Dog breeds are characterized by certain physical and behavioral traits. Each breed has been developed to perform a specific job – whether it’s hunting rabbits, retrieving downed birds, herding livestock, or sitting on people’s laps. It’s not surprising that dogs of a specific breed often look and behave similarly. However, while a dog’s genetics might predispose it to certain behaviors, tremendous behavioral variation exists among dogs of the same breed. According to the ASPCA, a dog’s genetics do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, behavior develops through a complex interaction between its genetics and environment. Responsible dog ownership requires a commitment to proper socialization, humane training, and conscientious supervision. Individual dogs should be judged by their actions, and not by their DNA or their physical appearance. This article covers self-fulfilling prophecies of dog breed biases and how dog owners can raise healthy, happy animals.
Specific dog breeds are often judged and treated as a collective group rather than by the individual dog’s behavior. For example, pit bull terriers are one of the most feared dogs in the nation. There are notions that people who engage in criminal activity often own pit bulls because of the breed’s “inherent aggressiveness.” This idea – which isn’t backed by science – ignores environmental factors and reinforces negative stereotypes. Unfortunately, these breed-related biases can be self-fulfilling. If someone chooses a pit bull as a pet based off the idea that the dog will be intimidating and aggressive, they will likely train and raise it to be that way. Consequently, the dog will become more aggressive than a counterpart that is raised as a family pet. This creates an illusion that pit bulls are more dangerous than other breeds, but in reality, they are just as inherently docile as other big dog breeds. The pit bull is one of the many breeds adversely affected by what the American Humane Society deems to be dog breed discrimination. These false, self-fulfilling stereotypes have also caused harm to Rottweilers, Chow Chows, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, and many other breeds.
Breed selective legislation is the regulation or prohibition of the ownership of “pit bull type dogs,” which often also covers other dog breeds that have been deemed “dangerous.” Though breed-discriminatory legislation is often intended to improve public safety, studies show that it does not accomplish that objective. In fact, it often does the opposite. Aside from their overall ineffectiveness, these laws are often expensive, difficult to enforce, and in violation of citizens’ property rights. Breed discriminatory legislation can entail extremely restrictive regulations dictating how dogs can be handled, who can train them, and whether they are even allowed off of their owner's private property. Breed-discriminatory legislation reinforces negative biases while ignoring environmental factors.
Breed-related biases are backed by the idea that a specific dog breed is inherently aggressive and dangerous. In contrast, many people argue that any dog’s behavior is because of its training and upbringing. This creates an either-or argument: dog breed aggression is inherently genetic, or the aggression is a learned behavior. However, both genetic and environmental factors can affect a dog’s behavior.
In the complex interplay between genetics and environment, a dog’s genetics can play a role in its behavior. Researchers have tested genetic influences on personality by breeding specific breeds for temperament and absolutely nothing else. This type of study is conducted over a long period of time. According to Whole Dog Journal, many different genes influence a dog’s personality. If you breed for any traits outside of temperament, your ability to guarantee specific results vanishes. Excluding dog breeding laboratories, genetics rarely develop absolute outcomes. Therefore, dogs that are bred for many different traits, and as a result produce puppies with personalities mostly similar to their parents’, are sometimes quite different. While we can decrease the risks of unwanted traits through careful breeding, we can never completely negate the traits completely.
Studies from Oxbow School have shown that a dog’s behavior and behavioral genetic traits are most predictably influenced by environmental factors. The environmental factors – such as socialization, training, and living conditions – have been shown to be better indicators of some behavioral traits like aggressiveness. A study done by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that dogs that were tethered or chained were 2.8 times more likely to bite people and cause personal injury compared to dogs that were not. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has advised dog owners to “never tether or chain your dog, because this can contribute to aggressive behavior.” Often times, dog bites result from learned aggressions related to the environmental upbringing of the animal.
Aggression in dogs is a cause for concern for many dog owners. Aggression is defined as the threat of harm to another individual involving snarling, growling, snapping, biting, barking, or lunging. While studies have concluded that pit bull terriers are responsible for more than 50% of dog bites in America, these studies fail to take other factors into account. A study conducted in 2013 found that media identification of dog breeds is also extremely unreliable, as they are only accurate 18 percent of the time. In another study from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, 551 patients from 5 to 18 years old were in the emergency room for dog bites, and 30 different breeds were represented. According to The Animal Humane Society, a dog’s way of relating to other dogs will change as it goes through adolescence and even adulthood. The degree to which it will change largely depends on early socialization, genetic makeup, and the training and supervision it receives.
Sometimes our pets act out. No matter how well trained a dog is, there are chances he or she will periodically act aggressive. Ultimately, it is the owner’s duty to do their best to ensure that their pet is not a danger to anyone. Then this will help to proactively prevent injury* or emotional distress* to others. While this can be unsettling, knowing how to handle these situations can help alleviate major problems. This will help you avoid situations such as a dog bite lawsuit. Here are some tips that will help you be prepared.
If your dog plays too rough with others, remove them from the situation. Many dogs become overwhelmed in places such as day cares or crowded dog parks. Visit the dog park when fewer dogs are present, making sure that at least some of them are mature and well behaved. Well-socialized adult dogs are valuable playmates as they can teach appropriate behavior without causing harm.
If you and your dog are approaching a dog park and your dog begins barking excitedly, turn around and walk away. Leave the scene until your dog has relaxed. While this may seem mean, allowing a dog to rehearse excited behaviors will not be helpful.
“Well behaved” means that the dog interacts well with young dogs and will interrupt inappropriate/rough behavior. Adult dogs typically use eye contact and tall posture to discourage unwanted contact.
All behaviors are strengthened through time and practice. Do not be afraid to choose new activities for your dog if his current ones are reinforcing bad habits.
Ignore your dog’s barking or any other excited behaviors until they quietly settle on the floor. Practicing this exercise regularly will teach your dogs that calm behavior is the way to get your attention.
Breed-related biases and dog-breed discriminatory legislation often ignore environmental factors while reinforcing negative stereotypes. While many of these practices and ordinances are meant to keep the public safe, they often end up causing more harm than good. Through increased public awareness and better care for our dogs, we can help create a safer environment for dogs, their owners, and the general public. If you were harmed by an aggressive dog, consider reaching out to a personal injury lawyer.
Jessica Hekman, et al. “Is Our Dogs’ Behavior Genetic?” Whole Dog Journal, 31 July 2019, www.whole-dog-journal.com/behavior/is-our-dogs-behavior-genetic/
“Aggression in Dogs.” Animal Humane Society, www.animalhumanesociety.org/behavior/aggression-dogs.
“THE BREED VS THE INDIVIDUAL.” Oxbow School, www.oxbowschool.org/assets/gallery/os35-final-projects/docs/edan_asfp_paper.pdf
“The Case Against Dog Breed Discrimination by Homeowners’ Insurance Companies .” Connecticut Insurance Law Journal , 2005, www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/archive/assets/pdfs/hsp/soaiv_07_ch2.pdf
“Dog Breed Discrimination: Prevention.” Best Friends Animal Society, resources.bestfriends.org/article/dog-breed-discrimination-prevention
Knopf, Photograph courtesy Alfred A., et al. “The Most Feared Dogs May Also Be the Most Misunderstood.” National Geographic, 3 July 2016, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/07/pit-bull-ban-aggressive-dog-breed-bronwen-dickey/
“Position Statement on Pit Bulls.” ASPCA, www.aspca.org/about-us/aspca-policy-and-position-statements/position-statement-pit-bulls
“What Is Breed-Specific Legislation?” ASPCA, www.aspca.org/animal-protection/public-policy/what-breed-specific-legislation
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