There are many myths that abound in society than I and other trainers are constantly working to debunk. Among the constant streams of “his tail’s wagging, so he’s happy” and “what could my dog be stressed about” and “she knows what I’m saying- she’s just stubborn”, we hear constantly about so-called “vicious breeds”. This makes no sense. Why would people willingly breed animals dangerous to humans? To be sure, there are plenty of disreputable breeders out there, and aggression can have a genetic component. However, these comprise a small sunset of the population. Most owners do not want vicious, dangerous dogs, and most dogs out there are not vicious or dangerous. Why have we let the exception overwhelm us and become the rule?
I think the answer is a combination of mis-education and fear. Pitbulls are the breed popular to hate these days. When you hear about a dog attack in the news and the breed is identified, chances are the dog is identified as a Pitbull. But are all pits really dangerous? First of all, let’s examine the fact that so many dogs in the media that attack are identified as pitbulls. Chances are the media did not do a background check into the dog’s lineage to determine that fact. The truth is, many, many breeds are mis-identified as pitbulls. I challenge you to go to Find the Pit and look through the pictures there. How many wrong answers did you select before finding the one Pitbull pictured? For full disclosure, let me tell you that I have worked hard on appropriately identifying breeds by look, although I regularly disclaim mixes as impossible to know for sure, and I guessed wrong once before I found the Pitbull. There were a few I thought might have been the pit but I didn’t guess them. I did click on the Alapaha blue blood bulldog as a pit, only to find out I was wrong, and the other two that I nearly chose but didn’t were the Presa Canario and Cane Corso, both of which I hope I would have correctly identified in person! How well did you do? Did you find the pit right away, or was it difficult? How much experience do you have identifying breeds? Now imagine how hard it may be for someone in the heat of the moment or who does not have a lot of experience in breed identification to correctly identify an attacking dog as a Blackmouth Cur or a Fila Brasiliero rather than saying “Pitbull” (not that either of those breeds are inherently vicious, either).
I hope the quiz opens your eyes to the vast amount of misidentification that occurs so often in the media. That doesn’t mean no Pitbulls bite, but instead I hope you will think twice before accepting it on someone’s word that the dog was a Pitbull. One personal example of breed mis-identification that I have is a Bull Terrier that was adopted out to a town that had a Pitbull ban. As a Bull Terrier is not a Pitbull, no one thought twice until the town government began harassing the poor owners and their dog. These owners were super responsible dog owners, and wonderful people. Their dog was a gem of a dog- sweet and well behaved. Nevertheless, because of the judge first and ask questions later view of this town, the dog ended up back at the shelter, where she had to wait to find a new home through no fault of her own, and no fault of her owners. We at the shelter were stunned, because none of us though she looked anything like a Pitbull, but apparently to the untrained eye, Bull Terriers and Pitbulls look an awful lot alike.
The other thing is that so many dogs are mixes. The quiz I linked to above used only purebred dog pictures from the breeders, so you can imagine how it can compound the problem when the lineage is unknown or mixed. I have done a DNA test on both of my dogs, and if the results are to be believed, they are very surprising indeed, and no one has once guessed either correctly. For instance Boo, who I call a Lab mix apparently has as much Maltese as Lab in her. No one ever guesses she’s a Maltese mix. Now imagine instead of Maltese, it was Pitbull, and also imagine we lived in a community where pits were restricted (thankfully, we do not). Should she, who looks just like a Lab, be restricted for her heritage just like the dog next door, who may be as much or even less pit than her, but look more pit just thanks to genetics? Obviously this is just a thought experiment, but I think it is still valuable to ponder. When has judging something purely on its looks ever done good in the long run? Instead, to ban all Pitbulls or immediately classify all pitbulls as vicious right off the bat is merely a slippery slope and supports myths that have no basis in fact.
The plain truth of the matter is that owners have the most effect on their dog’s temperament for the vast majority of dogs. There are dogs out there with a genetic basis for aggression, and these dogs can be extremely hard to work with, but they are not confined to any one breed. There are also dogs out there with brain rumors and neurological problems that can respond suddenly and without warning with aggression. Again, these problems are not limited to a particular breed. The rest of the aggression (that which is not caused by an underlying genetic or health component) is behavioral and likely results from training or environment or lack of socialization, or some combination thereof. I work aggression cases, and hands down the most aggressive dog that I have worked with was a little Rat Terrier, although I did consult on a Chihuahua/Rat Terrier mix that was even more aggressive. Personal and professional experience have taught me that aggression is not limited to one breed, nor are all members of a breed going to act the same way (aggressive or not).
