FEMA_Photo_by_Barbara_PritchardA while ago, a commenter on my Pit Bulls: Part 1 post posed some questions about recent forms of advocacy by the Humane Movement, and suggested this to be a key factor in the increasing popularity of ‘breeds’ such as the Pit Bull. The point is well taken, and rather than replying within the confines of the comment section, I decided to rather flesh this out a bit, and respond more comprehensively. It’s a useful contribution; this is an important conversation that requires some considered input. Searching questions about the veracity and utility of information placed in the public sphere on all sides of this debate are still entirely non-existent.

Of course, situations vary from country to country, and although I disagree as to whether information furnished by humane organizations is the overriding influence in the choices people make about which pets to get (especially in South Africa), the nature of advocacy certainly has changed in recent years and its impact can’t simply be disregarded.

 

The Humane Movement stands accused

Opposition from such groups towards Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL), which as I’ve made pretty clear I consider to be ill-conceived, divisive and scientifically unsustainable, was always inevitable. But recently this seems to have tipped over into brazen breed advocacy from even many of the larger and more established organizations. And when it extends to unsubstantiated and potentially irresponsible advice about the relative suitability or not of some of the more controversial breeds/types as family pets, it seems to border on the unprincipled.

For the sake of clarity, perhaps it would be useful to reproduce the (anonymous) comment in full for the purposes of easier reference:

“In my experience the most obvious, common human attribute amongst the most vocal of APBT fanatics tends to be a simple one: masculinity.

I am writing from the US and would like to politely disagree with the author on this issue. Mr Wood acknowledges the role of middle class suburbia and particularly of women in pit bull advocacy. But the author also claims that the proliferation of status or weapons dogs is largely due to dogfighting, crime, hip-hop culture, and hyper-masculinity.

While there is truth to this claim, other trends are also responsible for the wide acceptance of fighting dogs as family pets. The humane movement has been vociferous in their defense and promotion of the breed(s), and have made fighting dogs not only acceptable as pets, but the breed of preference. This bewildering advocacy on the part of the animal rights and humane movements has exerted a profound influence on legislation, on university animal law programs, human-animal studies programs, and on the shelter and rescue movements.

The humane movement has painted itself into a corner with this advocacy, which could take decades or generations to remedy. SRUV has detailed this advocacy in Tool Box and other posts.”

 

Personal experiencs

 As stated in my initial Pit Bull post, this breed was incredibly uncommon in South Africa until fairly recently, and did not have any notable impact on my professional career as either Dog Trainer or Animal Behaviourist until the latter part of the last decade or so. In his comment appended to my ‘Township Dog Attacks 2: Labels shape expectations’ post, Merritt Clifton acknowledges the long history of serious and disfiguring dog related injuries in this country. And whilst he suggests that this problem: “is closely associated with the proliferation of the relatively small constellation of breed types” in South Africa as in other countries, I notice he carefully avoids any specific accusation of the Pit Bull type being disproportionately implicated.

Throughout my professional engagement in the dog world, Boerboels, Rottweilers, Dobermans and German Shepherds have been far bigger issues when it comes to serious dog bites than Pit Bulls.. by a country mile.

Had he suggested they were, I’d immediately request some reference for the data and interrogate their provenance – because in all honesty, I wouldn’t believe it. Throughout my professional engagement in the dog world, Boerboels, Rottweilers, Dobermans and German Shepherds have been far bigger issues when it comes to serious dog bites than Pit Bulls.. by a country mile.

 

Do people choose controversial breeds just because of positive spin?

By implication, attributing liability for the many tragic incidents that have been associated with certain dog types to the marketing success of non-profit advocacy groups avoids the most useful question: what personality dynamics or attitudes impel people to choose a pet that may pose even a potential risk to their families, friends or community? Keeping guarding types at least has some kind of utilitarian rationale, but the Pit Bull type is not recommended for this function, and often actively recommended against – even by some of the most strident breed advocates (the type is meant to show no evidence of human aggression, they repeatedly assert). So what purpose then, considering the controversial reputation?

