A rational look at the Pit Bull controversy. Article by Canis bonus. December 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.
About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague
I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.
I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).
If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.
Mutt or pure-bred dog?
As my old dog is nearing the end of his life, we are starting to contemplate whether we’ll go the rescue route again, or whether to go the breed route for once. So I have started a series of blog posts about breeds. For the full list, go to the first post in the series: He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptions about dog breeds.
This present blog post encourages the reader to approach negative assumptions about Pit Bulls with caution.
He’s a Pit Bull, you can’t trust him
The Pit Bull debates are raging all over again, as the media reports dramatic aggression incident involving a ‘Pit Bull mix’, ignores attacks by other breeds, or even misrepresents the protagonists as Pit Bulls regardless of their breed. The legends about them don’t help the general hysteria:
- Their jaws ‘lock’ (Patently untrue)
- They have a gazillion-pound bite pressure (Nope. No more than any other large, broad-faced dog),
- They ‘turn on you in the flick of a eye’ (I am still waiting for one verified report of this).
What doesn’t help either? Some of the owners at the end of the leash. Many of my clients have so-called bully breeds (i.e. Pit Bull, Staffies, Americal Bulldogs, etc.) and they are great pet parents. Pet parents who are sick of the prejudice. But you know who loves the prejudice? The insecure, low-life, wannabe tough guy who feels more like a man when his dog intimidates people. The type of guy who enjoys the rumours and loves to see you cross the street when he approaches.
I see them walking down the street, overcompensating pathetic little machos hiding behind their bully dog, and encouraging the dog growling at a dog passing by. These guys exist. So: no bad dogs and just bad owners? Not so fast.
The thing is, with Pit Bulls as with many other things, the truth is a little bit more complicated than that: it’s not all genetics, or it’s not all environment.
Yes, they are enormously powerful and if they decide to cause damage, they will. Just like a Labrador or a Saint Bernard would. And yes, some of them are bred – or rather bred and raised – for fighting other dogs.
Before you join the band-wagon and call for the breed-wide ban of bully breeds, let’s look at these pesky complications.
It’s more complicated than “He was bred to kill dogs”
So ring leaders can breed a ‘fighting strain of Pit Bulls’? What does that mean exactly? Let’s break it down into individual traits. That dog would be a dog who:
- gets so wound up he’ll badly injure another dog,
- keeps fighting even when he himself is badly injured,
- ignores the other dog’s submission signals,
- views unfamiliar dogs as life-threateningly dangerous,
- won’t stop fighting even when experiencing severe pain, and
- won’t re-direct his bite to a human – even when in the middle of a heated fight
Having read my ‘He’s a Labrador. Of course he’s good with kids‘ article, you know that hardly any behaviour trait is 100% genetically transmitted. So how heritable are these traits I mention? I don’t know, you don’t know, and your low-life dog fight ringleader who doesn’t know his tattooed knuckle from behaviour genetics most definitely doesn’t know. Hey, even state-of-the-art guide dog breeding programmes don’t know: they yield a measly 60% success rates for their Labrador programs despite having access to top-notch expertise and technology.
Having said that, selectively breeding fight dogs could be as simple as “only breed with the ones that are left alive after the fight”. No need for fancy behavioural genetics there I guess: the softer ones don’t make it long enough to breed, and the ones who have bitten their human also get culled. It’s not subtle but, in theory, it might produce a strain of dogs with a higher-than-average propensity for developing fight dog-like behaviour traits (i.e. don’t bite the hand that feeds you, but kill every dog on sight).
And that’s just the thing: it’s a question of averages. Even if you succeeded in producing a ‘fighty’ strain of Pit bulls, you still only end up with dogs who are, on average, more ‘fighty’. It only says something about an average, it says nothing about each individual offspring of that strain.
What I am saying is saying: “I can’t believe Pit Bulls are still legal, they are bred for fighting” is over-simplistic – to say the least.
Even assuming there is such a thing as a ‘killer strain’ of Pit Bulls, why would you assume that your sub-urban neighbours’ dog belongs to that one? There are responsible bully breeders out there: not every Pit Bull is bred for fighting. Before this media flare, they had always been pet dogs – in fact, there was a time they were the poster child all-American dog (check these posters from way back when), and the baddies-du-jour were bloodhounds (who are now considered adorable. Aaaah, the whimsical tides of public opinion). It’s possible, but my first assumption is NOT that your middle-class, highly educated, sub-urban neighbours went out of their way to get their pup from the local dog fight ringleader.
Pit Bull incidents: just bad owners? Not so fast.
This leaves the problem of the environment: sure enough, if you encourage your large dog to intimidate, he might. You don’t have to be ‘bred-to-fight’ to be a danger to society. You can also be raised to fight. With pitties, as with every other large breeds, raising your dog responsibly is an essential precaution. This entails, among other things, systematic socialisation to anything and everything, including other dogs. Again, this advice is essential regardless of the breed, and I see tons of dogs with an aggression problem to other dogs because their pet parents failed to socialise them enough. This isn’t a Pit Bull thing.
And then, there’s the self-perpetuating effect of a bad reputation. As a breed starts to appear ‘scary’ to the public, the less savoury figures in our society will start to prize that breed as a status symbol. You can imagine that these guys aren’t going to go out of their way to make their dog extremely sociable, on the contrary. This isn’t genetics, so the offspring of these dogs would have no more or less aggressive propensity than any other dog, but chance is the dog raised by this low-life won’t have been raised to be everyone’s friend. I see the same phenomenon with some Dobermann owners (I used to, anyway), and Rottweillers.
And no, it’s not all about responsible ownership. I know that you can get your dog from a responsible breeder, raise it responsibly, and still get aggression problems come adolescence. Dogs, like humans, can suffer from mental health issues, and you may have drawn the short straw when picking your pup. I see this a lot – but… with all sorts of breeds. This isn’t the exclusive domain of Pit Bulls.
