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…


16 thoughts on “Pit bull aggression as competitive aggression

  1. I appreciate your willingness to take on this topic and ask some interesting questions. I think that there has to be a middle ground, with fertile discussion, between people unwilling to entertain the idea that pit bull type dogs (with the caveats you stated above to that description) may have some problematic genetic history, and people who demonize the breed(s) without any understanding. This is a tricky topic, and quite an emotional one for many people. I happen to believe that genetics play a large role in behavior, although so does experience/environment. For those of us who work with dogs, it’s important to try to ask intellectually honest questions and try to have constructive discussions and explore ideas safely, in order to help as many animals as we can live as harmoniously as possible with humans and other animals. I’ll be interested to hear what others have to say…

    • Thanks, Eden. If, first, people could just accept that “behavior toward dogs” and “behavior toward people” are relatively unrelated, it would avoid a whole lot of emotion. Maybe that would be a good thing to blog about. Not today, though… I’m tired. 😉

      • This…right here. So many people cannot separate a dog’s behavior toward other dogs and people. It seems like so many see them as one and the same and that creates a lot of problems in the discussion. It’s hard to have a rational discussion when people are not able to be rational.

  2. This makes so much sense! So glad you finally wrote this. Trying to wrap my head around it now, since I’ve been a huge “predatory pit bull” believer for years.

    So, it’s still competitive aggression when what should be an ordinary scuffle turns into a to-the-death fight? I’ve seen so many pits “flip” once a scuffle starts (even with “family member” dogs) and have always used the predatory drift explanation. Do you think it’s the same thing, except instead of the switch flipping to predation, it’s flipping to competition? (Does that even make sense?)

    Thanks Greta! As always!

    • Meghan… well, yeah, I think it probably is a “competitive drift” type of phenomenon. That’s sort of what hypertrophied means — it’s overdeveloped competition, and can take very little to trigger. It’s easy to imagine that “fighting back” could qualify as a trigger. But I’m really speculating here. I’m not an ethologist. I’m just trying to make sense out of a bunch of somewhat disparate sources of information — some ethology I’ve been exposed to, my own observations, an endless analysis (to which, as you know, I’m prone). I’ll be so interested to see what kind of fact-based, science-based responses I get.

  3. Oh my the pinkers (as Real Pit Bull describes those who deny this in our dogs) are going to be after you with pitchforks. I however, think it’s brilliant and thank you for saying what so many are afraid to say. I’ve had nasty blog posts written about me because I said that pit bulls are more prone to this behavior than most other breeds, and told I’m an enemy of the breed. Amuses me, but saddens me as well. The concept of competitive aggression is one I’ve not heard of, and I’d like to read/hear more about it. Thanks for writing this! Especially so quickly after your other great blog post today. 🙂

    • I’m not looking forward to the fight. It’s been a rough year! But I’ll gladly read any grounded criticism.

      As I’ve said in other places, as a behavior consultant, I would sure as heck rather stick my hand into a dog fight with a pit bull than many other breeds. I’d much rather get a call about a pit bull case than about some other breeds, too. I am not anti-pit. I am anti-ignorance.

  4. Interesting blog. And one certainly doesn’t have to be anti-pit to know that they have a tendency to be dog aggressive in a manner that is different from most other dogs. Certainly not all pits are, but there is clearly an increased tendency. For those that love pits (and I put myself in that category), to deny it creates credibility problems when we talk about what wonder dogs pits can be.

