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Pit Bull Terriers – the Hard Truth

Let’s get away from emotion, opinion, he-said/she-said, and all the hearsay surrounding this, the most misunderstood of all dog breeds.

We are going to stray (no pun intended) from our usual topics of interest for a moment to address a matter which comes up a lot in our circles. This question about Pitbull terriers and if they are safe, let alone good pets. Now, we, like so many others, love dogs and enjoy their company very much. Our family has owned two terriers, a Scotty and most recently a Cairn, but more on that later. The impetus for writing this article today was the recent ‘investigative report’ by CBC News’s the Fifth Estate reporting both sides of the pit-bull controversy. For your convenience, the full episode is available for viewing below or if you’re so inclined, watch it on YouTube.

For ‘investigative journalism,’ the CBC report left much to be desired. Not from a ratings point of view—let’s face it, an emotionally charged standoff ending in stalemate can sell ads forever—but from the point of view of painting a complete, scientific picture of the controversy, the Fifth Estate’s report falls short. We’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt because it is only an hour-long program. And with all the attention given to the two impassioned camps on either side of the Pitbull debate, how much time is left for an objective investigation into the history and science of the breed? Perhaps the Fifth’s producers felt such an analysis is better left for David Suzuki and the Nature of Things to explore. However, seeing as we are speaking about a breed of dog, it is a glaring oversight on their part for not investigating the breed’s actual pedigree. Mind you, Mark Kelley did express their willingness to do a follow-up report, based largely on the voluminous feedback of their viewership. Perhaps the Fifth Team will find the information presented herein as a valuable addition for any such follow-story / Nature of Things collaboration. Comprehensive objective investigation is the key.

This article will rectify the CBC’s investigative journalists’ oversight by providing a brief exploration and analysis free of emotion and opinion, founded in facts and cases. As it turns out, it is just such a historic/scientific analysis which reveals the true nature of the danger lurking deep within the DNA of pit bulls—truly the most misunderstood of all dog breeds.


Our journey begins some 2,500 years ago with the emergence of the war-dog in the West. According to Wikipedia:

War dogs were used by the EgyptiansGreeksPersiansSarmatiansBagandaAlansSlavsBritons, and the Romans.[1][2] The Molossus dog of the Molossia region of Epirus was the strongest known to the Romans, and was specifically trained for battle.[3] Among the Greeks and Romans, dogs served most often as sentries or patrols, though they were sometimes taken into battle.[4] Source: Wikipedia: Dogs in Warfare.

Let us focus on the Romans, whose civilization it is well known stretched across Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa. There was no Roman province anywhere in the empire without a Roman garrison. And no Roman garrison would have been complete without that most loyal servants of law enforcement—what we would euphemistically call police and/or military canine units today—better known as the dogs of war.

Cry ‘havoc!’ And let slip the dogs of war! – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1.

Illustration: Roman war dog. Artist Unknown; Source: The American Pit Bull Terrier Encyclopedia

Now, by some accounts, war dogs would be fitted with a kind of collar/harness which supported two long barbed spears and held two bronze crucibles about the dog’s shoulders which would be set ablaze before the dogs were let loose upon the enemy. Just imagine: a foggy dawn—a literal fog of war—two armies lined up facing each other on the battlefield await the charge. Amidst the cries, trumpets and drums can be heard the terrifying barking of packs of fiercely loyal war dogs born, bred and trained to kill. Can you picture yourself as a soldier in the ranks, desperately trying to make out the size and scope of the enemy’s force through the early morning mist? Then, suddenly, charging forth out of the fog of war come ‘demon dogs’ appearing to breath fire from their nostrils (from the burning crucibles), charging directly toward you, leaping up into the air making a direct grab for your throat with their jaws—the spot all predators instinctively target to make a quick kill and where your armour (if you’re even wearing any) is weakest.

Such dramatic tales are fine for legends and war stories, but what about the rest of the time? When the battle’s lost and won, and a people have been conquered, what then? As the Wikipedia article states, war dogs were first and foremost garrison dogs and patrol dogs. They would have been used to keep the peace. And such mundane facts are fine for explaining the persistence of police/military canine units even today. But what about the rest of the time? Down time?

