Bad dogs and 'nanny dogs'
As a dog owner who (lets be honest) is on social media far too much, I come across lots of photographs and
videos of dogs in difficult situations. Often it’s a bull breed mix with a tiny toddler climbing across its huge
body, being gentle enough but obviously uncomfortable. When I read through the comments, popcorn in
hand, I know I will come across the following statements that make me cringe:
1. Don’t worry, pit bulls are ‘nanny dogs’
2. It’s all about how they are raised
3.There are no bad dogs, just bad owners
But are there ‘bad’ dogs? Is it all about how they are raised, or are there other factors to consider. Are some
dogs just born aggressive?
In 1866, a monk named Mendel discovered that physical traits are passed on through genetics, and nowadays
everyone knows that if you breed a Dalmatian with a Dalmatian, the puppies will be spotty, medium-to-large sized dogs. Of course, there may be some variation- some puppies may have liver spots, some might be slightly smaller, some with blue eyes, some with brown eyes, but they will be pretty similar to their parents. Can non-phenetic characteristics also be passed on like this, things such as a tendency to be more aggressive? Well, why not?
Now, before I offend the whole pit bull-owning community, know that I really do love the breed, but to put it plainly: they are NOT nanny dogs, and I’m going to explain why.
It’s common knowledge that if you get a border collie, you can expect him to herd things, if you have a pointer he will probably point, a retriever will most likely retrieve and a terrier will almost certainly chase small, squeaky creatures. That’s not exactly a ground-breaking statement; these breeds have been selectively bred for hundreds of years to do precisely what they do. So what about the breeds that were created for the sole purpose to fight and kill other dogs, surely they would have an inherited mentality, like all of the other breeds do?
Pit bulls, and by this I mean bull breeds bred to fight in pits, not specifically the American Pit Bull Terrier, have been selected to be the most powerful, fearsome and efficient at killing that they could possibly be. They have solid muscle, a powerful jaw, a thick skull and pretty much every attribute needed for them to be successful in the fighting pit. But what good is a dog built like a warrior, with the personality of a playful puppy? They also needed to be aggressive towards other dogs, with the winners passing on their genes and the losers being torn apart. However, fighting breeds couldn’t be aggressive all round, otherwise they could never be handled, therefore a rule stating that “if a dog harmed a human they would be disqualified”, was enforced in the fighting circle. The result, an animal that is docile and friendly towards people, but vicious when it comes to dogs.
Of course it can be argued that fighting dogs are trained to be as aggressive as possible, and that is probably true, but the fact that fighting breeds tend to be more inherently dog aggressive is undeniable. That’s not to say that all bull terriers will be reactive towards dogs, because like I so often say, each dog is unique. Nonetheless, saying that nature plays no role in how a dog acts is very dangerous and discouraging for owners of inherently aggressive dogs.
Not everyone with a reactive dog has actively trained it to be the way it is, in actual fact I believe the majority of people haven’t, they’ve just been unlucky in choosing a dog that isn’t quite normal, psychologically. If you think about it, it makes sense that it isn’t ‘all about how they are raised’- how many kids with autism or schizophrenia are ‘raised’ to be the way they are? Or, on a far more sinister note, how many murderers or paedophiles were taught as a child to perform these crimes? Nurture can influence behaviour, but those with the chemical imbalances, the aggressive or unstable tendencies are likely to be ground down quicker, triggered more easily. Owning a dog that could be seen as ‘bad’ doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ owner, as long as you are responsible enough to take precautions that ensure the safety of others.
I hope you’re keeping up, because I’m jumping back to pit bulls now, and why they should never be called ‘nanny dogs’. It is so bad for the breed when people disregard their whole history, and instead spread misinformation about how pit bulls were bred to look after children, and that they are the ideal for every family. It’s been years since dog fighting has been made illegal, and although we can’t pretend it has disappeared completely, most bull breed mixes haven’t been selectively bred for aggression for a couple of generations, so hopefully that has started to reduce the inherent dog aggression. This, and the fact that pit bulls are renowned for their gentleness towards humans (dating back to their fighting days), means that they are now much loved family pets, however we must not forget that they are still built for battle.
No dog should be left unattended with a child, or be in a situation where a child is climbing on top of them, pulling their ears or poking their eyes- the kid may frequently hurt the dog, but if the dog ever hurts a child, it will be destroyed. Now consider the damage a Chihuahua could do, and compare it to the damage a bull breed, bred to kill equally as powerful dogs, could do, and you’ll understand why a tiny child wouldn’t stand a chance. Is that the pit bull’s fault? No, not really. Will it mean the dog will be killed and that pit bulls will gain even more negative press? Yes.
So what can we do? Well, firstly we need to accept the history of fighting breeds. It is horrible, and we do not have to embrace it, but ultimately it is why these breeds exist, and instead of creating better (but false) alternatives, people should know that the dog they allowing their toddler to climb on, could kill it in an instant.
Secondly, we need to stop condemning those people struggling with an inherently reactive or aggressive dog. They go through enough already; they don’t need to be told that they made the dog they love reactive.
And thirdly, are there “no bad dogs, just bad owners?” There are bad owners, but many of these bad owners are just ignorant and misinformed. The bad owner that allows their toddler to torment their dog, for example, probably did this in the belief that pit bulls were ‘nanny dogs’. Are there bad dogs? Inherently dog or human aggressive dogs are far from ideal, but no, they aren’t bad. They may have been selectively bred to be this way, so they need kindness and compassion to help them deal with it, they cannot be punished for what is out of their control.
Please note: I am not a psychologist or a qualified dog behaviourist. What I say is my opinion, which is subject to change, so please don’t hold anything against me. If you have anything to add, please leave a comment below.
About the author: My name is Jodie Forbes, I am 19 years old and I am currently at university studying Animal Management BSc. I love writing and am fascinated by animal behaviour, my dream job would be presenting animal documentaries and being a journalist for animal publications.