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The American Pit Bull:
Man Biters, Attack Dogs and Schutzhund
A Professional’s Viewpoint on Defense and Prey Drive

By: Diane Jessup
Boldog Training Kennel


The American pit bull is an old breed, with a storied history, but it is only in the past three decades that the breed has become directly associated with “attack dog” training and worse—with attacks which result in human fatalities.

Media reports concerning “guard dogs” prior to the mid eighties had few if any reference to the American pit bull. During the “guard dog fad” of the 1970’s pit bulls were conspicuously absent from the breeds chosen or listed as good candidates for protection dogs. The breed was known as a family watchdog; advertisements in game dog magazines going back more than a century mentioned the prowess of the breed as a “watch dog” at the same time proclaiming them the “best pal a kid can have”. Louis Colby described to me his childhood spent playing with nearly a dozen sisters and brothers in a yard crowded with some of the gamest and most respected fighting pit dogs of that era. None of the children were ever bitten. (Which also goes to prove that tethering itself does not make a dog mean, a myth often quoted as fact.)

For centuries the American pit bull remained what he was genetically selected to be: an easy going, people loving animal with his strong prey drive directed toward other animals. Just one of many breeds of dog bred by man to consider other animals as prey—but gentle with humans. (Almost houng and terrier breeds were bred with the intent of finding and brutally killing, if possible, their prey).

So today why does the media report attacks on human beings by dogs identified (rightly or wrongly) as American pit bulls never as "a terrible accident” but rather as if it was the most natural thing in the world? When and how did the name “pit bull” come to represent the public’s image of a “vicious dog”?

How It Started

Fans of the breed attempt to deflect criticism of pit bull temperament by asserting that “old time breeders culled man biters.” It is fact that natural selection did weed out from reproduction those dogs which turned on handlers, referees or those attending to aftercare of seriously injured pit dogs. The result of this genetic selection produced predictable results: a breed of dog far more stoic to pain and far more reliable when being handled when injured than any other breed. It is one of the American pit bull’s most admirable traits.

It is also a documented fact that the American pit bull was not a “human aggressive breed” prior to 1980. In Karen Delise’s book Pit Bull Placebo she lists reported dog attacks during the period of 1960 through 1975. Only one fatal pit bull attack was reported nationwide, during those 15 years; in 1965 a chained dog in Utah killed a four year old child. For comparison, the other breeds involved in fatal attacks that same year included a mongrel, a Siberian husky, a Labrador retriever, a chow, a "show” type bulldog and a German shepherd.

Like any breed, the history of the American pit bull has been marred now and then by the occasional mentally unsound dog. But for two modern developments and their impact on the American pit bull, our dogs may have been spared the holocaust of negative popularity and an undeserved association with man biting.

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The first: modern techniques have made popular stud dogs far more widely available to the public than ever before. Where once a winning stud might be utilized only in his corner of the country, chilled and frozen semen and the availability of shipping bitches nationwide has produced “super studs” whose offspring form the foundation of “lines” of pit bulls carrying the renown dog’s name and genetics. It can be argued that is was unfortunate for our breed this availability of stud dog use coincided with the arrival of two pit bull studs who were to be the basis of some widely popular and numerically significant "lines”. Both were notorious man-biters.

When those in control of dangerously unsound dogs put money and ego ahead of the overall good of the breed we all suffer. On the opposite end of the spectrum I have seen sincere fanciers purchase human aggressive dogs solely to euthanize the dogs and get them out of circulation for the betterment of the breed. These folks are true breed stewards, who put the breed ahead of their own advancement.

Because temperament is founded in a dog’s genetics, it would be difficult to argue the effect that unsound breeding stock can have on our dogs. For the American pit bull it is possible that these two studs and their numerically significant offspring were just a first step in the journey to negative popularity. Yet even the damaging effect of their poor genetics could have been put right—in time - by serious breeders if not for the overwhelming damage done by the second modern development to impact our breed: the internet and the ease with which unscrupulous breeders could do business.