  5. Hi Greta, I can understand your tentativeness toward posting this article and I am glad that you have put your thoughts down on ‘paper’ as opposed to a range of short responses/posts on FB.
    I consider bull&terrier types and bull breed types to be my breeds – I own them and work with them and their people. I am not in the US and we see a different population of these dogs here and certainly a different proportion of the canine population here so my experiences at that level are distinct.
    Of course all dogs are capable of both competitiveness and predatory based aggression but I do agree that dogs with a blood sport history are more likely to demonstrate this and dogs with a dog-dog fighting history are more likely to demonstrate specific behavioural patterns in particular situations.
    All of the personality quirks that I most associate with these types of dogs (yes, it’s generalised) are the things I love about them. But I understand their patterns in arousal and manage and channel this.
    The difficulty is striking the balance between consideration for type characteristics and the effects of environment. For the most part, the population here is not ‘game bred’ so selection for behavioural characteristics is loose, which is sometimes more worrying.
    I do see competitive aggression as being a possible/likely contributor to dog attacks and would certainly be more likely to consider it when involving a group of this type of dog. I’m not sure I am with you on this being unique to this or one type of dog though. I see there being an underlying control and arousal issue and that being a trigger for this behaviour, its intensity and way it manifests. However, I see that you are looking at this from an ethological point of view here.
    I see these types of dogs engage in ‘normal’ types of aggressive displays with lots of signaling and appropriate responding but I do often see, even after this ritualised behaviour, arousal kicking in and this dog taking it a step further. Of course there is more than one motivator to any behaviour and behaviour is contextual.
    I understand why you would be uncomfortable with the adage that these dogs are just like other dogs; it’s an over simplification and a PR line – all groups of dogs with specific behavioural characteristics, especially where exaggerated relative to the canine population, may be different to other dogs based on one or more criteria – perhaps these dogs in this way and another type of dog in another way.
    I have more thinking to do on this (need more time in the day) but I thank you for writing and sharing this. It’s a good starting point and I would hope it will get the ball rolling in discussions of this topic. Only by accepting what is being said about these dogs and looking at ways of critically evaluating it can we get to the foundation. This is a complex issue and our analysis of this type of behaviour is only one small part.
    Thanks, Anne

    • Hi Anne, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t think “competitive aggression” is exclusive to pit bulls (as I defined the term in my blog), but I think this is the only common pet breed type which was selected for it. There are certainly a couple of other breeds I think are at a higher-than-average risk for serious, damaging aggression and I’m sure some of them are motivated by these types of social/resource competitive patterns.

      My strong feeling is that we can’t change the way a dog fights, once a fight has started. We can certainly change how likely the dog is to fight/aggress, and that’s where the training and impulse control work come in.

      It’s so hard to talk about this issue that it’s really hard to get intelligent commentary that would help an interested person, like me, to formulate and refine a hypothesis. So far, this discussion is staying amazingly civil and productive. Yay for that.

  6. Excellent article! I rescued pit bulls almost exclusively for several years and encountered dogs with nearly every temperament type. Currently I’m dealing with what might be considered some competitive aggression with my rescued female pit bull. I recently got married and so now we are integrating my husband’s English bulldog and Boston terrier into the “pack”. The pit bull is fine with them until they encroach on her space or her humans. Rarely does she give much of any kind of “warning growl”; she just nails them. Unless the other dog fights back, she strikes and retracts and then everything is kosher, but the two new dogs are much smaller and older. It’s so frustrating that the same dog who snuggles with bunnies and kittens will turn around and attack another dog not two minutes later! Of course the dogs are never together unsupervised, and we’re working with trainers on some behaviour modification, but I’m so hesitant to really say anything about it because I fear someone will think that the pit bull is aggressive or dangerous. We need to acknowledge the fighting breeds’ genetically predisposed behaviours/reactions and we need non-bully people to give pits a chance and not go off the deep end over one individual dog’s bad behaviour.

    • Hi Rachel, I’m sorry to hear your dogs are not getting along so well. This sounds like pretty classic owner resource-guarding, which is common in a lot of breeds. It could be framed as a sort of “competitive aggression,” but it’s a narrower and much more common issue. With your pit bull experience, you may have worked with one who had this reaction to strange dogs and not just when the owner (or food, or a toy) were present — and that, I think, is much more likely to be an example of this really overdeveloped pattern I’m talking about.

      However, I do think that the motor pattern you’re describing — that is, the silent turn-and-nail — is somewhat breed-typical in that it may occur more often in this breed than others. I think a lot of breeds with Molosser heritage may do this. My personal dogs are herding dogs, and they tend to be drama queens with a ton of warning signs! They were never bred to actually physically take on an opponent; they did their work with eye, bark, movement. And this tendency shows up in social aggression contexts as well.

      You can teach your pitty girl to respond differently to the other dogs’ approach. Classical counterconditioning (which must be arranged carefully in these situations) will help, as will teaching her to give some kind of warning before she strikes and a really good down stay on her bed away from you or your husband, will help. If you’re not working with a behavior consultant, let me know where you are and I may be able to recommend someone.

