Looking at normal dogs’ brains shows how “fighting breed” brains differ
BOSTON, POMONA––There may already be weeping and gnashing of teeth among pit bull advocates, and perhaps significant fundraising underway to trump up rebuttals, too, following the September 2, 2019 Journal of Neuroscience publication of “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds,” by Harvard University evolutionary neuroscientist Erin Hecht.
Authors did not go looking for trouble
Hecht and five distinguished co-authors did not set out to pick a fight with organized pit bull advocacy.
In truth, Hecht et al largely side-stepped the pit bull-related implications of their findings in their article and post-publication statements.
Yet Hecht et al demolished the bedrock creed of pit bull advocacy that canine form, function, and behavior are inherently unrelated.
By looking at how form, function, and behavior are related, across a broad spectrum of breed types produced by humans to perform a range of specific tasks, Hecht et al in addition pointed the way toward recognizing what specifically makes pit bulls by far the most dangerous breed category, even though only one acknowledged pit bull was part of their study.
Basis for scientifically defining pit bulls
Hecht et al further established a basis for scientifically defining a pit bull, which can be refined through follow-up studies, by recognizing physical traits that signal a propensity toward violence, as well as the capability for doing violence.
This would bypass the difficulty of using DNA to identify pit bulls, much exploited by lawyers and lobbyists employed to fight breed-specific legislation.
As the Mars Wisdom Panel web site recognizes in explaining why DNA testing is an inappropriate tool for defining pit bulls, “The term ‘pit bull’ does not refer to a single recognized breed of dog, but rather to a genetically diverse group of breeds which are associated by similar physical traits,” specifically those favored by dogfighters.
Each fighting dog breeder had own genetic formula
“Due to the genetic diversity of this group,” the Mars Wisdom Panel web site continues, “Wisdom Health cannot build a DNA profile to genetically identify every dog that may be visually classified as a pit bull. When these types of dogs are tested with Wisdom Panel, we routinely detect various quantities of the component purebred dogs including the American Staffordshire Terrier, Boston Terrier, Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Mastiff, Bullmastiff, Boxer, Bulldog, and various other terriers and guard breeds.
“Additionally, there are often other breeds outside of the guard and terrier groups identified in the mix, depending on each dog’s individual ancestry,” which may vary widely, not only through the influence of accidental random breeding, but also because dogfighting breeders have often developed their own customized breed lines by mixing in genetics from, for example, Rottweilers to increase size and German shepherds to whet reactivity.
Further study likely to strengthen findings
While the DNA of a pit bull may be scrambled, however, the outcome is so similar that “pit bull” has for decades been among the breed types most often recognized by people offering dogs for sale or adoption in classified ads.
What Hecht and team most clearly demonstrated is that form, function, and behavior in dogs are very closely linked, especially in breeds originally developed for fighting––and that this is true even when the definition of a “fighting breed” is broadened to include, as they did, dog lines such as Boston terrier and boxer that have not been bred to fight in approximately 80 generations.
Narrowing the definition of a “fighting breed” down to just dogs recognized as pit bulls, and looking at a much larger number of pit bulls, is expected to confirm and reinforce the findings, not because of what Hecht et al discovered about pit bulls in specific, but because of what they discovered about how the relative size of six specific brain regions correlates with behavior in all dogs.
Pit bull appearance linked to brain structure––and behavior
In simplest terms, if a dog has the blocky head shape and oversized jaws characteristic of a pit bull, a magnetic resonance imaging scan is likely to identify the brain structures associated with sudden, random, unpredictable violence and “dead game” fighting behavior as well.
Co-authors, along with Hecht, of “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” include Stony Brook University anthropologist Jeroen B. Smaers, Ph.D.; William J. Dunn of the Michigan State University Department of Psychology & Neuroscience; University of Georgia at Athens professor of neurology and neurosurgery Marc Kent; and Emory University neuroscientists Todd M. Preuss, Ph.D. and David A. Gutman, M.D.
62 dogs, 33 breeds, 10 functions
“Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” opens by explaining that the team “assessed regional volumetric variation in MRI studies of 62 male and female dogs of 33 breeds.”
The dogs were divided into ten categories reflecting the historical purposes for which they were most often bred: bird flushing and retrieval; explicit companionship; guarding, protecting, and sentinel work; herding, police and military use; scent hunting, sight hunting, sled-pulling, sport fighting, and vermin control.
The sampling of breeds considered to have been developed for sport fighting included one 2-year-old male pit bull; two male Boston terriers; four boxers, three male and one female; and two male bulldogs. Whether these were “American bulldogs,” a common type of pit bull, or English or French bulldogs was not specified.
Spatial allocation of brain regions shows behavior
Many of the dogs were evaluated as possible members of several different purpose groups. Boxers, for instance, were evaluated as potentially part of four purpose groups; Boston terriers as part of three purpose groups.
In other words, Hecht et al did a study of the spatial allocation of dogs’ brains somewhat analogous to comparing how a variety of nations allocate employment and national budget, including for both civilian and military purposes, and then comparing the findings to those nations’ political postures.
