Let's talk about pit bulls
When I was "growing up" as a dog trainer I imagined myself mostly working with rescues, then a lot of doodles came into my life, finally, very recently, I got interested in gundog sports because of my old love for pointers. What I have never seen and, quite frankly, never realised how it happened was that people started putting me and pit bull breeds together. Pit bull breeds and anything to do with them was such a far away land for me until one rescue came into my life and I was noticed by more and more responsible dog owners. I didn't plan or see it but I did end up going into pit bull breeds history depths, the current situation, the impact of poor breeding and everything else in order to understand how I could help people who trusted me.
Before we go any further I want to leave some disclaimers (because that's what you have to do now to prevent people from commenting before reading the whole article): in order to understand the breed group and their history, this blog post will reference dog fighting and irresponsible breeding, however, it is in no shape or form intended to support or excuse any of these activities. I think that should be obvious.
When I am saying "pit bull", I mean a group of breeds and their mixes that could be put under the umbrella term, not a specific breed.
I've noticed there being two camps when it comes to pit's - the ones that say that how you raise a dog will solely define their character and the ones that blame everything on the breed. The truth is, everything around your dog influences their behaviour. When it comes to pit bulls, all I hear is always either the relentless owner blaming for never putting enough effort into training or wanting to wipe out pit bulls from the surface of the Earth because they're "aggressive" and "dangerous" and none of them are right. I've seen the best nature dogs acting wild because their needs were not met but I've also seen the most dedicated owners struggling because of their dog's genetics and early experiences. I'll talk mostly about the breed history today but if it's interesting to you, I'm happy to deep dive into other things like training in the future.
IT'S ALL ABOUT HOW YOU RAISE THEM. NOT QUITE.
SO WHY DOES BREEDING MATTER?
There's a reason why we have certain breed characteristics. If a hunter decided that a retrieving dog should have a strong drive for retrieving birds from water, he would continue breeding dogs that show eagerness to swim, hold things in their mouths and be attentive to people. Hello, labradors. This is overly simplified but I'm trying to explain the purpose of selective breeding without going into too much detail. Understanding the history of your breed is crucial because more times than not it can explain some of your dog's behaviours and whether we want it or not, we have to look into the dog fighting that was a big chunk of pit bull history.
The biggest problem I see with pit bull dogs these days is generations of absolutely random breeding ( I have a dog that looks similar to yours, let's have puppies? - that type) which means there is zero consistency in temperament and today a dog that you get can equally be the gentlest soul or the worst tempered monster and anything in between.
WHAT IS A PIT BULL DOG?
First of all, the term "pit bull" refers to not a single breed but a group of them. Like retrievers (might come as a surprise for some, but retrievers is just a group, there's quite a few breeds under this umbrella!). Some of the breeds that belong to a pit bull group are American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and others.
ORIGINALLY BRED FOR...
Let me remind you - in no way, shape or form do I try to glorify dog fighting - it's a brutal and ridiculous thing to entertain small egos. However, understanding dog fights and people involved in them helps us see what character traits in dogs were selected for breeding. For pit bulls, one of the most mentioned traits is gameness.
When I first heard the term "gameness", what it really meant was not what crossed my mind. In a nutshell, gameness is a commitment to the task regardless of how hard or even impossible it is. A dog that is game will never stop trying to complete a task regardless of how tough it gets. It's a will to win no matter what. It can also be described as a dog's will to win being stronger than the want to survive.
A lot of people that ever shared their homes with pit bull breeds will agree that this is very evident in their daily life. I even used to joke that the obstacle which pit bulls can go around, they will go through instead. For the exact same reason you will see bullies enjoying tug'o'war games or grabbing a tree branch and trying to pull it from the ground for hours on end.
To be successful in fights, they had to have a high threshold for pain. Mix the commitment to the task with a high tolerance for pain and you have something that men were looking for in a good pit bull. I'm about to stir some water here but you can see that someone has no clue about what they're doing if they are trying to train a pit bull with corrections and harsh methods because all you are doing is just hyping these dogs up even more, increasing arousal to insane levels and, most likely, just increasing their tolerance for pain (meaning that next time your yank on the lead will have to be even stronger for the dog to notice). Sounds like a pretty silly idea to me :)
Another thing that these people, initial "breeders" if you will, also understood very well is that you can't have a dog with the characteristics above that is also displaying at least a sprinkle of aggression towards people. As Chad Mackin refers in his article*:"<...> people would have to handle the dog while he’s in full drive and possibly when he’s injured. <...> The old pitmen had no tolerance for human aggression. Dogs who showed the slightest hint of it were culled without hesitation. They were playing a dangerous game and understood the consequences of having a dog with the abilities of a fighting dog, who decided to turn those traits towards human prey."
This is why the majority of pibble owners will tell you that these dogs are absolute couch potatoes and don't understand the concept of personal space. They will climb on you, lick and cuddle you whenever there's a slight chance as this is what they are supposed to be like.
SO WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
You are probably reading and thinking "well, where are the attacks and other unwanted behaviours coming from?". From the lack of purposeful breeding, from back gardens and tough-looking wannabes. The fact that dog fight breeding decreased significantly is amazing news, however, what we're still left with is this "breed for the looks" mentality. These people breed dogs without paying any attention to temperaments or health concerns. The more I see, the more I believe that there is no consistent standard for pit bull breed temperament in some countries (or at least I wouldn't count on it) and the lack of mental and physical stimulation or their amazing capabilities directed the wrong way keep creating problems.
I still think they're one of the clingiest and loveliest dogs that are happy to work just as much as they're happy to spend the whole day in bed. They can definitely be amazing companions and I would like to talk more about how you can use those capabilities to have fun with your pibble. The one thing I'd advise you is to check the rehoming pages first if you decided to have a pibble or buy from a reputable breeder. It's sad that some of these breeds are already banned in many countries but a girl can hope for the situation to get better in the far far future if we start educating people now.