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While the two cases may appear similar, it is very important to note the fundamental difference between the behaviour of the Pit Bulls and the Rottweilers and Bull Mastiff. On one hand, neighbours and emergency services noted that the dogs that killed the young woman were so “angry” that no one could get near them, while on the other hand, the Pit Bulls are seen in extensive video footage to be completely calm and relaxed while mauling a man to death. While it may be difficult for the general public to understand the distinction, in the one case you are dealing with defensive aggression (fear and rage triggered by abuse) and in the other you are dealing with predatory aggression (dogs rehearsing behaviour that is internally reinforcing). One is an extreme emotional reaction caused by past trauma and the other is a fun activity – like chewing a bone or chasing a squirrel.


Why is this so important? It is important because behaviour motivated by fear and anger can be limited or avoided with humane handling and correct socialisation. A dog that does not fear humans and has been socialised to be comfortable around people, has no reason to engage in defensive aggression, so socialisation, training and handling based on positive reinforcement and force free methods, will go an extremely long way to prevent these kinds of incidents from ever occurring. On the other hand, when aggression is internally reinforcing (predatory in nature), it is not caused by inhumane handling or lack of socialisation. Fear is not the trigger for this type of behaviour – environment has little to do with it and no amount of training and socialisation will make it any less attractive to the dog if the right circumstances occur.


This is the fundamental difference between dogs that fall into the “fighting breed” category and your guardian type dogs like Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Dobermans etc. Unfortunately, in many minds Rottweilers are lumped together with the “fighting” breeds, perhaps because of their muscular builds. However, it must be remembered that the origin of the Rottweiler is not as a fighter or baiter of other animals. Rottweilers were originally cattle drovers’ dogs used for herding and guarding. This means that unlike the fighting breeds, Rottweilers are not “finishers” i.e. dogs selected for their readiness to use a “kill-bite” on other animals. While the predatory motor pattern of fighting type dogs is:




The predatory motor pattern of a Rottweiler as a herder is:


ORIENT – EYE – STALK – CHASE or it is almost non-existent[1].


Our understanding of how dogs evolved includes the concept of “neoteny” i.e. dogs retain juvenile characteristics of wild canids and never mature socially or with regards to their predatory abilities (which is why dogs are scavengers and not hunters by nature and are safe for us to be around). According to the theory of neoteny, dogs like Rottweilers tend to fall into the most “immature” dog category i.e. those that remain puppy-like in nature and looks, which is why they have floppy ears, puppy-shaped faces and they often direct “predatory” behaviour towards inanimate things like toys and even rocks! They are basically like puppies playing with leaves outside of a den and are useless at any type of real hunting behaviour (of course you will get exceptions).[2]


The recent mapping of canine DNA has also shown that Rottweilers are indeed genetically dissimilar to the fighting breeds.[3] Why is it then, that Rottweilers have generally gotten such a bad name? There are several reasons:

1. Rottweilers are large, intimidating dogs. They are extremely strong. Any large and strong dog is capable of doing a lot of damage if they decide to defend themselves. People tend to react to such dogs in a very negative way and this can make it hard for owners to socialise them. Many Rottweiler owners are discriminated against even at dog clubs and by dog trainers who tend to treat them like pariah’s and insist on keeping them on the outskirts of the class and away from other dog owners. This attitude has perpetuated the dangerous dog stereotype, the stereotype makes socialisation difficult and lack of socialisation results in a dog who is edgy and reactive around people and dogs​


2. Rottweilers, like many other breeds, have traditionally been used for their ability to guard property and be defensive with strangers. This means that they were selected (through breeding) to be territorial and to not accept strangers easily (what use would a guard dog be if it welcomed strangers onto the property?). However, bad breeders sometimes produce fearful dogs that lack confidence because they mistake the resulting fear-aggression as good “guard-dog” material. This has happened in many of the “guardian” breeds with German Shepherds perhaps being the worst affected. It must always be remembered that fearful dogs are the ones most likely to bite in the wrong circumstances!

3. Rottweilers are often acquired as guard dogs by ignorant people who do not understand that it is difficult and often impossible to selectively develop aggression in a dog for home protection purposes while expecting the dog to be friendly and biddable with friends and family. Many people intentionally isolate their dogs to make them suspicious and anti-social and then are horrified when their dogs behave accordingly.


