Dog Aggression in Pit Bulls

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Dog aggression is a common issue in pit bulls. In fact, the UKC's official breed standard for the American Pit Bull Terrier states that "most APBTs exhibit some level of dog aggression." But while dog aggression may be normal in pit bulls, that doesn't mean it can't become a problem.

Dog Aggression vs. Human Aggression

When we talk about aggression in pit bulls, it's very important to distinguish between aggression toward other dogs and aggression toward humans. PETA propaganda notwithstanding, the two are in no way related. The former is common in many breeds, including pit bulls, while the latter is extremely unusual in our breed. A pit bull who displays any aggression toward humans, no matter how slight, is not temperamentally sound and should be spayed or neutered immediately to make sure they don't reproduce. The owner should also seek out professional help from an experienced canine behaviorist.

Levels of Dog Aggression in Pit Bulls

Instead of defining dogs as "dog aggressive" or "not dog aggressive," it helps to think of dog aggression in pit bulls as a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, we have the social butterfly. This dog gets along with everyone and is always eager to make new canine friends. She is very forgiving of "bad behavior" and seems to tolerate even obnoxious dogs with a relaxed, easygoing demeanor.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the highly dog aggressive pit bull. This dog must be kept separate from all dogs, all the time. He neither likes, nor accepts other dogs, and taking this dog for a walk is highly stressful because he lunges toward anyone on four legs.

Most adult pit bulls fall somewhere between these two extremes. They may be generally friendly, but quick to put a dog who annoys them in his place. Or they might be fine around all dogs of the other sex, while attacking dogs of their own. Still others accept the dogs they know or live with, but aren't trustworthy around strange dogs. Or they may be okay with other dogs as long as the other dogs clearly accept them as the boss. There are countless variations.

Raising Your Pit Bull Puppy to Be Dog-Friendly

Many pit bull puppies are social butterflies, but this frequently begins to change--often to the great surprise of novice owners who prided themselves on their dog-friendly pit bull--as the dog reaches social maturity around age two, though it can happen as early as eight months or as late as three years. Knowing this, you may wonder if there's anything you can do to increase the chances that your pit bull puppy will remain dog-friendly as an adult.

The answer is "yes," but the operative phrase is "increase the chances." Because the genetic predisposition for dog aggression is strong in some dogs, nothing you do will ensure that your puppy grows up to be a dog-friendly adult. You can, however, increase the likelihood.

The key is to provide your puppy with frequent socialization opportunities with well-behaved, well-socialized, friendly dogs. It is critical that all the dogs your puppy meets are friendly and non-aggressive. The #1 reason (other than genetics) that previously friendly dogs become dog aggressive is that they were attacked or threatened by another dog. That's why places like dog parks, where you have no control over the type of dogs your puppy will run into, are such a bad idea.

That's also why it's up to you to protect your puppy in the event that another dog tries to attack him. You are the pack leader, and your puppy looks to you for protection. Don't make the common mistake of encouraging your puppy to "stand up for himself," no matter how small or non-threatening the attacking dog may seem to you. That type of encouragement has created countless dog aggressive dogs.

In order to be effective, socializing your puppy with other dogs must be an ongoing process. Many people spend a few months actively socializing their puppy and then consider her "socialized," but that's not how it works. You must continue to provide your puppy with regular opportunities to socialize with friendly dogs as she grows up, including new dogs she hasn't met before. Joining a training club or dog group in your area is usually the easiest way to accomplish this.

Can Dog Aggressive Adults Become Friendlier?

But what if you have an adult pit bull who is already displaying signs of dog aggression? If you're committed to putting in the necessary effort, dog aggressive adults can become friendlier or at least more tolerant of other dogs. Your pit bull's strong desire to please you works to your advantage here, but it will still take a lot of work to see significant improvements in your pit bull's interactions with other dogs.

Begin by getting yourself a copy of Turid Rugaas' Calming Signals (if possible, get both the book and the DVD). People often say that pit bulls attack without warning, but that's not entirely correct. What is correct is that pit bulls may not display the classic warning signs everyone associates with an impending dog fight. The warning signs they display are more subtle, so the first thing you need to do is become a master of reading your dog's body language.

For pit bulls who get along with dogs they know and like, but not with strange dogs, you will want to provide increased socialization opportunities with other dogs. These meetings should be on lead and take place on neutral territory (somewhere neither dog has been before). The first time you and the owner of the other dog get together, you may just want to take the dogs for a walk (try to alternate who's in front) without letting them sniff each other. The next time, you can briefly let them check each other out.

If there's any sign of aggression (this is where knowing how to read canine body language is crucial), pull the dogs away from each other before a fight ensues. After several more on-lead walks together, you can try again. If all goes well this time, start increasing the amount of time you let the dogs sniff each other. If the two slowly begin to hit it off, you will eventually progress to an off-lead encounter in a fenced area.

