Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Pittbulls: Nature-vs-Nurture

All puppies are cute.  Including the ones that grow up to be wolves.   -Orson Scott Card in The Princess and the Bear

Belladonna and I had a discussion about pitbulls (a breed of dog).  She seemed to have a great deal of investment in convincing me that pitbulls, as a breed, have an undeserved bad rap.  She is of the opinion that it is all a matter of how the owners raise and socialize them.  She bases her opinion on the fact that her friend Val has three pitbulls and they seem to be mellow, stoic dogs.

I suggested that she was naive to base a broad, sweeping characterization of a dog breed on the basis of three dogs that had never been "stressed", that is, exposed to the stimuli that elicits their rage-reaction.  Belladonna did not hear that suggestion well.  She wants to believe that it is all nurture and any organism can be "loved into goodness".

This concerns me as a father

How many good-hearted women have married bums because they were sure they could make something of him?  A thousand?  A million?  A billion?  They were sure they could turn them around, that they could love them into goodness.

As adults we know how this story usually ends.

As adults we accept that there are forces that are greater than our wants, our self-image, and the conceit that we can control all outcomes.  Humility resembles nothing so much as scar tissue remembered.

As loving parents we want to protect our children from as many scars as possible.


Two dogs that have passed through the ERJ household were notable for their instinct.

Sweetie was a Border Collie who came from a working farm.  At a very young age Sweetie would herd animals.  She would drop down into a ludicrous caricature of a jackal stalking through the tall grass....but she was in plain sight.  Sheep are not very smart.  They knew a jackal when they saw one. They moved.

Sweetie even attempted to herd birds as they flew.  Sweetie was a very, very fast runner.  She would sprint to get out ahead of the flock of sparrows that had flushed.  She would get ahead of them and turn and bark, absolutely sure the birds would sweep in the direction she was pressuring them.  It was a source of frustration to her that the birds did not follow the script and respond the way her instincts informed her they should.

In fact, Sweetie's demise was a direct result of her frustrated attempts to herd birds.  The agent of her death was a single bird, a 55 passenger Bluebird school bus.  They don't turn when challenged either.

The other dog we had who exhibited a fatal degree of instinct was Ariel.  Ariel was 3/4 Lab and 1/4 something else. To the best of my knowledge Ariel's bloodline had not been selected for hunting drive for many, many generations.  It mattered not, Ariel was a hunting fool.  Shock collars bent her only slightly.  She was unstoppable.  She would be gone in a tear...gone for hours...over night...and then she did not come back.  I know that I am penning an indictment of my dog owning shortcomings with these stories, but they need to be told.


Pitbulls were selected to fight.  Physically they have disproportionately large necks and heads.  Their jaws are massive even when referenced against the size of their heads.  They are, in effect, an organic ballistic missile for launching bear traps.

The selection pressure on the breed was fierce.  Dogs that shied away from contact were euthanized....or killed in the ring by their opponent.  Dogs that were extraordinarily successful in the ring were very sought after for stud and sired many, many offspring.

This intense selection pressure "fixed" the trait of rage-reaction.  While I am not proud of the fact I have been in a couple of physical altercations in the past 10 years.  One flips to a very primitive "reptilian brain" mode in the adrenaline rush.  Thinking is too slow.  I could not recount any of the conflict beyond the first punch (no, I was not concussed...thank-you for asking).  Sensory occlusion occurred.  I did not feel pain so much as physical shocks...much like sitting too close to the bass speakers at a rock concert. 

My suspicion is that pitbulls drop into that mental state very, very easily and with greater reliability that breeds of dogs that were not selected solely for fighting ability.  Everything is fine. Until it is not.

Another quirk about pitbulls is that they lie in doggy language. Think about the advantage of walking up to another dog while emoting, "Hey buddy, long time no see.  There is no reason to get all torqued up.  Let's just grab a couple of beers and talk this over."  The other dog is disarmed.  An easy grab of the throat and the fight is over.  You may be very good at reading doggy language but it will always be a second language to you.  Pitbulls are such proficient liars that they fool other dogs.  The flip side is that pitbulls are never fully at ease when YOU are emoting peacefullness.  All of the pitbulls that would have been lulled into calmness by that kind of body language were culled from the gene pool by the liars.

But could be worse

Daniel Carter Beard, author of the American Boy's Handybook was a great proponent of pitbull crosses.  His contention was that there would be a coming to the middle.  The pups would retain the general instincts, though slightly diluted, of the other breed but they would be "manned up" with the inclusion of the pitbull blood.

In practice this can produce some spectacular fails.  Crossing pitbulls with retrieving breeds is one such failure.  Retrieving breeds have a strong chase and mouth instinct.  Any resistance on the part of the subject being mouthed can trigger the reptilian rage of the pitbull part of the dog.  Another cross-from-hell is when an irritable, ill-mannered, ankle-biting line of small dogs is crossed with a pitbull. 

Belladonna may have to be thirty before she can read this without becoming emotionally over-engaged.  Time will tell.

No comments:

Post a Comment