MYTH: It's All About How They're Raised

Though often said with good intentions, the sentiment that "it's all about how they're raised" implies several untrue and damaging beliefs about pit bulls and other bully breed dogs.

All dogs are individuals. They are complex beings with feelings, emotions, and individual needs. Their past - the good and bad - absolutely plays a role in any dog’s behavior, but it shouldn't define them.

A brown and white pit bull lays on a wooden porch, looking directly at the camera

In this article:

1. What are we actually saying when we say, 'it's all about how they're raised?'

a. Dangerous implication #1: Dogs who have experienced trauma cannot be good dogs.

b. Dangerous implication #2: If a dog displays fear, aggression, or another unwanted behavior, it's the human's fault.

• Genetics

• One scary event can have a lasting impact

• Training takes time

c. Dangerous implication #3: "Bad" humans create "bad" dogs.

2. Changing our language.

What are we actually saying when we say, 'it's all about how they're raised?'

Dangerous implication #1: Dogs who have experienced trauma cannot be good dogs.

We often don't know much about a dog's background, especially when they find their way into a shelter or rescue as an adult. Unfortunately, many people are afraid to give a dog with an unknown history or known history of trauma a chance because they may not have been "raised right."

Most dogs with unknown histories, who have come in as strays or have been surrendered by their families with little information, have not experienced trauma. We should be careful not to jump to conclusions about a dog's past; a dog who is afraid of new people or experiences may have simply been under-socialized, not abused. A dog with physical wounds likely received those injuries while living on the streets, not because they were a "bait dog" or were beaten by a human. Creating a false narrative can be harmful to that dog's chances of finding a forever home, especially when it gives the impression that the dog was not "raised right."

Of course, there are instances in which we know that a dog has experienced significant trauma. It's true that not every dog who has experienced horrific cruelty can be safely placed in a home, but in many cases, these dogs go on to make terrific companions.

In 2008, 22 dogs, known as the 'Vicktory Dogs,' were rescued from Michael Vick's dog fighting ring and taken to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. After living horrific lives full of abuse and neglect, many of these dogs were able to go on to live normal lives in family homes.

More recently, Bark Nation, an organization in Michigan that exclusively takes in victims of cruelty and neglect, mainly from suspected and confirmed dog fighting rings, has successfully placed hundreds of dogs through partner organizations and their own foster and adoption programs. Many of these dogs enter their shelter with physical wounds, emaciated, and scared, yet go on to live with other animals and kids; enjoy walks, car rides, and trips to the park; and become happy, beloved members of the family just like any other dog.

A responsible rescue or shelter treats every dog as an individual, regardless of their past, and finds each dog placement based on that dog's individual needs.

A grey and white American Bully with cropped ears sits on a wooden porch, smiling at the camera

Dangerous implication #2: If a dog displays fear, aggression, or another unwanted behavior, it's the human's fault.

If you've ever loved a dog that struggles with reactivity, extreme fear, or other difficult-to-manage behaviors, you likely know the shame of blaming yourself and pain of judgement from others. Surely, you did something wrong to make your dog act this way... right?

Even when we "do everything right" from day one while raising a puppy, things can go wrong. We cannot always control things like genetics, random and poorly timed scary events, and experiences with other dogs and humans, all of which can contribute to fear, aggression, and unwanted behaviors.

Genetics

It's true that genetics can play a role in a dog's behavior, but this has much less to do with breed than it does individual family lines. A 2022 study of 18,385 dogs published in Science found that, "Breed offers little predictive value for individuals, explaining just 9% of variation in behavior... For less heritable, less breed-differentiated traits, like agonistic threshold (how easily a dog is provoked by frightening or uncomfortable stimuli), breed is almost uninformative." The study concluded that "dog breed is generally a poor predictor of individual behavior and should not be used to inform decisions relating to selection of a pet dog." Simply put, making an assumption about an individual dog's behavior based solely on that dog's breeds or perceived breed mix is unfounded.

When we zoom in on close family relationships, however, we may find more connections between genetics and behavior. For example, puppies born to a mother dog that experienced significant stress during pregnancy may be predisposed to fear and anxiety. Dogs that suffer from either genetic or acute disorders that cause pain and discomfort are also more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior. 