  7. Thank you for a breath of fresh air! As a long time AUTHENTIC American pit bull owner (30 years) who has kept from 4 to 18 pit bulls all during that time and who has put many high level training titles (like IPO 3, etc) on them during that time, I support your thoughts 100%.
    As a long time advocate for the breed (www.WorkingPitBull.com) and founder of the LawDogsUSA.org program (which placed pit bulls with law enforcement as detection dogs) I have had to fight ignorance and just plain lying by those who should know better – other pit bull “advocates”.
    One thing to consider – right now the American pit bull has been a “fad breed” for THIRTY YEARS. Most breeds are fads for about a dozen years, but lucky for the pit bull (saracastic) their fad came along at the same time as the internet. Most dog folks know what a disaster it is for any breed to become intensely popular – even for a couple years… the breed right now, a REAL AUTHENTIC American pit bull – is a RARE animal, despite the shelters being filled with generic “pit bulls”.
    But, yes… when we are discussing the behavior of a “typical” American pit bull that is bred correctly, they do have the potential to be extremely dog aggressive. On the other hand, you can breed two pit champions together and get an entire litter of “cold” pups – dogs that won’t hit a lick even if attacked. Which is why BSL doesn’t work – at all.

    Anyway, I appreciate your thoughtful discussion which can lead to better understanding of how man has manipulated the bulldog into an animal which grips and fights to the bitter end. It started with gripping wild large game, moved to bulls and bears with baiting, and then lastly to other dogs as bull baiting was banned. Living with an AUTHENTIC (not blue, not 100 pounds) American pit bull – for me – is one of life’s best things. There is no breed like it and my best friends are pit bulls! : ) But… bit but… as you pointed out, it is NOT like owning a Labradoodle and they deserve (and demand)MUCH MORE respect and understanding than a more generic dog.
    Thank you for this blog post. I believe the Truth Will Set Us Free.
    Diane Jessup

  8. Ah, I forgot to mention one thing that I feel it is only fair to remind folks of. While the American pit bull has been selected for determined gripping of other animals for centuries, at the same time there has been JUST AS STRONG selection AGAINST HUMAN AGGRESSION WHEN AROUSED. This trait REALLY sets the AUTHENTIC American pit bull apart from other breeds. For those who have access to old pit dog magazines, they will see picture after picture of pit bulls being fought in a 16′ ring with three humans in it. These dogs are injured, stressed, in pain, often wavering in and out of consciousness – however they NEVER TURN THEIR AGGRESSION toward the humans. As well, as happens in handling dog in dog fights, the two handlers (third person is referee) are often yelling, screaming encouragement, INCHES FROM THE DOGS FACES…

    Most other breeds, particularily those in the “nipping breeds” (herding breeds) will lash out when hurt, frightened or stressed. The American pit bull has been just as consciously selected to keep their cool under duress as they have been to be aggressive toward other animals.

    This “cool head” is one of the breed’s most attractive features – and is, like it or not, a product of selection for dog fighting and bull baiting. Dogs which could not be treated easily after fights – those with life threatening injuries – did not survive to breed.

    So, I think it should always be mentioned that while American pit bulls generally have a higher level of aggression toward other animals, they DO, in fact, have a lower level toward humans. The unfortunate incidents where dogs do harm humans are the result of “pet” dog breeding by fad breeders – NOT dog fighters as so often stated by those with no real knowledge of the breed.

    Thanks again,
    Diane Jessup
    Author: The Dog Who Spoke With Gods, The Working Pit Bull and Co-author of Colby’s Book of the APBT.

    • Hi Diane, thanks for your detailed comments.

