From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova — All Rights Reserved
Myth 30: There is no such thing as a truly aggressive dog.
It’s true that the domestic dog evolved as a species in an environment in which there was strong selection pressure against aggression. Living near humans and their livestock meant that aggression was very bad for a dog’s chances of survival. The present day dog is, in general, a non- aggressive creature who does everything she can to avoid aggressive encounters. However, this doesn’t mean that no dogs are aggressive by nature. There are definitely dogs who are, and there are a number of reasons for this.
1) In Myth 18, we saw that humans arrived at a point of luxury and boredom in their history, at which point they decided to start fooling around with the dog’s genes to make her into a consumer item fit for conspicuous consumption. Now it’s also a fact that humans are different from most other animals — but not for the reasons our vanity often leads us to think. The real major difference between us and other animals is that we are especially aggressive. There’s no need to go into a long scientific story here, since a week of watching the nine o’clock news is a much easier way for you to check this fact. Some of us actually enjoy a blood bath, but are too cowardly to engage in one ourselves. Some of these cowards believe they can prove their manliness by watching a blood bath without batting an eye. Because of our own aggressive nature, we are often frightened of each other. Many of us decided we wanted a legal weapon we could have with us at all times, without having to apply for a permit or getting in trouble with the police. But where do you find a blood bath in the middle of a civilised country, and what kind of weapon can you carry without being prosecuted? The answer was (some 200 years ago already) the fighting dog. Humans began to breed the long lost killing bite back into dogs. They wanted dogs who would tirelessly tear apart a tied-up, de-clawed bear or a bull (who was often de-horned). These humans gave us the English Bull terrier. They wanted dogs who would tear each other apart in an inescapable pit, dogs who wouldn’t stop even after the other dog was long dead. These humans gave us the English Staffordshire terrier, and later the pit bull (also known as the American Staffordshire terrier, see Myth 40).
We reached a point when all the activities these dogs were bred for (tearing apart other living animals or each other) were prohibited by law. In England this was in 1911; in the United States it was in the 1920s, though dogfighting remained legal in states whose legislatures were controlled by the Ku Klux Klan. For a long time after that, these dogs became and remained a rarity, kept only by a few men who were very worried about their masculinity. Then, at the end of the twentieth century, we saw the rise of various violent subcultures in our cities, which found their expression in music, certain brand names of clothing, and other consumer items — one of which was the killer dog. These subcultures were popularised by (for example) MTV and TMF. Killer dogs became a fashion item, and are now more widespread than ever before. In our culture of one-upmanship, the more deadly incidents there were with pit bull type dogs, the more people who wanted one. And of course, in our consumer culture, bigger is always better, so it didn’t stop at the medium-sized pit bull type dog the rappers sported. In fact, there’s a sort of arms race going on, who can breed and possess the biggest, most aggressive breed of dog. We now have the Presa Canaria, the Dogo Argentino, the Fila Brasiliero, the Boerboel, and various other breeds in which the killing bite has been revived, in combination with an ever-larger body and greater mass. The kennel clubs have large commercial interests involved, and pretend that these are dogs like any others. Breeders advertise in covert terms. They praise their dogs as guardians of home and hearth, wary of strangers, courageous, powerful — all of it secret language that indicates that the breed that has been specifically bred for unbridled aggression.
And it’s a fact — these dogs are, by nature, always prepared to be highly aggressive. They don’t want to avoid aggressive encounters at all, and often look for an excuse to start attacking. These dogs will approach and present a stick or other object as if they are inviting play, and they then begin an all-out attack on the first animal in the area that so much as moves (which animal is all too often a human one). They are renowned for suddenly killing another dog or cat with whom they have lived peacefully for years. Incidents with humans and children show that these dogs have an unpredictable hair trigger (which, if you are lucky, you may never accidentally touch, in which case you might think you have a ‘nice’ pit bull, American Staffordshire terrier, Presa Canaria, etc.). Once triggered, the attack all too often can’t be stopped except by killing the dog.
These dogs were the first ones we created to be aggressive by nature. But there is now a second group of problematic dogs starting to arise: the breeds that are most commonly used as guard dogs and police dogs. These dogs are not only used and trained by police, but also by hobbyists who engage in competitions for points. In their anxiousness to gain points at contests, these hobbyists started to mess around with the breeds they work with. The German Shepherd and the rotweiler are the most common victims of this trend. In some countries, more local breeds have suffered the same fate. Some kennels breed these dogs to be both nervous (the hair trigger) and capable of real aggression.
