A Little Background: I recently adopted a puppy from Heartland German Shepherd Rescue of Omaha, and I’ve had to get insurance for my business. Why are those things connected? Because the insurers wanted me to say that I wouldn’t work with “dangerous breeds” which is completely silly considering that I have two adult German Shepherd rescues, a white shepherd, and an American Staffordshire Terrier mix puppy (one of the bully breeds) in my house right now. I did not waver: Yes, I will be working with these breeds!

It seems that every so often one breed or another is singled out: German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinchers, Pit Bulls. They are all dogs who have served as companions for a very long time. What changed? (My look into the pit bull may also be an indicator about some of the problems associated with the other breeds as well.)

Pit bulls were originally bred for the bloody sport of bull baiting; a bull was tethered by a chain and the dog was encouraged to attack. In the beginning, bull baiting was considered to be necessary to tenderize the meat. In 1376, it was illegal to sell meat that was not “tenderized” in this way, but by 1500 it was considered sport. When the dogs attacked the bull, they were often thrown by the bull and/or gored; the bull was tortured. Dogs that were thrown were expected to return to the bull and attack it again. This required courage and tenacity on the dog’s part, but turning on people was not tolerated.

When bull baiting was finally outlawed in 1835, there was a glut of bulldogs and nothing to do with them. People pivoted to fighting dogs with dogs. While this is an equally horrendous “sport,” fighting dogs that turned on people were killed. This meant that the breed could be completely trusted, even around children. The dogs of this time (into the 1950s) doted on children and were considered nanny dogs.

What changed?

In the 1980s, gangs and other nefariously intentioned people began to realize that the dogs were very good at protecting them. They were bred to go after people. They also rose in popularity which meant that breeders who were in it only for the money could indiscriminately breed dogs that would never have been bred before due to temperament. The perfect storm: dogs bred to intentionally attack people and dogs bred without consideration of temperament or disposition.

Another issue is that there are several breeds that can be considered bully breeds: the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Terrier, the Bulldog, the Bull Terrier. And some of these breeds are recognized by the American Kennel Club but not the United Kennel Club or vice versa. Throw into that confusion the array of dogs that get confused for pit bulls: the Boxer, the Cane Corso, the English Bulldog, the English Bull Terrier, Chow mixes, Labrador mixes. It becomes pretty clear that one breed is probably not responsible for all of the related mayhem that gets pinned on “the pit bull.”

So human greed and recklessness have created the current problems generally attributed to bully breeds, and the dog gets all the blame. This is why breed-specific legislation is misguided and won’t work. All that happens then is that it’s harder for the people who know and love these dogs to get balanced dogs into responsible hands.

All breeds have problems when they become popular and are indiscriminately bred. The breeds that are considered dangerous are often large breeds meant to work with people. They require strong, firm, but kind leadership, and generally do better with at least obedience training and with owners who know basic training methods. Getting one of these dogs and leaving him/her alone in the back yard results in a large dog with a strong personality, no manners, and no social skills—not a safe combination. Getting one of these dogs and irresponsibly teaching him/her to fight people or dogs results in a flat out dangerous dog.

When bred responsibly, bully breeds are supposed to be courageous, strong, athletic, intelligent, and stocky with a strong head. People oriented. They are meant to be part of a family. They are also stubborn (independent) and love to chew, dig, and climb. They absolutely require training and may not be good with other dogs. Like most of the working and sporting group dogs, they love a job to do and can be destructive without something to do. They must be socialized frequently and regularly with people and animals from a young age. They may have a high pain tolerance and will stick up for themselves which means that harsh training methods won’t work. Methods that use pain as a deterrent may result in physical damage with no change in behavior. Harsh training methods that are inflicted directly by people may result in escalation of the behavior and/or retaliation from the dog during training or later toward someone else. Another pit bull attack in the making.

How do we fix this?

  • Crack down on puppy mills.
  • Offer harsher sentences for abuse, neglect, or other irresponsible behavior.
  • Create and enforce anti-tie-out laws.
  • Get dogs out of the hands of irresponsible people more quickly.
  • Consider lay people being required to take dog training classes prior to  purchasing/adopting/rescuing any dog—not just certain breeds. (We already track licensing and rabies; classes could be tracked in much the same way.)

Meanwhile, what does work when training any dog is time, lots of patience, and consistency (TLC). Make training interesting. Give them something to do, like agility, obedience, or rally. Make sure your dog has LOTS OF EXERCISE (at least two twenty-minute periods of walking or running every day). Stay calm, and know that animals (especially dogs) don’t do things to us or to get even with us. Be ready to devote the next 30 years to your dog. Get help immediately if you don’t know what to do. And never banish the dog to the back yard. They need a family.