Pit Bulls and Dog Aggression: Dispelling the Myth

If we hear the term ‘pit bull,’ in the media, it is not uncommon for it to be used with a negative connotation. If you are reading this post, you probably know about a million reasons that these stereotypes are untrue. In fact, perhaps your ‘vicious’ pit bull is curled up, sleeping on your lap as you read…

Regardless of the many facts and statistics we can spout in regards to our breed’s positive traits, even ardent supporters of these dogs can recognize that some pit bulls are aggressive to other dogs. Of course, we all know tons of pitties that live happily with other pooches. Usually, these dogs have been well-socialized and slowly introduced, and live with owners who are cognizant of dog behavior and management… as is typically the case with ANY peaceful multi-dog household, regardless of breed. As we have always shared on this blog, it is so important to judge each dog on a case-by-case, individual basis. That is the only way to be fair to the dog in question.

The question remains, are pit bulls unique? As a pit bull lover and long-time proponent of the ‘breed,’ the words I am sharing may sound contradictory to my self-proclaimed title. Some of you bully breed lovers out there may feel that I am doing a disservice to the dogs, and simply perpetuating the stereotypes we work so diligently to dispel. If you are in that category, I ask you to stick with me… While I do not want to perpetuate any myths, I also think that it is vital to be objective and honest with anyone when discussing our pitties, whether they are lovers or haters.

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Are Pit Bulls Unique?

It is important to note that dog-aggression is a completely normal canine trait, present in virtually every breed in varying quantities. The fact is, this is a very common behavior in numerous breeds, including and especially working dogs and terriers. To compare, the recommendations offered by reputable pittie rescues are mirrored in websites and books, and by trainers, that focus on any other breeds of working dogs and terriers. These breeds include Jack Russels, Akitas, Huskies, Boxers, Ridgebacks, Australian Cattle dogs, Shar Peis, Poodles, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Chows, Tosa Inus, Rottweilers and many others. We can all read this list, and probably come up with many dogs we know, in each breed, who are incredibly friendly and receptive toward other dogs. (Tonka, the boxer cross, anyone?!)

In some cases, those who dislike pit bulls have used this trait to condemn them and even to justify breed specific legislation, including bans. For me to get into all of the reasons why breed specific legislation is ridiculous and ineffective would take about 5 long posts, but it is important to explain that if we allow banning based solely on breed of dog, we are enabling these bans to spread to any other breeds, due to past precedence. If you have a problem with pit bulls, and vote in support of BSL for that breed, you are one step closer to legislation that will allow your Boxer or Cattle Dog to eventually be taken from you.

It is not how dogs are raised, but how they are managed, that matters most.

*It is not how dogs are raised, but how they are managed, that matters most.*

Additionally, dog-aggression is a trait that can often be managed. Many dogs that come from cases of neglect or abuse, will not display positive reactions to other dogs. However, through repeated positive exposure to other well-mannered dogs, they may learn that there is nothing to fear in interacting with other pups. It is common for even bully lovers to say that it is how a dog is raised that matters most in their dispositions. However, this is not entirely true, and can be downright dangerous when evaluating rescued dogs. A dog with an abusive past can still be successful with other dogs and people, even if their past would suggest otherwise, given proper training and management.

The important message that we need to convey to those that are unfamiliar with our baby bullies, is that there is nothing about the pit bull breed that makes them any more unsafe or unpredictable than any other type of dog.

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While many reputable pit bull rescues recognize the breed’s potential for dog-aggression, it is important to note that dog aggression is a completely separate genetic trait than aggression toward humans. Though it is unfortunate that some dogs may have been bred to be aggressive toward other dogs, even they have always been bred to be loyal to their human counterparts. 

Warming Up

I wish I could say that I am referring to the weather here in Pennsylvania, but in reality, there is still a lot of this…

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and this…

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and this…

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Which has all resulted in a lot of this…

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and this…

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and this…

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Wait… what?!

If you are very observant, you may notice that the last photo shows three… count them, THREE, pups all cuddled together indoors. If you are even more observant, you may have recognized that such a photo has never graced the pages of our humble blog! What must this mean??

The frigid temperatures have kept us largely indoors. Because of that, the dogs have been extra cuddley, and needed even more attention than usual. You may remember that while Georgia has been integrated with Tonka, the male, indoors for a while now, we have closely monitored her indoor interactions with our female, never letting them off-leash inside, unless closely monitored or behind respective baby gates. The nasty weather has relegated us indoors, and forced me to focus on proceeding with their integration. While working with them off-leash this past week, Gaige and Georgia both finally decided to break down their barriers… with a BANG! Not only were they interacting indoors, but they were playing, cuddling, wrestling, and even sharing toys! We could not be more impressed or surprised by this sudden transformation.

