I’ve Changed My View On Pit Bulls And Dog Aggression

Ok. Ring the bells. Blow smoke out of the chimney….

I’ve changed my mind about something.

Now, if you know me, you realize how big a deal that is. I’m a tad stubborn. But, I think it’s only a fool that keeps their old position in the face of new evidence. So here is my revelation:

All Pit Bulls are not genetically dog aggressive!!! 

(Not all pit bulls are genetically predisposed towards aggression. And, while it may be more prevalent in this breed, it is still extremely rare. They aren’t ALL born to fight.)

Now, in the world of dog rescue, this has been the accepted position for a LONG time. And I have always disagreed. And it’s started a lot of “discussions”.

See, I grew up around the world of fighting dogs. And what I saw, was dogs that were clearly aggro to dogs and totally cool to people. So, when I went into rescue, I was in the position of convincing people that “just because they are aggressive to dogs, doesn’t mean they are aggressive to people”.

But, then as I got more into rescue circles I saw MANY Pits that fought, socialize with other dogs. I couldn’t resolve that in my head. Of course, and no one in rescue likes to admit this, but….. There IS a higher predilection for fighting with bullies than other breeds. And their play style is OBVIOUSLY harder. So…. There is a difference. But…… How to wrap my brain around it?

I think I figured it out.

Their communication sucks.

Wait…. No….. That’s not it.

Well, it is technically, but I figured out the reason their communication sucks!

My new mentor, Chad Mackin, is one of the most respected experts in rehabilitative socialization. And he said “Aggression is not a trait….. It’s a behavior“. That BLEW MY MIND. Because I had always thought the increased dog aggression I saw in Pits was genetic. But in the last few years I’ve successfully integrated multiple Pits with aggressive histories into my home. And I thought I had just  been “managing and preventing” their fighting. But after reading about Chad’s work in socializing….. I knew there was more to it.

So…. What are the traits that we bred into them that created the aggression behavior.

Well, we bred them with a SUPER high pain threshold. And Lot’s of drive (they adrenalize easily). So. So what? Why would that make them fight?

Well, fights are painful. So fear of injury and pain are a deterrent for most animals. But we bred Pits to have crazy high pain tolerance. So, we removed one barrier.

Now, we get interesting. In the wild…. Fights are expensive. If you get a cut…. You can die of an infection. If you get a broken leg, you can be killed by a predator. Or not hunt. Not good. So smart animals avoid fights. Problem is When you’re in adrenaline mode, your ability to make choices goes way down. Chad likes to say that “dogs can’t make the right choices, unless they’re in the frame of mind that allows the to make choices”.  He means, that when a dog is adrenalized, he CAN’T make choices. He reacts. Well, we bred these guys to be “drivey”, “motivated”, whatever. What that means is we bred them to get into the frame of mind that stops thinking about the cost of what they’re about to do is. And that removes the last reason.

And that’s how fights happen.

The “calming signals” that dogs throw at one another are designed to let the other dog know, that they don’t want a problem. But these signals are also called “stress signals”! And that’s accurate. See, when a dog feels wary of a possible fight…. They feel stressed. And they throw those signals. The other dog sees them and throws their own. Then both see the other as wanting to avoid the fight.

Here’s a super common “Pit Bull gets in a fight” scenario:

Pitty runs up to another dog throwing ZERO calming signals, because he doesn’t feel like it’s necessary. After all, he’s not scared. Then, the other dog starts throwing signals, and the Pit doesn’t recognize them because he’s either never been around other dogs, or at least other non-bullies. So, he doesn’t have much experience reading them. So he keeps being “rude”. The other dog goes up the continuum and gives some “warning signals”. The Pitty has no idea what this dog is “getting aggressive” for and goes into adrenaline, which renders him unable to consider the risk reward of a fight. Boom…. Fight happens.

If that happens enough. The Pit will get conditioned to go into adrenaline habitually around other dogs. Now you have an “aggressive” dog.

Looking back to my childhood, Dogmen were adamant about not letting game dogs around other dogs out of the pit. They always said it was because they COULDN’T be around other dogs. But maybe (even if subconsciously) they just didn’t want them to learn how to socialize. Dogs that read signals don’t habitually adrenalize. And a thinking dog may choose to turn. In a pit you can’t afford to have your dog “considering” whether of not it “wants” to fight. If your dog hesitates…… Doesn’t IMMEDIATELY scratch…. The fight is over. So I think their segregation from other dogs was more of a cause than a symptom of aggression.

Great….. But what do we do about it?

Well, if you catch a dog before they are habitually adrenalized around dogs, you just have to teach them how to communicate. That means spending time with them socializing and being the moderator, or bouncer. You have to watch the other dog for those signals, and enforce them. I watch for the other dog to give a lip lick or what not, and I will go in and split them. Gently. Not loud or fast. Just enforce the signal. I praise (calmly) for good signals. Hell I praise for good reading! And as I gently lead them they slowly learn how to communicate, and I intervene less.

(Now, that is GROSS oversimplification. If you’re serious about learning how to do this right, attend one of Chad’s Socialization Seminars. Or, talk to me about private training)

If they’re already HABITUALLY adrenalizing….. You have to get them balanced enough around other dogs that the above process will even have a chance to work!

That’s gonna be a project unto itself. But it’s doable.

My two males have hospitalized each other a few times, and were BOTH habitually adrenalizing on sight. It took me 4-5 months. But now…. They play, and lounge together. They sleep on the couch together. They even wrestle, and play. Hard. And they give signals!

And more importantly……. They listen to them!!!!


Just wanted to say that I have changed my view. Pit Bulls are NOT naturally dog aggressive.

They are naturally bad communicators, and that leads to fights. And they adrenalize easy, and if that becomes habit the will BEHAVE aggressively habitually. You still have to take more care with them than most other breeds. But they are not born wanting to fight.

“Aggression is a behavior. Not a trait.” -Chad Mackin

Those simple words changed my understanding of my beloved breed.

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