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Why the irrational hatred for perceived ‘vicious dogs?’

Pitbull

Pitbull

Pit Bull.

Just mention the words “Pit Bull” in North America and many people’s lips will curl up with hatred. This particular breed of dog is immediately associated with wild, barely tamed, vicious dogs. And undoubtedly, there have been people and animals attacked by pit bulls. Horribly so.

And, there have been people and animals attacked by German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers – also all deemed to be vicious dogs. But let’s not forget there are people and dogs attacked by just about every other breed as well. It is true, we don’t fear for our lives if a chihuahua went for us, but they have been known to terrorise people and inflict nasty bites, despite their small size.

Why are dogs demonised, and some dogs more than other? To look up what exactly is a pit bull in Wikipedia, and you will see that “Pit Bull” is actually a generic term applied to several breeds of dogs. Each of the various Pit Bull breeds have a varied history. The American Pit Bull terrier is a schizophrenic mix of companion dog, therapy dog – and also the dog most used in illegal dog fighting in America.

In contrast, the American Staffordshire Terrier was bred exclusively for fighting.

Other dogs which might be confused with Pit Bulls include, British Staffordshire Terriers, which are bred for loyalty and off-duty companionship, and bull terriers, a muscular, independent dog, loyal but with a strong prey instinct (can’t you just see that their heads were built for snuffling down a rabbit burrow?!).

Then there are the non pit bull dogs that people fear – German Shepherds, well known for working with law enforcement, or Doberman’s, known to terrorise Magnum in the popular 1980’s television show, or rottweilers which are just big, muscular dogs believed to froth at the mouth and are therefore, obviously vicious.

Of course, I’m being slightly tongue in cheek here. Despite the fact these dogs have reputations, thousands, if not millions of people still have them for pets. And for the majority of pet owners, they are perfectly fine pets which have never bitten anyone or anything. However, something about a dog that is bred to be vicious also attracts people who want their dog to be vicious – and they are plain not nice to their dog.

But it is wrong to demonise every dog, no matter what it’s breed. Talk to any dog breeder, and they will tell you its the owner that is largely responsible for the personality of the dog. And increasingly, in no small part because of the fear created by vicious dog by-laws throughout North America, people have an irrational fear of any dog that wants to sniff, bark, play, run, chase a ball, lick or jump and say hello. Because people are scared that another dog owner will misinterpret their dog’s behaviour, they won’t allow another dog near theirs. In the end, their dog never gets ‘socialised’ – a very important factor in a dog’s development.

Dogs are pack animals. Before humans domesticated them, they roamed the lands in packs, working as a team, to bring down prey for the rest of the family. It is probably highly questionable that Fifi, the bouncy, happy, adorable little Shih Tzu/west highland terrier cross that lives only for lying in its owners lap has the faintest clue as to pack hunting anymore… But, even Fifi will know there is certain etiquette to approaching other dogs, and the only way Fifi is going to learn it, is to approach other dogs. Even in today’s urban packs of mixed human/dog teams, if Fifi approaches a dog with poor social etiquette, the other dogs will put her in her place – and most will not do it in a harmful manner, but it may entail a little communication (barking, growling) or touching (a swat with the paw, a ‘soft’ bite). At worst , Fifi’s instincts will kick in, and she’ll roll over onto her back at which point she has shown she respects the authority around her. (And yes, Fifi is fictional, created from two dog breeds people don’t fear much).

Responsible dog owners will know their dog isn’t going to attack Fifi and that the interaction is dog communication only. Irresponsible dog owners won’t be sure of their dog’s reaction, and indeed, their dog may not play fair with a dog learning its manners. That is why it is important in today’s urban society, where there is at least a 1:1 ratio of dogs to humans, dogs NEED to be socialised to interact with other humans AND other dogs. It is irresponsible to raise your dog in a city environment and not teach it how to interact with humans and dogs!

Imagine if when you were just a baby, you were carried away by a wolf and raised as one of it’s own. It’s an unlikely scenario, for sure. But let’s pretend for the moment you were raised in a pack of wolves, like the Roman mythical twins, Romulus and Remus. You grow up in a world where you have good eye sight, but your sense of small is poor relative to all your fellow pack mates. But you learn that play involves wrestling one dog onto its back and pretending to hold them down with your mouth because they lack the opposable thumbs you have. You learn to tear meat off the bone with your teeth. You run around naked with your hair matted and dirty.

