Why Some Are Mean and Others Mild
In recent months pit bulls have made the headlines in the United States. They are feared by many as dogs that attack, maim, and sometimes kill people. Are they naturally mean, or do mean masters make them mean? Are dogs mean or mild by breeding or by training? Perhaps it’s as it is with people, a combination of these factors makes them what they are.
THE record reads like an unrelenting indictment of pit bulls. In California two-year-old James Soto was pinned down by a neighbor’s pit bull and bitten on face and neck until dead. In Florida a pit bull crawled into the crib of a sleeping baby and killed it. In Georgia three pit bulls killed a four-year-old boy when he walked across a neighbor’s lawn. A 16-month-old girl in Oklahoma wandered near a chained pit bull—the family’s pet—and died of severe throat wounds. In Michigan 20-month-old Kyle Corullo, while playing in his grandmother’s backyard, was attacked by a pit bull. Fighting off the child’s mother, it dragged the boy to a vacant lot and shook him to death. A pit bull guarding a marijuana crop in California fatally mauled a two-and-a-half-year-old boy. A family pet in Harlem crushed the head of a two-month-old infant. Without warning, a pet pit bull turned on toddler Melissa Larabee and killed her with one crunching bite to the throat.
Adults are also victims. A 67-year-old nurse’s aide in Kansas was attacked in her yard, her body mauled, and her scalp torn off. The two pit bulls had been trained to attack anyone with a weapon—she had a rolled-up newspaper in her hand. She died in the hospital. In Ohio a 67-year-old retired physician was killed by two pit bulls in an attack that lasted 25 minutes. A pit bull attacked an unemployed man as he watched fireworks in Rochester, New York. He died in the hospital.
The Humane Society of the United States says that since 1983, pit bulls killed 21 of the 29 people slaughtered by dogs—72 percent killed by 1 percent of the nation’s dogs. Randall Lockwood, a Humane Society expert on vicious dogs, says: “These animals can be canine crocodiles. They have a dark and bloody history.”
After bullbaiting and bearbaiting were outlawed in England in 1835, the Staffordshire coal miners bred their dogs for dogfighting. Today’s pit bulls trace their lineage back to that time—hence their present name, American Staffordshire terriers. They are also called American pit bull terriers.
With squat, muscular bodies and heavy steel-trap jaws that can exert a pressure of 1,800 pounds per square inch [130 kg/sq cm], pit bulls are formidable fighting machines. They often attack silently, without provocation, and clamp their jaws on their victim in a viselike grip and shake and tear like a shark. Many victims have been family members. But one enthusiastic owner of three pit bulls praises them as being ‘loyal and making great pets, especially for a family with kids.’ Nevertheless, one of his loyal pets locked its teeth on his arm and put him in the hospital for three days.
Last year a national television audience watching the evening news witnessed a grisly attack on Los Angeles animal control officer Florence Crowell. A pit bull named Benjamin burst through the screen door of a house and crushed one of her hands and severely damaged the other one. The animal was beaten back but charged again and bit her on the left breast. She had gone to the house to investigate an earlier attack by the dog. Crowell was hospitalized five days. Benjamin’s picture appears on page 23, held in the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation. A criminal complaint for assault with a deadly weapon was filed against Benjamin’s owner.
Over the last few years, the list of those injured by pit-bull attacks has run into the thousands. Because of this, owners have been dumping hundreds of pit bulls onto the streets or turning them in to animal shelters for destruction. Many owners no longer felt safe, and others were unwilling to risk lawsuits over their dog’s conduct. Some insurers now refuse to cover pit bulls, Dobermans, or German shepherds.
While Randall Lockwood called pit bulls “canine crocodiles,” he also said: “The tragic thing is that not all of these dogs are dangerous. It’s not as if every pit bull is a little time bomb waiting to go off.” And certainly not the canine pal of a cast of children in the old Our Gang comedies! It was a pit bull called Pete, with a black circle around one eye.
Typical of the pit bull’s defenders is Sara Nugent of Houston, Texas. She has bred and raised them for 22 years. “The problem is not with the dogs, it’s with the owners,” she said. She does note, however, that “it’s a more difficult dog to raise than some, and not everyone should have one.” Andy Johnson of the United Kennel Club says: “If you’re raising pit bulls like you should, you’re going to have one of the nicest pets you can imagine.” Roy Carlberg, executive secretary of the American Kennel Club, is more cautious. He says that ‘some pit bulls are perfectly stable, while others can’t control their violent temperament and superior strength.’
Samuel McClain, a former investigator for the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in Philadelphia, confirms Nugent’s view of owner blame: “There is a new type pit bull coming about—wild, savage, uncontrollable. You can tell by the names—Homicide, Switchblade, Crazy Pete. They breed what we call wacky dogs, father and daughter, mother and son.” Not only has inbreeding ruined the dog but so has the training it gets. Sixty percent of the 3,000 pit bulls in Philadelphia are used for dogfighting. To make them mean while still young, some are given kittens and small dogs to tear to bits.
Dogfighting is illegal in all 50 states and a felony crime in 36, but ‘you can find a dogfight on any weekend in any of the 50 states,’ says Eric Sakach of the Humane Society in Sacramento, California.
Pit bulls have become The Dog for street punks. Their insecurities need the macho reinforcement they get from such animals they’ve made mean. The fierce beast is like an extension of themselves—“We’re tough, don’t mess with us!” Teenagers in Chicago and Philadelphia brandish their vicious pit bulls as they would a switchblade or a gun. Street dope dealers in these and other big cities keep these dogs with them, with names like Murder, Hitler, and Scarface. In their steel-studded collars are concealed cocaine and the day’s proceeds. Members of motorcycle gangs have stashed their drugs beneath the doghouses of their pit bulls.
