Friday, January 09, 2009

Do Pit Bulls make safe pets?

Pit Bulls don't get good press.

Don't believe me? Just check out this story, in which a 9 year-old saved a dachshund from a vicious Pit Bull (and a little girl, apparently, but it's difficult for me to get as excited about that.)

The Pit Bull breed has earned itself a fearsome reputation over the years. A crossbreed between the tough, but sedentary English bulldog and the scrappy, aggressive English terrier, they were created during the Victorian era specifically for dog fighting.

In recent years, Pit Bulls have been at the center of an increasing controversy regarding 'dangerous dogs.' The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that a disproportionate number of fatal dog attacks in the United States involve a Pit Bull; making them clearly recognized as the most 'dangerous' dog in America.

Legislation is in place across North America regarding this breed of dog. In places like Winnipeg and Sioux City, Pit Bulls are banned, period. In other places, like Dade country, Florida, or Garfield Heights, Ohio, owning a Pit Bull is punishable by a $1000 fine or sixty days in the county jail. In many other places, all Pit Bulls must be registered as 'vicious dogs' and can be confiscated and destroyed if they go out without an appropriate muzzle and short leash.

Despite that, Pit Bulls continue to be a popular family pet; and breeders and owners are outspoken in their defense of the breed, claiming that the spate of vicious dog attacks isn't the fault of the breed itself, but irresponsible owners who fail to properly train and supervise their dogs.

So are Pit Bulls safe pets to have? Or is this breed inherently dangerous? I've put together popular reasons 'for' and 'against' labeling Pit Bulls as 'dangerous dogs' (these are not my opinions.)

The Prosecution

Pit Bulls are bred as fighting dogs. Like sheep dogs, who have in inherent drive to 'herd,' Pit Bulls have a similar 'genetic memory' instructing them to fight. Their strength, size and muscular build just exacerbate the danger these dogs pose, as what makes them truly 'dangerous dogs' is the fact that they are naturally, unavoidably aggressive in temperament.

What makes this breed even more dangerous is the fact that they tend to be popular with a specific demographic of dog owner. As 'tough, macho' animals, they are often seen as status symbols by similarly aggressive owners, who often cultivate their dog's aggressive behavior or, at the very least, fail to properly train and supervise them.

Given the illegal nature of the breed, many Pit Bulls are bred in underground circles, often linked to activities like dog fighting. This means some of the most aggressive dogs from the most aggressive breed are bred in an overtly aggressive environment. Factor in the commonality of inbreeding with pure-bred dogs (especially when bred underground) and behavioral problems are almost inevitable.

Pure-bred Pit Bulls are a beautiful, graceful breed of dog. However, much like a tiger, or a great white shark, they are inherently dangerous. Unless looked after by a knowledgeable, responsible owner, who takes precautions to protect themselves and the public from their pets, this particular breed poses a danger to any community it lives in.

The size and strength of a Pit Bull make them especially dangerous to children - who are sadly the most common victims of dog attacks.

The Supreme Court of the United States, when the constitutionality of 'dangerous dog' laws was debated, had this to say on the subject:

"Pit Bull attacks, unlike attacks by other dogs, occur more often, are more severe, and are more likely to result in fatalities. The trial court also found that Pit Bulls tend to be stronger than other dogs, often give no warning signals before attacking, and are less willing than other dogs to retreat from an attack, even when they are in considerable pain."

The Defense

Pit Bulls have received the short end of the stick for decades now. This beautiful breed of level-headed, loving dog has been labeled 'dangerous' through fear and ignorance alone.

Pit Bulls came to America during the mid-1800s, brought over largely by Irish and English immigrants to the United States. There, the breed found surprising popularity. They were considered good family pets and Pit Bulls soon became recognized as 'the all-American dog.'

It's only recently that this breed has come to be known as 'dangerous' and this is largely as a result of press hysteria. The dog attacks involving Pit Bulls generally involve animals raised by unqualified owners who failed to exercise the responsibility required to look after any dog, not just a Pit Bull. The dogs weren't to blame for the attacks. The people who raised them were.

If neglected or improperly trained, any dog can be dangerous. It's just unfortunate that the last people who should be owning dogs - the ignorant, neglectful and criminal - often tend to be the people who desire this specific breed the most. Their reputation as 'tough' dogs means they've become icons for 'tough' and overtly aggressive owners.