My point is this: I don’t have solid grounds to think Pit Bulls are pre-disposed to aggression problems. Perhaps they are and perhaps they are not. I haven’t seen a difference in my practice, nor can I find convincing research to back up the prejudice (see next paragraph). All I have for you is that – no matter the breed – socialisation plays a huge role, the dog is always at risk of developing a behaviour problem, and that the risk is higher if the dog may have a shady past. Only the consequences are different if your dog is a Chihuahua from size considerations alone.
About research papers: I have a weak spot for bullies, I have to admit; but I have an even weaker spot for scientific skepticism. I hope I have the intellectual integrity to steer clear of motivated thinking when assessing a research paper – or I’d have to quit my evidence-based practice. Want to know what comes out of the research papers? It is all over the place: some say yes, some say no. I worry about reliability. On the one hand, research papers by dog behaviour specialists are at risk of being politically motivated: the dog behaviour crowd tends to be aggressively pro-Pit Bull and have a vested commercial interest in pushing the ‘no bad dogs, just bad owners’ card. On the other hand, bite data from health organisations tends to be of poor quality as the reporting system is not set up to reliably identify breed.
Conclusion? I do not have reliable information that could lead me to declare most Pit Bulls to be particularly dog-aggressive – or dog-friendly for that matter. Until I have that information, I’ll assess the risk like I would for any individual dog: on the basis of past, bite history, body language, stress resilience, tolerance, etc.
What’s a Pit Bull?
Another massive issue with the Pit Bull debates is that we don’t all agree on what a Pit Bull is.
If you believe the newspaper (or the police reports), any Labrador with a stubby nose is a ‘Pit Bull mix’. The worst thing is? The confusion isn’t limited to non-specialists: even international and national breed registers don’t agree. Some consider them to be a breed, some don’t, and others consider them to be several breeds. We’ve had many dog owners at the dog training school who ‘think’ they own a Pit Bull but, after receiving so much conflicting information, don’t know anymore.
So, when even identification is open for debate, it becomes hard to issue public safety policies that make sense.
Numbers from the dog behaviour therapy trenches
So we can’t really read much into bite epidemiology data so far. Let’s look at the numbers I see in my practice, then. They hold no scientific value, but it’s all I have. Over the past eight years:
- I have seen 3x Pit Bull for dog-dog aggression (2 of which responded to treatment, and all 3 from dubious origins) and a total of 50x dogs (of other breeds) for that same problem. I get a lot of Jack Russell Terriers for that problem, if you’re curious.
- I have seen about 12x Pit Bulls for other problems, mainly over-excitement when greeting guests, and over-activity in general. When I say excitement, I mean so crazy-happy to see the guest that they head-butt them trying to get to their face to… lick them.
Granted, my clients don’t represent the average population: they tend to be above-average motivated to help their dog, or they wouldn’t have called a professional. I am sure, also, that people hesitate to contact a professional for fear their Pit Bull might be confiscated.
So my numbers aren’t scientific in any way, shape or form. But they are still interesting.
This is why the whole ‘Pit Bulls are killers’ is tricky
Bear with me as I try to summarize why the controversy is a tricky problem:
- Even assuming a dog’s forebears were selectively bred for fighting (not completely ridiculous, but quite unlikely if you’ve researched your dog’s origins), that still does not mean your dog will be aggressive – and this for the same reasons that not every Labrador is great with children. Remember: it’s about averages.
- Even assuming you researched your dog’s origins, and you raised him responsibly (including diligent socialisation efforts), your pup might grow up with a tendency to be aggressive to other dogs. But we do not know that Pit Bulls are over-represented in this category.
- Dog bite incidence research data is tricky: many papers are outdated, biased or unreliable, and the findings aren’t consistent between different papers. This is a sign that a meta-analysis is required to give us a clear picture and, until then, that extreme caution must be taken when interpreting the results (pro- or con-!).
If you feel worried about Pit Bulls, the best I can leave you with is this: look at the dog’s (and his human’s!) body language. If something makes you uncomfortable, be fair and imagine a Labrador instead. If you’re still uncomfortable, then walk away. If you would not worry if the dog was a Labrador, then get chatting to the owner. You’ll be amazed at how becoming more familiar with a few of them can help with your fear.
I myself used to have prejudices against bully breeds. I didn’t understand how some of my friends could want them. “Do they want to look like a thug?” I thought to myself. That is until I really met one. I got to know the individual dog. This emboldened me and I started to take my time and get to know more of them. After a few of these encounters, the prejudice melted away like snow in the sun. I now look at the individual dog behind the breed. Nowadays, like most dog behaviour professionals, when I see ‘Pit Bull’ in my form, I can’t wait to hop in the car to meet the beast.
If you’re interested in the detailed history and risks of the Pit Bull, I highly recommend you read ‘the Pit Bull Placebo‘.
If you want to dig a little deeper on dog bite epidemiology, try Dog bites, but balloons and slippers are more dangerous.
This article by HugABull (perhaps biased considering the name of the website) has also done an interesting survey of the relevant literature.
No modification were made to any of the illustrations.
- Sleeping Pit Bull: Courtesy of Garden State Hiker (downloaded on 25 November 2016, CC BY 2.0)
- Muzzled Pit Bull: Courtesy of Tatiana Sapateiro (downloaded on 25 November 2016, CC-BY-2.0)
- Pit Bull with a bow: Courtesy of Found Animals Foundation (downloaded on 25 November 2016, CC BY-SA 2.0)
- White Pit Bull – lion: Courtesy of Beverly & Pack (downloaded on 25 November 2016, CC BY 2.0)