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COMMENTS ON ‘My pit bull experience’ – SUMMARY

It’s clear that Ms. Churchman acted out of love for animals. As is the case with so many who
are duped into trying to adopt a pit bull (or a pit bull mix), her love of dogs made Ms.
Churchman want to believe that no dog could be vicious by nature. It made her believe every
dog should have a chance. And because pit bulls have been flooding shelters for years and are
the most euthanized dogs in the world, it seemed an act of mercy to her to give a pit bull a

The really appalling thing about this story is how pit bull rescues and pit bull propaganda
organizations – including many generic so-called ‘humane’ societies – play into this love of
dogs in unknowing people. Pit bull people (and ‘humane’ societies) know perfectly well what
the breed is all about. This is illustrated by the measures these pit bull fans advise people like
Ms. Churchman to take – in particular their ‘lockdown’ for at least the first month. These
clubs willfully ignore the safety and well-being of adopting household members, particularly
children and other animals, hoping to get yet another pit bull that has landed in a shelter re-
homed. That ‘humane’ societies often willfully go along with this is illustrated and proven by
the fact that this shelter is now again advertising Bella for adoption, but without the
information that Ms. Churchman provided.

In fact, Ms. Churchman did everything right to help a normal shelter dog feel comfortable in
her home and begin to show his/her true doggy nature. She did everything that would help a
traumatized normal dog overcome any trauma and feel safe and confident; everything that
would enable a traumatized dog to for once have normal and affectionate relations with
his/her housemates (human and canine) – and eventually with all the rest of the world.

The fact is that none of the measures that will help a normal dog can help a pit bull. Hand-
feeding, systematic desensitization, habituation, counter-conditioning, trust-building – none of
these will change the genetically determined brain disorder pit bulls are born with. When a
normal dog shows aggression (they almost never attack as such), it is indeed to do with
feeling too defensive to the world around them. The more a normal dog feels confident and
above all safe, the less likelihood that it will show any aggression at all. In a pit bull, lack of
confidence is often the only thing that keeps it from attacking. This means that if you are
fostering a pit bull, confidence-building measures usually make an attack more rather than
less likely.

So here’s another tragedy. Ms. Churchman knows very well how to help and take care of a
traumatized dog. I am hoping that this experience will only make her reject the pit bull
propaganda. I’m hoping that it will not make her doubt her dog skills, nor make her reluctant
to use those excellent skills to try to save some other, normal dog.

The final, and in my eyes very important tragedy is what Ms. Churchman was led to expose
her own dog to. As much as she loves dogs, I doubt she would voluntarily have exposed
Roscoe to such a life-changing trauma. I can forgive her because it was her love of dogs that
made her believe the pit bull scene’s lies, and because it’s clear she won’t make this mistake
again. I only hope she can forgive herself. I have confidence she’ll be able to help Roscoe get
over this.
In closing, there is the tragedy that could have happened but didn’t: it was Roscoe and Ms.
Churchman’s husband who were attacked, and not one of her children. Shame on the pit bull
COMMENTS ON ‘My pit bull experience’ – DETAILED COMMENTS


This is a term specific to the pit bull scene. It’s not a term I’ve ever heard any legitimate dog
trainer or therapist use. Lockdown isn’t the same as simply crating a dog. It means putting the
pit bull into an escape-proof cage. Illustrations on the internet show cages that indeed look
very much like jail cells, in particular the thick iron bars the pit bull is confined behind.

There can be many reasons for confining a normal dog to a crate for part of the day or night –
it most often has to do with housetraining or separation anxiety. The idea of crating a shelter
dog for at least an entire month is new to me. I believe that if a candidate told a normal shelter
s/he was planning to do this with a dog, most shelters would refuse to give them a dog. In
addition, I doubt most shelters would place dogs so dangerous that they had to be crated all
day or else a disaster might happen. The only exception seems to be the pit bull type dog.

The behavioral function of this month-long pit-bull ‘lockdown’:

It is well known that pit bulls can suddenly react to any and all stimuli with explosive
aggression. Explosive aggression is often their automatic reaction when they are startled in
any way. My guess is that this ‘lockdown’ serves as a desensitization period. The pit bull can
be confronted with all the new stimuli in its home and get used to them without being able to
attack anything or anyone. It may be that pit bull rescuers believe this will at least somewhat
reduce the likelihood of a startle reaction – and the ensuing full-blown attack.


