Spitting Out The Pits
Anyone who has spent time training dogs knows that all dogs are not created equal. Treat a Borzoi, Sharpei or Chow Chow like a Toy Spaniel, Soft-coated Wheaton or a Golden Retriever and, trust me, you will fail. It’s not that they are intrinsically good or bad; it’s just that they have distinct, breed-specific traits and tendencies that require flexibility regarding training strategies. When you add individual personality and history into the mix, you begin to see that training and behavior modification are crafts, not equations, pat ideologies, or sociopolitical manifestations.
The only commonality between breeds is their worth, their heritage, their innate goodness, as a species. They have been by our sides through good and bad, for millennia. Forget monkeys, dolphins, birds… even the noble horse can’t compare to the eons of time we’ve spent with Rover.
That said, I have met dogs I frankly did not like. Pushy, rude, picky, covetous- whatever the reason, as with certain people, sometimes personalities clash. And that’s okay. It happens, and it’s often independent of anything an owner can do. They’re not all saints to be canonized in some kind of trans-species sanctum. It’s not sacrilegious to sometimes dislike a particular dog, while still honoring the species.
Which brings me to the Pit Bull. I have trained many over the years, and currently own a Pit/GSD cross named Rico, a smart yet bumbling knucklehead with a big heart, a hard head, and a number of behavioral issues. Rico’s mother, a sickly ten month-old shepherd mix rescued off of a Washington state Indian reservation, came to the shelter two days away from delivering nine puppies, who all looked like tiny little German Shepherds. Sucker that I am, I took home a friendly little male, who looked a lot like what I imagined my old super dog Lou might have looked like at eight weeks.
At six months, Rico’s true genes expressed themselves. Almost overnight, he went from looking like a shepherd cross to a compact Pit Bull with shepherd coloring. And his personality- playful, loving, energized, bullheaded, smart, and a bit pushy with other dogs- slowly but surely also mirrored a Pit.
Now five years old, Rico has turned out okay, albeit with a number of engrained behavioral issues that must be managed- he lacks great confidence, is not fond of squirrely kids, has poor social skills with big dogs (he thinks it’s fun to bounce off of mastiffs at the dog park), and won’t brook strangers reaching into his crate or dog run if I am not there. And if he sees a possum or squirrel, it’s lights out. Rico is imperfect yet manageable, and damned lucky he ended up in my home.
Here’s my point. If Rico had gone to a well-meaning owner with no experience in managing/training a Pit mix with behavioral issues, he’d be in a landfill by now. He’d have bitten a kid, or gotten ripped to shreds by a big dog at the park. No doubt about it. The reason? His breed mix, combined with poor breeding, period. Had nothing to do with previous abuse, as we got him as a pup. He’s simply a poorly bred dog, born of two strays wandering reservation roads. Augment this with breed-specific traits, and you get an accident waiting to happen.
The trials and tribulations of Pit Bulls today are a travesty. I like them; they are eager, loving, incredibly athletic, and aesthetically pleasing. But, even if bred wisely and raised perfectly, they can be problematic with other dogs. They can be willful, exhibit a terrier-like tenacity, and, if so motivated, can do a lot of damage. I’ve trained just about every breed of dog, and I can tell you, I would rather have just about any other breed mad at me. Honest. I’d rather have three rabid cattle dogs gunning for me than one determined Pit Bull. It’s nature, evolution and selective breeding at work.
Go to nearly any shelter today and you will find that about a quarter to a third of all adoptable dogs are either pure Pit, or mixes thereof (despite most of them labeled as "Lab crosses"). Of the dogs I am called upon to help train, probably half now have some Pit in them. Why is this? Is it that they are just misunderstood? Evil? Is it a plot?
No. It’s a combination of factors, in my opinion, and some of you won’t want to hear it, but it’s my job as a behaviorist and dog devotee to say it anyway. First, let’s talk breed. When perfectly bred, even by a dedicated breeder with the best of intentions, the archetype Pit Bull is still not a dog for most beginners. It’s heritage guarantees this; it was bred to exhibit extreme bravery, and an inclination toward dog aggression. Decades of breeding for the strongest, the most tenacious, the gamest- it just happened, and cannot be denied, or explained away as generational abuse, or bad nurturing. Just as superior gun dogs are bred for insensitivity to the gun, so were Pits bred to show pugilistic excellence. There’s a reason Pits are used for fighting, and not Cockers, Vislas, or Newfoundlands. If you deny this heritage, then I can’t help you. But honestly, I’m here to help the Pit Bull, not you.
