Sunday, July 3, 2011

Aggression and breed-my thoughts

Today I want to talk a bit on the subject of breed and what is loosely termed vicious propensity.  There are supposed experts that claim breed nature is overriding and that certain breeds are naturally violent.  Most of this ire is aimed at the complex of breeds that are popularly known as Pit Bulls.

Notice I say the complex of breeds.  The dogs that most critics identify as Pit Bulls are rarely registered American Pit Bull Terriers.  They instead consist of Staffordshire Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers (yes, the Spuds Mackenzie dog), American Pit Bull Terriers, and assorted mixes thereof.  They also lump in other breeds like the Cane Corso, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasiliero, various Mastiffs, newer breeds such as American Bulldogs, sometimes Old English Bulldogs, even Boxers, Great Danes and generic mixed breeds. 

Those who demand that “Pit Bulls” be banned or regulated don’t seem to discriminate between these often very different breeds or mixes.  They are all “Pit Bulls’ and are all therefore dangerous.  Reasons cited by these breed ban proponents usually include several myths that science has disproved.

First of these is the “locking jaw” of Pit Bulls.  I can say from personal experience, locking jaws do not exist.  I have disassembled the skulls of “Pit Bulls’ that have killed humans and that mechanism simply isn’t there.  But don’t take my word; there has been a scientific study that verifies this.  In Do Pit Bulls Have Locking Jaws, Dr. Al W. Stinson sets this one to rest.  There is no physical device or mechanism in the jaws of any of these breeds, or any domesticated canine for that matter, that “locks” the jaws of the dog in any position, open or closed. Any perception of a “locking jaw” is simply the product of training and reinforcement of holding behavior, a behavior that can be taught to any dog.

The next myth cited is the “horrible power” of the Pit Bull bite.  This has also been debunked by research.  The latest of several studies was published by National Geographic, an organization not noted for defending vicious dogs.  In Dangerous Encounters Dr Brady Barr conducted a series of tests of the strength of bites of dogs and other species.  This study backed up several others that found that Pit Bulls have middling bite strength, somewhere between Labrador Retrievers and Germans Shepherds. 

This makes sense if you look at the physics of bite force.  Force applied, according to physics, is a direct result of two factors; the length of the lever that is used to apply the force and the force applied (MA=d1/d2 where MA=mechanical advantage, d1=the effort arm and d2=the load arm).  The force applicable by a specific lever depends on the breaking strength of the material the lever is made from.  Bone, the material jaws are made from, has a breaking strength, as can be attested to by anyone that has ever broken a bone-or particularly their jaw.  Length is easily determined.  By measuring one can easily see that the average German Shepherd has a bit longer jaw than the average American Pit Bull Terrier.  Apply the physics and the truth is obvious.

The third myth that opponents point to as proof that these dogs are violent is their supposed “vicious propensities”. When asked to show proof that the dogs have vicious propensities they point to attacks.  But when asked why the attacks happened they point back to “vicious propensities”.  It is circular logic that determines nothing.  No further behavioral analysis is done as to what triggered the attack.  Claims are made that the dog “just went off” and therefore no trigger was needed.  Yet in my observation and experience, dogs rarely ever just “go off”.  There is almost always a back story.  That back story is what a full investigation must look to unveil.

If the vicious propensity theory was true it would, of necessity, apply to all dogs of the affected group.  No Pit Bulls would ever earn American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certificates.  None would ever be granted status as Therapy Dogs.  None would be used as Guide Dogs, Service Dogs, Search and Rescue dogs, drug detector dogs, or simply kept as family companions.  Facts indicate strongly otherwise; dogs of the various breeds lumped together as Pit Bulls perform all of these tasks and more.  My observations have shown me that individual differences in dogs far outweigh breed-wide behavioral assumptions.  Yes, retrievers overall fetch more reliably, pointers tend to point birds better than, say, Malamutes, and St. Bernards drool; but I have seen Dachshunds point, Papillions retrieve, and Huskys that would never drag a sled.  Individual differences are primary, just like people.

Don’t get me wrong; Even though I have been accused of being pro-Pit Bull, I am not an advocate, apologist, or promoter of any breed.    On the other hand, on some occasions I have been accused of looking to find evidence confirming that a dog was nasty just because it was a Pit Bull.  When I explain that I only follow the evidence, some have had serious reservations that maybe, under close examination, I might find something that does verify the claims of the anti-whatever crowd.  Or maybe a specific attack might give those opposed to Pit Bulls ammunition to use against the dogs. 

 I don’t defend Pit Bulls or any other allegedly “inherently dangerous” breed.  Neither do I condemn them.  The facts of every case have to be addressed, up front and accurately, wherever they lead. Just like in humans, there are good and bad individuals of every breed, race, ethnic origin, profession, etc.  Pick a group-there are some bad ones.  There are probably even bad Nuns (I mean apart from the writings of Neil Gaiman).  So when it comes to Pit Bulls, the fact is-there are bad Pits. And good Pits. Just like any other dog. When investigating bite cases we can’t make assumptions based on generalization.  We have to look at the evidence in an attack, and go wherever the evidence takes us, even if the evidence takes us where we would rather not go. I believe, based on my observations and experience, that there is only one breed that is inherently vicious: and it walks on two legs.

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