The Devil Dog

As I sit here, reassuring the Pit Bull mix cowering under my chair from the fireworks kids are setting of in the neighborhood, I think it’s time to whip out my “Pit Bull’s are not evil, they are just not for everyone” speech.

I’m not going to sugar coat this, and obviously I’m not going to condemn the breed to hell everlasting.

How could I?


I have worked with American Pit Bull Terriers (and their mixes) off and on for over 15 years. In the 1990’s, I was one of the few people in the Los Angles area that would take them on as foster pups. I have taken on ones that were abandoned pets, living wild and former bait dogs out of dog fighting rings.

When people say, “it’s not the dog, it’s the owner” that is the truth. What many fail to add is that Pit Bulls are not right for every owner, no matter how good their intentions may be.

Pitties (or “Pibbles,” as some aficionados call them) are intelligent, active, sweet, intensely loyal and attached to their owners.

(Very attached. They will follow you around the house. Wherever you sit, you will have a 35 to 60 lb foot warmer. I had one that when I went to the bathroom would sit outside the door and whine. That is one of the reasons why Pit Bulls are a tricky breed. You can’t keep them in the backyard and only come out to feed and water them. Any dog would suffer under those conditions, but that will seriously mess with a Pittie’s head. They *have* to be an integral part of their pack/family for their emotional wellbeing.)

They are also a dominant breed.

Now dogs are all individuals and some will be more more easy going and some will be more dominant. I have encountered easy going Pitties, dominant Labrador Retrievers and a flat out aggressive Shit-Zu. I have known a mellow Chihuahua. My hand to the Gods.

But in terms of breed traits, Pitties, Rottwielers, Boxers, Dobermans, Akitas, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Amercian Staffordshire Terriers, Shar Peis, Siberian Huskies, Malamutes and several others are all dominant breeds.

(Chows-Chows are also classed as a dominant breed, but in my experience, their attitude is “I don’t give a fuck about anyone but my owner.”)

Not “aggressive” breeds. Aggression is a fear response and any dog can be made fearful and “aggressive.” These dogs are dominant. You can’t create dominance. Just like someone people are born leaders and some people can’t even control a student project group. You can’t create that innate force of personality. At least not in a dog.

A dog like most Golden Retrievers, for instance (most of the sporting breeds, in fact), is easy going. You are in charge and she/he is happy with that. If it seems like the alpha (ideally the dog owner) is slacking, they aren’t going to push the issue.

Dominant breeds are very aware of the pack hierarchy and if they feel the alpha is not doing her or his job, they are going to try to take over. That doesn’t mean they will attack their owners. It means they are going to start pushing boundaries and throwing their weight around.

We tend to think of dogs as barking loud, tail-wagging, very obvious in what they are feeling. But the truth is dogs are very subtle. When a pet dog challenges his/her human’s authority, it is usually in subtle ways the inexperienced owner will often miss until there is a big problem.

If they are not supposed to be on the couch, they will get up there. They will start listening to their owner’s commands selectively to outright refusing them. They growl if someone comes near their food. They get pushy about being in front. Not excited pushy, “I’M in charge” pushy. The difference is subtle. (There are other even more subtle signs of a change of attitude.) To the inexperienced, it will all come off as being playful or so minor it’s not worth getting worried about. At first.

But if the dog feels the pack is being threatened, they will put themselves as the first line of response.

This is where the big problems start. Dogs live in our world, but some parts are still a mystery to them as dogs are to us. Dogs can’t tell if that boisterous stranger coming into your house is an intruder or your cousin. If the dog they meet while walking is a potential friend or a challenger. When the owner is the alpha, the dogs take the situational cues from the owner. If you are relaxed, they will be relaxed. When the dog is the alpha, they make the decision if the person or dog is a threat or not. That should never be. No family dog should feel they make the decisions for the pack. As the alpha, it is the human’s job.

Family dogs should NOT be trained as guard dogs. Training a family pet for human aggression in a normal household is a recipe for disaster. There is a reason retired police dogs are *never* adopted out to the general public.

Dogs rely on body language to communicate between themselves and they are hoping we pick up on the cues. We are just now starting to be aware of what must be to them their most obvious “words.”

