Bravery, Not Breed, as a Predictor of Dog Safety
Tonight a new student arrived at the classroom with her tiny, beautiful brindle puppy for her first class. For the sake of our story, we'll call her Stephanie, and her puppy Tank.
"What kind of puppy is that?" asked her classmate, snuggling her equally lovely young puggle.
Stephanie''s shoulders slumped a little bit. Tentatively, she said, "Well, we're not really sure. The rescue told us he was a Boxer mix. My veterinarian said he thought Tank was a pit bull mix, and that rescues frequently lie to adopters about breed so 'dangerous breeds' can get adopted."
"We never would have got him if we knew he was a pit bull mix, but now we have him and we love him and can't bear to give him up. I don't think that he came from a very good rescue though, if she lied to us."
My heart just about broke for the nice lady. She looked so conflicted - here was a puppy that she loved a great deal, but she was also scared of the label her vet had placed on her dog and the behavioral traits she had heard accompanied such a label. To be honest, I didn't notice the blocky head shape of my beloved pibbles, the only thing even remotely "pit-like" on this dog was his beautiful brindle patterning, seen on a variety of breeds. Part of me fumed...where did this vet get off?
Stephanie also lives with a Bassett Hound that is reactive, especially toward young children. Casa, her Bassett, will hackle, growl, with a stiffly wagging tail, whenever he is in the presence of children. Stephanie wants to have children someday, probably during Casa's lifetime. It is certainly interesting that Stephanie was more concerned about Tank sharing a home with her child than she was about Casa - even though Casa had shown reactive behavior in the presence of children and Tank is still a blank slate who would probably love nothing more than to play with a young, gentle child. At 12 weeks of age, early exposure to children would make Tank infinitely safer living in the presence of young children than Casa, yet she worried more about Tank because he might, maybe, potentially have a "bit of pit" in his genetic make-up.
Luckily, she was in good company. I live with and am enamored with a Chow mix of my own, and Puggle Mom also had a Chow. We nodded slightly, sadly, knowing how she felt to love a dog that many thought she should fear.
It's hard for us not to take these stereotypes personally. Sometimes I'm amazed when an owner with an "easy" or "friendly" breed of dog is getting dragged around, her dog jumping up, barking, and lunging, has the audacity to tell me what a "dangerous dog" my well-trained Chow mix is as she sits quietly at my side, observing the insanity. I mean, seriously. Really?!
I explained to her, carefully, that bravery, not breed, is the number one predictor of a safe or dangerous dog. Ask any behavior professional worth her salt, and she'll tell you that the vast majority of dogs seen for aggression issues are actually acting out of fear. Confident dogs are less dangerous dogs. Socialized, well-trained dogs are less dangerous dogs than unsocialized, untrained dogs. Period. Regardless of breed. The amount of appropriate, extensive socialization is probably the number one factor contributing to bite risk in an adult dog. Training, not breed, is the most reliable predictor of stable temperament in canines. I also told her, for good measure, that I know a number of fantastic pit bull therapy and service dogs; dogs that make the world a better place for people of all ages every single day.
Stephanie's puppy was confident and curious, exuberantly seeking interaction with new dogs and people. He was crawling through tunnels, balancing on a buja board, and confidently going over the A-frame at his first night of class. He has a soft, gentle mouth. He was alert, bright, and eager to learn. In short, he was an absolutely perfect dream of a puppy.
If we want our dogs to be safe in the human world, we need to teach them confidence and bravery in a variety of new environments.
THE SHY GIRL AT THE PARTY
Are you shy? Do you have any friends that are shy?
I'm a people-watcher. Whenever I am in a new social situation, at a party or dinner event, it is always easy to pick out the shy attendees. Literally, they look like they're in pain. Like being in a social environment and being put on the spot is nearly tortuous social pressure. The shy person at the party is generally just looking for the fastest opportunity to escape the social event and its accompanying discomfort. You see a variety of displacement behaviors in the shy person, looking away, displaying avoidance, nail picking, and hair twirling, among others.
