Saturday, March 30, 2013

A question for pit bull owners

I've been pondering one of life's little mysteries, and it occurred to me to mention the conundrum here. OK, some background: It's not too difficult to establish the fact that pit bulls are responsible for the vast majority of fatal dog on dog attacks, and while they are said to be "only" animal-aggressive (as if it's OK for pit bulls to kill innocent family pets) it's also a fact that pit bulls injure, maim and kill more human victims than all other types of dogs combined.

As thinking people, we look for patterns and meaning in events.  We tend to notice things like the fact that, of 7 Americans killed by canine so far this year, all 7 were victims of pit bulls (references below). So naturally, one asks, "why is this the case?" or "what factors could account for this disproportionate representation of pit bulls in the statistics on violent attacks, injuries and deaths?"

One might look into the history of the breed (the term "breed" is used loosely here) to see what clues, if any, may be gleaned. Sure enough, we find several hundred years of selective breeding and violent blood sport: A molosser breed, the "bull dog" was bred to torture de-horned bulls or de-clawed, tied up bears in the UK for sport from the 1500s to the 1800s. These canines were bred to be tough, to grip the victim with strong jaws, and hang on to the death, disregarding any pain or injury suffered.

In 1835, "bull baiting" was outlawed, but the sadism of the dog men didn't disappear, but rather sought a new outlet, and "pit fighting" became the new pastime. Two bull dogs would be placed in a fighting pit to battle to the death. Here, the selective breeding continued, tuning the specialized canines to an existence optimized to killing canines in the fighting pit. These pit fighting bull dogs, or "pit bulls" had the normal canine etiquette bred out of them. No warning of an attack was given, and the normal canine language which existed to avoid actual deadly conflict, was stunted. When a pit bull attacked, it didn't matter if the other canine submitted, fought back, or tried to run away, the relentless attack was to continue to the death.

It was soon discovered that breeding the bull dog with the athletic and energetic terrier created a more energetic, relentless attacker, and thus the "bull and terrier" was created. Compact and muscular, tenacious and relentless, with a powerful jaw, no mercy and a freakish insensitivity to pain, the "English Bull Terrier" or "Staffordshire Terrier" became the standard pit fighting dog.

When dog fighters travelled to America, they brought their pit bulls with them, and renamed them the "American Staffordshire Terrier". In any case, pit bull breeding and fighting continued in the colonies, but in no way were the fighting dogs ever generally popular, nor were they ever considered suitable as family pets. The dog men knew better.

The dog fighters continued to breed for "gameness" - the drive to attack, and not to stop the attack no matter what. Dogs that submitted, or didn't want to fight were considered "useless curs" and were cruelly culled. Only the most relentless killers were allowed to breed.

Fun fact: AKC registered "American Staffordshire Terriers" can be registered with the UKC as "American Pit Bull Terriers"

For many decades, pit bull breeding and dog fighting thrived, but began to move underground as disapproval by the general public began to re-shape the legal landscape in favor of curtailing the violent sport. Things began to look grim for the dog fighters as the "sport" was outlawed in more places. Even though law enforcement often looked the other way, it was always easy to spot a dog fighting operation: the presence of pit bulls was a dead giveaway.

During the 1980s, certain organizations began pushing the idea of "rescuing" pit bulls and promoting them as family pets, a brilliant move which, if successful, would provide cover for the dog fighters; if pit bulls began to appear in homes as family pets, the presence of a pit bull would no longer be a reliable indicator of dog fighting operation.

One of the unfortunate side effects of this "rehabilitation" of the pit bull is that normal dogs began to pay the price. As they say, you can take the pit bull out of the fight, but you can't take the fight out of the pit bull. Shelter workers, who had not seen pit bulls before, would mistakenly put a pit bull in the same cage as a normal dog, and come in the next morning to find a dead dog, cruelly torn apart, in the cage with the pit bull. Normal dogs would roll over and submit when the pit bull got the upper hand in a fight, but to a pit bull, this was merely an opportunity to disembowel the poor dog.

Since the 1980s, hundreds of thousand of innocent family pets have been cruelly mauled to death, often in their own yards, sometimes in their own houses, by roaming pit bulls. And another statistic began to appear. Prior to the 1980s, there were maybe 3 deaths a year from dog attack. But once pit bulls started to be placed as family pets, the number of human casualties began to rise sharply. The number of human deaths from dog attack is now 10 times what it was in 1980, and pit bulls are responsible for the majority of the increase. There is really no other factor on the radar. Rottweilers are a distant second, and no other breed is even anywhere near the Rottweilers in the statistics.

So, when one hears the old "first it was the Dobermans, then it was the German Shepherds" it's instructive to keep in mind that even in the "Decade of the Dobermans", the Dobermans never killed anywhere near as many people as pit bulls.

So, I've said all that to say this: it would seem apparent to me that the reason pit bulls are responsible for such a disproportionate number of violent attacks, resulting in serious injuries and deaths, is that they are simply doing what they were bred to do.

"Not so fast!", the pit bull advocates say, "pit bulls are wonderful, loyal, gentle, misunderstood creatures that would never hurt a fly, so loyal that they will fight to the death for their people."

I ponder this, and then have to ask: "If they are so loyal, why do they kill their owners so often?"

The answer comes back from the pit bull advocates: "it's the fault of bad owners!"

"But", I ask, "aren't pit bulls predisposed to violence due to their breeding?"

The pit bull fans respond: "No, pit bulls are absolutely the same as any other dog. All dogs can bite. It's all in how you raise them. When a pit bull attacks, it's only because pit bull owners mistreat their pit bulls, they abuse them and train them to be vicious".

At last, we have the answer. It has nothing to do with the hundreds of years of breeding for sudden, violent attack, the gameness, the uncanny tolerance for pain. It's all because those damned pit bull owners are so evil.

Then the pit bull owners share an interesting fact: "Do you know that pit bulls score higher on the ATTS than any other breed?"

"What is the ATTS?", you might ask. Well, according to the pit bull fans, it's a test that accurately measures the soundness of temperament in a given dog, with a high score indicating a dog that is dependable and reliable, and non-aggressive unless there is a genuine threat. (From what I can see, the test actually measures the boldness of a dog and nothing else, but I digress)

So we think about what the pit bull fans have told us: "pit bulls are exactly the same as any other dog, it's all in how you raise them". So obviously, the reason pit bulls have such high scores in this ATTS thing is due to the fact that pit bulls have such awesome owners, right?

But wait - this is a conundrum. Which is it? Do pit bulls have the worst owners of all dogs, or do they have really great owners? Please enlighten us, enquiring minds want to know!

References -

Fatal pitbull attacks
DBO: dog bite fatalities
Staffordshires Online
The nanny dog myth revealed
The bull dog - an abnormal canine monster dog
Animal Experts and the Innate Aggressive Traits of Pit Bulldogs