Typically the most militaristic nations will employ the most people as soldiers and spend the most money on weapons.
“Neuroanatomical variation plainly visible across breeds”
“Notably, neuroanatomical variation is plainly visible across breeds,” Hecht et al found. “This variation is distributed non-randomly across the brain,” Hecht et al wrote.
To extend the analogy to a comparative study of nations, the proportion of a national labor force and national budget allocated to preparation for war has much less to do with the size of the nation than with the attitude of the nation toward neighbors and cultural or economic rivals.
As Hecht et al put it in their “Significance statement,” near the top of “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds”:
“Neuroanatomical variation is not simply driven by brain size, body size, or skull shape. Nearly all of the identified variation occurs in the terminal branches of the dog phylogenetic tree, indicating strong recent selection in individual breeds. These results indicate that through selective breeding, humans have significantly altered the brains of different lineages of domestic dogs in different ways.”
“Massive natural experiment”
Hecht et al initiated their study, they explained, because “A major goal of modern neuroscience is to understand how variation in behavior, cognition, and emotion relates to underlying neural mechanisms. A massive ‘natural experiment’ in this arena has been right under our noses: domestic dogs. Humans have selectively bred dogs for different specialized abilities.”
The outcome, over centuries, is that “Significant breed differences in temperament, trainability, and social behavior are readily appreciable by the casual observer, and have also been documented quantitatively. Recent genetic research indicates that this behavioral variation is highly heritable.”
Which is to say that behavioral variation from one dog breed to another does not occur by accident. Herding breeds herd, bird retrieving dogs swim, racing dogs run, and scent hounds sniff.
“This panoply of behavioral specializations must rely on underlying neural specializations,” Hecht et al emphasize.
Breeds “developed in an intentional goal-driven manner”
“Most modern dog breeds were developed in an intentional, goal-driven manner relatively recently in evolutionary time,” Hecht et al recognize, “between the past few thousand to the past few hundred years. This strong selection pressure suggests that brain differences between breeds may be closely tied to behavior.
“However, selection also occurred for outward physical appearance,” Hecht et al acknowledge, “including craniofacial morphology. This may have placed constraints on the internal dimensions of the skull, which may in turn have had secondary effects on brain morphology. There is substantial diversification of skull shape across dog breeds, and this has been linked to behavioral differences.
“Alternatively, neuroanatomical variation may be explained primarily by body size,” Hecht et al concede, “with different breeds’ brains representing minor, random, scaled-up or scaled down variants of a basic species-wide pattern.
“Any attempt to determine whether breeding for behavior has altered dog brains would have to be able to differentiate between these competing (and potentially interacting) hypotheses. A simple comparison of regional volumes would be insufficient.”
Pit bulls vs. golden retrievers
For example, Hecht et al explain, “A significant difference in the volume of, for example, the amygdala in pit bulls versus golden retrievers might seem intuitively meaningful, but in order to ascertain whether such a difference was truly the result of selection pressure on behavior, the phylogenetic structure of the dog family tree needs to be taken into account in order to partition variance attributable to inheritance.”
This is what the research behind “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” did.
Most of the highly technical paper describes the methodology of the MRI analysis, done to distinguish what parts of the canine brain evolved first, and are therefore shared in more or less equal proportion among all dogs, versus what parts have taken on different proportions during the relatively brief time in which dogs have been selectively bred by humans.
Dog brain size does not scale with body size
“We found that dog brain sizes do not scale commensurately with body sizes,” Hecht et al restate.
Further, “A phylogenetic analysis revealed that changes in brain size are not predicated by relatedness, and are more likely the result of selection on terminal branches of the phylogenetic tree (i.e. individual breeds).
“Brain evolution in domestic dog breeds follows a ‘late burst model,’ with directional changes in brain organization being primarily lineage-specific,” Hecht et al found.
“Six regionally co-varying networks”
These “directional changes,” either enlarging or shrinking particular parts of the canine brain to enhance particular specialized abilities, occurred in what “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” terms “six regionally covarying networks.”
These networks govern response to drive and reward; scent in combination with recognition of food; movement, eye movement, and navigation; social action and interaction; the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, associated with fight-or-flight responses to fear, stress, and anxiety, and in particular, in dogs, with aggressive behavior; and olfaction working in combination with vision.
A table in “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” shows the findings from the MRI analysis, alongside a color scale illustrating relative scientific significance.
Among the 60 intersections of the ten dog purpose categories with the six “regionally covarying networks,” the most significant is that of dogs bred for vermin control with social action and interaction. The breeds in this category include Boston terrier, dachshund, Jack Russell terrier, miniature schnauzer, silky terrier, West Highland white terrier, wheaten terrier, and Yorkshire terrier.
The second most significant intersection is that of dogs bred for police and military use with the “regionally covarying network” for olfaction working in combination with vision. These breeds include boxers and Doberman pinscher.
German shepherds and Malinois, the breeds most often associated with police and military use, were not included in the study, but their combination of acuity of scent and vision has been identified by other studies as exceptional.
