This was originally going to be included in an earlier post, but it never fit in well with it and needed its own dedication, so let’s start with another frequently-seen internet meme that illustrates an all-too-common perspective:
And what if I told you that you should stick to subjects you have the faintest knowledge of, and stop spreading your idiocy around like herpes?
Let’s face it: the anti-vaccination fuckheads are too stupid to be allowed out in public alone. The moon-conspiracy chuzzlewits imagine they’re clever when they haven’t the faintest grasp of basic physics. And the dog breed champions really, really need to sit down and think for a whole ten seconds.
Seriously, if dog behavior was entirely up to the owner, then there would be almost no point at all to actually breeding dogs, would there? I mean, physical appearance, right? That’s it? Behavior and traits and tendencies – they all have to be written on that ‘blank slate’ of the brain, just like birds have to be shown by their parents how to build their intricate and specific nests, and snakes have to learn through trial and error how to constrict, and how all animals have to sample a bunch of different things in order to determine what food works best for them. Sure, you can manipulate genes to produce body shapes and fur color, blood types and resistance to diseases, even temperature hardiness and homing abilities. But the brain? Not a chance – that’s always exactly the same because the brain isn’t developed through genes. I mean, duh!
Hopefully my sarcasm is elaborate enough, but if not, let me know because I can still ramp it up a bit. We’ve only been breeding dogs for millennia because no one has yet noticed that it doesn’t have much effect. And seriously, anyone can train any breed of dog to be attack dogs – we’re just conditioned to believe that pitbulls are overreactive, and rottweilers are badasses.
Anyway, let me introduce you to common sense.
In a long history of breeding animals – we’re talking literally thousands of years – it’s only been in the last century or so that we did so for appearance (theirs, not ours.) All of the remaining time, it’s been for functionality. And yes, a large portion of that functionality comes through behavior, attitude, and even ‘personality.’ We have dog breeds that are good with kids, or better at home protection, or good at herding, and on and on and on because when they showed any such tendencies, we selected for those and enhanced those traits, just as we were able to enhance physical traits that make any given breed fail to look like the wolves they originated from. The original line of bulldogs was bred for the ‘sport’ of bullbaiting: seizing onto the nose of a bull and hanging on as long as they could, and as such they have powerful jaws, neck muscles, and shoulders. Later on, pitting the dogs against one another became more popular, and the breeds began to reflect that – including very limited tolerance of being ‘challenged’ and a fierce desire to establish dominance. This is a standard behavioral factor in all pack animals anyway, the origin of the phrase “alpha male,” so breeders weren’t even producing the behavior, just exaggerating it.
[As a trivial sideline, this is also the reason behind cropping ears and docking tails. Dogs usually establish dominance through body language such as dropping the tail and laying the ears flat to communicate their reluctance to challenge authority, their ‘submission.’ Removing these meant that, even if the dog wanted to submit, it never displayed the language that said so. And now we consider it a “breed trait” and insist on surgically altering these breeds to pay homage to their idiotic past.]
Worse, in breeds such as the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or American Staffordshire Terrier, or Pitbull (pick whichever name you consider proper – we made them all up anyway, so who cares?) the practice of dog-fighting had to go underground but continues to this day, meaning the enhancement of these stubborn, dominant, and violent tendencies is still going on, unlike most of the other former working breeds that have now become ‘show’ dogs and may be bred away from unnecessary and dangerous behavior. In other words, pitbulls are the least removed from nasty traits – even if you specifically refer to those produced by breeders that are trying to establish a nonviolent aspect of the breed.
Now, there are thousands of arguments about the whole subject, and I’ll address some of those in a moment. But for the opening (and oft-repeated) assertion that dog behavior is learned, well, bullshit, and rather obvious bullshit at that. Some behavior is learned, or trained into a dog – and some of it is inherent, sometimes in the species as a whole, and sometimes as an aspect of that particular breed. And of course, it is the inherent aspects that are causing the problems.
There are countless arguments and claims and oral diarrheas that come up, time and again, mostly in the service of utter denial that some dogs are, on average, a lot more dangerous than others: “They were provoked,” and, “they weren’t socialized properly,” “people overreact to media attention,” and, “every dog can bite,” and on and on and on. They all have a kernel of truth to them – but we need more than a kernel, and the bare statistics make it abundantly clear. For instance, what a dog might consider provocation can be as simple as maintained eye-contact (pits are especially sensitive to this because, again, it’s how dogs communicate challenges and attempts to establish dominance) or failing to heed their keep-away signals, something that children are remarkably prone to doing, and even a lot of adults can be abysmally bad about reading signs. And yes, every dog can bite – but those that are compiling statistics aren’t counting the bites, they’re looking at the numbers and types of dog attacks that result in hospitalizations and even deaths, something that chihuahuas somehow manage not to score highly on, despite their propensity for biting. And no, those attacks are not all coming from dogs from disreputable sources either, or dogs with improper socialization or exercise room. These can certainly contribute, but this would mean that all species that were in such conditions should show the same number of injuries dealt, and they don’t. Not by a long shot.