A breed developing sudden and intense popularity is not new, not by a long shot. As far back as people have kept domestic canines as status symbols, certain types of dog have taken their turn as “it”. It’s hard to say what thrusts a breed into the limelight, but more often than not a specific breed will come to be seen as essential to “making a statement” about the owner’s lifestyle, be it “gangsta” or “yuppie”.

Popularity for dog breeds is cyclic, running in 10 to 30 year periods for the most part, and can be tracked quite plainly. For those interested in the fads of the past 150 years, you will find Karen Delise’s excellent book The Pit Bull Placebo a fantastic reference work. The fad which gripped America in the 1970’s and into the early 80’s was the “guard dog” fad. This fad saw the rise of the Doberman to number two in American Kennel Club registration, as well as the quick rise of the relatively rare Rottweiler to “fad” status as well. Guard dog training schools flourished and large ads in magazines like TIME offered trained adult Dobermans or German shepherds to protect the affluent family from “rape, robbery and murder”.

Too much hype about dogs and breeds which did not meet inflated expectations and rising concerns about liability spelled a quick end to the trained attack dog fad. But society will always produce those looking for the ultimate “tough dog” to enhance their image or make them feel safe. And a mistaken connection between “tough” and “man biter” was about to be made.

A few late 70’s early 80’s magazine articles on dog fighting caught the nation’s attention. Part of the interest was that most people consider themselves “dog experts” to one degree or another, but here was a breed (the American pit bull) and an activity (dog fighting) that almost no one, not even recognized dog experts, knew anything about. Humane groups jumped on the media reports of dog fighting like wolves on raw meat, realizing the fundraising potential and sensing, perhaps the breed’s one weakness: American pit bulls did not have “official status” with the American Kennel Club (initiating epic misinformation concerning the breed’s true status as a pure, registered breed) and the breed suffered from the absence of a strong, cohesive base of fanciers willing and able to step forward and protect the pit bull from growing hysteria fomented by “experts” who knew nothing of the breed. Instead, those looking for tougher and tougher guard dogs heard about these small, unassuming looking pit dogs who could fight for hours in horrific displays of gameness the likes of which made the “toughest” German shepherd or Doberman look like a kitten. The mistaken assumption that the prey drive and gameness which made a pit bulldog tackle a one thousand pound bull with a wagging tail would equate to toughness and aggression toward humans was made. Tough they were—but not in the sense that those used to training continental European guardian breeds could understand.

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Man Biting Understood

There are three main reasons a dog bites a human: most rarely, to establish dominance (shih tzu on lap bites when owner tried to put it down); acting on prey drive when triggered by movement (Australian shepherd races out into street and bites kid going by on skateboard); and most commonly, defensively, out of apprehension (child totters up to adult cocker spaniel and reaches out for the dog’s ears—which are infected and painful—and dog snaps child in face in anticipation of pain.) Some animal behaviorist will list dozens of reasons dogs bite; it is my experience that most bites boil down to one of the above.

Three scenarios will make these behavior basics clear. I have chosen to use lions as most people have witnessed (via television) these mammals in all three drives.

DOMINANCE: Male lion “A” is snacking on a zebra calf carcass. As dominant male, it is his right to eat undisturbed. Young adult male lion “B” from his pride walks deliberately into lion “A”’s space dropping down to eat from the carcass. Lion “A” understands the challenge behind “B”’s intrusion and, roaring, leaps across the kill and into immediate battle with “B”. The fight is serious, each lion doing its best to both intimidate and also injure the other. After several bites are inflicted the younger “B” ends up on the bottom, and both animals are still. “A”, on top, roars, but restrains from biting for the moment. “B”, body language plainly signaling his defeat, breaks away and lops off. Lion “A” continues his meal.

