Calaveras Man Killed by Two Pitbulls—A Lesson About Pitbulls or About What Not to Do with Dogs?

Local news reports, “A Mountain Ranch man was mauled to death by two pit bulls late Sunday afternoon.”

The dogs belonged to a friend of the victim who was staying on his property. According to one newscast, the dogs were known to be territorial. They barked, growled and lunged at people from within their confined area. However the person interviewed stated that no one expected this. On the other hand, the opinion of some readers is that the outcome was obvious and the clear consequence is that pitbulls should be banned.

Whether you love pitbulls or wish they were all dead, the real message from this tragic incident should be, if your dog barks and lunges uncontrollably at people or other animals, you need some help with him.

As a veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist, I deal with aggression and bite cases all the time. In fact these make up about 80% of the cases that veterinarians practicing behavior see. One common thread between many of the cases—the owners failed to recognize the early signs that could develop to fatal aggression.

They ignored the problem until it was too late because they thought, “Barking is a normal territorial response,” or “He’d just run up to the visitor but I was sure he’d never bite,” or “He’s a perfect dog and so lovable the rest of the time,” or “We didn’t know it could end up like this!”

A second common thread is that the dog gets overly aroused and the owner can’t get their dog to focus on them and perform alternate, more appropriate behaviors.

What’s wrong with territorial barking?

It is true that dogs normally alert to and bark at changes in the environment such as people approaching their property. Some owners prefer this quality as it alerts them to possible danger. But if you as the human have no way of getting the dog to understand that his barking should have an on-off switch and most people approaching are no danger, you may be setting yourself up for a similar bite or mauling situation.

The problem is that each time the dog gets a chance to bark and the object of the barking goes away, the dog learns that barking works and he should do it more. At the same time the barking itself, like a rally chant, is self-reinforcing.  Add to that a second overly aroused dog and a human barking “No! No!” and now you create an air that is like gunpowder, waiting to explode.

That’s because arousal or excitement and aggression are on a continuum.

Regardless of whether the dog was originally barking out of fear, wants to play and can’t, or just wants you off his property, when the excitement level gets too high, he may just go into pure reaction mode. That’s the mode where he runs up barking and not thinking. This is similar to the drunken football fans who riots after their team wins the superbowl, or the peaceful but passionate protestors who suddenly turn into a violent mob. It’s not something specific to pitbulls. It’s a behavior characteristic of animals in general. For dogs, the larger they are, and the more practice they get, the more dangerous they can be.

Take home message

So let this tragic case be a lesson to anyone whose dog barks or lunges out of control. You can tell yourself “ Oh, he’d never bite,” or “He’s just playing,” or “He’s good the rest of the time.” But if you can’t call him and get his undivided attention on you, it may take a bite or mauling before you realize you were wrong.

Sophia Yin, DVM

To see videos on what you can do to train your dog to focus on you instead of barking, lunging and behaving aggressively watch these videos:



11 Comments

  1. paula

    August 28th, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Thank you so much for this article. I am a pit bull advocate and previous owner and volunteer for a pit bull rescue. People are always blaming the breed and that's why this breed is banned so much. When in truth they make great family pets. I am glad you wrote territorial barking is bad for ANY breed. As the saying goes blame the deed not the breed. The owners are irresponsible that own pit bulls and some like the agrgessive fighting quality. It's not the breed it's the owners!

