Bad training can turn pit bulls into threatening animals

Is it nature or nurture? The death of a 92-year-old woman mauled by her grandson’s pit bull terriers once again reignites a debate on the keeping of so called ‘dangerous dogs’ in Malta

Unlike the UK, no specific dog breed is banned under Maltese law, which gives the animal welfare director wide berth to define which animal is considered ‘dangerous’
Unlike the UK, no specific dog breed is banned under Maltese law, which gives the animal welfare director wide berth to define which animal is considered ‘dangerous’

Written by Milaine Buhagiar

Is it nature or nurture? The death of a 92-year-old woman mauled by her grandson’s pit bull terriers once again reignites a debate on the keeping of so called “dangerous dogs” in Malta.

Unlike the UK, no specific dog breed is banned under Maltese law, which gives the animal welfare director wide berth to define which animal is considered ‘dangerous’. The UK’s 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act on the other hand places the onus on dog owners to control pets which could injure, threaten or attacks other animals or humans.

Canine experts dispute punters’ fears of the aggressive-looking pit bull, a grouping of dogs that includes terrier breeds such as the Staffordshire Terrier and Bull Terrier, the American Pit Bull, Bulldog and Bull Terrier – all descendants of the 19th century dog-fighting cross of the Old English Bulldog and the Old English Terrier.

“I’d like to say that no dog is aggressive by nature,” says trainer and behaviourist Eleonora Capobianco, a canine psychologist based in Malta. “The way a dog behaves is related to the situation in which they are in. One must make a distinction between aggressive communication and aggressive behaviour. Any dog that is maltreated and badly kept is obviously not used to being in a social situation where there are dogs of different breeds.”

The defence of the pit bull also comes from owner Leigh Bishop, a dog trainer and administrator of the Facebook group Bullies, Pits and Staffies. “All dogs should be properly socialised from an early stage, with proper exercise, training and mental stimulation, as well as being brought up with all the love and care.”

But Bishop does concede that dogs can be aggressive genetically. “Dogs can be aggressive due to a myriad of reasons… It could be genetically, because they are bred from unsound dogs; or because they are brought up in an unsatisfying environment. This unsatisfying environment includes being physically abused or else having limited resources and food.”

Bishop insists that pit bulls can be loving pets. “If bred soundly and brought up properly, pit bulls are amazing, loving, caring and very gentle dogs. However, they have high prey drives and they need a lot of exercise and training so, obviously, whoever wants a real pit bull should have quite some knowledge on the needs of the breed before adopting or buying one.”

Capobianco disputes assertions that the dogs’ high prey drive is derived naturally. “In the past, these dogs were trained by their owners to be effective killers and this is what has led to the increase in their prey drive throughout the years. This is why we need to educate pit bulls from a very young age so that they are able to distinguish between that which they can see as prey and that which they cannot.”

That requires training them from an early age, when it is easier to control them, to socialise with other and to get used to the world around them, especially where there are children. “It’s easier at a very young age since they’re smaller and gentler. Trying to train and an adult pit bull is much harder,” Bishop says.

Even stray dog shelter keeper Rosalind Agius, from the Association for Abandoned Animals, disputes the dangerous tag pit bulls suffer. “We cannot be prejudiced against s as a breed because of how the two dogs at Msida reacted. It’s unfair. The scars on the Msida dogs’ face shows that perhaps these dogs were not brought up as they should have been. In the sanctuary, I have three pit bulls and I never had a problem with them. They get along very well with the other dogs and never cause me any trouble.”

Agius says the average size of the Maltese apartment might contribute to the lack of space that stifles the drive of the energetic pit bull. Bishop advises pet owners to select only a breed that suits their lifestyle. “The disadvantage of adopting an adult pit bull could be that it might have a lack of socialisation and training before adoption.

“I have had a few clients with problematic strong dogs, who were all adopted after being brought up wrongly. However, most of them are now doing fine because of excellent training and because the owners are catering for their dog’s needs – and also because they love them.”

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