Fear of Dogs

I am a huge fan of critters in general, but I have always been a dog person. And always having a dog growing up, I have taken it for granted that a small effort in observing an individual canine’s behavior can allow judgment of safe interaction. For dogs of all sizes and breeds.

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Our Midna

Simply put, I feel safe around dogs because I can see what they are communicating. So I’ve always been perplexed by people who selectively fear types of dogs, believing them more dangerous or vicious. Those who simply fear all dogs or all animals have my sympathy, but people who insist that breeds like pit bulls are mean earn my contempt.

Dog varieties were are bred for specific purposes (from ratting to companionship), and while many types were created as fighting dogs, Americans seem to target pit bulls (includes multiple breeds, by the way) as our particular villain. The assumption of “vicious” behavior ignores several important facts, I feel.

American Pit Bull Terrier

The first really comes down to how little wild aggression remains in dogs. Dogs have been domesticated for literally tens of thousands of years, by all recent scientific estimates. Humans have been selecting for trusting, tame dogs for more generations than I can really imagine.  The successive generations of selected animals can show drastic results, as the Russian silver fox experiments demonstrate.  (Short aside, some videos make me want a fox pup.)  So while dogs are still animals with a capacity for aggressive reaction, they are so highly changed by thousands of years human intervention that some recent (relatively short period, given history of domestication) breeding for fighting dogs will not bring out a great deal of innate aggression.  Dogs bred for fighting must still be conditioned and trained to the behavior, not trained out of it.

So if the basic nature of a “fighting breed” must be changed through behavioral conditioning (extreme mistreatment), what are the traits that make a breed used for dog-fighting particularly useful?  From what I can see, fighting breeds were largely bred for physical traits more than anything else to give them an advantage over the other animals.  And in my admittedly anecdotal experience with the American pit bull terriers owned by friends, they have two behavioral tendencies: an overwhelming eagerness to please and propensity for fearfulness.  In fact, one of the ones owned by a friend is so terrified of thunderstorms that he is known to seek safety and comfort from the nearest possible person, notably once a stranger painting a room in the house.  It doesn’t take much a stretch of imagination to see how these traits can lead to either a very loyal, well behaved dog or a mistreated animal pushed so far into the limits of fear that it can be used in dog fighting.  Nowhere in that is an animal predisposed to aggression or violence, yet such is the perception.

When interacting with dogs, I simply pay attention.  By noting the posture, tension and vocalization(s) of a given dog, you can parse playfulness from territorial or threatened behavior.  And I’m honestly more cautious around a smaller dog whose muscles, frame, tail/ears position are less easily read, partially because I expect a smaller dog to feel more threatened by my greater size.  I fear the reaction of a rottweiler I’ve never met far less than that of a Shih Tzu.

Yet fear of so-called aggressive breeds persists and states and cities have passed breed-specific legislation banning specific dogs and leading to mass euthanizations.  Confirmation bias by law enforcement and regulators is often a factor that leads to these misguided and unfortunate laws that do nothing to stop the people responsible.  Experience with dogs makes it clear that dogs are malleable to what you train them to be.  And so those who want a “tough” dog, or other attracted to criminal actions often select pits or pit mixes (or dogs perceived to be), further skewing attitudes against the dogs because of human misconduct.  Moreover, since the vast majority of dog attacks come from unaltered male dogs, would be far more effective to put greater effort into neuter/spay programs, which is again a risk governed by human choice.

But it is not just individuals to blame for a continued misconception of pit type or pit mix dogs.  I blame news coverage.  There is an unfortunate tendency, noted by the ASPCA to either fail to report on non-pit type incidents or to mislabel the animal involved as a pit type dog, furthering this mistaken view of an otherwise good and obedient breed as inherently dangerous.

Which brings us to the reason I wanted to write this post, another news story about a pit bull and death.  But in this case, it’s not the death or even harm of a human being.  A fanatic woman in South Carolina was so incensed that her nephew’s year-old dog chewed (something puppies do) on her bible that she decided it was a “devil dog” and hung it using an electrical cord, then burned the body.  While I agree that felony cruelty charges most certainly need to be reported, why was this dog’s breed (if accurate) relevant?  She cruelly killed this dog because God wanted her to, not because of its breed.  If this dog had been a sheepdog or a corgi or an Airedale terrier, would that have been reported?  I feel that reporting this dog’s breed was done inappropriately because intentionally or not, people reading the story will use the poor dog’s breed as a way to justify or lessen this woman’s culpability for the crime she committed.

Studies and reports about dog bites, and injury or fatalities are based on lists of incidents reported by news organizations.  They are often represented as accurate understandings of actuarial risk and used to justify breed-specific legislation that completely fails to address the underlying problem of aggressive animals (their owners).  And often the base statistics are skewed by confirmation biases in reporting, misidentification, as well as the simple fact that popular dog types are highly represented in incident reports simply because there are more of them.  In perusing adoption sites before and after we rescued Midna, I find that at least locally, pits or pit mixes are very, very common.  It is of no surprise then that they are well represented on statistics of dog incidents as it’s no surprise that Labrador retrievers rank highly on the dog bites lists as well.  All dogs carry the capacity to be dangerous simply because they are dogs, and too often this is forgotten and people get dogs without understanding the responsibilities they carry.

I have noticed on adoption listings as well that pit mixes that have another discernible breed are often identified by that breed, while the pit bull portion is left out, presumably to improve their chances of successful adoption.  As it was with Midna, she was listed as an Australian Cattle Dog mix (which she is, obviously).  But there are enough clues, from the short single white coat to her rear stance and something in her face to indicate she is probably a pit mix.  She has much of the blue heeler in her temperament, and definitely has the herding urge.  The funny thing is she probably has more wildness in her from the heeler than the “aggressive” pit mix; in breeding of Australian cattle dogs, herders introduced dingo into the strain.  They tend to make funny howly noises more than they actually bark (Midna makes a lot of funny roo-roo-roo growls and was almost a year old before she barked).

She is also more eager to please than any dog I’ve been involved in training and is sometimes convinced we are mad at her even when we are scolding our willful Nanday conure:

“No, bird, you cannot eat my dinner and I am not going to pick up right now.  Sit patiently on your cage and eat your chicken*!”

“Am I in trouble?  I’m sorry, I’m sorry.  Here I’ll get small and slink toward your feet to make you like me again.”

“No, Midna, you’re a good girl, please stop cowering, I promise you’re not in trouble.”  SIGH “No, really, you’re a good girl, unlike the birdface.”

I sometimes wish that parrots were domesticated animals.  (They aren’t.)

 

*Yes, we feed our parrot other birds sometimes.  No, it’s not creepy, it’s low fat white meat and he would grubs and other bugs in the wild for protein.

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