Crimes have been committed with pit bulls used as weapons. When a man in New Jersey ordered his pit bull to attack police, he was convicted of possessing a deadly weapon. When robber Shabu Cooper ordered his pit bull to attack a transit cop, he was charged with the use of a lethal weapon. A Michigan man was charged with assault with a deadly weapon when his pit bull attacked a 12-year-old girl.
Several municipalities have banned pit bulls by law. Such ordinances targeting a specific breed, however, have not held up in court. Laws specifying “vicious dogs” seem more workable. “Effective vicious-dog legislation needs to be enacted,” says Sherl Blair of Tufts University veterinary school. After all, the pit bull is not the only aggressive dog attacking people. German shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, Akitas, and chows have also been guilty. And thousands of pit bulls, properly bred and trained, are innocent.
“Indeed, in responsible families,” a Wall Street Journal article said, “pit bulls can make good pets. Their playful side is aroused as easily as any breed’s. They shed little and are easily groomed. And it goes without saying that pit bulls make good watch dogs.”
This mention of watchdogs raises a question for those thinking of a dog as a family protector. What kind should it be? A professional dog trainer was interviewed for suggestions.
What kind of dog would you recommend for family protection?
“First, let me say that at this point many people think in terms of a trained attack dog or a guard dog. Such dogs are dangerous to have in the home. They are trained to be suspicious and quick on the trigger. They are like having a gun in the house—the result is more often tragedy than protection. Frequently, such dogs have injured or even killed children in the neighborhood, and sometimes even members of their own family. And if your dog has had attack training and has bitten somebody, you are in serious trouble. If brought into court, you can be held liable. The court looks very dimly on dogs trained to bite. A trained attack or guard dog in the home is very unwise.
“If a family has decided to get a dog for protection, it’s far better that they consider what is called an alert dog—one that will alert you to trouble and sound an alarm. The best dog for this is a big one with a deep-throated bark that sounds ferocious and will scare off intruders, but the dog is not trained to bite. Such a dog is a good deterrent, yet is not a danger to family or neighbors.”
Is it important to consider temperament?
“Temperament must be considered. There is a great potential difference between one dog and another, even of the same breed. German shepherds that are to be used as guide dogs are bred for temperament. They need to be mellow dogs, cautious dogs, dogs that can be used around many different people. A different temperament is needed for a German shepherd that is to be trained as an attack dog—suspicious, bold, aggressive. An alert dog should come somewhere in between—spirited but not overly excitable, calm and steady but not timid.
“I think it’s also desirable to get the dog as a puppy, male or female—the latter are often easier to control. Let him grow up with the family. He then feels that the family belongs to him. It’s his family, and as he grows up, he becomes very protective of it. It is also important to give him some obedience training. At least teach him a few of the basic commands, such as Stay, Sit, Heel, Come, and Down. Start while he is young, around eight weeks of age. At that age he is very much tuned in to what you want and is totally dependent on you and eager for your acceptance and praise.”
What about correction, when needed?
“A combination of correction and reward is more effective than correction alone. The dog is being praised for the good behavior, and at the same time he’s being corrected for the bad behavior. When I say corrected, I don’t mean beating. It’s a verbal reprimand, such as ‘No! Bad dog!’ He senses your disapproval from the tone of your voice. Reinforce good behavior by rewards—not tidbits but praise with approving pats. That works better than scolding. And don’t use your dog’s name when you discipline—you are punishing his behavior, not him.”
Coming back, now, to the questions raised at the beginning of this article. Breeding certainly does affect the temperament of dogs and predetermines aggressiveness and mildness. But environment also plays a major role. Gentle treatment softens aggressiveness and reinforces mildness. Harsh treatment increases natural aggressiveness and breaks the spirit of a mildly disposed dog. The same breed can be bred and trained to lead the blind or attack an intruder. A combination of nature and nurture is at work. But the basic nature of the dog is always present and, under certain conditions, may surface. A stressful situation may make an aggressive disposition flare up unpredictably or cause an overly mild dog to give ground when he should protect his family.
A closing word on the horrors of dogfighting: One dogfighting zealot said concerning his pit bulls that “fighting was the very breath of life to them.” He implied that to allow them to fight was not cruel but merciful. They die happy, fulfilled, doing what they are bred and trained to do, he claimed. In keeping with this strange sentiment, another sadistic devotee of illegal dogfighting made this sick comment: “My dogs die with their tails up and wagging.”
They also die with bones broken, ears shredded, flesh torn, and blood gushing. Fights last from one to three hours. They will fight to the death. Randall Lockwood adds this ironic touch: “It’s not unheard of now for dogs to come out of the pit and attack spectators. Some of our investigators have seen it.” San Diego sheriff Blackwood says: “We’ve seen them, with both front legs broken, push themselves across the ring to fight.” Do these dogs also die with their tails up and wagging?
The courage and strength of pit bulls are phenomenal. How disgusting, how sad, that such courage and strength are put to such a cruel and sadistic use—dogs made mean by even meaner men! Finally, Lockwood deplores this meanness and its consequences: “Dogfighting is the greatest perversion of the special relationship that exists between people and dogs. It is people subjecting dogs to incredible cruelty. And now that has turned into dogs killing people.”
You begin to wonder, have pit bulls done more harm to people, or have people done more harm to pit bulls? How fitting the Bible’s words at Proverbs 12:10: “The righteous one is caring for the soul of his domestic animal, but the mercies of the wicked ones are cruel.”
[Blurb on page 24]
“These animals can be canine crocodiles”
[Pictures on page 23]
Mean Benjamin . . .
City of Los Angeles, Department of Animal Regulation
. . . and mild Neha
[Pictures on page 26]
Above: Siberian husky
Far right: Samoyed