Advocacy Overdrive: Why BSL & the humane treatment of dogs are linked

As both of these topics draw heated and emotional opinions, feelings and an overall sense of tension, please refrain from flaming this post with responses that are not conducive to furthering the discussion in productive manner.

 My sole intention is to help dogs and help people better understand them, especially Pit Bull dogs. Please let’s stay on topic.

If we had Breed Specific Legislation eradicated tomorrow, and all the dogs that looked a certain way were no longer banned or discriminated against, we’d still have the issues of training and understanding them in a way that will help them all lead happy, healthy, safe and productive lives. Or at least have the dogs evaluated in a way that would be just and fair. This works well for the people that are fearful of the dogs as well. When done correctly this will save time, money, dogs, lower injuries to humans and dogs and reduce anguish among many shelter and rescue workers.

No matter where people fall in the discussion about BSL or dog behavior; we all want safe dogs. This is achieved by educating dog owners and the people that breed, train, shelter and rescue Pit Bulls. However what is being taught may or may not be true. Beliefs are not the same as facts, and facts can sometimes be misconstrued into something they are not.

Recently Gary Wilkes wrote an article for Off Lead magazine about Pit Bulls. There is no doubt the Mr. Wilkes has a history with the breed and no doubt he knows his stuff as far as dog training goes, he is responsible along with Karen Pryor for bringing clicker training into the dog training world. However I would challenge his assertion that one day Pit Bulls will attack, or as he describes he’s “worried about that 7th day” referring to the Sundays he and his father went to dog fights when he was a child. His father bred and fought Pit Bull dogs and Mr. Wilkes details a few incidents that have stayed with him and obviously shaped his fear, apprehension or concern about Pit Bulls.

However those are his experiences, and his beliefs and they have nothing to do with my dogs, or the millions of other Pit Bull type dogs that are alive today, perhaps a few, but all of them? Hardly.

 I find it sad that this man that has worked in dogs all these years still has a fear of them? Sure it will give reason for some to say “see we told you”, however more educated and more sensible voices are saying the opposite, it’s not the dogs it’s the people.

Surprisingly this line of thinking is exactly where many of the BSL proponents get their fear of Pit Bulls. From a few incidents from some seriously messed up dogs that did serious damage, not all Pit Bull dogs however, just some mind you.

So why should the deeds of a few be the examples that shape the reputation of the breeds that make up the Pit Bull dog population? That sounds a bit fictional. Wilkes can have concerns, but that does not make them realities, I don’t care how long the guy has been around dogs, the numbers don’t lie.

Wilkes along with Alexandria Semyonova, who has the same same narrow mind set and the same broad based over generalizations about Pit Bulls and aggression, the same way BSL proponents view them, they are both way off base. The same way uninformed, uneducated people have formed opinions and made assumptions about Pit Bulls. What separates these two from the average dog owner or anti dog lobby is that they have some reputable education about dogs and of course they have experience.

When Semyonova states in her paper Heritability in the abnormally aggressive dog that “it is fiction that you can keep the appearance of these dogs (through breeding) and make them into safe, peaceful dogs” she is way off the mark here.

And her assertion that “form follows function”, and “you cannot breed out behavior and keep the dog the same shape”, again she is delusional.

 From what I know in my travels and discussions with people in the behavior field genes don’t work that way. I love what Patricia McConnell says about genes “Genes are written in pencil”. I take this to mean they can be erased, as well as fade.

One thing I do agree with Semyonova on is when she states that “Dog breeders are not geneticists”, so by that very statement how can all the Pit Bull dogs have this “killer gene” that some people feel they possess? Most of the breeding that is done by most people is a crap shoot no matter how well planned.

In the book Genetics and the social Behavior of the Dog – John Paul Scott & John L. Fuller, state that “ there are relatively few behavioral traits for which any breed is homozygous, meaning - having identical pairs of genes for any given pair of hereditary characteristics. They further go on to say “even within this experiment there was a great deal of individual genetic variability”.

 The conclusion they came to was essentially “it is impossible to generalize about any one breed from experience with one dog, or even one strain of dog and it is likewise impossible to generalize about all dogs from experience with one breed”.

This is why we should take studies, or temperament studies with a grain of salt. There may be good info to file away, but it boils down to the individual and the environment.
Yet here are two people Wilkes and Semyonova, doing just that, making broad generalizations to fit their agenda.

One only has to look at the numbers, the “math of dog bites” as I like to call it. In the USA statistics by the CDC plainly show each year 20 or so people die from dog related incidents and about 200 or less are seriously injured. I call this the 20 / 200 equation. Because for the past 40 years these bite stats have held steady pretty much more or less in that range.

Wilkes states in his article that “dog fighters know these dogs best”. I would offer another example of people that know Pit Bulls better; people that understand genetics are not like carbon copies or duplicated CD’s. There are a myriad of factors that can change the outcome of a litter or a line of dogs, any dog breed.

