The Pit Bull Terrier and the facts behind the breed.
The Pit Bull Terrier
This must be the most misunderstood breed ever. What is a Pit Bull Terrier, other than a dog that causes huge arguments all the time on social media? These are the facts regarding the breed and why things are going wrong.
Let me start by stating that dogs as pets is a relatively new concept.
The original Pit bull originated in Britain during the 1800’s. Old English Bulldogs were crossed with Terrier type dogs, and the Bull Terrier name was born. These dogs were selectively bred as fighting dogs. Initially they were bred for Bull Baiting, hence the “Bull” Terrier. When Bull Baiting was outlawed in 1835 these dogs were then used for Dog Fighting instead, although against the law even then. As these fights were held in pits, these dogs became known as Pit Bull Terriers.
When you selectively breed a dog to fight, you want a dog that can get down to the business of fighting very quickly, plus you need a dog who is not going to try to run away the first time he gets bitten. Over and above that you need a dog who is very tolerant to people because when engaged in fighting the handler needs to be able to pull him off without getting bitten, anybody who has broken up a neighborhood dog fight will know how difficult it is not to get bitten yourself.
So how did they do it?
Selective breeding for certain traits: People tend to believe these dogs were bred for aggression only. That would really be a silly thing to do. The selection was about tolerances. Every predator has a predatory motor pattern. It is a specific sequence a predator goes through from feeling hungry until he actually eats. The full predatory motor pattern of a wild wolf for example will be: Orient > Eye –Stalk> chase> grab-bite> kill-bite> dissect> consume. (Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger DOGS, a new understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and evolution). He will not be able to eat if he does not chase, he will not be able to consume without biting. This whole repertoire is needed for him to feed. In these fighting dogs, by selective breeding, humans have selected for the parts of the Predatory motor patterns that are useful. Dogs expressing behaviors that were not needed or wanted were not allowed to breed. So the different parts of the predatory motor pattern we see in dogs are the segments that have been selected for. Those behaviors selected for became very strong and the other unwanted behaviors faded into the background. By continually over generations selecting dogs who dis inhibited (got worked up) quickly and who showed high levels of aggression to other living things except humans, parts of the Predatory motor pattern were enhanced. Any of the dogs who did not have that quick dis-inhibition and who did not go straight for the Kill Bite, were not bred with.
Another way of explaining this selective breeding is to look at the Border collie. So which were the segments of the predatory motor pattern selected when they were first selectively bred? They had to stalk and chase sheep, but never bite them. You do not want a dog to damage the sheep, so a Border collie who bites sheep was not good breeding material as his offspring might have the same tendency. The predatory motor pattern for selective breeding therefore was Eye-Stalk > Chase. His predatory motor pattern should not be played out any further than chase or else it is seen as a fault in his genetic make-up.
The playing out of the Predatory Motor Pattern, or segments of it, makes the dog feel good and falls into the SEEKING system (Jaak Panksepp- Affective Neuroscience – the Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions). A chemical called Dopamine is released in his brain making him feel very good. That is also the basic principle of dog training. Behaviors that get reinforced and therefore are enjoyable for the dog will be repeated, behaviors that dogs don’t like to perform will probably not be voluntarily repeated.
So now back to the Pit Bull Terrier. What about his predatory motor pattern? You don’t want him to bark and run around, you don’t want him to just stare the other dog down. So your selection from the predatory motor pattern is simple: orient > kill bite. Now as in the case of the herding Border collie, this is the behavior performed by the dog of his own free will, in other words, the behavior the dog enjoys doing. The behavior that releases the feel-good hormones in his brain.
