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.”
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.