  2. Maria

    August 29th, 2010 at 7:12 am

    It's all about how you train or take care of your pit dogs. I remember I had a pit puppy and when my son brought him home. I just fell in love with this pit. My son wasn't sure how I was going to react when he brought this pit to the house. He told me the story behind what was happening to this beautiful pit. I was so angry; let me write you a little about this story. My son had a friend that was the owner of this pit. Every time my son's friend would go out of his house and leave the pit alone roaming the house by himself no food or water, the owner would then come home to a messy house, books ripped up; paper tore up a complete mess. Well when this owner saw this mess, he would beat the pit puppy really bad. One day my son was with this friend, of course the owner was making a habit of these beatings every time he would come home and find the messes. My son saw this and asked him to give him the pup. My son then took the pit away from him, I was so happy that my son was couragous enough to see this happening and make a decision. My son didn't have to ask if we could have him, I automatically said can we have him, is it ours. So we were then owners of this beautiful animal and we took him into our home. We took tank to the vet and got him up to date with his shots and of course we named him tank. Tank was something else he was nice to everyone and especially kids. One day the last owner came by the house to visit my son. Thank God my son had him channed up ready for his walk when he saw the last owner, tank wanted to attack him when he shook my sons hand and gave him a hug. Tank remembered what he had done to him when he was a puppy. It goes to show it's all about how you raise your dogs and they will listen to you some people weren't meant to own a pit bull. Tank is not with us today, I sure think of my tank all the time. It's all how you raise these pit bulls, so yeah I think it's the owners responsibility for any action they take.
    Today I own a cat that was knocking or rather crying at my back window one night while it was raining out, she's been with us ever since.
    I love watching Victoria show every time it's on. I learn a lot about how to raise your dogs.

    Maria Serrano,
    readingzfynst@comcast.net

  3. Sue

    August 30th, 2010 at 5:50 am

    This is an important message for ALL dog owners, not just pit bull owners. Any dog, regardless of breed, type or size can become aggressive and out of control under certain sets of circumstances as outlined in the fabulous article above. Yes, pits are at the heart of this problem due mostly to owners who have no idea what they're dealing with in these great dogs. But don't think just because your dog is not a pit bull, he/she can't display behavior that could be a danger to yourself or others. Let's all heed the warning and train our dogs to be obdeient under all circumstances.

  4. Abigail

    September 7th, 2010 at 9:57 am

    It's really not just pit/bully breeds. My neighbors have a white fluffy dog (I don't know what kind) that runs up to everyone barking nasty and mean at them, and the owners do nothing! He has already come after me and my dog 10 times now, and my sister while visiting with her kids 2 times. I'm waiting for the day that dog bites someone so he gets taken away. Not put down... just given to a family that is responsibul! If this were a pit bull type breed I know it would not be tolerated, I know if it were my dog doing this it would not be tolerated. Why then should I have to accept it from a small dog?!

  5. ann

    September 7th, 2010 at 10:41 am

    I really appreciate this article as a pit bull owner with a leash aggressive pit bull. My dog is great, but I do have to watch for signs from her and be very vigilant about her training and her environments. After her first sign of aggression, she is no longer allowed to go to a dog park (nothing bad, but one of those first signs you do not want to ignore). I am very aware of other dogs when walking her, and I don't walk around blind corners, or attempt to walk next to another dog on the sidewalk. She can handle being across the street from another dog but only if we are briskly walking. My dog takes more work than most dogs, but the point is she is very manageable. I can see why in the wrong hands, or with someone not willing to put in the work, that attacks can happen. As a note, I have a friend who has a Collie who is quite aggressive. This Collie has killed 2 cats, and bitten several people and drawn blood. No one has ever turned this dog in, and it has no record of it being aggressive. My dog has gotten into 2 dog "fights" or scuffles where nothing bad has happened - no broken skin, not vet trips necessary and both were ended with a "leave it!" and pulling on the collar of the dogs. One happened when another dog came up our driveway off leash, and the other happened when an unleashed dog wandered into my friends yard where I was playing ball with my dog. BOTH times the people called animal control on my dog. Both times people made big deals about vicious pit bulls, not their unleashed dogs wandering onto other people's property, not the fact that both dogs were fine (in the first instance actually the little dog bit my dog 7 times and did draw blood, but it was minor). It just goes to show that the idea behind pit bulls is really the biggest problem (or else why has no one called on the Collie) and of course, people having dogs they can not manage.

  6. debbie miller

    September 7th, 2010 at 11:47 am

    its always the owners to blame! pits are beautiful dogs and ii've never known one that i wouldnt trust with my kids or friends. but, then again they were raised properly

  7. Moonbeam

    September 7th, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I am a rescuer. And, I've rescued Pits... even have one as a pet who helps with the foster dogs & kittens. I loved this article!!! I know 1st hand what wonderful dogs they can be... but you must be prepared to work hard with them in order for them to be the great dogs they were meant to be... But, I also know 1st hand when things go terribly wrong with a Pit & they have to be put down because someone didn't do the right thing in the begining. I love this breed & don't think any breed should be put down because of it's origin... just like back in the 80's when the same thing happened to Rotties. No breed should be put down because it happens to have possible qualities that someone can neglect or train to become bad. I beleive in MOST cases it's the owner's fault thru neglect or training.