There is always fall-out to selective breeding, if you breed for just one trait you often get other odd things creeping in, like a change in coat color or a curly tail. In the Bull breeds the selection for the particular segments of the predatory motor pattern had a very fortunate fall out, these dogs have a very high pain threshold. This worked in the favor of the “best” fighting dogs because they would carry on fighting even with horrendous wounds, and because they were the victors they were the ones used for breeding. On the home front this high pain threshold was also an advantage because these dogs would tolerate far more easily the actions of children and toddlers, things like pulling of ears, being trodden on and other things that would cause most other dogs to at least warn the toddler off with a growl. And there the “nanny dog” myth were born.
Because they were so highly tolerant towards people, they often were left alone with children and were regarded as very good family dogs. The American Pit Bull Terrier at that stage was almost the perfect family pet, provided he was either kept as an only dog, or never allowed to reach a threshold where he could express his abbreviated predatory motor pattern. Breeders knew what these dogs were about and precautions were put in place regarding other animals. New puppies that showed low tolerance towards people were kept from breeding and in most cases culled. Genetically they were monitored. Only highly human tolerant dogs were bred with, resulting in highly human tolerant pups in most cases.
So what changed? What is the difference today? Why are we reading on a regular basis that someone has been attacked or killed by a Pit Bull Terrier, a lot of times by their own dog? What is all the fuss about and why is everybody fighting over the breed?
It all started going wrong for the breed in the 1980’s when Sports Illustrated ran an article about the Pit Bull Terrier. People started noticing these dogs and they started becoming popular. People started breeding these dogs all over the world and with their popularity also came the problems.
Unregistered and inexperienced home based breeders started breeding these dogs and could not keep up with the demand. Certain traits that previous educated and experienced breeders kept an eye on however, were forgotten. Pups that showed signs of lower tolerance towards humans were allowed to breed. Inexperienced breeders and owners stopped socializing the pups. Some dogs landed up in shelters or on chains as their owners could no longer handle them. Dogs that now exhibited low human tolerance were used as guard dogs. So all this started contributing to dogs that had very low or unknown tolerances towards humans.
Now, genetics you cannot change. Once a puppy is born nature has done its job. If the puppy starts to demonstrate a low tolerance towards humans while still very young he will become a problem at some stage. This normally only happens once the dog reaches sexual maturity at about 6 months. This is because as a mature dog he has higher Testosterone levels. Testosterone is the hormone that gives dogs and people the confidence to go and try something new and so this dog starts to look for things to do that make him feel good.
Here it is maybe worth mentioning the breed standard for these dogs. In breed shows, dogs that show signs of aggression towards any humans will be disqualified, but a dog showing aggression towards other dogs will not be penalized as long as the dog is controllable. This also noted in the APBT organizations show rules.
There is only one thing we can do that might help such a puppy, and that is early socialization. This may help a puppy tolerate people and other dogs better, but it will not change his genetic makeup.
Now the next problem. What happens on the day the Pit bull Terrier for some reason reaches his threshold and attacks another dog, or for that matter a human? Because the parts of his Predatory Motor Pattern that have been selected for are so short, Orient> Kill Bite, he dis-inhibits very quickly, meaning he is fine one minute lying on the floor and the next moment he is in full attack mode. When we talk about threshold that is determined as the second before he reacts. That is why so many people after attacks agree on one thing, they never saw the attack coming.
To a Pit bull Terrier, because of his genetic makeup, performing this behavior feels good, or not just good, but great! Once the dog engages in his abbreviated predatory motor pattern (Orient > Kill bite) the feel good hormones are released. That is why they are so successful at what they do, and why it is so difficult to stop them once they are engaged in a fight, it is exactly like the Border collie herding sheep, a very good feeling. Although we are horrified by these dogs when they attack, they are merely playing out their abbreviated predatory motor pattern. To them it’s what they like to do, for them it’s fun.
So your Pit bull terrier has not killed another dog or bitten a human. That means he has never been given the opportunity to express his abbreviated predatory motor pattern, or he has never reached his reactivity threshold. Maybe he never will, but maybe one day, someone jumps over your garden wall and because the person startles him or maybe moves oddly or screams he attacks that person and injures or kills the intruder, who may be the child next door, so is he a “good dog”? NO, as we explained before, what happens when you are flooded with the feel good hormones? You want to feel that rush again at some stage. When? Maybe when you’re feeling bored or frustrated or even provoked. The point is, once that behavior has been expressed, it is more than likely that it will be repeated.