For that matter every living thing on earth is subject to the laws of random selection, as well as interference from humans or the environment. Additionally; what about the countless dogs that have been dealt with proper training and some form of behavior modification and go on to lead very productive and safe lives despite the harshness of their past or the faultiness of their breeding? After all learning is a change in behavior based on experience.

I would also suggest that dog fighters don’t know all that much about dog behavior and what they do know is narrow and colloquial at best. They just get lucky every now and then; most of the time the dogs they breed are not able to simply fight when they are asked to. This is why fight dogs that are able to just get the job done w/out any real work on the part of the human are so expensive and why so many of the other dogs get tossed away or killed. Essentially breeding is a crap shoot. Dog fighters and any one that has bred dogs will tell you this; it’s not an exact science. It’s nature. There are still unknowns.

When I spoke with Diane Jessup, who has written many books on the Pit Bull breed, along with breeding and training Pit Bulls for over 40 years, she stated to me that even in a “game bred” line most of the dogs simply do not have that special little gene that will make them a fight dog or a cattle dog. Most simply do not have *it* no matter what the purpose of the breeding is. She says allot of the dogs are “cold”, meaning not game. I say the numbers back her assertions. She also believes that “far more Pit Bull dogs have farmed cattle than have ever fought in the Pit”.

Pit Bull dogs were originally bred to herd bulls & cattle and be farm dogs, catch hogs and aide the farmer and the family, not fight their own kind. This is what people tend to forget, farm dogs have to be sound, with a very human friendly temperament or else they are culled, no exceptions. The Pit Bull dog was bred to be sound around dogs and people when they were bred by responsible people/farmers that knew what they were breeding for, which was gameness, the willingness to complete a task at any cost, and sound dogs with even temperaments and zero aggression towards people. Dog aggression towards dogs or prey does not necessarily bleed over towards humans. They are two different things. Many people either don’t know this or tend to forget it.

If any genes keeps getting passed around from dog to dog I say it is the ability to be generally affable with humans for the most part.

This leads me to the next new myth floating around these days that you can “train” a Pit Bull to be a fight dog. It is coming from all corners of the dog world, from Pit Bull PR groups to the dog owners of the world. This is a lie.

You *might* if you’re lucky be able to get a dog to associate the aversive training to the others dogs, but you also very well could and most likely will cause an negative association to most everything around it in the process. As was mentioned earlier, I would wager that dog fighters don’t know anything about training a dog, let alone creating a negative CER to a dog so exact that it would only fight another dog in the pit.

With lack of behavior knowledge and the lack of skills that most people have with dogs in general, I’d say the old days of the gentile and skilled “dog man” are long gone from the fight world. If you think your next door neighbor is bad with his lame imitation of Cesar, imagine what some thug is all about in the dark corners of the dog fight world, not good people not good at all.

My question to the people that feel it’s “all in the genes, all in the bloodline”, or that the dogs are ‘trained” to fight, would be: How do you explain the dramatically low rate of deaths by dog bites, to both humans and dogs each year?

It can’t all be leash laws and good dog skills by humans. If it is as some suggest in the genes, where are the numbers to back it up? I’d say what keeps being handed down through genes is the kindness and tolerance that dogs have for dealing with the stresses of living in a human world.

Furthermore Dunbar states that “training and socialization are the greatest variables in a dog’s behavior”. Those two aspects come directly or indirectly from humans. This would be that despite genealogy, despite humans selecting for certain traits that the outcome of behavior rests no so much in the crap shoot that is breeding, but in the more calculated actions or inactions of humans with dogs once they are born and living among us. If the “killer gene/bloodline” camp really wanted to focus on something to lessen the number of unstable dogs, they’d do well to learn about puppy development.

The big numbers that everyone is worried about the 20 deaths & the 200 serious injuries caused by dog bites are not really so big, numbers wise, emotionally they hit the big targets of fear & sadness.

Are we now going to slaughter all “Pit Bull dogs” either literally or by character assassination in the media and in the neighborhoods of the USA based on 220 really bad incidents, and a few pseudo scientists and some old beliefs by some of the old timers?

I would contend in the vast majority of dog scenarios people are in; they are either doing their best with no ill will intended and they do not have proper guidance which leads to trouble sometimes or they are doing a pretty darn good job by and large because dogs are NOT intrinsically looking for a fight or to harm humans.

Think about the motivation for dogs, food mainly, and how they view the world, as safe or unsafe, and how much humans play a part in access to resources and the ability to control dogs throughout their life so the dog feels safe or unsafe.