PREY: Lion “A”, roused by hunger, sets off with his small pride to find prey. They go very quietly, and when they spot a herd of zebra they become even quieter, slinking through the grass in a stop-and-go stalk. Their heads drop and they seem mesmerized. The closer they get to their prey, the less noise and movement they make. At last they are close enough and they charge, with lion “ A” working to cut off a particular zebra. The attack is silent and there is no threat display—for noise and threat have no part in capturing prey; it would only frighten it away. Lion “A” races in, leaping and getting claws into the fleeing animal’s backside. The zebra is a large, powerful animal in its own right, and strikes back with powerful hind legs, causing severe pain to the lion’s unprotected abdomen. The lion hangs on, and his size forces the zebra to stumble and fall, and in moments the beast is gripped by lionesses. Lion “A” releases his hold on the animal’s back and grips it tightly and calmly by the lower neck, shutting off its air. All the lions are calmly holding, there is no noise, no apprehension in their movements. They are in control, and they know it.

DEFENSE: Male lion “A”, observes an unknown lion “C” approaching his territory. “A” becomes tense and gets up, scenting to try and establish if lion “C” is a pride member, male or female. When lion “C” continues to approach, lion “A” is flooded by a desire to repel this male intruder and goes out to meet him, roaring loudly and lashing his tail. The two lions engage in threat displays (roaring, erect mane, lashing tail, rising up and swiping with paws) hoping one or the other will back down. Neither really wants to attack—or they would have already! Finally lion “A” realizes that lion “C” won’t leave with just threat behavior, so he sprints in, eyes squinted, roaring, and batting at “C” with his claws. The fight looks terribly ferocious, but in reality not much damage is done; Nature’s way of helping species keep from wiping themselves out. After a few moments of intense sound and fury, lion “C” races away, with just some bite and scratch marks. Lion “A” has achieved his goal—he has repelled the threat.

NOTE: Drives are not always “all or none” when in action. A sheepdog working in prey, who feels threatened by large sheep, for instance, results in silent work for the most part (prey) but barks when he feels threatened (defense seeping into his prey drive.) Another example is a dominant dog which will stand its ground dominantly, yet the hair goes up on its back, showing a “leaking through” of uncertainty.

In canines, and in American pit bulls in particular, man biting occurs because of one of the three above reasons. Let’s look at how these “drives” cause our dogs to bite. (Remembering, of course, that a dog cannot bite someone without access to the victim - and that circumstance is only provided by its handler; ultimately all dog bites are the result of human error.

The Dominant Biter: In my opinion, these are very, very rare in our breed. It is common for “all breed” trainers to lump breeds like Rottweilers, Dobermans and American pit bulls together as so called “power” breeds, or “dominant” breeds, but having spent a lifetime with all three breeds I find the natural dominance (sometimes called “handler hardness”) toward humans of the Germanic guardian breeds is rarely seen in a well bred, well raised, sound American pit bull. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that the “toughest” pit bulls I have know were remarkably “humble” with people. This goes back to natural selection: butchers and baiters of the medieval times must have known, even subconsciously, that animals capable of subduing bears and bulls should not be bred with a temperament dangerous toward humans. And talking to people like John Fonseca and Louis Colby has given me the belief that most game dog men did not want to keep man biters around their families. Whatever the reason, even fully mature male American pit bulls tend to be “gooey” around people, rarely challenging their owners and very, very rarely showing dominant aggression toward any human.

One reason this “humble” behavior developed was, again, perhaps unconscious selection toward dogs who could tolerate multiple owners. Whereas guardian dogs are often “one man” animals, the fighting pit bull was often owned by one man, conditioned by another, and even handled in the pit by a third person. In 19th century England it was not uncommon for injured pit dogs to then be left with woman who could tend to the dog all day while the men worked.

For all these reasons dominance aggression is rare in pure American pit bulls. They may be bull-headed, determined, even stubborn, but they very, very rarely aggressively challenge humans on the issue of dominance.