What can trigger this to happening? Many things for instance; not socializing the dog during the critical period of socialization, aversive training methods like the use of shock or prong collars, frustration if kept on a chain, keeping him as a back yard dog, keeping him in a small enclosure, and the list goes on.
And that is where rescue comes in. What do rescue organizations do with an unwanted Pitbull Terrier? Why was he given up? Did he bite another dog? Did he bite a human? Did he live on a chain? Was he underfed or abused? Can we feed him up and re-home him safely? That is where it becomes very tricky. That is also where we start looking at the Dunbar Bite scale. If he attacked somebody or another dog how many times has it happened and how severe was it?
The following taken from the Dunbar Bite Scale.
“Level 1- Dog growls, lunges, snarls-no teeth touch skin. Mostly intimidation behavior.
Level 2- Teeth touch skin but no puncture. May have red mark/minor bruise from dog’s head or snout, may have minor scratches from paws/nails. Minor surface abrasions acceptable.
Level 3- Punctures ½ the length of a canine tooth, one to four holes, single bite. No tearing or slashes. Victim not shaken side to side. Bruising.
Level 4- One to four holes from a single bite, one hole deeper than ½ the length of a canine tooth, typically contact/punctures from more than canines only. Black bruising, tears and/or slashing wounds. Dog clamped down and shook or slashed victim.
Level 5- Multiple bites at Level 4 or above. A concerted, repeated attack.
Level 6- Any bite resulting in death of a human.” Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale (Official Authorized Version) The Association of Professional Dog Trainers, 104 South Calhoun Street, Greenville, SC 29601 www.apdt.com
This is the basic science behind a Pit bull Terrier. Are they safe to re-home after a level 5 or 6 bite? Definitely not. Is it a good idea to breed them yourself? NO. If you really want one where must you get one? Contact the Pit bull Federation of South Africa for advice.
Here it might be a good idea to say that owning a Pit Bull Terrier should not be for everybody, in fact they should be owned by a very selective few who understands the breed and the responsibilities around them. They should not be walking around in the streets, and they should definitely not be used as status symbols or guard dogs. Here I will go as far as to say that behaviorists in South Africa would actually prefer these dogs to be legislated. To be honest that might be the only way to save the breed at the end of the day.
But if you still would like to own one of these dogs, below are a few points on what will be needed, and please note, at some point it might be necessary to separate your Pit Bull Terrier from any other animals that you might have.
So what do responsible Pit Bull Terrier owners do?
1. They make sure that they get a puppy at 8 weeks from a registered and responsible breeder who can show you, and allow you to meet, at least one of the parents and make available any temperament tests that have been done on the parents.
2. They properly socialize the puppy during the critical period of socialization. Socialize him with anything and everything you want him to cope better with as an adult dog. Will it change his behavior towards other dogs as an adult? Probably not much, as genetics are at work regarding that, but it will definitely help.
3. Daily exercise and enrichment. They need mental as well as safe physical exercises on a daily basis but be careful about overdoing the exercise because all you will end up with is a super fit dog who has the stamina to perform his “feel good” behavior for longer.
4. Make sure they cannot get out of a property to hurt any other animal or attack anyone walking by. These dogs are known to jump 8ft (2.5 m) fences. Make sure they are kept safe.
5. Don’t allow strangers or kids to play with them. When things happens with these dogs it happens extremely fast, don’t take any chances. It might cost a life.
Article by George van Huyssteen (Eden K9 Abilities) and Wendy Wilson DIPCABT (NOCN UK), CertCAB, CAPBT Practitioner Member, Practitioner Member ABC of SA