Powerful, and Stigmatized, Breeds
By Sheena Gnos
Imagine walking in a park on a beautiful day. The sun is shining and you’re basking in the summer heat, minding your own business. Suddenly, from around a corner, comes a Rottweiler. He’s bounding across the grass in great leaping strides, ears back, mouth gaping wide. What do you do? Is your heart in your throat? Do you step back and look around frantically for the owner?
Now imagine that same scene — park, sun– but this time from around the corner comes a golden retriever.
Are you still afraid?
If not, the difference may have more to do with you than with the dogs, and with the stigma that has been placed upon certain breeds.
Dogs — man’s best friend — have been important human companions throughout history. Today we see this bond continued in movies like Homeward Bound, Buddy, and Eight Below. Yet certain breeds are consistently depicted as dangerous and vicious. Take, for example, Cujo, and how both the book and the movie feed into the mythology of the dangerous breed.
Now don’t mistake me. I am not here to depict these powerful breeds (a term I prefer over “dangerous”) as cuddly sweethearts suitable for every household. They are powerful breeds for a reason, specifically bred for certain aggressive traits, which means their instinctive prey drive is stronger than a Pomeranian’s. However, that doesn’t mean they are more likely to attack you. In fact, a recent study suggests that Dachshunds are the most aggressive dogs, with one in five snapping at strangers and other dogs.
Bernadette van Klaveren of Nanaimo Pet Services has 35 years of experience with canines. “We are a society of labeling,” she says, “and once something is labelled we think of and react to it differently.” Truth doesn’t matter; the label carries meaning. My brother, who owns a Rottweiler, has often observed people react to his dog fearfully — crossing the street, or picking up their smaller dog and taking it away. They see Rottweiler and assume danger.
Van Klaveren has dealt with many Rottweiler’s who have been labelled “dangerous” because their handlers couldn’t direct their energy and power. We seem to constantly forget that every dog breed was created for a specific purpose with certain intentions. Powerful breeds are most often bred for reactive traits like aggression, but that doesn’t mean that they are by nature, or in non-threatening situations, aggressive.
Nevertheless, given the combination of inexperienced owners and reactive traits, it’s practically guaranteed that injuries and attacks will occur. I worked in a grooming shop for three years, and learned quickly that fear guarantees a negative reaction. Every action of mine caused a reaction in the dog. If I was fearful and backed up, the dog would move forward to claim that space. If I stood my ground with a calm, assertive attitude, they gave me respect.
A strong hand is not an abusive hand. In the shop, I was the boss, and it was a matter of not allowing certain behaviours. This also goes for people who don’t own dogs. Take that opening scene, of a Rottweiler running towards you. Now, admittedly, in a perfect world, all dogs would be on leashes, unless in a dog park or fenced backyard. However, if you do find a loose dog running at you, the last thing you want to do is run or step back. That is a prey response that inspires a predatory reaction. Same with flailing your arms. Instead, stand still, hands at your sides, and let the dog sniff you and dismiss you.
Easier said than done, I know. Most people haven’t been exposed to as many dogs as I have and may be more likely to react fearfully, especially given alarming (and often alarmist) stories in the media. When a dog attacks, reporters tend to focus on the graphic nature of the injuries, using words like “vicious” and “brutal” to get their point across. Those may be attention grabbers, but people don’t often hear about the circumstances leading up to the attack — not only immediately before, but during the dog’s training and upbringing, too.
More importantly, numerous other attacks happen every day by smaller dogs that we never hear about. At work, I never reported the Dachshund who bit me, or that I had a Chow who tried to take my hand off every time he came in. I also never reported any of the calm, gentle Pit Bulls and Rottweilers who behaved better than many of the poodle crosses I had to deal with. It’s the “vicious” and “brutal” stories that are remembered.
Is it any wonder, then, that Rottweilers and Pit Bulls top internet lists like The 10 Most Dangerous Dog Breeds, compiled, not on the basis of how often a breed attacks, but on the severity of the attacks? Powerful breeds are more dangerous. They have bigger teeth and stronger jaws. We tend to forget that our canine companions are predators, first and foremost. However, unless a dog is mentally unstable, it will not attack without cause.
In those situations where a dog’s reactive instincts are triggered, the training it has received is key. And the key thing an owner needs to understand is how canine hierarchy works. In the dog world, there is always an alpha, the most dominant dog in any given pack. He or she delivers corrections with its mouth when necessary. Dog owners don’t need to go that far, but they must still establish themselves as the alpha, which may mean suppressing their own instinct to shower love on the dog. “Just look at wild wolves” says Rebecca Preston, owner and operator of Nanaimo K9, a training and rehabilitation service specializing in dog aggression. “They are the origins of dogs, and they practise discipline and boundaries first, not love and affection.”
Both Van Klaveren and Preston stress nature versus nurture when it comes to raising and training a dog. “On the nature side,” says Preston, “we have genetics, like Pit Bulls who were bred from a terrier to kill, and Bulldogs for power. You get a dog with a potentially high prey drive,” meaning they are more reactive and more likely to display aggression. For example, the Canadian Kennel Club classifies the Rottweiler as a working breed, originally “developed from the dogs used by the Roman legions to herd and guard the cattle brought by them to feed their legions.”
In terms of temperament, the CKC says that a Rottweiler “should possess a fearless expression with a self-assured aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships . . . In examining a Rottweiler, one should bear in mind that this dog reacts with alertness to his master and his surroundings, and in performing his function in life, the Rottweiler is not expected to submit to excessive handling by strangers.” In other words, Rottweilers are bred for power, not friendliness. Is it surprising, then, that an inexperienced or unknowledgeable owner may contribute to an attack? A strong dog needs a strong owner, which means devoting time and energy to training, discipline and exercise.
