Why Are There So Many Pit Bull Attacks?
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Why do pit bulls attack innocent people and animals?
I must first say… I like pit bulls. Properly bred, trained, managed… they are a good, safe, fun family dog. If you do it right, then they make great pets.
Also, there are times when it is OK and normal for a dog to bite. Not all dog bites are bad things. We get dogs to protect our property and our families, to protect livestock and to hunt animals. There are also times when an innocent dog is set up to bite an innocent person, and then it is the owner that is really the one at fault, even though often times the dog is unjustly sentenced to death.
Then, there are the situations that lead to the dark side. It starts with misunderstanding dog behavior, especially that of the pit bull breeds (yes, there are many dog breeds that were created to fight). I have studied pit bull attacks for many years, so here are the things I have observed. There are a number of motivations which trigger these attacks. The following list are the main reasons. A particular attack might be just one of these, or could be two, or could be all operating at the same time. Without knowing the dogs and the situation, there’s no way for you to definitively say what caused the attack. It is important to note that these motivations can cause ANY dog of ANY breed to attack.
We also have to acknowledge that there are things that people do that cause these attacks. It isn’t just the dog.
Working with a properly bred dog, a good dog trainer can show you how to head off these attacks. None of this has to happen.
1.) Poor Breeding: Many dogs are poorly bred. This is true with every dog breed. There was a study done many years ago, where they bred fearful Pointers with fearful Pointers. Guess what? They produced fearful puppies. So, fearfulness can be inherited. But, even so-called good breeders often mate dogs that shouldn’t be bred. I have had a difficult time with breeders over the years. Most of the time, you can’t tell them a damned thing. I have explained, I’ve even shown them the studies, of what it takes to breed a confident, fearless puppy. But, they still keep doing what they are doing. I’ve had numerous conversations with breeders to tell them that they aren’t breeding protective dogs, they are breeding fear biters… and it went in one ear and out the other. So, if you breed a fearful pit bull, then some or all of the puppies will be more likely to be fearful. Fear is one of the triggers for biting. But, you can breed dogs that tend to be too fearful of things, animals and people. Just as I see with all breeds, I see way too many pit bulls with weak temperaments. A dog with weak temperament sees threats where there are none.
So, this is a people created problem. A dog can’t help how it is bred. It can’t help itself if it sees threats where there are none.
2.) Medical Problems: A dog will defend itself if it isn’t well. A dog can’t help if it is sickly or injured. It is our job to keep them medically well. Do you think all those lowlifes that breed dogs to fight, that are in gangs, and use dogs for criminal purposes are going out of their way to provide good medical care for their dogs? No way. It is not unusual for these dogs to be severely infected with parasites and diseases, to have unhealed wounds and injuries, and lacking in vaccinations. Some have had even worse things done to them to make them medically unwell. Have some compassion on these dogs, don’t unfairly label them as “vicious”. They are sick.
3.) Lack Of Socialization: For some reason, many pit bull owners don’t socialize their dogs. Their dogs aren’t taken places as pups, not put in puppy socialization classes, not trained in public, not taken places, not even allowed out of the back yard. Dogs that aren’t socialized become overly wary of other people and strangers. That wariness, just like fearfulness, triggers biting in the older dog. Animal neglect is cruel, and a lack of socialization is a form of animal neglect.
This is also a people created problem. Dogs can’t socialize themselves. Puppies can’t get the keys to the car, drive to the park, and then go and say “Hi’ to everyone, then come home in time for dinner.
4.) Abuse: This should go without saying. If you allow abuse, or purposely abuse any dog, then the dog will have to defend itself. For some reason, pit bulls tend to attract a higher percentage of animal abusers. So, you get punks that want a dog to attack people, so they’ll abuse the dog to the point it will attack anyone. Drug gangs abuse them to turn them into fighters to make illegal gambling profits, and to protect their drug operations.
Abuse is also a people created problem. WE abuse THEM. Then we stupidly blame the dog when it is put in impossible situations where it must protect itself. Using a pit bull as an illegal fighting dogs is animal abuse. You have to do things to these dogs to make them want to attack other dogs, even if those other dogs are acting innocently. These thugs do things to these dogs to make them fight without any of the normal survival triggers for aggression.
