I admit it. They make me nervous when I see them walking down the street. Their swagger, the expression on their face, their heavy jaws, and the lolling tongue all conspire to inspire less than confidence in their nature. Confused?
I’m talking about what is commonly referred to as a pit bull. This stocky, low-slung dog has developed a fearsome reputation in recent years and has been blamed for many attacks on humans. Ironically, however, the American Kennel Club is still recommending the breed as an ideal family dog due to their gentle nature and easygoing temperament.
In fact the American Temperament Test Society Inc. gave the breed an 83.4% passing rate as opposed to the 81% assigned to dogs in general. What happened? How has this easily trained, friendly animal become such a vicious killer that the provincial government of Ontario Canada has banned it?
As of Monday August 29th it will be illegal to purchase, breed or import any animal considered falling into the category of a pit bull. There is a grandfather clause exempting animals already owned, as long as they are sterilised, muzzled and controlled in public. Any pups born before November 27th of this year are also exempted from the ban.
This has raised fears among those who run shelters that current owners will just start either abandoning their pets or dumping them on humane societies. In a Canadian Pressarticle John Roushorne, general manager of the Windsor-Essex Humane Society says that all he can do is put them down.
“We can’t take dogs we identify as being pit or mixed pit as anything other than a euthanasia…We have no place to put them, I’d have them stacked on top of each other if I wasn’t euthanizing them.” John Roushorne, Canadian Press article.
Prior to the ban many municipalities had already put restrictive by-laws in place concerning the control and ownership of pit bulls. Windsor has had a ban in effect for a year now. Mr. Roushorne estimates that since that time he has seen a minimum of twenty animals a week turned into the shelter. He calls this a significant increase in the numbers from before the ban was enforced.
Across the province the worry is that this activity will be repeated in shelter after shelter. It is feared that people will simply get rid of their animals rather than be bothered with complying with the stringent measures required by the law for owning a pit bull. It’s when you hear about behaviour like this by owners, that the real problem starts to be revealed.
All dogs, no matter their size or breed, are extremely territorial when it comes to their home space, food, or those it considers its pack or family. Knock on the door of any home that has a dog in residence and more often or not it will begin to bark. Walk by a yard where a dog is tethered and he or she will let you know that this is their territory and you’d better not come in without permission.
Any dog has to be properly trained by its owner to ensure of its compliance with your wishes. The trouble is very few people seem to want to make that effort. For whatever the reason, either laziness or some misguided belief that training is bad, the result is the same: an uncontrollable animal.
How many times have you been threatened by some teeny tot of a dog? Everyone laughs and says how cute. But that means the owner hasn’t trained it. Translate that mentality to a large dog like a pit bull and what happens? What was cute in the Yorkshire terrier is potentially fatal in a pit bull.
How many times have you or someone you known been nipped by your pet? Dogs bite people all the time, but it hardly ever develops into an issue and the breed isn’t labelled a “killer” or a danger. Compare the jaws of the majority of breeds and a pit bulls. What would be passed off as a nip when performed by any other animal develops into a serious injury when delivered by a pit bull.
Their jaws are designed to lock in place when they clamp down. These are the descendants of animals that were used in that delightful old pastime of bear baiting. They were genetically bred for the ability to get a tenacious grip upon an animal more than twice its size and not let go under any circumstances.
For every responsible dog owner, there is an equal number, if not greater, of irresponsible ones who cannot be bothered to properly train their animals. They think that their duty to the animal ends with feeding and maybe taking it for a walk once in a while. Of course there are the owners who pretty much ignore their animal and leave it tied up outside all the time.
I’m sure every neighbourhood has one of these unfortunate creatures whose howls and cries can be heard at most times of day or night. Dogs are social creatures and need company or they get lonely and miserable. A dog left outside is an unhappy dog; an unhappy dog can easily turn into a dangerous animal.
When talking about pit bulls most people tend to make sweeping generalizations: the breed is inherently dangerous, they have been bred to be vicious, and they are unpredictable and will attack without provocation. While it is true that the animal was used for “sports” like bear baiting, and is still in demand for dog fights, this had more to do with their physical characteristics than any psychological condition they have inherited.
There may be instances when a particular dog comes from an inbred line that causes it to behave erratically, but that can be true of any breed. Most behaviour on the part of an animal is learned behaviour. Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs and conditioning is the most obvious example of this, but one only needs to think about the differences between an animal that reacts on an instinctual level as compared to one that is rational to see how this is true.
In the wild its mother teaches an animal how to survive. In the case of predators, like dogs, this includes how to use the weapons at their disposal to quickly and easily bring down prey. She also keeps them in line through the use of punishment and rewards that are often commonly used by humans when training an animal.
A young wolf or coyote pup that gets out of line will either receive a cuff to the head or a quick nip to correct its behaviour. It quickly learns to associate pain with things it shouldn’t do and stops doing them. Instead explaining things in terms of why and why not as a human mother could do with her children, a wild mother has to quickly prepare her offspring to survive without her. Training by conditioning is the most efficient tool for that process.
This holds true for the human animal interaction; a dog will learn how to behave based on how it is treated by its human companion. This susceptibility to suggestion is what makes all animals a potential threat if they are not treated well or even simply ignored.
I realize that this is somewhat of a generalization, but have you noticed the predominance of young males who own pit bulls? Or how many of these owners take some sort of perverse pride in their pet’s potential violence? It is as if the owners see the dogs as some sort of proof of their masculinity. What impact is that having on the dog’s mentality and conditioning?
The problem is not with pit bulls. The problem is with dog owners who don’t want to take responsibility for ensuring that their animal is properly socialized. There are always going to be people who are going to buy a dog for the wrong reason, or who are not going to be bothered to take care of them.
I worry about a pattern developing. Another breed will be discovered that is violent and unpredictable. There will be emotional appeals made to the government to ban the animal, and we will go through the same process again.
The true solution is in implementing better legislation concerning the owning of pets. If you buy a pet, with the exception of a licensed breeder, you should have it sterilized within its first year. With an animal like a dog it must be properly trained to at least obey basic commands that allow the owner to restrain it orally.
We are the supposed rational creatures, shouldn’t we be held responsible for our pet’s behaviour? Everybody is quick to blame the dog in the case of an attack, but maybe we should be looking at the animal at the other end of the leash.
There have been some horrible attacks on children and others in unprovoked circumstances by pit bulls. Instead of dealing with the specific dogs in question, as would happen in any other breed, it has been concluded that these animals are too dangerous to exist in our society. That in of itself is a joke when you consider our society and our casual attitude towards human life. How many violent assaults occur on a daily basis? We still haven’t banned humans.
Let’s stop blaming those who are not the problem. The politicians have taken the easy way out on this one by banning pit bulls. Its probably too late to save them from extermination, and that will be what happens eventually. When everyone bans them, where are they going to go but under six feet of dirt?
But maybe when the next violent breed of dog appears we can exercise our rational minds and figure out a better solution. I hope so.