Are Pitbulls Smart Compared to Other Dog Breeds?

By John Martin - February 4, 2022

Pit bulls are a category of dog breeds that descend from bulldogs and terriers. The categorization of this breed can be ambiguous as they can look like various other pedigree breeds. “Looks can be deceiving” is a statement that is applicable even to dog breeds and appearance may not always be a reliable method of identification.

Umbrella Breed

The term pit bull is used more as a category rather than as a descriptor for a specific breed. This is now a broad categorization used for any dog that is medium to large in size, has a short coat, and a bulky head that is larger in proportion to the rest of the dog’s form.

Some of the popular pedigree breeds that are frequently associated with the pit bull type include the American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Bully, etc.

Are Pit Bulls Smart?

Given that the term ‘pit bull’ is used as an umbrella term, it is difficult to answer that question in a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ manner. Often, the interbreeding was haphazard and without real regard for the type of DNA the offspring would inherit.

This is why under the large umbrella category of pit bulls, there are breeds that have different characteristics, some of which may be wildly different from their cousins. Therefore, the behavior of all dogs that fall under this category may be different, including where they may rank on a scale of intelligence.

The answer to this will also differ from individual dogs. An individual Staffordshire Bull Terrier may be a reliable herd dog or a guard dog, but another dog of the same breed may not have the same temperament for training and discipline.

There is also something to be said about the kind of training and affection the dog is provided—this is true for all breeds, but especially for pit bull type dogs. Dogs that are taken good care of and are offered timely treats and affection will take better to training.

Of course, if you are trying to discipline your dog you need to be patient, yet also not indulge the dog with too many treats that they become complacent. With some dogs it may be easier to get through the training period, others may require more patience.

Measuring Their Intelligence

It is difficult to quantify the intelligence of a dog. Since there are so many different breeds, and under the category of pit bulls alone there are various behavioral patterns, it is difficult to design an accurate measure of intelligence.

Stanley Coren, a reputed psychology professor and an authority on the history of dogs and their behavior is one of the best sources to turn to for this type of intelligence ranking.

Coren published his book The Intelligence of Dogs in 1994. In this book, Coren devised a ranking of the intelligence of dogs based on:

  • The number of repetitions it took a dog to learn a command.
  • Whether the dog would comply with the command on the first try.

Of the various breeds that are popularly recognized as pit bull types, only the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier were the only ones that were involved in Coren’s trial.

This is perhaps because these are the only two breeds officially recognized by the American and Canadian Kennel Club as pit bull types.

Related: Do Pitbulls Howl?

How Did the Pit Bulls Fare?

The two pit bull breeds that were involved in the test, judged by 199 trial judges from The United States of America and Canada, fared decently on the list.

While the American Staffordshire ranked 48 out of 138 breeds, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier ranked 94. The former was categorized among ‘Above Average Working Dogs’ while the latter was listed among ‘Average Working/Obedient Intelligence’ dogs.

According to Coren’s listing, the American Staffordshire Terrier takes 15 to 25 repetitions to learn a new command. They also have a 70% success rate of obeying a new command on the first attempt.

The Staffordshire Bull Terrier may take 25 to 50 repetitions to learn a new command, and had a 50% success rate of obeying it on the first go.

But while this is a recognized list of measuring a dog’s intelligence, it is still only one method and does not have to be taken as gospel truth.

Related: Are Huskies Smart?

What Kind of Pets Do Pit Bulls Make?

As has been mentioned above, all pit bulls cannot be branded together. In fact, it is difficult to even identify a dog as a pit bull breed. Given the ambiguity surrounding the categorization of these dogs, this is not a straightforward answer to give.

Pit bulls were originally bred in England for a bloody sport called bull-baiting, which was later banned. After the banning, the dogs were involved in other types of illegal activities and had a reputation for being aggressive.

However, their retraining over the years has proven that pit bulls can also be great companions and are good as watchdogs. They are hard workers and any difficulty in training them is not due to a lack of intelligence.

Pit bulls are highly intelligent dogs, but they also have a strong personality. This means that they can also be stubborn at times. If a pit bull does not comply with a command, it is not because they do not understand. They are likely just not in the mood.

The stubbornness will, of course, differ from dog to dog. With some dogs this may not be a problem at all, while with others disciplining may be more of an issue.

Are They Dangerous?

This is a contentious issue among the pet owning community and general discussions around dog breeds. Pit bulls do get a bad reputation for being dangerous and aggressive dogs.

There have been several cases of pit bull breeds attacking unsuspecting children, causing grievous injury and in some cases, even death. Coren himself wrote a blog arguing that pit bull attacks were not in isolation and have statistical evidence to suggest they may be aggressive dogs.

Animal rights organization PETA also advocated for breed-specific sterilization when talking of pit bulls. The argument has been that these dogs were bred to bait bulls and to fight each other. Despite their retraining, the aggression in their DNA remains.

However, other advocates in this conversation claim that in most cases of pit bull attacks, the blame lies squarely on the owners and not on the dogs. In a rebranding effort, pit bulls have come to be known as ‘pibbles’, a portmanteau of pit bull and pebbles.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has also argued that breed alone is an arbitrary predictor of behavior and aggressiveness, and cannot be taken as a solitary factor in making this decision.

This holds especially true for pit bulls, given that the breed in itself does not exist and is a larger categorization of dogs. The study conducted by the AVMA suggests that there is no evidence that a breed-specific ban on ownership will help abate attacks.

Were They Always Considered Dangerous?

The short answer is ‘no’. Pit bulls at one time were a popular American breed and there was evidence to suggest they were regarded as friendly and people loving. The stigma surrounding them may have emerged in the 1970s when more information about dog fighting became known.

Their association with dogfighting may have given way to the idea that all pit bulls are dangerous. However, even in places and countries where a breed-specific ban has been placed, the cases of attacks have not gone down—indicating that pit bulls alone cannot be blamed for this problem.


In conclusion, pit bulls are a large category of dogs under which various breeds can be identified. While the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier are dogs that have a ranking on Coren’s list, this list is by no means exhaustive.

Pit bull owners will naturally report that the dogs are intelligent and make for great pets. They are not particularly difficult to train but may prove to be stubborn in certain cases.

The debate surrounding pit bulls and public safety has had many voices, of which the AVMA has been one of the loudest. The association has condemned the act of breed-specific banning.

The association holds that this leads to the dangers of dogs being euthanized based on what they look like rather than what they have done. As has been stated above, looks can be deceiving, even among dogs.

If you treat the dogs well, with care and affection, pit bulls can make for great pets. Sure, they can be stubborn dogs and are protective of the ones they love, making them great guard dogs as well. However, they can also be friendly dogs.

Some states in the United States and Canada may also impose different regulations on pit bull owners, so that is something you may want to look into if you are considering adopting or buying a pit bull. The American Pit Bull Foundation is a good place to learn more about the dogs.