Every pittie's favorite game: bitey-face

Every pittie’s favorite game: bitey-face

The swiftness of their friendship had us scratching our heads a bit, so we were cautious to take things slowly at first… they still were never together while unsupervised, and still required some direction from the two-leggeds. However, after a solid week of playing and cuddling and learning one another’s limits, with no arguments in sight, we think it is safe to say that they are total BFFs.

All four of our "dogs" waiting (patiently?) to go outside.

All four of our “dogs” waiting (patiently?) to go outside.

You can check out a funny video of the girls here. This was the very day, the very minute, that they decided that playtime was a better option than being constantly separated. Therefore, you can hear the surprise (anxiety?) in my voice. Please ignore my excessive verbal input, but enjoy their friendship. They are now absolutely inseparable… can anyone imagine how this has Georgia’s foster parents feeling?! Ugh… let’s just say, the idea of giving up our baby girl gets more bittersweet with each passing day!

Three’s a Crowd… Or is It?

We are lucky to be involved with LCPO, the rescue that saved Miss Gia from certain death. We foster through their organization, and they in turn offer us endless training advice, in addition to other crucial resources. LCPO brings a lot of experience to the table, and therefore they require that each dog placed into a new home, whether as a foster or a permanent family member, completes the two-week de-stress upon entering the new home. To put it simply, this is a process in which the new pet is kept separate from any other pets for at least two weeks. Sounds fun, huh? It may not be easy, but this is to help ensure success and happiness for all family-members; both two and four-legged! Utilizing the advice from LCPO, as well as tips we’ve picked up along the way, we wanted to share our experiences in achieving peaceful interactions in a multi-dog household.

1. The first step to happy interactions in a multi-dog household is to understand your dogs’ personality and tolerance levels. Every dog is different! It is vital that we be receptive to our dogs’ reactions around other animals, even when it comes to the most subtle body language!  This bell curve, designed and described by BAD RAP, is used to show the varying tolerance levels of the pit bulls that they encounter while rescuing. However, in truth, it can apply to many breeds of dog.

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  • “dog-social” : These are dogs that truly enjoy and seek-out the company of other dogs, including housemate dogs. These pups are very easy-going, willing to forgive even the rudest of dog manners, and are often happiest when in the company of other dogs. This category would include most puppies, and a smaller percentage of socially mature dogs (14 months+).
My sweet boy Tonka falls into this category

My sweet boy Tonka falls into the first category

  • “dog-tolerant”: These dogs are typically non-reactive on leash, and either indifferent or friendly to other dogs. They show relaxed, easy body language in the presence of new dogs. While these pups may not ‘love’ dogs that they don’t know, they would have decent tolerance for rude behavior (a long fuse). It can be gathered that these types of dogs enjoy known dog friends when properly introduced, and in general, succeed with housemate dogs.
Gaige's designation can vary, but she is mostly dog-tolerant.

Gaige’s designation can vary, but she is mostly dog-tolerant.

  • “dog-reactive”: In this case, the dog would likely have some dog friends, but be more selective in their pairings. He or she may dislike certain ‘types’ of dogs (male/female, large/small, hyper/mellow) and be easily offended by rude dog manners. Can be described as grumpy or sassy, dominant. This dog likes to be in charge and dictate the rules during playtime, and must be reminded by their human to use good manners during play. This dog can succeed with housemate dogs, with supervision.
Because we manage Georgia carefully, she probably can also be placed in the same category as Gaige. However, without careful training, she could fall into one of the latter categories.

Because we manage Georgia carefully, she probably can also be placed in the same category as Gaige. However, without careful training, she could fall into one of the latter categories.

  •  “dog-aggressive”: These pooches may have a limited number of dog friends, or even none. They may be leash reactive if the opportunity arises (weak handler, no training). This dog may have a short fuse during play, even with dogs that it knows. This dog requires heavy supervision during player, and a good leader when out on leash. Many live successfully with housemate dogs (typically opposite sex) with proper supervision and management.
It can be easy to read these descriptions, and draw hard conclusions. However, it is important to note that with proper training and management, which includes structured and slow introductions, most dogs can still be safe members of multi-dog households; it just requires more knowledge and effort on the part of the owner. A dog that has been dog-aggressive, may be managed to be dog-selective. Also, as dogs age and their environments change, so to may their tolerance classifications. Additionally, these traits only apply to interactions with other canines, and in NO WAY guarantee a dog’s attitude toward children, small animals, or people. Those are all separate traits, and must be evaluated separately, in order to set the dog up for success. It cannot be assumed that a dog that is aggressive with dogs will also be that way towards children, and likewise, a dog that behaves well with other dogs should not be guaranteed to be gentle with small animals.

