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Got a ‘mean’ dog? Pittbulls, Rotties, German Shepherds – The Psychology of Breed Stereotypes – Breeding Fear.

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Certain dog breeds have a reputation for being inherently ‘vicious’. Typically, this label is attached to pit bulls, rotties, german shepherds and dobermans, among others. In many areas, pit bulls have been rated #1 regarding dog bites reported. “Pit bulls are bred to kill,” said Don Bauermeister, who championed a pit bull ban in Council Bluffs, Iowa, 10 years ago. “When a pit bull sees another dog, that’s an urge that’s hard to overcome.”

Dog aggression is the most devastating issue pet parents can face if uncontrolled. Pet parents may be forced to give up, re-home or, worse, put down, their beloved dog if they are unable to fix the situation and get control of their pooch. An aggressive dog can attack and even fatally injure other dogs or humans, even if they don’t exhibit any aggression towards their owner. A dog that is aggressive and attacks its owners creates an extremely unfortunate and undesirable situation.

However, many owners of otherwise friendly dogs are often stigmatized and their pets are unfairly discriminated against simply due to the stereotypes associated with so called ‘vicious’ breeds.

Breed Stereotyping

The reputations given to certain breeds of dogs are extremely damaging to both the owners of these dogs and the dogs themselves. The most unfortunate reason why dogs become aggressive is mainly due to the way their owners raise them. The other reasons are inherent protective qualities in the dog breeds themselves due to their genetic makeup and their environment. An important distinction when it comes to aggression also takes into consideration whether their dog is responding in fear or out of protective instincts or out of psychological/behavioral instability.

Understanding Dog Aggression

  • Genetics and Breeding
  • Environment and Training
  • Fear Based Aggression
  • Protection Based Aggression

Want to know more about the above points regarding dog aggression? Stay tuned for our post “When Dogs Attack: Dog Aggression – Causes and Remedies (Coming Soon!)”

It is true that certain breeds of dogs, such as the breeds mentioned above, are genetically programmed through years of selective breeding to exhibit “aggressive” tendencies in response to certain stimuli- but what needs to be understood is that this is actually an aggressive response, rather than inbuilt inherent aggression. This response is a result of their instinctual desire to protect their territory and loved ones with a fighting instinct, rather than succumbing to a flight-based response. They’re more likely to attack than to run away if danger presents itself.  These dogs have been bred to be fearless, strong, muscular, and loyal. When they detect what they deem to be a “threat”, they act to protect their owners, home, or themselves in an aggressive manner. An understanding of the “fight or flight response“, which applies even to humans, is crucial regarding this, as are the concepts of selective breeding for particular traits. It is true that several dog breeds were originally bred to kill – for hunting, sport, etc. It is important to note, however, that while these dogs were bred to kill on command, or to predictably attack other animals or dogs due to a high prey drive, they were also always bred to be loyal to their humans, as humans routinely have to handle even dogs that were bred for blood sports. It wouldn’t make sense for breeders to breed dogs that would bite their handlers. So, the question presents itself: how do we account for all the human injuries and fatalities caused by dog attacks every year?



The key here, however, is that it is often the owners of these breeds who are the reason for these dogs attacking unexpectedly and in unpredictable situations. To be clear, if ANY breed of dog attacks someone without provocation or predictability, it is most likely the owner’s fault. These owners do not responsibly rear their dogs from puppyhood in the correct way. They neglect to address behavior that is undesirable and allow it to escalate. Some dogs breeds are easy to raise and are inherently friendly and trusting with strangers – they are known to generally embrace any stranger right away and display zero aggression. This includes beagles, boxers, Corgis, Golden Retrievers and pugs. Other breeds that have been bred for working purposes will begin to display aggressive tendencies such as barking, snarling, growling and biting from puppyhood – this is correctable with the proper training techniques when they are young. Some dog breeds are naturally friendlier towards unknown humans and/or dogs than other breeds, but even within the same litter of puppies, of any breed, one can see a full range of personalities and variations in levels of dominance/submission. Each individual dog has its own personality and quirks – even the most well bred dog, of any breed, that was programmed to be fit as a family pet can turn ‘bad’ if they are subject to harsh, abusive or neglectful environments. That being said, some dogs are just bad apples, but this is not breed-specific, and owners of these dogs may still hang on to these dogs rather than putting them down.

“A fatal dog attack is not just a dog bite by a big or aggressive dog. It is usually a perfect storm of bad human–canine interactions—the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation” (cited in , p. 26).”

