"A breed of satin and steel. Pit bulls are a mixture of softness and strength, an uncanny canine combination of fun, foolishness, and serious business, all wrapped up in love."

-D. Caroline Coile

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pit Bulls: It's Not All in How They're Raised

Nothing has brought the debate of Nature vs. Nurture to the mainstream quite like pit bulls have. People who say, "it's all in how you raise them," are well-intentioned, wanting to help these dogs overcome an undeserved bad rap, and I appreciate that. But they're wrong.

If you're standing firm on the Nurture side of the debate, riddle me this: If it's all in how they're raised, how is it that dogs who have spent their lives with dog fighters are now living happily as family dogs, in multiple-pet households, and as therapy dogs? How is it that one of my own pit bulls, rescued as a senior dog from an abusive hoarder, went on to be a breed ambassador at public events, even helping girl scouts earn their pet care badge? These pit bulls weren't raised according to the recipe for a good dog.

Here's where people get it backwards: It doesn't take a good person to raise a good pit bull; it takes a very, very bad person to raise a bad pit bull.

Which brings us to the Nature side of the equation. Year after year, standardized temperament tests show that the breeds commonly considered "pit bulls" score above average compared to all other breeds. And anyone who claims "pit bulls bite more than any other breed," apparently knows something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't. The CDC states: "There is currently no accurate way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed, and consequently no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill."

There is no scientific evidence proving that pit bull type dogs are more "dangerous" than any other dog. (Newsflash for anyone getting their information from the media: The media reports what it wants, how it wants. What sells papers isn't an accurate reflection of reality.)

People often point to the dog fighting heritage as proof that pit bulls are "aggressive." This is one area where Nature and Nurture agree: willingness to fight other dogs has nothing to do with attitudes toward humans. It's also illogical — dogs bred to be champion fighters were among the most gentle toward humans; bites weren't tolerated. Dog fighters want to hurt their animals, not themselves.

Does this mean Nature wins? Not really. As with any breed, seriously abused animals may bite back. On the flipside, compassion and rehabilitation can go a long way toward rebuilding trust.

That's true for every animal (including humans). Pit bulls are canis familiaris, just like any other dog, and they should be judged on their behavior, just like any other dog, regardless of what they look like or what they've been through.

Bottom line: All dogs are individuals.

Does this mean everyone should run out and adopt a pit bull? Of course not. There's no one type of dog that's the perfect match for every person and every lifestyle.

Pit bull type dogs are strong and full of personality. Some are energetic and tenacious (though mine are mostly driven to get a good spot on the couch), most are intelligent, and almost all are loyal ... almost to a fault, which is why they're such easy targets for dog fighters and other abusers. Some pit bulls don't like other dogs. But, others, like my own, love their canine housemates. (Meanwhile, my parents' purebred standard poodle has been dog-aggressive since she was 12 weeks old).

Perhaps most importantly, pit bull people have a responsibility to be good breed ambassadors, the best dog owners out there, to avoid feeding media trolls and misconceptions.

So, if you're up to the challenge of defying discrimination and bringing a goofy, loving dog into your home, there are a lot of pit bulls out there who need you.

Like Sophie, a petite, sensitive pit bull rescued last summer in the largest dog fight bust in U.S. history. Her foster mom has had the joy of watching her rediscover life and love, describing her as a "natural born clown." To learn more about Sophie, or search for adopt-a-bull dogs in your area, visit Pit Bull Rescue Central.

by Stephanie Feldstein
Photo credit: Amanda Clase

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  1. My husband and I run a rescue for neglected and abused pit bulls. We also take in former fighting dogs. I have found the dogs who come out of these situations are the best companions. They are loyal and loving and would die for the adoptive families. It is much easier to train a dog who has been abused because once they have experience unconditional love they will do anything you ask. We have had dogs in our rescue that came to us walking skeletons and once they have physically recovered from their abuse they are loving dogs who listen well and try so hard to please because they thrive on the love and affection they receive for doing something right. Pit Bulls are the easiest type of dog I have worked with and I have worked with a lot of different breeds, I trained Labs for service animals to assist physically challenged individuals. I have trained pocket dogs not to bite or be aggressive towards their own humans. I have also trained retrievers to retrieve. But the pit bulls we work with now are by far the smartest of all the dogs I have worked with. The worse the life they come from the quicker they learn and the quicker they forgive. I am not promoting abusing a dog by any stretch of the imagination. But I also don't discourage people from adopting a dog from shelters. I tell them it isn't the dog its the handler. Most dogs respond to love and respect. They need clear cut boundaries and positive reinforcement when they do what is asked. We reward positive behavior with love and affection, and toys and treats. We distract bad behavior. If a dog is doing something that is inappropriate we remove them from the stimuli and encourage positive reactions until it becomes second nature for them. This could be feline aggression or digging in the garbage. Any dog can be a great dog with the right encouragement, training, and patience.

  2. I too am a pit bull "advocate" and dog lover. If you would like to follow me, I am moondogmama on wordpress. I look forward to reading more from you!

  3. I have beautiful AmStaff (pitbull) that was a stray. She showed up at our house almost 8yrs ago and has been a part of our family ever since. Even though I was leery of this dog when I first saw it (because of the negative information I had heard for years through the media) there was no way I could turn this sad, thin dog over to the animal shelter...we lived in Spotsylvania, VA where the local government was working to outlaw owning these animals and she would have surely been killed. So we welcomed her into our family. We are not positive of her history, but we are fairly certain she has been abused, possibly in a fighting situation. She had an "old injury" when she showed up...after a trip to the vet, we were told it was a shattered knee...a blunt force injury that had healed. Probably from being kicked or, well you get the idea. But onto my point here...she was obviously abused. But despite this fact, she has been the most gentle and loving dog! She has NEVER shown any signs of human or dog aggression! She is always happy (tail wagging and wiggling) to meet new people and loves to romp and play with her sister, a black lab! She loves to run with other dogs at the river but is most happy curled up next to me on the couch, because she's just too big to sit on my lap where she would prefer to be! She still cowers at loud noises (like gun shots or screaming in anger) and she trembles like a leaf during thunderstorms. She has transformed our family, especially our daughter who is a lover of ALL dogs, into very vocal advocates of pitbulls and other bully breeds. Your are right, bad people make bad dogs!

  4. All Pit Bull Owners should understand that the most powerful tool to change Pit Bulls reputation is in our hands, becoming the best owners we can be for our dogs, raising awareness and showing the world how wonderful Pit bulls can be by making our own dogs become the best ambassadors of their breed and allow those who discriminate the breed to see and experience how wonderful our dogs can be in the hands of caring owners, no matter what happened to our dogs in the past , they all have the ability to change their behavior and become great member of our families and communities.