I saw it on the news, and I knew within moments the sensational headline would be blowing up my social media feed.
True to form, within a few short hours the line was drawn in the sand–with the advocates obliterating the anti-pit bull movement, and vice versa.
Hate was out in full force.
I scrolled the conversations for a moment before shutting down the computer and walking away. I couldn’t take it. And I didn’t want to get involved. It wouldn’t help anything.
You see, this is something I’m pretty passionate about.
If you didn’t know, my first dog, Koby, was a pit bull (listed as a boxer mix at the rescue where he came from). Most would be surprised to know that they remain one of my all-time favorite breeds, despite the fact that I don’t own one.
Now, I got Koby back in the Rainbows and Butterflies phase of my life, when I firmly believed I should never, “breed or buy while shelter pets die,” when I thought, “love was all I needed to save the world,” and when I would argue until the death that there are, “no bad dogs, only bad owners.”
Inevitably, my cause quickly became pit bulls. My goal: Get a puppy, and use him to show the world about all of the misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding the breed.
Together, we did the opposite.
You see, I happened to choose a little roly poly pit bull pup with drive – and lots of it. At just 10 weeks old, this little heathen walked into my life and completely turned it upside down.
For a while I blamed myself. There were no bad dogs, only bad owners after all. And as I gazed upon the labs, the border collies, and the hounds who behaved like superstars in our group classes, I felt inadequate. I felt like a bad owner, watching my dog’s eyes bugging out of his head, alligator rolling at the end of his leash, trying desperately to get at any dog he saw.
He was friendly and overzealous at first, completely overstimulated in any new environment. But as he matured, he developed some more serious behaviors including a pretty hefty dose of dog aggression.
I felt fully responsible. And no matter how much help I sought, I couldn’t get a handle on his behavior.
Now that time has passed and I’ve gained significant experience with dogs and working breeds, I can reflect and see the error of my ways. Hindsight is 20/20, right?
I know now that my pit bull was never destined to be an eager lab or a lazy hound. It had nothing to do with how I raised him. He was strong and powerful, drivey and intense. And that was his genetics. It was part of who he was.
But no one was talking about that.
Now before you go jumping to conclusions, no, I’m not about to tell you that pit bulls are bad dogs because of their genetics. I’m not here to tell you pit bulls can’t be therapy dogs, can’t snuggle with kids, and can’t go to dog parks. Remember, I absolutely adore the pit bull “breed.” And I certainly do not believe in breed specific legislation. I don’t want to see all pit bulls banned or put to death.
That said, I believe strongly that if we don’t dispel the propaganda designed to save the breed by pulling the wool over really great dog owners’ eyes, we are doing the breed as a whole a disservice.
Here are a few of the common arguments I see that are hurting this breed (and many others), rather than helping it.
Aggression Comes From Trauma – I hear it all the time. In fact, I just read it on a very well known pit bull advocacy website. Heck, I even believed it back when I had Koby. Dogs don’t become aggressive unless you abuse them. Or unless they’ve had a serious trauma. I mean, it makes sense, right? Why else would a perfectly lovable dog go bad?
Koby was my first lesson otherwise.
I had him since he was 10 weeks old, and prior to there was no trauma. We enrolled in only positive training schools, and he had never experienced so much as a raised tone in his entire life. He bit his first person when he was 9 months old, before we had even explored using aversives in our work. And he began displaying dog aggression when he turned a year old.
After much self-pity and blame fueled some serious education and experience, I now know that aggression can come from a number of factors, including over stimulation, excitement, and mismanagement. Not only that, but it can be genetically inherited. It isn’t just abuse or trauma that causes aggression to crop up.
The same holds true for any breed of dogs – this isn’t pit bull specific.
It’s All in How You Raise Them – Our dog’s genetics set the stage for their behavior. In fact, a good chunk of our dog’s behavior comes from who they are, their bloodlines, and their breed. Not how much they are loved in their home environment. Even with the best training, my Malinois, Shank, will never be a squishy lab I can let kids crawl all over. It isn’t how he was raised. Being squishy isn’t in his genetic makeup.
I want to share a story that will drive the point home. I have three dogs. They are all brothers, all with the same parents, one who is 6 months older than the rest and came to me later in his life. I also personally know one of the other brothers; I’ve watched him grow up.
All of the dogs, except the two I raised together, were raised very differently, with different rules and home environments. All four developed resource guarding behaviors at a young age. All four are very vocal, all four can bark for days, and all four have a propensity for separation anxiety.
Now you could argue that puppyhood created these behaviors. Maybe it was something the breeder did. But I can assure you that is not the case, as I have raised and/or personally trained 10+ dogs from the same breeder. And these four are the only ones exhibiting those behaviors. Genetics play a MAJOR role in our dog’s behavior and development.
Pit bulls will always be pit bulls. Malinois will always be Malinois. Shepherds will always be Shepherds.