The dog that bites without a command or provocation is the dog that is out of control. It is not under the control of its owner. It has not been trained to be able to discern what a true “threat” is – either through lack of proper socialization, or by being in an abusive or neglectful environment. It may be that a weak owner allowed it to take the upper hand as the owner was unable to assert their “top dog” status in the dog’s mind concerning hierarchy. Strong breed types need strong owners. If an owner is not a good fit for a certain type of dog, they have a duty to themselves, the dog, and to society to stay away from raising these dogs. Some dogs have been abused to the point where they believe that the target they attack will cause them pain or injury, or they are injured or feeling unwell themselves and are in pain – so they bite first in a fear-based attack in order to protect themselves from harm. If protective breeds are brought up in an otherwise loving home, they may still see everyone as a threat very often as a result of poor socialization as a puppy and will bite in a protective-based attack, while other breeds can be left completely unsocialized and still greet strangers with a friendly demeanor. Regardless of the reason for an unprovoked attack, these dogs have not been raised properly by their owners. A recent study at the University of Bristol, Bristol, UK, concluded that training dogs early – preferably using positive reinforcement methods – decreases the likelihood that the dog will become aggressive, despite what stereotypes might suggest about the breed.

Another reason why certain breeds that become popular during a period of time soon become a ‘problem’ in terms of bite rates is because they become the target of poor breeding. They have been poorly bred by irresponsible breeders (the worst being ‘backyard breeders’) who are simply looking to make a quick buck rather than staying true to proper breeding techniques, conformations and requirements. A poorly bred dog will exhibit many unstable traits, such as skittishness and fearfulness, which leads to them lashing out and biting unpredictably. This is especially evident for the German Shepherds Dog breed, which was woefully and irresponsibly bred by people who had no business breeding these noble dogs.

Why are pit bulls responsible for such high frequencies of dog bites? Doesn’t that prove breed-specific viciousness? 

The more popular a breed becomes, the more likely it is that they will be at the top of the list for dog bites, all other things being equal (pit bulls are currently a very popular breed owned by dog parents). This concept is shown quite well if you look at the results of the pit bull ban in Toronto, Canada, as mentioned below. It becomes apparent that the owners of dogs are the root problem concerning dog bites, more than any particular dog breed.

Advocates say pit bulls are locked in a vicious cycle since they attract owners who are likely to mistreat or neglect them or to encourage aggressive behavior. That treatment makes them more aggressive, which then confirms the image people have of them. Prior to pit bulls, the Rottweiler was the breed of choice to be stigmatized and hated. And prior to that it was the German Shepherd Dog. (In the Victorian era, great Danes were the worst, while Doberman Pinschers and Rottweilers had the status in the 1970s and 1980s). Interestingly, Labradors are a distant second in terms of the number of dog bites reported, despite being proclaimed to be ‘more family friendly’ dogs. Similarly, another study that asserted that aggressiveness was “at least partially rooted in genetics” also found breeds such as dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers to be more aggressive toward humans, and yet these dogs are not stigmatized in the same way. It seems a scapegoat breed is always needed, and the more likely explanation is that bad owners move on to different breeds as the ones they own get legislated out of favor.

Smaller dogs that bite, such as very common highly aggressive chihuahuas, do not lead to a victim heading to the hospital or with as severe or fatal injures as larger dogs that bite. These dogs are also more likely to be forgiven by their bite victims – compared to big dogs, even the rudest small dogs aren’t seen as a threat because of their size. Bites from these dogs will not have the same serious consequences as bites from larger, more powerful breeds – which leads to the obvious consequence that if you are bitten by a larger breed, you will most likely be heading to the hospital.

According to the CDC, only 1.8% of all dog bites treated in Emergency Departments result in hospitalization. When a dog attacks, a child between 5-9 is statistically most likely to be bitten. As parents, there is a responsibility to teach children from a young age to respect boundaries concerning animals and to instill in children that they never approach a strange dog and that they treat known dogs with gentleness and respect – even a two year old can begin to be taught not to pull on a dog’s tail or ears. Children should never be left unattended with a dog, under any circumstance – even with the family dog. Any dog, despite its breed, is still an instinctual animal and can be provoked. Many people who do not own dogs or who are inexperienced with dog ownership are unaware of triggers that set a dog off or make them highly uncomfortable – such as approaching it from above its head, staring directly into its eyes, and sticking your face and hands near its neck. They fail to notice the most obvious clues regarding a dog’s anxiety about the situation: licking of its lips, flattened ears, whites of the eyes showing. Check this video out of a K9 attacking a reporter for a clear example of everything done wrong when dealing with a dog:

