Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pit bulls- Genetically Doomed to Dog Aggression?

I know, ridiculous title, but it apparently is an actual idea promoted by actual people.  Let me explain...

One of my recently discovered passions is dog literature.  I keep ordering books on dog behavior and training, but upon arrival they just get in line behind my last order of books that I’m not even close to reading.  Essentially anything by Patricia McConnell is on my bookshelf, along with books by other well known trainers and behaviorists.  Right now I’m reading “Fight! - A Practical Guide to the Treatment of Dog-Dog Aggression” by Jean Donaldson.  She is very well known for her book “Culture Clash,” and in general is thought of very highly in the dog training world.  However, she chose to devote a small section in this book to breeds that are bred for dog aggression, specifically pit bulls.  When I had finished reading the few paragraphs, I was left with my mouth hanging open and a swell of anger toward this highly influential individual.  Here is the entire section, nothing is left out.  After I’ll explain why I’m angry, and I’d love to know if you are in agreement, or if I am looking too much into this.

Compulsive fighting

Just as dogs can be selectively bred for exaggerated stalking, which translated into herding or pointing, dogs can be bred for increased aggressiveness to other dogs.  There are various breeds that have been employed in dog fighting at various points in their history, the most well known being the pitbull.  Pitbulls were originally bred for a suite of characteristics that made them excel at fighting: a low threshold for dog to dog aggression, “gameness,” an uncompromising pugnacity that makes a dog willing to fight on rather than retreating in spite of grievous injury, a characteristic body type, and a failure to read aggression cut-off switches from other dogs, so that although the other dog may be doing all the right things to inhibit aggression, a pitbull continues to fight.

Interestingly, although the threshold for dog-dog aggression was bred low, which makes for a high incidence of fighting, the threshold for aggression directed at humans was bred high in the original stock.  What this means is that a game bred dog would be immediately culled if it showed any tendency toward biting people.  The reason was to avoid the risk of redirected bites when owners waded into the fray of a dogfight to retrieve their animals.

Pitbulls who have been randomly bred, or bred for other characteristics, such as size (so called “big head” breeding) or, sadly sometimes, aggressiveness to people, may have none, a little, or a lot of the original game-bred characteristics.  It’s easy to spot some game-bred dogs as they present as extremely scrappy puppies that cannot be left in their own litters for fear of constant fighting.  In other cases, the dog presents normally as a puppy and then starts fighting intensely around age two or three, even in spite of competent socialization efforts.  It’s also important to note that a pitbull without aggression threshold problems might present for dog aggression of another sort, as can any dog.

Now the first two paragraphs are fine.  I would have liked an inclusion that the pit bull was not originally bred for fighting, but for farm use, and this was a change that occurred later on, but it isn’t a huge deal. Yes, pit bulls are ideal for dog fighting for a number of reasons.  Yes, they were bred for a high tolerance toward humans.  Lovely.  However, the third paragraph makes steam come out of my ears!  A pitbull may become dog aggressive at age 2-3 despite an owners best efforts, and with no prior indication!  Any potential dog owner is going to read that and, out of fear of picking a “bad dog,” completely avoid bringing home a pit bull puppy.  It gives other dog owners a reason to fear any pit bull it sees in a social situation such as a park.  To me, she is saying that pits are aggressive genetically, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Yes, she indicates that “gameness” is present at varying degrees, but she never once says that a pit bull can be dog friendly.  That they can go from having poor socialization with other dogs, and learn to interact with them.  That you can successfully raise a well rounded and social pit bull.  In my mind, she is writing the breed off as a lost cause, when as dog professionals it is our job to educate the public about misconceptions.  If she had added a single sentence to make it clear that pit bulls are not destined to fight with other dogs, I would be able to accept it.  But I have a little blue pit sleeping next to me that gets enough judgment and stereotyping from the world.  I don’t need to read about it in a book by a world renown behaviorist who should know better. 

So that’s my take on it.  Am I out of line?  Do you think a first time dog owner would read that and understand that it doesn’t mean every pitbull you walk by, see at the dog park, and meet at the beach?  I certainly hope I’m overreacting, because the last thing this world needs is evidence from Jean Donaldson’s book that pit bulls are aggressive to their core, and cannot be helped.

Because where does that leave Skye?

Careful- I might turn on you!

Oh wait, I can't read, so I don't realize I'm supposed to be aggressive!

All I know is that the fluffy one is in charge.

In other news, Blogger hates me.  I cannot leave comments on other blogs unless I do so as a guest, and even then sometimes they just disappear.  So, fellow bloggers, please bear with me.  I'm reading (and loving!) your posts, but can't seem to communicate it at the moment.  But unless I give up hope and drown my computer out of frustration, I'll figure it out soon.  Promise!