If you choose to purchase a puppy from a breeder, it is incredibly important to find a breeder that does thorough health and behavior screening of both breeding parents. Sadly, many families who choose to purchase a puppy rather than adopt because they want a "guarantee" that their puppy will become a healthy and behaviorally sound adult will be disappointed due to poor breeding practices. You can learn more about finding a responsible breeder here.

One scary event can have a lasting impact

Random and poorly timed scary events can 'poison' a related (or seemingly unrelated) interaction or experience, especially for a young puppy or a dog who has recently undergone a big life change, such as joining a new family.

For example, a car backfiring on the street may result in a dog forming a lasting negative association with walking down the sidewalk. A scary incident with an off-leash dog approaching may result in a negative association with unknown dogs.

We can’t always control the interactions that our dogs have with other people and animals. Other people, both children and adults, can do unpredictable things or have very different ideas about how to "handle" a dog, like striking a dog that jumps up to say hello. Even if we immediately remove our dog from the situation, these events can have a lasting impact.

Remember: even if an event doesn't seem "that bad" to us, we don't get to choose how much something affects our dog. 

Training takes time

Whether you've brought home a puppy or adopted an adult dog, training takes time, especially when we are modifying a behavior that is based in fear or frustration, like barking at other dogs while on leash. Making the assumption that someone "hasn't trained" their dog or has "done something wrong" to cause their dog's "bad" behavior is unfair and incredibly unproductive.

Dangerous implication #3: "Bad" humans create "bad" dogs.

"When the dogs were kind of working-class, average Joe, all-American dogs in the 1920s, that was one thing. But when the dogs became associated with the urban poor, then there was this move to ban them and to eradicate them." - Bronwen Dickey, 'Friend or Fiend?'

How can a dog breed go from a celebrated American hero to banned from entire municipalities? 

The link between systemic racism and the perception of bully breeds is incredibly complex, but there is a clear correlation between the association of pit-type dogs with people of color and a growing hysteria around those dogs.

By the 1960s, pit-type dogs were increasingly associated with "black and brown neighborhoods" and the "urban poor." Media reports began labelling pit bulls as "killing machines" and perpetuating rumors about their "will to kill" and brutality. 

Of course, myths such as pit bulls having "locking jaws" or "attacking out of nowhere" are just that - myths. In fact, there is no reliable evidence that pit-type dogs are any more likely to be involved in a bite incident than any other breed of dog; the CDC stopped collecting data on breed in bite incidents because the data was so unreliable. The inaccuracy of perceived breed based on visual identification, even by trained professionals, is just one of the many issues with Breed Specific Legislation and other breed-specific bans.

Bronwen Dickey is the author of ‘Pit Bull: the Battle Over an American Icon,’ a book that explores public perception of bully breeds and how we got here. The full book is absolutely worth the read, but if you’re short on time, you can get a taste by listening to her interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, ‘Friend Or Fiend? 'Pit Bull' Explores The History Of America's Most Feared Dog.’

A brown and black mixed-breed dog sits in front of a pond, looking off to the side

Changing our language.

When someone says, "it's all about how they're raised," they are usually trying to say, "not all pit bulls are bad," or "we shouldn't make an assumption based on a dog's breed." They likely aren't thinking about these dangerous implications and how it can affect pit-type dogs and the people that love them.

Our language matters, especially when we are advocating for a breed that is so often villainized. The next time that you are tempted to use this phrase, consider instead saying, "all dogs are individuals." Let's look at the individual in front of us without making assumptions based on appearance or their past. It's something that we all deserve, human and canine.

 

Love pit bulls? Check out our Pit Bull Awareness Month collection.

 

 

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1 comment

I have a rescue staffie mix, and every time people meet him they say “oh I usually think these dogs are so scary, but he’s so sweet. It’s because how he’s raised)”. And I always reply “actually, I’d say it has nothing to do with that. This little guy was rescued off the streets of Dublin, I have no idea what he has been through before he found his way to me here in Sweden. But I know that he, like most pitbull type dogs, are born inherently good, and, despite however he was raised, he wants to love and be loved. Probably even more than most ‘well raised’ dogs”.

Linda

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