Rusty the Pitty

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Name           “Rusty”

Breed           American Pitt Bull Terrier X

Location     Albany St

“Rusty, are you going to sit?”

Rusty’s strong bum touched the ground immediately, and he looked up at his Dad, calmly awaiting further instructions. In truth, he had no interest in me and my camera, he was just doing what he was told. Thats exactly what American Pit Bull Terriers do best, and unfortunately this is so often to their detriment.

Bear with me on this particularly long post – this is a contentious topic and I want touch as many bases as possible!

“…A dog that embodied all of the virtues attributed to great warriors: strength, indomitable courage, and gentleness with loved ones.” (UKC)

American Pitt Bull Terriers are internationally infamous, and have such a bad reputation for aggression that many countries have strict regulations for keeping them – some requiring that they be neutered or even muzzled in public places.

The science and history behind breeding pit bulls is hard to pinpoint. The most commonly accepted origin of the breed was a genetic variant from bulldogs for the purpose of ‘blood sports’ – sporting events which usually involved another deliberately aggravated animal such as a bull or a bear, where the dog had to achieve a bite so strong and relentless that it would immobilise the other animal.

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A painting by Abraham Hondius from about 1650 portraying the blood sport of bear-baiting (picture from Bear-baiting)

However aggressive this role may sound, blood sports were banned in England all the way back in 1813 along with the first animal welfare laws. As they were bread originally with the ‘gameness of the terrier with the strength and athleticism of the Bulldog’ (UKC) they made excellent catch dogs for farmers; hunting foxes, hogs, and other unwelcome animals.

Unfortunately the stigma probably stems from the use of pitt bulls in dog fighting. This is where the genes get even more confusing (and screwed up). Because dog fighting is highly illegal in the US, it is seriously impossible to track breeding for this industry, and especially to get a scope of its scale. What worries many is the idea that dog fighting has bred pitt bulls with extremely high tolerance to pain, as well as the tendency to ‘catch and hold’ their victim without releasing their bite.

But we also know that pitt bulls are bred to be intensely loyal to their owners, and as such can be led seriously astray. There are countless reports of brutal abuse of dogs in order to build them in to fearless fighters, and after a lifetime of such abuse, pitt bulls do as they’re told without an ounce of aggression toward their owners. ‘Doing as they’re told’ all too often involves fighting to the death, which they will do without hesitation. A dog version of Stockholm syndrome, perhaps?

In terms of data, it appears to be true that American Pitt Bull Terriers are very slightly more likely to attack unfamiliar dogs than other household breeds. However, an American study from 2008 showed that breeds such as the Jack Russell Terrier, Cocker Spaniel and even Chihuahua show a much higher percentage of serious aggression towards humans than pitt bulls (Duffy, et al.). Sadly the bite of the pitt bull can be much more fatal, a fact which has been known to skew the data.

There is also a huge amount of ambiguity in breed names. When Americans speak about ‘pitt bulls’ they’re not just referring to American Pitt Bull Terriers, they’re actually speaking about a collection of breeds – this includes the American Staffordshire Terrier, the American Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and the American Bulldog. As such, it is hard to decipher how many attacks each breed is responsible for, and so-called ‘pure-breeds’ are difficult to identify.

It would seem that American Pit Bull Terriers are highly unlikely to attack humans, but nonetheless their bite can be extremely destructive. If, however they are crossed with guard dogs bred to attack humans, such as Rottweilers or Dobermans, they are potentially much more dangerous and should be trained very carefully.

All this in mind, it is true that American Pitt Bull parents (including Rusty’s Dad) frequently attest to their dogs being extremely gentle and loyal. There is even a common stereotype in the US of the aggressively defensive pit bull owner (watch this).

There is certainly a growing demand for American Pitt Bulls like Rusty, because of their extremely gentle and loyal nature – these are the traits that legal pitt bull breeders are favouring more and more. Hopefully this will lead to the breed being more commonly recognised for its loyalty and kindness than its menace.

Mac the Lab

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Name       Mac

Age            6 months

Breed        Black Labrador

Location   St. Kilda Beach

Everyone loves a lab. They are super kind, gentle and seriously eager to please.

They can also be very cheeky, especially when it comes to food – I once new a lab named Ollie who had a reputation for getting on my friend’s kitchen table while people’s heads were turned (this was a particular problem one year on Christmas eve when Ollie dragged the whole leg of ham into the backyard).

Like most labs though, Ollie was loved unconditionally by his whole family until his last hours. I would be hard pressed to find a better breed for my first entry.

The earliest descriptions of lab-like dogs date back to the 17th century in Newfoundland, where similar dogs were being bred to help fisherman haul in nets. These fishing dogs led to the genetic selection of a new breed, the St. John’s Water Dog, which was bred to retrieve waterfowl during hunting. Also in Newfoundland, the St. John’s Water Dog was extremely hardy and strong, and had short hair to avoid gathering too much snow and ice in the water during the winter months. As a result, they developed a layer of extremely thick muscle to stay warm. Another interesting feature was their tail – the stronger, thicker tails were genetically favourable, as they made for a better swimmer (the thicker tail essentially acts as a rudder).

The St. John’s Water Dog’s excellent reputation as a waterfowl retriever reached England, and the first was introduced in 1820 to an area known as ‘The Labrador’, where a collection of prominent Earls and Dukes would develop the breed for British hunters. Thus, the ‘Labrador Retriever’ was born!

These days, labs are bred less for their hunting prowess and more for their temperament and intelligence – they are now a popular disability assistance breed, providing excellent companionship and aid for the blind, those with autism, and as a therapy dog for the mentally ill; among many other roles.

Unfortunately their characteristic physicality does not come without consequence. Labs are known for a myriad of joint problems, especially in the hips and knees. Consistent and varied physical exercise until old age is said to reduce the risk of joint problems, as well as combatting their other most common health condition: obesity. Care with food is extremely important, as, like Ollie, Labradors are known to be seriously driven by food and don’t seem to know when they’re full.

Labs still hold many traits of the St. John’s Water Dog: the strong, ‘rudder’ tail that knocks things off tables, the thick muscular body, their knack with retrieving (or playing ‘fetch’) and especially their obsession with water.

But above all of its adorable traits, I think it is the Labrador’s loyalty and kindness that make it one of the most popular breeds in New Zealand.