If this minority of irresponsible owners had favored dachshunds, for example, the news stories might have been very different - with 'weiner dogs' recognized as the most dangerous canine breed in America.

Dogs, like any domesticated animal, are the products of their upbringing. A few really irresponsible people have let a few really terrible things occur and, as a result, the entire Pit Bull breed has been tarred with the same brush. They don't deserve their reputation and make loyal and loving pets if properly raised.

So-called 'vicious' dogs can even be rehabilitated. When NFL player Michael Vick was arrested for running a dog fighting circle, nearly fifty 'fighting' Pit Bulls were rescued from the compound. Forty-nine of these animals were rehabilitated by groups like the "Best Friends Animal Society" and the "Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls" (BAD RAP - as in, what Pit Bulls have.) Almost all of them have been successfully re-homed.

BAD RAP have this to say about Pit Bulls and their reputation for viciousness:
"Like any breed of dog, a healthy pit bull that is properly raised will remain loving and friendly.

In the past 20 years, we've seen some sad examples of poorly bred and badly treated dogs that are the byproducts of irresponsible 'backyard breeders' and cruel and abusive homes. These improperly raised, unsocialized creatures can show temperaments far removed from the traditional authentic pit bull.

Don't confuse these unfortunate misbreds with the huge majority of well-loved dogs in this country that remain solid in temperament, affectionate, trustworthy and friendly to their dying day."

My Opinion

When it comes to the subject of Pit Bulls, I guess my opinion is clear: I'd never own one, especially with a young child to look after.

I spent my entire life growing up around dogs and I think there is some serious weight behind the 'nature or nurture' debate. The nature of a dog, I've come to understand, is largely formed by the upbringing it has. However, there will always be a sort of 'hardwired programming' in specific breeds that makes them behave in inevitable, predictable ways.

A prime example of this is my Border Collie, Tig. Tig was a family dog, raised on a farm but without any experience or training in, herding sheep. However, from the day she arrived on our farm, she was obsessive about herding things.

She'd try herding horses, cows and next door's chickens - but her enthusiasm was especially inflamed by sheep. Whenever she caught sight of my parent's sheep, she'd dart off and start circling them. She didn't know where she was trying to herd them - just that, dammit, that's what she'd do!

This kind of 'genetic memory' defies explanation, but it exists - especially in dogs, who tend to be bred for specific purposes. This is why terriers tend to be snappy and aggressive - because they were designed for killing rabbits - while whippets and greyhounds just love to run. They don't care where they're going, as long as it's at forty-five miles an hour.

This is why I'm utterly convinced that Pit Bulls are inherently more aggressive and dangerous than other breeds of dogs. It's built into their brain chemistry in the same way a cat automatically knows how to land on it's feet. Pit Bulls are fighting dogs and no amount of training will change that.

However, 'nurture' often trumps 'nature.' Domesticated dogs are universally open to obedience and training. The things some owners can make their pets do is astonishing.

In a household with a clearly defined hierarchy (parents and children are higher on the pecking order) and a calm, loving environment, Pit Bulls can spend their entire lives as well-natured, level-headed pets who are a delightful addition to the family. It's only when something 'triggers' a reaction - like jealousy, for example - that a Pit Bull might react aggressively.

And in all honesty, that 'trigger' exists in all breeds of dogs. With their sharp teeth and speed, no breed of dog makes an entirely 'safe' pet. The truth is, however, that the 'trigger' of Pit Bulls is simply a lot shorter than most other breeds. It takes less to trigger aggressive behavior with an 'aggressive' breed of dog than with a sedate pooch such as a bulldog or beagle.

All animals are in some way dangerous. My parents have a cockatoo who could snip your fingers off if you poke them in the cage too far. Part of growing up in a household of animals is learning the due respect and appreciation animals deserve. People with pets are almost universally better 'people persons' than those raised in an animal-free household.

But some breeds of dogs are more dangerous than others - and Pit Bulls are top of that list. There's an old farming expression: "A bull is a bull is a bull"; which refers to the fact that a bull is an inherently dangerous animal and should never be under appreciated. Likewise, even though some responsible owners have lived with generations of Pit Bulls without incident, it's always worth remembering that "A Pit Bull is a Pitt Bull is a Pit Bull."


Coffee Bean said...

My sister-in-law had a pit bull that was the sweetest dog.