Dog Language

Oftentimes, we do not see even those.  I was walking by a park one day when I saw a group of people watching this stray “dangerous dog,” as they called him, racing around the park. What they did not know was the Boxer was relaxed and going into play-bows. He was not dangerous at all. He just wanted to play. I played with him a bit, collared him, read his tags and got someone to call his owner who came right over. If someone had approached him aggresively because they thought he was “dangerous,” they would have made him afraid and a scared dog is an unpredictable and potentially aggresive dog.

When encountering a new person or another dog, if the owner of a dog is inexperienced they can miss the tension in their animal and say “Oh, his tail is wagging, he’s hap…OHMYGOD!”

And it will happen in a heartbeat.

Once I was walking Taeda and Pilot (my Boxer/Dalmation mix) on their leads, and someone in the neighborhood had their Pittie off lead. The dog naturally ran over to us. He came up to Pilot’s nose and both of them went tense. Their tails were wagging softly, but they were stiff legged, ears forward, alert.

For a second. I swear to the Gods, it was a literal second.

Then they went at it. To this day, I do not know who lunged first, it happened so fast. And dog attacks and fights happen *very* fast. (And Taeda jumped in too because, hey, this is her pack. )

The approaching dog’s owner and I managed to drag them apart and no one was worse for wear.

But the truth is both the other dog’s owner and I fucked up. The owner should not have had his dog off lead and out of his control. And I should have stepped in front of my dogs and said “No!” before the dog reached us. (And that will work a lot of the time.) I was not the first line of response. I did not control the situation. I did not do my job as alpha.

Now I am not going to try to tell anyone how to train their dog. I am not a professional dog trainer and to be honest there is no “One plan fits all.” As I said, dogs are individuals and some dogs react better to some approaches and techniques and some dogs react better to others. Some dogs benefit from a dominant approach, while others do better with a more coaxing, “buddy” approach. Some respond better to hand signals and others to verbal commands. Some dogs are food motivated and some affection-motivated. (They are ALL reward motivated.) The shy, avoidant Taeda and the outgoing, pushy Pilot require very different approaches.

And they are subtle approaches. I assert my dominance with Pilot by making her down-stay while I get her food, place it in front of her and then wait for my permission to eat. She has to wait for me to go through doors first. When she gets too worked up in play (she is not allowed to growl at me, even in play, and some dogs do just playfully growl in play), she has to surrender the toy to me and wait until I think she has calmed down enough to play again. And of course, she is rewarded for good behavior.

And I never have to become physically violent to assert that I am in charge. Just subtle acts like that, maintaining the rules at all times (with dominant dogs, slacking in the rules means you are slacking in authority), combined with a constant “I got this” attitude works.

And when the pack hierarchy is set, she can have more fun because she is sure about her family and knows I am watching out for her and taking responsibly of taking care of things. I can have more fun because I’m not so worried about her being unpredictable.

But that is what works for her. Taeda (the actual Pit Bull mix) requires more coaxing and reward and less dominance. It took two years just to get her to where she could ask for affection. Pushing her around like Pilot could actually make her regress.

The point of all this is that some dogs are not for inexperienced dog owners and Pit Bulls, like all of the dominant breeds above, are not. If your only experience with dogs is feeding and playing with your family’s collie or retriever mix growing up, you are not going to be able to read and deal properly with a  dog that challenges your authority. It takes experience and that takes a long time to build. I have always been a conscientious (I like to think so anyway), loving dog owner. But when I had my previous dogs, Rutger, Kuluk and Gerard, I wish had known then what I know now. And I am still learning.

The reason that Pit Bulls get so much attention is because they are so common and easy to get. Pit Bulls are not a registered breed with the American Kennel Club (American Staffordshire Terriers are but American Pit Bull Terriers are not), so they (and Pit mixes) are plentiful and cheap to obtain. That’s why they are used in dog fighting rather than the larger Rottweilers who have just as much dominance and a much more powerful bite force (about a hundred pounds more than Pit Bull). A Rottie pup costs $1,200.00 minimum. A Pit Bull/Pit mix you can get for 50$ from the guy down the street. To many bad people, Pit Bulls are disposable.

The ready availability of Pit Bulls is their worst enemy, even for those outside the fighting rings. Someone shelling out $1,200.00 for a Rottweiler has spent time researching, considering, preparing for this dog. Often times, dog breeds run in families so they may have been raised with these dogs or have friends with these dogs so they have a good idea of what they getting and what they are doing. This dog is an investment to them, and they are more likely to care for that investment.