When looking at our own dogs, it can be difficult to place labels on them, but it is imperative for the sake of peace. For example, I would probably put Tonka in the first category. He enjoys the presence of other dogs, has excellent manners around them, and is willing to overlook almost all negative behavior. However, there was a period of time where he was twice attacked by a male labrador. It took many months and positive experiences before we were able to build his confidence back to a friendly level.

Gaige and Georgia (typical women!) can be a bit more difficult to categorize. Gaige enjoys other dogs, but has terrible manners with them. She likes to be in charge, but is submissive to Georgia. While she treats Tonka like she rules the roost, often stealing his toys or chewing on his limbs, she defers to him when he does stand his ground. I would probably consider her to be dog-tolerant. Georgia, on the other hand, is even more of a challenge to define. She is not aggressive, but has a low-tolerance for lack of manners (ahem, Gaige!) She is happy to be around other dogs, and cries when separated from ours, but doesn’t seek out the company of new animals. She is not leash-reactive, yet will defend herself if she feels particularly threatened. However, when she ‘defends’ herself, it is nothing more than a retreat, loud growl or snap… she never tries to bite or fight.

2. The next step in dog-integration is a slow introduction. In the case of multiple puppies, this may be as slow as a few minutes, but when it comes to mature dogs, it may take months! We are in the latter category. Why so slow? When integrating dogs, prevention is key. What I mean by that, is that once dogs have had a serious altercation, it can be very difficult to repair the relationship. Most pups aren’t big on ‘forgive and forget’. If two dogs have had a rough introduction, you may not be able to achieve successful interactions without lots more effort, and perhaps some professional intervention. For us, we decided that it was better to be safe than sorry, and have decided to take things as slowly as possible.

  • The first step to dog introductions is for each dog to have a ‘safe’ place. For most homes, this is a room or secluded kennel. It should be comfortable, and free from many distractions (a sheet or blanket over the top works well). Most importantly, the dog should be allowed to be somewhat protective over this space… it is theirs, after all. Children and other animals should never be allowed play near or inside your dog’s kennel. When not together, the dogs should be placed in their respective kennels. This shows them that while their crate is safe and comfortable, it is not as much ‘fun’ as being social around the other animals.

OUTDOOR INTRODUCTIONS

  • The next step to the introductions, occurring once the dog has begun to feel comfortable in the new environment, would be group walks. These walks should begin by walking the dogs parallel, with humans and a significant distance, placed in between. This allows the dogs to get used to the sight and scent of one another, without the pressure to interact. As the dogs become more comfortable, the distance between them will decrease. Any positive behavior, such as calm tail wags, should be praised by the handler. It is important to be aware of subtle cues of stress, such as yawning. These signs can vary between dogs, but a low tail with a steady stare can indicate aggression. In this instance, you should redirect the dog without rewarding their behavior, perhaps by turning them in a circle, or stepping in front of their stare. These walks may need to continue for a few days or a few weeks. They can be considered successful when neither dog is overly-excited at the presence of the other, nor aggressive or fearful.
  • Following the group walks, it is important to again evaluate your dogs’ comfort levels around other animals, before proceeding. At this point, we had learned that Georgia liked other dogs. She was not aggressive with them, but was also not completely comfortable. We knew that if she was faced with an uncomfortable situation, she would first try to flee (the term fight or flight is important here!). Gaige had no discomfort with other dogs, but lacked proper manners. Therefore, we decided to keep Gaige leashed while walking, but allow Georgia to be loose. If the dogs were to get stressed, Georgia could retreat, while we retained control of Gaige’s behavior, and could correct her whenever necessary. (Of course, evaluate this step at your own discretion. It is ideal to be in a fenced area for this step, or at least to have a strong recall cue on both dogs.)
All three pups collaborate for group 'hunting' in the bushes.

All three pups collaborate for group ‘hunting’ in the bushes.

  • Once you can be sure that all dogs are comfortable in the presence of the others, and that you also have retained control over the animals, it may be time to graduate to off-leash interactions outdoors. During this time, it is important to watch for warning signs, and manage triggers. For example, many dogs will display issues when another dog tries to take their toy, eat something yummy, or approach their favorite person. You can manage these interactions to avoid confrontation (hello, put the toys away!). We know that Georgia becomes uncomfortable when Gaige rushes toward her, and so we try to manage Gaige’s behavior in approaching Georgia. Not only does this show Georgia that we will protect her, allowing her to let her guard down and not stand in defense of herself, but it also is teaching Gaige how to have more polite interactions with other dogs.

We will be back to continue this subject, and discuss integrating dogs indoors! If you this subject is interesting to you, check out the blog written by Debby McMullen. She is a positive-reinforcement dog trainer who specializes in multi-dog interactions, and has given us a lot of insight and tips toward integrating our household.