“Fighting breeds” & “fight or flight”
The third most significant intersection is that of “fighting breeds” with fight-or-flight responses to fear, stress, and anxiety, commonly identified by trainers as “triggers” to attacks.
Another way to express the findings of “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” would be to state that the traits of all dog breeds originally developed for purposes other than vermin control are less distinctively significant than the capacity of small terriers for social action and interaction.
The most distinctive traits of dog breeds originally developed for police and military use have more significance than 97% of the other intersections between dog form and function.
Finally, the brain adaptations associated with fight-or-fight response are more significant in “sport fighting” breeds than 95% of the other intersections between dog form and function.
Pit bull breeders already did the experiment
Conclude Hecht et al, “In all six of the regionally covarying networks we found, significant correlations were found with at least one behavioral specialization.”
Looking ahead, toward further research, Hecht et al suggest that, “It might be possible, for example, to identify neural features that are linked to different breeds’ specializations for specific behaviors, and to selectively breed or train dogs for enhanced expression of those neural features.”
This is, of course, exactly what pit bull breeders have always done, including John P. Colby, originator of the “Staffordshire” line, and John D. Johnson, who developed the “American Bulldog,” also known as the “Ambull” and “American Bully.”
Authors assumed all dogs in the study were pets
Offered Science News neuroscience writer Laura Sanders, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California, “The MRI scans [used by Hecht et al] were taken of dogs with normal brain anatomy at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the University of Georgia at Athens.
“While the study wasn’t designed to directly link brain shape to behavior,” Sanders said, the results offer some hints. Researchers identified groups of brain areas, such as smell and taste regions, that showed the most variability between breeds. Those groups are involved in specialized behaviors that often serve humans, earlier studies have suggested.
“The authors assumed the dogs in the study were all pets. It is possible that dogs extensively trained for specialized work — such as sheep herding, bomb detecting or guiding the blind — might have even more distinct brains,” Sanders speculated.
The most distinctly different brains, however, might be found among dogs who will die and not pass along their genes if they fail at their specialized work.
Fighting pit bulls most clearly fit this definition, with no other breed types even close.
Findings undermine pit bull advocacy witnesses-for-hire
“Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” undermines in particular the central contentions of Western University College of Veterinary Medicine faculty members Victoria Voith and Kristopher Irizarry, who have often appeared as witnesses-for-hire in opposition to breed-specific legislation.
Voith and Irizarry are also prominent members of the National Canine Research Council, a front for the pit bull advocacy organization Animal Farm Foundation, and of several other pro-pit bull lobbying and promotional entities.
Irizarry succinctly summarized their arguments in an August 17, 2011 deposition in a lawsuit that sought to overturn a pit bull ban in Moses Lake, Washington, in which he also stipulated that his fee would double from $50 an hour to $100 an hour if obliged to testify in person.
Brain anatomy trumps “breed”
“A mixed breed dog is not a member of a breed,” Irizarry asserted.
But if, as Hecht et al found, form, function, and behavior are intertwined traits, the brain anatomy of any specific dog is more indicative of what the dog may do than the breed identity suggested by DNA testing, and visual appearance is strongly indicative of brain anatomy.
Claimed Irizarry, “The anatomical features associated with dog breeds do not encode the brain or the connections of brain cells and are not involved in encoding the behavior of a dog.”
“Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” renders this statement wholly false.
Visual identification of dog breeds
Contended Irizarry, “Visual identification of dog breeds is inaccurate.”
But “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” suggests that visual identification of dog breeds is highly accurate as an indication of brain anatomy.
Wrote Irizarry, “The anatomical similarity of dogs within a breed causes people to assume that dogs within a breed share other traits, such as behavior.”
“Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” indicates that this assumption is correct.
“There is no scientific basis for better-than-chance visually accurate breed identification by animal control officers,” Irizarry claimed, adding that “Animal professionals, including veterinarians, dog breeders, dog show judges, animal control officers and others are not capable of accurately identifying breeds in mixed breed dogs.”
Yet “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” suggests that the external shape of a dog’s head correlates at a very high rate of statistical significance with the dog’s behavior, and can be easily recognized by any person of ordinary intelligence.
Argues that dogs were not bred for behavior
“Most people erroneously believe that dog breeds were bred for specific behaviors,” Irizarry alleged, perhaps unwittingly contradicting the common but false pit bull advocacy saw that fighting dogs were bred to be “dog-aggressive” but “human-friendly.”
That dog breeds were bred for specific behavior, Irizarry claimed, “is a stereotype unsupported by the recent scientific findings that identify anatomical traits as the foundation of breed stratification.”
Hecht et al found exactly the opposite, as indicated by canine history: dogs were bred for all of their major roles, and most breed types developed essentially the appearance that they have today, long before exhibition for conformation emerged in 19th century England.
Genetics vs. behavioral conformation
“Once a member of the breed is crossed with other breeds of dogs,” Irizarry contended, “it gains the genetic variation from these other dogs and loses the genetics associated with a single breed.”
