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Canine Behavior / Genetics
The American Pit Bull Terrier / Breeds targeted by BSL

Canine Behavior and Genetics

By Dr M Malini DVM  Canine Behavior

1. Genes do not cause anything. They dont cause breast cancer; they dont cause aggression; they dont cause blue eyes or floppy ears. Saying that genes cause problems is a device used by those who a) dont know any better or b) are seeking a quick-and-dirty way to reduce an incredibly complex concept to a sound-bite for the masses.

2. Aggression per se is not a problem. There isnt a single living being who doesnt owe his, her, or its existence to the willingness of his, her, or its ancestors to display aggression. Sperm compete with each other, developing mother and fetus fight over scarce resources, as do developing young from moment of conception until death possibly years later. Without a willingness to display aggression, none of us would be here. To me that means that the probability of any DNA associated with aggression in any dog breed being relegated to that relatively small amount that separates one breed from another is extremely low. The principle of conservation of energy would seem to guarantee that aggression is simply too fundamental and important a characteristic for survival in all living beings for that DNA associated with it to be distributed that way. It seems far more likely that all the "recipes" for aggression reside in that large lump of genetic material we share with at least the bulk of animal life if not all living things.

3. No agreement exists on the definition of normal aggression, let alone problem aggression. A dog who attacks a serial killer trying to off his owner is a hero; a dog who attacks the local minister is a killer. Some owners think a dog has a right to bite a child who kicks the animal; other people believe that no dog should ever bite any human under any circumstances. Some clients come to me because their dogs bit someone else after biting only family members for years. Other comes for exactly the opposite reason: the dog is now biting them as well as everyone else.

4. Even if we could agree on a definition of problem aggression and isolate what will surely be the multiple genes associated with it, the most we could do would be to attribute that particular behavior to a particular dog in a particular situation. That is, behavior only has meaning in context. Behaviors may be described as, for example, dominant or subordinate, but the dogs cannot be except in that particular situation.

5. Police, shelter workers, insurance company reps, medical personnel and others who may be involved in dog bite cases often have little or no knowledge of normal dog behavior. Because of this, they often dont get any kind of meaningful history because they dont know the right questions to ask. Consequently, in order to say anything meaningful about the attack, we need a decent history. Without it, the most we can do is guess which is, unfortunately, more often the case than not.

6. In volume VII, No #4 1994 of the interdisciplinary bond journal, Anthrozoos, theres an interesting article entitled "Dog on a Tightrope: The position of the dog in British society as influenced by press reports (1988 to 1992)" by Anthony Podberscek. Although theoretically dated as research articles go, the material is a fine example of the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Podberscek contends that "the media, public, and government response to dog attacks is an overreaction to the generally held ideal that the dogs position in society is as a loyal and faithful companion," a relationship based on what those of us in the bond arena refer to "disneyfication." Because of the ideal arises from myth rather than recognition of normal canine behavior, the dogs relationship to us is highly unstable. Podberscek also points out that, even though rottweilers and GSDs were involved in numerous attacks, both of these breeds were eliminated from Britains Dangerous Dogs Act which only named four breeds: "the type known as Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, and Filo Braziliero." The fact that the latter two breeds didnt exist in the UK and there was only one Tosa in the country at that time makes it clear that this law was not about protecting the public from dog attacks. I agree with Poberscek that the reason these dogs were targeted and the far, far, more numerous rottwielers and GSDs were not was because the former were associated with drug dealers whereas the latter were associated with the police work and as guardians of estates and places of business. Thus the banned dogs became the symbol of what the media and public hoped to do to the drug dealerslock them up, muzzle them, or put them down.

It seems to me that 10 years later, the parallels between breed bans and ethnic cleansing and the fact that those viewed as minorities in certain areas may still be over-represented among drug dealers and dog fighters suggest that this projected symbolism remains alive and well.

7. Relative to the medias penchant for seeing a pit bull every time they report a dog attack, it reminds me of a phenomenon in psychiatry known as "semantic contagion." A corollary of this is medicine is"meetingitis." What happens is that, as soon as someone starts writing or talking about a problem, people start to see it everywhere. Years ago everyone was having nervous breakdowns, then they were all schizophrenics. Now everyones depressed. My dentist is so susceptible to this that I always make sure not to schedule an appointment with him for the week after he returns from a meeting because I knew that, regardless what problem I went in with, Ill come out with the one he heard about that week. I used to work for a veterinarian who did the same with medical diseases and I know the same thing happens with behavioral problems. In spite of the fact that no agreed on definition for separation anxiety exists (either), its surprising how many dogs now have this problem. Given the tendency for the human mind to work this way, it wouldnt surprise me if the same thing happens in the media when it comes to pinning breed labels on dogs. Granted some unscrupulous journalists undoubtedly will refer to a biting dog as a pit bull or pit bull type even if the animal is obviously a ShiTzu if it might increase the chance the wire services will pick up the article. However, I think that, aside from whatever breeds a person happens to know from personal experience, most people recognize relatively few purebreds. Rather they lump dogs in often highly nonspecific, arbitrary groups such as "yappy little dogs" or "squashed nosed ones." Hence the person who looked at the Boston terrier and said, "Is that a mini-pit bull?"