For pit bulls who act aggressively if they so much as catch a glimpse of another dog, a desensitization program is in order. A pit bull this dog aggressive may never like other dogs, but that doesn't mean she can't become desensitized to their presence.

If you decide to turn to a professional trainer for help, make sure you select someone who doesn't employ positive punishment and negative reinforcement methods (see this article on clicker training for an explanation of the terminology). Punishing dogs for acting aggressively toward other dogs is entirely counterproductive, as your pit bull will begin to associate the punishment with the other dog, giving him even more reason for dislike and hostility.

This is not to say that you should reward your dog for displaying aggressive behavior. The key is to begin rewarding before your pit bull's body language indicates aggression, while teaching him to keep his attention focused entirely on you. Practice getting and keeping your dog's focus under increasingly distracting conditions until you are confident in your ability to do so.

Eventually you will attempt walking past a dog he would normally try to attack (on lead, of course), but you'll get his attention (using praise, body language, treats, toys, or whatever else works for you) before the other dog is in sight and keep him focused on you until the two of you have walked passed the other dog. Over time, this will require less and less effort and become almost automatic, as your pit bull learns to focus on you and ignore other dogs.

Even the most dog aggressive pit bull can learn to at least tolerate the presence of other dogs (if only by ignoring them), provided you are prepared to put in the necessary time and effort.

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13 comments

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BOCKUMANGEL's picture
BOCKUMANGEL
Mon, 08/09/2010 - 9:54am

We have two Pit Bulls. Both rescue's. The one we just got was from the ASAP in York,Pa. We were going to foster, but have fallin in love with, and he loves our female Gracie Allen. He shows aggression towards other dogs and small children. We have grand children, and this worries me a lot. He likes the older boys, ages 9 and 12, but the younger girl he liked, but recently started to growl at her. She is 2 1/2 years old, and we try to explain to her how to act around him, but she will do the opposite. He doesn't like quick moments or flailing arms in the air. She will make little noises and it just get's him more upset. He is just a little pocket Pit Bull, small in stature, but very strong none the less. He has had surgery done on his bad leg. So we haven't been able to get him to Obedience classes yet. We know nothing about his past, He is Nutered. He was found along the road in Maryland. Couldn't walk, and someone brought him to the ASAP in York, Pa. hoping for help. Do you or anyone have any suggestions for me till we can get him classes and get him socialized ? thank you, Joni

MSmith's picture
MSmith
Mon, 08/09/2010 - 10:49am

Joni -

I would recommend seeking the help of a professional trainer who deals specifically with aggression issues AND uses only positive reinforcement methods. I am a certified trainer and can tell you that positive punishment will likely lead to further agression in your dog. Do not wait to enroll him in obedience because that type of training, while helpful, will not address the aggression issue. The private trainer will also be able to help you while your dog recovers from surgery.

Your first concern should be with protecting your granddaughter. If your pit is showing aggression towards her and she is not behaving appropriately, this will only lead to disaster. It's important that you never leave them alone together, and I would hesitate even letting her near the dog until she is older and can understand appropriate behavior.

Please understand that you have a huge liability on your hands. Do not hesitate to address this issue. Best of luck.

Pebblesmomma's picture
Pebblesmomma
Mon, 06/13/2011 - 10:29pm

We have a 19mth old Blue nose Pitt that we got when she was 8weeks old. She was raised around cats and small children her first 8weeks, and when we got her she was around a 15,12,10 yr old kids - and two cats. 

    She nipped my niece once when seemingly going after a cookie (my niece is 4) , and then that monday she killed our family cat. That was devastating to us! When visitors come over that she doesn't know, we pen Pebbles up for about 10-15 minutes and after that she's fine. However with small kids we started to worry - and so we leave her penned. Well - the other day a friend stopped by with his 4yr old and when the boy walked past her pen she went a bit nutty - jumping and carrying on. 

   I took her today to be spayed - but she's having a false pregnancy so we have to wait. Should I want until after she is fixed to have a trainer look at her? Her behavior will change once she is spayed, right? 

   I love her dearly - she's been spoiled, hugged, loved, taken for car rides, walks - we adore her. And shes great with our kids, not dog aggressive, toy nor food. Is she broken? :(

Pebblesmomma's picture
Pebblesmomma
Mon, 06/13/2011 - 10:29pm

We have a 19mth old Blue nose Pitt that we got when she was 8weeks old. She was raised around cats and small children her first 8weeks, and when we got her she was around a 15,12,10 yr old kids - and two cats. 

    She nipped my niece once when seemingly going after a cookie (my niece is 4) , and then that monday she killed our family cat. That was devastating to us! When visitors come over that she doesn't know, we pen Pebbles up for about 10-15 minutes and after that she's fine. However with small kids we started to worry - and so we leave her penned. Well - the other day a friend stopped by with his 4yr old and when the boy walked past her pen she went a bit nutty - jumping and carrying on. 

