Pit bull aggression as competitive aggression

For a couple of years, I felt I had a good explanation for the rather unusual and extreme aggression shown by pit bulls other dogs.  I had concluded it was a type of “predatory drift,” which is a dog trainers’ term referring to a shift in behavior from social to predatory when a dog is interacting with a member of a species to which it was socialized.  I thought this explained some features of the serious aggression toward dogs shown by some pit bulls:  Silent attacks, fighting to the death, lack of warnings, and so on.

[Note: For purposes of this discussion, “pit bull” refers to any dog with a significant amount of lineage from dogs actually bred to fight other dogs — pit fighting dogs.  I am very aware that “pit bull” is not a breed, that people suck at identifying them, and so on.  And I’m aware that talking about extreme aggression by pit bulls upsets some people and will cause someone to accuse me of causing the deaths of innocent dogs just by talking about this.  Also, I’m not talking about aggression by pit bulls toward humans, just dogs, in this blog.  And also, the phrase “to which it was socialized” refers to socialization during the primary socialization window, prior to about 15 weeks of age,” and not to social interactions after that point.]

In discussions with colleagues, I’ve concluded that I had it wrong.  In particular, Ken McCort, CABC, helped educate me.  Ken says this serious pit bull aggression is actually competitive aggression, in the ecological sense.  Most dogs are probably unconsciously selected for the ability to live harmoniously with a mixed living group — reduced competitiveness and more cooperativeness is obviously incredibly useful in that context. In the context of a house full of dogs, we would normally think of “competitive aggression” as bickering over resources — perhaps snarkiness at dinner time or shoving to get closer to the owner.

But in nature, competitive aggression means aggression to remove ecological competitors. I believe this covers a pretty wide range of competition, from sexual competition (rams trying to kill each other in breeding season) to food/territory competition (coyotes kill dogs for this reason). The competitor is outside the animal’s social group and there is no percentage in NOT fighting — there is no social harmony to maintain, and leaving the competitor alive means less food for the attacker. So this type of competition can be swift and brutal. There is no point in warning, since the point is to actually get rid of the competitor.  Pit fighting dogs were selected for tenacious and fearless willingness to fight other dogs to the death.  They typically do not warn when engaging in this type of fighting.  No point if your goal is to take out the competition, completely.  I think what we have here is hypertrophied competitive aggression.

I think that “luring” behavior is quite likely just an efficient means of being able to get close enough to strike. One of my friends with a lovely pit bull describes this in her dog (who is extremely well trained and well managed, by the way!).  This type of behavior has been reported in coyotes, who act playful, lure dogs out to check out the action, and then kill them.  Coyotes don’t kill dogs for food; they kill them to remove hunting competition.  

Dogs who are actually predatory with other dogs hunt them or are triggered by rapid movement. Pit bulls can certainly be as predatory as other terriers. It’s complicated. If I see a pit bull who is normally dog friendly suddenly freeze, grab and shake a Maltese, I’m going to assume it’s “predatory drift.” If I see a pit bull occasionally facing off against other dogs, getting into severe fights, I’m going to assume competitive aggression. It’s also clear to me that most aggressive behavior displayed by pit bulls is normal social aggression, for the purpose of resolving a social dispute without serious damage to either party — the exact same type of aggression that my Border Collie or your Lab might display.  This looks different, though:  It’s loud, lots of spit and flashing teeth,  little damage.

One take-home point here is that pit bulls are actually different from other dogs.  Some pit bulls (not all, and that’s an interesting discussion, too) are capable of competitive aggression that will lead them to kill other dogs whose behavior triggers them, which in some cases consists of just getting too close.  I get very irritated when I read statements (usually by breed advocates) that pit bulls are just like  other dogs, but are vilified because people are scared of them or (if the writer is trying to be fair) because they have such strong jaws and so many are badly treated and perhaps more likely to use aggression as a result. It’s true that they have strong jaws, and it’s true that pitties are overrepresented in the ranks of abused, stupidly trained, and stupidly managed dogs who are given reason and opportunity to behave dangerously.  But this does not change the fact (and I believe that yes, it’s a fact) that some of the aggression is just downright different from what dogs of most breeds are capable of.  Most dogs have had that intense competitive aggression bred out… depending on the breed, this ranges from “reduced” to “as far out as possible.”  The only other dogs intentionally bred for competitive aggression are livestock guardian breeds, and I have to wonder if there’s a context trigger for them which helps limit the potential for attacks on domestic dogs.  So yes, there’s something different about pit bulls.  I think understanding it and facing it squarely are necessary to moving forward.  But that’s another discussion.  
My flame suit is on…

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Predation and prey drive

Dog people throw the term “prey drive” around a lot.  There is a technical difficulty with this usage — modern scientists do not regard “drive theory” as a valid or accurate predictor or explanation of behavior.  I’m going to skip right past this old debate and focus on the ambiguity in the term.