When the outer edges of one’s world switches from conquering fresh territory to holding down the fort, there are two enemies one must deal with. The first, martial—from skirmishes against barbarian invaders to squelching uprisings—and the second, boredom. Beyond the obvious creature-comforts one would think to provide Roman legions and their commanders manning garrisons in far-flung provinces throughout the empire—food, wine, women, gambling—what other entertainments were on hand to keep the soldiers occupied and to satiate their bloodlust? We’re not talking about conscripts, of course—they would either be sent home or move on with the army to the next conquest—rather the career soldiers whose newly conquered territory/garrison became their ward and their home. You’re a professional soldier. What do you do when “there’s no one left to fight” (as Maximus says in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator)?

We all know of the Roman’s passion for the games. With the spoils of great conquests comes great decadence. Toward the end of the Roman Empire, the Circus Maximus and the games in the Coliseum had become a staple of Roman lifestyle. And the mob, hungry for ever more violent and bloody spectacles, demanded their bloodlust be satiated by nothing short of the greatest champions of the empire and the most ferocious exotic beasts the world had to offer. Hence slaves being thrown to the lions, etc. Again, turning on a phrase from Gladiator, “that’s fine for Rome but not for the provinces.”

Then, as today, exotic animals were expensive to buy and even more expensive to keep. If a remote Roman province even had an arena for games (like the one depicted in Gladiator) it would scarcely seat enough spectators to financially support exotic animals, let alone during the downward slide of the empire. And what about climate? Provinces stretching into parts of Northern Europe could not have kept large exotic animals for entertainment. So, at a time when the demand for ferocious beasts was the greatest and in places where the need for violent entertainments was most acutely felt, lions and other such exotic predators where least viable. But whereas lions and the like may have been in short supply, dogs were always literally at their heels. And not just any old dog…war dogs. Born, bred and trained killers.

It’s so obvious. You have soldiers with little to do manning garrisons in far-off remote Roman provinces. It’s clear that eventually someone would get the idea of putting those garrison and patrol dogs to better use during their off hours. In the beginning, when slaves were still plentiful, a crudely dug pit and a half-a-dozen dogs given their attack command would do the trick. Later, as the empire collapsed and Roman garrisons disbanded or morphed into the local-governor-turned-feudal Lord, the supply of expendable slaves dried up. But those who relished the violence of the games and/or gambling still needed their fix. And the entrepreneurial soldiers, officers and locals who reaped the financial benefits of such entertainments under Roman rule were not about to give up their lucrative enterprise. Slaves may be in short supply, but a dog could give birth to many puppies at a time, and a good bitch might even have two litters a year.

Just as in Rome, where people loved watching men slaughter one another in the gladiatorial arena, they would come to watch and gamble on champions of a new breed—Caninus terroris—who were cheaper to keep, easier to manage, rarely complained and would reproduce prodigiously. The dogfighting ring and the Pitbull was born.

Illustration: Betting on Pit bulls. Artist Unknown; Source: The American Pit Bull Terrier Encyclopedia

As for the other locals, from farmer to hunter, they also saw value in the fierce loyalty and raw killing ability of these Roman dogs. Whereas for centuries their people had been terrorized by the canine companions of the occupying Roman legions and their games; now, those very same Caninus terroris would become the locals’ terriers.

And oh, how the terriers flourished! What could be more useful during the Dark Ages than a dog born and bred to kill? In hunting, they had their merits but also their limitations. But for farmers, herders, estate owners, Lords—anyone who had to protect themselves or their animals from intruders or pests (including plague-carrying rats), terriers proved invaluable.

Over centuries, terriers of all shapes and sizes appeared throughout the former Roman Empire, all working breeds for one singular purpose—to kill. Dozens of unique breeds emerged, each one becoming more and more specialized in terms of what they were bred to kill, but all of them born and bred to be killers, make no mistake. And make no mistake, either, that the pedigree for terriers’ relationship to being “man’s best friend,” comes from its capacity for relentless ferocity toward people and animals alike—a pedigree born of conquest, honed in the Roman arenas and refined over millennia.