  8. Heather & Rowena

    September 7th, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    What we also need to keep in mind is the NATURE and NURTURE part of who we are (or in this case, who the dogs are). If a dog breeder is trying to breed a certain temperment into a dog (of any breed), then that will play part in who this pup is and will become later on. So if a person is able to get a pup from a breeder breeding for an aggressive, fighting temperment early enough, with the right training, the person will be able to shape the puppy who may be predisposed to an aggressive demeanor, thus steering the pup away from the aggressive behavior that was bred into him. Some of us (pups) get the mean temperment and our siblings (littermates) may not. Life is a crap shute. We will never really know which plays the strongest... the nature or the nurture... in who we become.
    Don't know if that makes any sense, but there is is!

  9. Karen

    September 7th, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    I am SO HAPPY to see this article! I have rescued 2 pits and absolutely LOVE them, they are so sweet, loving, loyal, smart, great with kids and really want to please. Unfortunately that need to please their owners gets used and abused by horrible people. I am so saddened with the bad rap they have. It is truly the owner's fault if the pit acts out, or any breed for that matter. Thank you for writing this article and educating people on this incredible breed!

  10. Sarah

    September 8th, 2010 at 5:45 am

    I am always grateful to anyone who defenses the "aggressive" breeds. As a life long Rottie lover I've heard it all from why my first rottie wasn't safe for a 8 year old girl to how my new born daughter would be mauled by my now 9 year old Rottie. That same Rottie saved my baby's life and used to let her led him around the yard as a toddler. We recently rescued a Pitt/Mastiff mix from BARCS a local animal shelter. Here in the Baltimore area we have a high rate of Pits in our shelters and the likely hood that they were raised to be aggressive, especially dog aggressive, is always a risk you are taking when adopting from our low in-come shelter. They simply don't have the funds to evaluate every dog thoroughly. Our rescue was the perfect dog, he was easy to train, friendly toward cats and children, not the least bit food aggressive. We thought we had been sent a death row miracle. A week or two after adopting him we saw the Mr. Hyde side of our lovable goof. If he gets within leash range of another dog he goes into a blind rage. Twice almost resulting in his handler getting bit by HIM. He will do anything to get to the other dog. After you get him away from the dog he is all to pleased with himself. From his scars and leash aggression our best guess is he was used for sparring. We have come leaps and bounds with Big Boy's aggression, lucky for him he got adopted by two professional dog handlers. I can't imagine if he had been adopted by someone else, to many people would of chalked it up to the breed. This has nothing to do with the breed, he's aggressive because he was rewarded for being "tough". It pleased his owner, and as any bully breed lover knows that under that hard headed exterior bullies love to please us. Luckily for us that same drive to please his owner is helping in his rehabilitation and he can know walk on the same side of the street with mild reaction. Soon we hope he'll be able to accompany his owner to work at a local doggie daycare. I refuse to accept that a damaged dog is a ruined dog and Big Boy proves it. Be a responsible owner if you see the signs get the help you need to prevent your family pet from being coming another statistic.

  11. Melissa Martin

    September 8th, 2010 at 7:45 am

    I am a recent owner of a Pit Bull, and have fallen in love with the breed. My dog Chester was confiscated from his previous home and brought to the animal hospital where I work. When I got him, he was terrified of children, covered in cigarette burns, 10 pounds under weight, terrified to take food from my hand etc. I have been rehabilitating him with the help of a fellow Veterinary Technician/dog trainer, and he has come such a long way. He is happy, great with adults (we are still working on his fear of children) he plays well with my other two dogs a chihuahua, and boston terrier, as well as properly greets dogs off leash in parks. I am so upset that this wonderful, eager to please breed is getting such a bad reputation because there are people out there teaching them to be aggressive. This is a wonderful take home message, and I urge people to spread it :-)



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