Someone who has no idea what they are doing, just getting a dog on a whim, to feel macho, whathaveyou, gets Pit Bull for $50 and then either gets bored with them or does not know how to handle them and chucks them in the backyard (or gives them to someone else who could possibly be even worse). They have nothing invested in this animal. And that is why there are so many Pit Bulls and so many of them are problem dogs. It’s not that the dog is evil, it’s just too many of them land in the hands of people who are not experienced enough or invested enough to have such a dog.

And that is besides the people who get these dogs for their machismo ego and abuse them, or respond to the challenges to their authority with physical abuse.

(But you can’t make assumptions based on lifestyles. I used to take my dogs to a dog park in Long Beach, and there was a guy who came the same time we did. He had the low riding caddy, the tracksuits, the gold chains, just the picture of “the gansta.” And he had the sweetest, most well-behaved, well-socialized gunmetal grey Pittie named “Blueberry.”)

So if you are looking for your first dog, steer away from dominant breeds. Get a dog that is going to be more forgiving of your mistakes, that doesn’t require quite so much focus and structure.

And before you vilify the breed, remember that there are well over a dozen breeds that are just as dominant/”aggressive.” They just tend to get better care than Pit Bulls and don’t get the exposure Pit Bulls do because there are not as many of them. If we wiped every Pit Bull from the face of the planet, one of them would rise to be the next “devil dog.”

(There is also the factor that most people, including those in the press, don’t know what Pit Bulls look like. Pilot is a Boxer/Dalmatian mix, yet all the time I get asked if she is a Pit Bull. This has made me *very* careful about her training and socialization: She is a breed ambassador for a breed she does not even belong to.)

EDIT: In this I missed the human and canine socialization that is required with dominant breeds. Owners of these breeds must make a contentious, routine effort to socialize their dogs so they will not be so pack-possesive and learn to be more open with people and their pets.

If dominant breeds sound like more work, it’s because they are. But the rewards are great.


12 thoughts on “The Devil Dog

  1. For me it’s Jack Russell’s, always thought they were yappy, snappies. They had a bad rep, but the wonderful thing about rescue animals is that you don’t choose them, they choose you.

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  3. My mixed terrier is completely sweet & happy with her place in our family’s hierarchy. You’re description of the foot warmer really hits home lol. But when friends visit our pack order is blurred.That dominate trait requiring clear hierarchy causes her to happily gnaw on their hands. ARGGHHH. As a new dog owner, it’s frustrating.
    I’m going to watch her closely next time and see if I can decipher her underlying feelings using your dog language pic. wish me luck!

    • I can understand that. I have a Boxer/Dalmatian mix who does the same when she is nervous. She can chew the pads right off her toes down to the skin. How long have you had your pup? It may be just a symptom of an acclamation period. Keep getting her socialized by inviting you friends over, but don’t force it.

      • While it’s only been 2 months, I really think this is more than an adjustment type behavior. I’m leaning strongly towards her typing to establish pecking order. Which leads me to wonder if she thinks she is beta to me (alpha), does she think she should be above everyone else. lol nevermind, I’m too analytical sometimes lol

      • Well, with Pittie/Terrier mixes there is an adjustment period and being analytical, or at least keeping an eye on her, while she is trying to figure out where she fits in is probably a good idea. I agree the chewing probably is an adjustment behavior, especially if she came from a place where she was not socialized on her own “turf” and strangers coming in to her house is new to her. (For instance, I live alone with my two dogs and a very quiet house. When they encounter typical yelling, playing kids, it startles them. Pilot recovers quickly and is o.k., but Teada goes into full avoidance mode. Socializing her has been a challenge and she would *never* be good in a loud house with children.) Just make sure that you puppy obeys the rules, that you are relaxed and confident around her and your guests, that you establish the lead when you have guests before she has a chance to make up her own mind. Also, don’t let your guests force themselves on her. If she’s already nervous, it’s best if they leave her alone and let her gain enough confidence to come check them out first. If she doesn’t settle in after a couple more month, you might want to talk to a professional trainer.

        Sorry if I’m preaching to the choir here. Just thought I would put it out there. 🙂

      • nono. that’s good advice. I appreciate good advice. Remember I did say I was a new owner 🙂
        She came from a shelter, where she was adopted her for 2 weeks, then the owner returned her. I tend to think that is why she is so submissive/grateful.