Then there is the fringe, the people that let the dog slip through the proverbial cracks, or simply do not care, these are not even slightly the large part of the pie when it comes to dogs in society, especially Pit Bull dogs. The Pit Bull owners I meet are well aware of the consequences of not doing right by their dogs and are looking to either get the right info to make situations better or are taking the steps each day to ensure their dogs are safe and well mannered. This extends across all socio economic lines mind you. At least I have found this to be true in my travels.

If there is a dog epidemic in the USA it is the media who have gone mad with fear related programming. Some people in and out of dogs are swept up in this fear.

By 2006 there were over 14,500 headlines with Pit Bull in the title. Many times these stories are the same just repeated over in new places. People read headlines and move on. People take away from the media what they can digest in 30 seconds and when you are fearful or emotional you take in the really big buzz words, Pit Bull dog, kills, baby, dog shot dead. When you dig further which should be the job of the media, you see the same criterion, dogs used for fighting, protection or abused, unsupervised children with dogs, dog not spayed or neutered, dogs chained and housed constantly, dogs roaming the streets. These criterions I list here are the same in part or sometimes all tolled in every fatal or serious dog incident.

Some people should by their very claim of knowing dogs; should know so much more; but they do not because fear impedes their learning. This is also true of dogs.

Pam Ried PhD says that learning for dogs is “a change in behavior based on experience”.

Dr. Karen Overall illustrates that the dogs fear center in its brain is in the amygdale and that is connected to the dog’s nose.  Dogs go through life by and large using scent to gather information. Remember safe or unsafe is how the dogs view the world.

Some dogs being made to be afraid will cower or will run away. If the dog cannot run the fight part of the fight flight senses kick in and the dog defends itself to some degree, it may be threat displays it may be an attack. In many of the incidents that make the news you are seeing dogs that have reached the end of their behavioral rope in that moment so to speak.

When dogs are really fearful, and at the end of their behavioral options the dog is not working its brain to sit or “leave it” perhaps some humans might get lucky and in their cruel training methods achieve some sort of compliance, but I’d say it’s rare, what you are seeing in many cases are dogs responding to learned helplessness, shut down and waiting for the shoe to drop, they do nothing because doing nothing is safe. Who wants compliance through intimidation and coercion, it is not sound it is not reliable. In fact it is one factor, and a large one at that, which leads dogs to be dangerous. If a human is hurting the dog to motivate the dog, the stimuli of the human is too big of a factor and it will either right away or eventually cancel out much of the other present stimuli. It just works that way; humans are too big an influence. So at best you get is a shut down dog, which leads to “attacks out of nowhere” because all the warning signs are punished out, or you get a dog that is aggressive and it is not safe with people or dogs.

Dogs generalize fear really well, so if the dog is afraid of one or two humans it is highly likely that it will be afraid of all humans to one degree or another. This is where the “human variable” as Dunbar calls it really comes into play. Depending on what the human does, the dog will either form a positive or negative conditioned emotions response.

Here is an explanation from Terry Ryan’s book Coaching People to Train their Dogs.

"The limbic system is involved with emotions such as fear.  The cerebral cortex is involved with cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving.  It coordinates movement and receives and processes sensory, visual, and auditory information. If the limbic system is activated, the cerebral cortex is inhibited.  If the dog is engaged in a mentally stimulating situation, such as paying attention to a learning sequence, her cerebral cortex is engaged.  In this state, she is less likely to experience intense emotional responses such as fear because that part of the brain, the limbic system, is inhibited.  A dog that is busy retrieving a ball with her owner is less apt to be afraid of a strange sound.

Conversely, consider a dog that is emotionally involved, such as a dog trying to avoid a frightening or painful situation.  The dog is working from the limbic system and is unlikely to be able to process information (learning) at the same time. A dog that is very frightened by the threats of another dog in a training class or the slippery floors of the classroom is not able to learn the lessons." 

This is not only applicable to sociopaths trying to “train” fight dogs it also applies to the yappy Yorkie that keeps getting smacked, or the Rottie that is subjected to shock for barking at visitors. Get the picture?

When humans inflict fear and or pain to dogs they will not learn as effectively or not all or “learn” to attack, especially if the humans have nothing in the bank with the dog. Think about it like this; a dog that is abused or trained with pain and fear gets loose and now has a generalized sense of fear and attacks a running 10 year old boy.

Now fast forward to the Pit Bull dog that is dumped at the shelter after a year or two of torture, neglect and abuse, it may have been some well meaning dog owners that bought into the whole dominance nonsense, it could have been a dog dumped on the side of the road by a wanna be dog fighter thug, or some college kids.

Many times all we know is that it’s another dog in the shelter. This is why every hand that touches a dog is important in that dog’s life. That touch, that voice those interactions are shaping the dogs behavior, and the dog wants to above all else feel safe, just as humans want to be safe.

