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MD: The human problem of dog aggression


Posted: Friday, January 2, 2015 3:30 am

While we have not heard from Ellicott McConnell in nearly five months on the unsuitability of dogs identified as pit bulls as family pets, he could not let sleeping dogs lie. Promised as “My final comments on pit bulls and suitability†in his recent Star Democrat commentary, Dr. McConnell again relies on faulty logic, personal anecdotes and outdated behavioral theories to support the banning of pit bulls as animal companions. The good news is these are his final comments. The bad news is his final comments are designed to create or perpetuate irrational fears in readers.

It is clear that Dr. McConnell has his mind made up despite the preponderance of evidence that breed specific legislation (BSL) is not a viable solution to what he perceives as a pit bull problem. Rather than leave his “final comments†as the final word, what follows is another rebuttal to some of the content of Dr. McConnell’s latest commentary:

While the original pit bull dog was once bred and used for fighting other dogs, they were never selected for aggression toward humans. To the contrary, the “breed†as a whole is known for its friendliness and affection toward humans. Per capita, there is no definitive research indicating that bites to humans by pit bulls are any more frequent or “unrelenting†than attacks by dogs of any other breed.

Regarding pit bull identification, Dr. McConnell subscribes to the dangerous and faulty arm-chair logic of inductive reasoning, known as the Duck Test: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Some dog breeds that are commonly identified as pit bulls include the Boxer, Rottweiler, Olde English Bulldogge, American Bulldog, American Staffordshire Terrier, Bullmastiff, Dogue de Bordeaux, Bull Terrier, Catahoula and even the Rhodesian Ridgeback, my own beloved breed. When mixed breed dogs are factored in, a lot of dogs may appear to look like a pit bull, walk like a pit bull, and bark like a pit bull to anyone not well-trained in breed identification.

Dr. McConnell quotes a University of Wisconsin veterinarian Sandi Sawchuck: “I don’t think pits bite more than other breeds, it’s when they do they inflict more damage.†More damage than some breeds, yes, but less than others. In 2005, Drs. Brady Barr and Joe Camp studied which canine breeds have the strongest bite using digital bite meters to measure bite force. The results, featured in National Geographic magazine, showed that larger breeds have stronger biting force than smaller breeds, as one may suspect. Pit bulls showed a bite force of 235 PSI (pounds per square inch). Some of the more common breeds with a stronger bite force include the German Shepherd (238 PSI), American Bulldog (305 PSI), Rottweiler (328 PSI), Akita (350 PSI) and the Mastiff (with a staggering bite force of 556 PSI).

In another effort to support his opinion that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, Dr. McConnell notes that “… pit bulls and certain other dogs are banned from military housing on many military basesâ€, and that, “ … the military has no problem identifying breeds …†The military is not known for its expertise in canine behavior and identification. They also had a ban on homosexuals in the military until 2011, so perhaps there is hope that they will someday recognize the error of their ways and rescind their ban on pit bulls.

In describing his training experience with his Dobermans, Dr. McConnell uses phrases like, “… a no-nonsense lady …†describing his trainer, “… made sure we owners were Alpha Dogs …â€, and “… generally be in control …†describing his relationship with his dogs. This is the language of old-fashioned, outdated dominance-based training that employs force, coercion and punishment to train dogs. The field of canine behavioral science rejected this type of training for our canine companions decades ago in favor of more humane, effective, science-based methods based on positive reinforcement. The link between force-based training methods and problematic canine behavior, including aggression, is well documented. It is ironic that someone who is so concerned with canine aggression is unaware a major contributing cause involves training methods that he holds in high regard.

A particularly dangerous philosophy that Dr. McConnell subscribes to is the “alpha dog†(or dominance) theory. It is based on a study of unrelated captive zoo wolves in the 1930s and ‘40s, concluding that wolves in a pack are in constant competition for a higher rank, fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf. These observations were erroneously extrapolated to wild wolf behavior, and then to domestic dogs. The problem is, that is not normal wolf behavior in the wild, where wolves live in a relatively harmonious familial pack structure. The dangerous “alpha dog†myth was debunked decades ago, but still pervades the language and behavior of many dog owners and canine health and behavior professionals. We know now that we do not need to use intimidation and fear to dominate our dogs for them to look to us for direction and teach them appropriate behavior.

Dr. McConnell continues to make misleading statements on the differences between learned behavior, instinct and temperament, implying that some dogs are genetically programmed for unrelenting attacks on humans. Behavior is a result of the interaction of genetics and environment, with environment either supporting a genetic predisposition or modifying it. Early positive socialization and humane, rewards-based training is crucial in creating dogs who integrate harmoniously into our families and community, regardless of breed. We also know that aggression is caused by stress and that as with humans, individual dogs have different thresholds for stress. When multiple stressors accumulate, behavior happens, and that behavior can take the form of aggression. Dogs that are involved in attacks on humans are highly stressed animals. It is our responsibility as dog owners to identify and reduce stressors for our canine companions in order to help ensure their health, well-being and safety, and the safety of other animals and humans. That includes providing a safe and loving home environment, early and continuing socialization, physical and mental exercise, humane training, learning to recognize signs of stress in our dogs, as well as teaching our children how to interact appropriately with dogs and supervising all child-dog interactions.

What Dr. McConnell sees as a pit bull problem, is not even a dog problem — it is a human problem. We, as a society, create aggressive animals through indiscriminate breeding, inadequate socialization and training, and inhumane treatment, including the use of force and punishment in training. Now that Dr. McConnell has contributed his “final comments†on the suitability of pit bull ownership, his time would be better spent focusing his efforts on the prevention of canine aggression, rather than supporting fear-based breed discrimination from behind a pen or keyboard.

Susan Sarubin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and behavior consultant, and the owner of Pawsitive Fit Puppy and Dog Training in Easton.

The human problem of dog aggression - The Star Democrat - Easton, Maryland: Columns


Excellent fact-based article which demonstrates Dr. McConnell should have 0 input on breed specific legislation. Or as I like to say "Bull S*&^ legislation".
Thanks, and keep-on fighting the good fight.


Well-Known Member
I think a point he could have made that maybe he doesn't realize is a good start would be that not just anyone buys or adopts a pit bull.

To be honest, when I see youtube videos and or hear of the attacks it's usually from humans that apparently have a certain image about them and or the lack of responsibility of caring to which you see lone pit-bulls running the streets that the owner is not housing. Again this is usually what I see when it's reported. Also I would go as far to say these videos should be banned on the youtube channel.

The design of the pit is very strong and I can understand why if they get a hold of something and what ever that is it's fate of not being harmed is sealed usually, being a toy, another animal or human.

so being said, the awesome people that stand up and rescue these dogs and those that try to educate society on these breeds should welcome a prove yourself buyer or adopter responsible for ownership of a Pit Bull. I for one wouldn't want just anyone purchasing this breed. I would welcome something standard across the states.

Then again why not do that for all breeds? Maybe we could see a day that future owners have the credentials to prove they are a proper care taker of said animals.

I agree humans are what is destroying this breed and I see no coming back still, what else can be done?