5.) Territorial: We know some of these attacks are because dogs are territorial, even pit bulls. Animals in the wild, as well as domestic dogs, protect territory from competitors of their own species, and from predators of other species. Since dogs bond to their human families, those people are considered part of their pack, and are not considered competitors or predators. Strange people and dogs are viewed as unwelcome competitors. Competitors in the wild will kill pups, eat your sources of food, displace you from your pack, displace you from where you live, and will even gang up on you to kill you and your other pack members. Other animals, such as cats (house cats, cougar, lynx, bobcat), wolves, coyotes, foxes, and bear would be viewed as unwelcome predators (most likely to kill pups and eat them). You’ll note that dogs don’t guard the property against bugs, birds, worms, and such because they aren’t viewed as competitors or predators. Most attacks are on or near the premises on people the dog isn’t bonded with. It is rare for a dog to attack someone it knows and has a good relationship with, unless the dog is sick. So, we know that many of these attacks have an element of protecting territory. Pit bulls can become highly territorial if allowed to live in a back yard. And being behind a fence, alone without a human for guidance, with intruders just on the other side, is frustrating, and that frustration builds up over time. Most of the dog attacks you read about involve a stranger either entering the yard or house, or when the dogs escape the yard. There is a reason why pit bulls were used as “junk yard dogs”. If you leave them in a yard, especially if you don’t socialize them, they will then protect that property. If the dog is socialized, then normally friends and friendly strangers can enter the property with no problem. Socialized pit bulls are known for being people friendly. If the dog escapes, and is well socialized, it is possible that the dog will be very friendly, too, but not always. They are still dogs, and if they perceive there is an intruder, they will protect their territory. If the dog has not been socialized, and left in the back yard too much, that’s when the attacks tend to happen. Now, the dog is worried when someone or some animal they don’t know is on or near their territory. Further, many pit bull attacks are the result of the dogs being left in yards that have a broken fence or gate. The dogs escape and then attack people or animals near their territory. It is important to note that the role of the guard dog is obsolete. No professional protection dog trainer will ever recommend leaving a dog alone to defend itself against a human criminal. The human will always win. So, by leaving pit bulls unattended in the back yard, you don’t get any of the benefits, but you retain all the risks.
Territorial attacks are usually also a people problem. Dogs that can’t escape yards can’t attack people outside yards. Dogs don’t bite people they are bonded to when they enter the property. People that the dog knows, that enter the home in a mannerly way, are going to get a slobbery kiss, not a nasty bite. Strangers that surprise a dog, by jumping into the yard, or breaking or entering into a home uninvited, provoke a territorial bite. Strangers that tease a dog behind a fence cause a dog to become motivated to get out to bite the next person that threatens them like that.
6.) Pack Oriented: I remember reading a research paper on chimpanzees. A husband and wife were studying them in the field. The wife got pregnant and had a son. Chimpanzee males don’t like the infants of other males, and will kill them. They will also kill the young of baboons, because baboons are competitors of the chimpanzees. When this woman’s baby was born, the dominant male saw this woman’s baby, he stared at the child, lips compressed, and hair on end… the dominant male would have killed that baby if he could have. Temporarily, they built a cage for their infant, so that the chimpanzees couldn’t get to the child. They had to discontinue their research and get their child away from that environment. That is a normal thing with many species. Males, and even females, will kill the young of competitors of their own species, and those of other species. That is a type of “pack” behavior. Lions do it. Hyena do it. Chimpanzees do it. Bears will kill wolf pups. Lots of species practice infanticide. And some dogs will attack children because of this motivation, regardless of the breed.