When we breed dogs for these qualities, we are in fact breeding changes in their brains. Recent research (Peremans 2002) has shown that this artificial selection results in abnormalities in the parts of the brain that govern aggression and impulse control, and in the brain’s chemical housekeeping (the neurotransmitters). The breeders make no secret of the fact that they do this. If you buy a dog at a kennel that advertises its dogs for guard and police work, you know you will get a dog that bites soon and doesn’t stop until a lot later. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a laboratory where our experiments are securely contained. The German Shepherd and the rotweiler are also popular as household pets. Owners don’t always know what kind of kennel they are visiting, and kennels don’t always care who they sell to. The genetic selection for aggression has ended up leaking into the general population of these breeds, and they are now becoming more generally problematic than one would expect from pet breeds.
The fact that these police dog breeds are so strongly represented in the dog bite statistics is sometimes used to prove that the truly aggressive breeds are no more dangerous than any normal dog. After all, the German Shepherd and the rotweiler are old breeds with a long history as household companions. Serious bite incidents with these dogs are cited in attempts to prove that the all-out aggression of the triggered pit bull (or American Staffordshire terrier, or Presa Canaria, etc.) is perfectly normal canine behaviour. People conveniently forget (or omit to mention) that for at least several decades these breeds have been subject to the same slanted artificial selection that produced the pit bull (etc) in the first place. The increasingly aggressive behaviour of these police dog breeds constitutes, in fact, proof that breeding for aggression most certainly does get you a genetically aggressive, abnormally dangerous dog. These breeds account, together, for almost one hundred percent of serious to fatal dog bite incidents. Eighty percent of serious to fatal attacks (on humans or other dogs) are committed by pit bulls/American Staffordshire terriers and other fighting breeds. The remaining twenty percent is claimed mostly by the breeds that are used for police work. So the first group of naturally aggressive dogs is the group whose genes we have tampered with, making them less like real dogs and more like ourselves.
2) The domestic dog has been living with us for at least 14,000 years. Our tie with him is so close that we often forget that each of us has to learn, separately and anew, how to raise a dog so that his natural gifts will blossom. We grow up with dogs all around us, and think anyone can raise a dog. Our well-intended ignorance leads us to make some common mistakes. Some of us overprotect our puppy; others use a lot of harsh punishment in raising him. In such cases, one of the following things can happen:
a) The puppy doesn’t get to play freely and sufficiently with adult dogs before he loses his milk teeth. He never learns to control and inhibit his bite. He grows up unconscious of how much damage he can inflict with his teeth. These dogs don’t bite hard on purpose — they just have no idea. They can also be too quick to bite, because they have missed the education adult dogs would have given them about impulse control and seeking compromises.
b) The harshly punished pup, or the pup whose human is preoccupied with ‘dominating’ him, grows up learning that humans torture him, and that we display all kinds of other unpredictable and scary behaviour. The dog learns that he has to defend himself against us because we are dangerous and insane. These dogs are aggressive out of self-preservation.
Fact: The domestic dog is a highly non-aggressive species, but this doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a truly aggressive dog. Plenty of dogs exist who are, by nature, aggressive, and there are plenty of others who have simply learned to be aggressive.
- Clifton, M, Dog attack deaths and maimings U.S. & Canada September 1982 to November 13, 2006. www.dogbitelaw.com. Accessed May, 2008.
- Clifton, M. Cultural differences, Best Friends Animal Society, No More Homeless Pets Forum, March 21, 2005: http://www.bestfriends.org/archives/forums/032105cultures.html#two. Accessed February 2009.
- Lockwood, R, The ethology and epidemiology of canine aggression, in Serpell, J, (ed), The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour & Interactions with People, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Peremans, K, Functional brain imaging of the dog; single photon emission tomography as a research and clinical tool for the investigation of canine brain physiology and pathophysiology, Universiteit Gent, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Gent, 2002. http://www.uznuclear.ugent.be/research/phd_dissertations/Functional_Brain_LowRes.pdf (Accessed April 2006).
- Phillips, K, Esq, www.dogbitelaw.com. Twining, H, Arluke, A, Patronek, G, Managing stigma of outlaw breeds: A case study of pit bull owners, Society & Animals, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1–28, 2001. http://www.psyeta.org/sa/sa8.1/arluke.shtml. Animals, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1-28, 2001.