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Pit bulls, dog aggression, and instinct: a conversation

Posted 12-26-2018 at 07:57 PM by hiero2

Tue Dec-25-2018
The topic of pit bulls and dog-fighting is an emotional one. People often jump to one end of the spectrum or another, and start pointing fingers, regardless of what the facts are. Some people don’t understand, or won’t recognize, the need for moderation and reason when posting online. That’s why we have moderators. And that is what happened to a recent thread about a dog getting into a fight at a dog park.

I wanted a bit more rational conversation on the topic, so I sent a personal message to another regular in the Dog forum. We had an interesting and educational conversation. It contains a number of gold nuggets on the topic of fighting dogs, dog aggression, and instinct. So I’m sharing it with you. It is very lightly edited for clarity.

. . .they were out and out attacking the owner and the dog type. It wasn't rational conversation, nor helpful tips. . . . didn't even respond to the situation described, it was just out and out condemnation and bashing.

Your most recent post, was a rational and measured response. Well-written. Helpful, with links for consideration, and not full of condemnation.


Thanks for comment. I know how . . . is about the PB subject. LOL Actually I think every poster on the board has been condemned in some way regardless of subject and I just ignore it.

I wasn't trying to antagonize BTW just give a warning. I have an 11 month old puppy too and he still acts like a PUPPY so I take this situation seriously.

I get frustrated as I feel dancing around the subject when aggression is seen in this breed or mix is not helping anyone. Certainly not the OP. PB's give very little warning (owners mention that all the time) and things can turn bad fast. Other boards talk about this subject openly with little to no arguing. No one denies the aggression or is censored (except on CD) Reddit has a great thread below and PB Chat has many, many threads on it. The one I am linking talks about it and follows with about 18 pages of tips from members on what to do if it happens so it IS helpful.




I certainly wouldn't mind more discussion on the topic, and I've often thought about how to get that. The problem is so many people go right off the deep end right at the start - no passing Go, no collecting rent, no real discussion - straight into one emotional attitude or another.

You've brought up something interesting tho, that I hadn't thought of - going to some of those other boards - like the pit boards - to discuss or read discussions.

It's a bit ironic, because I have, at times, spoken in a way that most people would say was in favor of breed-specific legislation. There ARE differences there that matter.

I've got more direct experience with dog instinct patterns than most people, but not more than several others here at C-D. I've studied a bit about them also. Coppinger was particularly helpful in that regard. You know, before Coppinger's 1st book, there WASN'T anything scientific on dogs available to the public. There only started to be some papers written by scientists in the 90's. It was a big hole, and that in itself is amazing.

But bringing that back to pits. It's their instinct patterns that make the potential dangerous. And 99 44/100 % of them are just great pets. And they DO make great family dogs and pets. Better than average, as they need less activity than dogs like my farm collies.

Having never known any pits who WEREN'T just great dogs and family pets, and who DIDN'T show dog aggression, I don't know from experience how the instinct patterns show up. Things like how strong are the patterns. Like my dogs - I didn't teach them to herd - I shaped what they already did. Or LGD, you don't teach them how to stand guard. That's either there, or it's not. How does that work with pits? I should be able to learn more on those boards.


I thought you might be interested in instinct patterns as it interests me too. I know from experience that nothing overrides it. I live with two purebred beagles and even though they are small and tame at times it feels like I am living with two wild animals. The only three dogs in the world with the most scent receptors of any dog are Bloodhounds, Bassets and Beagles; in that order. If they catch a scent of something they are uncontrollable. My neighbors witnessed it with my dogs and were shocked. Said it was like watching something out of a movie with hounds. They caught a scent of a rabbit and were barking and going in circles at every step they smelled. Puppy was never trained. It was natural. Just like your dogs. You may not have thought of it but you and I are part of that that dwindling group of dog owners that have dogs that are even now used for what they are actually bred for.

This brings me back to Pits. My state was one of the last in the US to outlaw dog fighting and make it a felony. HSUS had to get involved. I was involved myself as the state police from a neighboring state came to our local humane society meetings complaining that dog fighters were raising dogs in their state to fight and crossing the border and doing the fighting here where it was only a misdemeanor. This may be why I am seeing more PB's that DON'T make good pets. Bloodlines are still there in my area. I don't disagree with you at all that many Pit's make good pets.

What I like about the Pit message boards is they don't hide from Pit aggression. They call it DA (dog aggression) Some have it, (mix or not) some don't, but there is usually some there but on a spectrum. Tons of helpful hints there to control and "manage" it, as if it rears it's ugly head you won't fix it.