Even if true, however, this would be irrelevant. If a dog inherits the brain anatomy specific to any breed historically developed for a particular purpose, the data amassed by Hecht et al indicates, the dog is likely to behave like the breed he or she most resembles.
How behavior is inherited
Wrote dog behaviorist Alexandra Semyonova in The science of how behavior is inherited in aggressive dogs, posted by ANIMALS 24-7 in 2014,“Until recently, most people recognized that much dog behavior is a result of manipulating inheritance: if you want to do sheep trials, you get a border collie. If you get a beagle, he will likely become instantly deaf to your calls if he picks up a scent to track.
“But after discussion started about perhaps banning breeds who often attack and kill,” Semyonova continued, “defenders of these breeds began to dispute the heritability of any kind of dog behavior.
“Only when behavioral inheritance is understood,” Semyonova emphasized, “beginning with basic biological concepts, can we have a clear and honest discussion about aggression in domestic dogs. First we must understand the relationship between ‘physical conformation’ and ‘behavioral conformation,’ which may be seen as opposite sides of the same coin.
“Selecting for very specific abnormalities in the brain”
“Physical conformation” describes how a dog has been bred to become physically shaped specifically for the task we want him to perform. The purpose-bred dog’s body––brain, skeleton, muscles, and metabolism––will be different from those of other dogs. The dog will feel physically comfortable doing the job, whatever it is.
“Selection for aggressive performance,” Semyonova specified, “includes consistently selecting for very specific abnormalities in the brain,” such as Hecht et al discovered.
“These abnormalities appear in many breeds of dog as an accident or anomaly, which breeders then attempt to breed out of the dogs,” Semyonova noted. “In the case of the aggressive breeds, the opposite occurred. Rather than excluding abnormally aggressive dogs from their breeding stock, breeders focused on creating lineages in which all the dogs would carry the genes causing them to reliably exhibit the desired impulsive aggressive behavior.”
“Huge contradictions in pit bull behavior”
Testified ANIMALS 24-7 artist, photographer, researcher, and social media editor Beth Clifton in her January 2018 essay Are pit bulls monsters or are they just dogs?, “There are huge contradictions in some of the behavior we see in pit bulls, who often veer back and forth from affectionately ‘sweet’ and ‘goofy’ to inflicting mayhem, and yet these contradictions occur consistently in practically all pit bulls. We see in these dogs a lack of impulse control, hyper reactivity, fearfulness and anxiety, among their most basic and universal traits.
“I can attest to this myself,” Beth wrote, “having been exposed to a great many pit bulls in my previous capacities as animal control officer, veterinary technician, former pit bull owner and rescuer, and now outspoken advocate for public safety, including effective breed-specific legislation.”
The findings of Hecht et al relative to the exaggerated size of the “fighting breed” brain region associated with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, specifically linked to fight-or-flight impulsive responses to fear, stress, and anxiety, including aggressive behavior, offer scientific support to Beth’s observations.
Beth’s observations are, after all, essentially the observations of practically anyone familiar with pit bulls––except, of course, pit bull advocates defending their breed against the reality that pit bulls are 5.8% of the dogs in the U.S., responsible for 59% of the dog attack fatalities and 76% of the dog attack fatalities among humans, and well over 90% of the dog attack fatalities among other animals.
Debbie Hirst says
Really interesting information. Thank you for highlighting this important scientific analysis. Without Animals 24-7 I’m sure I wouldn’t have known about it.
You can’t even define the difference between the American bulldog, which is an Akc recognized breed, and the American bully which is a UKC/abkc accepted breed founded in the 90s.
Merritt Clifton says
Actually that IS the difference between the American bulldog and the American bully: which kennel club registers the descendants of the fighting pit bull line developed originally by John D. Johnson to include more mastiff genetics than the typical pit bull, an approach also taken by the developers of the bullmastiff and the Dogo Argentino. It is quite common for different kennel clubs to use different names for essentially the same dog, apparently for promotional reasons––and cross-registry of these dogs with multiple kennel clubs is also quite common. Changing the name, though, does not change the dog. In the case of registered American bully dogs bred for show, some inbred distortion of body shape to exaggerate the squatty fighting dog stance is recently evident. This also appears to increase and expedite the onset of dysplasia, like inbreeding German shepherds for an extreme slope from the shoulders to the hips, and reflects deliberately bad breeding, not an actual breed difference. The original “American bully” bred by John D. Johnson is sometimes now called the “classic” variant, while the exaggerated variants are called the “pocket,” “Xtreme,” and “XL,” but they are all still essentially the dog who until the advent of organized pit bull advocacy was known to dogfighters as the “Johnson” type.
Francis A says
The American Bulldog was originally brought from England with settlers, and is the most closely related to the original bulldog breed. They used to be called the Old Southern White. They were not registered with any registry until recently. As far as I know, the were working farm dogs not fighting dogs. Johnson and Scott developed separate lines after World War II. I’m not saying some were not bred into fighting lines to increase size, but that was not the original function of the breed.
