Reactive Pit Bulls

Ah, another myth to battle: dogs that fight other dogs MUST have been trained to do so or mistreated in some way, right?

WRONG

Dog reactivity is surprisingly common in a number of dog breeds and shows up in individual dogs of every breed.

Don’t forget that the Pit Bull is an American Pit Bull Terrier. Terriers as a group tend to be predisposed to dog reactivity. Does this mean that ALL Terriers are dog reactive? Not at all. Although breed traits cannot be denied, each individual dog should always be evaluated on his/her own unique temperament.

Speaking of Terriers, this is from the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America:

Jack Russells …

… are often aggressive with other dogs. Same-sex aggression and aggression towards other breeds of dogs is well documented with this terrier. It is strongly recommended that no more than two Jack Russells (of the opposite sex only) ever be permitted to stay together unattended.

Author and trainer Kathy Diamond Davis have this to say about Terriers and a trait known as “gameness”:

Gameness

Terriers are bred to have a quality called “gameness.” In the conformation show ring this is demonstrated by the judge having handlers allow the dogs to face one another and stand up tall. Skilled handlers don’t allow this to escalate to a fight.

In daily life the expression of terrier gameness can come out in fighting, and because there is no particular reason for the fight, it can become quite serious. The adrenaline rush can prevent the dog from feeling pain, and submission from the other dog doesn’t stop the fight because it’s not about pack order in the first place.

This is why terrier experts recommend that you not keep a terrier with another dog of the same sex. If you enjoy having multiple dogs, you’ll need to consider carefully where a terrier will fit into your group. Having a terrier may place limitations on what other dogs you can safely add to your home. The quality of gameness can also mean your terrier won’t be able to play peacefully with other dogs in settings such as dog parks, especially after maturity. Individual dogs vary, though, and this is only a tendency that in some terriers will never be expressed.

Many of the terrier breeds were originally selectively bred to work around the farm eliminating animals that interfere with farming. Some of these animals eat crops, food still growing in the ground as well as in storage after harvest. Other “vermin,” as pest animals are sometimes called, cause damage by digging holes that injure horses, cattle, and other livestock.

The job of hunting out and killing “vermin” doesn’t call for close teamwork with a human, so it’s not surprising that terriers have an independent turn of mind. The killing action is fast and the dog needs to be quick, decisive, and fearless. A dog performing this work does not wait for the human’s command but gets on with business.

Terrier gameness has also been put to human use (illegal today) for sporting purposes of pitting one dog against another to bet on the outcome. These dogs would fight to the death. Some terriers retain this inherited behavior, which is often at the root of aggression toward other dogs.

It’s important to understand that gameness is not “bad temperament.” Humans produced this trait in the dogs through selective breeding. Humans must bear the responsibility for managing the dogs to protect them from their own instincts, and to protect other dogs, too. The responsibility increases along with the size of the terrier.

Of the Terrier group, the AKC has this to note:

People familiar with this Group invariably comment on the distinctive terrier personality. These are feisty, energetic dogs whose sizes range from fairly small, as in the Norfolk, Cairn or West Highland White Terrier, to the grand Airedale Terrier. Terriers typically have little tolerance for other animals, including other dogs. Their ancestors were bred to hunt and kill vermin. Many continue to project the attitude that they’re always eager for a spirited argument. Most terriers have wiry coats that require special grooming known as stripping in order to maintain a characteristic appearance. In general, they make engaging pets but require owners with the determination to match their dogs’ lively characters

Author Michele Welton writes about the Cairn Terrier:

This breed can be scrappy and bossy with other pets but will co-exist with them more readily than some other terriers. However, strange animals may be a different story, as the Cairn Terrier was bred to hunt and will chase anything that moves.

I found this about Irish Terriers:

Irish Terriers are territorial, their territory being wherever they are. As such, they are frequently aggressive towards other animals, dogs in particular. They need obedience training early when territorial instincts are most pronounced to curb this natural tendency. Irish are easily trained dogs, but need variety and patience in the training process.

And since we’ve established that your reactive dog is not some freak of nature…where do we go from here?

If your dog is already reactive

If your dog is already showing signs of reactivity, we strongly urge you to seek out a professional trainer to work with you on managing the behavior. You may likely never end up with a dog that loves all other dogs, but you can certainly learn techniques to prevent a lunging snarling hot mess display when out walking your dog and another dog passes by.

VERY IMPORTANT: if your dog is not getting along with other dogs, do not force the issue. Do not continue to put your dog and other dogs in harm’s way. Contact a professional trainer and until you have your first session, play it safe and keep your dog separated from other dogs.

If your dog is fighting with other dogs in your home, separate them into other rooms or use crates or baby gates (if your dog cannot get over it). Allowing dogs to fight repeatedly in the hopes that they will “work it out” will not only aggravate the issue, but it is cruel and neglectful on the owner’s part. Dogs are not furry humans, they are not going to sit down and have a heart-to-heart chat about their issues and hug it out.

Can you prevent reactivity?

Genetics is strong but so is individual personality and certainly, the environment cannot be discredited in shaping a dog’s reaction to other dogs. Early and proper socialization can go a long way to helping your dog associate good things with other dogs when he/she is older.

So what can you do to help? First of all, if you are adopting or purchasing a puppy, avoid taking the pup from it’s mother before 8 weeks of age. Even better is if pup can stay with her litter for 10-12 weeks. Puppies learn a lot about playing nice from other puppies and their mother will intervene if things get out of hand. Moms can be great teachers.

If you acquire a very young puppy, look for puppy playgroups in your area. Contact local shelters and rescues with foster programs and ask if they’d be open to allowing play dates with other puppies. Meetup.com is a website designed to allow folks to gather over common interests and you can often find dog owners groups on there, some of which offer puppy playgroups or even create your own. Craigslist.org is another website where you can post for free and ask if others are interested in forming a play group. Your veterinarian may have suggestions as well.

It’s very important that your dog’s interactions with other dogs is always positive. Even one negative interaction can scar your dog for life and contribute to reactivity later on. For this reason, we highly advise against the use of dog parks as your dog will be exposed to strange dogs who may or may not play nicely with others. Small controlled play groups with other dogs and owners that you know are a much safer way to socialize your dog.

When you do meet other dogs, be sure that you are following polite doggie greetings.

Here are some great links to help you learn how to identify appropriate and inappropriate greetings:

Dog Park Etiquette by Dr. Sophia Yin (note that we do not advise using dog parks, but this has great info nonetheless)

Properly Socializing Your Canine for Dog-to-Dog Introductions by the Whole Dog Journal

Of course, your dog doesn’t HAVE to play with other dogs to be happy either!

Some dogs simply prefer the company of other humans and there is nothing wrong with that. For those that feel they have tried everything and are becoming frustrated, please check out this blog post:

You Can’t Fix It All… And That’s Okay

Is your dog reactive? How did you handle it?

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