The American Pit Bull:
By: Diane Jessup
The American pit bull is an old breed, with a storied history, but it is only in the past three decades that the breed has become directly associated with “attack dog” training and worse—with attacks which result in human fatalities.
Media reports concerning “guard dogs” prior to the mid eighties had few if any reference to the American pit bull. During the “guard dog fad” of the 1970’s pit bulls were conspicuously absent from the breeds chosen or listed as good candidates for protection dogs. The breed was known as a family watchdog; advertisements in game dog magazines going back more than a century mentioned the prowess of the breed as a “watch dog” at the same time proclaiming them the “best pal a kid can have”. Louis Colby described to me his childhood spent playing with nearly a dozen sisters and brothers in a yard crowded with some of the gamest and most respected fighting pit dogs of that era. None of the children were ever bitten. (Which also goes to prove that tethering itself does not make a dog mean, a myth often quoted as fact.)
For centuries the American pit bull remained what he was genetically selected to be: an easy going, people loving animal with his strong prey drive directed toward other animals. Just one of many breeds of dog bred by man to consider other animals as prey—but gentle with humans. (Almost houng and terrier breeds were bred with the intent of finding and brutally killing, if possible, their prey).
So today why does the media report attacks on human beings by dogs identified (rightly or wrongly) as American pit bulls never as "a terrible accident” but rather as if it was the most natural thing in the world? When and how did the name “pit bull” come to represent the public’s image of a “vicious dog”?
How It Started
It is also a documented fact that the American pit bull was not a “human aggressive breed” prior to 1980. In Karen Delise’s book Pit Bull Placebo she lists reported dog attacks during the period of 1960 through 1975. Only one fatal pit bull attack was reported nationwide, during those 15 years; in 1965 a chained dog in Utah killed a four year old child. For comparison, the other breeds involved in fatal attacks that same year included a mongrel, a Siberian husky, a Labrador retriever, a chow, a "show” type bulldog and a German shepherd.
Like any breed, the history of the American pit bull has been marred now and then by the occasional mentally unsound dog. But for two modern developments and their impact on the American pit bull, our dogs may have been spared the holocaust of negative popularity and an undeserved association with man biting.
The first: modern techniques have made popular stud dogs far more widely available to the public than ever before. Where once a winning stud might be utilized only in his corner of the country, chilled and frozen semen and the availability of shipping bitches nationwide has produced “super studs” whose offspring form the foundation of “lines” of pit bulls carrying the renown dog’s name and genetics. It can be argued that is was unfortunate for our breed this availability of stud dog use coincided with the arrival of two pit bull studs who were to be the basis of some widely popular and numerically significant "lines”. Both were notorious man-biters.
When those in control of dangerously unsound dogs put money and ego ahead of the overall good of the breed we all suffer. On the opposite end of the spectrum I have seen sincere fanciers purchase human aggressive dogs solely to euthanize the dogs and get them out of circulation for the betterment of the breed. These folks are true breed stewards, who put the breed ahead of their own advancement.
Because temperament is founded in a dog’s genetics, it would be difficult to argue the effect that unsound breeding stock can have on our dogs. For the American pit bull it is possible that these two studs and their numerically significant offspring were just a first step in the journey to negative popularity. Yet even the damaging effect of their poor genetics could have been put right—in time - by serious breeders if not for the overwhelming damage done by the second modern development to impact our breed: the internet and the ease with which unscrupulous breeders could do business.
A breed developing sudden and intense popularity is not new, not by a long shot. As far back as people have kept domestic canines as status symbols, certain types of dog have taken their turn as “it”. It’s hard to say what thrusts a breed into the limelight, but more often than not a specific breed will come to be seen as essential to “making a statement” about the owner’s lifestyle, be it “gangsta” or “yuppie”.
Popularity for dog breeds is cyclic, running in 10 to 30 year periods for the most part, and can be tracked quite plainly. For those interested in the fads of the past 150 years, you will find Karen Delise’s excellent book The Pit Bull Placebo a fantastic reference work. The fad which gripped America in the 1970’s and into the early 80’s was the “guard dog” fad. This fad saw the rise of the Doberman to number two in American Kennel Club registration, as well as the quick rise of the relatively rare Rottweiler to “fad” status as well. Guard dog training schools flourished and large ads in magazines like TIME offered trained adult Dobermans or German shepherds to protect the affluent family from “rape, robbery and murder”.