We often use hand feeding in behavioral therapy. The goal is to create a positive association
with humans in the dog’s mind – we are the bringers of good things and life necessities. The
tactic can be used both with fearful dogs and with normal dogs who have an anxiety-based
aggression problem. Sometimes we use hand feeding for dogs who are easily distracted
during training – the training session is a chance to earn his meal. Besides keeping the dog
interested, this also creates a positive association with training and with commands. We also
use hand feeding as part (only part) of a therapy program when a normal dog is a resource

Why this is not the solution with pit bulls

Pit bulls do not attack due to anxiety or lack of positive associations and trust. They do not
attack because of resource guarding. They attack because they have a genetically determined,
strongly heritable brain dysfunction.


It’s true that many shelter dogs go into shut-down the first two or three days in a shelter. They
have no idea what’s going to happen and feel very unsafe. Shelter dogs can be very careful in
a new home for the first weeks or even months. As a dog starts to feel safe and confident, his
or her real personality can begin to emerge. With most dogs, growing confidence (combined
with feeling safe) means LESS likelihood that the dog will bite. [See: for an explanation of this.]
Why this works differently with pit bulls
The domestic dog as a species has been selected for at least 12,000 years to be extremely
reticent with aggression towards any species it lives with. Most of the modern human-created
breeds conserved this characteristic, while being selected for olfactory skills, herding skills,
the sled-pulling gait, etc. They will not attack a species they regard as a social partner unless
pushed to the edge in a situation where there is no escape route. They will use only and
exactly as much aggression as they need to open up a flight route, upon which they will stop
aggressing and flee.

The fighting/baiting breeds of dogs are different. These breeds have been selected for
centuries to get rid of the domestic dog’s reluctance to use aggression. They have been
selectively bred for centuries to go unprovoked into sustained attack. As a normal dog gains
confidence, he’ll be less likely to bite. As a fighting/baiting breed dog gains confidence,
attack becomes more likely. This is because sudden and unprovoked attack is simply their
true, genetically determined ‘personality’, which indeed likely will emerge (just like other
dogs) as they gain confidence in a new home.

That the pit bull in this story growled at various humans within two weeks is – given all the
right things Ms. Chruchman had done – proof that the growling had nothing to do with fragile
confidence. Ms. Churchman’s capable moves made this dog feel free to start showing who
she was quite early on. At the same time, Ms. Churchman is lucky. The warning phase has
been bred out of the pit bull – they often give no signs at all before they attack. In that sense,
this pit bull was a deficient member of the breed – not because she attacked, but because she
warned first.


In the case of pit bulls, attributing aggression to resource guarding is magical thinking. In her
willingness to look for realistic causes of the aggression, Ms. Churchman speculated on many
resources – the couch, the armchair, space in general, food, vomit. She may have been able to
think up some ‘resource’ for anything the pit bull did – after all, there’s always something
around even if it’s only air.

This is not resource guarding in the way that we talk about it regarding normal dogs. A
normal dog who has a resource guarding problem will warn extensively. Retreat is enough to
prevent lashing out. You can treat this with therapy and trust exercises.

The fact is, with pit bulls, a resource isn’t really the trigger – although a pit bull will often use
a resource as an excuse to attack, or even to create the chance to attack. Examples: A pit bull
will quite commonly bring a stick or a ball and lay it down in front of another dog with a play
gesture. Then as soon as that other dog so much as moves, the pit bull will go into full and
sustained attack. Or a pit bull will be sniffing the grass and suddenly decide some imaginary
speck on the ground is reason to attack anything that happens to be nearby.

Again, the difference is that a normal dog who resource-guards will lash out just enough to
make the other (dog or human) back off. Whereas a pit bull will use or even seek a ‘resource’
to go into full attack. I have seen them do this many, many times. The fact is that the pit bull,
just like any other working breed, will actively seek opportunities to execute the behavior the
breed has been developed for.