The Pit Bull is not being bred well today. Not at all. It’s being bred (or being allowed to breed) by gangsters, dog fighters (Vick sucks), ignorant back yard hucksters, and by those who frankly don’t give a rip. Why else do you think there are so many in the shelters today? I feel for those qualified Pit breeders whose reputations get sullied by the street rabble.
What this means is that many of these poor shelter Pits and Pit mixes have for the most part come from potentially inferior stock, raised by inexperienced "breeders" with little concern for lineage, or for the welfare of the breed. The dogs produced from these couplings often are given or sold to well-meaning but unprepared people, who often surrender the dogs after a few months of exasperation. That, combined with a glut of Pit pups created by random matings of dogs owned by fools, and you get an epidemic of poorly bred martyrs. And, many of these dogs also suffer terrible abuse, compounding the problem. But even if abuse didn’t happen, the specter of bad breeding would be enough to sully these poor dogs.
So. What to do?
Here’s my read. First, Pit Bulls need to be bred only by dedicated, qualified breeders, and not gangsters, drug addled perps, emasculated street thugs, hapless ignoramuses, or those needing to make a few bucks. Next, dedicated Pit breeders need to face facts; a concerted effort to breed out dog aggressive tendencies must occur. This won’t be easy, but it has to be done. Dogs displaying no aggression get to breed, while the others get neutered, period. And it can be done, as evidenced by how, while Pits were bred for dog aggression, they were also bred to show great love and tolerance for humans- a necessity for handling fighting dogs. If breeders can over time create a gladiator with a soft spot for people, then they can cull out the dog agressive side as well- again, over time.
But neutering all Pits won’t work as a solution, contrary to current theory, as this almost ensures that gentler Pits get taken out of the gene pool as well. When a qualified breeder finds a Pit with the demeanor of a Lab or spaniel, breed it, for darn sakes.
Next, people need to assess their qualifications for Pit ownership. A new driver does not get a Ferrari for her first car (unless she goes to Beverly Hill High); she gets a safe car with conventional handling. Sorry, but a Pit Bull is not a beginner’s dog- a Golden is, or a Cavalier King Charles, or a mellow Lab mix or little Maltese. Pits, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, most sighthounds, Border collies, most arctic breeds- these are not dogs for those without previous dog experience. Not because of aggressive potential, per se, but simply because they are intense dogs with specific behavioral traits that demand experience, and a higher degree of management. There are of course exceptions, but as a general rule, this is the case.
The backyard breeding of Pit Bulls has to end. Only qualified, licensed, discerning breeders with good track records should breed them. As most states do not require breeders to be licensed, that should be the first thing (and perhaps the only legislative move) to address. Really, this should apply to all dogs, in my opinion, but especially to those so demonized as the Pit. Big fines should be levied on those who breed them in their yards, basements, closets, bathtubs. And qualified potential owners should pay a breeder a good amount for a Pit pup, comparable to what one would pay for a purebred Mastiff, or Great Dane. Filter out the bad guys through fines, and fees. And big fines and jail time for any jack wads who get caught fighting Pits or any other breed. And, if your dog seriously hurts someone or kills another dog, sorry, but you go to jail, and the dog gets put down. Make it too expensive to intentionally teach a dog to fight or bite.
Training, training, training! You get a Pit Bull, you train it, you socialize it, you do all you can to set routine and rules, and establish implacable leadership skills. And you limit the number of Pits you own. Don’t get seventeen of them. Get one, or two of differing gender. Or get a Pit puppy for your sweet older Lab, so it can model off of that bucolic demeanor. Exercise the heck out of your Pit, and go for group walks with several other dogs and people. Find your Pit’s muse- agility, tricks, flyball- whatever. Give her structure and joy and confidence, and you’ll be okay.
I don’t want any breed to be outlawed. I just want reputable breeders to have the patience and foresight to know that the future of the breed depends on them- on their patience, their vigilance, and their acumen. And I want dog lovers to acknowledge and understand the problem, and do what they can to right it.
I want to save the Pit Bull. I hope you do too.