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.
I adopted a 3 month old pit/lab mix 2 months ago. This is my first dog, ever. I really want to do the right thing but I don’t know where to get good information on Pit bulls. Do you have any recommendations?
Greta Kaplan says
First, I assume your dog came from a shelter or rescue organization, and I want to thank you for giving this little guy (girl?) a chance at a good life.
Now some things to think about. First, how sure are you that you are correct about his mix of breeds? Is this the shelter’s best guess, or did someone actually see both parents? Since Labs are so common in this country, a lot of shelters will decide “must be a Lab mix” if it’s the right size and doesn’t bear an obvious resemblance to anything else. You may end up surprised by some physical or behavioral development as your pup matures (maybe she will turn out to be terrific at herding ducks… or pointing ducks!).
Second, the good news is that often by mixing in another breed, you can cut the chances of your dog inheriting the tendency toward strongly gamey interdog aggression. This is no guarantee (just as being pure fighting-bred pit bull is no guarantee the dog will fight), but it changes the odds.
True pit/Lab mixes are often really super friendly, nice dogs. Both breeds’ natural tendency is toward horribly inappropriate, over-friendly greetings of both people and dogs (especially when young). Both are very social (typically) and have very small personal-space zones. This will annoy some people, almost all herding dogs, dogs with pain issues, and quite a lot of other dogs as well. So teaching your guy really super self-control starting very early is a good idea! If you make a rule that he NEVER gets to greet ANYONE of ANY species unless he is first holding a sit or walking (by his choice) on a loose leash with a flat collar… he will learn how to offer more polite, unaroused greetings. This will pay off in spades as arousal on greeting is a huge cause and trigger of interdog aggression problems in greeters AND greet-ees.
You’ll want to watch for signs of aggression toward other dogs. Know what “hard eye” looks like. If other dogs don’t want to play, do the right think and remove your party animal. Find him some well socialized, friendly adult dogs to play with ASAP — these are the ones to teach him good grownup dog manners. If you see play starting to tip over into fighting, you’ll need to start really limiting free play with just any old dog; dogs who tend to do this (play turns serious) don’t belong in dog parks or day cares. Really work on being able to call him out of play over and over and over. (A quick treat and being sent back to “go play” works great to reinforce this skill.)
BADRAP, a California Pit Bull advocacy organization, has some good information on its website, https://badrap.com.
Finally, a super resource is the DVD called “Dog Talk.” The presenter is Donna Duford, a wonderful trainer, and in the DVD she narrates about the behavior shown in both still photos and videos of dogs interacting. There are lots of kinds of dogs and, because she works with a large municipal open-admit shelter, there’s lots of pit bull images. This is nice because you get a good explanation of what “overaroused,” “fearful” and so on look like on this particular breed.
Finally, do not be sucked in by people who tell you that you must outmuscle your big strong dog to show him who’s boss. Most pitties are ridiculously people-friendly, but if yours has limits, this is not a dog you want fighting back. You will lose. And your dog will learn that fighting back works. It is a death sentence. Find puppy, adolescent and adult classes where the trainer is familiar with teaching good self-control and self-calming. If you can find someone in your area teaching a Control Unleashed class, see if that person also teaches puppy or obedience, because she is probably someone who “gets” how to install self-control in a very upbeat, positive, effective way.
Finally, don’t panic. If you are not sure what you’re seeing, ask someone with experience. Some dogs sound like they’re killing each other when they are playing. Serious fighting is silent. Some fighting for fun is loud and things get muddy here. If it’s silent and/or someone gets hurt, you have a problem — get help. Other than that, you probably have a wonderfully bright, funny, friendly, athletic buddy — enjoy!
-Greta Kaplan, CPDT, CDBC
so would you say that jack russells are typically “game” as a breed as well?
Greta Kaplan says
Shirley, Jack Russells (Parson Russells, Russells…) are all over the map, just as pit bull types are. I have met some incredibly game ones and I have met others who actually hated fighting and would keep it short and sweet. I have met a few who would do anything to avoid fighting, too. Gameness certainly exists in the breed, though. As should be obvious, a huge difference here is size. Jacks typically don’t have the bulk or jaw strength to do nearly as much damage as a 50+ pound pittie!
I know this post is old but so hopefully i can still get aome advice. I have a 2 1/2 year old female pit and a 5 year old pug. We have had the pit since she was 14 weeks old and she is as sweet as can be and listens really well. She has always played with any dog she hs encountered very well. Well it seemed that way until she met my grandparents poodle. This poodle is a brat and very spoiled and didnt want anything to do with my pit and kept snapping at her, well before i knew it my pit had her by the neck. She never drew any blood but it was like she got sick of her attitude and said ill show you. Is this the gameness that u speak of? She also recently did tis to my pug who is food aggressive and snapped at her over a piece of garbage and she just flipped and grabbed him by the neck. Again no blood was drawn but the pug was squealing and obviously in distress. How can I fix this?
