I’m guessing you read the title and are thinking “But I thought you were a pitbull advocate!?”
I am. I am an advocate, an ally, a friend of pits in need. I fully understand the reality of their situation – millions wait in shelters for families that will never come for them. But I’m an honest person and the truth is I don’t think everyone or every home should have one. Simply put, pits are a complex mix of smarts, power, and instinct that not every person or home can handle.
‘Pitbull’ isn’t a breed, but dogs blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with that moniker usually have a certain look or physical characteristics. They’re usually short haired, medium – large dogs with a compact, well muscled body and a large squared off head. Equal parts solid rock and mush. They might be staffies, boxers, mastiffs, bull terriers, frenchies, or any combination of the above or a combination of something else that gives them a similar phenotype. And that’s all it is – a phenotype. A physical look or ‘type’, not necessarily genetic similarity, that links ass these dogs and their plight together.
They’re usually smart too. Joe was housebroken at 15 weeks old. He knew the names of four different toys by 20 weeks. He knows 10 different commands by hand gestures only. He has never chewed anything that wasn’t meant for chewing, recognizes people he’s met only once, and I swear he knows the days of the week (but that’s up for debate). He’s a good dog by choice and I have spent plenty of time thanking my lucky stars that he chooses to use his intelligence for good and not ill.
Physical challenges are present, as with any breed. Pits are prone to allergies and cancer, as well as orthopedic issues that arise from a fast growing but heavy body and a limitless supply of puppy energy. Often times their bodies mature before their brains and, if not monitored, that can have some effects on their bone and tendon/ligament health. Joe was the lucky recipient of two CCL surgeries at age 2. At nearly $5,000 per leg, that’s more than the average dog owner can afford. Even routine vet care for a big dog is expensive – they weigh more so they need more of everything and it adds up quick.
Ah, behavioral challenges. This is the hot button political stuff that everybody wants to debate. Anyone that tells you that all pits are one way or another is wrong – no breed is all anything. I’m a firm believer in the approach that says each dog is an individual and should be evaluated that way. That being said, the most common behavioral issues pits face are reactivity (to humans, dogs, or both), prey drive, and stubbornness.
The first two are the ones that lands pits in the news and on the euthanasia lists. They can be reactive. This usually stems out of a lack of socialization and training at a young age, but that’s not always true. Just like people, some dogs are more social than others. Some have obvious anxiety, some don’t. To say that every reactive pit is the product of horrible abuse is ridiculous because that’s simply not true. Negligence, i.e. a lack of socialization because the owners just didn’t put in the time, maybe. But I can assure you that abuse isn’t the only reason dogs become reactive.
How do I know this? Because I’m living it. I got Joe at 13 weeks old. He has lived with other dogs since day 1, I socialized the hell out of him (with the help of my best friend, her dogs, and all my horse friends and their dogs)… and yet he can be reactive. Joe is the friendliest dude to all humans. He’s never met a human he didn’t want to snuggle with. But he doesn’t like strange dogs running up to him when we’re out in the world. Face to face greetings stress him and since his surgeries he really doesn’t want to be bumped into. He can go to classes (he LOVES school and has two AKC titles), he can walk on the street, he can watch dogs walk by his yard without caring, heck he even enjoys having foster dogs and friends at his house… But if another dogs comes at him with too much energy in a strange place, he’s going to meltdown. Zero abuse and lots of training, but that’s just how he is.
Same goes for the prey drive piece. Joe grew up with a cat and they had zero issues. In fact, Jack the cat was Joe’s favorite friend. When Jack died, Joe mourned him. But if there’s a cat or rabbit or squirrel and it runs, he’s chasing it and probably going to grab it and try to bring it back to me.
I suspect there are a lot of dogs like Joe out there, which is why there are a lot of dogs in shelters.
I don’t think dogs that have preferences or special behavioral needs are bad dogs, but they do have to be handled differently. When a pit (or any dog really) tells you “hey I don’t like that’ or “that makes me anxious” you MUST listen. You. Must. Listen. You can’t just say he’ll get over it or it’s a fluke because it may not be. Address it, fix it if you can, but most importantly absorb it.
As a culture, we’re moving towards being empathetic to each other. No means no, acceptance of people for who they are. A little bit of that patience and acceptance would go a long way for pits. The reality is that many people who get dogs don’t see it as “in sickness and in health ’til death do us part”. They get a dog, when the dog stops behaving in a way that they like, the dog has to either change or find a new place to live. That’s not how family works.
The fundamental issue of fair-weather dog owners aside, when otherwise loving owners have a dog they can’t seem to change and for whom they will not carefully manage, big problems arise. Fido doesn’t like children but Jenny likes having her grandchildren over. Maybe she locks Fido away, making him depressed, or maybe she keeps subjecting him to the kids thinking he’ll adjust except he doesn’t and it results in a bite. Either way, it’s a bad existence for Fido.
Same with dog reactivity. Brutus is was over stimulated by other dogs but Sam likes the dog park and after all he got Brutus so they could go to the dog park… so they go, Brutus gets in a dog fight, Sam gets sued, Brutus gets euthanized.
Same with prey drive. Fran gets Max, whom the shelter deemed cat approved, to live with her and Fluffy the cat. After 6 months Max decides Fluffy has swatted him for the last time. He bites fluffy and hurts him badly. Fran decides the put Max on Craigslist as free to good home or cheap because he has to be gone by the time Fluffy gets out of the hospital.
We have all heard these stories a billion times because people get emotional and adopt dogs they have no business owning. The reality is that most dog lovers don’t have the skills or desire to manage a dog that’s got some behavioral challenges. It’s so important to be realistic about your lifestyle, energy level, canine behavior knowledge, and willingness to work on potential challenges.
Owners unwilling to deal with behavioral challenges aren’t always bad owners, but anytime you get a dog you have to prepare for challenges. And with a big, smart, powerful dog intensifies those challenges. If a chihuahua bites someone, it’ll hurt but no real damage is done. If a large dog, pit or not, bites someone it can be lethal.
So he’s what I think: If you aren’t willing to say “until death do us part” to a pitbull, don’t get one. Rescuing a pit from a shelter isn’t really rescuing if you’re going to return them in three months, six months, a year, 5 years, or even ten years because they have physical ailments or behavioral challenges. Read that last line again.
Are you ready to be a pit mom or dad? To make a commitment to training, exercise, and good healthcare? Yes? Great! No? It’s ok, there’s lots you can do to help them without bringing one home.