This is also my first time joining the Saturday Pet Blogger Hop- so much fun!


  1. love it, you should shred that book and send it to the stupid author !

    cici is my dog, Dalmatian/ pit bull mix, now 4-1/2 and as vicious as a feather that licks/slobbers who has played with 600+ dogs, the name of my blog post on the blog hop is dogs of a feather, and it is about dog friendly dogs... visit, stay awhile, and leave a comment, am on wordpress, so no worries :-)

  2. Hi Y'all,

    Just hopped by to say "how y'all doin'?"

    You are the second blog in as many days who has said that they are havin' trouble leavin' comments on other words, don't get mad at your computer!

    Y'all come by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

  3. Hi there,
    Kirby and I are stopping by from the blog hop! I too am a fan of Patricia McConnel books. I have a little terrer mix that is dog reactive (probably growls and snarls more than your pittie) :)

    Too bad about the book you quoted. I don't believe in writing off dogs based on their breed, as the book DogTown put it "saying that all pitties are aggressive killers is like saying that all caucasion men are Jeffrey Daumers!" I don't believe that there are bad dogs. I do believe there are bad owners, or ones that don't know how to handle a dog and the result is a dog that doesn't have boundaries, manners etc..resulting in a label as "bad dog."

    Kudos to you for being an advocate for pitties! I volunteer at the local shelter where there are lots of them, so far everyone I've been near would much rather give me kisses than bites.

    Kirby and his mom

  4. That last paragraph is incredibly mis-guided. It fails to mention how environment, training and socialization play a MAJOR part in any dog's tendency to become dog aggressive. I've read statistics that say anywhere from 50% to 80% of dogs bred by dog fighters for only one purpose, to become fighting dogs, refuse to fight and are killed because they were too dog-friendly. Says a lot about genetics vs environment. As a pitbull owner, it's important for me to know that the genetic history of my dog might give rise to characteristics that I, as a responsible dog owner, must look out for and correct if I see them. Sadly, it's my black lab with the dog aggression issues. But it's my pitbull that always gets blamed for my lab's bad behavior. ALWAYS. Thanks for posting this topic - let's get the word out on how most everyone continues to fail to tell the whole Pitbull story!

  5. I can't decide whether I'm more astonished or angry. No, I'm definitely more angry. Words fail.

  6. Unbelievable. Culture Clash was among my top favorite books, now I don't know what to think of Ms. McConnell. Gameness has absolutely NOTHING to do with fighting - it has everything to do with wanting to finish a task directed by his/her guardian. If that meant fighting, fine, but for many modern day pitties, it's positive activities. That's just sheer ignorance on her part. And no, I definitely don't think that you're overreacting. Even I could have been swayed by that last paragraph... which is saying a lot. I'm just glad you and I and the others above me know better.

  7. Skye is gorgeous, and I love the "I can't read, so I don't know I'm supposed to be aggressive" comment. ;)

  8. Thanks guys!! I think I've got my commenting ability up and running again, so I'll be hopping over to your blogs too. Happy Saturday!

  9. Found you on the blog hop, and am now a follower!

    And no, I don't think that you're over reacting. Pits get so much bad press, that it's upsetting to see them getting even more from a dog book of all things, which you would think would least shoot for accuracy. :(

    Love the pics too, btw.

  10. You're not overreacting at all - this is a respected "expert" in her field, and she is painting an extremely bleak, and I believe erroneous, picture of an entire breed/type. I'm angry, too.

  11. Hi Y'all,

    Followed you back to say thank you! and y'alls comment came through just fine!

    Y'all come back now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

  12. Even Culture Clash uses the most extreme language and inflammatory ideas. I agree with Donaldson most of the time, but her adversarial approach does not win as many converts as might a diplomatic approach. Your dog is lovely and trustworthy because you have properly trained and socialized him. Donaldson's position is only that he has a greater genetic potential for aggression to overcome. Just as her dog, a Chow, has been trained and socialized out of his potential for that. She is harsh, but it is also a mistake to thank that different breeds do not have different tendencies. "Respect the breed" is as important as "judge the deed" -- when we do both we will have happy and healthy dogs of all kinds. Just as many breeds (like my own Bullmastiff) have been purposefully bred to be more gentle and family-pet oriented in recent generations, some breeds have at times been bred for aggression. It can and often is overcome, but it is an issue to be addressed. Cheers! --Michael

  13. That was... interesting...

    First, I would have to disagree with her use of the word "game" and the term "game bred" and the implication that a "game" dog is automatically dog aggressive. "Gameness" in a dog means nothing of the sort.

    And, my little girl would beg to differ about suddenly turning dog agressive at 2 years old no matter what kind of socialization is done. My 3 year old, happy pittie is game-bred and dog friendly.


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