Looks are Deceiving: Why Breed Bias is Wrong

Just when I think that humans as a society who love dogs, are progressing into a more modern knowledge mindset, I get my placidity kicked right out from under me by witnessing so vile a hatred against a certain type of dog, that I struggle to breathe normally. So many cities who once enforced BSL ("Breed Specific Legislation") are now thankfully repealing those archaic laws. Those of us who educate others on the subject of dog behavior as a whole rejoice when we see those kinds of laws repealed. We know that BSL doesn’t work. We know that you cannot judge a book by it’s cover. We know this but so many others still don’t, sadly. 

Media sources who choose to use sensationalist headlines are definitely part of the problem, as they are looking for clicks and shares instead of facts. Facts are often left behind in that scramble for a better algorithm. Rarely is any breed identified as an aggressor unless it a breed already targeted for hate, as in pit bull-type dogs. “Labrador retriever bites woman walking down the street” doesn’t sell stories. But “Pit bull attack” does. It feeds into the mass hysteria. The more extreme the news of this type, the better it sells to those who often act without thinking, rather than those who utilize critical thinking skills.

I know, I know, some of you may be thinking I am force-feeding you to like pit bull-type dogs. Not at all. You don’t have to like any specific breed that doesn’t resonate with you. There are some breeds of dogs that I would never want to be a guardian to, but I don’t fear them, nor do I hate them, nor do I believe inaccurate information about them. Dogs are dogs. Behavior is behavior. That is what this is all about; spreading false information and hate while calling it facts. Facts are science-based. Facts can be proven repeatedly. Facts are documented. Facts can be replicated. Falsehoods are hysteria, better left in some dark basement or buried deep to never resurface. Those of us who are educated and experienced in modern dog behavior knowledge know better than to feed hysteria.

So sit down, grab a beverage and let me address some of the arguments that pit bull-type dog haters use so that I can enlighten you with the real deal on such.

Pit bulls have locking jaws

No dogs have locking jaws. No, they really don’t, despite what some may have read on google, please read here. It’s not a thing. It’s made up. Any strong powerful breed with a strong jaw and the tenacity of serious aggression *can* let go when in the act of biting a person or another dog. The jaws are not locked. They work just like any other dog jaws. There are certainly degrees of difficulty in separating dogs who are fighting, that is true but not because the “jaws are locked”. People who have broken up dog fights in shelters and rescue groups know this. I certainly have and do.

Pit bulls were bred for (dog) aggression

Actually, no they weren’t. They were originally bred for bull baiting. Read more about that here . Do you know anyone who walks their urban or suburban streets with a bull? No? Neither do I. As the various bully breeds were more firmly established, old time dog fighters bred for “gameness”, which is the willingness to keep fighting, so that they could use their dogs to fight other dogs. Dogs who showed human aggression were “culled”. That means killed. That’s right, they did not want their dogs to redirect on the human handlers when being pulled out of a fight. These old-time dog fighting dogs were very human-friendly, to the serious disadvantage of their lives. They loved their humans, despite what they were forced to do. Sad, really. As dog fighting progressed, amateurs got involved and less strict breeding practices were used. Less stable dogs were bred. But make no mistake, these were all purebred American pit bull terriers, or Staffordshire bull terriers or American Staffordshire terriers of lines that could be traced, not the mixed with many different breeds Pit bull-type dogs that are what most bully breeds in the United States are made up of now.  And in the US, they were all APBT. That’s right, you are hating on mixed breeds of unknown lineage bred by backyard breeders or oops litters from irresponsible dog parents who don’t spay or neuter. Their temperaments are no better or worse than any other breed or mix of any other breed or mix. It’s all a crapshoot. Even the temperament of the dogs from the lines that are bred to fight are a crapshoot (but less so) but more on that later.

Pit bulls have it in their “breed” description to be dog aggressive

So do about a hundred other breeds at minimum. I was going to include some links but there are just too many. Look them up. Doberman, Akita, Dachshund, Scotties, I could go on and on. But do you know what? Breed descriptions initially were written by people who only knew that breed and absolutely nothing about dog behavior as a whole. Additionally, the traits mentioned were based on old school dog behavior knowledge that has long since been debunked. Breed descriptions should all be rewritten so that those of us in the know never have to hear another dog show announcer state that a breed is “dominant” or “stubborn”. If you are a dog trainer, I can hear you nodding your head. Dog show drinking games anyone?

Breed traits are important

Again, nope. Parental traits are important. Plenty important. Don’t breed aggressive (or anxious) dogs and all will be right with the world. Really. Breed traits are nearly meaningless unless you are talking about a performance/working line dog with an individual lineage of lots of working/purpose dog relatives. But that brings up back to parental traits. I guarantee you that you are not meeting any long line of successful fighting to the death dogs in suburbia while on your walk with Buffy. Read here    and here for more. And for the exact science behind the importance of parental traits as opposed to breed traits, 3 days of amazing scientific presentations on the topic .

Before someone starts shouting about the brain MRI study done by a Harvard researcher, let me briefly touch on the many flaws in this study. Studying only 63 dogs of only 33 total breeds is hardly a well-rounded study. Do the math on how many representatives of each breed that would allow. Do you know many dogs that don’t act like the breed that they are? Do you know many dogs that act like a breed they aren’t? Same. In order to do something like this effectively, one would need a group of dogs of any performance/working breed that have actually been working for the job that they were bred for, for several generations and another group of dogs of the same breed who had not been bred from working lines. Study those brains to see if there are differences. Then do the same with mixes of those breeds. Studying a border collie and comparing it to a hound are two different things. In order for such a study to be of the quality that is needed, it needs to be far more extensive than it was. Additionally, I need to point out the most telling and supremely important part of this study that I never see anyone quote.