Christine Hibbard says
What your dog is exhibiting is the opposite of “gameness”. Your dog is tolerating rude behavior up to a point and then delivering an appropriate correction… shutting down the other dog without doing damage. I don’t think you need to “fix” your dog, I just think you need to intervene on your dog’s behalf. Please monitor your dog’s interaction with other dogs and remove your dog if you see something going on too long or inappropriately. Thanks for reading Behind the Behavior!
This sounds like a case of an owner who did not know her dog very well, not a case of yet other silly, drank-the-kool-aid, pit bull rescuer who didn’t know what they were getting into.
It’s unfair that your huge mistake has been turned into a blame-fest on the owner, the dog, the shelter that adopted him out- everyone but you.Obviously, I didn’t witness the event, so I don’t know what it looked like or if your description is accurate, but it’s certainly not unheard of for dogs to run out of open doors, and dogs speeding out of doorways and running up to other dogs, outside, offleash, in a new place, usually get pretty ramped up. It’s not unimaginable that any young, rambunctious dog would bound up to the stranger dog and try to rough house, and just because a dog won’t leave another one alone doesn’t mean it’s looking for a fight. It’s also understandable that after such a kerfuffle, a dog that has never been in a class with other dogs was far too excited to sit calmly and watch. Frankly, it sounds to me like you messed up, felt like you lost face in front of a potential client, and decided to turn the blame for the incident onto a rambunctious, untrained dog.
It’s unreasonable that you think the owner or shelter workers should have known better than to _not_ expect the dog to be a ticking time bomb of dog aggression simply because you determined visually that it has pit bull in it. You said that this dog clearly had other terrier types in his mix, so why are you laying the blame of his behavior on his supposed pit bull ancestry? Would you even have thought twice about this incident if the dog looked more Jack Russell or Schnauzer than pit bull?
It would be wrongheaded to sit down with potential adopters with a list of supposed breeds in a dog and lay out all of the stereotypes and suspected behavioral issues that people associate with dogs of that appearance. Not only is visual breed identification totally unreliable and DNA tests questionable at best, but the fact that people expect Rottweilers to be protective and Labs to love water may or may not have any bearing on the dog itself.
Not all herding dogs feel the need to chase things, and not all pit bull type mixes act inappropriately around other dogs. To sit people down and tell them that their dogs are just Pandora’s boxes of behavioral issues waiting to spring forth not only gives them a warped view of the dog, but it would set back any real, unbiased observation of the individual dog’s behavior because they would always be waiting for the other shoe to drop, or constantly seeing issues where they don’t actually exist.
Rather, it would benefit everyone if dog owners were encouraged to carefully and _impartially_ observe their dog, learn to read dog body language, and socialize and train them responsibly so that the owner knows what the dog can and cannot tolerate. It should go without saying that a dog who has never so much as attended a beginner-level training class probably can’t handle a flyball team, and it has nothing to do with what you determine their genetic makeup to be.
Also, that’s not how genetics works. Just because the dog has a percentage of one breed or another doesn’t mean it’s just a matter of time before some trait ascribed to that breed comes bubbling forth. Further, you don’t even know this dog’s genetic makeup, you just made a guess based on its appearance and it’s behavior toward another dog when it ran out of a door you opened.
“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.”
The dog visiting your class was not a “bad pit bull” or even a “bad dog.” He was an undersocialized and undertrained dog who was set up to fail because his owner didn’t know anything about him or his limits or his tendencies (and you made a huge blunder). A dog that needs to be trained and managed is not “BAD,” it is a dog that needs training and managing. Pit bulls aren’t just abused, dangerous fighting dogs or perfectly behaved angels. They are normal dogs like any other- they run the gamut of all sorts of temperaments and behavioral tendencies, and they need the sorts of considerations and training we afford to other dogs.
“The truth is that some pits and pit mixes are going to become dog aggressive.”
The truth is that some of any type of dog are going to become dog aggressive. You should know this. Some dogs are dog aggressive. That’s how it goes. People should know their dogs so they aren’t put into dangerous situations or needlessly stereotyped by other people.
I hope the owner finds a more compassionate trainer who sees a dog who needs much more training before it can handle high-arousal activities, not just another “bad pit bull.”