BSL is wrong because it makes broad claims that blame innocent people and innocent dogs. Cruelty in breeding, training, dog fighting and sheltering practices sets dogs up to fail, just as opinions and beliefs that are founded in fear and ignorance about dogs sets them up for failure. This is why these two entities are joined at the hip. BSL & pain training are the evil sides of an ugly two headed coin called ignorance and cruelty these two are fast friends that usually hang around not too far from each other.

The sad part is it does not have to be this way. It could change rather quickly if people that have some influence would step up and start to issue educational mandates for dog owners and shelters. It would be a different world if people stopped pretending and sought out legitimate and humane approaches to all manner of dog related issues.

We know from the past 20 years that BSL has cost communities millions in tax dollars, money that could be spent on education. In the past 10 years old school domination “training” methods and dog fighting have both become popular again.

It is no wonder we see a rise in violence related to dogs. Even the Supreme Court turns a blind eye to animal cruelty, as evidenced with their recent ruling on crush videos being allowed on the web. So why then should others be concerned if the highest court in the land says animal cruelty videos and dog fight videos are ok? Yet dog fighting federal crime? How is that possible?

Want to talk surreal irony; it was GW Bush that signed into the law making dog fighting a federal crime. Comically and tragically an illegal alien claiming to have magic powers with training dogs by abuse laden methods is on TV and he shapes quite a bit of the public consciousness with nonsense. Of course how can we forget the big football star convicted of dog fighting that cannot speak without his handlers and the scripted PR stunts to repair the good image that he never had in the first place. It’s no wonder the common sense knowledge about dogs and scientific humane crowd cannot get any substantial traction. There is too much disinformation coming from every direction. Add in the media fear programming and it’s no wonder why there is a divide.

The common line that runs through the Pit Bull debate and the BSL debate and the pain training debate is fear. People can be afraid of dogs and dogs can be afraid of people. However humans run the show and we must help the dogs through their fear by getting over our fear.

If the human cannot get past their fears perhaps they should remove themselves from the equation for a second if not all together in some cases. This goes for everyone involved. The media, The BSL proponents, The Pit Bull PR people, the dog “trainers”, the shelter workers and even well meaning dog owners should step back and get legitimate help right away, etc…if you are afraid of “pit bulls”, or a dog, get some legitimate help in understanding why the dog is fearful, how dogs become aggressive, or perhaps resign yourself that maybe dogs, or Pit Bull dogs should not be your area of concern or interest. I see way too many arm chair experts in dog behavior, like Ken Phillips of dog bite law dot com. People need to play their position, or else dogs will be in danger for a very long time.

Because dogs, especially Pit Bull dogs need help. The last things they need are more myths, more misrepresentations and more people messing them up. I believe this to be true for all dogs, but Pit Bulls have it the worst.

Nothing in nature is more forgiving than a dog. Not the ground we stand on or the air we breathe is as forgiving as a dog, I would wager that not even the god you believe in or the people you love are as forgiving as a dog. The ability to be kind and just rests within every dog, as it does within every person. All living creatures are subject to their environment, humans are free to make many choices about the outcome of how we feel, and dogs are at our mercy from conception all the way till they die. We have intellectual morality, dogs do not, and if it turns out that they do. I’d say again it is far more just morality than ours.

Dogs are looking for safety. However people are looking for more than safety, humans have a long list of motivators, desires and intellectual calculations that drive their behavior, and it’s not all pure like the dogs intentions. I contend that most dogs’ agendas are to be safe.

 220 times a year some dog somewhere just can’t handle life anymore and they do serious damage, maybe even cause death. It’s never funny and it’s always sad.

This is out of 74 Million dogs of all breeds and 300 million humans. It is estimated there are about 3 million Pit Bull type dogs, where is the dangerous epidemic in dog bites? That is what everyone is up in arms about? I would say the dogs have amazing numbers despite their odds of survival and despite how much humans mess with them from breeding to training, not to mention the lables and judgments we put on them.

I would say dogs are holding it together better than people are. 6 times a day a parent kills a child. 2000 kids a year are killed by mom &/or dad. Look into any cities homicide rate and you’ll see dogs are a safer bet every time.

It is not dogs that are a problem, it is people. People and beliefs, people and emotions: People and their lack of vision, people and their cruelty and greed.

Dogs are evil? Dogs are dangerous? We need to ban certain breeds or tax their innocent owners? Really, this is the solution?

I would argue that these ideas have already failed over the past 20 odd years so why should we continue them any further? Fear never solved anything.

Have you met a human lately? Have you met a dog lately? Who would you trust?




Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog – John Paul Scott & John L. Fuller

Terry Ryan – Coaching People to train their Dogs

Pam Reid – Excel erated Learning

Diane Jessup – The Working Pit Bull

Karen Delise – The Pit Bull Placebo

Gary Wilkes article in Off lead Magazine

 Heritability of Behavior in the Abnormally Aggressive Dog, by A. Semyonova


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