand, Target, fondly uses a pit bull as their trusted mascot, Bullseye.

Bullseye, the target mascot sits for a photo
Target Mascot, Bullseye

So why the bad reputation?

In the mid 1980s media coverage of negative stories involving the breed garnered over-inflated attention. At the same time, illegal dog fighting circles were surfacing, and pit bulls were the dog of choice, popular for their muscular builds and powerful jaws. Drug dealers and gang members also took to keeping pit bulls for protection and intimidation.

In 1987, a Sports Illustrated cover featured a snarling pit bull, suggesting the breed were unfit for society, and the stereotype was crystalized. Since then America has seen mass discrimination against the entire breed. Pit bulls have been banned across a large number of states and municipalities, claiming they are aggressive and unpredictable.

Sports Illustrated cover features snarling pit bull
Sports Illustrated claims Pit Bulls are a Danger to Society

It is a misconception that certain breeds of dogs are more prone to attacking or biting

While it is true that many dog breeds are bred to have certain traits, a dog’s temperament is never guaranteed. Research shows that for any and all dog breeds, early socialization and consistent training are keys to positive behavior. Likewise, any dog breed that is mistreated or abused can develop behavior disorders fearfulness, and aggression.

Dogs in many ways are like people – They have good days and bad days

Every dog has a different personality and it’s impossible to predict what a dog will be like based on their breed alone. That being said, some dog breeds have been bred for certain traits over many generations and may have inherent advantages. For example, dogs can be bred for jobs like bomb sniffing.

The following breakout provides a good starting point. When it comes to selecting a dog to be trained as a service dog it can be helpful to look at traditional breed temperaments. This chart, based on a 1988 study at the University of California attempts to classify dog breeds based on their reactivity levels and trainability potential. Dogs with high trainability and low reactivity can be more easily trained as service dogs.

Infographic of service dog trainability levels
See what dogs make the best candidates to train as support animals based on trainability vs reactivity

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While the dogs in the top left quadrant can make excellent Service Dog and Emotional Support Dog candidates, success is rarely achieved. Even with all the right genetic advantages, only a select few make it through training. As few as 50% of dogs who begin a training program will successfully complete it and take on the life changing role of a Service Animal.

You’ll notice pit bulls are in the top left quadrant alongside many popular service dog breeds such as Labradors, Collies, and the German Shepherd. If your pit bull has been well socialized, seeks your praise, and exhibits low energy, you likely have a great candidate to start training from.

So, can my pit bull be a support animal?

According to the ADA, any breed can become a Service Animal, as long as it is trained to perform a specific task that helps you with a disability. Pit bulls can make excellent candidates to train as support animals, performing specific tasks, or providing general comfort and support. They are extremely loyal and eager to please, making them highly trainable. They have generally calm demeanors and low reactivity to changes in their environment, so it’s easy for them to stay focused on you.

Pit bulls’ strong physical builds make them well suited to be service dogs.

Their muscular bodies make them resilient to pokes, pinches, or being accidentally stepped on. Pit bulls stand up to 19 inches shoulder height and weigh from 30 to 85 pounds. Their large, sturdy stance make them especially suited to provide physical support for people with mobility challenges, work with small children and pull people in wheelchairs. Although they’re sturdy, they’re not invincible – be sure to check out these tips for saving on veterinary costs.

Pit bulls can also be trained to help with medical needs like medication reminders, detecting a change in blood sugar, seizure alert or support, or detecting a change in oxygen levels.

Can pit bulls make good emotional support animals too?

The ADA does not discriminate against any dog becoming an ESA. Pit bulls, known for their loyalty, dedication, and intuition, are well suited to support with emotional wellbeing and more serious psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety or PTSD. To qualify as an ESA, your dog must be well behaved and under your control. Behaviors like excessive barking or causing property damage would challenge your dog’s ESA status.

Grey put bull lies happily on pavement with his tongue out
Grey pit bull lying calmly on pavement

Can my pit bull be my service dog or emotional support animal even if they are banned in my state?

Pit bulls that are trained service dogs are protected under the ADA and may not be discriminated against by breed-specific state legislation. In fact, according to the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to discriminate against a person with a pit bull breed when it is maintained as a trained Service Dog.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects people with ESA Pit Bulls to maintain their pit bull in their permanent homes and apartment, even if breed-specific state legislation places a ban on them. Generally showing your online registration should suffice for a landlord. However if you live in a state where pit bulls are banned and you are facing legal action, you may require a note from a therapist or your primary care professional prescribing your pit bull as your emotional support animal.

Do airlines recognize pit bulls as service dogs or emotional support animals?

Airlines abide by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which is different than the ADA and FHA. The ACAA allows Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals to fly for free with their handler in the main cabin. It does not protect unusual animals such as reptiles, birds, or farm animals. Airlines may also have their own policies so it’s important to check ahead of time. Read our guide to flying with your support animal, here.

Airlines may also turn away animals that pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others. Airlines that reject pit bulls based on the breed are likely breaking the law, however as of 2019 a case has yet to be disputed in court.

In housing cases, the courts have sided with pit bull owners. See retired police officer with a trained pit bull service animal sues the city of Aurelia, Iowa and Florida man files to keep his emotional support pit bull in Miami.

Avoiding discrimination against pit bulls

If your pit bull helps you as a service dog or emotional support animal, but you face discrimination from business or your landlord, you may want to consider voluntary certification that identifies your dog as a service dog or emotional support animal. The ADA never requires certification, but having proof that your animal has been certified or registered can help staff and general public recognize your dog as a support animal.

Businesses my only ask you two specific questions to determine if your dog is a service dog,

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

It is unlawful to ask any questions about your disability, however sometimes it can be easier to comply than to educate. A Service Dog Basic Package or ESA Basic Package is the easiest way to quickly show businesses that your dog is registered.

Conclusion: your pit bull has potential to be an incredible support animal

Despite the stigma, your pit bull can make an excellent Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal. Their bad reputation is completely misguided. Pit bulls are loving, eager to please, and relaxed, making them great candidates for support animals of all kinds. Still, every dog is unique, no matter the breed. It’s important to always treat your dog or support animal as the individual they are.

To identify your Pit Bull as a service dog or emotional support animal, register below.

Register your dog as a Service Dog, ESA, or Therapy Dog and obtain your digital certification immediately.

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