I own two female terrier mixes (Yorkie mixes Rayna is about 25 lbs and Savannah is about 15 lbx ) We had Rayna first and got Savannah when Rayna was about 10 months ..At first they were ok together then fights started breaking out ..the fights escalated (one fight required vet visit ) My holistic vet said one dog may need to be re homed but that was not a option for me ..We saw a animal behaviorist recommended by my vet and we were told Savannah was the problem dog and Rayna was a normal dog ..that Savannah was a fearful bully and obsessed with Rayna ..With medication and modification techniques the fights have pretty much stopped . We learned what Savannah’s trigger’s were and they were very specific triggers so we have a ritual we have to follow to walk the dogs (one person can not walk both dogs ) My husband walks Rayna and I walk Savannah and Paco (our other dog who is a chihuahua ) ..Very strange thing about Savannah is that she is a very submissive dog with other dogs ..If she sees another dog when we are out walking she will crouch down and crawl up to the other dog and turn on her back ..Also she doesn’t seem to respect Rayna’s personal space ..she just walks up to her and gets in her face ..not to fight but it just bugs me and I try to redirect her when she does that ..I really love pit bull dogs and volunteer at a open shelter in Baltimore that is probably 90 % pit bull type mixes and would love to adopt one but with Savannah I am afraid what would happen ..The behaviorist we saw said absolutely not to even think about bringing a pit bull type dog into my house ..I tend to agree… Do you have a opinion on this ?? Thanks
Molly Benshoof says
I am a dog trainer. I have had dogs my entire life. One aspect of my job that I really enjoy is trying to figure out why a dog does what he/she does. Your article here is very helpful. I also have been angry and frustrated at the dogs that come into class and the owners were not told anything about the dog or the breed.
I recently had a 9 month old Bull Terrier. very sweet dog for the most part, but he did not like having any kind of harness put on him. I tried to put a head collar on him to help with leash pulling and he bit me. did not draw blood, but he still bit. a little while later, I was not even facing him, trying to adjust a different type of no pull harness and he grabbed my shoulder.
I also informed them that he is considered a ‘bully breed’. They knew nothing about it! the breeder obviously did not give them any information about the breed. He should have been in classes way before now; he has not been socialized and they are going to have problems with them. they have told me that at least now when he bites them, he is no longer drawing blood. I will be referring them to you.
Cheryl Huerta says
How do you explain the hundreds if not thousands of people who have one or more, many times five or six, pit bulls and pit bull mixes that live in perfect harmony their entire lives? Gameness like any other breed attribute can either be nurtured or discouraged depending on the owners ability to understand canine behavior and how to be with their dogs. Discouragement of ‘gameness’ might come in the form of helping our dogs get rid of excess energy through daily walks as well as through nurturing calm behavior in our dogs and never allowing them to chase small animals.
I’m a pit bull advocate and will be the last person to suggest that pit bulls are just cute little cuddly four-legged children that could never harm anyone or anything however some people go overboard in putting far too much stock in the dogs genetic make-up so that pit bull owners grow to fear their own dogs and often the fears of the dog owner can trigger a dog’s gameness. A purebred hunting dog while having the genetic predisposition toward being a good hunter won’t be a decent hunting dog unless those traits are nurtured and training implemented.
When it comes to pit bulls, telling people that their dog is most likely to have gameness and to expect it to emerge at a specific level of development in it’s life is no less reckless than neglecting to tell people that pit bulls are a strong breed and need strong calm leadership in order to be well-behaved and safe around other living things. I don’t think that the surfacing of gamey behavior in a dog when presented with a perfect opportunity to get into that state of mind is an indication of trouble but is simply a sign that the owner needs to be vigilant and to work to have complete control over their dog in every situation.
That is my view based on my experience with my own dogs and from knowing many people who have pit bulls that never have any issues because they provide strong, consistent leadership for their dogs.
Greta Kaplan says
I hadn’t visited this article in quite a while, but I am taken aback by Elle’s response. First of all, the story I told was told for two purposes: One, to illustrate arousal and gameness in bully breeds. The other, to illustrate the failure of some shelters and rescues to educate adopters.
The dog was not roughhousing. I am a behavior consultant with a lot of experience watching dogs play and interact — many different kinds of dogs. There was nothing friendly about this dog’s body language when he went for the dog out the door. I *saw* him playing, with my own dog, and the difference between the two sets of behavior was night and day. I guess Elle missed the part where I described this dog’s lovely play skills when playing with my own dog. This was an attack — a naive one, since apparently it was the first time it had occurred, and this is lucky for all concerned since, had he intended to do damage, he wasn’t really able to figure it out in time in this case.
And I guess we can agree to disagree about the education obligations of people placing dogs in homes. Most bully breed dogs are sweet and lovable and show zero gameness as puppies; if it shows up, it shows up later. If we don’t tell people possible problems to watch out for based on this dog’s behavior at 2, 4 or 6 months because it hasn’t shown up yet, then the adopter will still have no idea what she is seeing if and when it does happen. Why not just tell her there’s a greater possibility because of the breed mix and offer some resources? Absolutely any Border Collie rescue or Greyhound rescue will do exactly the same thing, including emphasizing that the dogs may vary.
