One of the biggest concerns people have with owning Pitbulls is that their cute puppy will grow up to display aggression as an adult. Since aggression can develop in any breed of dog, this concern is a realistic one.
Some Pitbulls may develop aggression with age for various reasons, including hormones and lack of training. Many sources of Pitbull aggression can be avoided through training by providing socialization and impulse control behaviors to reduce reactivity to people and other animals.
Developing aggression can make Pitbull owners worry if it shows up as a puppy ages, but the truth is that it doesn’t have to. Keep reading to learn more about aggression in Pitbulls and how to avoid it with your dog.
Pitbulls Can Develop Aggression in Puberty
Many Pitbulls who develop aggression develop aggression when they hit puberty, or sexual maturity, at around six months of age.
During puberty, hormonal changes in the growing dog can cause mood swings and impulsive behavior that increase reactivity to situations. Since Pitbulls are sexually mature at this age, it can also cause them to act out with territorial or sexual aggression.
The hormone that drives much of a Pitbull’s aggression is testosterone, most potent in male dogs. This increased testosterone is why male dogs are more likely to display aggression than females. (Source: University of Arizona) Neutering or spaying a Pitbull can go a long way towards reducing hormone-based aggression and territoriality.
Even though Pitbulls may have a reputation for aggression, emerging low-grade aggression is common in many teenage male dogs during this developmental period, not just Pitbulls.
Pitbull Socialization and Aggression
Another factor that may influence aggression in Pitbulls as they age is socialization (or lack of socialization). Socialization is the process that dog owners use to desensitize their dog to new sensory stimuli such as the following:
- Strange people and animals
- Loud noises such as lightning, gunshots, and firecrackers
- Unfamiliar accessories that change a person’s silhouette such as wheelchairs, walkers, hats, and walking canes
- Unfamiliar flooring and places such as the vet or the inside of a car
Exposing Pitbull puppies to a wide variety of things and relating them to positive reinforcement can help prevent the development of phobias and fear-based aggression as the puppy ages. Even though socialization should continue through the first year of a Pitbull puppy’s life, it can start in the puppy’s first eight weeks of life. (Source: Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine)
Along with fear-based aggression, lack of socialization with other dogs and being socialized only around humans can cause dogs to grow up socially awkward around other dogs.
Without the opportunity to learn the body language cues dogs use to communicate with each other within a pack, dogs are more prone to miscommunications. These social conflicts lead to dog fights. Once a dog has been involved in a dog fight, they are more likely to develop fear-based aggression towards other dogs and become more reactive to them as a result.
Different Kinds of Pitbull Aggression
The aggression that Pitbulls and other dogs can potentially display is the result of many different causes. A few of those aggression types have been mentioned above, such as fear-based aggression, but here is a breakdown of them all:
- Territorial aggression: Pitbulls develop this aggression with sexual maturity since male dogs possess the instinct to protect their home territory. This territory-guarding instinct can lead to aggression towards strange dogs or intruders on the property like mail carriers, especially in poorly socialized dogs.
- Possessive aggression: Some Pitbulls can develop resource guarding over food, toys, or their bed. This can lead them to act aggressively towards people or animals who try to take these items or approach them. Possessive aggression is common in dogs with a dominant personality who may use this aggression to exercise power over others.
- Maternal aggression: Maternal aggression is usually temporary and is when a female dog displays protective aggression over her puppies to prevent people or other animals from getting near them. This is a normal phenomenon and passes as the puppies grow.
- Pain aggression: Pain aggression is shown when a dog is in pain from illness or injury and lashes out when people inadvertently increase that pain by touching the painful spot. Pain aggression is instinctive, and many injured or sick animals display it, not just dogs.
- Predatory aggression: Predatory aggression is a form of aggression found most often in hunting dogs or working dogs with a high prey drive, such as German shepherds and huskies. This type of aggression is relatively rare in Pitbulls.
