Are pit bulls "inherently dangerous," as a Maryland court recently ruled?
University of Manchester
A pointer named “Major” is identified as the first known example of a modern dog. A description of the dog was found in a now-obscure 1865 edition of a Victorian journal called The Field. It marks the earliest reported dog breed based on physical form and pedigree. “The invention of ‘breed,’ physically and imaginatively, still shapes how we see and think about dogs today,” Michael Worboys, Director of the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, told Discovery News. Worboys and his team found the information concerning “Major” while preparing a new museum exhibit on dogs.
The first domestication of dogs was thought to have taken place 31,680 years ago -- but new research suggests the skull in question likely belong to a wolf. This particular specimen was found with a still-visible mammoth bone in its mouth.
The paleolithic dog remains resembled a modern Siberian husky, but suggest an animals that was significantly larger. Today, the Siberian husky, Samoyed and Alaskan malamute breeds are all closely related. "The most remarkable difference between these dogs and recent dog breeds is the size of the teeth,” paleontologist Mietje Germonpré said. Other early dog breeds, with a focus on the U.K., are featured in the museum exhibit curated by Worboys and his team. Entitled “Breed: The British and Their Dogs,” the exhibit runs at the University of Manchester museum through April 14.
Another team of researchers, led by Heidi Parker of the National Human Genome Research Institute, used DNA analysis to determine the genetic relationships of numerous dog breeds. One such ancient breed is the Afghan hound. As its name suggests, it's native to the Middle East. It’s one of the oldest dog breeds in existence, and was originally used for hunting hares and gazelles.
Parker and her team found that Akitas are yet another ancient breed. These dogs originated in Asia and are genetically similar to chow chows. The breed was not included in the first dog show. “The first dog show was in 1859 when only two varieties were shown: pointers and setters,” Worboys said. It had nothing to do with the handsome Akita’s looks, as he explained that the first dog show was “for gun dogs only.”
The sleek-bodied saluki comes from Iran, where its distant ancestors might have once lived near the earliest farmers from the Fertile Crescent. Dogs in this region evolved the ability to eat a starch-rich diet around 12,000 years ago. “Our findings show that it was crucial to early dogs to be able to thrive on a diet rich in starch,” Uppsala University’s Erik Axelsson, who led a related study, told Discovery News. “That indicates that dog domestication may be linked to the development of agriculture. It is possible that dogs may have been domesticated independently at locations where agriculture developed early, such as the Fertile Crescent and China.”
One of the most ancient dog breeds native to the United States is the Alaskan malamute. The DNA study found that they are genetically similar to Siberian huskies. This large, muscular dog was used -- and still is -- for pulling sleds, hauling freight by other means, and for additional work tasks.
The basenji is “an ancient African breed,” according to Parker and her colleagues. While “Major” the pointer is the first documented modern breed of dog, the basenji is arguably the first dog to be heavily bred by humans. Although this dog hails from central Africa, paleontologists believe its wolf ancestors originally came from eastern Asia.
Remigiusz Józefowicz/Wikimedia Commons
In China, the chow chow is affectionately referred to as Songshi Quan, meaning “puffy-lion dog.” It is genetically close to the Akita, also from Asia. It represents yet another early breed.
Of the four most ancient known Asian dog breeds, the shar-pei was the first to diverge from a wolf ancestor, suggesting it is the oldest known Asian breed. This dog is famous for its deep wrinkles and blue-black tongue. Mutations of the same gene that causes wrinkles in these dogs can also cause wrinkling of human skin.
- A Maryland court recently decided that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous."
- Animal experts and advocates disagree with the ruling.
- The problem is complex, with some pit bulls bred specifically for fighting.
The Maryland Court of Appeals recently deemed pit bulls and pit bull mixes "inherently dangerous," but many animal experts and dog advocates believe the court overstepped its authority.
"Inherently dangerous" implies that all pit bulls are, through genetics or their environment, born with a vicious streak. The science does not appear to support this.
For example, a University of Pennsylvania study on dogs found that the top three biters of humans were actually smaller dogs: Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers.
Nevertheless, pit bulls are often in the news for attacking, and sometimes even killing, people and other animals. A mid 1990's effort by the San Francisco SPCA and the Wisconsin Humane Society to rename socialized pit bulls "St. Francis terriers" was suspended when some of the adopted dogs killed housecats and engaged in other unsaintly behavior.
Pit bulls didn't always have such a bad rap. In the early part of the 20
"It is possible to breed in or out certain traits, with some dogs purposefully bred for fighting," Jennifer Scarlett, a veterinarian who is also co-president of the San Francisco SPCA, told Discovery News.
She said that studies on foxes suggest that a trait possibly affecting personality can appear in just two to three generations. Pit bulls bred this way seem to be more aggressive against other dogs, but not necessarily humans.
"In the fighting ring, humans will sometimes pry open the dog's mouth, so the aggression is usually very focused against other dogs," she explained.
Scarlett, who disagrees with the Maryland ruling and has herself debated the issue in court and other public forums, said that countless pit bulls nationwide are highly socialized and well trained, never hurting anyone.
"Dogs of any breed that are truly strong and aggressive can be managed, but what is nature and nurture in those cases?" she asked. "Should all dogs be let loose in a dog park? No."
Much then comes down to the owners, and therein lies the real problem.
Scarlett indicated that at least one study is underway to see if certain factors predict if a segment of the population is at greater risk for being attacked by a dog.
Are pit bulls "inherently dangerous," as a Maryland court recently ruled?Getty Images
Anecdotally, socioeconomic factors, whether or not a dog has been spayed or neutered, and whether or not a dog has been socialized and trained, appear to predict attacks. Many tragedies happen in homes where one member has a puppy mill-bred pit bull, Rottweiler, mastiff, or other dog and the unsupervised canine attacks a toddler.
Jennifer Lu, communications manager at the SF SPCA, said that pit bulls may have a bad reputation now, but other dogs, such as Doberman pinschers and German shepherds, held that dubious distinction in past decades. Some breeders then would try to create more aggressive versions of those dogs in response to demand.
Due to such problems with breeding, many shelters are waging campaigns against puppy mills that put profit ahead of the welfare of dogs. Aggressive canines aren't the only outcomes either. Owners desiring unusual or distinctive looking dogs, such as applehead Chihuahuas, may not realize that breeders are "exploiting a genetic defect that may cause the skull not to close," according to Lu. "This leaves many of the dogs with a soft, unprotected part of the head."
French bulldogs are known for their sweet disposition, but Lu said they usually require a C-section delivery by breeders, again creating a greater potential health risk.
Dogs ultimately suffer the most, with euthanasia rates extremely high now for both pit bulls and Chihuahuas.
Betsy McFarland, vice president of The Humane Society of the United States, is concerned that the suffering might escalate even more, given the ruling in Maryland. The HSUS is already aware that renters with pit bulls might now experience problems with their landlords. If a landlord creates a new lease preventing the owner from keeping his or her dog, that animal may wind up in a shelter, adding further to the euthanasia tally.
McFarland concluded, "The legislature should conduct appropriate fact-finding and hearings, consider the available science, and make a measured, non-emotional decision on this important policy issue."