Breed Discrimination – It’s Time to Stop

Tex, a Blue-Nose American Pit Bull Terrier.
Tex, a Blue-Nose American Pit Bull Terrier.

Settle in for a good long read. This girl is about to rant a little.

One of the most frequent questions asked when someone comes by the Hydrant Club to learn about our facility is, “Do you have any restrictions … um … you know … any restrictions?”

The question they want to ask is whether or not we prohibit certain breeds, but no one wants to come right out and say that. You see, we live in a society where discrimination based on race, religion and sexual orientation is not okay. Well, it shouldn’t be, though there are some terrifying trends on that front, we’ll stick to dog stuff for the purpose of this post. Sadly any sense of righteous indignation about discriminatory practices does not extend to our canine friends, and those who fall into the broad spectrum of “bully breeds” are the ones that suffer most.

Are American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, Presa Canarios, Argentine Dogos and the rest of those that fall into this general grouping of breeds physically powerful dogs? Yes. Does their sheer size and/or physique make them more dangerous if there’s a fight? Potentially but not necessarily. Any number of myths exist about the bully breed physique. Certainly, if a 130-pound dog gets into a fight with a dog less than half its size, things won’t generally go well for the smaller dog. If that same large dog attacks a human, there can be some serious damage. But the size and power of these breeds are not synonymous with aggression. In fact, as we cover in other posts on this site, aggression isn’t a thing in dogs. It’s just not. Dogs aren’t inherently aggressive any more than people are. Aggression is a behavior that occasionally is bred but MOSTLY is learned. It’s what happens when dominant traits go unchecked.

This leads to the next factor debunking the discrimination against this breed category. No single dog breed is more “aggressive” than another. People who say that is a fact are either lying or deeply uninformed. The statistics just do not exist. Kind of like how anyone who claims that Pit Bulls attack more people than any other breed is equally wrong. The statistics around dogs are horribly inadequate. In order to collect statistics, you need data that replicates. You need scenarios that are comparable. When it comes to dog bites and dog “aggression”, these scenarios just don’t add up.

That said, one also must pay close attention to an important fact. The domesticated canine is the most man-made species on the planet. Full stop. We took a handful of naturally occurring canid lines and then fabricated them. Over decades and generations we have crafted various and sundry breeds for physical traits, mental acuity, and behavior. In that vein, there are breeds that were MADE to do very specific things … like tear things in half. Breeds ranging from German Shepherd Dogs, Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers to the Presa Canario, Cane Corso, Argentinian Dogo and yes, the Pit Bull, were designed, bred and created by man to disable, dismantle and otherwise dissemble any “target” in their path. So when one of these dogs gets into a skirmish (again, they are no more likely to do so than any other breed) the damage can be colossal … because damage is what they were created to do.

Putting the overt dominance and size thing aside, there’s a bigger challenge. That challenge is identifying dogs that actually are bully breeds in the first place. Unless you have a DNA test or paperwork to prove a dog’s lineage, telling a dog’s breed or breed mix is an imperfect science at best – even for people who spend every day, all day with dogs. Note this simple visual test asking the viewer to identify which one is the American Pit Bull Terrier. Easy right? Nope. It turns out it takes the average person up to 8 minutes to get close to accurately identifying the APBT – and that’s with static images they have a chance to evaluate, peruse and consider. Chances that your average person can glance at a dog across the street and accurately identify it as a Pit? Just about zero.

Unfortunately judging a dog by its look is common and can even impact one’s living situation. When I moved to Las Vegas, the building into which I was moving questioned me about my dog because their policy was a strict prohibition against any “bully breed”, a broad category in which they included Boxers and Rottweilers. Never mind that Truman looks like a 1970s shag rug crossed with a Wookie, and never mind that when I moved in there was a pair of deeply aggressive Beagles (talk about an oddity) that were living in the building (they later were asked to leave the building).

It’s not uncommon for dense population housing (aka apartment buildings, condos) to have breed restrictions. Most building management or owners do this as an easy fix because the simple fact is that if they don’t restrict by breed, they need to restrict by behavior and that means screening the dogs, which takes time, which none of them are qualified to do, which then means they have to hire someone, which means more cost and few landlords are likely to incur cost when it’s just easier to have a blanket statement that removes their need to deal.

As far as private buildings and facilities are concerned, there’s unfortunately very little one can do other than make an attempt to reason with the owners. In terms of public spaces, though, many advances have been made in the realm of knocking down breed specific legislation.  Unfortunately, there still is an all-too-long list of places where some flavor of legislation discriminating against a difficult-to-properly-identify group of dogs exists.

There are many efforts towards continuing to whittle down the discrimination so it doesn’t help when a major pet business that should be promoting education about breeds and behaviors puts its own discriminatory policy in place.

For the record, I’m not a fan of big box stores of any kind and as that relates to pet retail and supplies it’s particularly true. I’m not saying I’ve never been to a PetSmart or PetCo … because I have, but the majority of my time (and money) gets spent with smaller businesses whose laser-focus on curating the best products possible beats out the drive to low cost. Do I end up spending a touch more? Probably. Do I get better products and service? Sure do. Especially in light of what I’ve come to learn about PetSmart.

A while back I came across this great Huffington Post piece by Ari Greenwood, the site’s Animal Welfare Editor. I was dismayed, though not surprised, to find out that PetSmart has some pretty strict barriers for “bully breeds.” That they have restrictions is less bothersome to me than the language they used around their justification:

When we developed our policy, it was with the deep knowledge and experience we’ve gained by associating with this breed of dogs in a variety of capacities and in understanding their history.

Their “history”? If they’re referring to the misinformation about the breed, that shows ignorance of the breed. If they’re referring to the stories in the public sphere about horrible experiences with bully breed dogs that are caused by human error and failure, then shame on them for blaming the dogs.

From what I’ve seen of the off-leash play environment in most PetSmart facilities (I’ll say most because there are a few where staffing is different and handler talent is different) you’re looking at large volume off-leash play with an unreasonable ratio of dog to human. Last time I went by to peek into a PetSmart the ratio I noted was something like 20 dogs to each handler, and these dogs are not as thoroughly screened as we do at Hydrant Club.

Here is some math: Large volume of dogs +  bad handler ratio + poor screening = disaster waiting to happen.

It doesn’t matter what breeds are in that mix with that kind of ratio and poor screening process. A quick Google search shows that between November 2017 and June 2018a quick Google search showed a half dozen incidents – ranging from death to deep injury – were recorded at PetSmart facilities across the country. Those are just the ones that got major coverage.

But I digress.

The topic for here isn’t the woefully inadequate conditions for PetSmart daycare but rather the colossal imperfection created by people discriminating against a much-maligned breed category. Should these breeds be handled with care, caution and deep adherence adherance to proper behavioral stabilization and training? Absolutely. Should they be maligned and judged merely because we made them a certain way? No.

So if you’re considering a dog facility for your own dog and want to make sure it’s a safe environment, there are some things you can consider to ensure that your dog is safe. If you’d like to get these insights, as well as engage in more in-depth conversations about breeds, navigating urban myths and the reality of dogs in today’s society, we’d love to have you join us at Hydrant Club’s Canine Conversations. This paid access community (you get your first month free) gives you unfettered access to deep dives on an array of topics from breeds and behaviors to training, nutrition, lifestyle activities, access to noted industry experts and – most importantly – a group of like-minded dog people with whom you can connect.