Dog Aggression: Its not the breed, its the human

When I first got Arnie-man, first thing I did was watch all of the Dog Whisperer DVDs available at that time. Dude has a whole pack of pit bulls, I wanted his advice on how to raise a proper Arnie-man. Sure, Cesar Millan could just be some sort of gimmick, but I followed his advice as best as I could with Arnie-- Lots of exercise (5 miles a day, minimum), appropriate discipline (I tackled that boy the second he showed a hint of aggression towards another dog, dog aggression has never been a problem), and lots of attention and affection. While there is no doubt Arnie is a bull-headed dog, he tries to be good, and hes a great buddy.

Well, that 'pack leader' 'dominance' stuff is not a gimmick. A paper just came out that supports the fact that a dog who gets plenty of exercise, discipline, and affection is a good dog. If a human leaves one of those things out, you start getting behavioral problems.

The dogs breed has basically shit to do with it. Actually, the dog itself doesnt have much to do with it. Its the owner.

According to JoaquÃn Pérez-Guisado, the main author of the study and a researcher from the UCO, some of the factors that cause aggressiveness in dogs are: first-time dog ownership; failure to subject the dog to basic obedience training; spoiling or pampering the dog; not using physical punishment when it is required; buying a dog as a present, as a guard dog or on impulse; spaying female dogs; leaving the dog with a constant supply of food, or spending very little time with the dog in general and on its walks.

And perfect timing-- The Dog Whisperer is now on Hulu. Awesome :)


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That's a little unsettling that spaying a female dog will cause aggressiveness... I thought it was a good thing to spay?

Saying not to spay your dog is ignorant and dangerous. The rest of the advice was good though.

I bet you also watch the Dog Whisperer for his looks.

I love the Dog Whisperer. I don't have cable so whenever I go home my parents TV is set to Nat Geo. My dad is getting pretty sick of it, but my mom is starting to listen and surprise! my dog pays more attention to her then my dad!

Saying not to spay your dog is ignorant and dangerous.

If you're doing science properly, you report your finding whether they are "ignorant and dangerous" or not. And they don't appear to be saying "don't spay", they're saying it's correlated with aggression. (Caveat, I'm basing my comment on the press release, not the actual article.)

Hi Abbie!

I always kind of wondered what you thought of Cesar Milan and his show. I've enjoyed watching it for the past year or so (when I first found it), but not owning a dog, I haven't been able to really apply any of his techniques (though they seemed correct to me). Someday I'll be in a position to own a dog again, but right now (and for quite a number of years), I'm not living in a situation where owning a pupster would do the doggie justice. :-(

Someday, though. Someday! Then it'll be a matter of selecting a breed (or mix) and see what they have at the nearest rescue center. w00t!

Take care, and don't forget to post more pics of Ts! ;-)


(And just so you know, in my heart, you'll always be a "D-list" blogger... Ah, the good ol' days!)

By minusRusty (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

I can't see the "Dog Whisperer" anymore without picturing him nipping Cartman on the neck.

Unfortunately, I'm a cat person. Cats can be well-trained, but, well...that sort of defeats the purpose.

I'm still not a dogperson, but you're getting me worked up about this.

How does one effectively reach a dog-denialist (Or owner-denialist, I guess it should be)?

At least I have the good sense not to get a dog - I can't see myself lavishing that much attention on another living being (as my pot plants can attest to).

Abbie - Your rules all work for kids too!

I went and grabbed the original article. It really made for a hard to follow read. Other than general editorial problems (misspellings, etc.) "Owner's level of education" was listed as both a highly significant and insignificant correlated factor. They also don't mention "spaying" specifically in the paper, but "castrated status" was listed as a insignificant factor (I have always assumed "castration" was male specific, but perhaps they mean it differently here). Also, I am concerned about their model construction approach. They only mention using a Chi-squared contingency table to analyze discontinuous variables (such as breed), which as far as I know doesn't allow to compare the relative importance of variables in a statistically valid manner. Breed was a "highly significant" correlated factor, but they don't discuss its relative importance of any of the factors (which would be solved with better model construction). Perhaps I am missing something big here, but I really don't see how this paper supports the hypothesis that breed of dog is less correlated with territorial aggression than owner conduct. Perhaps I am wrong and I would love for someone to let me know how this article does address that point.