Are there lazy and uber sweet Malinois? Are there aggressive labradors? Are there pit bulls who are dog friendly? Absolutely. But is it wise to assume all of these dogs are this way when their breed characteristics say otherwise? Nope.
Genetics matter. More than anything, genetics matter. And genetics are something we cannot neglect.
I wish I would have known this all those years back when I looked upon the lazy labs nailing their sessions in group classes, while my dog foamed at the mouth.
Socialization is the Key – This one is one of my favorites. If you haven’t read my take on socialization, you can do so here. But the prevalent argument says something like, “if you socialize a dog early on with other dogs, they won’t develop aggression. And if you socialize them with people, the same holds true.”
Remember, genetics matter. And aggression doesn’t always come from fear or trauma.
I’ve trained predominantly aggressive dogs for over a decade. And in fact, over-socialization with other dogs in an uncontrolled setting, like the dog park or at doggy daycare, was the leading cause for dog aggression and reactivity, popping up in dogs who were predisposed to it. Perhaps it was a bad experience, perhaps it was too much of the wrong energy, perhaps it was pack mentality, perhaps it was creating too much desire to play, perhaps it was just a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Whatever the cause, it was nearly always the dogs who frequented the dog park or daycare that came to me for help.
I’m going to tell you something that may not win me any fans. But here’s a bit of tough love. Dogs don’t need help learning how to be dogs. If they had any time with their littermates and mom, even if you don’t think it was enough, your dog doesn’t need to learn how to be a dog and how to interact with dogs. In fact, I hate to break it to you, but even if they don’t have much exposure, they know how to “speak dog” better than you do anyways.
Listen, the more you try to intervene and force the issue, the more structure you put into your dog’s communication with other dogs, the more you believe you know more about being a dog than your dog does, and the more you toss your dog into uncontrolled group settings, the more you are going to screw things up.
So getting them around a bunch of dogs in an effort to socialize them, unless you really know what you are doing, will likely only make them more “doggy” and distracted by their canine counterparts, while increasing your risk of something going awry. It doesn’t stop genetics. It isn’t going to prevent aggression. If your dog is genetically hardwired to be aggressive towards other dogs, they will be aggressive towards other dogs. All you can do is manage it. Be prepared for it. Train for it. But first, you have to get honest with yourself: this is something you may have to face with a strong breed, that you can’t love out of your dog, and that you need to be ready for.
Here’s the thing. Three pit bulls attacked and killed a small dog. The entire story is tragic and devastating. The owner did not have control of his dogs, and as a result they lost their lives, as did the small dog who was their victim.
This isn’t getting sensationalized because it was pit bulls. Had it been any other dog, the story still would have made headlines.
But the thing is, it wasn’t another breed.
Here’s the honest truth: A pack of basset hounds in the same situation likely wouldn’t have had a similar outcome. A pack of border collies would have handled things differently.
But it wasn’t a pack of either of those breeds. It was three pit bulls. Strong dogs who are characteristically known for dog aggression.
If we want to save pit bulls, we have to get honest about genetics. We have to be completely up front in saying serious dog aggression is a risk you run in this breed. And we have to be honest in that these are strong and very powerful dogs – you can’t take owning them lightly.
We need to equip owners with the correct tools for preventing unwanted behaviors, and we need to educate them about the breed, about containment, and about environmental management. And we need to stop being so judgmental and nasty to dog owners who are trying their best, but who need our help. We have to stop painting them as monsters and painting dogs as saints.
The same goes for other strong breeds. We’ve got to get painfully honest about the good and bad in all dog breeds, so we can properly educate and prepare dog owners for what’s in store. So we don’t leave them feeling inadequate. And so we give them a safe place to come for help.
More than anything, we’ve got to stop mislabeling strong dogs in shelters to make them more adoptable. Pit bulls aren’t “Lab Mixes,” just like Malinois aren’t “Collie Mixes.” Pit bulls are spectacular dogs. We need to own their “breed.” We need to be proud of it. And we need to be honest with dog owners about what they are getting so that we set them up for success. That means sharing with them the good and the bad. Preparing them for potential pitfalls.
Are there absolutely spectacular pit bulls out there? Therapy dogs? Detection dogs? Family pets? Social butterflies? Yep. You bet. But before you run to the shelter to adopt the biggest, blockiest head dog you can find, get yourself fully prepared for the drive level, the sensitivity, the other animal aggression, and the packiness that is typical of the breed–and know that dog parks might not be in your future, despite your best efforts at socialization. And find someone with experience with the breed, who understands strong dogs with drive (if they don’t know what drive is, move on and find someone who does), that can help you get your dog off on the right foot.
Until we face genetics head on, until we are really honest about who pit bulls are, and until we educate people about their strengths and weaknesses, people will adopt them thinking they can love the genetics out of them. That if they struggle, they are bad owners, and if they socialize them, they will never be aggressive with other dogs.
Our dogs, whether they be pit bulls, basset hounds, or border collies, are a direct result of their genetics. We don’t do anyone any favors when we ignore them.