Too much hype about dogs and breeds which did not meet inflated expectations and rising concerns about liability spelled a quick end to the trained attack dog fad. But society will always produce those looking for the ultimate “tough dog” to enhance their image or make them feel safe. And a mistaken connection between “tough” and “man biter” was about to be made.
A few late 70’s early 80’s magazine articles on dog fighting caught the nation’s attention. Part of the interest was that most people consider themselves “dog experts” to one degree or another, but here was a breed (the American pit bull) and an activity (dog fighting) that almost no one, not even recognized dog experts, knew anything about. Humane groups jumped on the media reports of dog fighting like wolves on raw meat, realizing the fundraising potential and sensing, perhaps the breed’s one weakness: American pit bulls did not have “official status” with the American Kennel Club (initiating epic misinformation concerning the breed’s true status as a pure, registered breed) and the breed suffered from the absence of a strong, cohesive base of fanciers willing and able to step forward and protect the pit bull from growing hysteria fomented by “experts” who knew nothing of the breed. Instead, those looking for tougher and tougher guard dogs heard about these small, unassuming looking pit dogs who could fight for hours in horrific displays of gameness the likes of which made the “toughest” German shepherd or Doberman look like a kitten. The mistaken assumption that the prey drive and gameness which made a pit bulldog tackle a one thousand pound bull with a wagging tail would equate to toughness and aggression toward humans was made. Tough they were—but not in the sense that those used to training continental European guardian breeds could understand.
Man Biting Understood
Three scenarios will make these behavior basics clear. I have chosen to use lions as most people have witnessed (via television) these mammals in all three drives.
DOMINANCE: Male lion “A” is snacking on a zebra calf carcass. As dominant male, it is his right to eat undisturbed. Young adult male lion “B” from his pride walks deliberately into lion “A”’s space dropping down to eat from the carcass. Lion “A” understands the challenge behind “B”’s intrusion and, roaring, leaps across the kill and into immediate battle with “B”. The fight is serious, each lion doing its best to both intimidate and also injure the other. After several bites are inflicted the younger “B” ends up on the bottom, and both animals are still. “A”, on top, roars, but restrains from biting for the moment. “B”, body language plainly signaling his defeat, breaks away and lops off. Lion “A” continues his meal.
PREY: Lion “A”, roused by hunger, sets off with his small pride to find prey. They go very quietly, and when they spot a herd of zebra they become even quieter, slinking through the grass in a stop-and-go stalk. Their heads drop and they seem mesmerized. The closer they get to their prey, the less noise and movement they make. At last they are close enough and they charge, with lion “ A” working to cut off a particular zebra. The attack is silent and there is no threat display—for noise and threat have no part in capturing prey; it would only frighten it away. Lion “A” races in, leaping and getting claws into the fleeing animal’s backside. The zebra is a large, powerful animal in its own right, and strikes back with powerful hind legs, causing severe pain to the lion’s unprotected abdomen. The lion hangs on, and his size forces the zebra to stumble and fall, and in moments the beast is gripped by lionesses. Lion “A” releases his hold on the animal’s back and grips it tightly and calmly by the lower neck, shutting off its air. All the lions are calmly holding, there is no noise, no apprehension in their movements. They are in control, and they know it.
DEFENSE: Male lion
“A”, observes an unknown lion “C” approaching
his territory. “A” becomes tense and gets up, scenting to
try and establish if lion “C” is a pride member, male or
female. When lion “C” continues to approach, lion “A”
is flooded by a desire to repel this male intruder and goes out to meet
him, roaring loudly and lashing his tail. The two lions engage in threat
displays (roaring, erect mane, lashing tail, rising up and swiping with
paws) hoping one or the other will back down. Neither really wants to
attack—or they would have already! Finally lion “A”
realizes that lion “C” won’t leave with just threat
behavior, so he sprints in, eyes squinted, roaring, and batting at “C”
with his claws. The fight looks terribly ferocious, but in reality not
much damage is done; Nature’s way of helping species keep from
wiping themselves out. After a few moments of intense sound and fury,
lion “C” races away, with just some bite and scratch marks.
Lion “A” has achieved his goal—he has repelled the
In canines, and in American pit bulls
in particular, man biting occurs because of one of the three above reasons.