All that being said, I am a dog owner and personally would agree that breed of dog has less to do with aggression than owner handling of the dog.

That's a little unsettling that spaying a female dog will cause aggressiveness... I thought it was a good thing to spay?

On balance, it is. But spayed females tend to be more dominant than intact females, and more dominant dogs are more aggressive (particularly with family members.) Doesn't mean a spayed female will go on a biting rampage or anything, just means you need to watch for dominance problems and correct them through training.

The study also finds that neutered males are significantly less likely to be aggressive.

The primary reason for spaying and neutering, of course, is to avoid creating more unwanted dogs.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

aggression and temperament in general are often inherited. That would be why Sue Sternberg found that the Pitty's in NYC area are way different from the Pittys in rural Virginia. I believe Patricia McConnell also either had a student or did some studies herself on how temperament is acquired.

In addition to that, aggressive behavior can be encouraged by environment and handling. Aggression in dog is a complicated issue.

knathon @11,

You're actually confusing two different papers, through no fault of your own--I did the same thing!

The Science Daily press release link is broken. It links to a different paper by the same authors, on territorial aggression: "Factors Linked to Territorial Aggression in Dogs," in Journal of Animal and Veterinary Advances 8 (7): 1412-1418, 2009

The paper the press release is actually about is "Factors Linked to Dominance Aggression in Dogs," in Journal of Animal and Veterinary Advances, 8 (2): 336-342, 2009. (The press release's citation on this is correct--it's just the link that's busted.)

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

I'm not sure whether this will work for everybody, but the link I used to access the correct paper is this one.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

Just the luck of the draw, but I have yet to be threatened by a pit bull, rottweiler, or doberman. Had a German shepherd freak out on me once (she had this thing about beards). There've been only 3 times I've been seriously threatened by a dog (physical contact was made or I was in serious defense mode eyeing vital points). One was a mutt and the other two black labradors, which I have found in all other cases to be the friendliest of dogs. In all 3 cases I knew enough to be fairly sure it was the way they were raised.

As for physical punishmentâitâs worth noting that other studies have come to conclusions which may conflict with this one. For instance, thereâs this study from the Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Science. It was also published this year: Herron, Schofer and Reisner, "Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors," in Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117 (2009) 47â54. It found that methods of physical or âconfrontationalâ punishment were likely to trigger aggression:

As we expected, the highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive interventions,
whether direct or indirect. In contrast, reward-based training elicited aggression in very few dogs, regardless of presenting complaint....Several confrontational methods such as ââhit or kick dog for undesirable behaviorââ (43%), ââgrowl at dogââ (41%), ââphysically force the release of an item from a dogâs mouthââ (39%), ââalpha rollââ (31%), ââstare at or stare [dog] downââ (30%), ââdominance downââ (29%), and ââgrab dog by jowls and shakeââ (26%) elicited an aggressive response from at least a quarter of the dogs on which they were attempted. Dogs presenting for aggression to familiar people were more likely to respond aggressively to the confrontational techniques ââalpha rollââ and yelling âânoââ compared to dogs with other presenting complaints (P less than 0.001). In conclusion, confrontational methods applied by dog owners before their pets were presented for a behavior consultation were associated with aggressive responses in many cases.

This study also notes,

Contrary to expectations, not all owners reporting an aggressive response to a particular intervention felt that the training method had a âânegativeââ effect on their dogâs behavior. For example, ââhitting or kickingââ led to the highest frequency of aggression for owners who attempted it (43%), yet only 35% of owners reported a negative effect.

How to square this with the Pérez-Guisado et al. paper? One possibility, I think, is that physical punishment works well with dogs who donât already have dominance issuesâpuppies, for instance. But with dominant dogs, it simply escalates the conflict, and if the dog decides to physically punish you back, well, the dog wins. (Pérez-Guisado himself cautions that it may be too dangerous to discipline large or aggressive dogs.) To my knowledge, this is the main reason why so many vets and dog behaviorists criticize Cesar Millan; owners try to pull his alpha-wolf routine on their problem dogs, and get bitten in response.