8. In keeping with disneyfication, the human-animal bond is often reduced to a public relations or marketing device. In reality, the nature of the human-canine relationship plays a critical role in canine aggression. In spite of the fact that owners often express shock when their dog bites them or someone else, a complete history of the dog and its relationship reveals a scenario that more often than not unfolds like a Greek tragedy. The question is rarely if these dogs will bite, but merely when, who, and where. Just as its virtually impossible to change a dogs or humans behavior without changing their physiology and vice versa, its also impossible to change their relationship without changing the other two. What those who seek to ban breeds and even ultimately the entire domestic canine species fail to recognize is that humans and dogs co-evolved for thousands of years. We are as physiologically and behaviorally dependent on them as they are on us. At the same time that we think were training them, theyre training us. At the same time as theyre enhancing (or undermining) our health, were doing the same to them. Behavioral ecologist Ray Coppinger refers to dogs as parasites. I would agree that they do function as physical parasites, but we even the ante by emotionally parasitizing them by projecting our most intimate and sometimes neurotic and totally self-serving symbolism on them, unmindful of the stress this may create. (Although some dogs are becoming highly skilled emotional parasites, too.)

9. Because of the physiological and behavioral effects of domestication, the ideal human-canine relationship should mimic that between a mature adult animal and a pup. The term used for the parental role is leader rather than parent to distinguish this relationship from primate parenthood. This is necessary because primate parenthood is initially highly reactive, a form of adult response that communicates subordination in canines. Unfortunately, many people erroneously associate leadership with (reactive) dominance and dominance with the ability to win fights. The net result is that aggressive dogs often dont recognize human leadership because their owners dont communicate it. Instead they see their owners as competitors or pups. This relationship then affects how they related to other people, too. In my experience, owners and others dont communicate leadership to dogs either because they dont know how or because they dont want to be leaders. (We also happen to live in a society in which the lack of human role models is rampant with those championed as "leaders" actually being energy-squandering folk who lack sufficient leadership skill that they have no choice but to dominate by force. The true leader isnt the individual who wins the fight, but rather the one who possesses so much presence he or she neednt fight at all.)

Myrna Milani D.V.M.

TippingPoint, Inc.

Charlestown, NH

Canine Genetics and Behavior

" To state that a breed of dog is aggressive is scientifically impossible. Statistics do not support such a finding. Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years and within all breeds there can be dangerous dogs because of owner issues such as training the dog to attack, lack of training and socialization.

There is no such thing as the "Mean Gene" in dogs as well as in people. However mutant genes have been discovered. Alteration of a single DNA base in the gene encoding an enzyme called monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) has been found to render the enzyme nonfunctional. This enzyme normally catalyzes reactions that metabolize the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline. What this does is cause slight mental impairment which interferes with the ability to cope with certain situations resulting in aggression. There is no proof and there never has been that the American Pit Bull Terrier possesses mutant genes. There is a one in ten thousand chance of a mutant gene appearing in a population.

Aggressiveness has many definitions and its stimulus of the environment that causes behavior. Dogs defend territory, they exhibit dominance and if allowed can become protective of their family. All this behavior can be controlled by the owner and aggression is mainly an act of behavior.

To make claim that the American Pit Bull Terrier can cause more severe injury than other breeds is ludicrous. Over 30 breeds of dogs are responsible for over 500 fatal attacks in the last 30 years, every victim was severely injured. The American Pit Bull Terrier is clearly a useful member of society, the breed was World War One Hero, its rated as having one of the best overall temperaments in the United States (A.T.T.S.). The breed is used for dog show competitions, therapy, service work, search and rescue, police work and companionship. Man has domesticated dogs to the point they serve as companions, workers, and even objects of beauty. Dogs will protect man, see for him, hunt for him and play. One breed is not more inherently good or evil, vicious, harmful or helpful. It is man who is responsible for the dogs behavior, not the breed of dog. Those passing breed bans fail to understand that a mis-trained Pit Bull can be replaced with another breed. People determine whether dogs will be useful members of a community or a nuisance. It is the people who allow their dogs to become dangerous and legislators must control and punish the people."

Glen Bui (ACF2004)

For more information contact Glen Bui at

Canine Behavior Counsultants

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