What about the fact that some breeds were bred to fight? Doesn’t that have anything to do with where we are now? Let’s explore the background of some breeds and see where that takes us. The American Pit Bull Terrier was founded from bulldogs and English terriers to provide a dog with great athleticism and gameness. This dog was used to hunt, drive cattle, and as a family pet. Because they are so loyal and driven, they made good blood sport dogs, but any aggression toward humans was a serious fault resulting in the destruction of the dog. Wikipedia has an interesting list of dog breeds that have been used at some point in time for dog-fighting. However, dog fighting is not the only blood sport humans have enjoyed. What about bull-baiting, bear-baiting, wolf-baiting, ratting, and other blood sports? These sports are not for the entertainment of dogs, but humans, and humans have developed many, many breeds including bulldogs, wolfhounds, Dogue de Bordeaux, and many many terriers. Any of the ancient Molossor dogs (many of which turned into Mastiff-types) have a history of violence, as they were kept for guarding and protecting, driving, herding, and fighting. Their descendants include Saint Bernards, Newfoundlands, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Bulldogs, Bullmastiffs, Great Danes, Rottweilers, Pugs, and more. Should all of these dogs have severe restrictions on them because of their history of fighting and protecting? If so, many people would be very upset to lose their beloved companions.
How about those towns that have banned certain breeds? It turns out breed bans don’t make towns safer. In fact, both the CDC and the AVMA have declared that there is no scientific basis for breed specific legislation (http://www.avma.org/public_health/dogbite/dogbite.pdf). According to the NCRC, breed bans in Sioux City and in Miami-Dade county, among others, resulted in no decline in dog bites (in fact, the number increased for Sioux City). In addition, the cost to enforce such laws vastly outweighs any possible benefit, partly because dog bites are so rare (in the grander scheme of things) and aggression is not a single-breed problem. Let’s take a look at bite statistics. For a list of media reports on dog bites (Warning: Could be depressing!), go to http://www.understand-a-bull.com/Articles/OtherBreedBites/AllDogsBite.htm. For more information of the research and statistics on dog bites, check out the National Canine Research Council. Let’s look at the Tri-state area. According to the National Canine Research Council, there have been four dog bite related fatalities in Iowa in the last 47 years, regardless of breed. There have been 28 in Illinois in the last 47 years, and 15 in Wisconsin in the same timeframe. That’s 47 fatal dog bites in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa in 47 years. While I agree that this number needs to decrease, motor vehicles, guns, second hand smoke, and many other things we are exposed to every day contribute to more fatalities than dog bites. And the kicker is that schnauzer-related deaths are included in the number, right alongside Labs and Pitbulls and German Shepherds and other big dogs. Dogs as small as West Highland White Terriers and Schnauzers have killed. Just because a dog is smaller does not mean they are “safe”. What is a measure of the level of danger is not the size of the dog, but the dog’s behavior and the owner’s behavior.
So to my mind it makes far more sense to stress responsible pet ownership, responsible breeding, and bite safety education to meet this goal of lowering the incidence of dog bites even further (especially medically serious dog bites!) rather than per-judging a breed. The fact is, many of the targeted breeds do have a history of violence, just like the dachshund bred for badger hunting and the Newfoundland with Molossor blood. However, just because a breed has been used for violence in the past, or even currently, does not mean all individuals of the breed should be restricted or eliminated. Similarly, a few people making poor choices is no reason to condemn a community. The truth is, even with those breeds currently abused in dog fighting rings (like pitbulls), there are many, many breeders who are carefully continuing the line to preserve all the good qualities of the breed and who work hard to continue producing wonderful family pets. So instead of pre-judging breeds, let’s eliminate dog fighting, let’s encourage responsible pet ownership and education, and let’s have high standard for our breeders to be sure they are producing puppies from mentally, emotionally, and physically sound lines.