Ban the Behavior, Not the Breed

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Jan. 2, 2012
Ban the Behavior, Not the Breed

The law states that "It shall be unlawful for any person to own, possess, keep, exercise control over, maintain, harbor, transport, or sell within the city any … dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of … the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics which substantially conform to the standards established by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club."

I’ve met many pit bulls throughout my career, and the great majority of them have had absolutely no aggressive tendencies toward people (I cannot say same about some other breeds that shall go nameless). So why is it that we seem to hear so many gruesome accounts of pit bull attacks?

One reason is that stories about aggressive pit bulls are more sensational than stories about equally aggressive dogs from a breed with a more benign reputation. The media is far more likely to report on a problem pit bull than a problem Labrador retriever. Also, greater public awareness of pit bulls has increased the likelihood that any muscular, short-coated dog with a large head will be identified as a pit bull, particularly if it has been involved in an attack.

But claims of media bias cannot explain away the times when pit bulls have truly bitten, sometimes with tragic consequences. What has gone wrong in these instances?

Sometimes, pit bull owners are to blame. These dogs are extremely trainable and want nothing more than to please their owners. Unfortunately, if an immoral person wants their pit bull to be aggressive towards people and he or she rewards this behavior, the dog is likely to act in the way that his owner has intended. Also, dogs that have been neglected, abused, or poorly socialized are more likely to be aggressive. If a pit bull has had only unpleasant dealings with people or has no experience with strangers, it should not come as too great of a surprise when he lashes out.

In other instances, breeders need to take responsibility for vicious dogs. Conscientious breeders carefully select only the best individuals for use in their programs and routinely produce wonderful animals. But, if someone instead seeks out pit bulls that act aggressively towards people, and then mates the aggressive dogs to each other, years of proper breeding can be undone in just a generation or two.

Finally, sometimes the process of reproduction, development and aging goes astray. In a particular dog, genes may combine in just the wrong way, producing an individual that is very different from what is normal. Although the majority of pit bulls are gentle and trustworthy around people, a specific dog may not be. Of course, the same can be said for golden retrievers, toy poodles, or any other breed. Diseases or injuries that cause pain or adversely affect brain function may also be responsible for turning any dog into a potential threat.

A recent study revealed that "breeds classified as potentially dangerous did not show aggressiveness more often than the remaining ones," which goes to show that breed bans are a truly thoughtless way to deal with the problem of aggressive pets.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Bill Gadbury / via Shutterstock

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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