Triple-Hinged Jaws of Death and Other Myths
I was reading an online message board the other day, and this caught my attention:
"but, i do think that pit bulls are bred to be especially aggressive. it is their powerful bite that does the damage. they bite, grab on and do not let go. "
Upon reading this post, I was reminded of a sweet dog I had to find a home for when a friend became too ill to care for her any longer.
Her mother had been a Lab mix, and daddy was a traveling man, so no one quite knew what she was, but she certainly looked like she could have one of the breeds we call the Pit Bull in her. She was a docile, happy, well-trained dog, with a sunny disposition and not a bit of dog or people aggression, and I did find her a wonderful home, but never in my life have I had such trouble placing a dog.
It's that whole myth of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that the loving, well-trained pet could change at any moment into a ravening beast with triple-hinged jaws of death. Well, folks, it just isn't so.
There is a condition which can present with those symptoms, and the breed it's named after is the English Springer Spaniel. There is a breed of dog responsible for more bites than any other breed, but it's the Cocker Spaniel. And there is no breed of dog known simply as a "Pit Bull."
"Pit bull" is a category of dog, and which dogs belong in that category is a matter of some contention and dispute. Some would place the English Bulldog there; certainly these dogs were bred originally to fight bulls. But there is perhaps no breed of dog on earth so sweet, calm, gentle and non-aggressive as the English Bulldog.
Some would place the American Staffordshire Terrier there, and most dogs for sale in the newspaper classifieds identified as "pit bulls" are in fact AmStaffs.
"Pit bulls" are any dogs of the breeds originally bred to fight other dogs in pits. They were usually, but not always, some mix of terriers and bulldogs. The American Pit Bull Terrier, a breed recognized by the United Kennel Club (UKC) but not the American Kennel Club (AKC), is perhaps the truest representation of this type of dog: bred in this country to fight other dogs, and a combination of bulldogs and terriers. (The only catch is that there are dogs who are registered as APBTs with the UKC and as AmStaffs with the AKC.)
There are a number of dog breeds that are often called Pit Bulls, most with no more claim to the name than having a short coat. Bullmastiffs, boxers, Shar Peis, Boston Terriers, even many square-headed Labrador Retrievers or Greyhound mixes are often mistaken for Pit Bulls. A dog was recently killed in England under its pit bull laws, all expert testimony and the dog's owner as well holding the dog to be a Great Dane/Greyhound cross. So looks are indeed deceiving.
Nor is there any genetic or other scientific method for determining breed. Genetically, there is no difference between the tiniest Chihuahua and the tallest Irish Wolfhound, nor indeed, with the wolf itself. Nor does the Pit Bull have a triple-hinged jaw capable of extraordinary feats of strength. As any owner of a ball-crazy Golden Retriever will tell you, the clamp of the jaw is as much a function of psychology as physiology, and any dog can clamp down beyond the capability of a human to pry open.
Are there rotten, mean, unpredictable dogs who would as soon eat your pet as look at it? You bet. Are there fearful, cringing, fear-biting dogs who can tear a toddler's face off? Sure are. Are all these dogs pit bulls? Not a chance.
Any strange dog has the potential to bite or to be dog-aggressive, and it's best to have the same rules with the fluffiest Cocker as with the most prepossessing Mastiff: Don't run up to or touch a strange dog. Keep your own pet on a leash and don't let it run up to strange dogs in uncontrolled circumstances. Don't pet a strange dog without the owner's permission. Don't let your children play unsupervised with a dog, most especially a strange dog or a dog not used to kids.
Sure, we all know the placid Newfoundland who lets all the kids play pony. We all also know the neighborhood bully who pokes the dog in the eye with a stick while giving a war whoop. So use your common sense and be cautious, whatever the breed of dog. Dogs don't need triple-hinged jaws to do damage to human flesh.
Once I was in the park with my dog, and a Latino teenage boy came in with his AmStaff on a heavy chain. The dog run emptied fast, even though the boy kept his dog on a leash. She had a scabbed and mottled nose, and on my way past him I said, "What's wrong with your dog's nose?" He looked at me and said, "I don't know. The vet can't figure it out. He said it's not infected, and she doesn't have a fungus or nothing. He thought she was rubbing it, but she never does. And it doesn't itch her or nothing. It just won't clear up."
"Did you ever have her checked for lupus?" I asked. "It's an immune system problem, and it's hard to treat, but a friend of mine has a dog with it, and it looks just like that."
He went to his car and got a notebook and wrote it down. In the meantime his dog and mine were sniffing each other, while he and I talked dog food. He was giving his dog canned meats and tuna, but not a balanced diet. He wanted to give her something better then dog food, but didn't know dogs need more than just meat. As we sat there, a police car cruised by, and then stopped. It seems one of the dog run regulars had called the cops, and since Latino boys and pit bulls have about the same reputation with some people, the cops had headed right over.
Was there a problem? Nope. Just a couple of dogs smelling each other and chasing a ball while their owners talked about them. The officer came in and said, "Everything OK here?" I asked if they had a call, and he said someone had reported dog fighting in the dog run. My dog was off leash (it was a fenced, leash-free dog area), and the Am Staff was still on her leash. The officer went over and crouched next to her, and she promptly rolled over for a belly rub. The officer just as promptly complied with her order. When she finally jumped up and shook herself off, she gave his hand a quick lick and went back to her sniffing.
"Goodnight folks," said the police officer. "Nice dog," he added to the young man. He smiled and nodded as the cop left the dog run. "Why don't you let her off?" I said. He smiled bigger and let her loose. She never got more than ten feet away from him the whole time, though, except to race after the ball, which she promptly brought back and dropped at his feet, even when I had thrown it.
A nice dog, indeed, by anyone's standards. It's a shame that cop was not the one who answered a call about two loose Pit Bulls in a residential neighborhood in Massachusetts. He shot and killed a pregnant Boxer in her owner's fenced yard from the roof of his police car. He had followed her and a male Boxer until they finally wiggled in under the loose fence board which had let them escape. The owner was on the porch screaming at the officer not to shoot. He ignored her.
The blue ribbon for fighting breed stereotypes belongs to the San Francisco SPCA, who put a positive spin on the problems with placing Pit Bulls by temperament testing those of known background and history and putting the dogs through basic training to sharpen their manners, and then giving the civilized pups a new name: The St. Francis terrier.
It's a nice touch from a marvelous group based in a city named after the patron saint of animals.