      In any gene pool which has been selected for specific traits, if we stop selecting for those traits, the bell curve of their occurrence will spread and flatten out. (That may not be the right mathematical model, but I think it’s approximately accurate.) If Border Collies are not actually bred to work sheep, within even a generation or two, fewer of the litter will be up to the job and more will display undesirable versions of the trait — more car chasing, harder biting, more too scared of the sheep to work, etc. As I’m sure you know, killing livestock is a big no-no in herding breed dogs, and a corollary of that is that they’re also a lot less likely to kill ANYthing, though some do kill small animals while retaining their correct behavior with stock. Empirically, every single Aussie I’ve ever met that’s killed a cat, rabbit, or squirrel has been from documented show lines or appeared to be so (heavy bone and giant coats that would not function in the field). Not that all show Aussies will kill critters – far from it – but if this happens it seems mainly to happen when breeders stop selecting for very specific desirable (non-kill-bite) behavior on stock. And I think the same thing has happened with pit bulls. The vast majority of the ones out in the shelters, on the street, and in American pet homes are NOT from within 1-2 generations of the working bred dogs you have and love. They are 3, 6, or more generations out, and so the traits valued in their working ancestors have become less focused, consistent and predictable. I am sure that a lot of the dogs out there descended from working pit bulls were bred partly from “rejects” who did show a little human aggression, for example. Likewise, dogs showing insufficient gameness might end up being sold as pets and then bred “not for fighting,” but for some other reason. As the rescue movement has gained momentum, culling has become far less acceptable, and that means that undesirable behaviors are going to be preserved and even propagated at times. So a certain number of non-game-bred pit bulls out there now as pets are going to be human aggressive, and yet, the motor patterns valued in the fighting dogs may still be present… so we sometimes see that tenacious grab-and-hold directed toward a human. Obviously this is Not Good. Obviously (to me) these are not game-bred dogs, but JQ Public is not going to make that distinction. And one nub of that problem, as everyone knows, is that when Border Collies go wrong, they may bite everything in sight, but they tend not to do much damage, while when a pit bull goes wrong in a particular (and rather predictable) way, they can do enormous damage, whether to a dog, cat or person.

      Unfortunately, these many-generations-down-from-dogs-that-would-have-been-culled pit bulls do seem to be all over the place, so we can’t count on their safety with people nearly automatically they way one can with a working dog. I think this is very unfortunate. I greatly dislike the idea of dog fighting, myself, but if we’re going to have dogs who do this, then for safety reasons it behooves us to breed very carefully for that focused behavior. That is mostly not happening any more, and the effect is like giving big loaded guns to little kids — we have dogs with a potential suite of very dangerous behaviors but without the judgment or instincts to use it in limited and desirable fashion.

      Yes, I completely blame the fad/pet/puppy money breeders, not fighting dog breeders. I’m with you on that!

    • I wanted to add in an anecdote. One of my personal dogs is a Borderjack — a flyball-bred Border Collie/Jack Russell mix. He had an abusive and neglectful life for his first 2.5 years, so he’s quite weird with people, but his dog skills are pretty intact. Needless to say, while this mix can excel at dog sports, it can also create some conflicts between the two breed behavior types when certain situations are presented.

      My little guy is very good with strange dogs and he adores my female Border Collie (I joke that he has a mom complex with her). She can practically take food out of his mouth. He eventually gets tense with other dogs in the household, if they live here long enough, and especially if they are (a) male or (b) anxious or barky. He got into a small number of fights with both of my older Aussies during the last few years, one of which sent my male Aussie to the vet for stitches.

      Now, the interesting thing is that most of the time, he’d go in and bite, and he did gradually learn to go for the chest. In most fights, he’d redirect a bite to a human who tried to intervene. He has a rather hard bite (crappy socialization, remember) and once left me with some shallow punctures and a HUGE hematoma on my forearm that took 2-3 months to resolve. But, on one occasion, he had ahold of my female Aussie by the chest and wasn’t letting go. I yelled — nothing. I then lifted up his cute little ear flap and yelled directly into his ear canal — nothing. So, with the adage “never use a break stick with any dog but a fighting bred pit bull” ringing in my head, I grabbed a nearby hairbrush and levered his mouth open with the handle. He seemed rather taken aback (how did I thwart him out of the blue like that?) as I shoved him in a crate and went to clean up the Aussie.

      It is pretty fascinating — he has plenty of Border Collie traits, but when things get agonistic, he is all terrier and that totally un-herding-dog-like grab-and-hold pattern comes right out. (The same sex, intrahousehold tensions are also terrier-typical much more than herding breed-typical.)

      (By the way, he’s my last terrier. I got him sort of by accident, I adore him, and I’ve worked very hard with his behavior issues. But I just don’t LIKE dealing with that fighting style. It’s one of those personal things — you probably can’t stand the constant lip-raising, growling, stiffening and hackling you’d see with a household of herding breed dogs, but this bothers me very little most of the time!)

      Seeing incidents like this REALLY makes me think about the motor patterns, and where they come from, and what brings them out. Fascinating stuff.

      By the way, for anyone who’s horrified, I do keep my Borderjack supervised when with other dogs and separated when I’m not there. My old Aussies are gone and my current foster whom he dislikes (who is three times his size and can win a fight) will be moving on at some point. After that, no more boys in the household!

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