Friday, September 25, 2015

Checking the Right Box

"With great canine power, comes great canine responsibility."

A new reader of the blog writes:
With all the guff that is happening with pitbulls/pitbull do you define a pitbull?

Ah! A mine-field of a question
, but a good question nonetheless. My answer, to a true dog man, remains the same as for everyone else:

How do you define any dog? It is what it looks like. A dog man knows what it is, and yes there are crosses where discussion takes place, but you and I both know what a Pit Bull is, same as we know what a Greyhound is, or a Patterdale, or a Border Collie.

Some folks want to define the dog away. Always funny, but calling a dog's tail a leg does not make the dog have five legs, does it?

Comedian Trevor Noah, who is biracial (and about to take over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart) has a nice bit when it comes to race and what box to check. There's only audio, but it's a nice bit.

The last part is the hammer
. There is a right answer in the real world because people are constantly looking for a hole in which to shove every pigeon, and never mind if things are not always so simple.

Pigeon holes are how we make sense of a complex world. We label everything and lump things into groups that seem to make real-world sense to us. This task is informative, and often a quick way to get it right, but it can also help us get it wrong. Every bird we assign to a pigeon hole may, in fact, not be a pigeon. And of course, not every pigeon, will find its hole.

I am a 56-year-old bald white man who speaks like he comes from Virginia. No one would guess, on first brush, that I was born in Zimbabwe and raised in North Africa. I'm a gun owner, and an immigration restrictionist, which means a lot of people assume I am a Republican. Such people are decidedly confused when they discover I have two Korean kids, and I am a flaming liberal.

Every human being is complicated, and so too are a lot of the dogs. It's a little silly, for us to tell a black person they are not black because they do not live up to our stereotype of that race! Ditto for every other characteristic we can think of:  gender, sexual orientation, geographic origin, income, and education.  

Now flip that around, and think about the dogs. You see? Generalizations are not always true, are they?

And yet... they often are.

Stereotypes exist for a reason; they are more frequently right than wrong. 

And so, as a demographer, if I am looking at a neighborhood that is 60% black, 15% Hispanic, 5% Asian, and the remainder white, I can be fairly certain it is not a wealthy neighborhood. That's not prejudice talking; that's evidence, observation, and data. That's the real world as it is, rather than the world as we want it to be. What I have said is true despite the fact that most poor people are not black, and most black people are not poor.

What does this have to do with Pit Bulls? Simple: big block heads are a defining characteristic of pit bulls. It's not their only characteristic, of course, but it's a very strong one. Add in four or five other small but telling features, and a dog man generally knows a pit bull when he sees one, same as the average person can tell the difference between a light skinned black man, and a Turk.

Now, does everyone always get it always right along the trailing edges of mixed race self-identification? No, but 98% of the time we do. Barack Obama may be half white, but most Americans have no trouble assigning him to the same racial box that he checks for himself.

Pit Bulls are different than people, of course.

People have not been bred to have certain inner drives and characteristics.

Dogs have. Please, let us own this.

Retrievers are particularly biddable. 

Terriers are high-energy psychotic killers of small furry things.

Border collies live to herd anything.

Bird dogs are birdy.

And Pit Bulls? Like Dobermans, these were, and are, dogs created for a purpose -- to bite. For certain breeds, biting is a very self-rewarding behavior. Dog men know this, and we use this drive in our training.

Does that mean every Doberman is still the tax-collector's dog or that every Pit Bull, Boxer, or Dogo has a massive amount of genetic code ready to explode?

No, of course, not. Doberman's have been bred for decades to lose their code, and the same has occurred for "American Staffordshire Terriers" and Boxers in the AKC.

But Pit Bulls are still being fought illegally, and dogs are still being run, legally, on wild pigs.

And so what is the result when we have so many people acquiring Pit Bulls of pedigree unknown?  

The result is a very uneven amount of drive inside the dogs -- and a very predictable lack of understanding, by a lot of new owners, about how to train or channel that drive through exercise, training, and boundaries.

So what does society do?

Society looks at the totality of the breed as it finds them in the real world, attached more often that not to hazy, lazy, and sometimes crazy young adults with unsettled lives and too little discipline.

Even if we concede that backyard swimming pools kill far more people than Pit Bulls (they do), the number of serious maulings inflicted by the dogs is a cause for deep concern. So too is the fact that nearly a million Pit Bulls a year are being killed in our "shelters" because they were bred by people who said they loved Pit Bulls, acquired in haste by people who said they loved Pit Bulls, and were subsequently dumped at the pound when the "cute puppy" grew up to be a large, poorly socialized, and undisciplined dog.

Society thinks that sucks.  

Go ahead and set aside the 20-30 people a year who are killed by Pit Bulls  -- it's a very low number and not a very impressive number.

But the serious maulings? Those stack up in the many thousands every year.

And the killing of perfectly healthy Pit Bulls whose only crime is that they are no longer puppies? That's in the many, many hundreds of thousands per year.

And so society had made forms with little check boxes on them and, in response, Pit Bull owners have learned to lie about their breed and deny its existence.  "That's not a pigeon in a hole," they will tell you, "that's a passerine in a bird house."

I get it. Go ahead and lie on the check box, but do us both a favor, and do not lie to yourself or to me. There is such a thing as a Pit Bull, you can recognize them when you see them, and there is a code that bubbles inside a predictably high percentage of the dogs.

Does that mean the dogs are evil? No. It means that with great canine power comes great canine responsibility. If the Pit Bull community does not exercise that responsibility by breeding less, training more, talking about breed specific problems, actively unselling the breed, and even embracing and advocating canine responsibility laws, then society will impose some ham-fisted and imperfect code of responsibility that may range from mandatory insurance to breed bans. 

