Pit Bulls: Angels or monsters?

Yulia Khouri / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Despite their reputation, Pit Bulls are not considered great guard dogs by the experts. They are too trusting to humans, and may greet an intruder as a new friend. Creative Commons

Pit Bulls as a breed have been at the center of debate among the pet community, breeders, animal welfare activists and of course, the general public. The disturbing reputation of the breed is not a secret. In fact, it has gotten so bad in recent years that numerous European countries, Canada, as well as many states in the US enacted new laws specific to the breed and some even enforced a complete ban on Pit Bull ownership, import and/or off-leash handling in public places. In fact, Pit Bulls have been banned in England and Wales since 1991.

After the bans, numerous rescue and rehabilitation agencies were established all over the world to help abandoned, unwanted or unruly Pit Bulls to have a second chance in life and to find better loving homes, where expertise in handling these dogs is well established. Nonetheless, thousands of Pit Bulls are euthanised each month (yes, month!) in the shelters. As someone put it “Once known as America’s Dog, the Pit Bull could now be called America’s Most Abused Dog.”

Abuse towards Pit Bulls is horrendous: they are often “punished” by their uneducated owners for their natural strength; often beaten, forced to starve, their teeth pulled and in some cases their mouth taped shut by the “owners”. They are systematically tortured in dog fighting rings and they are frequently chained up outside, caged and neglected by owners who want nothing more than a scary looking guard dog to assert their failed masculinity.

Pit Bulls are, in my opinion, strong, beautiful and vibrant dogs and do not deserve to suffer and die. Yet, many would argue: how can we understand the systematic examples of the breed’s seemingly uncontrollable viciousness? Is the breed really deserving to be slowly eliminated from the animal kingdom because, as argued by many, they are “genetically” violent? Or it is the fault of humans and the owners of these dogs?

I was faced with this very question just few days ago when we received a disturbing call that a Pit Bull on the loose was targeting and killing dogs in our neighbourhood. Our team reacted immediately: our handlers went out to search for the dog; it was quickly located, while in the midst of a fierce fight with another family dog.

The scene we witnessed was rather unnerving: the large young Pit Bull was fighting a smaller family dog, throwing it viciously in the air like a rag doll. As soon as our team approached and snapped the Pit Bull into a choke chain, it immediately released its victim, started waggling its tail and obeyed our command to follow the team into the crate. He stayed in the crate quietly and after arriving at our Center, we were able to handle him easily as he obeyed all our commands without a hint of aggression. The dog he attacked, however, died few minutes later.

We were able to locate the owner of the Pit Bull; I happened to know the owner personally and I know that he is a responsible man who is well versed in handling large working breeds – himself having many for decades. He told us that this was his first Pit Bull, which the family raised from a puppy. When they got him from the breeder they were reassured that there would be no issues with aggression. The dog was treated as family pet, has been wonderful with humans and children for almost 2 years. He also has been accepting other dogs who live in the household.

The tendency for aggression was not detected until later; the family noticed he would “switch” to a “hunting mode” while he was taken for walks outside his home, showing aggression to cats and other dogs. Immediately, the family made all the necessary steps to train the dog, to socialise him and to change his behaviour. All was OK, until few days ago when the dog escaped while the owners were not at home. No surprise there: due to their well-built athletic physique, Pit Bulls are some of the best fence-climbers in the dog world and are well-known to be superb escape artists.

So, what happened here? Is there something really wrong with Pit Bulls? On one hand, there is a huge number of cases where Pit Bulls make great family pets, and are gentle giants with kids and other animals. Likewise, there are just too many examples of Pit Bulls attacking and killing, causing severe injuries to humans and other animals. Let’s turn to the history of the breed.

According to the available literature: “Pit bulls were bred in England and were brought to America by the settlers. These dogs were bred to fight other dogs and animals, combining the strength of the English Bulldog with the gameness (fearless nature) of a terrier. Even in the early days (1800s), aggressiveness toward humans was an undesirable trait for these dogs, as human handlers often had to be in the fighting ring with them.

“Pit Bulls were often used in bear baiting, a bloody sport in which bears were publicly tortured for the ‘entertainment’ of onlookers. After bear baiting was outlawed in England, the sport of ratting became popular. A pit was filled with rats and dogs competed to see who could kill all of them in the shortest time. Some believe that this is where the pit in Pit Bull comes from. In the old days, Pit Bulls found many uses on farms, from hunting, to protection, to helping with livestock. Pit Bulls were popular mascots in early 20th century America, appearing often on army recruitment posters and other advertisements. Pit Bulls were considered to be so trustworthy with children that they were known as nursemaids or nanny dogs.”

Despite their reputation, Pit Bulls are not considered great guard dogs by the experts. They are too trusting of humans, and may greet an intruder as a new friend. The claim that Pit Bulls have special “locking jaws” is also not true, they are just really strong.

So, as a result of their breeding specifications, Pit Bulls have a tendency to be aggressive towards other dogs – even if they act like perfect angels around humans. Experts recommend lots of socialisation with other dogs when they are still puppies, but due to their strength, they should only be handled by the experts of the breed. Another important point to keep in mind: Pit Bulls do not always growl or display aggressive body language before attacking. They are also more likely than other breeds to attack a dog that has rolled over in submission. In other words, a lot of normal canine behaviours that are intended to avoid deadly conflicts between members of the species have been bred out of them, making them unpredictable to those even experienced dog handlers, who are unfamiliar with the breed.

While I know of several people who breed Pit Bulls, almost none have the required expertise, time, patience and concern for the breed. The few that I have personally spoken to in Cambodia are passionate and love these dogs. What they miss is concern for the unsuspecting public that purchase the puppies. In a country where the pet industry is still in its infancy and where public knowledge of canine behaviour is very basic to say the least, unregulated breeding and selling of Pit Bulls is, in my opinion, completely irresponsible and negligent. Before a breed as specific as the Pit Bull can be introduced to families and to society, the knowledge of the breed is not only desirable but also an absolute necessity to prevent public tragedies.

So, let’s put it simply: the fault here is a human one without any doubt. The breed is fantastic and if it’s handled within the strictest protocols and with the strictest owner selection, the dogs will be great companions for human families. The main fault for all tragedies lies with those who “breed to sell”, instead of promoting knowledge and responsible Pit Bull ownership. If quick cash is on the top of your list, the deaths of the breed you are claiming to love will be in your hands.

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