DOG BITES, 2010-2014

In Canada, the pit bull breed was almost completely banned in Toronto, with strict legislation enacted concerning their sterilization and handling. However, while the number of pitbull bites indeed went down over a decade, the total number of dog bites actually rose. Check out this link:

“What it hasn’t succeeded in doing is reducing the total number of dog bites (though it looked that way for a time). Toronto’s reported dog bites have been rising since 2012, and in 2013 and 2014 reached their highest levels this century, even as pit bulls and similar dogs neared local extinction.” DiNovo favours a system more like Calgary’s, where officials avoided breed-based bans while promoting education of dog owners and children, combined with enforcement. Bites in Calgary have dropped dramatically since the mid-1980s.


Back in the United States, contrary to what most consumers of media reports think, “pit bull” does not refer only to one breed—the American pit bull terrier—but at least four: the APBT, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the American Bully. Right off the bat, the bite stats that list “pit bulls” as one “breed” are failing to acknowledge that many owners do not know how to label their dogs or else mislabel them in addition to having a giant group of four breeds that have been lumped together. A pit bull is not technically a breed in of itself but a class of 4 breeds. As if that weren’t bad enough, an increasing number of generic, mixed-breed dogs have been thrown into the “pit bull” category because they have large heads, smooth coats, or brindle coloring. In the words of one shelter veterinarian, “We used to call mixed-breed dogs ‘mutts.’ Now we call them all ‘pit bulls.'” The breed identification of the dogs listed in medical bite reports are never verified by independent sources – it is left to the patient or patient’s guardian to fill out the paperwork on what kind of dog is responsible for a dog bite and they are likely to mislabel the dog breed as a pit bull. The latest research into the accuracy of visual breed identification shows that these haphazard guesses are incorrect over 87% of the time. The American Veterinary Medical Association stresses that “dog bite statistics are not really statistics.” Lumping several dog breeds into one large category will obviously skyrocket the combined numbers statistically to the top.

The ASPCA acknowledges on its website that pit bulls are genetically different than other dogs. “Pit bulls have been bred to behave differently during a fight,” it says. “They may not give warning before becoming aggressive, and they’re less likely to back down when clashing with an opponent.” However, they, too, clarify that this does not mandate that all pitbulls will be vicious and aggressive solely on this genetically engineered basis: It should be remembered that the fact that a dog does not give warning before it becomes aggressive does not mean that it is inherently aggressive or that it attacks without provocation. It simply means that the dog does not exhibit signs that it is about to attack, and once it attacks it is harder to fight it off due to its size and build type. Pit bulls may have been bred to behave differently during a fight, but they were not bred to attack humans for no reason. Many pit bulls are quite content to share their homes with children, dogs and pets.

Opponents of sterilization argue that it can be difficult to determine which dogs are pit bulls, and that breed-specific efforts are unfair to certain dogs, because when you discriminate against a breed, you’re also discriminating against good dogs as well. Setter of Pit Bull Rescue Central opposes breed-specific sterilization because she says it’s ineffective, because the laws don’t target irresponsible owners.

PETA has been mis-characterized as being against pitbull dogs as a breed – they have clarified this position on their website:

Many dogs that were originally bred for certain purposes have been re-purposed to other “work” that have no bearing on anything they were originally bred for. Retrievers were originally bred to retrieve hunting game but are now used as service dogs. Good dog breeders breed stable dogs. Even if a dog is bred to attack without showing warning signs, they will not attack unpredictably unless other factors are at play. Purebred dogs are bred for predictability – they are selected for desired traits by responsible breeders. Pit bulls were originally bred to be non-aggressive towards humans. Responsible breeders have been breeding against all forms of animal and human aggression for many years now.

If you visit the link above from PETA’s site, it becomes clear that these beautiful dogs are too often horrifically abused by terrible owners.

Similarly, it is often inexperienced and inhumane owners or breeders who fuel the aggressive images associated with various strong, instinctively protective breeds, and not any particular breed itself that can be blamed for being “vicious”. Many responsible and loving owners of these so called “vicious” breeds will be able to introduce you to their lovable and sweet pitties, rotties, and GSDs – these owners know how to love, care for and rear their pups into model canine citizens. Don’t blame the breed. Blame irresponsible owners.



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