Pit Bulls - just like any other dog?
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.
While the pro-Pit Bull lobby has done much to very successfully persuade the public that Pit Bulls are like any other dogs and that their temperament is simply determined by how you raise them, many experienced dog behaviourists and trainers do not agree. Certainly my understanding of dog behaviour (through many years of study) and my experience dealing with the breed in training classes, consultations and work at a local shelter has convinced me that Pit Bulls are at far higher risk for abnormally aggressive behaviour towards other dogs.
As important as environment may be, genetics do have an influence on behaviour. Most dog breeds we have today were originally selected not for their looks, but for a particular type of “work”. Humans selected (through preferential treatment, selective breeding and culling) behaviour patterns which were useful for a particular function e.g. herding or retrieving. The main behaviour pattern which has been altered through selective breeding is the “predatory motor pattern” - the behaviour pattern that enables a predator to hunt and kill prey:
ORIENT → EYE →STALK→CHASE→GRAB BITE→SHAKE BITE/KILL BITE→DISSECT→EAT
Through the process of domestication (essentially selection for genetic tameness), 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 (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 retained in these types of dogs is the SHAKE BITE/KILL BITE and sometimes DISSECT. 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.
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. While Staffies and Bull Terriers have subsequently had the benefit of 100 years of selective breeding as pets and not as fighters (which has changed their genetics for the better), Pit Bulls have virtually no history of being bred as pets and so do not have this advantage. To say that Pit Bulls won’t be inclined to fight and do damage when they are triggered is like saying that Border Collies raised right won’t be inclined to herd! As well-known clicker trainer Gary Wilkes says: “To assert that Pit Bulls are only aggressive if you train them to attack is to deny the existence of every other behaviour-specific breed on the planet… try telling a hunter that he paid $10 000 for a finished field pointer that had to be taught to point. He’ll laugh at you!”
The following has to be kept in mind:
No one is saying that a lot of Pit Bulls can’t be “successfully” socialised with other dogs. Many socialised from puppyhood are very friendly and outgoing with other dogs. The problem arises if and when fighting behaviour is triggered. Even if the Pit Bull does not start the fight, getting into conflict with another animal will often trigger their “grab, shake and kill” response.
“Normal” dogs engage in “ritualised” forms of aggression when they come into conflict. This involves lots of noise, but no real damage. However, when Pit Bulls fight they engage the shake-bite/kill-bite part of the predatory sequence with often fatal or near fatal results. There is seldom time to intervene to rescue the other dog before serious damage is done.
When Pit Bulls engage in a fight, far from this inducing an aversive state of mind (most dogs are in a defensive, survival mode during fights), opioids and dopamine are released in their brains making them feel really good - this feeling is so pleasurable that they will often seek out this behaviour again. In the same way that a border collie is built to feel really good when herding sheep, Pit Bulls are built to feel really good when fighting.
Due to the opioid release during fights, Pit Bulls do not feel pain and so fight on regardless of injury - trying to stop a fight is incredibly difficult.
When “normal” dogs fight, they usually respond to appeasement behaviour from their “opponent” i.e. as fighting is not designed to kill, but to resolve conflict without serious harm, one dog may “give in” and display behaviour which will cause the other dog to back off. Pit Bulls do not respond to appeasement behaviour during fights as this would have been counterproductive in the fighting pits and has been bred out of them.
In my experience Pit Bulls have a very low reactivity threshold - this means that stimuli at low intensities which would be ignored by other dogs are often triggers for aggressive behaviour in the breed. They also have very high arousal levels - they become physiologically aroused very quickly and to extreme levels.
The above pertains to the breed’s interactions with other dogs. With regards to humans, many Pit Bulls are sweet and devoted pets. However, I know of a significant number owners who have ended up with extreme injuries (hospitalisation) due to being caught in the middle of fights. I also have very serious reservations about the breed with small children: Dogs with a very low reactivity threshold and high arousal levels may be triggered into a predatory reaction by the sounds of children screaming and the sight of them running during normal child play, resulting in grabbing, biting and shaking. A few months ago I had a call from a distraught owner with regards to an incident of this nature involving an 8 month-old Pit Bull, despite the fact that the dog had been loved and raised in a good family (with kids) since a pup. The fact is that 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.
