Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT
If you speak with any of us at Companion Animal Solutions, follow our blog or work with us, you know the answer to this question. No, we do not believe that Pit Bulls are inherently dangerous. So why am I writing about this topic again?
In September, I got a phone call from a reporter at Q13 News who wanted to interview me on camera about whether Pit Bulls are inherently dangerous. I asked the reporter what had happened and he said, “Don’t worry about it. I just want your professional opinion as to whether Pit Bulls are inherently dangerous”. He also informed me he would be at my office within 30 minutes. You can read the transcript of the interview here. It wasn’t until after the interview aired that I discovered a woman had been horribly mauled by a Pit Bull.
Then about four weeks later, a reporter named Eric Johnson at KOMO 4 News interviewed Dr. Jim Ha, CAAB extensively about canine ethology and behavioral genetics. I highly recommend watching this piece because the reporter interviewed several people and truly tried to give exposure to all sides of the Pit Bull issue. The overall question the piece was trying to answer was the same though. Are Pit Bulls genetically wired for aggression? While we all feel truly awful for anyone injured by a dog, why does every dog attack case involving a Pit Bull illicit the same question from the media? If Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, Veterinarians, Certified Dog Behavior Consultants and Certified Professional Dog Trainers do not believe Pit Bulls are inherently dangerous, then why does the question keep coming up? In addition to the sensationalism that drives media in America, I believe the question keeps coming up because the issue of Pit Bulls is a complex one and like any complex issue, people end up on opposite ends of the argument without evaluating or understanding the facts.
Prior to their popularity with criminals and others looking for a dog to project a tough or intimidating image, Pit Bulls were known for being family dogs. Greta Kaplan, CPDT, CDBC recently wrote in a report to a client:
Because Pit Bulls were bred to fight with other dogs and had to be handled safely by humans, the exact opposite pattern was deliberately selected for: The dog would not inhibit its behavior toward the other dog, but would completely inhibit any aggression toward the human handler. This selected trait is closely related to why Staffordshire Bull Terriers and the early Pit Bull Type dogs are known as the “Nanny Dog,” considered incredibly safe with children. They are sturdy, insensitive to pain, handling and spatial proximity, and incredibly inhibited when faced with aggressive, threatening or intrusive human behavior.
We know that animal behavior is a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (learning). We know that genetics plays a part in what people sometimes call “breed specific behaviors”. That’s why when we work a dog behavior case, we use ethology to help us identify why certain behavior is happening but even within a specific breed, dogs can vary widely. When we talk about the ethology of Pit Bulls, the topic begins to veer off course because unfortunately for the breed, they became popular with criminals. Criminals have selectively bred these dogs for generations for dog/dog aggression. Often, dog/dog aggression (or gameness) doesn’t begin to appear until after a dog reaches sexual maturity (six months) or social maturity (18 months). Often, it doesn’t appear at all. The behavior problems we see Pit Bulls for the most are generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, fear and dog/dog aggression. Notice that human directed aggression is not on this list.
In Jim’s interview, he estimated that 20% to 30% of a dog’s behavior is based on genetics. If he’s correct, then that leaves a HUGE area for which nurture or learning is responsible for the behavior we see. In Ray Coppinger’s book Dogs, he makes compelling arguments for how brains develop and how learning takes place that emphasize how adaptable dogs can be if socialized properly per the purpose we want the dog to serve. I’m paraphrasing here but basically one of the points he makes is that if you want a flock guarding dog, choose any village dog with low prey drive and raise it with sheep during it’s critical social period. Viola, you’ve got a flock guard.
If socialization/learning is so important, what can happen when a Pit Bull is isolated and even abused? If a certain societal element or owner wants dogs who are aggressive, we’ll get dogs who are aggressive. Blaming the breed is ludicrous if you look at and understand the facts of how learning takes place. Now don’t think I haven’t worked with Pit Bulls I’ve thought were dangerous, I have. But I’ve worked through behavior problems with hundreds of dogs and I can tell you that a tiny percentage of them (less than 2%) are inherently dangerous and this has nothing to do with their breed. It’s how they’ve been bred, raised and trained (and I’m using the term trained loosely here). There’s a reason we’re so passionate about using scientific, humane training methods (no force, fear or pain please). Abusing a dog and calling it training often leads to anxiety, fear and human directed aggression.
There’s beginning to be some good news for Pit Bulls as a breed. Reputable rescues are working with these dogs and finding responsible homes for them. Most of the Vick Pit Bulls have moved on to have normal lives or even become therapy dogs. A recent piece on the NBC Morning News covered a school for the blind who is raising Pit Bull puppies and training Pit Bulls to be service dogs for blind and developmentally disabled children. Recently, the Seattle Kennel Club wrote an article about one of my favorite owner/dog pairs; Benny the Pit Bull and his owner Mike who is a Seattle Animal Care & Control Officer. I had the honor of working with Benny and Mike and I can tell you from personal experience, Benny’s play manners with my two rough housing Australian Shepherds was beyond reproach.
While we can’t stop irresponsible people and criminals from turning dogs into aggressive, dangerous dogs, we can all hope that the tide is turning. We also hope you’ll take this opportunity to tell us about your experience with Pit Bulls.