And then one day, you meet a being that looks like you, lacking fur and walking up right. They smell odd, they try to communicate with you via sounds instead of growls and barks, and they force you to cover up your skin with strange materials, and eat your food with strange tools. Its utterly alien to you. You loose your temper and try to force them to the ground to show them you are perfectly fine the way you are, but instead they call in more of their mates with their funny sounds, and suddenly you are in a trapped in a brightly lit place with trees made of hard, unbreakable grey tree limbs that prevent you from walking away (a jail cell in case it wasn’t clear!).  You can’t communicate with these beings that look  like you, but don’t act like you because you were simply never raised to interact with other people.

Do the dog owners who think it is safer to keep their dog away from other dogs (and people) not realise they are socially stunting their dog and increasing the chance that if their dog did escape, it wouldn’t have the dog etiquette to deal with the other beings it would encounter?

However, despite this, many law makers, and people have an irrational fear of pit bulls and certain other breeds of dogs. Throughout North American and other parts of the world, breed-specific laws and by-laws have been bought into place in an attempt to control or minimise the amount of people having pit bulls or pit-bull looking dogs for pets. This is despite the fact the vast majority of these dogs are unlikely to ever have a vicious encounter in their life.

For over at least 15 years, many animal bodies have been advocating laws which target the owners, not the dogs. As noted above, some people want a dog which is vicious, and will do everything to make sure it IS vicious.  As far back as 2000, the American Veterinary Medicine Association has been trying to get law makers to ensure responsible owners, not target specific dog breeds. In 1999, Canada formed the non-profit Responsible Dog Owners National Association to encourage responsible dog ownership, many cities in Canada have responsible dog owner laws instead of vicious dog laws, in 2012, the UK began to consult with the public about how to encourage responsible dog ownership, the Department of Agriculture in Australia has guidelines for responsible dog ownership.

Targeting specific breeds won’t help if dog owners don’t take responsibility to learn and understand their dog. Believe it or not, dog’s do communicate with us, and responsible dog owners are remarkably tuned into dog communications. There are abundant classes in more neighbourhoods to educate dog owners (normally under the guide of training your dog) – if you are uncertain of your dog and another dog approaching yours, then take your dog to classes and learn to control and understand your dog. There is no excuse for fearing how your dog behaves with other dogs, or other dogs at all.

A sad tale of a needless death

Recently in Vancouver, British Columbia headlines were made when a pit bull bit down on  a pug’s ear, and the pug’s owner broke out a knife and stabbed the pit bull to death.

“Of COURSE it was the pit bull’s fault!” cried the people. Comments made by people interviewed on TV and under news articles all indicated people didn’t even bother to read the facts – the pit bull was at fault.

Well. Hang on a moment here – did people actually read the article or what really happened? One has to wonder if they really did before they condemned the pit bull.

Background: An on-leash park in the gentrified suburb of Kitsilano. The sun is shining, people are lounging on grass, jogging, cycling… And dog owners are taking their dog for a walk.

One elderly gentleman lets his pug off the leash.

One person walks by with a pit bull on a leash. They don’t own the pit bull- they are merely the flatmate of the pit bull’s owner.

The story gets murky, but the gist of it is the pug runs up to the pit bull.

Murkiness.

The pit bull chomps down on the ear of the pug.

The pugs elderly owner, rips our a knife and begins to stab the pit bull in an effort to get it to release his pug.

More murkiness.

Pug is released, and elderly gentleman scoops up his pug and runs from the park. Pit bull is left to die in a puddle of blood.

I add the “murky” bits for a reason –

Just question it:

  1. Why was the pug off leash in a park that was designated on-leash?
  2. Did the pug’s owner have control of his dog? If the dog didn’t respond to being called, then maybe the pug owner did not have control.
  3. What did the pug do when it approached the pit bull? Did it do what many pug’s do, and dance up on his hind legs and try to lick the pit bull? Did the pit bull resent the dog touching its shoulder and trying to lick it and chomp down on it? Or did the pit bull pounce on the pug, who was standing a few feet away?
  4. In a gentrified, low crime neighborhood like Kitsilano, what was an elderly gentleman doing carrying a knife in broad daylight?
  5. Was the pit bull stabbed once?
  6. Did the man have to stab the pit bull multiple times to get it to release the pug?
  7. Did the man continue to stabbing the pit bull after it had released the pug?

Despite the murkiness surrounding the actual attack, the pleas from the pit bulls owner for the truth to be revealed, the promise of a necropsy which will produce answers, the police closed their file on this and the debate raged on that the pit bull was in the wrong. In the end, it was concluded that the dog was stabbed 3 times, although the SPCA are not commenting on whether the dog suffered or not.

What do you think in this case? Do you think it doesn’t matter what the pug did, the pit bull is vicious and deserved to die? Are you disturbed that someone killed a pit bull in such a gruesome manner to get them to let go of their dog? Do you think the pit bull would be alive today if the pug had been on a leash? Please put your thoughts in the comments below.

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