Another possibility is that different levels or frequencies of punishment have opposite effects, since the P-G paper didnât distinguish between types of physical discipline. Maybe the occasional pop on the nose decreases aggressiveness, whereas daily alpha rolls increase it.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

Well Cesar actually says to never hit or kick a dog. He does advocate the Alpha Male persona, but as he is always talking and writing about that is the type of energy you give off. Calm Assertive. Kick or hitting carries a very emotional connotation such as aggression and out of control, both of these attitudes will provoke a dog, make you appear weak, and fail. What Cesar does is poke or prod more. But it is alway in control with a feeling of a reprimand, never anger. I love his episodes on how he deals with super aggressive dogs that the owners have been yelling and hitting and what not. Never raises his voice or strikes the poor dog. Just calm and assertive.

Ahh... that helps out alot...

Sili (sorry, tried to post this when MT was down)-- I dunno how to reach Dog Denialists. We have several on SciBlogs, and though I mentioned the following things, they dont care. These are useful for speaking with normal people who are just wary of pits because of what they hear in the media:
1. Pit bull breeds actually score better on temperament tests than pop-culture 'friendly' breeds:
American Pit Bull-- 85.3%
American Staffordshire (Arnie)-- 83.9%
Staffordshire-- 88%
Old English Sheepdog-- 76.6%
Beagle-- 81%
Golden Retriever-- 84.6%

2. Countries who implemented breed specific legislation decades ago are dropping it. Killing pit bulls does not effect dog bite statistics or dog homicides. Bad owners just get a different breed to ignore/abuse, and well mannered family pets are killed based on their appearance alone. The Dutch got rid of their 15 year ban. Britain has seen a 50% increase in dog bites since their ban started 12 years ago. If the breed were the problem, BSL would work.

3. Assuming the very worst-- that pit bulls are responsible for, say, 50% of all dog homicides, youre ~3-5 times as likely to be killed by lightning, than you are killed by a pit bull. The fear is irrational.

Dogs are dogs. If you dont know a dog/owner, dont run up to cuddle him/her. My parents Marley-and-Me yellow lab is the most aggressive dog I have ever met (rescue, hard life), while Arnie is a baby-doll with 3 year-old kids or 3 month old puppies. And stray dogs, thats a whole nother kettle of fish...

Kick or hitting carries a very emotional connotation such as aggression and out of control, both of these attitudes will provoke a dog, make you appear weak, and fail. What Cesar does is poke or prod more.

Sure, but there's a fine line between "poking and prodding" and hitting, and it's easy for a frazzled owner to cross--especially when they may not have Cesar's knack for looking effortlessly assertive. Also, note from the above study that even non-"punching" methods of physical discipline, like pushing the dog down or forcing an alpha roll, can provoke aggression.

Incidentally, I suspect pit bulls (whether Cesar's or Abbies') might respond unusually well to mild physical discipline. They're crazy strong and often kind of doofy as adolescents, so getting tackled a few times might be a good way of gaining their attention. And they're unlikely to retaliate, given their submissiveness to humans and bite inhibition. Most of the pits I've fostered, you could basically kick them in the face and they'd send you a handwritten apology for whatever it was they did to offend you. It's much harder to send them into self-defense mode than it is (in my limited experience) with German shepherds or huskies.

I tried rolling my 12-pound spaniel a couple of times when he went after other dogs, and he basically had a 'Nam flashback and started trying to kill everything around him while still upside down. But he'd been a bait dog, so he had issues.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

So, would you trust your pit bull if a toddler wandered into your yard while you went in, e.g., to the bathroom, and the toddler started kicking the dog for fun? Sure, you shouldn't leave any dog unattended with a strang child, but stuff happens.

The problem with the pit bull is that it has a strong jaw and sharp teeth, compared to, for example, a cocker Spaniel, which has a much less dangerous bite. (Yes, some cocker spaniels have a type of rage syndrome, but those dogs should not be bred either.) I don't know of a single cocker spaniel that could defeat a pit bull in a fight.

Some dogs do have better temperaments.

Can you train and rear a pit bull to be a child friendly lovable fluff ball tolerant to new children? Maybe. Maybe not.

Cesar is losing ground fast in the dog trainer world - as people watch the dog whisperer and use his techniques to raise or "fix" their dogs and end up causing more harm than good.