Next, I did not say that all pit bulls or bully mixes would become dog aggressive. Elle just made that up because it’s an easier point to try to shoot down. It can happen and it’s much more likely to happen in pits than in other breeds. Statistically, it’s a greater risk. It’s certainly not inevitable. I also never said every Border Collie would chase cars. Elle made that up — because it’s also easier to shoot down. What I actually said and will say again is that certain breeds are clearly at a higher risk of certain problem behaviors, and people who adopt them deserve the courtesy of some general information to allow them to make a wide adoption decision and cope quickly if the issue should arise.
I have many clients with pit bulls and they really like me. Heck, one drives about six hours to see me periodically because she doesn’t think anyone in her small urban area is up to handling her dog, a pit rescued from Southern California with severe anxiety issues and some scary behavior (mostly toward people).
Next, let me emphasize that in my blog, I am not blaming the dog. Not sure where Elle got that. The only one I am blaming in my blog is the shelter worker who placed this dog with nary a mention of possible behavior issues to watch out for.
(I should take a moment to add that in the time since I’ve written this blog, I’ve changed my terminology. Gameness toward dogs is NOT actually “dog aggression.” It’s predation — basically the same behavior your terrier or other dog may display toward a squirrel. Dog aggression can occur in any dog and many dogs of many breeds are socially bellicose with other dogs. What I’m talking about with pits is actually quite different; it’s not resolving social tension; it’s a predatory motor pattern that humans selected to be directed toward other dogs instead of natural prey. So, I actually agree that dog aggression can occur in many breeds. But predation toward dogs is very rare in most other breeds; the only breed it’s at all common in is the pit bull. And it is far more dangerous – FAR more dangerous – than true dog aggression. So not mentioning it as a possible issue is a great way of putting other dogs at risk. Thanks, Elle. My dogs, who have collectively been attacked five times by strange dogs, four of those pit bulls, in a collective lifetime of about 35 years, also thank you for putting them at further risk.)
Let me finally address the accusation that I am “blaming the dog” for my own screwup. First of all, I admitted I had screwed up to the owner who was there. Second, I admitted it here, in public. Third, I didn’t blame the dog — then or now. Actually, what happened was that this dog got very aroused and then did something quite breed typical that had his owner in tears. I did exactly what I would have done whether I’d screwed up or not — I educated her. So sue me!
As far as I can tell, Elle is a classic pit bull apologist, someone who truly believes that there is nothing inherently different about pit bulls and anyone who says there is must be evil and lacking in compassion. And there I thought I was being compassionate for the adopter in my story who was utterly taken aback and had no idea her dog might do something like that. I’m not a pit bull hater. I’m not a pit bull defender-at-all-costs. I am a dog behavior consultant who is repeatedly saddened to see owners who really were not expecting what they got. No one told them. Someone lied to them. That is wrong.
Greta Kaplan says
Responding to Molly — thank you. It sounds like this poor bull terrier isn’t really showing a terrier-typical problem, but some kind of fearfulness about being handled, and lack of socialization. However, any bully breed, if it happens to bite, has the physical ability and sometimes the genetic motor pattern wiring, to bite very hard and/or to hold on, which can be very damaging. I hope the owners have found excellent help.
Responding to Janice, it sounds like Savannah is afraid and is trying to do a lot of pre-emptive appeasement of other dogs. I suggest you not let her greet strange dogs. She is small enough to be very easily injured or killed if she happens to annoy the wrong dog, and her behavior is actually inappropriate enough to trigger some dogs who are already anxious greeters. Regarding whether to adopt a pit bull type dog into your family: Of course, I can’t tell you what to do. I see several high risk factors here IF you happened to get a pit bull who developed gameness toward other dogs. You have very small dogs, which are more likely to trigger predatory behavior and also are much easier to injure or kill; you have dogs who get into fights, which can cause a lot of arousal “tipping over” into aggression and/or predatory behaviors in dogs prone to such things. Many people who adore their pitties do the “crate and rotate” routine — certain dogs are just never out together, and the dogs are never left alone together. If your management is rock solid this can work, though management failures do happen. The more people in the house, the more likely management is to fail, and if there are kids in the house, it WILL fail, sooner rather than later.
If you do want to try to adopt a pittie, I would strongly recommend looking at fully adult males, over three years old, with a known, detailed history of zero aggression and zero gameness. These dogs do exist. People often want puppies, so tons of adult and older pits are out there looking for homes. The key here is history — good, honest history. Generally, if we have not seen gameness by age three, it’s not likely to show up. Ask a lot of probing questions. The reason for a male is that you already have some interbitch tension in your house, and terriers are rather famous for same-sex aggression.
I hope that helps!