By Sarah Dykes
Published: March. 10, 2013
Pit bulls have been back in the news again here in British Columbia – over the summer, there were three highly publicized bites to children, which has once again raised the question: Are they inherently dangerous?
The media reports are filled with emotionally laden terminology – “vicious”, “unpredictable”, “inherently aggressive/dangerous”, “bred to kill.”
As someone who sees a lot of pit bulls for training and behavior, I think it’s time to shed a little light on pit bull behavior.
Pit bulls communicate just like other dogs
Pit bulls act like other dogs – when they are stressed, they may lick their lips, yawn, turn away from whatever is stressing them out.
These signals let us know that the dog is uncomfortable and would like the scary person/ scary dog/ scary pylon to please go away. Guess what?
Other breeds do these things as well, and these sorts of signals precede bites, whether we or the media want to talk about it or not.
Pit bulls love people
Now, just because human loving is part of the breed doesn’t mean you can shove your new pit bull puppy in the backyard for the first 6 months of life and then bring him out to your cousins’ wedding and expect everyone to have a great time.
All breeds of puppies need to be socialized during the socialization period (6-16 weeks of age, approximately) and puppies need to meet strangers of all shapes and sizes.
Also, not all dogs fit the “breed standard” – there are border collies that don’t herd, golden retrievers that don’t retrieve, and pugs that don’t snort.
If you happen to have a pit bull that is shy or fearful, get yourself to a pit bull friendly, dog trainer…. now.
Pit bulls are easy to train
A recently published study tackled this issue: will dogs & wolves work for social reinforcement or is food better?
The general consensus was that dogs prefer food as a reward, but the one pit bull mix continued to perform at a high performance rate just for social interaction.
On the flip side of this, easy to train means easy to train for socially unacceptable behaviors as well.
There are people out there who do train their dogs, including their pit bulls, to be aggressive.
Pit bulls often have dog friends!
Pit bulls also have a reputation as being “dog aggressive”, no matter what.
There are famous dog trainer types who won’t work on pit bull aggression because they feel aggression is “hard wired” into pit bulls.
All behavior has a genetic and environmental component – all behavior, no exceptions.
There are a couple of interesting studies/observations from veterinary behaviorists supporting that there is a “nurture” aspect to this interspecies aggression.
The Missouri 500 was one of the largest dog fighting raids in the US.
The ASPCA wasted no time in using this population for behavioral research, including measuring the aggression in puppies and juvenile dogs from champion female fighters.
They found these puppies no more aggressive than puppies from litters of non-champion fighting bitches, both in testing them with fake, stuffed dogs, litter mates, and non-litter mates of similar age.
Experts a lot of training and conditioning (both athletic and behavioral) went into making the dog aggressive towards other dogs, beginning at a very young age (during the critical socialization period).
Does this mean it’s all in how a pit bull is raised?
No, but that has a component to it as does the temperaments of the mother and father and the stress the mother experiences while the puppies are in utero.
So there it is – the truth about pit bulls and their behavior.
(Sarah Dykes is a trainer with Bad Dogs Gone Good Dog Training Services)