I am involved with a local Lab Rescue and we have had 2 dogs returned after owners used Cesar's methods and created the most withdrawn, timid, and fearful dogs only a few steps away from becoming fear biters - these dogs were typical Labs, neither of which I would even consider shy and yet after being "flooded" with dominance and socialization techniques of Cesar, they acted like they'd been abused or raised in a puppy mill. The thing is Cesar's method of Calm Assertiveness was designed for dominance aggression. Dogs who were never trained, never had boundaries, and thought they are leaders of the pack. These techniques are effective with dominance aggression, but dominance is only 1 of the 10 types of aggression seen in dogs. As an example, throwing down on a fear aggressive dog (forcing a dog to the ground is a signal of me having dominance over them) will create more fear aggression and can cause pain, punishment, and redirected aggression - unfortunately, the average person has no clue which aggression their dog is exhibiting.

I have no issue with Pitties either (sadly for them, I think much of the bad wrap is that they attract owners who are looking for the big mean fighting dog as a status symbol and who enjoy seeing them express aggression) - and feel that most of the conclusions of the paper on aggression relate to irresponsible dog ownership (giving a dog as a present, Santa knows better...). But I would not champion Cesar's techniques - a better technique is training with positive reinforcement, correction and conditioning (as opposed to punishment), and lots and lots of patience on the owners part (really it's education on the owner's part all around).

By FeralAkodon (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

Also sadly, aggression is becoming more prevalent in Labs thanks to overbreeding. A happy, jovial temperament is characteristic of the Labrador and is part of the breed standard, but when people breed with no regard to that temperament, you end up with aggression.

By Feral_Akodon (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

As someone who has a very nice mini-pit much of this comes across as "well, duh." Our pit seems to think that she's a lap dog and still has trouble understanding that cats don't want to play with her.

William, it doesn't matter the type of dog. You don't leave children around with them in an unsupervised fashion (even well-behaved dogs can see children as rivals for affection.). But singling out pit bulls is simply wrong and borderline trolling.

This confirms what you've been saying forever.

I have a 9-lb. Chihuahua. Nobody better tell me that Pits are more naturally aggressive that my little Missy. Missy once charged an almost half-ton black bear, and has made chasing raccoons a lifetime addiction. I have to restrain her from attacking both animals and people, even though she would cause little damage if she did. It's just not nice to nip ankles.

Dawgs are farkin' dawgs.

...I really don't think these papers were peer reviewed very well...

If anyone has access to these papers ("Factors linked to dominance aggression in dogs" and "factors linked to territorial aggression in dogs"), look at table 2 under "The time the owner spends walking the dog" in both papers. The mean score values are exactly the same. This seems very odd since they are measuring two different kinds of aggression (as defined in the first paragraphs of each paper), and used two different scoring methods. Is this copying and pasting from one paper to the other? This along with some things still mentioned in my last post (such as listing education level as both a high significant and insignificant factor) really makes me question some things that should have been caught in peer review...

I have never read anything from this paper before. Does anyone know if it has a reputation for good/bad peer review?

Yeah, that is weird. I bet it was a rogue copy & paste or some such.

The paper describes breed as a significant factor, too. And I'm kind of curious as to why breed and sex were both analyzed as continuous variables (although I'll believe anyone who tells me there's a good reason for that...I'm not a stats expert.)

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

I didn't see they were continuous, but that does seem odd. Someone would have to explain this to me too.
I also don't see why they used ANOVA for the continuous data either. It appears they preformed a separate ANOVA on each factor individually. From everything I have been taught about stats, that is a big no-no. It introduces compounding error with each analysis. The whole dataset should be analyzed together. PCA, GLM, MANOVA, Stepwise multiple regression all seem more appropriate for this. But then again I am not a stats expert either, so I could be very wrong here.

So, would you trust your pit bull if a toddler wandered into your yard while you went in, e.g., to the bathroom, and the toddler started kicking the dog for fun?

Ah, the old "kamikaze ninja toddler" temperament test. That's why I don't keep butter knives in my home--what if a toddler teleported into the kitchen and started stabbing itself in the eyes for fun? Better safe than sorry!

The problem with the pit bull is that it has a strong jaw and sharp teeth, compared to, for example, a cocker Spaniel, which has a much less dangerous bite.

A spaniel could easily kill or maim a toddler; my little brother had his nose pierced by a nine-pound Manchester terrier. If you want a dog that's physically unable to do real damage, you need to adopt a Chihuahua and replace its teeth with Nerf.