The idea that you can socialize a pit bull to be a peace-loving dog is a fairy tale. In the past
thirty years, I have seen people try this experiment again and again. They get a pit bull puppy,
determined to prove that if only you raise them kindly and socialize them with other dogs, the
pit bull will turn out to be just like any other dog. This has every single time resulted in
tragedy. Both for the dog that is suddenly attacked when the experimental pup reaches a
certain age, and for the owner who was so sure upbringing could override genetics and
behavioral conformation. [Re: Behavioral conformation see: my book Myth 38; also
Coppinger and Coppinger, ‘Dogs’ (2001), Chapters 5 and 6.]

However, Ms. Churchman is interpreting the term ‘socialization’ wrongly. When we try to get
an adult dog used to things that frighten her, this is a process of desensitization and counter-


The recurring theme: pit bulls are not like other dogs. Among normal dogs, play can escalate
into a squabble. These squabbles leave both dogs uninjured, even when they look scary to
humans. The squabbles also don’t disturb the relationship. The dogs forget it immediately and
get back to playing. With normal dogs, these squabbles have a cause: one dog played too
rough (bumped too hard or bit just a tiny bit too hard during play), tried to take a toy he’d
been asked not to take, or otherwise showed rude dog-dog behavior.

With pit bulls, play also often escalates. The cause is, however, not any kind of real though
minor conflict. The cause is simply that play brings the pit bull into an excited state. Once in
an excited state, the risk is great that the pit bull will – without provocation – suddenly go into
full attack. I have seen enough pit bulls in shelters get so excited when a staff member pet
them that they went into attack simply because of affectionate excitement. I’ve seen intact pit
bull males attack female dogs in season due to simple sexual excitement. Excitement of any
kind is, besides startle, a trigger. Thus also play excitement.


Even if we’re dealing with normal dogs, they won’t always let themselves be called out of
play. Sometimes they just don’t hear you. Sometimes they’re too involved to want to stop.

As far as arguments go, dogs will often let themselves be called out of an argument if they
aren’t particularly emotional about it. When dogs are having a very upset and hefty argument,
they won’t let themselves be called out of it. There are healthy reasons for this. When normal
dogs ‘fight’, they are using all their concentration to inhibit their bites and not really harm
each other. This concentration may prevent them from hearing a callout command, besides the
fact that arguing dogs can make a lot of highly local noise that drowns out sounds coming
from farther away.
If a normal dog is held under heavy threat by another dog, he may not be able to come when
called. He may worry that turning around will trigger the other dog to pounce (ritually or not,
depending on the other dog). He may need to stand absolutely still until the other dog calms
enough to let him walk away.

Again, this is all different with pit bulls. Pit bulls do not engage in ritual fights. They are, to
start out with, genetically handicapped in running primitive impulses (the fight impulse) past
the cognitive parts of the brain (see: Semyonova, ‘Heritability of behavior in the abnormally
aggressive dog,
Abnormally-Aggressive-Dog-by-A-Semyonova ). Once they are fighting, they are literally
unable to muster the cognition to obey a social request – be it a peace or surrender signal from
the other dog, or a command from an owner.

In addition, it is well known that once a pit bull begins to execute the aggressive pattern it’s
been bred for, nothing will stop it – not pepper spray, nor a stun gun or taser, nor even
multiple gunshot wounds. Pit bulls have been known to keep attacking even after their skulls
were split open. In light of this, it’s not realistic to expect that a ‘dogs stop’ command will
have any effect.


Again a dangerous misconception. Whether a pit bull attacks has nothing to do with trust or
lack of it. I have seen them attack other dogs who’d acted as loving conspecific parent from
the pit bull’s puppy days. I have seen them attack other dogs to whom, up to then, they’d
shown nothing but loving adoration and absolute trust. Which brings us to the next


Normal dogs will not attack any species they see as a social partner. They will use all their
peaceful conflict resolution skills, stick to purely symbolic shows of ‘aggression’, carefully
inhibit their bites, take care not to do damage. When a dog (any dog) is willing to seriously
attack and try to maim or kill another dog, this gives us an important message: the dog is
willing to break all the dog rules and try to seriously damage a social partner. A dog who is
willing to do this with a dog will also be willing to do it with other social partners, including
humans. A dog who shows lack of bite inhibition with other dogs will also lack bite inhibition
if he lashes out in pain or fear at a human, or when he comes into direct conflict with a
human. Dog-dog aggression tells us important things about a dog. It is simply not true that
this has nothing to do with humans.