      • That would explain a lot about why she is so insecure/anxious. Dogs are pack animals, they are hardwired to be with a group (human or canine) and being abandoned by their pack is confusing and emotionally hurts. Just show her a lot of love and acceptance (within the rules you have established for her, of course) and she will come out of her shell eventually.

        Previous emotional scars can last a long time for dogs. Taeda’s story is one example. Another is my sister’s dog (a general pointer/something mix). She came out of a hoarding situation and so she was food possessive. She was not aggressive in any other way but that. Totally played beta to their first dog (American Staffordshire Terrier/American Bulldog mix), but if anyone, dog or human, came hear her while she was eating, she would growl. Once they saw it in action, it took a long, slow while for my sister and her husband to break her of the habit. She got used to them standing next to her while she ate. Then making her sit/stay and nudging the food from her and nudging it back with praise. To them picking the food up from her and giving it back (with praise). It took a while, but they were able to nurse her past it.

      • And don’t be afraid to consult with a professional trainer. If she handles herself well around people and other dogs when outside “the pack turf,” training classes at your local pet store is a good idea for further socialization (plus training for her and you 🙂 ). And if you have problems with her, you will have access to a trainer to talk with.

        Your Vet can also be an invaluable resource that way. They also see all kinds of behavioral issues.

        Not a serious issue, but embarrassing: I had one dog, Gerry (Gerard), a Husky/Chow mix, who was a complete drama queen when something was done to him, or at least when someone did something and I wasn’t there. One time at the Vet they took him into a back room to get a blood sample and suddenly, yelping and crying and oh my gawd you would have thought they were torturing and killing him back there. All the vet techs running around closing doors, etc.. And they were just trying to shave the patch in his arm they were going to draw the blood from. They hadn’t touched him with the needle yet. I had to be there for them to do anything to him. If I was there, he was fine. If I wasn’t, Oh! le Drama!

        So again, your Vet is someone you can talk to not only with physical health issues, but behavioral issues you are concerned about.

        (Same thing happened the one time I tried to have him professionally groomed. I got him, or rather he found me, when he was probably 18 months to two years old. And with those breeds, obviously his coat was an issue. Constant shedding and it would completely blow itself out in Spring. So one year I decided to skip the hassle and let a professional groomer do the brushing out. I dropped him off in the morning fine, but when I came to pick him up in the afternoon, he was yelping and whining and crying like they were trying to filet him, and I could see him on the table and they were just brushing him out. I apologized for his behavior, completely red-faced. And the receptionist handed him/his leash to me and said through gritted teeth, “No, He was fine,” with the unspoken, “Oh please gawd don’t bring him back here again.” )

  4. LOL! One of my children was exactly like Gerry! For the 1st year, he screamed- not cried – SCREAMED the ENTIRE time I was out of sight. Poor Grandma would graciously babysit whilst I ran errands- 2 3 hours constant screaming. I’d return to that gritted toothed exhausted smile “No, He was fine.” look. That woman was a saint!

    Around that same time, we got Critter, a pure German Shepard, akc registered. The breeders gave her away for free because she was born with a herniated umbilical cord. My 12 mo son was born with the same, so I was happy to have her. They were babies together plus I was still nursing our 2 month old baby:)

    Now, I knew Critter growled when anyone came within 3 feet of her food dish & kept my babies out of her way. I was too busy to train the dog. Unaware, my husband allowed our son to toddled over during Critter’s mealtime. Surprisingly, Critter gently stepped back, laid down, chin to the floor, & watched wiht great patience as my son pick her dish & kernels. Pleased at Critter’s instincts, but still protective, I called from the other room to stop the situation. My husband scooped up our boy with one hand & pushed the bowl to Critter. I can’t tell you how hard I laughed when Critter almost took Hubby’s hand off the moment he touched her bowl. LOLOL It still makes me LOL!

  5. My babies are grown now, however Gawd I miss Critter! She was so protective of us, even scaring the skata out of my husband’s shady co-workers. After a few years and many stories, I gave her to a dear friend who knew dogs & loved her like princess.

  6. I agree that about a dog’s emotional scars. Like people. with love & patience & consistency, they can overcome. I’ll definitely talk to our Vet, however hold off on a professional trainer. Funds are tight. Besides, one of my superpowers is analytical internet research (including weeding out the BS & hacks). Google brought me to your post above. I could tell by reading it that you are knowledgeable & caring. Regards, Jackie

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