Banning dog breeds or labeling particular breeds as “vicious” because some humans misuse them follows the same flawed logic and makes as little sense as banning the responsible ownership of firearms because some people misuse firearms. I am particularly sensitive to such nonsense because I own dogs that have the potential to inflict grave injury if they are mishandled. ALL dogs have some potential to be dangerous to humans if mishandled, though usually the larger and more assertive the breed there is little margin for error in handling the dog, and the potential for the dog to inflict harm, is greater.
Much has been said in the popular media condemning the Pit Bull breed (which is in reality a robust variant of the American Staffordshire Terrier.) Irresponsible humans have done unspeakable cruelty to Pit Bulls by conditioning them to fight and training them to intentionally attack other dogs. When properly conditioned and socialized, pitties (or as some owners prefer to refer to them- AmStaffs-) are some of the sweetest, most gentle and lovable dogs on Earth. The difference between the lovable pittie who plays with children and lounges in the TV room and the deadly fighter who tears and rips other dogs to death is the human factor: are the humans responsible for the dog caring for it, socializing it, and handling it correctly?
I remember well that other breeds have been demonized in the media as being inherently “vicious” also- Dobermans, GSDs, Rottweilers, Chows, and Akitas to name a few. However, in the rush to condemn a particular breed for being inherently prone to aggressive acts, the human factor was ignored. Certain breeds do possess personality traits that can lead to aggressive acts if the human handler does not know how to deal with those traits. A good example is our GSD/Chow mix, Lilo.
Lilo is a very territorial dog (typical of both Chows and GSDs) and always stands ready to defend what she believes is hers. This personality trait can lead to aggression- and someone getting his/her face ripped off- if Lilo is improperly handled. We understand that Lilo must be carefully introduced to both new people and other dogs so she doesn’t see the “interloper” as a threat. We reward her when she is polite to new people and other dogs so she will associate being sociable with getting an extra something. Lilo is heavily food motivated, so we encourage new visitors to pay tribute to Miss Lilo with a piece of cheese or meat.
Clara (Belgian Malinois/GSD) is every bit as territorial as Lilo, (pity be on any fool who would turn up in our house without proper introductions) but Clara is not nearly as demanding or headstrong as Lilo can be. Clara is easier for me to handle than Lilo because she has an endearing and typically Malinois trait- her primary motivator is affection rather than food. She won’t turn down food, but she lives for positive reinforcement. She is very much a pleaser, but with one condition. She will do virtually anything if she knows that’s what I want her to do. If I am handling her she can be the gentlest and most docile dog imaginable no matter where we are. She was a most welcome and sweet visitor to the nursing home my Grandma was in. However, I am sure that the kids who tried to climb the fence saw a very different Clara- one with hair raised and teeth bared, charging at them full bore and ready to take a healthy chunk or two out of some miscreant butts should they land on the wrong side of the fence. I am thankful that they made a wise choice when they saw her coming at them- they dropped and ran before they got over the fence and into Clara range.
Sheena (Husky/GSD) is rather harmless to people and could care less who walks in the house as long as they pay attention to her- she is not territorial at all, but she can be dog aggressive if she thinks she is not getting as much food or attention as the other two dogs. She is a special case because we have only had her for about eight weeks and that’s the only socialization she has ever had. She has gotten puppy obedience down and can obey simple commands. Sheena is extremely food motivated and we are still struggling with some of her bad habits such as trash-digging and food-stealing. She has that bullheadedness that is peculiar to Huskies- she makes Lilo’s “Chowtude” seem mild in comparison, and she is by far the most difficult of the three dogs to handle, at least right now. She has made a great deal of improvement but needs to make a great deal more. Especially when she gets the bright idea that uncoordinated large dogs can table dance.
For most people, Clara would be the more difficult of the three to handle simply because she is extremely perceptive and sensitive. I can handle her with ease because her goal in life is to please me. As long as I have had her (hard to believe it’s almost been six years) we sort of read each other’s minds, and she usually knows what I want before I give the command. Now I know why the police and military love the Malinois breed. As far as Clara obeying anyone else…well that’s a crap shoot. Jerry can handle her to a degree. I have to be with her for veterinary treatments. If I am with her she will comply with any necessary procedure, but she freaks out if they take her in the back where she can’t see me. Yelling at her only causes her to cower and hide, so any training method with her requires a lot of redirection and positive reinforcement as well as no loud commands or physical corrections. I am glad Clara is an intuitive and quick learner. Sheena is the exact opposite. She’s not stupid, but extremely stubborn. She seems to do better when I’m brandishing the water bottle and she understands the threat of punishment should she fail to comply. Lilo is a happy medium by comparison. She’s not a pleaser but she will do what the humans want to get what she wants (food, and to a far lesser degree, attention.)
The bottom line is that it’s not about breed but in how the individual dog is socialized and handled. Knowing that all three of my girls have very different learning styles as well as vastly different strengths and weaknesses gives me a guideline of how to help them be successful and well-adjusted. I would not try to take Lilo to a dog park or to visit a nursing home. She does not make (human or dog) friends easily. Sheena would be wonderful in a meet-and-greet situation with humans (when her obedience skills are a bit more refined, she would be wonderful at the nursing home) but not so much with other dogs. Other dogs have to be addressed with caution with both Sheena and Lilo. (Oddly enough, Sheena and Lilo get along well- most of Sheena’s conflicts have been over being jealous of Clara.) Clara is probably the most versatile of the three as in the proper context she gets along well with dogs and humans.
I get really disgusted with people who claim that dogs are not situational creatures, that they simply react on instinct or out of fear of punishment. I know this is NOT true. Some dogs are more rational and sentient than a great deal of humanity is. Dogs are situational creatures and can adapt their behavior accordingly. They read human behavior better than other humans do. It’s what they do to survive and thrive.
In some ways I get tired of people who continue to believe in spite of boat loads of evidence to the contrary that it is possible to create utopia on earth. I think we can (sort of) create the dystopia we like the best, but there’s no getting back to the Garden, folks- not on human effort, anyway.