I’m about to jump into a very polarizing topic, one that I feel is important enough to pause and address.
Daniel and I recently drove over 4 hours (one way) to get a senior dog out of a high-kill shelter in a rough area of Manhattan. She is 8 years old, and lived with one family her whole life. She was not abused. She was fed, kept inside, and I have to think she was loved in some way because these people kept her for 8 years. She was bred many, many times. She lived with children of all ages and loved every one. She gets along with dogs– enjoys their company, but doesn’t get overly excited around them. She walks wonderfully on a leash. She sits when offered food, and lets anyone take food or treats out of her mouth. She’s docile, tractable, low energy, calm, gentle, and sweet. That’s what her previous owners said, and shelter workers saw absolutely nothing to contradict that story. Her owners gave her up because they were done breeding her (no longer a money-maker) and all her litters had absolutely sapped her body of nutrition. Her coat is very patchy and her skin is raw and irritated in some places. She’s a little bony and malnourished. She loves everyone, sits right in front of you and then puts her head in your lap, waiting to be loved. She hasn’t made a peep, and she is perfectly house trained.
This is what the shelter volunteers wrote about Sky:
“Skye Blue was very sweet and affectionate throughout intake. She whined and was nervous but continued to have a loose body and remained sweet. She was easy to handle and enjoyed being collared, photographed, and scanned.
“Surrendered by the only family she’s ever known, we’re told that she’s allergic to corn, has lived with kids of all ages and is always relaxed and gentle with them regardless of how rough they may play. [She] knows ‘sit’ and ‘lay down’, is housetrained, goes to the dog park (the owner stated that he used to take her to the dog park), sleeps in her dog bed, and hides during storms and fireworks. She has not been around cats to know her behavior around them.
“She is not bothered when you take away her food, treats, or toys. She struggles during baths. She is friendly when she has her coat brushed or when being held. She barks at strangers at the door but is well behaved when they come in.
“She showed off her housetraining skills as soon as we were out the door, allowed me to put a coat on her, and off we go to the park. She is amazing on the leash, I could have held on to her with my pinky she’s that good! She’s had many litters which may have taken their toll on her coat which is thin in places. Good nutritious food and good care should help make Skye Blue into a glamour girl!
“Joining a play group later in the day she enjoyed interacting with the quieter dogs, just chilling with all. She loved snuggling with me, putting her head in my lap for petting while she gently wagged her tail. A proven family dog, she aced her behavior assessment (of course!!) indicating she’ll be a good fit in just about any home.
“She needs some TLC for her physical being, but her heart and soul cannot be improved upon.”
Are you imagining the perfect old sweetie right now? That’s exactly what she is.
Sky also happens to be a pit bull.
Does that change anything? It shouldn’t. But for many people, that changes everything. Because there have been so many pit bull attacks in recent years, the “pit bull” has been deemed an inherently dangerous, aggressive, and unpredictable creature. Many states have breed-specific legislation and bans in place. It can be hard to find apartments that allow pit bulls, and many insurance companies refuse to cover owners of pit bulls.
Much has already been written about pitties, but since the issue is personal for me now, I’d like to address some concerns and questions that have been and will be raised by family, friends, and strangers alike.
Aren’t you concerned bringing a shelter dog into your family? What if the dog has something bad in it’s past and one day just snaps?
We’re fairly certain that Sky was never abused or neglected. She wasn’t properly fed, but she was cared for at least minimally. But even if there was some abusive history, no, I’m not worried about a shelter dog’s past. Dogs are different from humans in that they live in the present. Their actions and responses may be conditioned over time in response to environment or training, but they don’t “remember” things or react out of some deep emotional hurt they suffered in the past. What you see is what you get. Some behaviors/quirks/tendencies may change over time as a puppy becomes a dog, but in general, if you adopt an adult dog, you can trust what the previous owner, shelter staff, and behaviorists/trainers observe about a dog.
Most shelters (including the shelter we got Sky from) run a battery of temperament tests upon intake. They test for food aggression, leash training, dog aggression, etc. These are carefully controlled examinations that give a very detailed description of a dog’s level of comfort with humans and any potentially dangerous predispositions. (Read more about those tests and the subsequent ratings here)
Each dog is unique, and his or her rating on this test is not determined by breed. Some beagles get “red” ratings while Sky got a “green” in all categories. Each family must choose a dog that fits their unique lifestyle and compatibilities. Not every shelter dog is appropriate for every family. But then again, not every meticulously bred purebred dog is right for every family, either.
How do you explain all the fatal pit bull attacks? They’re the most dangerous dogs alive and can’t help but be aggressive.
Before the 2000s, pit bulls were the darlings of America. They starred in movies and commercials, were the mascots for sports teams, and trusted family dogs with children and other animals.
Hundreds of years ago, pit bulls were bred to fight other pit bulls. (Just as Rhodesian ridgebacks fought lions, Irish wolfhounds took down wolves, and English bulldogs baited bulls– which are all extinct practices, by the way.) When dog fighting was outlawed, the pit bull settled into the role of family pet. (Even before dog fighting was outlawed, not EVERY pit bull was a fighting dog. Only a few had the disposition that made them “fighters,” just as only some Labrador retrievers have what it takes to be hunting dogs. The rest were mild family pets.) Since even the most tenacious fighting dogs were bred to be docile around humans, it was a fairly natural transition for the breed overall.
