The Dog Isn’t Broken But the LEGS Sure Are- Do Pit Bulls Have Horns?

by Kim Brophey on 09/9/13
Behavior | Research

​Americans, by no fault of their own, generally have an incredibly homogenized view about dogs and their behavior.  In recent years, pet dogs have become increasingly considered as effectively the same, regardless of their profoundly varying hard-wired genetics artificially selected throughout history for numerous, and very different, behavioral and physical characteristics.  What little remains of an appreciation for these traits is culturally dismissed as anecdotal or irrelevant to the primary questions and judgments about a dog’s behavior.   As a result, the millions of dogs in our country expressing the once valued hard-wired motor pattern behaviors for which they were originally bred are often considered to have behavior problems and disorders (or even horns growing out of their heads).  These dogs become branded as lemons or owners become labeled as incompetent whisperers when the manifestation of the genetic influences lands in our modern living rooms, yards, and neighborhoods.  Pop culture dog training and behavior tells us that if we could only be a good enough pack leader, if we “always” do this and “never” do that, then these expressions and often resulting problems will simply disappear.  When it doesn’t work, the dog or the owner takes the blame rather than years of artificial selection without foresight of future consequences for the 21stcentury, and the present culturalignorance of what is an epidemic of dogs as “fish out of water” goes unrecognized for what it is. 

Consistent with our over-simplified perspective on dog behaviorbut on the other end of the spectrum we have those who take the position that certain breeds are inherently vicious and should therefore be banned.  Those breeds, with the American Pit Bull Terrier as the poster child, have grown horns and become a danger to society in the eyes of many.  The lack of education about the scientific explanations for the legitimately concerning experiences many have had with this breed and certain others has led to misinformed conclusions that distract our collective attention from the greater issue as modern American pet dog owners.  The problem of increasingly concerning dog behavior, complete with personal and public safety as well as quality of life implications, is not as simple as labeling certain breeds as inherent offenders and others as saints. 

The bottom line is that all breeds of dogs (and mixes betweenthem) are going to be an expression of theirLearning (experience in life as an individual animal),Environment (the details of the world in which they find themselves living),Genetics (the hard-wired physical, neurological, and behavioral characteristics), andSelf (the psyche of each individual being).  This integratedLEGSperspective offers us the opportunity to objectively understand why we witness the behaviors that we do in the dogs in our lives, and gives us an escape route from the frustration and judgment we are currently consumed by as a culture.  For the truth is thatthere is absolutely nothing wrong with the vast majority of pet dogs inAmerica, and almost every single one of them is completely safe when understood, managed, and handled appropriately by an educated and capable owner as the type of dog that they are.  The genes do matter, but we need not judge them (the dogs or the owners) for it.  The problem is that we look at a pair of ice skates and call them evil for tearing up the beautiful hard wood floors when we are in fact standing as the idiot for putting ice skates on the hard wood floor in the first place.  We blame the soccer cleats for tearing up the perfectly manicured lawn rather than recognizing we haveLEGSthat are falling out from under us as there is an incompatibility between the expectations we have about our individual companion (S), their experience in life (L), their basic core design (G) and  the environment (E) in which we have put them.  It’s a common public behavioral math problem, not an evil pair of shoes. 

And so, we are wise to consider the so far ignoredEnvironment andGenetics as a local as well as national community.  We have bred dogs to be exactly what we wanted in order for them to perform certain tasks in very specific sets of circumstances and then we wonder why dogs express those  behaviors when presented with stimulus that mirror and therefore trigger their purpose to manifest.  It is folly to stand in bewilderment when science explains it all quite clearly.  While some types of dogs might indeed be very difficult to live with in certain modern conditions because of a legitimate incongruency in theLEGS,it is not reasonable to judge those dogs or owners as inherently dangerous.  It IS, however, important for people to appreciate what they are signing up for when they get a certain kind of dog (such as the poster child Pit Bull) so that they are sufficiently educated about the hard wired differences and so prepared to handle the dog successfully.  There are certain dogs that require some additional skill and training to live with, so that there is no confusion or disaster resulting from naivety.  For Pit Bulls, for instance, the art of living with these incredibly affectionate and intelligent human companions is learning to keep them always a few steps back from the starting line of the race as their hard-wiring informs them to win at all costs with the competitive unemotional focus of a champion.  We made them this way, for historical and unfortunately modern sports which I in no way condone; but the animals themselves are not the loose cannons we imagine them to be.  There is logic in their genetics.  Understanding that design and reading and handling the dog accordingly, while providing practical appropriate relief as outlets for their genetic expression, is the key to success.

Now I would offer that we should seriously consider the matter ofcontinuing to breed dogs for jobs that are no longer desired or easily compatible with the average pet home conditions and expectations.  We are otherwise perpetuating and increasing the “fish out of water” predicament for many types of dogs and therefore us and so by definition setting them up for behavioral dysfunction similar to that of a pacing Bengal Tiger in a zoo.   To look at the tiger, our dogs, as the problem is the fundamental error.  They are in a world which they often do not recognize, with behavioral plugs looking for an outlet they can sometimes never find.  It can drive them mad.  But there’s nothing “wrong” with them.  It’s just thoseLEGSbreaking out from under them. 

We need practical education, not misinformed accusations orexpansive generalizations, about the dogs in our modern lives.  We need to engage a paradigm shift in our conversations and develop tangible solutions for our shared lives for the interest of not only animal welfare but also our own.  My belief is that Asheville can be the catalyst for a cultural l movement, an example of creative and informed solutions, setting a national precedent for a cooperative community of dog lovers hell bent on making a difference.  Let’s start talking about the dog’sLEGStogether, Asheville.  Those horns are just an illusion.


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