Does that feel unfair, discriminatory, and punitive to Pit Bull owners? It does, but how Pit Bull owners feel is not actually the concern when so many Pit Bulls are paying the ultimate price for human irresponsibility. For the dog's sake, something has to change, and the only real question is whether that change will come from inside the Pit Bull community, or outside of it.

And, for the record, part of that change is the check box. Every person who sees the check box, or lies their way around it, is being sent a powerful denormalization message. 

This is actually how you "unsell" a problem product or a behavior. Think cigarettes. We banned them on airplanes. Then we increased health insurance premiums. Then we banned smoking in government buildings. Then there were smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants. Then restaurants simply banned smoking. Then taxes rose, and CVS and other stores stopped selling cigarettes. 

Smoking has not been banned, but the social cues we send about smoking have changed. The Marlboro man died of cancer, and what was once seen as cool, during the era of Bogey and Bacall, is now seen as a pathetic and expensive blue-collar addiction. 

The result: hundreds of thousands of human lives saved.  

Now the question is whether we can do the same for the dogs.


PBurns said...

From Jay Jack >>

Bingo. There is not an original idea in my head. More proof. Jay is funny, smart, and weird in the best way possible -- he's an American original. God save us from the cookie cutter people. Give me American Originals!

Suzanne said...

So, what do you have to say about the UF mixed breed ID study? Yes, DNA breed tests are problematic, but that isn't the most interesting part of the study: out of 5,000 "dog men" (and please don't pull a no-true-scotsman; we can reasonably assume these people on average are just as good as you at breed ID), none of them could agree on any of the dogs . Most dogs got dozens of guesses, often "no predominant breed" made the top 5 list even in cases where the DNA suggested it did indeed have a prominent breed in recent ancestry. While not conclusive, it should make us all question black and white philosophies like yours. "We know it when we see it"

Eric Trujillo said...

Pit bulls have become what once Dobermans, Rottweilers, German shepherds where, the “bad ass” breed, the representation of “evil”. So scared, coward, unsecure people look up for this breeds to compensate this. That is why now a days you see larger pit bulls, with more exaggerated features. And what makes it more preoccupying and dangerous, the new “””breeders””” are selecting and looking for insecure, unstable temperament dogs. Why, because they confuse a guarding attitude with fear, they want nervous, reactive dogs, so they can scare people. However, when you have a powerful, strong, dog you should be looking for a stable dog, with strong nerves.
We should be looking for demotivating people, from owning dogs, and not only pit bulls, since this breed isn’t the only killing or biting people, nor the only one being abandon and filling the dog pounds. What we need is stronger laws, responsible ownership, and more obligations to fill in order to own any dog.


PBurns said...

The GSD, Rottie, and Doberman communities worked Jared to "unsell" their breeds and to breed dogs that were a little less reactive, and it seems to have worked.

The Pit Bull community had grown increasingly large in the last 40 years, and has not had club or breeder leadership like we had with donors, Rotts, and GSDs.

Agree on the need to increase the sense of responsibility in the entire dig world. See this post >>

PBurns said...

Suzanne, the "study" you have posted is crap in and crap out. Let's start with the simplest bit: most of the people being asked about breeds actually are NOT dog men or women. They do not train dogs or know a breed. I mention a Patterdale in my post. Do you know what one is? Please tell me all about it!

A second bit is that dog men know a single picture, devoid of scale and mist other bits, will not tell you much.

Third, most of the dogs presented are not breeds but multi-mixes. And so, you get the classic error of forcing folks into frames (glass full/glass empty) as noted in a post earlier this week.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the statement that "breed DNA tests are problematic" does not BEGIN to tell you what a COMPLETE SCAM Rhodes tests are. They are such a scam that they tell you they do not work on purebred dogs! The first dog I clicked on on that "study" said is was part Glenn of Imaal, one of the rarest breeds in the world. Still laughing. Pure bullshit.

But hey, let's see what happens when a pure breed pitbull with mmany decades of papers behind it, is tested. There's a simple test of concept, right?


Now Read this. Jay Jack is a real Pit Bull guy, not a dog groomer or vet tech or someone who just fell off a turnip truck packed with chihuahuas. Jay is as sharp as a tack -- in more ways that one.

PBurns said...

Whoops! The URL for the gene testing video did not get pasted in. Try this. >>

Ironically, the reason it did not paste in is that the Iralyan greyhound in bed with me (identified by shelter experts as a "Jack Russell x Chihuahua" was tapping on my hand for breakfast. Hungry little man!

jeff hays said...

I consider myself a "dogman", and I would hazard my guess about pitbull in mixed dogs, let alone dogs that are mostly pitties,is 80 % accurate.
There is a distinct difference in looks with a mixed breed lab blockhead appearance and a pit blockhead look. I think I can mostly tell.

PipedreamFarm said...

I believe that the biggest risk to society from "pit bulls" comes from well meaning pet dog breeders who NEVER evaluate the instincts of the dogs they are crossing.

People seem to understand that dogs should be tested for genetically linked diseases before breeding to ensure these genes are not passed onto the pups. However very few pet dog breeders seem to understand (or don't care) that one needs to test for genetically linked instincts prior to breeding or they will have no knowledge about these genes being passed onto the pups. Testing for genetically linked instincts is not as simple as a blood test; it takes dog training and exposure to the right stimuli (plus knowledge about these instincts) to evaluate potential parents prior to breeding. Every time a pit bull litter is produced without evaluating the parents for these genetically linked instincts more unknown risks are introduced to likely unprepared puppy buyers.