Is it really all in how they are raised?
Everyone seems to have a strong opinion on pit bull type dogs. Either they are loved or hated; banned or paraded with pride. Those that advocate for them often use the phase “it’s all in how they are raised,” but how accurate is this really?
In my personal opinion, as well-meaning as this phase is, it can actually be counter productive for pit bull advocates. What about the pit bulls who were raised inhumanely? What about the ones who were put on a chain as puppies and left there for years without human interaction? What about the ones that have been used for dog fighting? If their personalities are created based on how they are raised, then those that are raised unkindly could be assumed to be aggressive. However, many pit bulls rescued from fighting rings, or taken off the chain after years of neglect bounce back quickly and are found to even be dog, cat and kid friendly!
The question is, what has a bigger impact on a dog’s personality: nature or nurture? Those that argue it is all in how they are raised are making an argument for nurture. Studies and experience shows that nature, or genetical behavior, actually plays a very large role as well. Dog fighters, as horrible as they are, have done one good thing for pit bull dogs over the course of history. They selected dogs for fighting that were tenacious enough to withstand the pit, but loyal enough to never turn on their human when being removed from the fight. These are the dogs who were allowed to live, reproduce and contribute to the next genetic line of pit bulls. This selection plays a large role in how reliable these dogs are with humans. The ones who may have turned on their handler during a fight were killed, and their genetics were not allowed to continue to the next generation. The genetics of “fighting line” pit bulls are still strong to this day and are a large reason why dogs rescued off of the chain or from fighting rings can be seen happily greeting their rescuers. They often are wonderful with humans even though they likely were never raised by a kind human.
As pit bulls have become more popular, they are no longer simply bred for fighting, and their genetics have suffered as a result. They are bred as family pets, show dogs, and by backyard breeders looking to make easy money. New “sub-breeds” have developed based on appearance such as the American bully. Genetic lines (such as the ones in the photos below) based on extreme appearance are now worth thousands of dollars but are bred with zero regard for genetic health or behavior. The dogs who once were genetically solid with humans because of their breeding being predicated on behavior, are now being bred for appearance only and we are seeing a larger number of human-aggressive bully breeds showing up in shelters and sanctuaries across the country.
Many of these dogs are sold online through sites such as Craigslist without any regard for their safety or well being. Selling dogs or puppies (or any animal) this way is dangerous for obvious reasons, such as dog fighters, backyard breeders or animal abusers finding them. However, not many people think about the risks associated with some average families buying these puppies as well. These puppies are sold anywhere from two weeks to three months old and if they are brought home and kept away from other animals and not properly socialized with humans outside of their immediate family, it can be a recipe for disaster as they grow older. They already are set up with poor behavioral genetics due to their breeding and with isolation as they mature, many of these dogs develop fear aggression towards people or other animals and become insecure dogs. If you look at your local animal shelter, I can almost guarantee they will have a population of adult pit bulls with behavioral concerns due to improper socialization and breeding.
You cannot fix genetics, but through thorough socialization and training you can set a poorly bred puppy up for success. These puppies are not without hope, because nurture does play a role in their development, and the earlier they are properly trained and socialized the better chance they have of being a well adjusted adult. This is the premise that led us to create our Bully Breed Early Intervention Program. The goal of this program is to seek out bully breed puppies that are being given away or sold recklessly through Craigslist and Facebook, bring them to our rescue and immediately begin socializing them. We utilize foster homes to help socialize our puppies with people and other animals. We also utilize the research that has been done on proper developmental stages of behavioral growth of puppies to give them what they need and when they need it the most. Our goal is to help these puppies grow up as well socialized as they possibly can, given their genetics. Our hope is that in continuing this program we can begin to lower the number of local pit bull type dogs that end up in shelters as a result of poor breeding and socialization, and increase the number of local pit bull ambassadors that represent how wonderful the breed can be in the right hands.
The first puppy we rescued as part of this program we named Gaia. When we found Gaia she was being sold for a very low price on Craigslist in an area known for dog fighting. She was three months old, and we jumped at the chance to give her a chance at a better life. The moment we rescued her it became clear she was a genetic mess. She was fearful and had been isolated, living in a bathroom in a Brooklyn townhouse, taken from her mother and siblings at just two weeks old and separated from other animals and had only ever met one person. I don’t think the man who had her was unkind to her, but he definitely did her a disservice by isolating a puppy who already was genetically predisposed to have fear based issues.
From the time they are born until seven weeks old is when a puppy learns how to understand canine communication, body language, play and social interactions. This is why it is so important for puppies to remain with their mother through this time. During these weeks, Gaia had been isolated and alone, so she never properly learned how to understand the body language of other dogs. Between eight to ten weeks old a puppy goes through their initial fear period. This is when it is critically important to socialize a puppy with as many things as possible. It is critical that they learn the world around them during this time, however it is also very important for them to avoid fearful situations as these may stick with them for life. Gaia also completely missed this critical socialization window in her development, again completely isolated from the world and other animals and people.
By the time we met Gaia, she had been set up for failure. We knew that there was only so much we could do to socialize her but we were committed to giving her everything we could. We immediately put her into a foster home with other dogs and children. She was afraid but every day she learned to trust her foster family more and more. I was working as a dog walker at the time and would often bring her on pack walks with my client dogs. She learned a lot about understanding body language and social cues during this time and also learned about riding in a car and met many strangers on walks and at the dog park. Little by little our terrified Gaia began to find out how fun the world could be.
After a month of working with her we decided she was ready for adoption, but we wanted to make sure the family that adopted her was prepared to continue her socialization while also understanding her limitations based on her genetics and past experiences. We were thrilled to find the perfect family for her, complete with two active human parents who would take her with them on hikes and adventures and three dog siblings who would be wonderful role models for her. Gaia was actually the first dog we ever adopted out and we are thrilled to report that she is doing wonderfully. She is still a fearful dog and will always be a fearful dog. However, because of the socialization we, her foster family and her adoptive family gave her, she never developed into an aggressive dog. Her family works with her daily to make her more comfortable in the world around her but they also accept her as she is. She is true evidence that when considering nature vs. nurture, both play very important roles in the development of a dog’s personality.