   I took her today to be spayed - but she's having a false pregnancy so we have to wait. Should I want until after she is fixed to have a trainer look at her? Her behavior will change once she is spayed, right? 

   I love her dearly - she's been spoiled, hugged, loved, taken for car rides, walks - we adore her. And shes great with our kids, not dog aggressive, toy nor food. Is she broken? :(

chicosmom's picture
chicosmom
Mon, 08/09/2010 - 11:50am

Chico starting showing dog aggresion at 2 years old, only with big dogs though. I had him in doggy daycare since he was 6 months old thinking this would help but it didn't. I don't let him go anymore and we are trying to work on it but he tore his knee back in June and had surgery in July and now all the training is on hold until his recovery is over (one more month).

mommiepit's picture
mommiepit
Mon, 08/09/2010 - 3:04pm

I have a pit that is food aggressive. She is over 2 yrs old. She was my daughter's dog but I took over ownership. My daughter could not handle her and her life style is not for a pitbull. So she is mine since 9 months of age. I have tried everything discipline to rewarding. I have been on SPCA sight and try their technique. I can hand feed her and hold the bowl it goes good. I set that bowl down and she growls when I try to take the bowl away. She will hold the bowl down with her nose and mouth. I can get her to back off from the bowl sometimes. It's very puzzling. I can hold a dog bisquit in my mouth and she will take it gently from me. She is awesome dog but I want to get her good citizen but with the food aggression it not going to help. I talked to a trainer he told me she would turn on me if I don't go thru his training. $600 for 6 sessions. He never saw the dog we only talked on the phone. I am just stumped.... anyone has any ideas.

yadi's picture
yadi
Wed, 09/01/2010 - 12:55am

i want to know if anyone can tell me why my 1 year old pitt has become aggressive with me. he only comes towards me but not at my kids or husband. i love my dog and will never hurt him it hurts me that he is like that with me

vonsmadakennels's picture
vonsmadakennels
Sat, 09/04/2010 - 1:31pm

I have just rescued a pit bull from the local animal shelter, he is a very beautifull blue brindle male, almost 2 I would say. He is very very people friendly. We show american bulldogs so we are used to dogs becoming unruly. I do feel though that this male might have been a fighter though. He has a couple of scars on his mellon and a scratch across his neck that either came from a prong collar or another dog. The story goes a teenage boy found him in the woods nursed him back to health and turned him in. He does appear to have dog aggression issues. I am not afraid of him as we have 10 other dogs, and it really doesnt matter of the breed they can all be zesty if they take a notion too. Any comments or advice on how to smooth over the transition for this guy would be greatly appreciated. We havent even named him yet. I knew though if someone didnt take him he would be put down. He is quite a lover, I just want to make sure he understands I do not tolerate dog aggression from any of my dogs.

aschlauf's picture
aschlauf
Tue, 09/28/2010 - 11:23pm

Sounds like any other dog I have ever known, honestly.

gingerrudy's picture
gingerrudy
Sun, 10/17/2010 - 2:02pm

People reccomended we not get two dogs of the same sex, esp. pit bulls. We got a female mix first and a male pit bull second about six months later. The female is somewhat more dominant and they get along fine. I've heard of fights happening between two females in many breeds.

calliesallie's picture
calliesallie
Fri, 02/18/2011 - 2:44pm

We recently took our daughter to the pound where she and Callie (who my daughter calls Callie Sallie) bonded immediatly. Callie was labled pit mix, but the bigger she gets the more pit she looks. Anyway, she is great with my kids, one is 3, one is 8 months, great with us and anyone that comes into our home. She is highly protective of the kids, and gets very upset when any other dog or person she doesn't know comes anywhere near them. She stays beside the kids growling at the strangers. Other dogs, expecially male dogs she lunges at.

VickieMiller24's picture
VickieMiller24
Sat, 02/19/2011 - 12:01am

You know I can't help but think that if everyone that had children had pitbulls, maybe there wouldn't be any children or kids get kidnapped in their own yard.  I was telling someoe the other day that the pit bull actually used to be considered the nana years ago according some of my research. 

VickieMiller24's picture
VickieMiller24
Tue, 06/14/2011 - 12:09pm

Well I noticed Eden doesn't like other animals, I ask her vet, whats up with her attitude she likes to play "king of the mountain"  I'm stronger than you syndrome....with other dogs or animals.  When I take her to the park or walking I just keep off to myself.  B/C I already know what shes going to do so I don't even go there with her.  And shes seems to be ok with people again.  Don't know what happened that week.  BUT that week somthihng was going on with her.  I still bring her to work every saturday and shes fine, but if a dog comes in "Holy Moly"

 

Vickie