The Prey Drive Biter: Here is the reason for most human/pit bull bite situations. According to Karen Delise’s meticulous research, the overwhelming majority of human fatalities attributed to “American pit bulls” involve dogs kept not as family pets, but as what she calls "resident dogs”. These are animals which are maintained outside the home and kept for breeding, working, as status symbols, or as a means to deter trespassers. These animals are rarely socialized nor trained; their ability to live in a pet dog” relationship with humans is compromised by their lack of “social skills”. Some of these dogs have been encouraged to show aggression towards other animals, leading to tradgedy when very young children (whose screaming, movements and stature make them resemble animals more than “people”) approach these compromised animals. Certainly some of these situations involve dogs who are frightened of the human intruder, and react defensively, but many more are the predictable result of the dog’s confusion and frustration.

One way to establish the prey versus defense circumstance is this: most fatalities with small children are silent. There is no hysterical threat display, no barking beforehand as there would be were the dog reacting to what it felt was a threat.

Note: It is very important to note that the "husky" breeds, Alaskan, Siberian, Greenland, and malamutes, dogs which are responsible for a large number of human fatalities involving small children, are, like the true American pit bull, a breed not noted for human aggression but for high prey drive. Fatal human incidents involving children and the husky breeds almost without exception indicate frustrated prey drive - not "aggression" toward the victim.

The Defense Biter: Thirty years ago, walking through an animal shelter kennel, I rarely—very rarely—saw a pit bulldog which acted out defensively towards me. Today, walking down that same walkway you see kennel after kennel marked "pit bull”, filled with animals which either cringe or alarm bark defensively at my approach. It is to be expected that after thirty years as a “fad breed”, the quality of the American pit bull has slipped—as it does with every breed touched by popularity. Just as most of these “pit bulls” do not exhibit correct physical pit bull “type”, they also do not exhibiting the correct temperament? “type” of a sound, confident bulldog.

The number of preventable defensive bites is skyrocketing due to the current “no-kill/save every dog” rescue mentality fad—not to be mistaken for legitimate rescues which cull unsound dogs. Common sense toward dog temperament appears to be taking a vacation, replaced with rampant misinformation from TV stars telling us that hard-wired genetic temperament issues can be “rehabilitated”; that every dog story can have a "happy ending". Today’s dog owners who refuse to tolerant poor temperament in their family companions or working dogs find themselves under fire from those who champion “rescue at all costs”. Too often the cost is a dog’s well being, as in the case of genetically shy, terrified, cowering animals forced to live a life of constant stress and anxiety to fulfill their owner’s selfish desire to “save” something.

I have shown that the well bred American pit bull is not a “defensive” animal. For thousands of generations they have been carefully selected away from aggressive threat displays and the wary suspicion of strange humans which is the hallmark of a guardian breed. Certainly a well bred American pit bull can growl, or bark, and will defend their loved ones to the best of their ability, however, it is not and never has been (or should be) a characteristic of breed type.

The old timers were correct—man biting American pit bulls should be culled.

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“Attack Dogs”
Which brings me to why I loath to see the American pit bull used or advocated as a “personal protection” or “attack dog”. It actually goes against breed nature to be categorized as a “guardian breed”, not withstanding many a good American pit bull will protect their family just as members of other non guardian breeds will do the same.

The difference is, the American pit bull has been bred away from the traditional characteristics of a guardian breed; pronounced threat display, suspicion of humans and willingness to bite them. Can a good pit bull be turned into an attack dog? Some can, but to do so, to me, speaks volumes about the owner’s lack of understanding of the breed, its history and its future.

Especially at this time, when an unfair, biased and critical media hovers us, it is imperative that those who would work to restore the breed from its unhappy turn with popularity, stand firm in not accepting man biters as “real” American pit bulls. Only when shy, unsound, growly, nervy or man biting dogs are removed from its ranks can the bold pit bull once again stand for American pride.

Despite my feelings about turning American pit bulls against humans, I have never felt the same way about the breed’s competing in legitimate dog sports such as schutzhund or ring trials. The difference is this: correct attack dog training requires the dog see everyone as a potential “bad guy”, however in dog sport trials the opportunity is there* to train using prey drive, and the dog learns that his “prey” is only the decoy on the field wearing certain equipment and acting a certain way. A tough dog (like a good American pit bull) can compete in prey (not play—huge difference!) and do well, and never feel "anger” toward the decoy. The guardian breeds work their best in a balance of defense and prey, making the American pit bull, who works his best in pure prey, a truly unique breed.