One of the huge problems is actually the fact that the breed is extremely friendly and when well-socialised they are usually quite tolerant and very sweet. What people don’t realise is that the danger does not lie in the fearful, defensive under-socialised Pit Bull (as is so often the case with other breeds), it lies in the dog who will be triggered not into defensive behaviour, but into a predatory/fighting behaviour which is enjoyable and carried out in a happy state of mind - therefore a happy, outgoing dog is in this case no guarantee that one will not have a problem. In fact, due to the sociable nature of the dogs and apparent easy-going temperament, Pit Bulls are often put into situations which they are not equipped to handle - this is how so many tragedies occur.
Because of my stance on the breed, I have often been accused of prejudice and of having a personal dislike for the breed. However, it must be noted that the very people who are devoted to the breed and have the most experience with them (Pit Bull Federation of SA and Underdogs SA - involved in showing, breeding and rescuing Pit Bulls) have much the same thing to say. In a recent joint article published in the Journal for the South African Board of Companion Animal Professionals, PBFSA and Underdogs SA had the following to say about their own beloved breed:
“.. The breed’s genetics cannot be denied or disregarded and this can go wrong at any time. Owners, trainers and other professionals working with these dogs always need to keep the breed’s propensity for animal aggression in mind… Disregarding the breed’s genetics and history has in many cases lead to attacks on other animals….
In the rescue and shelter situation…. it is safer to assume that the dog could be animal aggressive and shelters should take caution not to rehome the dog with any other animals… owners (should be) aware that they cannot leave their new dog unsupervised with other animals and that at any given time their new dog may not be able to live with their existing pets…..
With the increase in popularity has come a new unrealistic view of the breed and with it came the term “Petbulls”. According to those who hold this view the APBT is a loveable couch potato, but it disregards the breed’s genetics…. Proponents of the “Pet Bull Myth” believe that through training, socialisation and environment, the breed’s high prey drive and animal aggression can be eliminated and these dogs can live in harmony with all other animals without any caution being taken. WE ARE OF THE BELIEF THAT THIS IS A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY. GENETICS CANNOT BE UNTAUGHT AND WHEN THINGS GO WRONG THERE IS CARNAGE AND OFTEN THE OTHER ANIMALS ARE KILLED… We are of the opinion that the Pet Bull Myth sets these dogs up for failure.”
In the last week alone I have heard of 3 confirmed attacks by Pit Bulls in the Cape. Two resulting in fatalities to other dogs and one a serious injury to a person. I cannot count the number of phone calls that I have received from distraught people whose Pit Bulls were “absolutely fine with other dogs” until they killed the neighbour’s dog or mauled another dog in the family, often after many years of being apparently well-socialised.
It is time that dog lovers took off their blinkers, put aside political correctness (it is almost as though the breed has become a symbol of the oppressed, misunderstood underdog and the fight against prejudice)and faced up to reality. Pit Bulls are not “bad” dogs, but they are what WE have designed them to be and so have certain limitations. To deny this or pretend otherwise is foolish and only leads to tragedy.
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, p29 http://www.off-lead.com/spring2010/frames/spring10_frame.html?utm_source=Listrak&utm_medium=Email&utm_term=http%3a%2f%2fwww.off-lead.com%2fspring2010%2fframes%2fspring10_frame.html&utm_content=GSDGUARDIAN%40GMAIL.COM&utm_campaign=Off-Lead+Spring+Issue+Now+Online
COAPE, Practical Aspects of Companion Animal Behaviour and Training 2011, Module 3
Semyonova , A, Heritability of Behavior in the Abnormally Aggressive Dog, http://www.scribd.com/doc/14810086/Heritability-of-Behavior-in-the-Abnormally-Aggressive-Dog-by-A-Semyonova
Wilkinson, G, Pit Bulls, Off-lead and Animal Behavior, Volume 11, Edition 1, Spring 2010, p30
Pit Bull Federation of South Africa & Underdogs SA, American Pit Bull Terriers, SABCAP Journal, December 2013