Understanding dog tolerance in pit bulls

When considering the pros and cons of adopting a pit bull, most people are most urgently – and understandably – concerned about human aggression.  They understand that dog aggression can be an issue, given the breed’s history, but believe that proper socialization and training will prevent trouble from developing.  The reality is more complicated:  understanding it is absolutely crucial to living safely and successfully with a pit bull.

“I thought socialization would prevent my puppy from becoming dog aggressive?”
Socialization – exposing a puppy or young dog to unfamiliar people, places and things – is indispensable in creating good canine citizens, yet it may not be enough to prevent dog aggression in a pit bull.  Potential owners must realize that this breed was developed, in part, to fight other dogs.  Even among lines of dogs that have never been fought, dog aggression is always possible.  

“But my four-month-old puppy loves everyone, people and dogs.”
Most pit bull puppies are what we call “dog social,” meaning they truly enjoy the company of other dogs.  However, most pit bulls’ dog skills change as they mature.  Some are “dog tolerant” (indifferent or friendly) while others are “dog selective” (liking some dogs but not others) or “dog aggressive” (needing close supervision and safe management).

“What will my dog’s tolerance level be?”
This depends on both environmental factors (how the dog was trained, handled and socialized) as well as his/her genetics.  It’s also important to understand that dog tolerance levels change based on individual circumstances and handling:  Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (BAD RAP) point out that “they may certainly act aggressively toward other dogs if they’re mismanaged, provoked or otherwise set up to fail” (www.badrap.org).  They also note that “the key to success is a dog with a correct people-soft temperament and a responsible owner.”

“How do I know if my dog is feeling comfortable around another dog?”
Look for a relaxed body, relaxed face (squinty eyes, “smiley” mouth), loosely wagging tail or “wagging butt” and smooth movements.  Be on the watch for stiffly-held bodies, “whipping” tails (vertically-held tails wagging forcefully over the dog’s back), hard stares with closed mouths and high-pitched, aroused whining.  Jean Donaldson, author of The Culture Clash, recommends opting out of dog-to-dog interactions whenever the pro-social cues mentioned first are absent:  it takes only seconds for a tense situation to become a confrontation.  

“Does this mean my dog will never like other dogs?”
Not necessarily:  some dogs’ tolerance improves dramatically with responsible handling and slow, careful introductions to appropriate dogs.  Since dog aggression does not necessarily correlate to human aggression, even those with no dog friends can be great pets for owners willing to manage their pet’s behavior for life (leashes at all times, no dog parks, careful management on walks). 

This material is copyright of Animal Humane Society and can only be used with written permission.