Schutzhund was developed over one hundred years ago as a temperament test for the German shepherd dog (and as a way for Germany to prepare war dogs on the sly). Those who developed this testing system have my respect; in one hundred years it has not been improved on. All three parts of a schutzhund test (tracking, obedience, grip work) are designed to developing a picture of the nerve strength of the dog.

How do American pit bulls fit into this test designed for guardian breeds of sheepherding genetics? They fit pretty well! Even without being bred specifically for tracking, obedience or police work, pit bulls usually steal the show with their happy yet intense performances. Pit bulls are a rarity on the schutzhund field: only 20 American Stafforshires and 41 American pit bulls having achieved schutzhund titles in the United States since the beginning of the sport. Only 2 Am Staffs and 7 pit bulls have earned ring sport titles.

One downside: Pit bull owners who attempt these dog sports will have to contend with serious misinformation and misunderstanding from club trainers who haven’t a clue about bulldog temperament. "Old style” militaristic drilling and leash jerking works poorly with bulldogs; trying to train a bulldog like a shepherd dog leads to frustration and may results in a dog with its personality skewed. Please don’t under estimate how important this is: better to not train your dog than to train with someone who will screw up your dog. Please remember it is almost impossible to ruin your dog with positive training, yet very, very easy to ruin him/her with force training.

Without doubt the area where the most “nonsense” comes from is in the area of control. Sheepdogs, like German shepherds and border collies, are bred to be highly biddable to man (meaning they are bred to take direction from humans and are very receptive to correction). If you think about working with sheep, you will see why this has to be. Baiting and fighting dogs, on the other hand, do their work on their own, without having to “check in” as a large component of their personality. Because of this, those with the "sheepdog mentality” find pit bulls “stubborn”.

Teaching The "Out” Command
This difference in “sheepdog versus bulldog” mentality in a trainer is best understood when training the "out!” or release command. It is common practice for those training shepherds and sheepdog types to use force such as hard leash corrections or electric shock to get the dog to release the sleeve. Sadly, I had one young man come to me because a club trainer was slugging his little Am Staff bitch in the nose, till she bled, trying to get her to release the sleeve. She would not! And of course she would not! She was a good little bulldog, hanging on for dear life, just as her bull and bear baiting ancestors of old did. She was a super little gripping dog, who took the pain she experienced as just “part of the job” once her owner set her upon the sleeve. And this is the response from well bred pit bulldogs—to ignore pain while gripping. It is, after all, what they are bred for! Give me a bulldog like her, rather than one which will allow itself to be yanked off the sleeve due to pain.

A good bulldog trainer knows this and respects this! and has little difficulty using pain free techniques (that’s another article!) to achieve a quick, clean release on command. It's psychology. Having titled more pit bulls in schutzhund than anyone else I'm here to say I have yet to use a leash correction while training the “out!”

In Closing
I hope this article has clearly revealed the reasons why the American pit bull, sturdy family defender that he/she can be, does not belong to the “guardian” group of dog breeds, nor is best suited as a choice for a “protection” dog. A defensive, wary, suspicious nature is as far from the true breed type temperament as can be. Understanding the difference between “defense” and “prey” behavior is essential if you wish to bring out the best of your dog in schutzhund sport.

One excellent example of this unique (and endearing) temperament is the fact that visitors to my house know to call before they come, because they know my award winning schutzhund dogs will not bark at them when they arrive at the locked gate. These dogs may win schutzhund trials but “defend” the yard from non threatening humans? They are too busy wagging their tails and smiling up at the visitors.



All pictures are of Susanne Bunny, of New York State, and Boldog General Burkhalter, SchHI, TT, CGC, TDI, bred by Boldog Kennel out of Boldog Dirk, SchH III, French Ring Brevet, CGC, x WSP Bomb Detection K9 X Dog. Burkie and trainer/owner Susanne Bunny are shown earned High SchH I while earning their title.



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