And there are other pack motivated reasons for attacks…
Many of the pit bull attacks you read about in the home happen when someone is there babysitting the dog. There are always risks when house sitting for someone else’s dog, regardless of the breed. If you don’t know the dog, and the dog hasn’t truly accepted you, and if you don’t know what you are doing, then you can provoke an attack. Second, house sitters and baby sitters aren’t all good with supervising kids or dogs. We all know you shouldn’t leave kids and dogs unsupervised, but babysitters do it all the time. Further, if a dog isn’t yours, you really haven’t earned the right to correct that dog. You don’t have the legitimate right to correct a dog that isn’t bonded to you, so the dog isn’t going to be inhibited from attacking you instead of obeying you. Another thing to note is that most pit bull attacks often involve multiple dogs. Most of the stories you hear about pit bulls attacking strangers involve a group of two or more dogs escaping from the property and then attacking. There is a good reason why we have laws that make it illegal for dogs to roam in our communities in packs. A pack of dogs, regardless of the breed, will do things that an individual dog won’t do. There is strength in numbers. Pit bulls were originally used as hunting dogs, to bring down big game. Several of them would be set loose to grab a wild boar, for example. So, they have a strong predatory instinct towards other animals, and that can sometimes be activated if the dogs are highly agitated and running in groups. The same effect is true of sighthounds. Sight hounds, such as wolf hounds, were released in packs to chase down, and overwhelm a wolf. They worked together better in packs. Coonhounds are sent in packs to find and tree bear and raccoons. They don’t hunt alone. Thus, it is important that if you own a pit bull that you don’t let it run unsupervised in packs in the neighborhood; that you prevent your dog from escaping the yard; you are wise about how many dogs you own, because the more you own, the more pack oriented motivations will surface; and that you keep your dog on leash in public. These dogs can also panic when they have lost contact with their families. This is partly why pit bulls that have escaped their yards tend to bite people. The very trait that makes them a great pet works against them when that world all falls apart. Group aggression is also a common trait in most social animals, including humans. But, back to dogs… even in litters of puppies of any breed, they can gang up on one puppy and kill it. Learning and habits increase the probability of dogs attacking as a group, too, because learning implies past success at using aggression to drive away a threat, or capturing prey. And whereas a fearful dog might run away, a group lessens the feelings of fear, so the dog is more likely to participate in the attack. And it also must be mentioned that the pit bull doesn’t necessarily have to be the instigator of the attack. It could be the Chihuahua in the group. It is also possible that the pit bull could come to the defense of one member of it’s pack, but because of its strength, be blamed for the attack when it really wasn’t the one that started it. Even jealousy can play a part in a dog attack, especially against a new member of the family, such as a spouse, baby, or new dog. Any breed can act aggressively if they are jealous. Lastly, one of the common ways a group oriented species attacks is called “mobbing”. I believe some group attacks on people or animals can be considered mobbing. It is a group defense. There is also a boost in dominance when dogs run in packs. A type of social superiority is enhanced when groups of dogs work together. They are stronger, others respond to them differently than if they were alone, and their united strength will cause them to seek status and resources that they otherwise wouldn’t attempt alone. This is especially true if the dogs are bonded together. It is even stronger if the dogs in the group are all male.
People have a large role to play here, too. Only people a dog is bonded to have the right to correct that dog. People who have a lot of dogs quickly find out that their problems multiply, so it is imperative that you do even more training for each dog in order to have control of them as a group. People are stupid to let their dogs roam the neighborhood. Predators tend also to attack the sick among them. Sick animals make other animals sick. Thus, lions will attack a sick member of their pride, driving it away from them, and killing it if it doesn’t go away. Nature has its way of preserving the health of the pack. People sometimes wonder why we see attacks on some people that are handicapped or sick, and I think this sometimes plays a role. There are a lot of things about pack behavior that people tend to disregard. Packs of free running dogs are responsible for many dog bites in countries such as India. I read of one city that has 100,000 dogs roaming the streets. The emergency rooms report about 100 dog bites per day in that city. In third world countries, not only are the dogs roaming the streets, but people get rabies from the dog bites. In some cities, they round up dogs by the thousands and kill them in horribly inhumane ways. Dogs need to live in homes, supervised and properly contained. It is stupid and harmful to let dogs roam the streets freely.
