As of October 3rd, 2016, Montreal becomes yet another North American region to ban pit bull (or “pit bull type”) dogs. Canadian or not, if you’re a dog-lover, you’ll doubtlessly have heard of this ban, and are likely outraged and disappointed in Montreal’s city council.
Like most dog trainers and behaviourists, I am aware of the uselessness of BSL (breed-specific legislation) in managing dog bites to humans. Every decade has its scapegoat dog breed that gets blamed for exceptional aggressive tendencies: German Shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers… and now pit bulls — which isn’t a specific breed, but a ‘type’ of dog, encompassing a few breeds, the most popular being the American Pit Bull Terrier.
But this isn’t an opinion piece on BSL (breed-specific legislation), which I am fundamentally against. Instead, I want to talk about the role of genetics in temperament. In the wake of the pit bull ban, 80% or more of the comments I read on various social media platforms in regards to said ban are outcries of how it’s (personality) all about how the dog is raised, and has nothing to do with the breed. While the second part of that phrase is technically correct: breed standards are very strict, but many individuals deviate from the standard, such as water-hating Poodles, mellow Border Collies and fearful Golden Retrievers, it’s the first part of that sentence that I find ridiculous.
If raising a dog in a “loving home” is all it takes to raise a friendly, sociable dog, I’d be out of business. All (and I mean all) the dog owners I work with love their dog(s) like I love mine: to the moon and back (a few times over.) That doesn’t prevent or cure aggression any more than it can prevent or cure hip dysplasia.
Aggression has a very strong genetic component, it doesn’t just come out of thin air. I’ve worked with dogs that were born with a silver spoon in their mouth, so to speak, that are skittish, fearful and quick to bite, and dogs that have been through more than I would ever wish on my worst enemy, and are happy, playful, easygoing goofballs. Both those extremes are by no means rare, either.
Not only have I found that genetics plays a role in temperament, but I will go so far as to proclaim that nature plays a much more significant role than nurture in the temperament of an individual. For this reason, it’s important to see an animal’s parents to get an idea of the offspring’s temperament; it's also the reason why responsible breeders take individuals that have unfavourable traits out of their breeding stock.
Before I end this post, I’d like to mention that despite the importance of nature in the development of an animal’s personality, nurture is also a factor. There are right and wrong ways to raise a dog, although there isn’t a single way that works for every dog. If I thought otherwise, I’d be a hypocrite working in my field.
The point of this post isn’t to downplay the importance of dog training, but realistically, one hundred dogs all raised the same way aren’t going to be exact replicas of each other. Whatever a skilled dog trainer or behaviourist can achieve more than the average dog owner doesn’t change the fact that dogs (like any other animal) aren’t born blank slates.
Does this mean that pit bulls are dangerous because there are dangerous individuals within the type? No, of course not; but at the same time, it’s unfair to always assume that aggression and reactivity is all the owner’s fault, because it’s not.
And for goodness’ sake, let’s stop calling aggressive dogs ‘bad’ or ‘mean.’ They are neither.