These words are from the official United Kennel Club breed standard for the Pit Bull:
“The essential characteristics of the American Pit Bull Terrier are strength, confidence, and zest for life. This breed is eager to please and brimming over with enthusiasm. APBTs make excellent family companions and have always been noted for their love of children. Because most APBTs exhibit some level of dog aggression and because of its powerful physique, the APBT requires an owner who will carefully socialize and obedience train the dog. The breed’s natural agility makes it one of the most capable canine climbers so good fencing is a must for this breed. The APBT is not the best choice for a guard dog since they are extremely friendly, even with strangers. Aggressive behavior toward humans is uncharacteristic of the breed and highly undesirable. This breed does very well in performance events because of its high level of intelligence and its willingness to work. The American Pit Bull Terrier has always been capable of doing a wide variety of jobs so exaggerations or faults should be penalized in proportion to how much they interfere with the dog’s versatility.”
And, from the American Kennel Club standard for the American Staffordshire Terrier (originally, these were considered the same breed):
“The American Staffordshire Terrier should give the impression of great strength for his size, a well put-together dog, muscular, but agile and graceful, keenly alive to his surroundings. He should be stocky, not long-legged or racy in outline. His courage is proverbial.”
Why is this breed currently so reviled in the media, and in danger of being banned in many locations across the country? The answer lies in what is directly stated in the breed standard – many of them are aggressive toward other dogs. Historically, these dogs were used for so-called “blood sports”, such as bull baiting and dog fighting, and they still retain a certain “gameness”, which makes them good at sports like agility and weight pulling. The problem that most frequently gets them in trouble is that many of them still retain dog aggressive tendencies, since their use in blood sport is so recent, genetically speaking, and has not been selected out yet, but they may not exhibit it as puppies or young adults. Trainers often comment “the switch goes off” at a certain point in early adulthood, usually between the ages of 1 and 3. It is this “late bloomer” aspect of the Pit Bull nature that fools people into thinking that their dog is ok with other dogs, and they can let their Pit Bull off leash, or take it to the dog park, and not worry. And, the persistent myth that “it’s all in how you raise them”, is accidentally perpetuated by Pit Bull aficionados who are trying so desperately to save their beloved dogs from breed specific legislation. While it is certainly possible to train a dog to pay attention to its handler, and to restrain itself from acting on its own, such training does not completely overcome genetics, so there will always be a necessity to manage ANY dog’s environment so that it does not become a nuisance. Some Pits do play nicely with others all their lives, but that is never a given. Even the best-socialized and trained dog may end up with the genes that say “dog aggressive”. This is a breed that requires a committed, responsible owner, and not an owner who uses the dog as an extension of his machismo.
Dog to dog aggression, and dog to human aggression are usually separate behaviors in dogs, although they can occasionally occur together. Unfortunately, dog aggressive dogs can, and do, redirect aggression onto humans when in an aroused state. It is critical, through socialization and training, to convince dogs of this breed, from an early age, that humans are above them in the chain of command (this does not require harsh training, or punishment – just “how to” knowledge, consistency, and the adoption of a “nothing in life is free” protocol that teaches deference to humans). In the world of dogs, true leaders seldom need to become argumentative – subordinates offer deference on their own. In fact, there is evidence that correction based training or harsh management tools are not appropriate to use on a dog that shows either aggression or timidity.
Whenever a dog breed becomes popular, backyard breeders, puppy mills, Internet puppy mills, and pet stores try to take advantage of it to make a profit. But, the experienced, reputable breeder makes every effort not to place dogs in inexperienced hands, and to offer knowledge, support, and a lifetime guarantee that the dog can be returned if an owner can no longer care for it. They do not sell pet dogs without a written spay/neuter contract, and they try to participate in, and encourage buyers to participate in legitimate sports and activities, such as obedience, agility, Rally obedience, or weight pulling.
Breed ban legislation is the knee jerk reaction to the proliferation of incidents caused by the mass market getting hold of these dogs and not managing them improperly, but the solution to the “Pit Bull problem” does not lie with bans or “muzzle in public” laws. Should a Pit Bull therapy dog be snatched from her owner and euthanized, or required to go on visits to nursing homes or schools with a muzzle on? Such solutions lay the blame on the dogs, when the real fault is with the humans.
Leash laws already exist, and dangerous dog legislation that beefs up penalties, and lays the blame squarely on owners, not a particular breed of dog are likely more helpful than knee jerk solutions that punish responsible owners of well trained and well managed dogs. Local enactment and enforcement of leash laws is critical – when was the last time a properly confined, or leashed, dog bit someone? Golden Retrievers, another popular breed, are on the “bite list” these days a lot more than they used to be. Should we ban one of the most beloved family breeds in America? Even when bans are enacted, owners of other breed mixes are horrified to learn that their dogs can be wrested from them if the animal control officer even thinks it’s a Pit Bull. So, Dogo Argentinos, Bull Terriers, Boxers, and mixes of those and other breeds, are not safe. In addition, owners of American Staffordshire Terriers and American Pit Bull Terriers are increasingly unwilling to transport their dogs to shows and competitive events, fearing that they might accidentally cross into a jurisdiction where their dogs could be confiscated, at a time when their participation in legitimate dog events is one aspect of ownership that should be encouraged, not discouraged. No innocent, responsible dog owner should have to live with such fear. To compound the issue of identification, most veterinarians, animal control officers, and victims of dog bites, have a hard time with that. The reader can try his or her own luck in really being able to tell which dog is a Pit Bull by taking the “Find the Pit Bull” Test online. (http://www.pitbullsontheweb.com/petbull/findpit.html).
With many shelters and rescues trying to save dogs’ lives by adopting Pit mixes out as “Lab mix” or “Boxer mix” or “anything-but-Pit” mix, the ability to identify “bully breeds” is even more muddied. Even if the dog has been temperament tested as non-aggressive and adoptable, the adopter deserves the truth, so that the dog can be properly managed according to its breed characteristics, whatever they are. For example, if someone adopts a Border Collie mix, it’s important to teach it not to herd and nip children. Prospective adopters of Pit Bull mixes deserve accurate information, too, even if it means that they pass on taking the dog.
Applying band-aid solutions to the dangerous dog problem, that target dogs and responsible owners, may not be the best long-term solution. An effective dangerous dog law targets irresponsible human behavior, which is at the real root of the problem. Dogs that are properly socialized, trained, controlled, confined, spayed or neutered, and leashed rarely bite anyone. Enforcement of the dog laws should be taken seriously and applied to ALL breeds of dogs and their owners. And, all dog owners whose dogs are accused of exhibiting aggression should be afforded the opportunity to seek help from a qualified Ph.D. level or Veterinarian Behaviorist, who can assess the likelihood that the dog can, or can’t, be treated medically or rehabilitated. Animal Control Officers are great at what they do, and have a thankless, and many would say under-respected and underpaid, job, but they are not behaviorists, yet are often the arbiter of dog behavior for selectmen, mayors, and judges.
Failure to get a handle on the human behavior that leads to dogs being placed in situations they should not have to handle will result in the loss of the likes of “Petey” of “The Little Rascals”, “Neville” a bomb sniffing dog for the Seattle Police Department (rescued from the Ontario, Canada Pit Bull ban), and Pit that was Helen Keller’s faithful companion. But if we cannot get a handle on the human problem, hundreds of responsible owners will be heartbroken at losing a best friend, and the thugs who think that it’s fine to conduct themselves irresponsibly will just go underground, or on to a new breed. Socialization, training, spay/neuter, and management – is the solution.
Anne Springer ©2007