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Genetically Predisposed to Aggression?

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dog headWe’ve all heard the news stories about people being maimed and even killed by pit bulls.  So what is the truth about dog breeds and genetic predispositions for aggression?  Can aggression be bred into a particular dog?

There are certainly biological reasons for aggressions, and genetic abnormalities play a role.  For years now trainers have been hearing stories of increased aggression in Golden Retrievers. According to Temple Grandin in her book Animals In Translation, this is due to selective breeding for other more desirable behavioral characteristics. Selective breeding over time often leads to a myriad of issues, both physical and emotional. Over breeding can lead to seizures, which can look just like aggression in dogs.  According to Dr. Jean Dodds, thyroid disorders are a major factor in aggression, and genetic predisposition is part of that puzzle.Golden retreiver with muzzle

We know from studies done with foxes that friendliness to humans can be selected for. This is undisputed.  So it is certainly also possible to select for aggression.

But this leads to the second question we could ask on this topic:  Aggression towards whom? In the case of dog fighting, selecting for aggression would mean selecting for aggression towards other dogs.  It is entirely possible that aggression could then generalize into aggression towards humans, but it is not necessarily so. Most dogs prefer the company of humans to that of other dogs, so they very clearly view us differently. If you as a reader has seen ANY studies on this topic I would love to hear about it, but it seems that a specific study that bred for aggression would likely be unethical.

If one paid attention to the news media, one might assume that there are certain breeds that are more aggressive than others, but the science just doesn’t bear this out.  Frequency of bites of pit bull type dogs are all over the news, but what the news media fails to point out is that there are many other factors that this can be attributed to. For example, there are close to thirty breeds that are often mistaken for pit bulls.  Misidentification certainly plays a role in over-reporting of biting incidents attributed to pit bulls.  Another factor is the commonness of the breed in any particular society. In northern climates where sled dogs are most popular, huskies and malamutes are the ones involved in most reported bites.  Anyone who has walked into a shelter in the United States knows that dogs that resemble pit bulls are extremely common in the US. In one rural North Carolina shelter on any given day you could walk in and upwards of 30% of the dogs looked like they might be pits or pit mixes. So if there are more alleged pit bulls, there will naturally be more reported bites by pit bulls.

In addition, reporting of bites is a problem. Most dog bites are actually from smaller breeds, but these breeds do not do as much damage as a large dog, so that the bites are never reported to the authorities.  It’s not that they are less aggressive, only that they are less powerful.  There is a dachshund or a chihuahua out there somewhere that WANTS YOU DEAD (and I should probably point out here that I have both of those breeds in my home right at this minute, and the love of my life is a long little doggie).

The treatment of these dogs is also an issue.  More dogs die from behavioral issues due to lack of early socialization than die of all the puppy diseases combined. Many people who want these big, tough looking dogs, don’t want them to love everyone they meet, so they are socially isolated.  Social isolation during the first few months of life is probably the biggest cause of aggression. If I don’t know you, and you approach me, you are scary. If I am a dog and you are a threat, then I may bite you.  And we can threaten dogs in a lot of ways that we humans don’t even realize. Want to make a dog really uncomfortable?  Get in his face or give him a hug. Yet how many youtube videos are out there where people allow their infants and toddlers to do just that?  Want to really convince your dog that you cannot be trusted?  Try grabbing him and throwing him on his back in what has been termed the “alpha roll”. If he doesn’t bite you, then you have a really patient dog.  I would bite you.

Proper training is another way to innoculate your puppy against future aggression.  If you can teach your dog to make the right decisions, and you can learn how to communicate with your dog in a way he can understand that shows him that you are not a threat (even when you are doing something he is not comfortable with), then it is far less likely that you will have a conflict in the future that will result in a bite.

So does genetics play a roll?  I’m sure it does.  Can dogs be bred for aggression?  I am sure that they are already being bred for aggression. But does that make a particular breed “born to fight”?  Not at all. Dogs, like humans, are individuals.  Some humans are genetically predisposed to be psychopaths, and some of those psychopaths hurt people. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Are some humans born into environments that promote violence?  Absolutely. But most people are just trying to survive, and would prefer never to hurt another human being.  Most dogs would prefer this, too.  Hurting and being hurt are not a good way to survive, and like everyone else, dogs want to survive.


Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to decode Animal Behavior. Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson.

AMVA, Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breed.  Read this article here.

The Canine Thyroid Epidemic. Dr. Jean Dodds, DVM.

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior position statements on: BSL & Puppy Socialization.