My colleague Christine blogged recently about herding with her Aussie, Conner, and about dogs’ instinctive behavior as modified by human breeding decisions. She mentioned the frequency of dog-dog aggression among pit bulls. This topic has been on my mind lately, and frankly, I’m getting angry.
A very nice woman contacted me recently about bringing her dog to my flyball class. She asked if she could come and watch. Visitors are always welcome to watch my classes before deciding whether to sign up; I encourage it! So she brought her dog with her yesterday to watch class. In her introductory email, she described him as a terrier mix, about 40 lbs and muscular. I wrote back and said it sounded like he had some pit bull in him, and that this was not a problem for me, and she didn’t need to hide it. She responded that he must also have some other terrier in him, as well as pit, hence her description.
She brought her dog in before class started while I was working on go-outs with my Border Collie. He did indeed appear to be some kind of multi-terrier mix, with clear pit bull presence, and was a little shy but sweet with me. We then let the dogs meet and play, and after a few minutes, Mellie discovered that she had found a friend who would chase her; she loves this. They zoomed around quite happily together.
Then I heard a car door; someone had arrived for class. Just as this happened, the poor terrier suddenly realized he needed to poop. He had a little diarrhea, so there was quite a mess to clean up and his owner was rushing around with paper towel and enzyme spray trying to get the floor clean. I looked out the window and realized that the new arrival was my assistant. I knew she would have her recently adopted reactive dog with her, so I opened the door to call her not to bring him into the building, as there was a strange dog in here.
My excuse is that I had not been feeling well for a couple of days, and also had been in a horrible traffic jam on the way to my first class, so I just was a little ruffled. But really, I just dropped the ball and I feel terrible about it. In any case, when I opened that door, I forgot for a moment that the visiting terrier was loose and his mom’s hands were full of poopy paper towel! The terrier rushed out the door and made a beeline for my assistant’s leashed, reactive dog. My assistant’s dog immediately became defensive, and lunged and snapped while the terrier just chest slammed him. The situation escalated, with the terrier circling and lunging, dodging the human hands that were trying to pull him out of the melee. It took several very, very long seconds to lay hands on the terrier’s collar and pull him away. His behavior during this episode is what I can only call “gamey.” “Gameness” in a hunting terrier is the determination to get the prey no matter what, and to come back with twice as much effort if the prey tries to resist. Unfortunately, in dogs bred to fight other dogs, that gameness is turned on dogs: If a dog resists, the terrier’s response is typically “you and what army???” And that’s what happened here. I shouldn’t have been surprised… but this dog had just been playing beautifully with my own dog, and I was surprised for the first few seconds.
We let the terrier watch the beginning of class and sure enough, by now he was high as a kite, screaming and lunging to get to the running dogs. After a while, his mom put him into the car. I was just getting to the point of suggesting this when wisely she did it on her own.
I set my students to doing some calming exercises and went to talk to the terrier’s owner. She had teared up and was trying to recover her composure. I told her that her dog was not ready for a flyball class. I mentioned that he was “gamey” and she had never heard that term. She was not really clear on what she was seeing; I spelled it out for her. I said he was a very nice dog, who had good dog skills when he was not aroused, and was obviously smart and charming. I suggested that some very low arousal classes (no running or jumping!) made more sense so he could get better at ignoring other dogs in a class situation before we increased arousal in a sports class. She agreed, and took her dog home.
I’m angry! She adopted this dog at about six months. The pit bull ancestry, the terrier background, is unmistakeable. Yet no one explained to her what that might mean genetically. No one ever told this very kind woman what “gameness” was, What kind of behaviors he might start exhibiting at one to two years of age. What this might mean for her, for his life, for the old dogs he lives with.
Shelters, rescues, and breed advocates who continue to insist that all bad pit bulls are a result of bad owners who teach the dogs to fight, or who abuse them, are doing a terrible disservice to pet adopters. I see many clients with pit bulls or pit mixes who actually have no idea that there is a genetic basis for gameness (toward traditional prey or toward dogs). Who believe that by loving their dog and never abusing him, they can guarantee he will never be one of those “bad” pit bulls you read about on the news.
Plenty of dogs have plenty of behavior problems, and “terrier gameness” is not the worst of them. However, it’s predictable, and the amount of mythology about it is intense and emotional. People who adopt herding breed dogs should always be educated about what can go wrong when a dog is really smart, or really driven to chase moving things, or extremely concerned about guarding things. People who adopt terriers should always be educated about gameness, and about what can go wrong if the dog turns his “you and what army” feelings onto other dogs. In fact, in an ideal world, everyone who buys or adopts any dog should be educated about how real dogs behave! They need to hear that real dogs may eat poop, bite people, guard the sofa, kill cats, chase skateboards, or fight with other dogs. That some of this behavior is very hard-wired and fixing it can be hard!
The pit bull problem is just one aspect of this, but it is a big one because there is an active campaign of disinformation about this breed type. Plenty of people love them anyway and make great owners because they are prepared, and have backup plans, and are good at management and training. They’d rather have some gameness or dog aggression than, say, a dog who has a heart attack when you drop a metal pan on the floor, or who is so visually prey-driven that he has to be on a leash forever; and this is a perfectly reasonable choice. It’s just that it should be an educated choice, and far too many owners are not given the option of making an educated choice because someone is eager to hide the truth. The truth is that some pits and pit mixes are going to become dog aggressive. Know that in advance. Make wise plans.