“Border collies are amazing at herding but they aren’t born knowing how to herd. They have to be exposed to sheep; there is some training involved. Learning plays a crucial role”. There’s more and if you actually read the article on this study, then it’s no more saying that dogs of certain breeds do what those breeds are supposed to do than any other already out there knowledge. But we currently live in a society of sound bites and click/bait headlines. Critical reading skills have been left behind. Here is the original article.

Pit bulls can badly maim or kill a person when they bite

So can Labs and doodles and German shepherds and even beagles and since babies are also humans, a Pomeranian can also kill a human (and has). Should we ban all dogs using this premise? Perhaps the more responsible solution would be to strengthen laws that allow humans to have dogs as pets instead of allowing any Tom, Dick, or Harry to have one. Germany does this. It’s hugely successful. But this is America, we are free to do whatever we want here, right? We are sadly. That isn’t a good thing. Do you want safety with regards to dogs? Then you need stricter ownership/breeding/training laws. Simple fact. That is the true solution. There is no getting around this. The commonalities in the tragedies that make the news typically include such things as: chained or isolated in some way, intact, no training, little or no vetting, little human interaction/affection and not responsibly bred. Not breed.

BSL works in other countries

Actually, it doesn’t. Not at all. Facts, not fiction. Read here and here and here

It’s all in how you raise them

Nope, sorry, not true. Advocates often use this phrase and it isn't accurate. If one is going to make sure to pass on solid information, one needs to gather facts. Nature and nurture are both important, as already evidenced by a couple of the links provided above. But this one really hits home here.

Most of Michael Vick's dogs were able to be saved because of this right here; nature and nurture. Genetics do matter, but they are not breed genetics. Epigenetics also contribute. Like I said, it’s all really a crapshoot. We cannot ban or euthanize a dog because of something that might happen. That’s like genocide.

Advocates also often claim that Pit bulls were nanny dogs, hoping to convey a soft image. That's a mistake because it's not true. Why are there so many pictures of old-time pit bull type dogs with kids if this isn’t true? Quite frankly, because they were considered the quintessential family dog at that time in history. Those were family pictures and the dogs in question were part of the family.

Breed ID’s based on looks

Take a look at this link.  You will be quite surprised.

Those puppies look like pit bull-type puppies, right? That assumption could not be more wrong. This is how wrong basing how a dog might act on how they look can be. Who gets to decide what “breed” a mixed breed dog is? Even the so called experts in the dog world would not have gotten that one correct.

Why are so many pit bull-type dogs in the news in a bad way? Because they are considered a status type “breed”. The irresponsible dog owner is drawn to status type “breeds”. Again, the commonality in media stories often includes these traits: intact status, often chained outside, no or poor veterinary care, no training, little positive interaction with their humans, unsupervised with children or unfamiliar adults. Start compiling the data on the humans who own these dogs and that is where you will see the problem. This brings us back to my opinion that we should have minimum requirements for dog ownership in this country. I promise you that will be what reduces not only dog bite statistics but also dog abuse. Furthermore, the sheer quantity of pit bull-type dogs in the US is staggering. Considering the quantity that exist as pets and the like, it’s amazing that there are not more horror stories in the media. Mull on that a while. This actually shows how few pit bull-type dogs are aggressive compared to other “breeds”.

For a stark and factual look at this subject, I heartily recommend Bronwen Dickey’s amazing book “Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon ”. From the very first chapter, I give you this quote: “Contrary to the media narrative only a tiny subset of American pit bulls will ever have any contact with the world of illegal dog fighting. Only a handful of dogs from specific of one breed-the American pit bull terrier-are still selected and trained for that purpose. Cruelty investigators at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States report that even within this highly specialized subset only one dog per litter may show the necessary temperament and stamina for the grim task of mortal combat, which is on part with historical estimates, which place the number of purpose-bred APBT’s matched in pit contests somewhere between 1 and 10 percent. Therefore comparing the temperaments and behaviors of elite fighting dogs with those of all pit bulls is a bit like using the U.S. Navy SEALS as a benchmark for all American men.”

Furthermore, because I wanted to make sure that I was fully understanding this particular 1-10 percentage,  I contacted Ms. Dickey and asked her to clarify. This information that she wrote about came from the dog fighters themselves in their own “trade” magazines. That’s right, of all of the purebred elite APBT’s specifically bred for this horrific “sport”, the percentage that they were able to create with the right traits for the “job” was staggeringly low. They would have improved that percentage had they been able to, since it was their life's work. That's a far different image than the general public’s perception that all pit bull-type dogs of any lineage are monsters. 

There will always be haters of pit bull-type dogs. But being armed with facts rather than fiction can educate those on the fence on this subject. You will never convince the die-hard bully breed haters that there is no reason for their hate. Blind hate is a terrible thing. It festers and seeks out like minded haters. Instead of obsessing about the strongly biased, educate with facts whenever you can. If you are lucky enough to be a dog parent to a bully breed, make it your job to help your bully breed be the best that he or she can be. The more breed ambassadors there are, the more the biased will not spread their disease. This is a great article on how to be a better advocate for the breed.

Photo credits: Heather Long 

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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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