How a dog is nurtured, which includes environment and upbringing, also contributes to behaviour. Over the centuries we have designed dogs to fulfill specific purposes, such as Rottweilers protecting cattle, which today are no longer necessary. There are far too many dogs out there for each of them to do the job they were bred to do, so we need to give them alternatives for their energy needs. Plenty of classes are available, in herding, agility, hunting, carting, bikejoring, tracking, and more, some of which are designed for specific breeds.
Dogs are not empty vessels upon which we can heap our wants and needs. Our relationships with canines should be reciprocal. What we need from them, they too need from us. What they don’t need are the complex emotional demands we place on them, expecting them to fulfill our empty nest feelings, or to supply relief from grief, be a companion for a lonely soul, be our babies, etc. The pet industry indulges these damaging needs by exploiting the market for canine fashion, jewelry, cosmetics, and even dog weddings. We expect them to fulfill impossible roles, which sets them up for failure. Owners are fulfilling what they think the dog wants, not what the dog actually needs.
Dogs need a leader; we give them a friend. Dogs need structure; we give them freedom. Dogs need, as “The Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan would say, Boundaries, Rules, and Limitations; we give them love, love, and love.
While all owners should assert confident alpha leadership by being calm and commanding, it is even more imperative to do so with powerful breeds, because they, unlike their smaller counterparts, are capable of doing a great deal of physical damage. “For powerful breeds,” says Preston, “owners need to be strong — not physically, but mentally strong.” Moreover, they need to be consistent in their discipline and understand that affection can be given, but only at the right times. Unwanted and dangerous behaviours like excitability, anxiousness, even aggression, can be prevented. More importantly, these behaviours are a cry for help. The dog is literally telling you, “Hey, I’ve got problems — help me.”
There is a ton of conflicting opinion out there about what dogs need, and about training philosophies and techniques such as rewards based training or operant conditioning. In Preston’s opinion, not enough trainers use the latter, a system that teaches animals their behaviour has consequences. More trainers, she says, need to follow a “No BS” program. Yet no matter the training method or philosophy, potential dog owners should do their breed research. They need to understand the training and exercise requirements of the breeds they would like to buy. More importantly, they need to understand their own commitment — what they are willing to do for their dog.
Still, there are certain breeds whose image will not be rehabilitated anytime soon. As a result, several provinces, states and cities have instituted breed-specific bylaws and bans. Nanaimo’s, for instance, define restricted dogs as “(a) a Pit Bull Terrier, an American Pit Bull Terrier, a Pit Bull, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier or an American Staffordshire Terrier; or (b) a dog of mixed breeding which breeding includes the blood line of the breeds referred to in (a),” which extends the definition to mixed breeds you are likely to acquire from the SPCA. These breeds are to be muzzled when off the owner’s property, confined indoors or enclosed at all times. The bylaw then moves to define vicious dogs as “(a) has bitten a human without provocation; (b) has bitten an Animal without provocation; or (c) has a known propensity, tendency or disposition to attack or aggressively pursue without provocation a human, or an Animal; or (d) a Restricted Dog,” which means that restricted dogs are automatically considered vicious dogs. Winnipeg’s is similar in that “any Pit Bull dog within the City of Winnipeg is and shall be conclusively deemed a dangerous dog,” whether or not the dog has attacked anyone. The rules continue with specific restrictions as well as bylaws for kennelling, muzzling, and destruction or relocation of litters.
But not everyone thinks these bylaws are effective. The National Companion Animal Coalition (NCAC) offers several reasons why breed-specific bans don’t work:
- There is no objective method of establishing lineage of cross bred dogs, or dogs which are not registered with a national kennel club.
- Dangerous dogs may exist in every breed and breed cross.
- Dangerous temperament and behaviour are products of many factors other than just breed.
- This type of ban will result in exclusion of some dangerous dogs, and inclusion of dogs that are not dangerous.
- The incidence of dog bites has not been shown to be reduced by restricting the ownership of certain dog breeds.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2012 paper “The Role of Breed in Dog Bite Risk and Prevention” concludes that breed plays no specific role in increased attacks. In a section specifically about Pit Bulls, they state “owners of pit bull-type dogs deal with a strong breed stigma, however, controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous.” They also ask people to consider how high instances of Pit Bull attacks may be a result of high Pit Bull populations confined in densely populated areas, or areas with many children.
Yes, attacks occur, but not all of the blame can be placed on the dog; owners have to take responsibility too. For van Klaveren “it is up to the individual to do the research”: Know your breed, assess your own personality, and make the proper match. If you are not an active type, do not get a husky. If you are not particularly confident and commanding, do not get a powerful breed. Match the dog to the lifestyle. Also, both Preston and van Klaveren advocate early training. “Every single puppy should have puppy education [12-20 weeks] and then young adult education [1 year to 1 ½ years],” says van Klaveren. “It is basic, general, good dog, good manners training. At this time, problems can be seen and redirected easier.”
Whether you own a dog or not, educate yourself, so you know how to act around dogs. And if you are a dog owner, know your animal, but above all know yourself. If you are not willing to put time, energy, and dedication into your canine relationship, if you are not willing to do the research, or fulfill their basic needs, then you have no business owning a dog. We domesticated and bred them; it is our job to properly take care of them, not only for their sake, but for our own as well.