What has to be the most pernicious and annoying argument that arises, every fucking time the subject is discussed, is the hoary old, “I know someone with that breed and it couldn’t be a nicer dog!” Well, shit, why did we spend all this time compiling statistics and talking to animal behavior experts and interviewing victims when we could have just asked you? I’m sure that your singular personal experience countermands all other evidence that we could possibly examine! Seriously, anecdotes of this nature should be grounds for getting smacked upside the head, especially among anyone that’s had to view the videos of dog attacks, the photos of the injuries, or talk to the parents of the young victims. Every dog has their own personality, and there are a lot of variations – none can be considered so representative of the breed that all others must conform to it, and this goes for any personality you want to assign. But on average, any given species often has a distinct tendency towards certain traits, which is what the numbers tell us. And for a bit of amusement, note that the very argument of a nice example of the breed directly implies that behavior is an inherent trait – otherwise such an anecdote would be completely worthless. Like I said, people often don’t even sit down and think for ten seconds about what they’re saying.
The topic itself arises primarily because of the myriad ways people are proposing or implementing methods of reducing the attacks and injuries: breed-specific legislation, housing/socialization requirements, special registrations, and so on. And there are two primary factors that arise during such discussions, the first being, exactly how effective is the proposed method at curbing or halting the negative consequences? And this is certainly a worthwhile question. Unfortunately, it is often overshadowed by the other factor, which is, “I’ve got a blind spot about animals (especially this breed.)” And I’m going to put this very very bluntly, but I want a real answer: How many instances of people being maimed or killed are allowable in order not to impinge on some dog-owners’ personal preference?
While we’re waiting on that answer, I’ll point out that dog ‘breeds’ are arbitrary distinctions that we make up out of pure ego – we created all of them, from the original wolves (whose DNA is so similar that it’s next to impossible to distinguish from any dog.) Try to determine any reason whatsoever to even maintain these distinctions, much less a reason why anyone would have to own one. “Purebred” actually means “inbred,” and carries a burden of genetic disadvantages and detriments with alarming frequency – feel free to look up the tendencies towards specific medical problems (and adverse behavior) for any given breed. And once again, from the sheltering standpoint, there are millions of animals already seeking homes – what fucking reason does anyone have for breeding, or even desiring, a “special” animal in the face of those numbers?
* * * * *
My days in the animal shelters, and compiling reports, and working as an animal cruelty investigator, produced more than a little direct experience pertinent to the topic itself, and so here are a couple of examples. I have more if you want them.
At one point in time, we actually had a group of fighting pitbulls in the shelter, over twenty dogs impounded during an investigation, and this introduced a lot of changes to our routines. To begin with, we added a lot of safety equipment to the kennels in handy locations, things like pepper spray and parting sticks. If you’re not familiar with the dog-fighting world, parting sticks are tools used to convince the dog to let go; they’re made to pry open a dog’s jaws in the frequent-enough event that the dog refuses to do so on its own or on command. Which pretty much puts the lie to the idea that dogs have to be trained to be aggressive; they’re trained to obey commands, but in the thick of things it doesn’t always work. The fighting bit is a lot more instinctual, and is a reflection of the pack behavior that is the primary social structure among canids (and birds, and plenty of other species as well – these dynamics helped the animals survive, and were honed over millennia by nature itself.)
In general, dogs determine on their own where they stand among others of their kind – one will become the pack leader, with a reducing hierarchy of deference. In the event the leader isn’t immediately available, the next in line takes its place. Even all by itself in a family of humans, dogs still view things in terms of the pack, which occasionally leads to obedience problems, as well as other adverse interactions. Some dogs, for instance, recognize the human father as the dominant male, but fit themselves into the ‘pack’ elsewhere, perhaps occasionally obeying the commands of the mother, and completely ignoring the kids. Others may view the kids as pups or lessers in the pack, and may react strongly when they feel the children are acting out of line; this is often kids running around wildly, especially if the kids are squealing a lot – I don’t have to give you examples of this, do I?