7.) Predatory Instincts: Dogs are carnivores. They are domesticated canines. Canines hunt other animals and eat them. Thus, dogs have inborn predatory behaviors which are honed through experience. Thus, dogs will see prey like animals and chase them, and even grab, shake, and kill them. Wild animals have been trained by their parents to then eat their prey, which is why most dogs don’t eat prey that they have captured. This is why we can use dogs for hunting purposes. A properly trained Pointer or Retriever will pick up a dead bird and bring it back to us without eating it. A Terrier might kill a rodent, but usually won’t eat it. Since we don’t teach our dogs to hunt and eat meat, they only learn the chase, and sometimes the killing part, but don’t usually eat the prey. Though, I have known dogs that will grab an injured bird, kill it, chew it up, and eat it… all part of normal canine behavior. Prey animals do behaviors that trigger carnivores to chase and capture them. A squirrel that runs triggers a dog to chase it. Joggers trigger some dogs to chase them. Kids running cause dogs to chase them. Bicycles and motorcycles, and autos and trucks, can trigger the predatory instincts of some dogs, and cause a chase. Dogs are unlike cats, which stalk, hide, rush, and then attack. Dogs aren’t stalking predators. They are all coursing predators, which capture their quarry by running it down. They also tend to course in packs, not as individuals. Thus, dogs running in packs are more likely to attack out of their predatory instincts to chase, corner, and attack. You see this more readily in rural areas, where a group of dogs, regardless of the breed, will chase, gang up and maul a horse, kill a bunch of sheep, or kill a bunch of chickens. Groups of coyotes will do this, as well. And of course, we know that wolves hunt in packs. So do lions, and hyena. People are especially concerned about attacks like this in third world countries, where dogs are allowed to roam in packs. People are attacked in the streets. Babies are even stolen from their huts. I had a student that had all of her chickens killed after a strong wind storm weakened one side of her fence. In the night, a group of canines (we don’t know if it was dogs or coyotes) came into her yard and killed all her chickens. They didn’t even eat them, just killed them and scattered them all over the yard. I’m inclined to think these were dogs because they weren’t eaten. Yet, wolves will sometimes kill this way too, leaving behind dead cattle, sheep, etc. That’s one reason why ranchers haven’t liked the re-introduction of wolves in the West. It is the predatory instinct we activate when we set a group of dogs on a boar, coyote, wolf, bear, or big cat. Many breeds were created to do this, so this isn’t just a pit bull kind of thing. It’s just that we don’t hear about some of the other breeds doing this because some of the stronger hunters don’t get loose very often. How many people own a pack of, say, Irish Wolfhounds? Not many. But, those dogs were created to kill canines… wolves. What is often misunderstood is that a dog can be doing something for multiple reasons. Those motivations are additive. Fear, territoriality, predatory instincts, and aggression can all combine in one attack. The other thing to note is that note that not all pit bulls have the same temperament. Unlike purebred dogs, pit bulls are often really mixes of a lot of breeds. Thus, the more true examples of the breed are noted as being confident, people friendly, not very territorial, and not people aggressive. Many pit bulls are stolen from back yards, for example. They don’t guard the property, and they are happy to see someone, even if they are a stranger climbing over the wall. Many pit bulls aren’t game, either, and won’t fight back if attacked. Some have been mixed with other breeds, so you get a wide variance of territoriality, gameness, fearfulness, predatory instincts, and aggression. The pit bull advocates will say that the breed is unfairly labelled as vicious, and they are right. On the other hand, many pit bulls are not really purebred dogs, but they still look a lot like a purebred pit bull. There are also some rare pit fighting breeds that aren’t like the American Pit Bull Terrier. For example, one breed that is in development is the Bully Kutta. I don’t know how it is with people. But, it is being developed in Pakistan for pit fighting, and there is a lot of interest in the breed worldwide by those that want the next greatest thing. The Presa Canario was traditionally wary of people. It is another pit bull breed, but very unlike the American Pit Bull Terrier. People have also tried a lot of crosses between Pit Bulls and some of the mastiff breeds, such as the Neapolitan Mastiff, to try and get a more people aggressive dog. The Argentinian Dogo’s I’ve met have been much more intense in their predatory instincts than any of the American Pit Bull Terriers I’ve worked with. But, with all that said, whenever dogs are intensely aroused, and allowed to run in packs, especially after escaping from their yards, they are more likely to get into serious trouble. That is why there are laws in almost every state saying that ranchers have the right to shoot and kill dogs that are harassing their livestock. It is also why some farmers had an American Bullldog on their property. I spoke to John Johnson about this many years ago. There were packs of feral dogs in Georgia’s countryside, that would kill livestock and endanger people. American Bulldogs were used to guard the property (territorial motivation) and attack and kill these predators (roaming packs of feral domestic dogs). Many of the types of injuries we see from these group attacks also make me believe they were partly motivated by predatory instincts. They look a lot like the types of bites a boar, bear, mountain lion, wolf or coyote would have after being mauled by a pack of dogs. They don’t look like, and aren’t located in the same places of the body, that personal protection dogs bite someone. And the set up looks more like a predatory attack. The pack is chasing, grabbing, taking down, and so forth. This is not the same thing as mobbing. In these circumstances, the attack isn’t defense oriented.
