Is Paco really a hero?
I realise that this article is going to be controversial, but as a behaviourist with almost 20 years’ experience working with dogs, with the majority of my case load consisting of aggression problems, I feel that I am obligated to speak out about the recent killing of an alleged thief by two Pit Bulls in Lotus River.
While I fully realise that our communities are sick of crime and that it is instinctive to celebrate when we feel that some sort of justice has been done when a criminal is injured or killed in the commission of a crime, we need to look very carefully at the circumstances surrounding this incident and the actual behaviour of the dogs, before we all rush out and buy ourselves a couple of Pit Bulls.
I wonder how many of those who are hailing these dogs as heroes have actually watched the video of the attack? Against my better judgement I decided to view it after a colleague expressed her concern over what was being perceived by the public as dogs “protecting their owner from harm”.
As a lecturer of dog behaviour, one of my main jobs is teaching students how to read the emotional state of dogs through body language and behaviour. It is quite clear from this video that these dogs were not protecting anyone or anything, including themselves. These dogs were simply having fun and carrying out a pleasurable activity, much as they would have if a cat or other animal had been tossed over the wall to them. This attack was predatory in nature and not defensive. These dogs continued to calmly bite, shake and drag the man around, long after he was incapable of responding in any way.
One may ask why this matters? After all, the family is safe and there supposedly one less criminal on the streets? However, it is of incredible importance to understand the difference between defensive aggression and predatory behaviour, because they are motivated by a completely different emotional state, often have very different targets and have a very different outcome or goal.
Defensive aggression is a normal response to a threat – a dog perceives that something is dangerous and uses aggression to chase that thing away or, if the threat is serious enough, to cause enough injury to be a deterrent or subdue the threat. Its goal is NOT to kill the threat – just enough is done to keep oneself safe and no more. In a defensive “attack” a dog will usually first give a threat display (growl, bark, advance towards the threat) and if this does not work, a snap or bite might follow. If the threat continues to advance or fights back (people sensibly seldom do this), the dog may even escalate to multiple bites. However, as soon as the threat backs off and retreats, the aggression should subside. During a defensive attack, the emotional state of the dog is very negative – the dog experiences strong feelings of fear and rage, which can be seen in the dog’s defensive body language (there is no doubt that the dog looks unhappy or even angry). The reward that the dog receives after a defensive attack is relief, when the threat goes away or is subdued.
Predatory aggression is something very different. For wild animals, predatory aggression is a means to obtain food. It is so important for survival, that the behaviour patterns associated with hunting - what we call the “predatory motor pattern”, which is:
ORIENT → EYE →STALK→CHASE→GRAB BITE→SHAKE BITE/KILL BITE→DISECT→EAT
are hard wired into the brain and they are extremely rewarding to carry out, even if no food is obtained at the end of the day (cats are a good example of this, as they will continue to hunt, even when they do not wish to eat, because hunting is just so much fun i.e. it causes all sorts of feel good chemicals to rush around the brain). Predatory aggression is not accompanied by a negative emotional state and is often carried out in a very calm and “happy” manner. It is intended to be lethal and usually only stops with the death of the victim.
Through the process of domestication (which is essentially selection for genetic tameness and elimination of a functional predatory motor pattern – both essential for making dogs safer when living with humans), dogs have become primarily scavengers and not predators, but some remnants of this predatory sequence have been retained or even exaggerated where they can be useful for a particular task.
The Border Collie is probably one of the best examples of this: In order to be good herders Border Collies have been selected to have exaggerated EYE→STALK→CHASE behaviours, but the rest of the predatory sequence has been selected out of the breed (obviously a herding dog that mauled sheep would be a problem). Pointers have exaggerated EYE behaviours and flock guarding dogs that live amongst livestock have virtually no predatory behaviours or direct their prey drive onto toys and not living things (which is why the sheep don’t run from them).
Pit Bulls, Staffies and other “Bull-baiting” breeds were selected to kill other animals and each other. The parts of the predatory sequence that have been intentionally retained in these types of dogs is the SHAKE BITE/KILL BITE and sometimes DISECT. In fact, these types of dogs usually go straight from EYE → SHAKE BITE/KILL BITE with none of the other steps in between. This is why they are often said to be unpredictable. 
If one looks carefully at the video footage of the two Pit Bulls attacking the intruder, it is very obvious that they display no signs of defensive body language. They are calm and content in what they are doing. This is not a defensive attack - it is a predatory attack.
Again, you may be saying “so what?”. The reason it is so important to realise this, is that predatory attacks do not discriminate between people who pose a threat to the dog or his family and people who do not pose a threat (and in actual fact, it turns out that the victim in this case was not a hardened criminal, but a scrap collector known in the area). A predatory attack can be carried out on any animal at any time, if the behaviour is triggered. Triggers for predatory aggression include: running away, screaming, waving one’s arms, falling down, limping, having a disability or showing injury of any kind. It is obvious then, why most predatory attacks happen to children – their movements are less certain than adults and they will often run and scream when playing. However, full blown predatory attacks on people are considered to be ABNORMAL domestic dog behaviour of the worst kind. We CANNOT have dogs living in our homes whose natural instinct is to intentionally kill people if the “right” circumstances arise. It is totally unacceptable to have dogs that pose this kind of risk to human beings, because it is only a matter of time before an innocent person falls victim to them.