However, my in-laws had two deaf dalmations. They paid big bucks to have a dog psycologist train them. The dalmatians got into a fight near me while I was holding my 6 week old baby (#1). I had her on her back on my legs and quickly raised her up to my shoulder as they came crashing at me. I don't know if it was teeth or a claw, but I got a 6 inch long gash on the inside of my thigh which bled quite a bit. From that day on, my husband demanded that the dogs be put up when we visited. Several years later we were visiting and my mother-in-law wanted to have the dogs out and even though she was holding our oldest, one of the dogs attacked her biting her chest and clawing her leg. She was almost 4. My mother-in-law pulled him off her really quick but... my husband had a fit. He also kept telling her whenever he talked to her that she needed to get rid of that dog. They called in the dog psychologist again. Less than 6 months after that incident that dog attacked our niece who was 2 1/2 at the time. He bit her face all around her eye. She had to have multiple surgeries and still has some visible scarring near her eyebrow. My brother-in-law took both dogs and had them put down before our in-laws could say anything about it.

Dogs are animals and you can get a good indication of what kind of temprament they might have by the breed, but it is no guarantee. I would never own a pit bull, a dalmation, a terrier, or a Sharpei.

There have just been too many documented cases of pit bull attacks! My sister-in-law's was a sweetie but one time one of my brother-in-laws saw her at a bank drive-thru and went around to scare her and the dog went for him and only didn't get him because he was blocked by my sister-in-law as the dog tried to jump over her and out the window.

Roland Hulme said...

Golly, CB! You've had ad luck with dogs!

I've heard that Dalmatians can be dangerous - they were bred for running under carriages to fight off highwaymen.

The scary thing is that children are always the most common victim, because for even the largest dog, an adult human is too large for them to be confident attacking.

Mrs Boats said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs Boats said...

I fully agree that different breeds of dogs are much more likely to have different temperaments, and that humans need to respect that as fact.

Humans didn't just pick a dog and start making it herd animals; they found dogs that already did it naturally and focused it. Same thing with fighting dogs, pit bulls among other fighting dogs are naturally more aggressive and incredibly strong and resiliant, which is why they were picked to be fighting dogs.

I'm not saying that all Pit Bulls are bad, certainly not. But you must respect the animal's personality and natural instincts and be prepared to base your life and interactions around that.

I used to live in a home where we had a 150 lb German Shepard/Wolf mix. He was an incredible dog, but we had to keep a constant mind to his natural predatory instincts, and never ever let there be any question as to whom was the Alpha. He was always closely monitored around any small children. Even though he had never bitten anyone, that didn't mean we could presume he wouldn't.

I'm reminded of a fable about a woman and a snake.

The story goes that as a lady was going down the road she saw an injured snake in the ditch and took it home to heal and care for it. Over time it got healthy again and she kept it as a pet. Then one day she surprised the snake when she reached for it and it bit her. Upset, she asked "Why did you bite me?" "I have healed you, taken care of you, fed you, and we have been friends!" "Why oh why did you bite me?!" The snake replied "What did you expect?" "I am a snake."

The point being that you must always remember that your pet is an animal and will behave like one. Expect it and behave accordingly. If you don't have the time and effort to constantly monitor your dog and act as pack leader then you probably shouldn't get one, and certainly not a breed that is naturally more agressive.

Acknowledging breed differences isn't racism, as some people would like it to seem, it's just good sense.

mre30seattle said...

Some of the breeds that get a bad rep are the sweetest dogs.

German Shepards: bad rap, but now loved everywhere.

Dobermans: bad rap and now loved by everyone.

Pitbulls will be the same. I currently know 2 people with pitbulls. They are great dogs and not aggressive at all.

I had a neighbour with one a few years ago that got his as a pup and got it into training right away. That dog was smart and NEVER was aggressive. He was never on a leash either. No reason to be. He obeyed a voice command like a newbie soldier would obey a C.O.

Dogs, guns, name it and it's a dangerous weapon in the hands of an irresponsible person.

Are pitbulls safe pets? Yes. I wouldn't hesitate to own one. I would be more afraid of the small yippy dogs. They are notorius biters. I've had plenty of those types personally and had to warn many about sticking their hands out to my little nippers. It was their nature, not lack of training.

I can relate to a degree with Coffee Bean about Dalmations. They are very territorial and ill temptered. I have a freind that had two of them and they were always locked up when he had visitors and muzzled in public.

