Dog Bite | Animal Behavior Expert Witness For Attorneys

Richard H. Polsky, Ph.D. CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

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Pit bull behavior: Answers to 10 critical questions

1. Are pit bulls genetically predisposed to aggression or does their behavior depend on they way they have been raised?

Pit bull behavior
The behavioral tendencies of pit bulls differ from other breeds only in degree and not in kind.

This is the quintessential question about nature versus nurture. Fundamentally, the tendency for a pit bull, or any breed of dog, to engage in certain types of of aggressive behavior depends on interaction between the genetic predispositions of the individual, the totality of the individual’s past experience, the immediate circumstances in the environment, and the endogenous state of the individual (that is, for example, physiology, health, medications and neurology of the dog). These factors interact in complex ways and often change quickly depending on circumstances present in the social and physical environment. Certainly one can decrease the likelihood of the a pit bull’s aggressive responding to people through proper socialization, obedience training and sensible management.

2. What are the main behavioral difference between pit bulls and other breeds of dogs, if any?

Dogs are dogs, are dogs, etc. etc. All healthy dogs, regardless of breed, possess the same fundamental behavioral tendencies, albeit to a greater or lesser degree.  An exception would be dogs with truly neurotic behavior, which has been documented and studied in pointer type dogs. The genetic heritage of any particular dog breed, and what any breed of dog was developed for, is a factor which can be used to differentiate a pit bull from say a Labrador retriever. Pit bulls, as is well-known, were first developed to fight other dogs, and this tendency, unfortunately, to fight other dogs is still imbued in some pit bulls. This contrasts with a Labrador, a breed developed to work in the field with a human companion for hunting purposes.

3. Is it possible and/or likely for a pit bull to show violent and aggressive behaviors after being raised and trained to be docile and friendly?

Again this depends on the individual, but generally the answer is yes depending on the circumstances the dog is confronted with. For example, it is possible for a pit bull, or for that matter any dog, to display violent and aggressive behavior if provoked. I’ve been involved in legal cases where a historically docile and friendly friendly pit bull was provoked into aggression because a mean-spirited child poked the dart into the dog’s backside!

4. How have your personal views on pit bulls changed since entering your line of work?

My personal views about pit bull’s have not changed despite the media hype about the supposedly dangerous nature of the breed. Most pit bull type dogs (note there is no breed called a “pit bull”per se, the name pit bull is a shorthand, generic term to reference dogs that physically resemble a pure-bred pit bull; that is, the Staffordshire terrier, the American pit bull terrier). In recent years the underlining genetics of certain lines of pit bull may have changed for the worse because certain lines have fallen into the hands of drug dealers and other’s intent on instilling low threshold for aggressive responding in the individual. In particular, backyard breeders have systematically been breeding  pit bull’s for heightened aggressive reactivity, and this certainly has changed the inborn tendencies of some individuals in certain populations.

5. Do you think the violent stigma of pit bulls in the United States is warranted (is a reasonable or have any truth behind it)?

The stigma about the violent nature of a pit bull is largely media hype. Nonetheless, when a pit bull attacks with strong aggressive intent there is an increased likelihood that more severe injury will happen to a person when compared with the bodily damage caused by other dog breeds.  For example the majority of fatal dog attacks in the United States involve pit bulls.

6. Roughly what percentage of dog bites/attacks that you encounter are from pit bulls?

Epidemiological researchers proven that many other breeds inflict dog bite injury to humans as often, if not more often, when compared with pit bulls. For this reason, breed-specific legislation which limits or restricts ownership of pit bulls is unwarranted.

7. Can a pit bulls aggressive behavior be triggered by anything in particular?

Many factors in the environment have the potential to trigger an aggressive response in a pit bull, or for that matter any dog, regardless of breed.  Common “triggers” are an unfamiliar person transgressing or coming near the territory of the dog and in other cases movement, such as a person on a bicycle or a jogger, can trigger/elicit a predatory chase. Another trigger, for example, might be a person surprising the dog by bending over the dog very quickly, and this type of social trigger may cause a pit bull, or for that matter any dog, to jump and bite the person in the face for defensive reasons.

8. Given your experience, do you believe most pit bull bites/attacks occurred due to an accident or misunderstanding, or because the dog was truly aggressive?

The reason why a pit bull attacks a person, or for that matter any dog,  depends on a multitude of factors. These factors interact in a complex fashion at any given point in time.  Misunderstandings may occur when for example a child doesn’t understand the body language of the dog, and directs provocative social interaction to the dog, thereby causing the dog to attack. Nonetheless, certainly some pit bulls (but certainly not all) are extremely dangerous individuals and will violently attack a person in the absence of any provocation.

9. If the public should know one thing about pit bull behavior, what should it be?

Supervision of a child around an unfamiliar pit bull is absolutely essential. Many serious dog bite attacks on children by a pit bull could have been easily avoided if the parent exercised greater caution and supervision over their child. All children should be taught the basic rules of dog bite safety: In the absence of permission from the owner, never approach and interact with a dog they do not know.

10. Have the behaviors of pit bulls changed along with history and breeding for different results? If so, how are the behaviors of pit bulls today different from pit bulls one century ago.

There has been more emphasis among some breeders to develop strong protective type tendencies in certain breeding lines. However, the other hand, pure bred pit bulls such as the Staffordshire terrier and the American Pit bull terrier continue to be bred by reputable breeders who place a strong emphasis on temperament. The nature and the inherent aggressive tendencies of some pit bulls can be easily be modified depending on the intentions of a breeder.  Unfortunately, some lines of pit bulls are still being bred to fight with other dogs, despite the illegal nature of this activity.

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* Questions thoughtfully provided by a high school senior in California doing a research project on pit bulls.