History is something that people talk about a lot when it comes to pit bulls. You don't have to look far.
-- "Pit Bulls were bred to fight."
-- "Pit Bulls were bred to be dog aggressive (but not human aggressive)".
-- "Pit bulls have an aggression gene that makes them more likely to attack."
-- "Pit bulls have been bred for hundreds of years to attack other dogs, you just can't take that out of them."
These ideas are prevelent. You will see them in the comments section almost any time there is a story in a newspaper about a dog bite online (even if a pit bull isn't involved). You can certainly read all about it from people who want to use this information as a reason to ban these dogs -- or even make them extinct. Heck, you will even see it on a large number of rescue websites.
But are they true statements? I mean, really?
Does the history of the breed really determine their current behavior -- in as much as, even if there is an "aggression gene" (there's not), have the traits that these dogs were originally bred for predetermined the behavior of all American Pit Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers in the wold today?
The history of 'pit bulls' is fairly well documented (although there is a ton of really inaccurate stuff out there). If you aren't familiar, I think Diane Jessup's history stuff is about as good a read as any. And yes, there is history in there about the dogs being used for bull baiting and after bull baiting was made illegal, dog fighting. I have no doubts that dogs that were good at these tasks were bred to produce offspring that would, hopefully, be good at said task. The history is undeniable.
But that was almost 200 years ago. How relevant is this information to us now?
In 1835, the United Kingdom enacted the Cruelty to Animals Act that banned a lot of things -- including dog fighting. Meanwhile, across the pond, dog fighting became illegal in most US states in the 1860s, although enforcement was initially lax. Dog fighting was pretty far underground by the 1930s and 1940s in the U.S., as Humane Organizations fought against dog fighting and mainstream animal groups like the UKC pulled their support of the activity.
In 1936, the AKC established the breed of the American Staffordshire Terrier as non-fighitng dogs to differenentiate the dogs from the American Pit Bull Terriers.
So, since 1936, very few American Staffordshire Terriers have been used for dog fighting -- as they were created with the express purpose of NOT fighting.
And for at least the past 70 years, most of the American Pit Bull Terriers have been bred by people with the intention of NOT using them for fighting (not that all of them were BEFORE the 1930s, but certainly after that point) as the law, and canine organizations frowned on the activity.
So if there were genetic characteristics that made 'pit bulls' more prone toward aggression toward other dogs, how long would it take for such a gene to no longer exist through selective breeding.
Prior to around 1900, most dogs were bred with some purpose in mind. People needed dogs for tasks around the home - -often for protection, hunting, getting rid of rodents, etc. In fact, if you look at the breed history of most older breeds, almost all of them were initially bred for the express purpose to either chase, kill, herd or protect something.
However, over the past century as human kind has move from living on farms to living in cities, dogs have changed their role in our lives and moved from living in our barns, to living in our homes. And over the past couple of decades, from living in our homes, to sleeping in our beds.
Over this time, the need to selectively breed dogs for traits that make them good at tasks has not been the main focus for most breeders -- vs breeding dogs based on things like looks and temperament.
Over this time, lines of dogs have split. While a few lines of dogs remain for their original working purpose, many lines have become much more focused on "pet quality" dogs. And with that, most of these "pet" dogs have become virtually worthless at the original tasks they were originally bred to perform.
Ask any hunter whether they would be interested in buying a Beagle or Cocker Spaniel from a pet store and they may look at you like you are insane. The difference between the drive, endurance and tenacity of the working lines of these dogs and the "pet" lines of these dogs makes one very valuable as a hunter and the other virtually worthless at it. In turn, a good hunting dog probably won't make a good pet for your average suburban family.
And over time, we have become really comfortable with most breeds of dogs becoming better "pets" than workers....because outside of a few people out there, most of us don't care if the dog is all that good of a "worker".
Here is a list of just a few breeds, and some of the functions they were orginally bred for:
The Chinese Shar Pei: Guarding, protecting, dog fighting
English Bulldogs: Bull baiting, dog fighting
Boxers: Dog fighting, holding down large game like wild boars and bison
Dachshunds: Crawl into badger holes and fight and kill badgers
Poodles: Water retrievers
Miniature Poodles: Truffle hunting
Rhodesian Ridgebacks: Hunting lions
Weimaraner: Hunting wolves, deer and beer
Now when you look at the former tasks of these dogs, it is almost impossible to think of dogs of our friends and neighbors as fullfilling these tasks. But they used to. And now the vast majority of the dogs in these groups, like most dogs, are just pets.
It's just really interesting to me that when it comes to the American Pit Bull Terrier, people assume that its history will instantly cause it to attack another dog or person. Yet we never look at a Poodle and instantly think well, that dog is instantly going to retrieve birds in the water or would be excellent at finding truffles or that a Dachsund is going to instantly crawl down in a hole and kill the next badger it sees.
It doesn't quite work that way. And science is helping us determine why.
In some new research that is being done -- in part by Scientist Dee Denver - - many scientists now believe that genetic mutation occurs at a rate of 10x what scientists previously thought. In "nature", even though many mutations can improve an organism's chance for survival, most mutations are detrimental to to long-term survival -- thus, within a few generations, the mutation would be eliminated due to natural selection. In nature, if a dog's genes mutated in a way that would make them lesser of fighters, or hunters, they would likely die off because they would be unable to survive.
But our dogs don't live in nature. They live in homes. And as such, these changes can happen and not have a negative impact on the well-being of a dog because our dogs don't have to fight to survive. In pet quality dogs, there is little "natural selection". Behaviors are able to change very quickly.
So, how important of a role does history play in current temperaments of pit bull type dogs?
Changes in genetics can happen very quickly...and the VAST majority of these dogs have not been used for the purpose of dog fighting for at least 30 years, and most haven't been used for this purpose in 70+ years. The fact that all of this "fighting" talk is ancient history (in dog years) for the majority of dogs is a major reason why 99.9% of them won't bite -- which wouldn't be the case if they were genetically predisposed to attack.
So why are we still talking about breed history as if it is a predetermining factor in a dog's behavior?