I have some "bad" stories with PB's unlike you. I know that influences my opinion but it "may" help someone. I had a friend (now ex) who did rescue like me and someone introduced us. These weren't regular rescues; she had 2 Pits, one Cane Corso and a Presa Canario. Also 2 small dogs. I was pretty nervous with these dogs but they were friendly and I gave it a chance. (It's hard to make new friends anyway over 45 years old). I thought it was weird that she had blackout curtains everywhere She said if the dogs saw something outside they would "go nuts". Well, we had a falling out when she admitted months later that her "sweet - wouldn't hurt a fly" dogs killed one of her smaller dogs right in front of her and she couldn't stop it. She said she felt she had PTSD from the experience. Even though I of course felt sorry for her I felt LIED to and not entirely safe in her home. Certainly not with my dog. I felt so bad because I liked her but didn't trust her dogs.

I am mentioning this for 2 reasons (sorry this is long) 1) A bad experience can color your opinion 2) Emotions aside, my deductive reasoning kicked in when I read about an attack mentioned on CD and thought back about the blackout curtains she had....Someone on CD posted that his neighbor had a Pit for 8 years with no issues. Slept in the bed with her and her husband. One day the Pit saw a squirrel at their picture window and got excited. She tried to calm it and it went into a frenzy; it redirected on her and started a vicious attack. Her husband tried hitting it with a frying pan and it wouldn't stop. She was in the hospital for 3 months with her injuries. He said her face is now unrecognizable.

I think somewhere from the bits and pieces I read about these "unexplainable" attacks may be part of the answer. Something triggers them and they go into the same "frenzy" that I see my own beagles go into when they go into a "scent frenzy". I SEE it myself everyday so I know it's real. I don't have all of the answers but I respect inbred INSTINCT. It's annoying at times in my case but not dangerous and much more predictable. The bloodlines of most current PB's aren't pure so that adds to the confusion. Hope some of this makes sense.


. . .I am glad you see my point even if you don't totally agree. This isn't idle chatter to me; I feel lives (both animal and human) could even be saved if people could talk OPENLY about this. Certainly a lot of heartache and frustration could be prevented if people were prepared.

Also, we don't know what the OP's dog is mixed with. You may find it interesting that I read that some PB rescues discourage taking Pits mixed with guarding breeds. They feel based on experience these dogs need a "special handler". There just aren't enough in the general public to adopt them all.

B. The Pit Bull Rescuer should clearly label Pit Bull mixes as mixes and attempt to identify exactly what breeds the dog is mixed with when labeling.

C. Rescuing pit bulls mixed with guarding breeds is strongly discouraged. Extra caution and care should be taken when selecting and placing those dogs that are mixed with guard dog breeds including but not limited to Neapolitan Mastiffs, Dogue de Bourdeaux, Fila Brasileiro, Presa Canario, Cane Corso, Rottweilers, German Shepherds and others. Since the temperament of the pit bull is very different than the temperament of breeds in the guardian category, such mixes can create unique handling and placement challenges, and should be considered candidates for experienced homes only.
Pit Bull Code of Ethics

One of the sites I linked prior has a education page stating that the well meaning people (they call them the Pollyanna PitBull Brigade) are as damaging to PB's as the BSL people. The former keep saying PB's are like any other dog and that is of course not true for any breed. (statement here)

Not A Breed For Everyone!

Another thing I had to do when involved from a legislative standpoint was to understand the world of dog fighting. I don't have the stomach for the videos but the articles aren't that bad. People have to realize it's a cultural thing and these guys don't even think it's cruel. They say over and over that you can't MAKE dogs fight and they are always looking for "game" dogs where it comes naturally. They aren't "trained" the way some think. (they have a point - the dogs they call "curs" will jump the pit if they don't want to fight). The dogmen as they are called also mention that some of these dogs are born so "game" that the puppies will kill their own littermates when small. You mentioned your family did hobby breeding so you may see how unusual this is.

The pros say things like bait dogs are for amateurs and thugs. They are looking for the "no quit" types and that instinct can't be trained. Here is a quote from a very good article that may help understand the mindset. They also don't always fight to the death. Dogs are "scored" just like any sport. That's what it is to them. Crazy but true and it is deeply ingrained in some rural cultures like cockfighting is. (A common misconception is that dog fighting is an inner city problem - Oh no, it's true roots are in the rural areas) These dogs go on to fight again and that's how champions are made. Some of these purses are $100k!

