©2017 C. Henry Martens
I have never seen a good, in-depth, article about pit bulls. At least one that isn’t slanted by a biased conclusion. Almost everyone has an opinion, but very few people KNOW what is involved in the genetic manipulation of dogs, or the care and training that dogs are intended to have. Please understand that I will write this with an open heart and as little bias as I can muster, as I do not blame dogs for what they are at the hands of human beings. With some good information, you can draw your own conclusions.
Dogs are amazing animals. They come in more shapes and sizes than any other animal in the world. Long or short hair, legs of all lengths, tails or not, flat or pointed faces, heavy muscles or thinly clad, tall, short, fast, slow, upright or floppy ears, uncontrollable barkers or completely silent, and differing skills. Dogs are *bred*.
What does that mean, dogs are *bred*?
Well, it means that if you want a certain look, or feature, or survival advantage, or skill… within reason a dog can be molded to fill a niche. All domesticated animals become something other than their wild cousins, more or less by artificial selection, but dogs are unique in their adaptability.
There is good evidence that domesticated dogs evolved alongside humans in different parts of the world simultaneously. That means that while later Neanderthals were copulating with Homo Sapiens in northern Europe, and rare Denisovans were partnering with early man in eastern Siberia, all while more Homo Sapiens were exploding out of Africa to populate the Earth… entirely different genetic strains of domesticated dog were evolving alongside them in different parts of the world.
All of those dogs could interbreed. Today, all dogs can interbreed. The genetic gene pool is huge. Presently there are one hundred eighty-seven breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. I suspect there are far more breeds still to be recognized, if only because it is so easy to build one to order.
What kind of dog do you want? Most people in industrialized societies today concentrate on status symbols. They want a dog that looks like what their neighbors think is cool. Something fuzzy and cute to curl up on your lap or stick its head out the window as you drive, to lick the kids faces and not be too much of a bother. Perhaps something majestic that will draw attention. Alternatively, they might want something that their neighbors will see as dangerous. Perhaps because they think that having a dangerous dog will rub off on them and the neighbors will see the dog owner as dangerous. Sometimes the owner will be dangerous, but whether to the neighbors or his own dog is a question.
Do you hunt birds that flush from ground cover? How about a setter or a pointer? Water birds? Well, a retriever of course. Do you have something heavy to haul? Working breeds. Do you need an alarm or a threat dog? Lots of breeds bark at strangers. How about herding livestock? Yup, we’ve got something for that, too.
Do any of you doubt that a dog bred to hunt birds by pointing will not point? Or that a dog developed to herd sheep will not nip at the heels of a flock? Dog breeds are designed to work. That may come as a surprise to some people, but almost every breed of dog was originally purposed to do a job. Even fuzzy lap dogs. Most breeds were designed to hunt in some capacity in the early stages of genetic selection. Soon after, dogs were selected to haul loads. But hunting was the first job of the first domestic dog… and the breed that followed.
Have you ever seen someone that hired out rat terriers to farms to clear the vermin from barns and feed storage bins? Nowadays, we in our comfortable homes have forgotten what dogs were intended to do. The shear viciousness of a good rat terrier after a scurrying rodent is a revelation. A killing machine without equal. Intent, focused, lethal… and unstopping once it gets a blood lust unleashed. Terriers have been used in timed contests to kill rats, with the record being one hundred rats dying in less than five and a half minutes. This is what terriers were bred to do… by human beings. This ability made the dogs useful.
Ready to quit reading? Just the facts.
Dogs are designed by human beings. Humankind has always had many requirements, and death has always been one of them.
You might wonder at this point if I have a problem with dogs. I don’t, but I am not one to shy away from the grimmer realities of our genetic manipulation involving our animal companions and partners.
All dog breeds have been used by human beings as companion animals. Dogs should be so lucky as we are in finding a companion as loyal and trustworthy… and kind and forgiving. Truly, we humans are the blessed ones in the arrangement.
But it is important to understand what our forefather’s priorities were. They designed dogs to do a job, and the ones that didn’t… well… they didn’t survive. That is a very strong incentive to succeed in whatever is asked of you. And in genetic terms in a species that is highly moldable, the skills that were long ago retained by harsh selection criteria are still retained in gentle, “he won’t bite”, Fido.
Dogs may not be used for the same purposes as they once were, but the genetics are still floating around in the gene pool… and closer to the surface than many people imagine.
All dogs bite.
Oh yes… they do. Dogs have a survival instinct. They understand pain, and hunger, and mortality. They feel fear and anger and can hold a grudge. A startled dog will react, a dog being chased will weigh the options in fleeing or defending itself. A threatened dog will consider the possibilities.
If you work with dogs at all, you may have had people tell you that, “Muffin won’t bite.” The result being a quick retreat from snapping teeth and a fervent apology from the owner denying it has ever happened before. Dogs that are “certified” to work in rest homes and hospitals as comfort animals, will and do bite. The certification process does not abuse the dogs to the point beyond what they are likely to encounter in working situations. The certification process works well, but it does not remove the bite from the dog.