4. Traditional dog training methods of jerking, yanking, hanging and otherwise physically manhandling dogs are sadly still used in many dog training circles. This is especially true when trainers deal with dogs like Rottweilers (dogs that are mistakenly thought to be “dominant”) and they will usually encourage owners to use these coercive methods as well. These methods may temporarily suppress some behaviours, but they will invariably result in an unstable, unpredictable and aggressive dog. The fact that more Rottweilers don’t bite their owners because of this ongoing abuse is a testament to the stability of their temperament.

5. Rottweilers are extremely playful dogs. They are often quite mouthy, bark to initiate play and are usually obsessed with toys and games of tug. If people do not understand their play behaviours they may misinterpret them as aggression. As a result, many Rotties are punished simply for trying to play. They may then become defensive and unsure of how to interact with people. Also, when people react fearfully to playful overtures, the dog will usually pick up that something is wrong and their own attitude may change from playfulness to confusion and finally to defensiveness.


For a long time now qualified dog behaviourists have been trying to warn the public that following the unscientific methods of “dog whisperers” who typically use physical and psychological intimidation to “solve” behaviour problems is risky and even downright dangerous. Suppressing behaviour through punishment while failing to deal with the underlying cause of the behaviour (which could be a variety of things) results in dogs becoming “ticking time bombs”. What this means is that while the dog may appear to be non-reactive on the surface, beneath the surface the dog’s mental and emotional state remains volatile and will “explode” given the “right” set of circumstances. Furthermore, because all the early warning signals like growling and barking have been punished out of the dog, when the dog does end up reacting, the aggression the dog displays can be far more serious. One cannot ignore the prior training and handling of the dog or dogs in these incidents – the two dog bite incidents in 2012 involving self-proclaimed “Dog Whisperer” Jame’s Lech’s rescued Rottweiler are a case in point.


When looking at dog bite statistics, one also must bear in mind that the popularity of a breed will also influence the number of incidents reported. For example, in the UK an insurance company and Royal Mail carried out research into the breeds most commonly involved in dog bites. The number one dog may surprise you – it was the Labrador Retriever! German Shepherds, Staffies and Border Collies also made the top 4.[4] Does this mean that Labradors are the most aggressive dogs? Unlikely! What we do know is that they are one of the most popular registered dogs in the UK. Unfortunately, in South Africa, the Rottweiler is currently the breed with the most KUSA registrations per year. One can only imagine how many unregistered and poorly bred Rottweilers there are as well if this is the case…


But for those of us who love the breed, what can we do to ensure that we protect them from further disrepute?


  1. ROTTWEILER BREEDERS MUST ENDEAVOUR TO BREED CONFIDENT DOGS – confident dogs are easier to socialise and less likely to perceive threats where there are none.

  2. WE MUST ENSURE THAT ALL DOGS ARE WELL-SOCIALISED and that ongoing socialisation continues past puppyhood and adolescence.

  3. WE MUST HOME DOGS CAREFULLY and ensure the all prospective owners are responsible and educated

  4. We must do away with harmful attitudes and training practises and TRAIN HUMANELY AND SCIENTIFICALLY


  6. WE MUST ALL BE RESPONSIBLE DOG OWNERS and obey the laws of our communities in this regard


Rottweilers are wonderful dogs, but they are “a lot of dog” and are certainly not for everyone. They are a working breed and desperately need to be with their owners and given plenty of mental stimulation. In the same way as a bored Border Collie will turn into a nightmare on four paws, a bored Rottweiler will do the same – only their paws are a LOT bigger! Because of their size and presence whatever they do gets noticed.



[1] R. Coppinger and L. Coppinger: Dogs: a new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution, University of Chicago Press, 2001


[2] R. Coppinger and L. Coppinger: Dogs: a new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution, University of Chicago Press, 2001


[3] KA Houpt: Review article Genetics of Canine Behaviour



Are Rottweilers dangerous dogs?


Earlier this year a woman in South Africa was attacked and killed by two Rottweilers and Bull Mastiff who were reported to be family pets. When more information surfaced, it turned out that the dogs were “yard dogs” that had regularly been beaten by a lead pipe to “control” them. The woman was attacked when she picked up the pipe, yelled at the dogs and threatened them. Shortly before this, a scrap collector in Cape Town was killed by two Pit Bulls after he entered a property apparently without permission. In this case the dogs were indeed family pets, allowed in the home itself and apparently treated well.

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