But the Finn study does not discount the influence of genetics on aggression
HELSINKI, Finland––The same Finn researchers who in March 2020 published a study strongly affirming the importance of breeding in dog behavior have in May 2020 published a second analysis of the same data which––at a glance––argues just the opposite.
The second analysis, however, entitled “Aggressive behavior is affected by demographic, environmental and behavioral factors in purebred dogs,” conflates defensive and aggressive behavior, while ignoring long recognized breed-specific differences in whether dogs signal intent to attack before they do it.
What the first Finn study said
The first analysis, “Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs” appeared in the March 5, 2020 edition of Scientific Reports, an online multidisciplinary, open access journal produced since 2011 by the publishers of Nature.
The study modus operandi, based on dog owner interviews gathered online, gave dog owners unfettered opportunity to try to whitewash breed reputations by lying without risk of exposure.
Headlined ANIMALS 24-7 in summarizing the findings published in 2020, Dog study let pit bull owners lie & still found behavior is breed-specific.
“Dog breeds showed large differences in prevalence of all anxiety-related traits, suggesting a strong genetic contribution,” the Finn researchers concluded then.
Recommended “selective breeding focusing on behavior”
“As a result,” the Finns suggested, “selective breeding focusing on behavior may reduce the prevalence of canine anxieties. Anxious animals may suffer from chronic stress and thus, modified breeding policies could improve the welfare of our companion dogs.”
But the eight Finn co-authors––Milla Salonen, Sini Sulkama, Salla Mikkola, Jenni Puurunen, Emma Hakanen, Katriina Tiira, César Araujo, and Hannes Lohi––avoided any more specific discussion of what they may mean by “modified breeding policies,” a phrase which could be interpreted to mean breed-specific legislation.
The Finn co-authors also indirectly acknowledged that their methodology may have markedly understated the extent to which pit bulls, represented by a cohort of 200 owner-identified Staffordshire bull terriers, exhibit breed-specific dangerous behavior.
“Growling, snapping” considered “aggressive behavior”
The second analysis by the Finn team, “Aggressive behavior is affected by demographic, environmental and behavioral factors in purebred dogs,” appeared in the May 3, 2021 edition of Scientific Reports,
“Here,” the Finn researchers explained in their abstract, “we used a dataset of 9,270 dogs which included 1,791 dogs with frequent aggressive behavior toward people,” as reported by the owners through the same online survey that produced the original data pertaining to 13,700 Finnish pet dogs.
“In our study,” the Finn team said, “aggressive behavior toward people includes frequent growling, snapping, and biting or trying to snap or bite.”
Reactive vs. initiated behavior conflated
Later in their paper, the Finn researchers mention that, “We concluded that as biting/snapping is more serious than growling it should have more weight.”
For that reason, all dogs who “had tried to bite or snap at least sometimes or growled at least often” were categorized as highly aggressive.
But the Finn team made no attempt to distinguish between reactive behavior, of the sort associated with fearful dogs, and behavior in which a genuinely aggressive dog takes the initiative in a confrontation, for example rushing up to a person or other animal, barking with bared teeth; lunging at a person or other animal; pursuing a person or other animal who tries to retreat; and most dangerous of all, lunging and/or biting without provocation or warning, the behavior for which pit bulls and pit bull variants have long been notorious.
“The bull-dog gives no warning”
As Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith explained in The Natural History of Dogs, published in 1839-1840 by W.H. Lizars of Edinburgh, Scotland, describing the dog now most often called a pit bull in the volume that definitively established the first breed descriptions: “The bull-dog differs from all others, even from the mastiff, in giving no warning of his attack by his barking.”
Instead, the eight Finn researchers merely “asked how often the dog growls when a stranger tries to touch or pet it in its home or outside, and how often the dog tries to snap or bite when a stranger tries to touch or pet it in its home or outside. We also asked how often the dog growls when a family member handles the dog or tries to take away a resource (e.g. bone, food or toy) from it, and how often the dog tries to snap or bite when a family member handles the dog or tries to take away a resource from it.”
All of these are situations in which some defensive behavior might be expected, in no way resembling the wholly unprovoked vast majority of the more than 7,500 pit bull attacks that ANIMALS 24-7 has documented in the U.S. and Canada since 1982, along with several hundred others in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and other nations.
“Probability of aggressive behavior differed between breeds”
Continued the Finn researchers, “We studied the effect of several explanatory variables on aggressive behavior,” as they defined it, “with multiple logistic regression. Several factors increased the probability of aggressive behavior,” again as they defined it, toward people: older age, being male, fearfulness, small body size, lack of conspecific company [meaning lack of companion dogs], and being the owner’s first dog.
“The probability of aggressive behavior also differed between breeds,” the Finn team acknowledged, but failed to find in a persuasive manner, because of their failure to differentiate between defensive behavior and authentic aggression.
“When adjusting for other variables,” the Finn researchers reported, “the breeds with the highest odds of aggressive behavior were rough collie, miniature poodle (toy, miniature and medium-sized), and miniature Schnauzer. The breeds with the lowest odds of aggressive behavior were Labrador retriever, golden retriever, and Lapponian herder,” a strictly Finn breed.
Pit bulls “not among the most aggressive breeds” when reaction is conflated with aggression
“To be noted,” the Finns wrote, “Staffordshire bull terrier,” the only type of pit bull represented in the study, “was not among the most aggressive breeds in this study.”
But that finding could be wholly ascribed to the Finns using a definition of aggression as nonsensical as lumping together goals scored with goals allowed in reporting the performance of a hockey or soccer team.
The Finns concluded, predictably in view of their flawed definition of aggression, that “Fearfulness had the strongest association with aggressive behavior.”
Study does not deny influence of genetics
But their paper “Aggressive behavior is affected by demographic, environmental and behavioral factors in purebred dogs” does not deny the influence of genetics that they reported finding in 2020.
“From all the studied breeds,” the Finns noted, “rough collie had the highest probability of aggressive behavior,” again as they defined it, conflating defensiveness with aggression.
“Rough collies also commonly suffer from another behavioral problem, fearfulness,” the Finns mentioned, “and thus it seems that rough collies would likely benefit from more behavior-focused breeding.
“In the future,” the Finns said, “we will also consider breeding lines among the breeds,” giving the example of separating German shepherds into dogs bred for work and dogs bred for show, “since the purpose that dogs were bred for can also affect behavior.”
This is something that people breeding dogs for fighting, baiting, hunting, guarding, and use in warfare have known for many thousands of years.