Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about a mantra that I read a lot in news articles, from rescue sites, from commentors defending pit bulls on various websites, etc. The mantra, and if you've been around "pit bull" rescue people for very long at all you've heard it: "Pit Bulls aren't people aggressive, they're dog aggressive."
Is this true? And if true, what is the severity of this truth? And what implications (if any) are there?
Last year, three researchers, Deborah L. Duffy, Yuying Hsu and James A Serpell, got together and published a scientific paper on dog breeds and aggression. And when they looked at aggression, they looked at four different kinds of aggression: Aggression toward the dog's owners, aggression toward strangers, aggression toward other known dogs, and aggression toward unknown dogs.
The research paper also has a great intro that talks about the reason for the study to be to analyze a correlation between "breed" and "aggression" -- and why "traditional" approaches of doing this based on dog bite statistics are dramatically flawed.
The research is based on completed questionaires based on the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionaire (C-BARQ). And while the researchers admit that as with many studies, there is some research bias involved as there is some sample bias and some bias that would go into the respondent's responses -- but I will say the overall results pass the sniff test of not being complete BS. I wouldn't want to base all of my decision-making on the results, but I do think they provide an interesting look at how dog breed may or may not influence "aggression".
The study shows reports on 33 different breeds of dogs -- based on these breeds being the ones that they had a large enough sample size to provide accurate data. All "pit bull" breeds were grouped into one "pit bull" category, so does not account for behavioral differences among the different breeds in the category.
Stranger Directed Aggression
A couple of breeds appeared really high in this category with Dachshunds and Chihuahuas leading the way. A few other breed, Australian Cattle Dogs, Australian Shepherds, Bichon Frise and Doberman Pinschers (in that order) also pretty consistently scored above average.
Greyhounds and Siberan Husky's were by far the least-aggressive in this category.
The mean score for "pit bulls" was below average on this type of aggression -- while the high end of their spectrum was above average (as it was for 22 of the 33 breeds) -- their overall scores were below average. The closest comparison for "pit bulls' in this category are Great Danes and Soft Coated Wheaton Terriers -- with "pit bulls" scoring slighly lower than Boxers, Beagles and Poodles in this category.
Owner Directed Aggression
Most dogs showed no aggression toward owners, so the scale on this was significantly lower than others. However, there were 6 breeds here that were significantly higher than average in their aggression toward their owners: Dachsunds, Beagles, Chihuahuas, Cocker Spaniels, English Springer Spaniels and Jack Russell Terriers.
The four lowest breeds in this category were Rhodesian Ridgebacks, "pit bulls", Doberman Pinschers and Bernese Mountain Dogs. None of the dogs in these breeds scored above the all-breed average.
Dog Directed Aggression (unknown dogs)
The five highest breeds in this category (in order) are: Akitas, Dachsunds, Chihuahuas, Jack Russell Terriers and 'pit bulls'. Other breeds that were above average include: Australian Cattle Dogs, Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, Boxers, Doberman Pinschers, English Springer Spaniels, German Shepherds and Soft Coated Wheaton Terriers.
The lowest breeds in this category were Greyhounds, Whippets, Collies, and Bernese Mountain Dogs.
Twenty two of the 33 breeds were above, or statisitically possibly above, average in this category.
Dog Aggression toward known dogs
Because these are known dogs, these numbers were again much lower than the unknown dogs:
Again, in order, the top 7 breeds here: Chihuahua, Jack Russell Terrier, Dachsund, English Springer Spaniel, "pit Bull", Beagle, Border Collie.
The lowest in this category: Labrador Retrievers, Brittany Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Portuguese Water Dogs, Rhodesian Ridgebacks.
The pit bull's closest comp here is probably either the English Springer Spaniel or the Beagle.
Again, I would caution anyone from using any of the information as an end-all-be-all report on aggression by breed. Not only is the study subject to sample and survey bias -- but it is also important to note that any results do not indicated a causal relationship between breed and aggression -- only that a correlation may exist. I think this is an important point still with this study.
That said, I thought the results were interesting enough to share and I do encourage people who are interested to purchase the study at the link provided above (cost is $31.50 -- I cannot legally make the study available for you).
As it turns out, based on this study, it turns out that there is some truth to the old addage that "pit bulls aren't human aggressive but are dog aggressive". In fact, there are few breeds that performed bettter in friendliness toward people -- particularly the dog's owners (which should help people understand why so many people are attracted to these types of dogs as pets -- they tend to be extremely friendly and loyal). It should also be noted that test scores from the American Temperament Test Society echo this notion that 'pit bull' breeds do well in temperament tests involving people.
As for aggression toward other dogs, it does appear as if 'pit bulls' do tend to be a little more aggressive toward other dogs than what is average. But I think it's important to note that they are not some weird statistical outlier here -- that are infinitely more aggressive than other breeds of dogs -- and in fact scored below several breeds of dogs in this category.
A slight tendency toward aggression toward other dogs is NOT something that is unique to 'pit bulls'. In fact, many breeds scored similarly to them in this category -- including many breeds people would not generally associate with being "aggressive". The reality here is that there is a wider difference among dogs within a breed category than there is among most different breeds.
Based solely on this information, there is no scientific evidence that would in any way justify legislation targeted at specific breeds of dogs (any breeds), particularly 'pit bulls'.
The more we dive into what actual science has to say about dogs, the more we begin to realize how flawed all Breed Specific thinking is. That it is 100% based on emotion (often driven by media hyperbole) and not off of rational, scientific thinking.
Meanwhile, my hope also is that when 'pit bull people' talk about their dogs, they realize that the "dog aggression" they talk about is not something that is "unique" to 'pit bulls' -- but something that is somewhat common among many breeds of dogs. And that there is often much more difference in temperaments within particular breeds than there is between breeds.