I love, however, watching some of my shy friends in a social situation where they feel as though they are surrounded by familiars - people that do not judge them, allow them to express themselves comfortably, in the absence of social pressure. In these situations, the shy individual truly blossoms, often becoming the life of that one, small party.
Why is this? Because it's easier for you to enjoy new social interactions when you're comfortable and confident. When you're not afraid of making a mistake, being attacked or bullied, or being put in situations where you feel unsafe, pressured, or anxious, you're more likely to thrive your environment. In this, and many other ways, dogs are like us.
SOCIALIZATION, SOCIALIZATION, SOCIALIZATION
To deny the existence of breed-specific behavioral traits and tendencies would be short-sighted. Additionally, to deny that some dogs are genetically predisposed to having a more shy, fearful personalities than others would be ignorant. But the important lesson is that no matter what your dog's breed or genetic tendency, appropriate and extensive socialization can help give your wallflower pooch the moxie she needs to thrive in human society.
A well-taught puppy class is the best place to get the help you need in providing your puppy with appropriate socialization. Here are a few great handouts that might help you:
Regardless of the puppy's breed, pet owners should work toward a goal of having their puppy meet "100 new people in 100 days," per veterinary behaviorist Ian Dunbar. It's also a good idea to try to have your puppy meet approximately 50 friendly, well-socialized dogs in this same time period (this is where your puppy class teacher can be especially helpful). Dr. Dunbar's book "Before and After You Get Your Puppy" is a fantastic resource for puppy owners and will provide you with all the training and socialization tips you'll need to raise your dog well. In an ideal world, a copy of Ian's puppy book would be included in the purchase price for all puppies. If all puppy parents read and implemented the suggestions contained within this book's pages, behavior professionals would see far fewer aggressive and reactive dog clients.
BSL is so 1995
A well-socialized, well-trained pit bull is less likely to bite than a poorly socialized, untrained dog of any other breed. That well-socialized dogs are less likely to bite is one of the few things that virtually all dog trainers agree on. Unfortunately, governments and insurance companies have apparently not received that particular memo.
Many municipalities have banned the ownership of certain breeds. In these areas, in the best-case scenario these dogs must wear muzzles each time they are in public. In the worst-case scenario, dogs are killed for their breed and owners face legal fines and punishment. Likewise, many home owner's insurance providers refuse to provide coverage for pet owners living with "dangerous dogs breeds."
If I owned an insurance company, I would not ask home owners what breed of dog they had in considering whether or not I would insure them.
I would, however, ask them a few questions that would actually give me information about how likely a bite claim is on the dog. Did this dog come from a pet store or online puppy broker? Did the litter grow up in a family's home or outside in a cage cramped with other puppies or a muddy pit in someone's barn? Did the pet owner keep the puppy inside for the "veterinary recommended" six months until vaccinations were complete before starting to introduce her dog to other people and animals? What kind of early socialization did this dog have with both people and other animals? Did the dog ever attend a well-taught puppy class?
These types of questions would, in this trainer's opinion, give insurance companies a much more reliable predictor of a particular dog's risk for aggression than asking what his breed is. In my dream world, responsible dog owners who take their dog to a well-taught puppy class would be reinforced by their insurance companies for taking active measures to prevent their puppy from growing into a reactive or aggressive adult dog with discounts on their policies.
Few civilized humans would condone blatant discrimination and mandatory death sentences to another person simply because of the color of her skin. Hopefully, someday our culture will evolve to the point where dogs, like people, are judged by the true merits of their character as opposed to their genetic heritage.
In this author's opinion, legislation, cultural stereotypes, and insurance discrimination based on genetic heritage rather than actual temperament is so 1995. Here's to hoping the "powers that be" realize quickly what we already know and make a positive change for all breeds of dogs and the people that love them.