Let’s look at how these “drives” cause our dogs to
bite. (Remembering, of course, that a dog cannot bite someone without
access to the victim - and that circumstance is only
provided by its handler; ultimately all dog bites are the result
of human error.
One reason this “humble”
behavior developed was, again, perhaps unconscious selection toward
dogs who could tolerate multiple owners. Whereas guardian dogs are often
“one man” animals, the fighting pit bull was often owned
by one man, conditioned by another, and even handled in the pit by a
third person. In 19th century England it was not uncommon for injured
pit dogs to then be left with woman who could tend to the dog all day
while the men worked.
The Prey Drive Biter:
Here is the reason for most human/pit bull bite situations. According
to Karen Delise’s meticulous research, the overwhelming majority
of human fatalities attributed to “American pit bulls” involve
dogs kept not as family pets, but as what she calls "resident dogs”.
These are animals which are maintained outside the home and kept for
breeding, working, as status symbols, or as a means to deter trespassers.
These animals are rarely socialized nor trained; their ability to live
in a pet dog” relationship with humans is compromised by their
lack of “social skills”. Some of these dogs have been encouraged
to show aggression towards other animals, leading to tradgedy when very
young children (whose screaming, movements and stature make them resemble
animals more than “people”) approach these compromised animals.
Certainly some of these situations involve dogs who are frightened of
the human intruder, and react defensively, but many more are the predictable
result of the dog’s confusion and frustration.
Note: It is very important to note that the "husky" breeds, Alaskan, Siberian, Greenland, and malamutes, dogs which are responsible for a large number of human fatalities involving small children, are, like the true American pit bull, a breed not noted for human aggression but for high prey drive. Fatal human incidents involving children and the husky breeds almost without exception indicate frustrated prey drive - not "aggression" toward the victim.
The Defense Biter: Thirty years ago, walking through an animal shelter kennel, I rarely—very rarely—saw a pit bulldog which acted out defensively towards me. Today, walking down that same walkway you see kennel after kennel marked "pit bull”, filled with animals which either cringe or alarm bark defensively at my approach. It is to be expected that after thirty years as a “fad breed”, the quality of the American pit bull has slipped—as it does with every breed touched by popularity. Just as most of these “pit bulls” do not exhibit correct physical pit bull “type”, they also do not exhibiting the correct temperament? “type” of a sound, confident bulldog.
The number of preventable defensive bites is skyrocketing due to the current “no-kill/save every dog” rescue mentality fad—not to be mistaken for legitimate rescues which cull unsound dogs. Common sense toward dog temperament appears to be taking a vacation, replaced with rampant misinformation from TV stars telling us that hard-wired genetic temperament issues can be “rehabilitated”; that every dog story can have a "happy ending". Today’s dog owners who refuse to tolerant poor temperament in their family companions or working dogs find themselves under fire from those who champion “rescue at all costs”. Too often the cost is a dog’s well being, as in the case of genetically shy, terrified, cowering animals forced to live a life of constant stress and anxiety to fulfill their owner’s selfish desire to “save” something.
I have shown that the well bred American
pit bull is not a “defensive” animal. For thousands of generations
they have been carefully selected away from aggressive threat displays
and the wary suspicion of strange humans which is the hallmark of a
guardian breed. Certainly a well bred American pit bull can growl, or
bark, and will defend their loved ones to the best of their ability,
however, it is not and never has been (or should be) a characteristic
of breed type.
One downside: Pit bull owners who attempt
these dog sports will have to contend with serious misinformation and
misunderstanding from club trainers who haven’t a clue about bulldog
temperament. "Old style” militaristic drilling and leash
jerking works poorly with bulldogs; trying to train a bulldog like a
shepherd dog leads to frustration and may results in a dog with its
personality skewed. Please don’t under estimate how
important this is: better to not train your dog than to train with someone
who will screw up your dog. Please remember it is almost impossible
to ruin your dog with positive training, yet very, very easy to ruin
him/her with force training.
Teaching The "Out”
All pictures are of Susanne Bunny, of New York State, and Boldog General Burkhalter, SchHI, TT, CGC, TDI, bred by Boldog Kennel out of Boldog Dirk, SchH III, French Ring Brevet, CGC, x WSP Bomb Detection K9 X Dog. Burkie and trainer/owner Susanne Bunny are shown earned High SchH I while earning their title.
© copyright Diane Jessup ALL RIGHTS RESERVED