The idea that this would be different in the pit bull is due to the myth that human-biting pit
bulls have always been culled. This simply isn’t true. It may be that a bad fighter that also bit
humans was shot on the spot. But a good fighter was forgiven if he bit or attacked humans.
There was just too much money involved to put down a good fighter, no matter what it did.
Please stop to think about what this selection means: the most aggressive pit bulls were the
ones that were worth so much that they were excused for attacking humans. This means
selection simultaneously for increased aggression in the pit AND for generalizing this
aggression outside the pit to humans.

Aside from this historical point, I think it’s clear that for the past thirty years or so we have
altogether stopped culling pit bulls that bite or attack humans. Pit bulls that bite or attack
humans are returned to the owner, or they end up in rescues where they are then re-homed.
Sometimes these rescues try to ‘rehabilitate’ the pit bull. Sometimes they don’t. But at any
rate, pit bulls are no longer commonly killed for showing aggression toward humans – even if
they ever were, which they weren’t if only they were also aggressive enough towards other


When we define ‘instinct’ as innate, inborn behavior, then Ms. Churchman is correct here.
See again: Semyonova, ‘Heritability of behavior in the abnormally aggressive dog,
Aggressive-Dog-by-A-Semyonova . It is now clear that the unpredictable, explosive
aggression of the pit bull is due to a strongly heritable brain dysfunction – it is innate, inborn
behavior, instinct indeed.

This is illustrated by the incident with the vacuum cleaner. The aggression has nothing to do
with any kind of social conflict. It is an inborn reaction, that may also be executed towards a
non-living thing. Again, just as a border collie will eye-stalk a tennis ball, or a pointer might
point at a rubbish bin on the street that startles or interests him.


This is one even I have never heard before. Positive reinforcement works with everything that
has a brain stem; pit bulls aren’t in the least special in this regard. But (see the Brelands’
work), positive reinforcement cannot override genetically based species-specific or breed-
specific behaviors. A great deal of dogs’ behavior is not genetically determined. These areas
are – in all dogs, not only pit bulls for heavens sake – very responsive to positive
reinforcement. However, no amount of positive reinforcement (or for that matter punishment)
will take the point out of the pointer, the eye-and-stalk stance out of the border collie, or the
unpredictable explosive aggression out of the pit bull.


This is a big one with pit bull people. The victim always somehow ‘started it’. I’ll stick to
dogs for the moment (rather than things like children who ‘started it’ by having a cold and
‘smelling funny’).

The phrase ‘who started it, who finishes it’ shows lack of knowledge of what the domestic
dog is really all about. Normal dogs do not seek real conflict. They are not about ‘dominance’
nor about maiming or killing. They seek mutually satisfying balance in relationships. When
there is a conflict, the aim is to resolve it without either party getting hurt and without ruining
the relationship between them. When a normal dog approaches another on high legs, or when
he says ‘keep away from my tennis ball’, the dog is expecting at most a short, purely ritual
exchange of snarls, growls and scary teeth-showing – after which both parties are not only
uninjured, but can become or go on being good friends.

Among normal dogs, the one who ‘finishes’ it is the one who first gives a peace or cut-off
signal. ‘Finishing it’ never – not ever – has to do with maiming or killing the other dog. This
is utterly and completely abnormal behavior in the domestic dog.

The idea of ‘finishing’ a conflict by maiming or killing the other is a fantasy that springs from
the minds of pit bull fans. It’s a projection of their own psychology, anxieties and fantasies.


It’s a riddle to me how Ms. Churchman draws this conclusion after Bella had growled at and
gone onto stiff legs at her children, her employees, herself, and attacked the vacuum cleaner.

On the other hand, she’s correct here (re her bitten husband) that a redirected bite tells
whether a dog is using real aggression or not. When the redirected bite is uninhibited, when it
does damage, it means the biting dog was not inhibiting its bite toward the other dog – thus
the redirected bite is also not inhibited.


See: Who started it, who finishes it. When normal dogs end up in a conflict, never mind who
started it, they expect at most some growling, teeth-waving and perhaps some careful
pinching and skin-tugging. A normal dog expects to be able to end a conflict instantly with a
peace or cut-off signal. It is highly traumatic for a normal dog to run into another dog that
does use real maiming or killing aggression and ignores peace or cut-off signals. The Earth is
wiped out under the first dog’s feet, his entire security in the universe is gone. It’s as if we
woke up one day and the sun didn’t come up.

