Stigmatized breeds: how humans create dangerous dogs

Sheena Gnos
Contributor
The Navigator

Imagine walking in a park on a beautiful day. The sun is shining and you are basking in the summer heat, minding your own business. Suddenly, a Rottweiler comes from around a corner. He’s bounding across the grass, 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 for the ­owner?

Now imagine that same scene, walking in a park, sun shining on your shoulders, and a golden retriever comes from around the corner. Are you still afraid?

The difference in reaction is the result of a stigma within our society. Breeds like Rottweilers and Pit Bulls inspire fear because of stigma which is perpetuated by rumour, media, and a general lack of knowledge.

The dog, man’s best friend, is a historically important human companion. Today we see this bond with movies like Homeward Bound, Buddy, and Eight Below. Yet certain breeds are consistently shown to be dangerous and vicious. Take the movie Cujo, and how it feeds into the mythology of the dangerous breed.

Now don’t mistake me. I am not here to advertise 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. What this means is their instinctive prey drive is stronger than a Pomeranian’s might be. However, that does not mean they are more likely to attack you. In fact, a recent study published in the Applied Animal Behavior Journal suggests that Daschunds are the most aggressive dogs, with one in five snapping at strangers and other dogs.

Bernadette van Klaveren of Nanaimo Pet Services, who has 35 years of experience with canines, says “we are a society of labelling, 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 how people react to his dog fearfully—by crossing the street or picking their smaller dog up and taking it away. They see Rottweiler and assume danger.

Van Klaveren has dealt with many Rottweilers who were 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, and powerful breeds are most often bred for reactive traits like aggression. However, that does not mean that powerful breeds, by virtue of being powerful, are thereby aggressive.

With the combination of inexperienced owners and reactive traits, injuries and attacks are practically a guarantee. I worked in a grooming shop for three years, and I learned quickly that fear can be a death sentence. Every action of mine caused a reaction in the dog. If you are fearful and back away, the dog moves forward to claim that space. But if you stand your ground with a calm, assertive attitude, they listen. A strong hand is not an abusive hand—in the shop you were 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. Instead, stand still, hands at your sides, and let the dog sniff and dismiss you.

Easier said than done, I know. Most people haven’t been exposed to as many dogs as I have and therefore may be more likely to react fearfully, especially given the current media environment. When a dog attacks, media focuses on the graphic nature of the injuries or how young a child was, using words like “vicious” and “brutal” to get their point across.

These headlines are attention grabbers, but people don’t often hear about what led to the attack—not just immediately before the attack, but also training and upbringing. More importantly, there are numerous other attacks that happen every day by smaller dogs that never get reported. I never reported the things that happened at work, like when I was bitten by a Dachshund, 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 “10 Most Dangerous Dog Breeds,” compiled on the severity of the attack rather than how often a breed attacks, or the severity of that attack. Powerful breeds are more dangerous—they have bigger teeth and stronger jaws. We tend to forget that our canine companions are predators. However, unless a dog is medically proven to be mentally unstable, they do not attack without cause.

So why do smaller breeds attack more often? Rebecca Preston, owner and operator of Nanaimo K9, specializes in dog aggression. She says “we live in the Fluffy Era, where any type of discipline is considered wrong, and people confuse it with abuse.”

I have heard people say “But she’s my baby” or “He’s so small and cute—I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” This type of attitude, which anthropomorphises canines, leads to undesirable behaviours like jumping up, barking, pulling on the leash, possessiveness, and more. Most people will say that a puppy growling over a toy is cute, but that is a sign of possessiveness which, if allowed to continue, can escalate into aggression.

This is especially apparent in smaller breeds, because people view them as babies and let them get away with behaviours that would never be tolerated in larger dogs. As owners, we create neurotic, unfulfilled, and aggressive dogs by giving them too much love.

As a result, dogs display increasing levels of dominance because no one is correcting undesirable behaviour. 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. “Just look at wild wolves,” says Preston, who spent six months studying wolves. “They are the origins of dogs, and they practice discipline and boundaries first, not love and affection.”

Both Preston and van Klaveren talk of nature versus nurture when it comes to raising and training a dog. “On the nature side we have genetics,” says Preston, “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,” (which means 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.

Small dogs need the same thing, even more so because of how we view them. Most of the dogs that attacked me or displayed aggression in the grooming shop were small breeds. It’s the same for van Klaveren, who says “the bullies [Bulldogs, Pit Bulls, etc.] are the sweetest dogs in the grooming salon. Yorkies are the ankle biters.” Like any wolf pack, dogs need leaders to guide them. Size does not matter—a fact proven to me when I saw a Miniature Pincer dominate a Great Dane by chasing him, tail tucked between his legs, straight into a corner.

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 which today are no longer necessary, such as Rottweilers protecting cattle. 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. There are classes all over the place, like herding, agility, hunting, carting, bikejoring, tracking, and so much more, some of which fulfill specific breed needs.

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 is the complex emotional demands we place on them, expecting them to fulfill our empty nest feelings, 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 through canine fashion, jewelry, cosmetics, even dog weddings. We expect them to fulfill these impossible roles, which sets them up for failure.

Owners are fulfilling what they think the dog wants, not what they need. Dogs need a leader; we give them a friend. Dog’s 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. Instead, owners should be looking into training and classes. They should set up a routine of exercise, discipline, and affection.

As responsible dog owners, we have to remember that our pets are not humans and do not need to be treated the way we ourselves wish to be treated. While owners should assert confident alpha leadership to all dogs by being calm and assertive, 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, owners need to be strong,” says Preston, “not physically, but mentally strong.” This means constantly displaying confidence and assertive leadership.

Moreover, they need consistency with their discipline and an understanding that affection can be given, but only at the right times. Unwanted and dangerous behaviours like excitability, anxiousness, even aggression, are preventable with the proper training, discipline, and exercise. More importantly, these behaviours are a cry for help. The dog is telling you: “Hey, I’ve got problems—help me.”

There are a ton of conflicting opinions out there about what dogs need, about training philosophies and techniques such as whether to follow operant conditioning or reward-based training. In Preston’s opinion, not enough trainers use operant conditioning, a system that teaches animals their behaviour has consequences. Preston says that more trainers need to follow a “No BS” program.

Yet no matter the training method or philosophy, every potential dog owner needs to 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 and what they are willing to do for their dog.

There are still 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 bylaws 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; (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 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.

While there are many who believe breed bans offer protection, others disagree. The National Companion Animal Coalition (NCAC) states several reasons why breed-specific bans are problematic:

“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 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, know yourself, and make the proper match.

If you are not an active personality, 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 for early training. “Every single puppy should have puppy education (12-20 weeks) and then young adult education (one to one and a half 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, know how to act around dogs. Know your dog, but, above all, know yourself. If you are not willing to put time, energy, and dedication into your canine relationship, 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.

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