Merritt Clifton says
The “Old Southern White” dog, often called just the “White Dog” for short, was specifically bred for hunting escaped slaves from a combination of English fighting dog ancestry with “Cuban bloodhounds,” who were not actually bloodhounds at all, but were a Spanish fighting and war dog also bred for slave-hunting. “Working farm dog” in context was & remains a euphemism for having been used to keep slaves on plantations.
John D.Johnson, meanwhile, made no bones about the fighting ancestry of his “American bulldogs” in a 1980 letter to Stodghill’s Animal Research Magazine, in which Johnson stated, “The American Bulldog is the same dog that was developed in England in the 12th century by the meat packers, to catch large bulls to kill for meat… Then they started bull baiting with them, and they then were called ‘Bull Baiting Dogs.’ Later, they were registered as ‘English Bulldogs.’ They also were ‘pit’ fought over there [England], against each other, badgers, lions, and anything that would fight. They were brought over here [America] in the 17th century…In the 18th century, England outlawed all types of fighting, and they were no longer needed in their present form, so they bred them down in size…We kept our bulldogs in the [original] large state, and I have developed them even larger.”
This is exactly the history that the pit bulls as pets advocates completely ignore.
You only have to watch professional reform trainers that work with bully breeds and watch the transformation of the dog. The brain can be trained just like a human’s can. I’ve seen many dogs that were in house trained for fighting that has been homed.
Merritt Clifton says
The other 94.2% of the U.S. dog population who are not pit bulls rarely if ever need “reform trainers.” The brain scan findings reported in “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” explain why this is. Incidentally, of the 65 shelter dogs who have killed 40 Americans since 1988, after receiving some form of behavioral screening and “reform training,” 44 were pit bulls. Other “bully” breeds from shelters have killed 13 Americans. All other dogs from shelters combined have killed just eight.
Quick question, you mentioned 65 shelter dogs and 40 Americans that were killed,? Are you saying 65 dogs killed 40 people? As in some of these people were killed by more than one dog? Also love your work. Very informative. I recently had words with a girl who had 2 pitbulls and a newborn baby. I nicely told her to be careful. She’s one of the idiot advocates and had the “it’s not the dog its the owner” responses. So I asked her “oh so you think that pit bulls are the only dogs that are abused, neglected and treated like s**t? Lots of dogs have that problem but you don’t see them attacking other dogs or people, do you?” I get that pit Bulls are owned by aggressive low lifes who fight them or try to make them aggressive just to look cool, but you could treat a German shepherd or a Lab the same way and it is FAR less likely to attack someone. It’s like these advocates hear what they want to hear. I love ALL dogs, even pits. It’s not their fault they are as they are. Breeding should be illegal or at least strictly monitored as these bums are breeding for money. Sell them to other low lifes. Then when it’s not cool any more and they have to pay to raise the dog they bail on them and leave them homeless. Nothing like having a master that’s mean, tries to MAKE you fight, treats you like s**t and then abandons you. The dog doesn’t know any better. These are the same thugs and hillbillies that bail on their own kids! Losers shouldn’t be allowed to own dogs or reproduce themselves
Merritt Clifton says
Re, “You mentioned 65 shelter dogs and 40 Americans that were killed,? Are you saying 65 dogs killed 40 people? As in some of these people were killed by more than one dog?”, the short, simple answer is yes. And most of the multi-dog attacks by shelter dogs have involved at least one pit bull.
Even in litters from champion fighting parents some of the individuals are culled because they won’t show any aggression at all. In fact many won’t even fight back when attacked by another pit bull.
Merritt Clifton says
The most significant finding reported by Hecht et al pertaining to the brain structure of dogs of “fighting breed” is exaggerated development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The HPA axis is associated with fight-or-flight responses to fear, stress, and anxiety, i.e. with quick reactive responses, which might be likened to rapidly shifting gears in a car. In “fighting breeds,” including pit bulls, the gear-shifting usually amounts to revving up to “fight,” but sometimes the rapid gear-shifting in effect throws the dog into neutral, meaning nervous uncertainty, or even reverse, meaning flight. As pit bulls who either hesitate to fight or run away have historically been culled, these pit bulls have seldom had the opportunity to pass along their traits.
^ totally took the words out of my mouth!!! Agree 💯!!
I want to jump in here and say that first that yes, I am a Pitbull advocate in a way. I am an animal advocate but I am not an extremist. With that said… you mentioned that all types of dogs are abused, not just PBs but you don’t see German Shepherds or Labradors killing people. I think that might have some truth to it but I think there is a complete difference in the types of owners that these dogs have too. I don’t see a person that would own a Labrador owning a Pitbull unless they are attempting to save the Pitbull. People usually own dogs based on their own personalities. As for Pitbulls having a strong propensity to be violent, I take no issue with … I feel that the Pitbull should only be owned by a well experienced owner, even if that means the owner needs to be trained and licensed to own one. Just like a gun. The difference is, that these are living animals not a piece of metal. They do not need to be banned. They need an aggressive protection and a greater effort to save them from us. I have a Pitbull at home that we all love, and I have two children both under 4 but I will never, ever leave my dog or any dog for that matter unsupervised with them. Mind you… my dog is an angel who enjoys kids and other dogs but I am more responsible than that, I recognize that I have to not only protect others but I am also trying to save this dogs life too. A Pitbull is not a dog for everyone. They also are not only bred to fight. They were bred to work and hunt too.