Illustration: Terriers; Source: Dogs in our Life Photo Blog

Present Day

We know what we’re talking about. As mentioned at the outset of this article, we’ve been the proud owners of two terriers—one Scottish Terrier and one Cairn. Both fiercely loyal dogs with huge personalities. Both unabashed and unequivocal killers. At times as vicious and heartless as they could be gentle and loving. Please don’t misunderstand, they were absolutely warm and wonderful pets (our Cairn still is a great pet, although he is fourteen now so his killing days are mostly behind him—although he did catch 10 mice last summer)!

If you’ve ever wondered where the term came “to rat someone out,” then you’ve clearly never seen terriers in action on a farm. Martin Clunes went to a farm to do just that and described small terriers as “unabashed killing machines.” To see what he meant, and to comprehend the ferocity of their killer instinct which is NOT TRAINED—it is genetic and innate—watch the following excerpt from the documentary, Martin Clunes: A Man and His Dogs, below or on YouTube.

You can witness dozens of similar videos on YouTube. It seems society’s morbid fascination with animal bloodlust has not diminished since the days of Rome—you need only watch a 30-second preview ad for Discovery Channel’s Sharkweek for mainstream evidence of that. The point here is that terriers-at-work videos are as real as reality TV could ever hope to get.

We can attest to the terrier behaviour depicted here as very much typical for the breed. Our Scotty, Bessy, was a rescue dog and an abused one at that. Poorly trained (or not at all) by the previous owners, she was generally good-natured but at times could become the most ill-tempered animal you’ve ever seen. She guarded our home with her life. She absolutely despised the garbage truck. Anyone delivering flyers to the door, if they used the actual mail-slot in the door risked a nip. Not because Bessy ever meant to bite anyone, but because to her bundles of flyers were an invasive species required immediate and thorough shredding, using the characteristic terrier ‘bite and tear’ motion. Whereas most dogs can be trained to bite and hold, terriers bite and writhe: throwing their whole body into the back and forth motion of their head, instinctively and hungrily seeking the visceral pleasure of tearing cartilage and the telltale “SNAP!” of the neck.

Bessy, Scottish Terrier

Our Cairn terrier, Wolfie, was very well trained by yours truly. So well in fact, that he can be off-leash without any worry. He won’t step one foot on the road without permission. Even if someone rides by on roller blades or a skateboard (both of which he hates…too rodent-like), he’ll simply run back and forth in the front yard along the edge of the grass, as if he was behind one of those ‘invisible fences.’ We have no such device installed. He’s just that well-trained and generally well-behaved that he knows his boundaries. He is also wonderful with people, children, and for the most part, other dogs. Like any pair of dogs, you never know when it’s going to be like oil and water. But all-in-all Wolfie is the best pet we’ve ever had, much beloved by everyone who knows him—and they all do—he is practically the neighbourhood dog.

Wolfie, Cairn Terrier, at age 5.

But make no mistake: he’s a born killer and we have learned to treat that latent instinct with great care and respect, lest it end in tragedy. When it comes to Wolfie’s blood-lust, we’ve had to remain vigilant of skunks—as most dog owners—but also of rats, since some places we visit still use rat poison. But his real arch-nemesis, his Moriarte, is the racoon. But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let us say we aren’t worried about Wolfie ever harming a person. No child or adult is even remotely in danger. If they have a pet rodent, however, that’s another story. Then precautions must be taken.

In terms of danger, what separates terrier breeds is what they can kill. Small terriers are great because the only beings that really need be worried about a small terrier are about the same size or smaller…rodents, mostly. And we don’t see Sarah McLaughlin on television or any animal rights advocacy groups on the internet fighting for rats, mice, squirrels, garden-raiding rabbits, etc. The odd cat may get terrorized now and then, but being more cunning and agile, your average cat can either out-pace, out-maneuver or outwit the typical terrier (as a weapon of destruction, terriers are not what you would call the sharpest tool in the chest: an instrument of blunt force trauma rather than one of grace and precision—more Thor than Loki, if that reference works for you). But whereas small terriers may be Thor, Pitbulls are the Hulk.