People who use this term may use it to refer to dogs who like to play with toys: Balls, tugs, etc.  Or they may use to describe dogs who like to chase and kill other animals.  Or they may use it to describe liking to chase cars.  There seems to be an assumption that there’s this one quantity, the desire to chase moving things, which will apply across all types of chase objects in the same way.  And of course that doesn’t actually  happen.

Actual predation is chasing, killing and eating small animals.  Many breeds and individual dogs don’t do this.  They may or may not chase; fewer will kill; very few will actually eat, unless they are starving.  All parts of the predatory sequence are present:  Scan, Eye, Stalk, Chase, Grab-bite, Kill-bite, Dissect, Consume. (See Coppinger.)  Wild canids display these intact sequences toward any game they can catch; typically, they will focus on whichever prey species they can catch and eat with the least net expenditure of energy.

Most dog working behaviors reflect portions of the predatory sequence.  We have manipulated the original intact predatory sequence in various ways by selective breeding to produce various types of working behavior.  Border Collies do a lot of Eye and Stalk, with some Chase.  Grab Bite is discouraged and Kill Bite gets the dog shot behind the barn.  Labradors have a hypertrophied  and also truncated Grab Bite.  That is, they want to grab, but they are not supposed to actually bite down… just hard enough to prevent a dead bird from falling out of their mouths.  Pointers are all about Scan and Eye, and they can get really stuck there!  Many terriers and sighthounds have much more intact sequences, and will move rapidly all the way from Scan to Kill Bite.  It’s possible to identify which pieces of the sequence have been emphasized and which inhibited in various breeds as we examine their desired working behavior.

This differs from actual predation, even in most of the cases where the breed’s working behavior involves catching and killing animals.  The specific animal species targeted are often heavily narrowed.  Terriers are most turned on by small vermin; Labs even at 8 weeks will often show great intensity toward ducks and much less interest in cows or even in  blackbirds.  Working-bred Border Collies focus much harder on sheep or cattle than on birds.  This, in addition to the truncated or punctuated sequence displayed once the chase is on.  And in fact, it can get quite complicated.  A Border Collie might never bite a sheep, but will happily dispatch a vole (this does not get the dog shot behind the barn). The genetic plasticity of this sequence is really quite amazing.

This differs, again, from toy drive.  Some dogs will chase a lure-coursing lure (usually a flappy plastic bag pulled quickly on the ground) who wouldn’t chase a live animal.  Some will show far more interest in a braided fleece tug toy than an actual animal.  Ball-obsessed dogs are legion, and this trait can also be amazingly narrow.  I have a dog who will chase balls all day, and freezes up if he gets two of them in his paws and mouth at the same time, but he has never shown the slightest sign of noticing squirrels, would not chase a lure, will not play tug.  He was bred to play flyball – go figure!

In other words, this desire to “chase moving stuff”  varies wildly from dog to dog and breed to breed.  Is it all “prey drive”?  I don’t like using the same generic term for all of it, because it tends to mislead people.  A lot of people I talk to assume that because their dog kills stuffy toys, it will kill live animals.  Not necessarily so.  And many dogs who will hunt live animals or herd live sheep refuse to acknowledge toys.

The main group of dog folks who promulgated the use of the old “drive theory” were the people training police and military dogs, and dogs who compete in the related sports, such as IPO and ringsport.  They are referring to the dog’s desire to get to the bite sleeve, the running decoy.  This is obviously not predation.  So I propose, and try to stick to, using the term “prey drive” to refer to the desire to interact with toys in a play-predation mode.

I acknowledge that many working behaviors are based in predation. But they are not, in fact, predation.  My Border Collie will chase sheep all day (sadly, she is not terribly talented), but she has no interest in killing them.  She’s working, or at least trying to work, bless her heart.  I can call this behavior “prey drive,” too.

But I suggest that when we are talking about predation, we use the term “predation,” and avoid the term “prey drive.”  For the purpose of dogs, whose predatory sequence we have so severely messed with, I suggest we can include in this slightly incomplete predatory sequences.  I think we can call it “predation” if it moves smoothly from Scan through Kill-bite.  I realize this is a little sloppy.  I’m not a scientist, and right  now I just want a usable set of terms.

You may be wondering why we care.  Clarity is important.  The way these terms are used now is unclear and misleading.  I run into the following scenario pretty often, because of the work I do.  A client will tell me, “my dog has a high prey drive, and I’m really worried about him hurting my cat.”  If “high prey drive” turns out to mean “loves chasing tennis balls,” it’s possible there’s very little to worry about with respect to the cat.  Dogs who kill cats are predating, not playing.  (There are rare cases of more or less accidental death during play, but most cat kills are pretty fast and silent — predation.)  Or, a client may tell me that the dog is safe with the toddler because it has no prey drive.  The dog doesn’t play with toys, so there must not be a problem, right?  If the dog might kill in a predatory fashion, I want to be very clear to label the behavior predatory!

I suspect I will have more to add about this  once the comments start to come in…