Breed Specific Prejudices—Among Trainers

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.

8 Responses to Breed Specific Prejudices—Among Trainers

  1. Karla says:

    i totally agree! i will admit i did feel the same way about pit-bulls as a lot of ppl, kinda scared. because thats ALL they show on the news, rarely another breed of dog, its always pits and or wild animals. but i have friends how have told me that they have had pits in the past and that they were just the sweetest dogs ever! it all depends on how a dog was brought up i believe. and if the owner took time to socialize it w other dogs, ppl and such.

    i was actually bit by 2 small dog before! and its funny because i have been around a lot of dogs! i have not owned a dog before, but i have a lot of freinds who have pets and a lot of them were large dogs, from huskies, to dalmations and german shepard mixes, even a pit mix! and they have ALL been sweethearts!

    i was at a petshop once w some friends. and i saw a cute little Boston Terrier. they put me in a little cubical w him and when i picked him up he was sweet lickin my face and all, then when i would put him down he would go crazy and start biting my clothes, my purse and then he bit my hand!! it wasnt a puppy bite! he kinda peeled my skin, i dont have a scar, but i was ok!..time to go! i felt bad for him, maybe i did something to upset him, or he was tired of being in a petstore and put in cubicals w random ppl.

    the next dog was actually my cousins, girlfriends dog, Kelso. he was cute little thing. i forgot was kinda breed, but it wasnt a chihuahua. but still a small dog. he was also a nice, at first. but then whenever you get near Belle, the pretty little black and white pit-mix he would like, get jealous or over protective??…and would growl at you and bark and then he also bit me. and my cousin even told me, be careful, Kelso bites!

    so i agree w ppl being embarrased about reporting being bit by small dogs but thoes little guys can do some damage too! all animals can! but i just think we should sterotype them. and pits, ppl, are really not that bad! go online and you will see millions of cute pictures w families WITH CHILDREN who have pits and they fit right in!

    also you cant really be prejudece against dogs if you are a TRAINER!!! you should know the facts or resarech before you take on any kind of dog. unless you have a traumatic experience i guess its ok. but you are not helpin this breed by saying, no way jose! ill pass on the pit! you are a professional. i want to become a dog trainer, and i would not mind having to train a pit. i am tryin to help the owner and the dog. if we start to pick and chose who to help, we are not helping. and ppl who do care about their pets will not want to get help and may just think that their dog is a ‘lost cause’ or a bad choice.

  2. I work with anxious, fearful, and aggressive client dogs for a living. I always take breed into consideration in analyzing behavior, but that’s a different issue than having breed prejudices. In my opinion, any dog trainer working with a client should be encouraging that client to do everything they safely can to counter condition and retrain unwanted behavior regardless of the dog’s breed. I believe it’s cruel to further stigmatize any dog whose owner is calling for help.

    I’ve only been bitten badly once; multiple puncture wounds and tears. I admit to being afraid of dogs of “that” breed for several months. It was NOT a pit bull.

    When another owner called me asking for help with her dog of “that” breed, I explained that I had had a traumatic experience with that breed and perhaps she should work with on of the other consultants in our practice. This owner told me she understood but that her dog was so sweet, she’d prefer that I come to help me over my “breed bias”.

    I’m so glad I went! I no longer have that trauma induced “breed bias” and in fact, know several dogs of “that” breed who I adore.

    Breed Specific Legislation is unfair, expensive, and harmful and stigmatizes dogs in the public eye who don’t deserve it. I hear pit bull advocates (I think we should all be advocates for all dogs) say “judge the behavior, not the breed”. I agree!

  3. Madeline says:

    I’m a trainer, and while I don’t have breed prejudices (happen to love happy, friendly pits and other large dogs and bully breeds, and would love to own one some day), I *do* have some owner gripes.

    Pits and other dogs may be other-animal aggressive. The larger the dog, the potentially more serious the issue depending on the sizes and species of other animals in the home.

    Where my own what may be perceived as prejudices (but, I think my concerns are reasonable and not prejudices) come in is when a dog in a household which is capable of doing damage, or has already done damage, is going after another animal in a household on a consistent basis, and even after I give the owner clear and easy to implement management tools which will keep the animals safe, the owner is non-compliant and thinks they know better than the dog trainer they hired.

    This year alone I strongly warned a young female pit owner whose dog had already terrorized the h/h cat (who had not come out from under a bad for three days, and whom I strongly urged at that point to get out from under the bed and take to the vet IMMEDIATELY) to keep the dog separated from the small smooth fox terrier in the home. She disobeyed my cautionary statements, and three days later on a Sunday she called me panicked b/c her pit had just attacked her fox terrier, grabbing him by the throat, and held him for several minutes until the owner and her mother could extricate the smaller terrier from the larger terrier’s mouth by, OMG, first trying to dump water on the pit and then kicking and beating him. No break stick around, which I had also suggested they obtain and which they didn’t.