And all terriers have something which brings their inner Hulk out. Any owner of any terrier variety who denies that, thinks they can train it out of them, blames it on the dog owner, or believes they can order their dog to stand down once their rage-state has triggered is completely ignorant of over two thousand years of baked-in genetics. These are the facts, and we’ve experienced it with our own eyes with our own cuddly, fluffy, loving, loveable, kind, neighbourhood pet dog, Wolfie.

Wolfie, Cairn Terrier, as a puppy.

In his defense, Wolfie would say: “I warned you wouldn’t want to see me around a raccoon.”

Every fall the raccoon come to gorge themselves on the bounty of grapes on the deck, and when they do all hell breaks loose in our house. Of course! The bandit shows up in the middle of the night wearing his bandit mask, what would you do if you were a terrier? At this point we must physically restrain Wolfie. Please understand: there is NO COMMAND he will obey in this state. We must keep the glass door closed because he would go through the screen if we let him. Mind you, we could never actually let him at the raccoon because raccoons they fight dirty, with razor-sharp claws and dexterous ‘hands’ they go right for the eyes before making an escape.

Restrained, this poor little animal of ours is in agony. You cannot begin to imagine the noises coming out of our kind, gentle, adorable, loving little dog. He is in physical pain he wants to kill the racoon so badly. It’s not just barking. It’s squealing. A kind of painful screeching howling unlike any noise he makes at any other time or in any other circumstance. It literally sounds like we are wringing out his body like a wet dishrag. We’ve often worried that someone is going to call the Human Society on us for animal abuse! Yes, it’s THAT LOUD and THAT TERRIFYING. We are not exaggerating here. Whether the racoon would live long enough to gouge out Wolfie’s eyes or not is irrelevant. Wolfie is so totally blinded by a fit of rage that any defense the racoon could mount would not save him from death-by-terrier. Understand: nothing and no-one is going to stop Wolfie, our darling loveable, friendly dog, from killing that racoon—the object of his terrifying rage. Wolife, the neighbourhood dog, everyone’s favourite family pet on our block, will DIE before he lets that racoon live.

Wolfie is a small dog. What if he weren’t? Imagine it not being a racoon but a child. Imagine it not being a Cairn terrier but a Pitbull. We keep the glass door closed because our small dog would go through the screen door to kill his quarry. Now maybe you can begin to comprehend stories of Pit bulls breaking chain leashes, biting through chain link fences, clawing their way through all manner of obstacles standing between themselves and their quarry.

These are the unabashed, unbiased, unemotional, and unfettered facts. The hard truth is, when it comes to terriers, we’re dealing with cold-blooded killers. And once triggered, theirs is an absolute resolve. There is no kill-switch. It is an instinctive response of kill or be killed, born on the battlefields and arenas of Rome—refined over millennia in the many working breeds of terriers we know today and, of course, in the dog-fighting rings from which the modern Pitbull comes.

In Conclusion

Thus, with a little deeper investigation into the killer instinct of all terriers and the unpredictable and ferocious ways that innate tendency can express itself in even the most good-natured and loveable pets, we arrive at the objective truth regarding pit-bulls themselves. No Pitbull, no matter how kindly, loving and gentle it may be can be divorced from its own DNA. No amount of training, nothing any owner can do, can ‘disarm’ what is potentially a ticking time-bomb waiting for something to set it off. Should Pit bulls be banned? That’s for voters and legislators to decide. We’re here only to state that it is not right for them to ‘decide the facts.’ The facts are the facts. How you respond to the facts is your business.

We know that none of what we have shared here today will do much to dissuade the proponents and lovers of Pit bulls and the Pitbull lobby. Unfortunately, it’s not until they see their own loving, friendly, cuddly pet get triggered into a rage-state of pure killer instinct—for which there is no kill-switch but that the object(s) of that rage state be killed—that they will comprehend fully all that we have shared here today. Sadly, as is too often the case, that lesson comes too late to avoid the senseless loss or permanent scarring of many lives.