Ignoring the extreme and crippling trauma to other dogs even when they don’t die of a pit bull
attack is, IMO, unforgivable in anyone who claims to care about dogs. This is one of the
reasons I strongly feel that ‘humane’ societies that agitate for the pit bull and against BSL (be
it bans or restrictions), as well as rescues that re-home pit bulls with other dogs, should
remove the word ‘humane’ from their names, advertisements, stationary, statutes, and
everything else they distribute.



It’s an adage in the dog world: If you really want to know about a breed, ask someone whose
breed it isn’t. The enthusiasts of any breed will either not be able to see, or will not want to
admit, whatever faults a breed may have.

‘Sound temperament’ as the pit bull fans now try to project it is a fantasy and mostly a
propaganda tool. It’s unrelated to reality. You know, shark rescues could decide on an
arbitrary standard, stating that sound temperament in a shark means it will never attack us –
but simply writing this down on paper wouldn’t change the nature of the shark, nor mean it
was suddenly safe to swim with it.

The fact is that all through the centuries, sound temperament in the pit bull has meant
willingness to execute a sustained and serious attack in the absence of any real threat or
provocation. Dogfighting has now become more widespread than it has ever been in human
history. Pit bulls are still being bred everywhere for viciousness in the pit. As pets, pit bulls
are only rarely put down for killing other animals, or even for maiming humans. The truth is,
we are still not breeding the pit bull to behave like a teddy bear. This means the peaceful
‘sound temperament’ fantasy isn’t even a projection of what the future could be like. It really
is purely for propaganda purposes. It is intended to make us believe that each and every one
of the many pit bulls that are killing daily around the world are all, each and every one of
them, some kind of strange anomaly within the breed.

Which brings us to…


The job of an ambassador is to present even the most negative things in a positive light. It’s
also to protect his or her country’s interests, if necessary by bending the truth, using pressure
and leverage, and manipulating the media. Diplomacy is rarely a question of outright honesty,
and is often one of subtle to outright deception.

It does indeed seem deceptive to hope that a pit bull will – if you put in enough work and
exercise extreme caution – behave atypically, with the intent of presenting that atypical
animal to the public as a typical specimen. It brings us into an upside-down world. When yet
another breed-typical pit bull kills, the one atypical specimen can be trotted out to tell us,
“Look, all those killers are a strange anomaly, because see here we have this one pit bull that
hasn’t killed yet.”


The ‘demons’ are what Peremans found in her dissertation research (2002). Peremans found
the same brain disorder in all the researched dogs that showed unprovoked (thus
unpredictable) disproportionate and uncontrolled aggressive outbursts. Not all of them were
pit bulls. However, where the disorder is a rare and disastrous mutation in other breeds of
dogs, the pit bull has for centuries been selectively bred in favor of this genetically
determined disorder. The brain disorder means that there is a disconnect between upcoming
primitive feelings and urges and the cognitive, planning parts of the brain – the parts that can
make sense of incoming stimuli and conceive an appropriate and proportionate response.
Dogs that have this disorder (and by the way, also humans who have it) are constantly
struggling to make sense of things and find responses. The problem with dogs (and humans)
who suffer this disorder is that the explosive aggressive response is the one they end up
finding most frequently.

It does seem sad that we have created an entire breed that has to live with this disconnect and
this problem. And sad that instead of saying, “Let’s humanely discontinue this mistake,” we
are intensifying it in the pit bull.



This is as sad as creating dogs to fight in the first place. It’s not only unfair to adopters and to
any dogs they may have who will undergo a sudden unstoppable attack. It’s also unfair to the
pit bulls that are repeatedly adopted out and returned (this is bad for any animal’s well-being),
or at some point shot or stabbed during an attack. It’s unfair to pit bulls that end up in the
dogfighting circuit, or being used to breed more pit bulls that will end up with miserable lives
or in shelters. As shelters are flooded with ever more pit bulls, it becomes ever more clear that
trying to preserve the breed has little to do with loving animals or loving dogs.

Alexandra Semyonova
Baltimore, 2010