In my experience, the recent spike in popularity of this dog type here is inexorably linked to swaggering machismo, as well as embodying much evidence of a self-conscious (if conceited) sense of social defiance. It’s the ultimate ‘BAD-ASS’ dog, usually gets a public reaction, and whilst there are no shortage of women defending the breed against threatened legislation here, I have yet to meet a South African woman who went out specifically looking to acquire one. The couple of women I know who own or foster Pit Bull type dogs do so as a commitment to ‘rescue’. I’m sure there are women who are active Pit Bull enthusiasts – and Cape Town is certainly not the best demographic sample of the South African psyche – but it is different to the situation that currently pertains in the USA. Also, the most prominent animal welfare charities (our versions of the USA’s Humane movement) are split on the issue of whether or not to support BSL – some stridently do.

 

When advocacy spills over into marketing

But calling attention to the gradual shift in the way some of the broader Humane Movement in the USA and Europe now deal with the Pit Bull ‘question’ is entirely appropriate. In recent years it has gone way beyond simply debunking some of the ridiculous stereotypes being promulgated by legislation enthusiasts, or ameliorating the impact that prejudice has wrought on these dogs and the people that own them.

They seem now to be in the business of myth creation, venturing instead into the establishment of a tangential fantasy history for the breed/type whilst appearing to ignore – or at least trivialize – the very real and wide-spread concerns that abound about the safety of this type as pet-class dogs, and the changing character of the public space. It’s becoming more a case of overt breed marketing, and that requires urgent critique.

This turnaround is not only questionable ethically, but is as much scientific nonsense as so much of the anti-breed rhetoric. Invoking an imagined golden past; a time when the so-called American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) was describe as America’s ‘Nanny Dog’, just ignores the fact that just because the title remains the same, and the phenotype might be similar, that this historical construct and the modern Pit Bull type are somehow behaviourally homologous is absurd.

 

Generalizations, bad science and the myth of genetic determinism – both ways

Again we’re back to dealing with a complex mammalian organism, it’s behaviour and temperament, being portrayed as both uniform and as a sort of design-controlled, manufactured commodity. There is no reason to believe that the Pit Bull type of the early 20th Century is any predictor of the temperament or behavioural charateristics of today’s Pit Bulls type. That my last male Golden Retriever (bred from show lines rather than working stock) regarded picking up dead birds with his mouth to be an entirely distasteful pastime, and absolutely hated swimming, serves as a vague analogy.

The problems we are experiencing with certain types of dogs, and most importantly their suitability as family pets, should be assessed according to the information we have at hand right now and not because of any ‘once upon a time..’ notion. In her ebook, ‘The Pitbull Placebo’, Karen Delise catalogues a litany of historical incidents involving various different breeds and types of dog in order to debunk the ‘Pit Bull as harbinger of all evil’ notion. Whilst obviously trying to push the old “all dogs can and do bite” concept, she seems to miss the point somewhat – that many large, working type dogs can and do pose a potential danger to humans, and as such, all deserve our professional attention… including the Pit Bull.

 

Not every breed makes for a good (or safe) pet

To properly utilize that sort of information for the ultimate benefit of both dogs and people, it is the responsibility of all dog professionals to consider the full range of attributes and environmental circumstances that may contribute to dogs being more risky when kept as pet class animals: trait selection, temperament, size, strength, socialization history, living circumstances and bidability, just for starters. All dogs can and do bite; but some are likely to cause far more serious injuries when they do.

If we could just change the focus away from breeds, cross-breeds and types, and concentrate instead on the specific attributes and characteristics that are likely to increase risk profiles, we may find common ground that allows us all to progress on this issue. And will get beyond the corners that both sides have painted themselves into.

And I can see no compelling reason why those involved in the humane movement, animal welfare and sheltering or the animal behaviour and training fields should not fully utilize this information to appropriately advise people against keeping certain dog types as pets. That and explaining that it’s not just a matter of how much you love the animal, or how well brought up it is.

If we could just change the focus away from breeds, cross-breeds and types, and concentrate instead on the specific attributes and characteristics that are likely to increase risk profiles, we may find common ground that allows us all to progress on this issue. And will get beyond the corners that both sides have painted themselves into. On the other hand, whilst the narrative remains mired in histrionics, pop-genetics and pseudo-science, I can see no reasonable way forward at all. That and the incredible amount of face-saving now invested…

 

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  • Qr

    “To properly utilize that sort of information for the ultimate benefit of both dogs and people, it is the responsibility of all dog professionals to consider the full range of attributes and environmental circumstances that may contribute to dogs being more risky when kept as pet class animals: trait selection, temperament, size, strength, socialization history, living circumstances and bidability, just for starters. All dogs can and do bite; but some are likely to cause far more serious injuries when they do.”