Merritt Clifton says
The “work” for which pit bulls were bred for approximately 500 years, from Elizabethan times to the present, other than baiting and fighting, was gripping and holding sheep and cattle while butchers cut their throats. The “hunting” for which pit bulls were bred was of escaped slaves. (See SHARK fights pigeon shooters where black man was hunted for sport for details of one historically significant example.) The frequent use of pit bulls to hunt feral pigs is a very recent development, as feral pigs were not broadly distributed, nor commonly hunted in most of the U.S., until after long-haul truck transportation of pigs to slaughter largely replaced local slaughter just a few decades ago. (See Ohio truck crash shows why feral pigs are everywhere.)
Why don’t you check out the stats of drunk drivers killing people? That would actually make sense. To lump together the .000001 percent of pitbulls and say they are all dangerous, is wildly misleading at best.
Merritt Clifton says
As a matter of fact, ANIMALS 24-7 has done a detailed comparison of the frequency of pit bulls killing people and animals relative to the frequency of drivers, not just drunk drivers, killing people and animals. The data originally appeared here: “Pit bull roulette” killed 38,000 other animals in 2017, and was updated a year later here: Pit bulls killed 30 times more animals in 2018 than human crime. In 2018 about one pit bull in 90 participated in killing an animal or a human. Pit bulls excluded, only one dog in 45,000 killed another pet, livestock animal, or person in 2018. Thus, in simple terms, pit bulls in 2018 were 500 times more deadly to other animals and humans than all other dog breed types combined. By way of comparison, he odds are about one chance in 520 that any given licensed driver will be involved in an accident that kills a human in any given year, and one chance in 62 that a driver will roadkill an animal during the year. In other words, keeping or being around a pit bull starts out being approximately as dangerous to humans, other pets, and livestock as driving, which has long been recognized as the most dangerous thing that the average American does. But vehicular safety is subject to strict regulation. Drivers are required to be heavily insured, and to take classes and pass tests before they get a driving permit. Both drivers and passengers are required to wear seat belts. Traffic lights and stop signs at every intersection reduce the risk of collision. No such strictures pertain to owning or going anywhere with pit bulls.
It has been proven that the pit bull “breed” time and time again have been used for much more then fighting. Yet thats all we are focused on here. Yes their brains are wired different, yes the anatomy is different. If you really take the time to look at every breed, every single one is slightly wired different. You should have really dug into the past of the breed before the dog fighting.
Merritt Clifton says
The documented use of pit bulls for fighting and baiting goes back at least to 1573. The documented use of pit bulls to hunt and kill Native Americans and escaped slaves goes back even farther, to 1502. The allegation that pit bulls were ever a suitable household pet appears to have originated in a 1922 work of fiction, Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog, by Clarence Hawkes, a blind man who wrote by dictating his stories and, though able to spin a gripping yarn, routinely muddled his facts. This work of fiction also appears to be the point of origin of many of the other popular myths about the history of pit bulls. The specific claim that pit bulls were ever a “nanny dog” came first from pit bull breeder Lilian Rant in 1971.
wanda s gregory says
Nice to see you’ve done a little bit of research but these dogs have been house pets much longer than that the United Kennel Club goes back to 1897. The founder of the registry had the first American Pitbull Terrier registered and was a champion excuse me I’m sorry a grand champion in the ring and when I say in the ring I don’t mean fighting I mean showing with professional handlers in trainers just like the AKC.
Merritt Clifton says
Explains the web site https://pitbullholocaust.wordpress.com/tag/bennetts-ring/, “The AKC was founded in 1884, but would not accept the registration of the fighting dog. So the UKC began in 1898, to register the APBT (American Pit Bull Terrier). The very first registration was given to the founder’s own pit, “Bennett’s Ring.” In order for your UKC registered dog to become a UKC Champion, it had to show it could win doing his breed’s work. The APBT had to win 3 dog fights (kill other dogs), with a UKC referee in attendance to file a report with the UKC.”
Jamaka Petzak says
Extremely informative. Sharing to socials, with gratitude and hope.
If brain scans were all we needed to prove violence is an inbred gene, why isn’t it used on humans to predict potential serial killers?
Merritt Clifton says
Humans have not been selectively bred for specific traits. But even if we had been, human generations are measured by 18-year time spans; dog generations by just one. Thus the 500 years that pit bulls have been selectively bred for baiting and fighting are approximately equal in influence to 9,000 years of human evolution. 9,000 years ago, as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_human_prehistory explains, is approximately the time when “lived the latest subgroup of human population consisting of those that were all common ancestors of all present day humans, the rest having no present day descendants.”
They actually are able to identify psychopaths via brain scans. Certain areas of the brain do not light up ..
I have had many pit bulls around children. They are great with kids and other dogs. It is DEFINITELY how they are raised and trained.
