All Pit Bulls are Dangerous….HOGWASH.
For those of us who are equal opportunity dog lovers, the idea of any given breed’s being given a bad name is abhorrent. So this morning in Palangkara, Borneo, after I finally got my very ill carcass out of bed to greet the day, I padded out towards the front of my hotel where I’d heard barking the night before. There, confined in a small cage (with no toys) was a fawn pittie. His ears had been clipped in that awful manner that makes them look like prize fighters. His eyes were yellow green.
He bared his teeth at me and retreated to the back of his cage. Then he began to shiver.
This was no attack dog.
The owner came out and we petted him together. He was very wary but willing to smell my hand. After she left I put my hand inside the cage for him to smell. Without aggression, and with a lot of sweet talk, he began to very gently mouth my fingers. Given that signal I began to play with his nose and his front paws.
With that, he leapt into a play bow, tail wagging. Still nervous, he wouldn’t allow me to touch his head, so we spent that time playing, until he got the message. No harm here.
Mitchi is a big dog, and his jaws are substantial. At any moment he could tear my arm off. However I didn’t read that in his behavior. He was dying for a playmate.
For the next two hours I would go lie down (I’m still dizzy from a sudden onset illness courtesy of a fellow passenger on the San Fran to Taipei flight). When I’d come back out, he was lying against the bars, eyeballs on me the whole way, tail thwapping the concrete.
Permission to Touch Granted
It didn’t take long before Mitchi to discover that I was happy to perform the deadly butt scratch, right above the tail. Then his back, which made his back legs collapse. Those of you who know dogs know these areas. After about an hour, he gave me belly. I sat on the hard ground in the sand, laid down next to the bars and let him inspect my face. The more love he got, the more happy and excited he was.
I’ve never ever met a mean pittie. They exist, but I believe that has to be trained into them. Smart owners socialize their dogs young. While I acknowledge that attacks do happen, all too often we don’t know the events leading up to them, nor do we know the context. We just see the carnage, and blame the breed.
Now, after four days of dealing with the flu, sleeping almost constantly but periodically getting up to go visit Mitchi, he leans against the fence and wails when I leave.
Respectful vs Fearful
Like any animal that has the potential to do harm, and most can, a dog reads fear as a threat. Like us, each is an individual. I don’t approach if I don’t see body language that indicates potential acceptance. That acceptance is earned. People get bitten and attacked when they assume too much- and that’s true of just about any animal, be it a domestic cat or horse, or wild animal raised by humans. If you watch too many Disney movies and assume that hippos are just big friendly animals to swim with, you can kiss your butt goodbye. Hippos kill more people, right up there with Cape buffalo, than just about any other animal in Africa.
Mitchi, despite his warning growl, was nothing more than a great big goof badly in need of a playmate, and someone to rub his belly. While I came away with a collection of colorful bruises on my arm from his powerful teeth, he was being enormously gentle. My forearm is a matchstick to him.
Don’t Try this at Home
While I do very much hope that more of us will be more tolerant of these so-called and unfairly labeled dangerous breeds ( and anyone can come up with a horror story about this or that dog that killed a kid or mauled a grandmother, it does happen) I still recommend caution. Dogs trained to protect or defend aren’t likely to roll over and ask for a belly scratch. Asking an owner’s permission and being sensitive to body language (does the animal tense up? Ears flatten? Tail stop wagging? Back off) go a long way towards a positive interaction. Far too many people don’t socialize their dogs and as a result, their animals are as wary of people as their owners. Not the dog’s fault.
When I go out for a run, I ask permission before I reach out to a pet. I’m often told that the dog “doesn’t like people.”
No, buddy, YOU don’t like people and that’s what your dog learns every time you jerk the shit out of his collar when a stranger approaches.That is learned behavior.
Some folks just want an intimidating dog, which is why pitties are chosen by gang members. I’ve made friends with many gang pitties, whose owners are perplexed by their animal’s sweetness, big scary spike collar and all. Of course I ask permission. They expect me to be scared. I’m not unless Bruno leaps at my throat. That would be a cause for caution but it hasn’t happened yet.
Bad Dogs or Bad Owners?
I believe in the adage that there aren’t bad dogs. There are bad owners, lazy owners who don’t socialize, properly train or ensure that their animals are safe in crowds. That kind of self-control and obedience are hard won. With so many kids running headlong up to a big animal while Mommy and Daddy think it’s all cute, that to me is a setup for an accident. Not the dog’s fault. Control your kids around others’ animals, just as owners are responsible for training their dogs. Owners are also responsible for picking up after their pets, a problem that has become a serious source of pollution (if not spreading worms).
Breed prejudice colors too much city thinking, and mass hysteria around animals that are rarely born with a mean streak. Even fighting dogs find happy loving homes and end up as huge, powerful, affectionate teddy bears. That says a lot to me about the resiliency of this great breed.
While it’s true that there are some animals that are just off, and I’ve ridden my fair share of horses which fall into this category. There are the occasional dogs- just like us humans- who are one short of a dozen. For the most part animals (and here I am not discussing in the wild, obviously although I’ve seen some damned fools do some remarkably stupid things around them) are open to meeting you. Every species, every breed has its idiosyncrasies. I’ve learned to ask the owner or handler what works, and be extremely mindful of body cues. If the answer is no, back away slowly. You might remind the animal of something or someone that scares them, and you can’t help that. It’s a fool who claims “but ALL animals love me,” which is like saying all humans are going to like you.
And I don’t think they should be punished for having an opinion. I don’t condone outright attacks, but not being willing to be picked up or cuddled or petted isn’t wrong. They have finely tuned instincts and for them it’s just not acceptable. Many times just allowing the creature to take its time has led to lots of cuddle time for us both because I don’t assume rights I haven’t earned.
Animals Have a Lot to Say
In the wonderful, rich and sometimes heartbreaking book Beyond Words, How Animals Think and Feel by Dr. Carl Safina, this renowned conservationist takes us on a journey to understanding elephants, wolves and orcas, and even his household mutts. If you’re willing to walk this road to better understand the creatures in our world you may come away with a wholly different appreciation not only of your brown-eyed Basenji but also those of the wider world. There’s a lot of talking going on, and just because it isn’t human in nature doesn’t mean it isn’t lively commentary.
This afternoon Mitchi was inside the hotel owner’s house and I was invited in. Those of you who know what extreme happiness looks like in a dog will recognize this: Mitchi curled his tail and butt under, and streaked around the living room table multiple times, his great wide jaws open in a grin only a pittie mommy could love. When he finally calmed down, I pushed his great head onto the floor and he flopped over immediately, asking for a belly scratch. He lay there contentedly, tail whacking the tile, periodically reaching up to chaw my right arm. That arm looks like a war zone now.
Every time I look at my love bites I’ll think of Mitchi. The owner says guests are terrified of him. If they only knew. He’s an angel, scared of things that go bump in the night (I’ve sat with him at 2 am and seen his fear) and only wants love. Like most animals, like all of us.