    What is a dog profesional? And where in the process of getting a family pet do they fit in? When I decide to buy a dog and have not decided on a specific breed I google and read up as much as possible on my shortlisted breeds whereafter I make a decision to buy a dog. Is this process of research the “dog professional”? Because I’ve never heard of any profession like this where you call a person or meet with him and he tells you what dog you should get. And if this were to be the case surely we would end up with max 10 to 15 preferred breeds?

    I bought a pitbull as a result of all my reseach on the breed and other breeds. If false advocasy of breeds such as pitbulls are done and portrayed as loving harmeless, good with children dogs, when they are in fact the opposite, then there must be many sick people or people living in denial out there!

    quintin

    • http://www.animalbehaviour.co.za TBWMike

      Vets, dog trainers and Animal Behaviourists are just three examples of common ‘dog professionals’, as are the academic biologists and ethologists that customarily write books or author online advice sites. When deciding about breed choice, it is recommended that prospective pet owners at least consult their veterinarian to augment any personal research they may do. Of course, the more diligent often choose to consult a reputable Animal Behaviourist, most of whom offer ‘Breed Selection’ as part of their suite of services. The decision to acquire a dog implies that you will be bringing an animal into your home that is likely to live with you and your family for more than a decade, and has the potential to fundamentally impact all your lives; for better or for worse. So perhaps some professionally informed research should be considered a necessity.

      Anyone who buys a Pit Bull, having read up extensively on the breed, and still remains unaware of the trenchant controversy surrounding them, might be considered to be in a little denial themselves. My blog posts on Pit Bulls explain in greater detail why I don’t subscribe to any narrow, deterministic approach, and nor do I consider Pit Bulls to be a ‘breed’ in the modern understanding of the term. Opinions about dogs, breeds and assumed behavioural characteristics are usually drawn from a variety of sources, some evidential, some anecdotal – and some agenda-driven. It doesn’t mean people are ‘sick’, just that not everybody thinks the same about everything, and some have axes to grind,

      • Qr

        Hi Mike

        Thanks for your reply. With regards to obtaining inputs from dog/animal professionals in making a decision on which dog/dog breed to select, I think like most things in our country and elsewhere in the world, it boils down to being informed and educated. I for one never even thought once of going to my vet or consult with professional before getting any of my dogs. It could be that its quite a new idea (for me at least), I’m also not sure how long this profession has been around for in this country (referring specifically to Animal Behaviour Consulting) and if its been taken up as seriously as it might deserve. I suppose with programmes such as Caesar Milan’s Dog Whisperer people will start getting more informed about this type of profession.

        I was not unaware of the controversy surrounding American Pitbull Terriers but being the optimist and lover of dogs that I am (and my wife), I suppose we wanted to decide for ourselves. This might have been a bad decision – only time will tell. What I do know thus far is that my Pitbull (female) is completely different from my German Sheppard (male), in many ways. She is extremely playfull and very amuzing. She is a bit stubborn at times but she knows who is boss (My wife, then Me and then my German Sheppard). So far I can only say it’s been a great pleasure, apart for her destructiveness in the garden when we’re not home. I really do not think that this is a dog for people that do not have strong leadership qualities or inexperienced owners, and I suppose this is also one of the reasons you do not advocate having these dogs as pets. In my humble opinion most people should not even own any kind of dog, simply because people do not take the responsibility of owning a pet seriosly. It’s almost as if some people don’t see animals as living beings that require lots of attention but rather as a toy for their children / or simply just a guard dog and not a family member. So, I have to agree with you that Pitbulls should not be promoted as family pets, simply because most people don’t even know how to raise a “normal” dog, nevermind a potentially dangerous dog.

        Oh and just to add – we have 2 x yorkies, and 2 x cats as well. All living under the same roof. The one cat we got as a kitten when the pitbul was already 1 year old and they get along like a house on fire.

        Lets just hope the switch never trips.

        Quintin