Monday, August 24, 2009

Caution should guide pit bull adoption debate

Or at least according to this author.
It is scientific fact that aspects of animal behavior are heritable, just like physical attributes such as coat color. A herding dog, for instance, is bred for its herding instinct. Similarly, a retriever is born with the instinct to carry things in its mouth, to retrieve. In the dog fighting world, breeders selectively breed the dogs with the most "fight," an ability to attack and kill other dogs.
There aren't really "scientific facts" so much as hypothesis and theories. It's fair enough to suggest that the expression of certain behaviors are/may be genetic, hardwired or under the influence of both alleles and environmental triggers. To claim, though, that a retriever is born with the instinct to carry things in its mouth is a bit of a red herring. Most dogs come well-equipped to place things in their mouths - ask any puppy guardian. :) It is not a trait unique to any particular breed. Certainly for hunters, an ideal dog is one with a soft mouth, a behavior some retrievers must be taught.

As to pit bulls being selectively bred for the most "fight", well I guess I would want to know what the author means by "fight" or by the "ability to attack and kill other dogs." In my own personal experience and certainly dog bite studies show this to be true, any dog with teeth can attack and kill other dogs. A lot of factors are at play: hormones, size of dog, intact status, circumstance of aggressive encounter, learning, previous experience, arousal level, bite threshold. Since we know aggression involves a lot more than just "being bred to fight", it seems ludicrous to argue that any breed of dog has been bred for this mysterious "fight" ability, as if there is a little loci floating around on a gene that whispers "fight, fight, fight" in the ears of pit bulls and pit bulls only. I'd like to think we've come far enough to appreciate the intricacies of canine behavior that we wouldn't reduce something as complex as "aggression" to something as simple and vague as "fight" ability.

The author continues on with how dog fighters may train their dogs:
Dog fight breeders or trainers may also "bait" their dogs by training them with small, largely defenseless breeds such as miniature poodles. Or they may use larger dogs whose muzzles have been taped shut so that they cannot inflict injury on the pit bulls in training.
This notion that you would encourage a dog's "fight ability" by pitting him against a 10lb dog is rather laughable. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, I'm saying it isn't a great way to condition and prepare a dog for a fight with a dog of comparable size, musculature and stamina. These two sentences alone reflect a gross ignorance of how "professional" dog fighters tend to condition their dogs. It also ignores that the entire concept is cruel, the idea of pitting dogs together in a blood-match is and should be repulsive. But that has little to do with the temperament or solidness of a dog.

Next, the author tries to dispel this notion that pit bulls have been bred to be docile around people (a notion I don't support, but for different reasons):
To begin, these dogs are bred to fight other dogs but to be docile to humans.

This "hard wired" response can and often does go haywire, with dogs turning on their masters or attacking children. It can happen at any time in life: one of my Australian Shepherds, a breed not known for aggression, began turning on children and snapping at them while in Mexico. The Mexican children, accustomed to taunting and striking dogs, had conditioned my normally docile dog to act aggressively to defend himself.

If something is a "hard-wired" response, it is not going to magically go haywire. This is not how hard-wired, instinctive behaviors work. Certainly a dog can undergo physical trauma that damages the neurons responsible for whatever "hard-wired" response the author is talking about, but if a truly hard-wired behavior is modified so easily by an external stimulus, like taunting children, then I think it's best to suggest the behavior isn't so hard-wired after all.

Also, Australian Shepherds are known for their aggression. They do not nip at the heels of cattle because they are nice, non-aggressive dogs. That nipping and body-bumping is part of a chain of behaviors that would eventually involve the death of another creature; it's part of the predator-prey dance. Aggression isn't the end of the world. It's natural, all dogs exhibit in some way or another, and only in its extreme forms should it be considered dangerous to people. I must admit, if the whole mythical "fight ability" gene didn't make me question this guy's knowledge of dog behavior, claiming a breed known for their use of teeth on skin isn't aggressive does. Also, why on earth is he letting children taunt/strike his dog? (Of course, he MUST point out that they're Mexican b/c *rolls eyes* no white American kid would taunt and strike a dog.)

A truly reliable attack dog or protection dog requires years of patient training and an extremely knowledgeable handler -- not just a desire to own a tough dog.
Well sure, duh. But I certainly did not adopt a pit bull because I wanted a tough dog. Nor did I really care if she was a fighter or breeder or owned by a gang-banging bike-riding, testosterone-laden poor dude in Colorado Springs. I cared that she was nice, cute, had a high bite threshold and tolerated people. My primary criteria - Does she give kisses. Yes? I'm sold.

I mean, look at her:

I mean, she's eating a plant, for crying out loud. She's not mauling that dude. She's not turning on me, the photographer, with her haywired instinct to eat me. She's trying to be a VEGETARIAN DOG. Shameful.

I'd have to say the saddest statement of all the author makes is:

Increasingly, pure bred dogs such as retrievers, poodles, border collies, and the like are found in purebreed rescues and kept in private homes until adopted, leaving pounds with mutts and pit bulls -- the shunned dregs of canine society.
As if the mutts and pit bulls, the "dregs of canine society" are so unimportant, so without merit and so undeserving of love and compassion that, well, we might as well just kill them without compunction. Obviously, this author has not spent much quality time with mutts or pit bulls. They are as varied in temperament and color and size and personality as any "purebred" dog. More than that, they are as worthy of our respect and deserve the same chance at adoption, at a loving home, as any dog.

Give your dogs a hug and kiss. Continue to adopt the "dregs of canine society" and show people, like this author, that they are perfectly nice, wonderful dogs, regardless of whether they were a stray or a fighter.


-J. said...

I have a mutt who's half retriever and refuses to retrieve anything. Not interested. At all. Guess that makes her a genetic failure as well as a dreg of canine society. Love her anyway.

I also have a purebred cocker spaniel who is afraid of any bird the size of a woodcock. More dregs.

Kembree said...

Hey, I just saw on our local news action news 5. That there was some kind of 'pit bull attack' in the same city that the man tazered the dog who is on leave. the man had two small scratches on his arm, they showed the pits (they were mixes if you ask me, too big to be purebred I think) and said they were not sure what would happen since no one was in charge there. The man who was attacked made sure to say a child would have been killed if they were there..