No matter how dogs consider humans in their ‘pack’ hierarchy, there are other aspects of their behavior that easily override this introduced concept. This is why, every time someone tells me their dog doesn’t need to be on a leash because it is “voice-trained,” I smile indulgently and, I hope, a little condescendingly; it’s better than guffawing loudly into their face and calling them ignorant buffoons. Any dog can take off after a squirrel if they consider squirrels food or intruders, because the millions of years of evolved behavior kinda blows a few dozen hours of training out of the water. Your dog always stays in the yard? Yeah, until another dog happens along, and then this idea gets left behind as the pack interaction dominates their behavior – we used to call it ‘partners in crime’ because a pair or more of dogs will do things that no individual gets itself into, like chasing neighborhood cats or kids and tearing up stuff. They’re competing against each other. You can shout, “Here Fido!” until you’re blue in the face; the training to obey falls way below the drive to survive, behavior evolved into them long before we came along.
Fighting dogs are selectively bred to be pack leaders, and maintain this status when challenged – this is what a dog fight is to them: the other dog must yield, or it remains a challenge to their own authority. Yes, it’s just as stupid as any bar fight. But as I said, there’s a lot of emphasis on obeying commands – owners want the dogs to release when told, not to fight to the death, and the fight belongs among other dogs, not among humans; no owner wants to feel threatened themselves. But after breeding these traits in for decades – traits that are mere extensions of behavior established thousands to millions of years back in the wolf ancestors – a couple of generations isn’t going to make it go away dependably. Believe me, I’m not going to dispute that there are reputable pitbull breeders out there, ones that are ensuring in every way possible that they are not producing aggressive dogs, but there’s several key factors to consider:
1) There is no absolutely no way of determining if the aggressiveness if actually bred out of a dog – again, it’s an extension of deeply ingrained behavior. The only thing that can be done is to observe a dog for a lack of indicators, a failure to respond to typical triggers – which doesn’t mean that there’s not a trigger that no one’s found yet. And this says nothing of genetic latency, especially since we have no idea what genes are actually involved (much less the ability to do the intricate and expensive tests necessary to find them);
2) For every reputable breeder, there are at least five ‘backyard breeders’ who haven’t the faintest idea that they should be looking for indicators in the first place, and are only in it for the buck. Good luck determining where any particular dog comes from. The last I heard, the average authenticity of any given American Kennel Club certification (you know, “he gots papers“) was less than 30%. And that only tells bloodline, which is a near-meaningless factor anyway;
3) There are certainly nice pitbulls out there, as there are for any breed – but for a very large percentage of the people that want them, that’s not the trait or ‘aura’ they’re after. They want the reputation, and as long as the breed exists, there will be that market;
4) There are, really, an unknown percentage of breeders specifically for fighting dogs. The dogs that don’t quite pass muster all go somewhere – I’ll let you figure out where. Are you going to be surprised if you find out that most fighting breeders are also ‘reputable’ breeders? Let’s face it, it’s not easy to completely conceal a kennel full of dogs.
So with all of that, perhaps it’s a little more obvious now why there are no easy solutions – and in fact, no one’s quite sure what they’re trying to accomplish, since too many people are at cross purposes. For my own part, I find that even bothering with a distinguished ‘breed’ is pointless – when we do it with people it’s considered racism.
That situation with the fighting dogs in our kennels was entirely uneventful, by the way – I wish I could say the same for others. In a neighboring county, a particular pitbull was placed on quarantine following a bite situation (this is a requirement of North Carolina law, as the animal is observed for signs of rabies,) while Animal Control tried to determine if the dog should be maintained under vicious confinement as a potentially dangerous dog, due to the circumstances under which the bite occurred, primarily unprovoked. Eventually, with the testimony of a neighbor who knew the dog and maintained that he was not aggressive, the dog was released back to the owner with no restrictions. The neighbor, an elderly woman, would stop by the yard to visit the dog and give it treats from time to time.
Less than ten days after being released, the dog attacked her early one morning, and ripped her arm off.
Anyone may want to ask a lot of questions – it’s natural to want to know what happened. I never heard myself, but you know, it doesn’t matter. There is nothing, no circumstance, that could warrant such a response from the dog, ‘provoked’ or not (and while any given dog might have a different idea of what constitutes provocation, it’s not their standards we should concern ourselves about; any pet dog lives in a world of humans and needs to conform to our minimal standards. Full stop.) Hey, this is one anecdote – I don’t blame anyone for treating this as an isolated incident, though granted, it’s often the exact same people who think their anecdote of a nice dog should be a pertinent example. Except – it’s not an isolated incident; it’s a pattern of behavior that’s occurred far too many times. The personal feelings horseshit and feeble attempts at thinking need to go away entirely while we seek real solutions.