Merritt Clifton says
Many parents whose children were eventually killed or disfigured by pit bulls have believed the same thing: that their pit bulls were “great with kids and other dogs” until suddenly they were not. For the calendar year 2014 a researcher named Jan Smith researched the history of every dog who killed someone, including 35 pit bulls. Of those 35, 25 had no history of neglect or abuse; 14 killed a member of their own household, including nine children. You can read the details here: https://www.animals24-7.org/2015/01/03/773-rise-in-fatal-disfiguring-pit-bull-attacks-from-2007-to-2014/
Francis A says
Then what does make the difference? My daughter has a boxer/pit female who is now 13 yrs old. She has been an absolute sweetheart her whole life…so if the brain is wired differently, why do the majority not display aggression?
Merritt Clifton says
Actually the majority of pit bulls do display aggression. In 2018 about one pit bull in 90 participated in killing an animal or a human. Based on the 2018 data, over the 10-year average lifespan of a dog, about one pit bull in nine will become a killer––if the pit bull lives a normal lifespan. With a turnover rate of nearly 33% per year, and 50% for adult pit bulls, with pit bulls also most commonly being passed along by the owners or surrendered to animal shelters and rescues because of aggressive behavior, most pit bulls do not live even half a normal lifespan. (See Pit bulls killed 30 times more animals in 2018 than human crime.)
Christina, out of the hundreds of other dog breeds in existence, why get a pit bull? Why that specific breed? I don’t understand. There are a multitude of admirable breeds that do not have the history of aggression and propensity for violence. Why a pit? Why not a Yorkie or Weimaraner? Weimaraners account for 0.05% of all bites. That’s a half of a nip one time in the entire history of documented bites… Weims are exceedingly smart, extremely loyal, devoted, task driven, affectionate. Mine is so intelligent that I had to start spelling: G-o-i-n-g t-o the c-a-r. Then, she quickly figured out how to spell. Ellie, c-a-r. She potty trained herself and now she even understands German. Not even kidding… I just don’t understand why someone would get a risky dog when there are so many safe ones out there ..
Francis A says
A Weimaraner killed my kitten, when I was 3 or 4 yrs old. Took it right out of my hands and killed it. It’s the one breed I can’t even stand to look at! So, there are exceptions to everything! I have a pit mix. I didn’t want that. She was supposed to be a Boxer mix. But I wont get another one after reading all of this…..
Dan Hunt says
WOW! You just convinced me that my next dog will be a Weimaraner! I love a smart dog!
Did you actually pay attention to all the breeds included in each category? They’re often visually quite different.
Merritt Clifton says
If you had actually paid attention to the findings reported in “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds,” published in full by the peer-reviewed Journal of Neuroscience, you would realize that this is precisely the point: even though dogs bred for a particular purpose may superficially look quite different, for instance in size, hair length, and color, they will have evolved both physiques and brain adaptations that suit the task they have been bred to perform. The adaptations unique to fighting dogs were found to be more distinctively significant than those of 95% the other adaptations found at the intersections of form and function.
You have my sympathy in having to restate your scientific evidence to someone like Cathy who chose to rely on her own experiences. It’s getting harder for me to feel sorry for a pittbull owner who has suffered a tragic loss. Thank you and your colleagues for this information that may, hopefully, save lives.
Francis A says
So, what is the answer here? I have always previously owned purebred shepherds, and several breeds of Mastiff. I adopted an older puppy who is 2/3 AmStaff. She is now 2 yrs old. She has been extremely well socialized and is very friendly. So now you’re saying none of that matters? She is genetically predisposed to maim my grandchildren? Where does this leave us as dog owners?
I’m lost: which part of the dna strand makes pit bulls predisposed toward violence?
Merritt Clifton says
This question was answered in detail by “Genetic mapping of canine fear and aggression,” by Isain Zapata, James A. Serpell, and Carlos E. Alvarez, published on August 8, 2016 by BioMed Central. This study, like “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds,” linked the genes associated with fear and aggression to body type: “We propose that the IGF1 and HMGA2 loci are candidates for identical variation being associated with both behavior and morphology. In contrast, we show that theGNAT3-CD36 locus has distinct variants for behavior and morphology.” But that study did not delve into specific breed differences. “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” does. Of note is that the differences among dogs that Erin Hecht et al discovered are probably produced by differences in gene expression specific to each breed, rather than in the underlying genome.
Yes she is genetically predisposed to be unpredictable with all of the implications. She will be wonderful right up until the split second she is not. The choice is yours but I would never allow here anywhere near any children or people I have affection for.
I have always analogized it very simply to people. You can not train, love or discipline a retriever not to retrieve or a shepard not to herd……
Just because a dog is a certain breed or type doesn’t mean it’s automatically going retrieve hunt or fight without training
Merritt Clifton says
On the other hand, dogfighters commonly test pit bull puppies for “gameness” at only a few days old by seeing if they will bite a stick firmly enough to be lifted by just their jaw grip. Those who are not culled for failing this test are often fighting and sometimes even killing each other even before they are fully weaned. These are not traits seen in puppies of other breeds. However, finding videos of pointer puppies pointing, Labrador puppies joyfully swimming, etc., is as easy as a quick search of YouTube.
