I got a call the other day from a potential training client. When I asked what kind of dog she had, the woman replied, “A five month old pit bull.”
“We’re very pit-friendly!” I said immediately. Why, you might wonder, did I feel the need to share that? Because of all the calls I’ve taken from potential clients who said other trainers refused to work with their dogs based on breed. This unwillingness to work with a specific breed is not limited to pit bulls, although I’ve heard it most often in that regard. Once a caller informed me that a local trainer she’d spoken to refused to work with Siberian huskies. I have a hard time fathoming why. Of course, if a trainer has been badly bitten or otherwise traumatized by a specific type of dog, he or she might have a conditioned response and be unwilling to work with it again. And if we’re being honest, many trainers have a specific breed or two they simply dislike or are actually afraid of. But even in those cases it’s better to explain why the job is being turned down than to leave the owner feeling something is wrong with her dog.
The more common reasons a trainer might refuse to work with a particular breed are due to preconceived notions about behavior and potential danger. It’s true that pit bulls do have more potential for damage, than, say, bichons. I know a trainer whose leg was mauled pretty badly by a pit. But I also know of many pit bulls who are perfectly lovely, sweet dogs who tolerate the typical fur-pulling and pat-pat-head-smacking by kids much more graciously than the majority of pocket pets I’ve met. Sure, pit bulls can have dog-dog aggression issues, but a well-bred pit bull with a solid temperament is one of the most people-loving dogs you’ll find.
Of course, it’s not just trainers who have this prejudice. When I volunteered for the Los Angeles city shelter system in the 90s, part of my duties included assisting the public in choosing a dog. Time after time the same scenario played out: a mother and child would be playing with and cooing over an adorable pit bull in a pen. The mom would finally turn and ask the dog’s breed. I’d answer “pit bull.” Mom would immediately take a giant step back, pushing the child behind her as though the dog was about to sprout horns, pull the bars apart, proclaim, “I am pit!” and maul them both. “It’s the same dog you were petting a minute ago” didn’t seem to make much difference. Cage cards say things like “Staff X” (Staffordshire Terrier Mix) for a reason—it’s less potentially off-putting than the dreaded “pit bull” label. But the dog is what it is, and I don’t believe in trying to fool people.
The public’s perception of pit bulls and certain other breeds is understandable. After all, you don’t often hear stories on the news like “Angry Chihuahua bites toddler!” Not that it doesn’t happen—you just won’t hear about it. I’m guessing small dogs are under-represented in breed bite statistics as well, because many people find it embarrassing to even report the bite.
When trainers feed into these existing misperceptions, though, it only fuels the fire. As professionals, trainers have the right to refuse service to anyone they like. But we owe it to owners not to make them feel as though there is something wrong or lesser about their chosen breed, and therefore their particular dog, who they obviously care enough about to seek professional help. Trainers are on the front lines of education, which is why it is so important for us to be educated. We have the capacity to help or hinder, and to indirectly contribute to or fight breed specific legislation based on the public perceptions we engender. Realizing that each breed is made up of individuals is the least we can do to promote a “deed not breed” philosophy.