Dogmen view their fighting pit bulls as nothing less than spectacularly trained athletes. On dogfighting Web sites, dogmen constantly swap stories about famous pit bulls. ("The best pound for pound match dog I have ever seen was "CH. HOLLY," one dogman recently blogged. "She was the K-9 equivalent of Sugar Ray Robinson.") They know the bloodlines of the pit bulls the way horse racing fans know the lineage of Triple Crown contenders. "Let me tell you," Rogers said when I met him recently, "they are beautiful animals. It's amazing to watch two of them face off in the box, studying one another, making a move, then changing strategies and making another move. These dogs think. They're smart. And they get a real joy out of fighting. They're born and bred to fight. I'm telling you, keeping one of these dogs from fighting is just as cruel as keeping a retriever inside the house and not letting him fetch."

This is why I STRONGLY believe that much of this is genetic. It could be bred out but that would take generations. Even these "dogmen" don't have it all figured out. I read one article (I can find later) where one breeder said it wasn't unusual to breed two champions together and come up with nothing. This might be why there are so many of these dogs in shelters. He mentioned one breeder who had 300 dogs he bred and ended up with many champions as it was a numbers game.

This info may be overkill, not sure if you would be interested in this aspect, but I wanted to get to the source and try to study it.


Those are a lot of good links. From reviewing those, it is obvious that not all the dogs are that keen on fighting – it varies from dog to dog. But it is almost certainly stronger, as an instinctual behavior pattern, in pit and fighting types than other dogs.

You use “guarding” a bit differently than I do. I think of LGD – livestock guardian dogs. The breeds you mention were literally used, when they were working dogs, at least partly for guarding. Like rottweilers – they were butcher’s dogs, and they guarded the cattle and the butcher. And some of the eastern LGD types (like the akbash) still today have some bloodlines bred for fighting.
Most of the breeds you mentioned ( Neapolitan Mastiffs, Dogue de Bourdeaux, Fila Brasileiro, Presa Canario, Cane Corso, Rottweilers, German Shepherds) are of or descended from Molosser type land races – fighting dogs. The LGD are descended from shepherd’s dogs – but, as Coppinger pointed out – there had to have been a lot of crossover mixing back when.

Ultimately, neither type would be a good one to mix with a pit bull type. You could easily end up with an unpredictable dog, with little or no bite inhibition, and unpredictable dog aggression.

I’d like to insert a bit about instinct here. In the correspondence, we mentioned beagles, and I’ve mentioned my herding dogs, and LGD. The instincts in these types are just there. You shape them more than you train them. In some dogs bred for work, the instincts are strong, in some they are not. But, if they don’t have the instinct, it is difficult to train a dog to do whatever that instinct pattern was supposed to fit. I recall reading a famous trainer – he said he could train a golden retriever to herd, for sure. He then said it would never win a herding trials competition, as it just doesn’t have the instinct.

Speaking of instinct patterns, the following link is an excellent demonstration of instinct. Here we have a young, but mature, Grand Pyrenees, a livestock guardian breed (LGD), in a situation the dog has never seen in his life. Starting at about 1 minute in you can observe the dog reacting, completely on instinct. You’ll have to ignore the owner’s continued shouting, when she should have dropped the camera and gone immediately to the dog to control the situation. It is obvious, in hindsight, that this owner was taken completely off-guard, and had no expectation of the dog’s behavior. She repeatedly thought she had the dog in control, but did not. Fair play to her, it was a new situation for her, as well, and everything turns out ok.
As you watch the dog, you can see that the dog uses its mouth to control the cow. The dog “lessons” the cow on who the boss is, and is willing to back it up. The dog isn’t trying to damage the cow – he is using enough force to teach the cow who is boss. It is a perfect illustration of an instinct pattern.
Instinct: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMs9as8ya2Q
One of the reasons I link this video is because the dog’s behavior was SO UNEXPECTED by the owners’. They had not seen the dog act like this before. Now, where have we heard that before, about "unexpected" behavior?

One of the instinct patterns of fighting dogs, versus other dogs, is bite suppression, or, rather, lack of it. If a herding dog, or an LGD, damages livestock – that’s a problem. So they are historically bred for a great deal of bite suppression. Fighting type dogs, on the other hand, were historically bred for exactly the opposite result. Hunting dogs – retrievers, hounds, would also have been mostly bred with bite suppression in mind. Some hounds, like bear or boar hounds – might have been bred otherwise, but mostly the hunters and herders didn’t want the dogs taking down the prey, or the livestock.

So what do we have? Owners of pit bull types, be they mixes or purebred, and of other guarding and fighting breeds, should be aware of the POTENTIAL. I don’t hold with breed bans, myself, but there are reasons to be cautious around these dogs.

The links provided in this discussion provide other viewpoints, and are valuable overall. I hope you have found this useful.

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