People are stupid to run away from a chasing dog. People are dumb to have their animals in situations where a pack of roaming dogs can chase or get to them. Packs of predators also attack the vulnerable: the weak, injured and young. Predators attack the weak, injured and young because they are programmed to look for easy food. Even though we are talking about dogs, they still are programmed as canines, and so certain behaviors trigger their predatory instincts.
8.) Mood State: Pit bulls, like all dogs, once upset, are going to be more likely to defend themselves. Once a person or animal is upset, it takes time to wind down. We know that about ourselves. If we have a terrible argument; we get lost in the forest and have to be rescued; someone close to us dies; etc., it takes time to get back to a normal, happy, relaxed state. If a dog is upset, such as getting loose from the property, then it is in escape mode, it panics, and it will protect itself. This is why we see loose pit bulls, especially those that were kept as backyard dogs, running in packs, attacking everyone they see up and down a residential street. If a dog gets in a fight with another dog, then it is going to take time, even weeks, for the dog to get back to normal. If the dog was abused; the dog protected the master from an intruder; the dog is sick or injured; etc., it will take time to wind down. Injured and sick dogs are upset, and take time to unwind, too. There have been many pit bulls shot and killed by the police, after the dogs got upset and hadn’t yet wound down. The police officer comes to investigate, the dog is off leash, even in its own yard, it goes after the cop and is shot. People don’t understand why the cops killed their normally friendly pit bull, golden retriever, and such. Once a dog gets upset, it takes time to unwind. Many rescue dogs fail temperament tests, and are deemed vicious. The testing is invalid and clumsy. Most of those dogs would turn around after overcoming whatever trauma they’ve been put through. I’ve seen many “before and after” photos, and read many stories of pit bulls that were taken out of rescue in horrible shape, and turned into model citizens. When an animal is endangered, they remain in an agitated state for some time, in preparation for a repeat danger. They are more alert, and more likely to defend themselves. We need to respect this behavioral pattern, because there is no way to train that out of a human or a dog.
It is our job to read and manage the moods of our dogs. When they are upset, we need to keep them apart from others until they have gotten back into a happy state of mind.
9.) Social Aggression. Social aggression is normal, a behavioral set that maintains the pack. Man working breeds, unlike most other dog breeds, were specifically bred to display social aggression towards humans. Pit bulls were never meant to be man stopping dogs. That’s why you don’t see them on police forces. Forcing them to become guard dogs is a mistake, it goes against their programming. That wasn’t their purpose. They were hunting dogs, used in groups to capture big mammals, such as pig dogs in Australia. However, they were also created to fight other dogs. The pit fighting breeds had the recognition and display of submissive gestures bred out of them. They even have a more limited range of vocalizations. It is something that humans can be blamed for. Yet, it is something that is manageable, along with all the other traits mentioned in this article. Even so, pit bull breeds have enhanced animal aggression, and they show very little avoidance in a confrontation with other animals once challenged or if they do the challenging. People get hurt when a pit bull attacks their dog, and the people get in between the dogs to try and break up the fight. In such circumstances, which can happen with any dog fight, the dogs can actually turn on the human… even the dog owned by that human. So, we see a number of attacks when an escaped pit bull attacks a dog that is being walked by someone, the person tries to save their dog, and they end up injured, too. The people also make the situation worse because they do things to intensify the confrontation.