A successful multi-dog (and cat-dog?) household

A successful multi-dog (and cat-dog?) household

Busy as bulls! (pit bulls, that is)

Woo! It has been an exhausting few days around here. This weekend, we enjoyed time with friends, did some Christmas shopping & decorating, took lots of family walks, and even had a visit from a special guest… a local celebrity dog trainer! (We will save that last bit for tomorrow’s post, however.)

There is ALWAYS time for snugglin'

There is ALWAYS time for snugglin’

The hectic schedule didn’t end there. Today began with an early morning trip to the vet. Georgia was due for her rabies shot, and had also been itching more than usual. She was an angel for her exam, took the shot like a pro, and shared lots of tail wags and kisses with the staff. Of course, they just couldn’t get enough of our girl. We received a few comments on what a BIG girl she was (don’t they know it’s just plain rude to comment on a lady’s weight? Really… 75 pounds is not that bad!) We only encountered one other dog while we were there, and while Georgia didn’t seem entirely eager to investigate the stranger, she stayed relaxed and quiet. We also have a new anti-yeast shampoo to try, in order to combat the itchies, so we will keep you posted on that!

After our adventures at the vet were through, we took a trip to Petsmart. Georgia’s previous foster had warned that Georgia could get uncomfortable at public adoption events, so she hasn’t been out and about much since coming to live with us. I figured that a quiet Monday morning would be as good a time as any to give it a try, and so I hooked up her harness and had a buddy for my shopping trip. I armed myself with lots of treats to reward positive behavior. Again, we didn’t meet too many other dogs during our excursion, but Georgia was a model mutt, even sitting politely when presented with a treat from the check out girl.

Georgia does so well in the car. She loads quietly, waiting for her cue to step up. She even waited patiently while I ran in to a store and then the post office. She was content to sleep in the back seat for most of our travels, checking in with me occasionally for a pet or a kiss. Can’t you just imagine her as your permanent co-pilot?!

And there is always time for play!

And there is always time for play!

Please stop by tomorrow for a big fat post with the full run-down of our time with a special dog trainer. We will share our new-found ‘expertise’ with all of you… and don’t worry, it’s free only to our readers! 😉

Bittersweet

I typically do not post on the weekends, but since I skipped out yesterday, I figured that I owed you all one today! 🙂

I will keep it short & sweet, but I wanted to let everyone know that Georgia has her very first meet-and-greet tomorrow! We will be traveling a few hours away to do a home visit simultaneously, so Georgia will have the opportunity to meet the family’s 7-year-old son, female pit bull, and cats as well! I am very excited, as the family seems to be a wonderful fit for our girl. They have experience with pit bulls and the fostering process, and they live on a very large piece of property… perfect for long hikes and family time outside!

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At the same time, I need some help here. I have to admit that I am also a little bit nervous! I have never done this before, and I want to make sure that I show Georgia in the best possible light. For a pooch that can be easily overwhelmed by new situations, how do you other fosters approach introductions with prospective adoptive families? Georgia still has a tendency to jump on new people, although she has improved dramatically in this area. The family is aware of that, and told me that they have the same issue with their other dog! Nevertheless, it still takes Georgia a bit of time to trust, and to really let her guard down. I am worried that she won’t be able to relax enough to show this family her huge heart and sweet personality, which would thus make them fall desperately in love with her! Any advice?

Every day I’m snugglin’

Finally, I am starting to have foster-doubts. You foster families out there have got to know what I mean… she is our first foster, and of course we are attached! However, I find myself worrying more about her than I am about myself. Of course I will miss her, but what concerns me most is the level of trust she has built with us. It took a few weeks for her to truly let down her guard, and now that she has, she is flourishing. I know I may be anthropomorphizing here, but I am just so worried that she is going to feel abandoned by us. That she is going to wonder what she did wrong to make us lose interest in her. More importantly, will this make her take longer to trust her new family? Georgia has been bounced around so much (we are her THIRD foster home!) and I worry that this might be the final straw for her.

I hope that I am just being overly dramatic and reading into this way too much. In fact, I would love it if you would tell me that I am being crazy… Georgia is a fabulous dog, and if she had become best friends with Tonka & Gaige, I’m pretty sure that there is no way we could have given her up. But while they all get along well, and there have been no scuffles, it just does not seem to be a love affair between any of them. I want Georgia to find the perfect home for her, and I do not believe that we are it. I just hope she can find a family that sees her for who she is: perfections, flaws, and all. I hope that they will love her for it, and embrace a lifestyle that can ensure her success.

I could really use some advice from our blogging family right now! How difficult was it for you to give up your first foster? What was your most heart-breaking goodbye? Do you have any tips for successful adoption introductions? And please, tell me that she won’t miss me…