    During this incident, both were bitten badly – by the smaller, panicked terrier while he was being held in the larger terrier’s mouth, and not by the pit. The fox terrier was bleeding and unresponsive, but was taken to the vet (where the owners lied their pants off about the incident, blaming it on another “stray” dog) and survived – this time. I’m not sure what happened with the cat b/c after this incident I dumped the client for non-compliance and for not following my instructions.

    In another similar incident, I recently had clients in Newark (N.J.) who also had a pit mix attacking a cat. Again, I gave instructions that would have kept the cat safe. AGAIN, the clients ingored my advice and the cat was killed within 12 days of my first appointment with these people (during which they didn’t follow up with me, as they were supposed to and which they agreed to do), upon which killing I received a phone call from the clients after the facts.

    I have lots of accounts such as this, too many to share here.

    What I would like folks to understand when trainers seem as if they don’t want to work with certain breeds or in certain situations involving certain breeds or sizes of dogs is that trainers may not turn down certain clients who have certain breeds due to breed prejudices. The fact is, we trainers *may* not agree to work with certain breeds situationally, because we’ve had bad experiences regarding compliance and because we might assess, either during a phone call on intake, or during a first visit and evaluation, or even during the time during which a client is supposed to follow up with us but does not, that the client is resistant to our advice and will be non-compliant. Such could result in another animal being harmed or killed, and NO trainer wants to suffer such a terrible, sad experience when she or he knows it could have been prevented. Such non-compliance on the parts of owners could put trainers at risk for blame, and therefore at risk for liability.

    These are serious issues about which trainers must think. This is our livelihood. People often don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions and if they’re feeling guilty might try to (and often do) assign blame to the nearest person who may seem easy to blame and who tried to help – the trainer. No matter that our notes say that we did everything we could have and should have. Notes can be changed, and often we’re dealing with sad, irate, guilty-feeling owners where they may be, in part, desiring to alleviate their own guilt and sadness. This is complicated – but for many trainers like me, it’s NOT about breed prejudices, and turning down certain clients is about the client and bad experiences I’ve had personally with clients, not about the breeds.

    But, I am sure having explained this that some people will misinterpret or misunderstand the comments I’ve made and twist them in to something completely different than what’s intended here, and like the non-compliant clients, try to blame this trainer.

  4. Donna Toews says:

    I was hired to train a very young human/dog aggressive pit bull. This was the first time I had to put a fence between myself and a dog I was hired to train. If any dog might have prejudiced my feelings, it would have been this dog, but he didn’t. (Sadly, this pup and the whole litter was destroyed due to severe aggression thought to be brought on by an illness when the dam whelped.)

    I haven’t experienced breed-bias myself but understand that we’re all human.

  5. Greg Gibbs says:

    My wife and I have been R+ trainers since ~1996 and ran a dog day care for four years, evaluating many dogs for both. We’re human, so we have biases, but being aware of them is the first step, right? I’m actually biased in favor of Pickles (as we like to call them), and they were the best dogs in day care (as compared to those unruly teenaged Labradorks and herding dogs 🙂

    My experience is similar to Nicole’s in that Pickle owners we’re reticent about admitting to their dog’s breed, then thrilled that we were happy to have them in group training classes or day care. We even ran a Pickle-only class for staff & volunteers at local shelter. – g^2

  6. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for your site, books, and seminars. If only this article was in the local newspaper or doggie paper all over the US. We need to reach those people who aren’t looking for an answer or education. On the pit bull note…. humans have made a subculture out of them. They are like clothes for some people…..these pants and hat make me look like this type of person now all I need is the last accessory the pit bull. If only people would realize (except for genetic or Dam whelping problems) a well breed any breed is going to have a better chance at being a great dog. We need to attack BREEDERS “legal” and backyard. Why are sooooo many dogs being breed every year lets put a cap on this. You should have to get permission to breed, by proving your blood line is free of aggression, genetic health problems etc….. We would have people putting a family member down after years of loyal service because they can’t afford a 4000 dollar leg surgery. About 50% of the dogs I take care of have had some sort of bone surgery or early arthritis…..What’s going on? Less dogs in shelters and at vets keeps them in homes. Thanks

  7. Is there a way to see updates to your site on my desktop? I have been tracking your site for a while now and want to see when it is updated.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Andrew,

      Not sure if this is what you mean, but if you scroll down on the right hand side of the main page, you can subscribe to the blog by email.
      Glad you’re enjoying the blog. 🙂

      Take care,

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