Dog breeds are characterized by certain physical and behavioral traits. Each breed was developed to perform a specific job, whether that job is hunting rabbits, retrieving downed birds, herding livestock or sitting on people’s laps. When developing a breed, breeders selected only those dogs that performed their job best to produce the next generation.
Physical abilities and behavior are both important facets of any breed. A well-bred dog should have both the physical attributes necessary to perform its job and the behavioral tendencies needed to learn it. It’s not surprising that individuals of a specific breed tend to look and behave somewhat similarly. Pointers are more likely than Poodles to point, and sheepdogs are more likely than lapdogs to herd. However, while a dog’s genetics may predispose it to perform certain behaviors, tremendous behavioral variation exists among individuals of the same breed or breed type. It’s also important to note that some dog breeds are now bred for entirely different jobs than those for which they were originally developed. For example, certain strains of Golden Retrievers are now being bred as service dogs, a far cry from their original job of retrieving downed birds.
Today’s pit bull is a descendant of the original English bull-baiting dog—a dog that was bred to bite and hold bulls, bears and other large animals around the face and head. When baiting large animals was outlawed in the 1800s, people turned instead to fighting their dogs against each other. These larger, slower bull-baiting dogs were crossed with smaller, quicker terriers to produce a more agile and athletic dog for fighting other dogs.
Some pit bulls were selected and bred for their fighting ability. That means that they may be more likely than other breeds to fight with dogs. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be around other dogs or that they’re unpredictably aggressive. Other pit bulls were specifically bred for work and companionship. These dogs have long been popular family pets, noted for their gentleness, affection and loyalty. And even those pit bulls bred to fight other animals were not prone to aggressiveness toward people. Dogs used for fighting needed to be routinely handled by people; therefore aggression toward people was not tolerated. Any dog that behaved aggressively toward a person was culled, or killed, to avoid passing on such an undesirable trait. Research on pet dogs confirms that dog aggressive dogs are no more likely to direct aggression toward people than dogs that aren’t aggressive to other dogs.
It is likely that that the vast majority of pit bull type dogs in our communities today are the result of random breeding—two dogs being mated without regard to the behavioral traits being passed on to their offspring. The result of random breeding is a population of dogs with a wide range of behavioral predispositions. For this reason it is important to evaluate and treat each dog, no matter its breed, as an individual.
While a dog’s genetics may predispose it to behave in certain ways, genetics do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, behavior develops through a complex interaction between environment and genetics. This is an especially important consideration when we look at an individual dog versus a breed. Many diverse and sometimes subtle factors influence the development of behavior, including, but not limited to, early nutrition, stress levels experienced by the mother during pregnancy, and even temperature in the womb. And when it comes to influencing the behavior of an individual dog, factors such as housing conditions and the history of social interactions play pivotal roles in behavioral development. The factors that feed into the expression of behavior are so inextricably intertwined that it’s usually impossible to point to any one specific influence that accounts for a dog becoming aggressive. This is why there is such variation in behavior between individual dogs, even when they are of the same breed and bred for the same purpose. Because of the impact of experience, the pit bull specifically bred for generations to be aggressive may not fight with dogs and the Labrador retriever bred to be a service dog may be aggressive toward people.
Early positive experiences, most notably socialization, are considered key in preventing aggressive tendencies in dogs. Puppies that learn how to interact, play and communicate with both people and members of their own and other species are less likely to show aggressive behavior as adults. Given the powerful impact of socialization, it’s no surprise that dogs that are chained outside and isolated from positive human interaction are more likely to bite people than dogs that are integrated into our homes. Unfortunately, pit bull type dogs that find themselves in these conditions may be at greater risk for developing aggressive behavior. But because these factors are ones that can be controlled by better educated owners, it is possible to reduce these risks, not just in pit bulls but in dogs of all breeds.
The reality is that dogs of many breeds can be selectively bred or trained to develop aggressive traits. Therefore the responsible ownership of any dog requires a commitment to proper socialization, humane training and conscientious supervision. Despite our best efforts, there will always be dogs of various breeds that are simply too dangerous to live safely in society. We can effectively address the danger posed by these dogs by supporting the passage and vigorous enforcement of laws that focus, not on breed, but on people’s responsibility for their dogs’ behavior, including measures that hold owners of all breeds accountable for properly housing, supervising and controlling their dogs. Breed neutral “dangerous dog” laws, “leash laws” that prohibit dogs from running loose off their owners’ property, and “anti chaining” laws can control the behavior of individual dogs and individual owners and thereby help reduce the risk of harm to people and other animals.
Laws that ban particular breeds of dogs do not achieve these aims and instead create the illusion, but not the reality, of enhanced public safety. Notably, there are no statewide laws that discriminate based on dog breed, and 18 states have taken the proactive step of expressly banning laws that single out particular breeds for disparate legal treatment. Even the White House has weighed in against laws that target specific breeds. In a a statement issued in 2013, President Obama said “[w]e don’t support breed-specific legislation—research shows that bans on certain types of dogs are largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources. And the simple fact is that dogs of any breed can become dangerous when they’re intentionally or unintentionally raised to be aggressive.”
All dogs, including pit bulls, are individuals. Treating them as such, providing them with the care, training and supervision they require, and judging them by their actions and not by their DNA or their physical appearance is the best way to ensure that dogs and people can continue to share safe and happy lives together.
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