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…