All dogs bite. Some haven’t found the right incentive. Yet.
Numbers and statistics can be good, bad, or incomplete. But it is important to at least review a few.
There are roughly nineteen thousand genes in dog DNA. We humans share about eighteen thousand of them. About fifty or so of these genes are the ones that humans play around with in determining how a breed of dog will develop.
By most estimates, less than two percent of dog bites end up requiring hospitalization. There are many things to fear in life more than your family pet. Of the things that kill people, dogs are relatively benign. Only one in less than a hundred twenty thousand people will die from a dog attack.
There has been a dog bite related death attributed to a Yorkshire Terrier. These dogs are diminutive little scamps, so it is difficult to see how they can be dangerous. Of the canines that are most common in human death cases, dogs of some size are common. Before pit bulls rose in popularity, starting about thirty-five years ago, working dogs held the highest numbers for dog related human deaths. Mastiff and Saint Bernard breeds were more popular and these large dogs were often not properly socialized or trained. German Shepherd, Husky, and Rottweiler breeds were traditionally high in the statistics, too. Rotts are still very high in human related deaths, second only to pit bulls. But they are a popular dog, while the other breeds have declined in numbers or percentages.
A serious flaw in most statistics is that they rarely give the actual numbers of a breed in context with the percentage of that breed in the canine population as a whole. Some of the other flaws are that often dogs are not identified accurately by breed, or even identified at all.
Presently, pit bulls stand at approximately 6.6 percent of the canine population in the United States. That’s a fairly popular breed, and that number has come down from the peak a few years ago.
One scenario is clear. There are many more pack style attacks than most people realize. Dogs of all breeds will run together and they will forget any human instruction they have received. Feral dogs will entice home bodies to run with the pack, and kill with the pack. But don’t be mistaken, home bodies don’t need a feral leader. There are some estimates that suggest almost a half million uncared for dogs live on Native American reservations, and several pack killings have been recorded. But there are as many packs running off the reservation and many of those begin with a family pet let out to do its business…
But you want to know something about pit bulls, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
First off, pit bulls are not a breed of dog. They are not recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club. What pit bulls are is a *type* of dog. Generally, there are four breeds recognized as being pit type dogs. These are the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the American Bully, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Pit type dog breeds are not all recognized by the AKC but may be recognized by other entities.
There are many physical characteristics common to all the pit type dog breeds. Until recently they were relatively small compared to other working dogs. Fighting dogs were often under thirty pounds. The dogs are muscular and heavy in the shoulders and neck. In particular, they have large jowls with strong biting muscles. The dogs are short haired with a medium long muzzle, characteristics common to most bull dog style breeds.
All the breeds recognized as pit types are related, and the close relationship stems from not only genetic similarities, but the use they were put to as working dogs in centuries past. These dogs were used to do a job. Whether for industry or sport, they were used to dominate livestock. Thus, they were described as “bull” dogs because they were used on cattle, and in particular bulls. Humans aren’t satisfied with legitimate use though, and pits were used in fighting arenas to be bet on, and slaughtered if they didn’t kill as expected.
Here is where it gets interesting.
Pits were bred to do a specific job but were often invited into the home for other purposes much like other breeds that are designed for outside work. They had to get along with their owner, and their owner’s children. The dogs seem remarkably friendly as a result, and appear reliable.
Genetics are a funny thing though. Each characteristic in any animal is heritable. That means that the parents pass down into their offspring the characteristics that they, themselves, possess. Some characteristics are hard to pass on, and some are easy. Docility is easy to pass in most animals. In fact, the characteristic for domesticity, a calm personality, is linked to color variation from the wild state. Animals that vary little in color within a species have little variation in temperament. Those that vary more in how docile or aggressive they are have more color variation. Wolves vary quite a bit compared to other wild species, in both color and temperament. They have personalities.
Something needs to be said about cross breeding. While people will often breed an animal to an unlike animal in hopes of getting particular traits that are desired, quite often traits are magnified in crossing breeds unintentionally. In the case of pits, they were initially designed to tolerate their owners well even though they were used in violent sports or work. Cross breeding with another kind of dog may remove some of that tolerance. Especially in breeding done by people ignorant of or uninterested in consequences.
Dog breeds were designed to do a job. Along with their job, they were bred to be both calm… and fierce. They need to get along with the human being that feeds them, and keeps them, or they would have never have found a home with us. But most of the jobs dogs were originally intended to do involved hunting and killing. All dogs have a trigger.
This is where it may seem that I am biased. I swear to you that I will give you nothing but facts, and you can take from those facts what you will.
Pit bulls have a trigger. They were designed to serve their masters. We, human beings, created them to do what we asked.
What we asked was that they lived in our house when they weren’t chained or caged, and when we asked, they killed to survive. They have a trigger in their DNA, just as all dogs do.