I own 2 pit bulls. They are very loyal and loving to me but I definitely take precautions with them when my grandkids are around.
Joseph Rosso says
So now what? BSL is going to get stronger on this and people are going to use this as a reason to call for the termination of the breed? How as an owner do I keep my knuckle head safe?
Why not first and foremost keep all those around you safe? Make sure your dog is fixed and keep him/her properly contained, trained, and under your control at all times. Understand the breed’s unique capabilities and never set your dog up to fail, such as by taking him/her to dog parks or allowing free access to small children and other pets.
Remember, it is the hordes of “pit bull lovers” who breed these animals wantonly and refuse to acknowledge the dogs’ history and traits that have created this mess. It’s time for the pit bull community to hold their own accountable instead of always pointing fingers everywhere else.
From the actual author “Border collies are amazing at herding, but they aren’t born knowing how to herd. They have to be exposed to sheep; there is some training involved. Learning plays a crucial role, but there’s clearly something about herding that’s already in their brains when they are born. It’s not innate behavior, it’s a predisposition to learn that behavior. That’s analogous to what goes on with humans with language. They don’t pop out of the womb being able to speak, but clearly all humans are predisposed in a very significant way to learn language. If we can figure out how evolution got those skills into dog brains, it might help us understand how humans evolved the skills that separate us from other animals.”
Merritt Clifton says
The above statement from “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” lead author Erin Hecht is taken from an interview with Harvard University staff writer Jill Radsken, published on September 3, 2019, and in accurate context pertains to the distinction between innate instinctive behavior, such as reactive fight-or-flight, and trained behavior that builds upon instinct. The Hecht statement could thus be paraphrased, “Pit bulls are amazing at fighting other animals,” and that would be where it would stop, because the exaggerated instinct to reactively fight needs no specialized training analogous to moving a herd of sheep to a specific destination.
Mary Anne Clark says
The number of dogs in this study are too few for results to be considered statistically revelant.
Merritt Clifton says
The editors of the Journal of Neuroscience, in which “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” appeared, clearly have a much better understanding of statistical significance than Mary Anne Clark, who may take a quick refresher course at https://towardsdatascience.com/statistical-significance-hypothesis-testing-the-normal-curve-and-p-values-93274fa32687. The Journal of Neuroscience, a weekly peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Society for Neuroscience, according to Journal Citation Reports, has an impact factor of 6.344 and an Eigenfactor (a measure of scientific significance) of 0.413, nearly twice as high as that of the next highest neuroscience journal.
“What Hecht and team most clearly demonstrated is that form, function, and behavior in dogs are very closely linked, especially in breeds originally developed for fighting––and that this is true even when the definition of a “fighting breed” is broadened to include, as they did, dog lines such as Boston terrier and boxer that have not been bred to fight in approximately 80 generations.”
I would like to know where they get their information on Boxers. I don’t know about Boston terriers. Possibly the original “Boston bulldog” was a fighter but I have never heard that the Boxer was ever bred to fight or commonly fought. Nowhere in the actual history of the Boxer is there any description of the Boxer as a fighting dog.
The Boxer was bred in Germany in the late 1800s from a small (Belgian) mastiff, a hunting bulldog (“bullenbeisser” in German and “bulldog” in English). The Boxer was not created as a fighting dog but a guard, military, police and guide dog…The “bull and terriers” of the UK (the original pit bulls) were bred as fighting dogs from the old English bulldogs with terrier added to increase tenacity for fighting. Although Pit bulls and Boxers both have bulldog ancestors, the commonality ends there. Further, when a Boxer does attack or rarely kill, it is not in the relentless mauling style of pit bulls nor would it be genetic based behavior unless the dog is a mix produced by unscrupulous breeding of Boxers with fighting dogs.
Merritt Clifton says
The authors of “Significant neuroanatomical variation among domestic dog breeds” relied upon the official American Kennel Club breed histories to make their categorizations. The AKC description somewhat euphemistically describes boxers as “one of many descendants of the old fighting dog of the high valleys of Tibet.” The American Boxer Club traces boxers back to “a smaller Bullenbeisser of the purest stock,” which “was bred from the larger one by natural selection, due to the spreading popularity of animal fights from England to the mainland and thence to Germany.” The American Boxer Club source is John Wagner’s book The Boxer, first published in 1939, credited as “one of the most detailed histories of development of this breed.” A “bullenbeisser,” German for “bull-biter,” was and remains a dog bred primarily for bull-baiting. This was still a common use of boxers as recently as 1935, when the major kennel club breed descriptions of boxers, pit bulls, and bulldogs were first clearly distinguished.
It is true, incidentally, that boxers kill and disfigure people far less often than pit bulls, having killed 15 Americans and Canadians since 1982, while pit bulls have killed 466. But it is also true that only Rottweilers (111), huskies (30), German shepherds (23), and bullmastiffs (22) have killed more people.