As a behaviourist and trainer, I have been watching the increase in the popularity of “fighting” breeds with much anxiety. While predatory attacks on humans are thankfully rare (interesting to note though that the majority (59%)of fatalities due to dogs in the US are due to Pit Bull attacks, despite the fact that the breed comprises only 5% of the dog population) the plain fact of the matter is that all fighting breeds were genetically selected for their propensity to grab, shake and kill other animals, including their own kind. My main concern up until now has been the safety of other dogs. While I accept that Pit Bulls can be well-socialised with other dogs, the problem is that predatory aggression has very little to do with socialisation. Again, the different underlying motivations for predatory aggression and defensive aggression must be kept in mind. For sure, a well-socialised Pit Bull may be extremely unlikely to attack another dog defensively (even more so than some other breeds as they are not easily threatened), but again, if a trigger for a predatory attack occurs (other dog runs, limps, yelps or shows fear or defensive aggression), that switch can be flipped in an instant, resulting in the serious injury or death of the other dog.
Returning to the question of dogs serving a protective function, it goes without saying that the inclination to guard territory, things and people is a very useful trait that has been deliberately exploited in the relationship between man and dog. I have no issue with families or individual’s desiring for their dogs to increase home security and personal safety when engaging in outdoor activities (I have three Rottweilers that most strangers view with extreme caution and I certainly don’t take the benefits of that for granted). But then, one must look at obtaining a dog with natural “protective” instincts. While all dogs tend to have some inclination to be wary of things they are not familiar with, we have selected specific types of dogs to be more suspicious of strangers and to guard a boundary more than others. Guardian-type breeds (often descended from flock or livestock guarders) tend to naturally object to strangers entering their property or approaching their family. Most of our “working” group today would fall into this category and one of the main points of the Working Dog Aptitude Test is to see whether a dog does have the ability to respond correctly to a threat i.e. the dog should display defensive aggression when threatened and not run away. It is this quality which is useful for a family dog we wish to have protect us and our homes, because with proper socialisation, the dog will NOT direct aggressive behaviour towards someone who is not a threat, but will still react appropriately when a legitimate threat arises.
What many people don’t realise is that most dogs in the “fighting breed” category are no better than Labradors when it comes to personal protection. In order to be safe for people to handle around the fighting pits, these dogs had to be extremely tolerant of humans. Most are incredibly friendly to people and not very protective of their owners or their property – probably one of the reasons they are so readily stolen. Unfortunately, there are many who abuse these dogs and subject them to all sorts of horrific treatment in an effort to make them distrust all people and in some cases it may “work”. However, a dog that has been forced into defensive aggression through abuse will not be trustworthy with anyone and will not be able to tell a legitimate threat from a person who presents no threat at all.
So what am I trying to say? I am trying to point out that while we may have a legitimate right to keep dogs for personal protection and a reasonable expectation to have our dogs not be harmed for chasing, biting or subduing an intruder, keeping dogs that carry out predatory attacks on human beings, regardless of the circumstances, is totally unacceptable and should not be allowed. If such dangerous traits are admired, selected for in breeding and encouraged, we will end up with a huge increase in deaths to innocent people from these dogs. Further to that, the general public will become increasingly fearful of dogs and they will appeal to the law makers who will end up bringing restrictive dog laws that prevent responsible dog owners from enjoying their dogs as they should have a right to do so, at home and out in public. The next step would be breed specific legislation and dangerous dog acts, like those that exist in many countries around the world. This is a slippery slope, as most people who make these laws do not understand the difference between a truly dangerous dog showing abnormal aggression towards people and a dog showing normal defensive aggression. Under such laws all guardian type breeds, like our own Rottweilers, will also be discriminated against, regardless of the fact they do not share the physiology and predisposition to predatory attacks found in the fighting breeds.
For the good of all dogs and dog owners, please think carefully before you join the shouts of “Paco is a hero”. The owner of these two dogs himself has referred to them as “natural born killers” and is showing no remorse about the death of a man that it now turns out was well known to him. Would you want these dogs living next door to you? Would you want to work in a home where these dogs resided? Would you allow your child to go to a party at that house? Would you want to meet those dogs on your local beach or at the park with your kids? I know what my answer is to that….
Disclaimer: This article is intended for educational purposes only and for the interest and safety of the public. I DO NOT give permission for any pro or anti Pit Bull lobby groups or individuals to use this article, its contents or my name to further their agenda. No portion of this article or my name may be used without my express permission.
 Coppinger, R, Dogs: A New understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution, Chicago, 2001, p 61, 189-211
 Wilkinson, G, Pit Bulls, Off-lead and Animal Behavior, Volume 11, Edition 1, Spring 2010, p30