Paisley and I just got a dog 2 years ago now. Had to wait until the kids were old enough per the rules of a lot of the pet adoption services here in teh NW. Small kids and dogs are not a good mix most of the time. We have to keep the 3 year old nephew away from little BonJovi (min-pin/terrier/chihuaha) since nephew is so hyper active and scares the hell out BonJovi. He's a dog and has an instinct to protect himself and will regardless. We even had to tell our nephews parents that he can't be around the dog becuase of his behaviour.

No incidents and we want to keep it that way. We're responsible pet owners.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with you. Dogs are bred for specific purposes, and those that are bred to be protectors, like German Shepherds, like to protect.

While I do think that some Pit Bulls can be nice and gentle, I think I'd avoid getting one with the kiddos that I've got. You can never be too safe!

Max-e said...

A south African woman was recently mauled to death by her "faithfull pet" pit bull.... that is not waht I would call a safe pet.
They were bred in Ireland specifically for dog fighting. They totally fearless and unrelenting.
According to one expert on dogs, pit bulls should only be kept as working dogs and kept under strict control, because of their temperament.
I would certainly never own one.

Pat said...

I owuld like for people to look at this that I have posted below. It is a bit about the origin, and info on the Pitbull. I have said before I would not own a pit but here I am, an owner of a pit I rescued. She is a lovebug, is very sweet and GENTLE with the kids. We do NOT leave her unattended with the kids, and my kids know about respecting an animal and giving space when needed.
But this info below will let you know that Pits are not ALL bad, it is irresponsible owners that do not realize or care that they have a powerful dog that even though domesticated, still will have a prey drive.
I would NEVER own a Chow, Akita, Shar Pei, or Chihuahua or a Rottweiler. I have always owned Mastiff breeds and what you all call "protection" dogs (GSD, Dobe).
Hope this info will put a little light on an underdog.
Developed from the Bull and Terrier types of yesteryear, the American Pit Bull Terrier comes from an indisputable history of pit-fighting. The breed's tenacity and accompanying strength are unmatched in the canine world. As rich and captivating as the breed's history is, the Pit Bull's future is more worthy of commentary. Some proponents of the breed argue that this breed is the original bulldog of the past. Old prints and woodcarvings show reason to believe this. They show dogs that look exactly like the breed today, doing things the dog is still capable of doing. For more information on this theory you can read books by Richard F Stratton. The APBT, as registered by the UKC, is an individual breed of dog and does not refer to just any ill-bred, mindless warrior-type mongrel. At one time, the Pit Bull was a much loved, trustworthy companion. People who chose to train these dogs to fight are chiefly responsible for the banning and witch-hunting that has been sweeping the U.S. The media, however, should not go unmentioned, for it is also responsible for escalating isolated incidences in a relentless and attention-getting way. In a lot of cases when the media is reporting about a Pit Bull attacking, it is indeed not even a Pit Bull at all, but a mixed breed of some sort, or another bull breed all together. In fact, one time there was a report on KYW news in Philadelphia about two Pit Bulls attacking a person. I called the news station and asked if they knew the dogs were in fact a purebred American Pit Bull Terriers, or another bull breed of some sort, or a mutt for that matter. They told me they did not know, I would have to call the police station to verify that information. I asked them how they could report something that they were not sure of. They had no answer for me and they were not sure of the dog's breed. Even after admitting that to me on the phone, they kept calling it a Pit Bull. The Pit Bull's future has been perhaps irreparably undone and everyone is to blame except the dog itself. This very loyal dog is too set on pleasing his owner, and ironically this is the root of his own undoing. Accompanying this need to please are remarkable abilities of all kinds. Jack Dempsy, Teddy Roosevelt and Jack Johnson are just a few people who have owned Pit Bulls. Pit Bulls excel in practically every canine task including herding, guarding, hunting, policing, cart pulling and ratting. A Pit Bull, named Banddog Dread, holds more canine working titles than ANY other breed. The owner's name is Diane Jessup and you can reference her book, "The Working Pit Bull." It tells you all of Dread's accomplishments. These dogs are truly capable of many tasks. The difference between Pits and American Staffordshire Terriers is a difficult one. Even breeders can't agree. The main difference is the bloodline. Amstaffs are show dogs and dog fighters won't use dogs with Amstaff blood. As time progresses there will be more of a difference. Many are duel registered as Amstaffs with the AKC and Pits with the UKC.