“Bad dogs are not born, it’s how they’re raised.”
How many times in your life have you heard these words echoed before? Probably a lot. And if you are a pit bull-parent, then it’s easily assumed that you’ve heard them twice as much. It is a statement that is often used as a method for defending our dogs. Take for example when a story hits the media about a “pit bull attack.” People everywhere come to the breeds’ defense with the argument that, “not all pits are bad; it’s all in how they’re raised.” In theory it is a sweet sentiment with good intentions. But if you stop to think about what these words actually mean, this simple phrase can do more damage than good.
Of course there is some truth to this. But how our dogs are raised is just one factor that can contribute to who our dogs become.
Here are just a few examples of how these well-intentioned words become detrimental to dogs everywhere, but especially pit bulls; the majority of whom have tainted pasts.
Dogs who have been victims of cruelty already have a hard enough time overcoming the stigma of their pasts. Believing that a dog’s upbringing is solely responsible for who they are makes it significantly harder for those dogs to find forever homes. It becomes particularly problematic when shelters and rescue organizations begin to believe this falsehood as well, because dogs who have survived an abusive or neglectful situation such as dog-fighting, puppy mill, animal-hoarding, etc are already known to have been “raised wrong.” This major assumption of a dog’s past may wind up - and in many cases does - costing the dog’s life; especially if shelter policies dictate that such dogs are considered unadoptable.
Take for example my own dog, Wyatt. He is an abuse survivor. He was tortured for fun by a very depraved individual. The attitude that “it’s all in how they’re raised” would command that Wyatt was destined for a future of anger, reactivity and aggression. Had the shelter that saved him taken on this ideology, he would have been put down long before ever finding us. Wyatt is none of those things, despite experiencing the worst humanity has to offer. He is kind, loving and the gentlest soul; one who loves all living things.
It’s not all in how they’re raised.
This theory causes people to prejudge and then refuse to adopt adult dogs. Think about it… it really does make adopting out adult and senior dogs a real challenge. Why would potential adopters take a chance on an adult dog - one who’s already been raised by someone else (or no one at all if they were a stray) - when they could adopt a puppy and raise him/her the “right” way? It really does sound silly, but ask any shelter worker or volunteer. This way of thinking is something they’re often confronted with.
And one of the most detrimental aspects of using this phrase is that it often makes responsible pet parents feel like failures. People who have raised their dogs since puppyhood beat themselves up when they’ve done everything right and despite their efforts, their dogs still develop behavioral issues. Shame and guilt are emotions often felt with pet parents who find themselves in this situation; and the idea that how you raise your dog is entirely dependent on who they become only further exacerbates those feelings of defeat.
Our good friend Rocket, although abandoned as a mere puppy of just a few weeks old, was rescued into his forever home at a very young age. He has never really known anything other than the life he has always had, being “raised right” from the start. His humans have been devoted to his training and socialization from day one; an embodiment of exactly what responsible dog parents should look like. And despite his fantastic upbringing, Rocket is reactive. He has been trained to wear a party hat - as shown in the photo below - to help him feel confident and safe in every situation, and yet he can still often be leery of new people and dogs in his personal space. The truth is, how he was raised doesn’t have anything to do with his reactivity. It is just a part of who he is. We need to stop stigmatizing parents who’ve done - and continue to do - everything right for their beloved pets.
So let’s say this loudly for all the people in the back….
It’s not all in how they’re raised that matters!
Reality says that dogs become who they are due to a number of factors; some of which we have control over and others not. Environment, management, socialization, breeding, genetics, chemical imbalances, training, illnesses etc. All of this together influences who our dogs are. And how they’re raised is never the entire story.
Some dogs, neglected and abused their entire lives, go on to become well-adjusted and social creatures. Some dogs, purchased from responsible breeders, still wind up with behavioral problems. There is never a guarantee when you bring a dog into your home. Whether they were raised “right” or raised “wrong” our job is to recognize their individual needs and provide them with the right care and management tools to give them each the best chance to succeed.
The point to really drive home here is not to ignore their past all together. It is just one element of a much bigger picture. Sure, we can look to their past for clues and guidance, but our focus needs to be on who they are today; to help them be the very best they can be while also creating safe communities for all of us to enjoy.
A dog is only as successful as we set them up to be, but that is not the same as “how they were raised.” Perpetuating this idea only hurts dogs with less than perfect pasts and shames the people who work hard for their dogs every day. So let’s trash this idea and stop using this harmful phrase altogether. We are their champions and their success is dependent on how we manage them today, and every day after.