- Redirected aggression: Redirected aggression is one of the major causes of aggression towards people, especially people breaking up dog fights or pulling dogs off prey. These dogs may become momentarily frustrated at a human who interferes and lash out instinctively at them with high levels of aggression.
- Social aggression: Social aggression is aggression that dogs show each other due to social conflict, much in the same way that humans come to blows in a violent argument. As pack animals with a complex hierarchy, dogs are as susceptible to social violence as people.
- Sexual aggression: Sexual aggression is typically aggression shown to dogs of the same sex, so it often occurs between two male dogs or two female dogs. Sexual aggression is usually the result of sexual competition and gender-based social dynamics.
- Fear aggression: Fear aggression is the aggression described in the section of this guide on socialization. Unlike possessive aggression or territoriality, fear-based aggression is defensive and rooted in insecurity.
Knowing what type of aggression your Pitbull is displaying can go a long way towards helping you solve how to stop those aggressive behaviors.
Common Displays of Pitbull Aggression
While many Pitbulls never develop an issue with aggression, low-level aggression issues are very common in many breeds of dogs, including Pitbulls. Here are some of the aggression displays that owners run into with Pitbulls and what to do about them.
Pitbull Puppies and Nipping
Unlike the other types of aggression listed here, nipping in puppies does not start as aggressive behavior. Puppies use their mouths when they’re young to explore their surroundings and use their mouths to play-fight with each other and their mother.
In this important play, puppies are taught exactly how hard they can bite down before injuring another creature. This training performed by the mother and siblings is called bite inhibition.
Puppies that are taken from their mothers before eight weeks of age are less likely to have the instinct to inhibit their bites, which means when they play-fight with other animals or humans, they may bite painfully hard or even draw blood.
Pitbull puppies who are not inhibited in this nipping behavior early through training may learn over time that they can direct humans or other animals to leave them alone through aggressive displays. This can blossom into full-blown aggression such as resource guarding, leash reactivity, and territoriality.
Pitbulls and Dog Aggression
Because they are a breed that has historically been bred and used as a dog-fighting breed, some hereditary Pitbull lines may harbor a genetic predisposition to aggression towards other dogs. Many of these instincts can be mitigated through thorough socialization and training, but individual dogs can still display heightened levels of dog aggression.
Since dog aggression in Pitbulls tends to be more damaging in a dog fight due to their strength and tenacity, displays of aggression towards other dogs should be managed through training as soon as they’re noticed before they have a chance to get worse. The more ingrained these behaviors become with age, the more difficult they are to change.
Scientists agree that in most cases, it is the owner of a Pitbull rather than the disposition of the Pitbull that determines whether a dog will end up displaying behavioral aggression. Consistent training has been shown to reduce incidences of aggression in all breeds. (Source: Smithsonian Magazine)
Pitbulls and Attacks on Humans
The reason that Pitbulls are often targeted by breed ban laws and other stigmatizing legislation is because of sensationalized news stories about Pitbulls mauling and sometimes even killing human beings. And it is true that the jaw strength of Pitbulls makes them more dangerous in a dog bite scenario because of their tendency to lock their jaws when they bite down.
However, it’s also the truth that in dog bite statistics, there are many breeds of dogs more likely to bite a human than a Pitbull. In fact, both Dachshunds and Chihuahuas actually top the list for dog bites. Even the beloved Beagle is more likely to bite its owner from a statistical standpoint. (Source: All Pets Life)
Pitbull Aggression is Preventable
Even though Pitbulls get a bad rap for aggression, making sure that your Pitbull is socialized and trained in obedience from a young age can go a long way towards nipping any potential aggression triggers in the bud before they ever have a chance to develop. As with any breed, lots of exercise and impulse control work go a long way towards a calmer, more peaceful canine.
If you’re looking for specific methods to calm your pitbull, I recommend reading an article I wrote that directly addresses that topic. Best Ways to Calm a Hyperactive Pit Bull.