People need to manage the relations of their dogs relative to other dogs and the people the dog is around. This is why we train dogs. Training is the best way of keeping dogs out of this kind of trouble, and can be used to diffuse confrontations. Sometimes the dog that attacks isn’t the dog that started the fight. If your little nasty fluff ball is a brat, aggressive and rude, and it challenges a bigger dog to a fight, then which dog is at fault? And if you are stupid enough to get in a fight with a dog, by provoking them through teasing, rough treatment, or abuse, then it is your own damned fault if the dog attacks you.
10.) Lack Of Training. I will guarantee you that most of the pit bull attacks you hear about involve dogs that had little to no formal training. How stupid is that? What kind of stupid cheapskate gets a pit bull and doesn’t train it? Proper training is essential to having a well behaved dog. Training gives you more control. Training reduces the chances for unwanted aggression. Training is part of the socialization process. Training makes a dog a functional part of the family.
Pit bulls aren’t much different than any breed of dog. All of these factors play a role in almost all the dog attacks we read about in the news. Any dog with poor breeding, that is neglected, abused, not properly supervised or contained, and then put in an impossible situation, will bite. Unfortunately, a lot of people treat their pit bulls this way. It is really a people problem, not a dog problem. The breed isn’t inherently dangerous. The improper management of these dogs is inherently dangerous. Almost all dog attacks are preventable, regardless of the breed.
People Are People, Dogs Are Animals: We must also recognize that dogs are animals, not people. When we read about how dangerous a stallion is, we accept that you don’t mess with an intact male horse. Male horses are that way to help protect the herd from predators, to fight back by kicking and biting. But, when I say that canines work in packs, which has the primary purpose of protecting the young, and to get food, then we get all weird about having more than one dog, especially if it is a pit bull. When we watch shows on animals these days, the camera cuts away after the wolf kills the calf, the lion kills the baby gazelle, or the cat kills the mouse. So, when I say that predation might play a role in a dog attack, people conjure up the idea that maybe a pit bull is similar to a human sexual predator, and then draw conclusions that they are somehow defective, and that society needs to be protected from them. No, the defectiveness is in our view that dogs are somehow furry human babies.
For a long time now, I have been preaching that pit bulls aren’t inherently dangerous dogs. And I still hold to that position. They are just dogs. Dogs can be raised and managed properly, or mishandled and abused. They are animals. They do what animals do. Dogs are predatory pack oriented animals. Dogs do what predators, and pack oriented animals do. The other side of the ditch is where some of the pit bull advocates are heading, promoting a false image that these dogs aren’t what they are. Their original purpose was as companions, hunters of big game, and pit fighting dogs. We can also look at the news and see for ourselves what happens when they are mistreated or mishandled: they can be made dangerous. They aren’t always going to be great pets or people friendly after that… But, that is also true of every other dog breed out there. So, let’s not blow all of this out of proportion. Are they devil dogs? No. Are they saints? No. They are what they are, and what we make them. We can either prevent accidents or we can allow them to go on. We either give each pit bull love and a fair chance at a good life, or we mistreat them and make them dangerous. It is just an animal. We are the ones that have the moral responsibility to make them safe for our homes, strangers, and other animals. The dogs can’t do it themselves. No law can make a dog into a human. So, stop blaming the dogs. It is people that are ultimately responsible for what happens.
That is why there are so many pit bull attacks. This article isn’t written to justify why a particular dog or breed attacks, but to explain the possible reasons why the attack occurred, and then what would follow would be: what can be done to prevent future attacks. Almost all dog attacks are preventable. It is up to the humans to educate themselves and then properly socialize, supervise, contain, train, and lead their dogs, regardless of the breed.
(By the way, I will be updating this article from time to time, as people comment. I want to address everyone’s opinions.)
Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.