Just as a pointer or a herding dog has DNA that affords them a certain kind of ability, something that is inherent in the breed and more or less in each individual… something to be selected for and cultivated and in the end instructed to perfection, so too do the breeds that were selected to be killing machines. Some individual dogs have little of these ingrained abilities, yet their litter mate has the ability in quantity. You can’t always tell by looking, or even after living with an animal, how much of the genetic trigger is inside or how close to the surface it is. This is true of all breeds. But what is also true is that some breeds have a more sensitive trigger than others. I believe pits have a more well controlled trigger than most dogs, but not by much.
In the pursuit of their job, baiting and dominating large animals like bulls, bears, and other dogs intent on destroying them, as well as fleets of rats to be killed for sport or legitimate use, pit bull type dogs developed something else. Have you ever watched a dog attack? Most dogs will rush in and bite, each breed having a particular kind of bite, and then the attacker will back off. Very often the attacking dog will run away. Some breeds are not as likely to run away. One breed in particular is likely to attack again and again, sometimes never backing off or releasing at all. Even under heavy abuse, pit bulls were designed to be tenacious. They were bred to identify a target and destroy it. I have seen a pit bull attack a man, and even when the man was surrounded by others trying to keep the dog away, the attacking animal ran from side to side until it found an opening and went in to maul the original victim until it was repulsed… but the dog continued to dive in as it found openings, ignoring the easier targets it might have selected.
This is a characteristic of pit bull attacks. They are focused. They are tenacious. They are intent on doing their job. The pit bull style of attack is unique to the breed in its intensity.
I believe that pit bulls are no more likely to bite than any other dog. What pit bulls do… is finish the job.
They are genetically programmed by human DNA manipulation to finish the task they are assigned.
It is a fact that in 2015 there were thirty-four human beings killed by dogs in the United States. Of these attacks, twenty-eight of the animals involved were identified as pit bulls or pit bull crosses. The next breed in the numbers was Rottweiler with three, and between the two breeds, they represented the breeds in ninety-one percent of the deaths that occurred.
These are not numbers I made up. You have a way to verify the numbers. Check them out for yourself. Don’t ask for a link, because you will think I will guide you to biased information. Just be as honest as I am when looking for verification.
I like dogs and have always owned one. I was three when I got my first. I have lived with my dogs in my home from that first animal. I always socialize my dogs, and I always obedience train my dogs. They are much happier if they know what their pack leader wants, and I am happier, too. One of my pet peeves is seeing a dog abused by people that neglect them, and that neglect can be by not training them as much as by ignoring their needs. Dogs like to know what is expected. They were bred to please us, and they get all kinds of mental and emotional problems when they are freed from that obligation. If your dog is straining at the leash ahead of you, it is in control and less secure mentally because of it.
I also like pit bulls. They are not at fault for their genetics. Human beings have made them what they are. The vast majority will never bite. Some because they possess a calm temperament, some because their trigger is buried deeper, some because they have been handled appropriately, and some because they are lucky. I don’t want to be around a pit bull that attacks. Once they make that leap, open themselves to violence, they are difficult to turn off.
I am always nervous when a dog is first introduced to people, especially a child. Even moreso if there is more than one child. Children need training, too, and many are not socialized properly around dogs. Often, they are encouraged to be overly friendly. Dogs know that elderly people are frail. Anyone that falls in front of the right dog at the right time can become a target.
I have often wondered why our ancestors preferred smaller dogs, especially those they used for fighting. I believe they wanted to be sure they could control the animal if it became aggressive. They didn’t have medical facilities like we do today. One thing is sure. If they had wanted to breed huge dogs for fighting, they could have.
Just a little perspective…
Post script: Considering the children attacked so recently in Atlanta, I hope you will try to consider this article appropriately. I know it is popular to protect animals seen as gentle and part of the family, and I agree completely. But there is a line where reality must be understood as well.
One more thing. If you visit a county shelter you may see that there are more pit bull types being turned in than other breeds. I believe this is because young people without stable accommodations tend to like dogs that are seen as trendy, and pits are trendy because they are perceived as misunderstood or as intimidating. Both reasons are attractive to young people, so pits end up in shelters more often than other breeds… It is a sad fact that pits are harder to place, and that most dogs in shelters are euthanized. The best solution, as in most things, is to understand the realities through education and let the *market stabilize* by realistic and natural means. If this happens, there will be fewer pits bred and there will be more responsible ownership… and the issue will become more naturally balanced to the pit type dog’s advantage.
Post post script: I have been asked by my daughter to investigate the recent interest in calling pit bulls “nanny dogs.” Many of the claims made are entirely bogus in that the pit bull types were never called nanny dogs in the preceding centuries. That term has been invented in the present century, the last sixteen years. There are plenty of documented cases of pits living with families and small children, but the numbers of fatalities are consistent with modern times in context with the breed popularity. One of the larger pit bull advocacy groups, BAD RAP, has within the last few years announced that it will no longer support the “nanny dog myth.” It is not often that an advocacy group will deny something that supports a position that the group sees as beneficial to their cause. Good for them.
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