In the 1990s, illegal dog fighting in America began to grow. Irresponsible owners began to indiscriminately breed, inhumanely raise, and tragically fight their dogs. Many fighting dogs were pit bulls, because they had bulldog strength and terrier tenacity. Dogs in fighting rings are regularly starved, beaten, chained, and left alone and unsupervised, without medical attention or a clean environment. For many, having a pit bull lends a certain “image.” Those owners do not exercise, train, or properly feed their dog, and that is when attacks occur. There has never been a pit bull attack from a dog that lived inside and was spayed or neutered. (Spaying/neutering and having your dog live inside is not a one-way ticket to a well-behaved dog, but the type of people who do fix their pets and let them in their home are more likely to be responsible owners in every other area of the dog’s life. Those who leave their dogs unaltered and outside are generally less responsible or conscientious of their pet’s and others’ well being.)
I will never say that I am an “all pit bull” advocate. I’ll never say that any and every pit bull can/should be around little kids or other pets. Some are more dog-aggressive and some have higher prey drives, meaning, they’ll chase anything that moves! But I’ll never say that any Golden retriever or any Chinese crested could be trusted in any/every situation, either! (In fact, our 7 lb dog is NOT ok with most kids– she needs constant supervision in crowded situations or she will nip.) Every dog is unique, with different levels of prey drive, different tolerances, and thresholds of patience. For example, some pit bulls in illegal rings are fighters. But some are bait dogs, the ones that are tossed into the ring first because they won’t fight or defend themselves at all.
Don’t all pit bulls eventually bite or turn on their owners?
No, just like most Labradors will not turn on their owners, most pit bulls who are similarly taken care of and properly trained will not turn on their owners.
How will you ever trust a pit bull around your children?
The same way I’d trust any other dog around my children. I DON’T. I don’t expect any dog to be unconditionally passive around children who may poke, pinch, prod, and intimidate a dog. Dogs are only animals after all, and the animal kingdom works within its own laws. Some dogs can and do happen take a lot of physical abuse at the hands of children, but that should not be expected of any dog. Dog-child interactions should always be carefully supervised. Your dog looks to you for assurance and guidance as they interact with tiny humans, and your children learn from you how to treat an animal. Don’t leave them together to sort it out without leadership. Truly tragic things happen that way.
THAT SAID, Sky has a calm demeanor and a high threshold of patience for children (as her previous owners said, and as we’ve seen demonstrated already). I am as confident as I can possibly be that if something flukey happens (Juniper steps on her tail, or bumps her in the face with a toy), Sky will not react negatively. I do worry about that a bit more with Stella, because she is tiny and a small abuse from a child could actually be quite dangerous to her. Plus, I know that Stella is skittish around children. So I take extra precautions. That’s how we’ll treat any dog in our home- understanding that they are simply, animals, no more, no less, and need to be respected as such, physically and mentally. Adopting a dog, especially a dog with great physical capabilities, needs to be a very thought-out, careful, cognizant process for the whole family.
Aren’t all pit bulls very dog aggressive? Can you ever have your dog around other animals?
Pit bulls are just dogs. Some dogs are extremely dog aggressive, some are extremely dog tolerant. Sky is dog tolerant, so we can safely have her around other dogs. Stella does not enjoy interactions with most dogs. She doesn’t know how to behave when confronted with canines we meet on walks, so I use every interaction as a training session. I’ll do the same for Sky so that her good behavior is reinforced and Stella can feed off of her good energy when we pass people and dogs.
But I’ve heard pit bulls are not like other dogs. Their jaws lock and their tempers flare up without warning. Doesn’t that concern you?
Actually, no dog breed’s jaw can lock- that’s a myth. Also, no dog will attack without warning. Usually, that warning has come and gone for days, weeks, months, or years. Sometimes those signs are misinterpreted (“Oh, he’s jumping up on me because he’s so HAPPY to see me!” No, excitement is not happiness in the animal kingdom. It’s a sign of an imbalance and instability, meaning someone could be nipped if the excitement level isn’t addressed quickly.) Nothing that dogs do happens without cause. If a bite seems to come “out of the blue” that’s probably because you didn’t recognize the dog’s anxiety, excitement, or discomfort. Not because the dog is unpredictable or vicious.
Pit bulls are no different from any other dog. And by that I mean, all dogs are different from each other, but governed by similar principles and general behaviors. You can’t say that all labs are absolutely docile perfect family pets, just as you can’t say all pit bulls are fighting dogs that will attack without cause or warning. Each dog is different, regardless of breed.
If you do want to generalize, the American Temperament Test Society’s findings show that the pit bulls got better scores than Golden retrievers.
At the end of the day, pit bulls are just dogs. Like any dog, they can be aggressive. They can also be sweet family pets. It depends on the dog. Pit bulls are not monsters that will seek to kill no matter what. At the same time, I have to disagree with “pit bull advocates” who claim that all pit bulls are “the most gentle, sweet, friendly dogs in the world who wouldn’t hurt a fly.” No breed as a whole deserves that endorsement, because there is so much diversity even within the confines of breed or type.
Judge a dog based on his or her individual temperament, nothing more.