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Pit Bulls, Breed not deed? – written by Jo-Rosie Haffenden

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 5.59.20 PMI adore pit bulls (especially my own) and believe they make exceptional pets for the right people in the right situations.

Breed not deed? This is something we hear frequently and we all say yeah – its the owner not the dog, The breed has nothing to do with it… I’m going to say here that I don’t agree with this. And Ill explain why. And please bare in mind I adore pit bulls – It’s just more complicated and I would like people to actually understand it holistically.

So each dog is a biological, psychological, physiological, social creature. The dog is biological – he has genes and a mum and a dad and a brain. If his mum guards – we know (look at Scott and Fullers stuff) he is more likely to guard. If a part of the predatory motor pattern has been emphasised through selective breeding then this behaviour is also much more likely to occur AND is likely to have an intrinsic reward. Bully breeds are bred with an enhanced grab-bite, bite-kill aspect of the Predatory Motor Pattern. So they like to grab and hold and bite down and not let go. Most people with a bully breed will agree with this. Litters of bullys are also tenacious and more tactile than some other breeds and also get stimulation and excitement as a result of this rough, tactile behaviour. Most terriers have this. All this stuff builds a dog. It goes into the pup that comes home.

The pup also has a brain. Brains are wired differently and as a result of this a dog behaves differently. He may get aroused quicker and be more impulsive as a result of serotonin and dopamine and testosterone levels. Springers who had displayed human aggression were tested and found to have lower serotonin levels than dogs of other breeds who had been aggressive. Certain breeds are predisposed to process information differently and have different levels of chemicals.

So the dog is also a physiological being too. He is built a certain way and he ‘is’ physically. So for a tiny dog, for example, needs to shout.to be heard because larger dogs and people don’t listen  to more subtle signs. Some might suggest that’s why, when tested, they come higher up the scale for aggression to people and dogs than the bigger dogs.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 6.01.14 PMGoing back to our Pit Bulls, they are wide, muscular with almond eyes and short hair. When other animals approach they are likely to be more suspicious than if they were approaching a fluffy pale coloured spaniel or similar who looks loose, limber and friendly (even when he sometimes isn’t). The pit bulls muscular build means they also suffer with tension. Tension that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. This causes a high level of generalised arousal. They also tend to enjoy very physical play and play fighting. Archie will pick up a ball-on-a-rope and shake the ball in a way that wacks the rope against his body and he LOVES it. He loves the feeling of the rope smacking his body – he gets so much physical stimulation for this.I have spoken to many pit bull owners with dogs with the same or similar hobbies. All these things cause our pit bull to be a pit bull and not a golden retriever. And, as a mali owner too – I can confidently say that pit bulls are definitely in the hard range of dogs to live with.

So then we also have the psychological animal. As behaviourists we are so interested in this bit! Why does he do, what he does. We all say they do what that do because it works – because it is functional. What is functional to one dog is not functional for another. My viszla couldnt think of anything worse than a conflict with another dog. She will give up all her favourite stuff because she hates even the smallest hint that another dog might be upset. MY individual pit bull quite enjoys it when another dog gets a bit much and has a bark. Their reactivity is exciting and stimulating. I know we kind of like to think that everything comes from fear I would say alot of the pit bulls I have worked with actually get over stimulated and find the physical nature of rucks reinforcing. And learn to react or ‘play poke’ at dogs to try an illicit this sort of play. They are not mean or nasty but they do enjoy physical and highly aroused play. It is similar to what they were originally bred for and part of their selective drive.

The dogs psychology depends on their experience and this will effect their neuro pathways as well as their DNA. How they think, what they think and ultimately what they do is effected by what has happened in their live. It is effected by what motivates them (intrinsically – inside) as well and it is effected by the consequences of previous behaviour.

I think Collies are a far more obvious example as we are still selectively breeding them (and arguably, all the while they are illegal we are still and will continue to selectively breed pit bulls too). So we all have seen the little 12 week old Collie on Americas Got Talent where the pup herds the duckling. This puppy is predisposed (eye, stalk, arc and down). Especially a working bred collie. His body is also formed for it with hard eyes to increase the movement of the sheep (as the intensity of the stare is full on and lingers). Then when a collie has been also reinforced for doing this behaviour its even stronger and the dog learns cues too. Also every time the dog does this behaviour it is stimulating. Collies ‘get off’ on watching the sheep move and get frustrated when the sheep do not move. A badly taught or untrained collie will chase sheep and not herd. This collie is a collie gone self employed.

Same is true of Pit Bulls. Pit bulls are bred for this tactile, high arousal, bold and sometimes overtly vocal behaviour with stiff postures and tense muscles. This can seem offensive to other dogs and can mean owners have to work way harder, socially, to ensure they learn to be appropriate with other dogs.

The pit bull is a social being too! Socially we need to socialise in a way that is understanding the dogs natural predisposition for example we know they get an intrinsic reward from rough play, high arousal and using their mouths. It is so important that we socialise them in a way which doesn’t reinforce inapproprate and self rewarding behaviours as the dogs are very susceptible to behaving inappropriately with these natural biological, physiological, psychological creatures.

So all this means – yes. The deed and the way we socialise and the way we train and treat the dog has a massive impact. But they are not a staffie. They are not a collie. They are not a Labrador. They are a pit bull. They are biologically prone to certain behaviours and certain postures and certain neuro pathways which are developed as a result of the dogs having these intrinsic rewards based around what he is being bred and has been bred for. It DOESNT make them predisposed to aggression – just certain behaviours stimulated by certain triggers. Id actually say there is no predisposition towards affective aggression towards people in the pit bulls Ive met. They are usually very human orientated and do not suffer like a lot of guardian breeds – with a natural suspicion towards people, or a natural tendency to worry about new things entering their space or any aversion to touch like many breeds. These predispositions seem to be a little bit more prone to developing into aggressive behaviour towards humans. However, reactivity in arousing circumstances can easily trigger a pit bull to use his mouth – which is what has happened in most of the human-dog interactions gone wrong I have seen for this breed.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 6.05.45 PMIts a very complex thing. Obviously, all the above implies that BSL is a joke. Which it is. All dogs are predisposed to various behaviours and many are more or less predisposed to biting, to human aggression etc etc. Pit bulls are wonderful, courageous, excitable, loving, energetic and playful beings. In the right hands they are wonderful. They are not a Staffie or the ‘same’ as other breeds or other dogs. They are not for every body but they are for some people (me included). I just want to go on the record saying this as so many people obsess that it is JUST the background or JUST the owner. I know some fabulous and safe dogs living in horrific homes with awful owners. My own dog has a background of mutilation, violence and insecurity until he came to me around 7 months and he is a superb dog and very friendly and optimistic with humans.

There is a lot that goes into a dog. We can do all our bits right and it can still go wrong – and what breed you choose DOES matter, Anyone should be allowed a glorious pit bull but choose this breed based on knowledge and experience (meet one). They are not a walk in the part but they are awesome!

By Jo-Rosie Haffenden

For more incredible information from Jo-Rosie and her super pitt Archie go to: Jo-Rosie.com
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