Given that plus the fact that spaniels bite people much more often, I'd consider a well-trained pit bull at least as safe as a well-trained spaniel when it comes to unattended and suicidal toddlers.

I don't know of a single cocker spaniel that could defeat a pit bull in a fight.

My 12-pound spaniel defeated pit bulls on several occasions. That's because they never tried to fight back.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink

Certain breeds have a tendency to attract owners with less than pristine motives.

Rather than question whether the owner has lived up to their responsibilities to the animal we place the responsibility on the animal.

I live in the rather trying context of having a breed of dog (Boston)that is always an alpha, 24/7 and is completely indifferent to negative reinforcement.

He has had obedience training, gets attention and we keep him acculturated to other dogs and new people as much as possible.

This takes a lot of work.

I am always amazed at people who regard their dog as another "thing" in the back yard they have grown bored with.

When I see that it makes me nervous because if I were maintained under similar circumstances and with the same level of indifference I would just be biding my time until I could slip my collar and bite somebody on the ass.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink

Well, I guess I'm a lucky guy.

I've got the sweetest Lab. She's a good friend to me and other animals. She does, on occaision bark at strangers, but get's all wiggly butted when she approaches them.

Oh yeah, her best friend in the whole world was my sons Belgium Dwarf bunny :-)

I have a 9-lb. Chihuahua. Nobody better tell me that Pits are more naturally aggressive that my little Missy.

Chihuahuas have terrible temperaments, I'd agree even worse than pit bulls. I have never met a Chihuahua that was friendly with strangers, though most of them were adored by their owners, and affectionate toward their owners.

So, would you trust your pit bull if a toddler wandered into your yard while you went in, e.g., to the bathroom, and the toddler started kicking the dog for fun?

Ah, the old "kamikaze ninja toddler" temperament test

Laugh now, but such situations occur. In the case of my dog, it just yelped and wondered away from children kicking it. But in the case of a 7 year old in North Minneapolis, who was apparently just trying to pet the family pit bull--he's dead (video).

I am pretty sure I could train a pitbull puppy to be a good dog--but I don't think an adult pitbull should be left alone with a 7 year old.

Assuming the very worst-- that pit bulls are responsible for, say, 50% of all dog homicides, youre ~3-5 times as likely to be killed by lightning, than you are killed by a pit bull. The fear is irrational.

I am aware of two children killed in North Minneapolis due to pit bulls, and 0 children, adults, or dogs getting killed in North Minneapolis by lightning. But North Minneapolis has a high pit bull population density compared to the state and country. That might explain your probabilities. Seems like it would be better to compare dog homicide rates among pit bulls compared to black labs.

Anyone that spends a great deal of time with dogs recognizes quick quickly that dogs have as varied a personality range as humans. There are even some that are downright deranged. Trying to view them as a monolithic group, even as a breed, is self defeating.

An aggressive dog, even when coupled with good owners will remain aggressive, although not as aggressive as it would with aggressive owners, and a non-aggressive dog will remain non-aggressive even with aggressive owners but are usually the ones abused the most. They will act aggressive on occasion but not because of a innate aggressiveness beyond the fact they are domesticated predators, but from an innate and exacerbated fear.

These are the dogs that respond best to good owners. I have successfully socialized three such dogs, the first as a teenager working with an abused toy poodle. He was so bad my mother was going to return him because she couldn't show him, he was too fearful and snappy.

I worked with him for a year, and he ended up being her best show poodle (She had several champion Shepards). Unfortunately his abuse left him sterile so we could not use him for breeding.

Of the 30 or more dogs my mother or I owned between us, there were very few I would not trust around a neighbour's kid.

The breeds included Boxers, Shepards, Shelties, toy/miniature/standard Poodles and even a few mutts. Aggressive dogs were worked with until they could remain calm around crowds of people and other dogs, and timid dogs were worked with differently with the same results.

I'd like to get in on this one, having raised and trained dogs all my life.

There is no one right way to train a dog. Every dog, like every child, is different. My last dog was a 90 pound Rott that I adopted when he was 2 years old and completely untrained. He thought he was king of the world, and I disabused him of that, using a combination of methods (Cesar wasn't particularly famous back then, but some of the methods I used were very similar). He never got kicked or hit, just to be clear, but he did figure out very fast who was top dog.

