By Kimberly White
“He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the so-called “dangerous breeds” of dogs. A young girl was bitten in Wright last month by a pit bull running loose in the neighborhood; that incident followed the gruesome mauling of another little girl and her mother in Crestview. And earlier this month, two pit bulls attacked and killed an 82-year-old woman and her dog in Oklahoma City.
I’m pretty neutral about pit bulls. I’ve never owned one, never witnessed an attack and don’t know anyone who’s been a victim. But my indifference toward pit bulls is tempered by the fact that I also own one of the top “dangerous breeds.”
I was raised in a German shepherd family—my parents got their first before I was even born, so I think of them more as babysitters and playmates than as fearsome killing machines. When I look at it objectively, I can understand why pit bulls, German shepherds, Rottweilers and similar breeds are seen as inherently aggressive. I also agree with the much-touted phrase, “There are no bad dogs, just bad owners.” But only to a degree, because it doesn’t take into account one factor over which owners have no control—genetics.
I don’t know much about pit bulls other than they were originally bred for blood sports, in which they bit and held bulls and other large animals around the face and head. But I do know they and the other “dangerous breeds” are driven by instincts that were genetically tailored for those dogs’ specific purposes.
For example, German Shepherd Dogs (their formal name) were bred in the late 1800s to act as a “living fence,” basically by patrolling a designated area to protect the sheep that were grazing there and keep everything else out. This genetic heritage means GSDs tend to be territorial and protective, which can lead to what many view as aggressiveness. But combined with their other well-known traits—namely strength, intelligence and loyalty—these qualities are precisely what makes them a great fit for law enforcement and the military.
They’re also one of the most versatile breeds, working as guides for the blind, search-and rescue-operations, detecting seizures, therapy dogs; they can be trained to do pretty much anything. But for those unfamiliar with GSDs and other “aggressive breeds,” all they know are the hair-raising images and clips they’ve seen and stories they’ve read.
Our German shepherd Xena is now two-and-a-half years old. We brought her home when she was just eight weeks old. We know she comes from show line stock, which means she doesn’t have that intense, high drive that characterizes working line German shepherds. They’re great for law enforcement and military purposes, but a little too much GSD for a relatively laid-back family like ours.
We also know her grandfather was a two-time Sieger champion—the German equivalent of winning the U.S. Westminster Dog Show—and I bring this up only because of its implications for Xena’s health and temperament. It means she is virtually guaranteed never to suffer from the hip dysplasia that notoriously plagues GSDs, and that while she is territorial and protective, she’s also smart, easy to train, extremely affectionate and obedient.
Starting from her very first day with us, I spent as much time with her as possible to create and strengthen our bond—going for long walks, throwing balls and Frisbees, and taking her everywhere I went so she’d be exposed to all different kinds of environments. I knew cementing that bond meant she’d understand that I’m in charge, and that she’d listen when I issue commands.
Which brings me back to my earlier point about owner responsibility. Not everyone has the advantage of knowing his or her dog’s bloodline or personal history. But being a responsible pet owner is more than just picking up after your dog, feeding them and giving them water. It also involves time and money for ongoing training. It’s especially important for breeds like pit bulls and German shepherds in order to curb their impulses to fight and/or protect, which can come on suddenly and seemingly without provocation.
When Rumor the German shepherd won Best in Show at Westminster back in February, my pride was almost immediately overshadowed by fear. I was afraid her win would result in a sudden spike in demand for German shepherds, many of which would ultimately end up in shelters because the new owners knew little to nothing about them other than what they saw at Westminster.
You don’t just go out and pick out a pit bull or a German shepherd because it’s so damn cute or because you were blown away by its heroics on the big screen, and then blame the dog because you don’t know the breed. Every day, they and other “dangerous breeds” that did nothing wrong are euthanized or turned over to shelters just because they had the bad luck to end up with ignorant owners.
If you want a large, powerful dog, but you’re not willing to put in the time to do your research, then socialize and train, train, train—do yourself, the public and most importantly your potential new dog a favor and get a goldfish.