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.