We have a Great Dane now that we've had since she was 5 weeks old. She's a year and a half old now, and has taken a completely different kind of training. She's very treat-responsive and, comparatively, very easy to train. We've used a lot of the Sirius training methods with her because they work. She's a gentle dog and doesn't require much discussion about being top dog. We went through a very short period of hand feeding her every meal to make it clear that we were in charge and she needed to be polite, but for the most part she's been pretty easy. She's well on her way to being a therapy dog.

I grew up with English Bull Terrier rescues, generally perceived as incredibly stubborn and possibly vicious dogs (they have the same strong jaws that pitties do). We had a range of dogs from very aggressive to the most laid-back dog you've ever met. The training approach depended on the dog, and we made sure to watch the dog for responses as we trained so we didn't put the dog in a fear-biting or aggressive position, using either treats or other methods.

I've seen dogs hurt by people trying to use Cesar's methods, dogs who have decided they were in charge because of Sirius type methods, and I've seen others hurt by basic ignorance or active cruelty.

You can screw up a dog using almost any method if you use it wrong, don't understand it, or don't adapt to the dog's needs. Dogs are not one-size-fits-all in training.

Pit bulls are not the problem. I train them at the Humane Society pretty regularly, and of all the dogs there, the only one I've had trouble with was a Chow mix, not a pittie. The pitties are strong, but they want to please and are generally very treat-responsive. Picking one breed as the "bad breed" is completely ridiculous. It used to be German Shepherds, and before that it was Dobermans and Rottweilers. People seem to want something specific to be afraid of, and pitties are the flavor of the month (or, I suppose, the flavor of many years now). Just because they have strong jaws doesn't mean they are bad dogs. They may have had bad owners, but that can be overcome.

I'll get off my soapbox now. :)

I am pretty sure I could train a pitbull puppy to be a good dog--but I don't think an adult pitbull should be left alone with a 7 year old.

I don't think any dog should be left alone with a 7 year old. What does that have to do with a) whether a pit bull is inherently more likely to savage a solitary child than another breed, and b) whether the rate of fatal dog attacks is high enough that it should be a major factor shaping the laws on pet ownership?

Seems like it would be better to compare dog homicide rates among pit bulls compared to black labs.

Sure, if you can eliminate all confounding factors besides breed. Can you?

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

Ceasar Milan is fun to watch but you're better off taking advice from Victoria Stilwell of "It's Me or the Dog". Ceasar's techniques work for Ceasar, Victoria's work better for the rest of the world.

Just because they have strong jaws doesn't mean they are bad dogs.

And pits' jaws aren't amazingly strong, so far as I can see. When they bite they like to hang on for dear life, sure, because they're terriers and that's what terriers do. (And this makes them less lethal in a fight than, say, a shepherd or a Spitz, which is more likely to inflict multiple bites in multiple spots.) But their bite force/pressure has never been shown to be higher than that of other breeds of comparable size, and there's nothing anatomically special about their jaws.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

This sound like the false dichotomy of nurture vs. nature to me.

I have no doubt that the training and environment of the dog is by far the greatest contributor to violence by dogs, but I would very much doubt that a dog's breed has no contribution.

Of course what really gives some breeds a bad rap is not their potential for violence, but rather the consequences if having irresponsible owners results in violence. I can handle a poodle with ease. The big and strong dogs could probably handle me with ease.

As someone with a minipit, yes they can have strong jaws. But I don't know if their jaws are substantially stronger than a dog of the same size. And my pit and pretty much all pits I've been around that weren't abused or neglected have had a good understanding of how strong their jaws are. I'd be more worried getting a wound from playing with a German Shepard than with a pit for example. Pits can be strong and well-behaved pits understand just how strong they are.

I worked at a veterinary clinic in the midwest all through high school (best early training as a behaviorist I ever had), and the owner issue came up regularly. I worked there just long enough to watch families bring in dogs bought as gifts, pass them off to minors or talk on cell phones during obedience class, and eventually bring in high-maintenance breed dogs to be euthenized because a combination of poor/inconsistent discipline, neglect, and hostility created an out of control aggression issue 100% human-caused. It would be great if legislation re: dogs shifted the onus of punishment and responsibility entirely onto the owner.

