Are Negative Perceptions of Dog Breeds Warranted or Can They Be Self-Fulfilling Prophecies?

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Can Our View of a Dog Breed Impact a Dog’s Temperament?

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.

While a dog’s genetics might predispose it to certain behaviors, some behavioral variation exists among dogs of the same breed. 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.

In an ideal world, individual dogs should be judged by their actions, and not completely by their DNA or physical appearance. This article covers self-fulfilling prophecies of dog breed biases and how dog owners can raise healthy, happy animals.

Are Breed-Related Biases Warranted?

Specific dog breeds are often judged and treated as a collective group rather than by the individual dog’s behavior, a phenomenon of heated debate.

Pit bull terriers and bully breed dogs are some of the most feared dogs in the nation, and statistics have shown that these dog breeds account for a shocking percentage of human and dog fatalities and injuries. Making up just 6% of dogs in the United States, pit bulls account for over 60% of attacks and fatalities.

Each year, countless news stories appear about severe pit bull attacks:

Breed-related biases can be self-fulfilling. Pit bull breeds and mixed-breed dogs with bully traits make up a large percentage of dogs surrendered to shelters. The turbulent past of many of these dogs can contribute to aggressive behavior, and when routinely put into new and stressful situations, they may act out in dangerous ways. When paired with inexperienced owners, or owners who purposely want to adopt a “scary” looking dog, the prophecy of pit bulls acting aggressive tends to be more aptly realized.

Breed Specific Legislation

Breed selective legislation is the regulation or prohibition of the ownership of dangerous dog breeds. “BSL” as it is commonly referred to, often prohibits the ownership of dog breeds such as pit bulls.

Pit bulls have been banned in several countries:

  • Germany
  • The Netherlands
  • France
  • Poland
  • Italy
  • Denmark
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Puerto Rico
  • Ecuador
  • Venezuela
  • Singapore

Pit bull breeds have also been banned in regions and localities of over 30 countries. While criticized for these bans, these countries experience an average rate of dog fatalities lower than countries where these breeds are not banned.

Though breed-discriminatory legislation is often intended to improve public safety, studies are conflicting on its effectiveness. Breed specific legislation can entail 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.

Nature vs. Nurture

Breed-related biases are backed by the idea that a specific dog breed is inherently aggressive and dangerous. 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.

Genetic Factors

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 can diminish. While we can decrease the risks of unwanted traits through careful breeding, we can never completely negate the traits completely.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors – such as socialization, training, and living conditions – have been shown to be good 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.

Evidence

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. 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, whether the dog is spayed or neutered, and the training and supervision it receives.

Studies have concluded that pit bull terriers are responsible for more than 50% of dog bites in America, and with the popularity the breed has garnered in recent years, this percentage is expected to rise. While environmental factors influence the way a dog may behave, biases against certain breeds have some merit.

How to Handle Changes in Aggression

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.

Avoid Chaotic Play Environments

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.

Reinforce Calm Behavior

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.

Continue Introducing Your Adolescent to Well-Behaved Adult Dogs

“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.

Understand the Experience of Dog Bite Victims and Their Reaction to Your Dog

While it can be frustrating that a person might not want to be around your dog due to its breed or behavior, it’s important to recognize that countless people have a warranted fear of dogs. They may have been attacked, their pet could have been harmed by another, or they could be overly cautious around unfamiliar animals.

Allow Your Dog to Rehearse Desirable Behavior

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.

Reversing Negative Breed-Related Biases

Breed-related biases and dog-breed discriminatory legislation could ignore environmental factors while reinforcing negative stereotypes. While many of these practices and ordinances are meant to keep the public safe, the impact of these rules is not fully understood. 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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