Esoteric Epilogue

Now that the secular portion of this article has concluded, we can add a short esoteric explanation answering the question why? Why are so many people drawn to the Pitbull breed? Why do they so passionately and vehemently defend it and their right to own what amount to potentially deadly (and always tragic) incidents waiting to happen.

For one, they are ignorant of the facts we have already revealed herein. But that in and of itself doesn’t explain things. The fact is, people are drawn to power. Pitbull owners like that their pet “has a strong personality.” We confess: there is something alluring about being ‘master’ to a strong-willed dog. Just as it’s very satisfying to ‘break a wild horse’s will’ and ‘ride a mighty mount,’ to be able to live with a powerful dog, a strong-willed and independent dog, is a special sort of feeling which cannot be easily substituted.

And pit-bulls are powerful beasts. In small terriers the heightened energy expresses itself in more manic, high-strung sort of ways. In larger terriers, it is still there, but more…latent. In small dogs it is easily and often triggered. In larger dogs, it seems more restrained, or more aptly stated buried deep down. In other words, if small terriers are triggered often they are in many ways able to let off some steam. Get some of that killer instinct out of their system for a time. But a pit bull? When are they afforded an opportunity to exercise (and exorcise) their killer instinct? What happens when there is a mass of repressed energy building up inside an animal who does not have an outlet for it? In fact, so-called responsible Pit bull breeders and owners might even discourage their dogs from rough play or tearing apart a tire or other aggressive outlets of energy, believing—falsely—that by discouraging such activities they are somehow ‘training the bull out of the animal.’ But this is just stupid. Blatant arrogance combined with ignorance.

By not letting the animal be what it is, the killer instinct is subverted and repressed. This gives breeders, trainers, owners and the Pit bull advocates a false sense of security. The idea that they have broken the animal, tamed the wild beast, not unlike breaking a wild horse. But let’s not kid ourselves. Any horse racer, wrangler, whisperer or owner will tell you that if at any moment you lose your respect for the power and spirit of the horse you are on, it can lose its respect for you. And whereas it is powerful and majestic, we are weak and pathetic in comparison, physically speaking. The same can be said when it comes to any animal.

The answer, of course, is NOT to be afraid. In our blog Stop Bullying Now—a Guide for Victims of Bullying, we describe the harmful effect of fear in the company of animals. Basically, fear is interpreted by all animals as a negative emotion, triggering the fight or flight response. Thus, just as it is unwise to run from a bear, whose default reaction is to fight against weaker opponents, it is equally unwise to show fear in the company of a Pit bull. Observe the terriers ratting out the barn. And comprehend how our own dog Wolfie reacts differently to cats depending on their response to him. If they run, he chases them. If they stand up to him and hiss, he runs from them. If they are calm, fearless, cool-cats, then he goes up to them, sniffs them, licks them, like they’re best friends.

Pit bull ownership is a little like automatic weapon ownership. Proponents of the right to own such weapon will rationalize their reason for their right to own an assault rifle. And, in many cases they do make good solid points. But that’s not the real reason they collect such guns and take them down to the firing range. It’s all about POWER. It’s all about ego. People love the feeling they get when they have a powerful firearm that can wreak such damage. It makes them feel larger, more potent than they are.

Likewise, the choice of ‘animal familiar’ by so-called human beings has always centred around whatever ego-projection they wished upon themselves. Thus, you have people collecting big cats, you have nobility throughout the ages sporting hawks and falcons, and you have no-doubt seen all the memes on the Internet featuring people who look like their dogs.

People who look like their dogs, Source: My Magic Dog

Now this might just seem in fun, but The Law of Attraction (we attract what we are) can manifest itself in many aspects of our life, without us even being aware of it. Our friends, spouse…why not our pets? Even if they don’t look like us, certainly there will be some affinity there. How do you pick a puppy from the human society or a kitten from a litter to take home as your own? Or do they pick you? There is something both primal and energetic going on when we find ourselves identified with a certain animal or find a certain animal is drawn to us. We would do well to pay attention to that. We can learn much from the animals in our life.

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