As someone who owns three dogs (GSD, Siberian Husky, Norwegian Elkhound) and has been involved in obedience training routinely for the last decade, I've said the following so many times that it's become second nature (and now seemingly scientifically supported): There is no such thing as a bad dog, just bad owners.

Abbie, the first dogs I ever knew were working dogs. Border collies for the most part. My father needed their help to manage the cattle and horses and the bed of the pick up.

When I was (barely) old enough he taught me how to handle and train a dog. His first rule was, "You must be the boss."

He was correct since dogs instinctively look for leadership from the alpha and seek their useful place in the pack.

I have had the pleasure of belonging to several packs and being the alpha in some. Communicating successfully with a dog (or horse or chicken or cow . . .) is almost like making Contact. Well, at least it is a delight and the dogs tell me they love it too!

So. You've got a new best buddy. Best to both.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 09 May 2009 #permalink

I'd like to point out a couple of distinctions.

First, the temperament test that pit-types are commonly cited as doing well in does not test aggression towards other dogs.

Aggression towards humans and aggression towards other dogs are very distinct types of behavior (kudos to A for correcting both, btw); pits are arguably better than average wrt the former and worse than average wrt the latter. I've never been personally threatened by a pit, but dogs that I have been walking frequently have been.

Second, there are different types of 'biting' behavior . There's a corrective nip, and there's an all-out ballistic attack. Based on my own experience, herding-type dogs are vastly more likely to bite in the sense of a quick, pinching nip than other types of dog, often on an ankle or an outstretched hand. Thankfully, the only ballistic attacks I've experienced towards myself have been with dogs restrained in cars or behind fences(none of which were pit-types by appearance).

Thirdly, dogs of any type and toddlers should *never* be left unsupervised. Dogs see toddlers and think 'puppy,' and most adult dogs will consider themselves dominant to any puppy they encounter. Toddlers, however, do not display the 'submissive' body language that a puppy does in order to turn off a dominance display by an adult dog, and can be severely injured through simple misunderstanding.

Finally, one of the biggest problems with Milan's "Way" is the tendency to interpret *any* disobedience or misbehavior as a dominance issue. Wolf packs have heirarchies, true, but they are not dictatorships. Among other things, the alpha wolf doesn't get to tell all of the other wolves what they can and cannot roll in, and even a submissive dog will interpret a human's insistence on doing just that as bizarre at best.

Aggression towards humans and aggression towards other dogs are very distinct types of behavior (kudos to A for correcting both, btw); pits are arguably better than average wrt the former and worse than average wrt the latter.

My experience accords with yours; pits seem to be unusually submissive with people, but unusually dominant (especially the males) with other dogs. I suspect that this behavior may be mitigated by neutering, because the neutered pits I've fostered haven't exhibited it--but I can't point to any studies on the topic. There aren't nearly as many studies on dog aggression toward other dogs, for obvious practical reasons.

I think it may be another terrier trait; I've seen a lot of fox terriers and Jack Russells push other dogs around, and the most dog-dominant dog I've ever met was my spaniel/terrier mix, who was very terrierish in personality. He could pick out a swaggering dog from blocks away, and (before I learned where to keep him on-leash) would immediately charge, leap on them and discipline them as ferociously as was possible for a ten-pound lapdog missing most of his teeth. Which wasn't actually very ferocious, but they were impressed.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 09 May 2009 #permalink

When I looked up dog bite statistics in the U.S. around 2004, the greatest number of deaths (13) was attributed to Golden Retrievers. Those are dogs famous for their mild temperaments but that means people aren't careful with them. I agree it's the owner, not the dog. Dogs are happier when they know where they stand and what is expected of them, when they get attention and exercise--for sure. Some people don't know how to treat a dog consistently or how to give short, clear commands. I was impressed by Stanley Coren's rule to say the dog's name before a command so it knows to listen to the next words.

Unfortunately, some people get dogs as bad-ass accessories and they want the dogs to act mean. Some leave the dogs out in the yard at all hours without play or exercise.

For a dog without behavior problems, the first technique should be to find out what it likes (food, petting) and give it that: modelling and reward. My stepdaughter uses many single pellets of dog kibble given intermittently as treats. (Training with intermittent rewards lasts the longest.)

As someone once pointed out, if the scary-looking breeds are banned, dog-fighters will breed more aggression into other breeds. So it's better to judge a dog by its behavior.

I trust domesticated dogs quite a lot but I wouldn't leave a toddler alone with one unless they were both asleep. There was that case of the kid in a wind-up swing and the "non-aggressive breed" dog that took a bite out of it every time it swung by.

LKL's notes about biting reminded me: I read somewhere that the usual "dog bite" administered by adult dogs to children is something of a sideways clop with teeth closed, the dog equivalent of a slap on the wrist for a puppy.

But I would be very, very wary of children triggering a hunting response with dogs.

Absolutely, body language of calm confidence is important. Think of the kind of teacher who never has any trouble with the students.

When I looked up dog bite statistics in the U.S. around 2004, the greatest number of deaths (13) was attributed to Golden Retrievers.

Deaths?? Are you sure that wasn't non- lethal bites?

I know retrievers are high up on the list for bites of all sorts, but I've never seen an analysis of fatalities that didn't attribute most of them to shepherds or "pit-bull-looking" dogs....

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 10 May 2009 #permalink

Anton, I was wrong and you are correct. (It _was five years ago.) The number of deaths is going up; apparently it was 33 in 2007. A few dogs and their mixes are involved in about 2/3 of the attacks--as someone said above, it used to be rottweilers and dobermans, now it's pit bulls and dobermans and cane presarios, which I would guess is an Italian breed, then some of larger "classic" breeds like Alsatian. But it still comes down to knowing your dog, training him or her consistently, and keeping an eye out for trouble.

Thanks Abbie,

I'll try to keep this in mind (though it seems that Denmark has recently introduced some sort of breed bans).

My own experience as a paperboy is that German Shepherds have been the most aggressive. And these were dogs owned by separate friends of my parents - I was even of an age with their kids, so they had every reason to know me.

They were darlings with the families, though, and one of them (as I vaguely recall) once cornered a burglar. He wasn't bitten, but too scared to move and he eventually shat himself.

I've only been bitten by a dachshound and the one that got closest to attacking me was a poodle (king poodle, at least, but utterly deranged).

There was one dobermann (I think) in the hamlet, and while he did look out for his home, he was nowhere near as angry with me.

(But I'll still stick with cats for myself. If a relationship should ever become relevant (HAH!), my idea of compromise would be getting a rat, rabbit or ferret or summat (or nought). Not both cat and dog.)

It's refreshing to see people with a science background talking about dogs. I stumbled across this site by doing a search "HSUS cares about money." As you might have guessed, i'm a big critic of most "humane" societies and organizations who claim to care about dogs.

Glad I found this site.

I'm not a "real" scientist like you retrovirus reverse engineers, but I do have a B.S. in Biology and I do pay attention to research and actual science not hysteria, lies and the propaganda of PETA, HSUS etc..

These groups are enemies of dogs and dog owners. They care about money and power and not pets. What's important to these people is the Galas and the fundraising and the parties and the power. At the bottom of the list is the actual people who care about and love animals. People like you and me and pets like ours.

Having said that, if you want advice on how to break up a dog fight, I have a convenient video available at although it is rather large (188 mb) it may be informative for those of you who may have to deal with dog aggression.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you one breed is more aggressive than another, but I will tell you this, when it comes to dog aggression, the last thing I worry about is the breed. To me, a dog is a dog and I approach them all the same. I don't care about their background, or their breed, or what bad thing happened to them as a puppy.

Dogs have their own internal reasons for attacking other dogs and most of the time (from the dog's perspective anyway) those reasons may be quite friggin' valid. But from a human symbiont's perspective, who has valid reasons for not wanting huge vet bills, he/she has equally valid reasons for not wanting our dogs to attack each other.

So it's all about recognizing what triggers cause fights and then working either avoiding those triggers, or working to desensitize the dog so the dog can understand that he can function in that situation without the need to attack.

Here is a short article I wrote on the subject as well.…

Good luck and have fun with your dogs.

this is michael
reporting live...

Hey Abbie â I just borrowed Chad Orzelsâ book âHow To Teach Physics To You Dogâ, from our local library; itâs a great read, and the talking to Emmy part really works.

Are you gonna do the same with Arnie talking about what you do?

Arf Arf,