We often get asked about dogs rescued from “fight busts”: what are they like? Can they really learn to live as “normal dogs”? Isn’t there a worry that they are going to “snap”? Ex-fighting Pit Bulls have always had their own set of myths surrounding them. RPB has been working hard for many years for ex-fighting dog equality and it’s only been in recent years that these victims of abuse have begun getting second chances at life through rescue initiatives. Here we’re happy to present some responses to common questions about these misunderstood dogs.
Can dogs rescued from fight busts live safely with people and other dogs?
There are quite a few dogs rescued from fight bust cases that are currently living in homes across the country, with other dogs, very successfully. So the simple answer is, yes. There is a big misconception about ex-fighting dogs, that they are somehow different than your average shelter-pulled Pit Bull. But the fact of the matter is, just like with dogs from shelters, there is a wide variety of personality and temperament types in fight bust dogs – and a large number of Pit Bulls rescued from fighting cases end up having really excellent temperaments that make them great companion animals.
The Pit Bull breed is very resilient; they can bounce back from even horrible abuse or neglect. Traditional American Pit Bull Terrier temperament is human-friendly; they are big-time people pleasers. When a dog has a good temperament, he’ll have that temperament for life, even after experiencing extreme abuse. The essence of the Pit Bull is soundness and stability around people and the ability to co-exist with other dogs. That essence doesn’t evaporate even after the dog has experienced abuse or neglect. The dog just needs an environment that will provide nurturing and allow him a chance to shine, and be who he really is. That’s what we do when we pull dogs from fight situations and bring them into our rescue program. We give them the opportunity to show their true essence.
Do the dogs have to be trained to fight or is it something they do naturally?
Dogs fight – it is common behavior across all breeds. Fighting is defensive behavior; all dogs have teeth, all dogs can protect themselves if need be. So no, dogs do not need to be trained to fight; working with dogs in our classes, dog-sensitivity or outright defensive aggression towards other dogs is a common behavioral problem. It is not something that is specifically “trained” or “taught” to the dog, but inadvertently or, in the case of fight bust dogs specifically, conditioned into the dog by the environment.
Pit Bulls that are used for fighting are living in an environment which encourages – conditions - fighting behavior. The dogs are not given proper socialization so they do not learn how to interact appropriately with other members of their species. The only exposure they get to other dogs is from being chained in close proximity to each other: they can see, smell and hear each other, but cannot interact. Or else they are facing off in the pit. So you have dogs that are constantly in a state of frustration and stress; then when they get a chance to actually interact with other dogs, it’s in a combative situation where they are literally fighting for their lives. This is not an environment that is conducive to building friendly, happy-go-lucky intra-canine relationships.
But here is the interesting thing: many of these dogs, when taken out of the fighting environment, morph fairly seamlessly into the role of companion animal and learn to have canine friends. It’s like they are just waiting to be given a chance to show who they really are. They are just domestic dogs that were born into horrendous circumstances. When you place them into a sane environment, you get a sane dog. It really is that simple.
Fight bust dogs need the opportunity to learn that they can be peaceful with other dogs and that they do not have to fight for their lives. These dogs don’t want to fight; they were just never shown that they don’t have to. They have to learn new behavior, to learn that they have other options.
But can you ever really trust one of these ex-fighting dogs?
No human is infallible, and neither is any animal. If you say that rescued fight bust dogs cannot be trusted, you’d have to say NO dog can be trusted. No one can guarantee ANY dog would never bite or attack, no matter where it came from or what its background.
So let’s rephrase the question: “Can rescued fight bust dogs be as trustworthy as any other dog?” The answer is, “Yes, absolutely.”
What sort of temperaments do fight bust dogs have?
In general, the dogs coming into rescue show temperaments that are typical of the breed: they love people, they are friendly, they learn quickly, they make great companion dogs, they need to be managed appropriately around other dogs because they may be dog-sensitive but no more so than Pit Bulls coming from any other situation. The thing that may surprise people is that some dogs come off yards already really liking other dogs. Sedona, who is currently undergoing socialization and training through our Karma Dog program, is from a suspected dog fighting situation, and she really likes other dogs. She has shown nothing but sociability with other members of her species, right from day one.
Sedona is currently living with a retired show AmStaff, who is not dog-social at all. Sedona is actually helping him come out of his shell and learn to interact with another dog. How amazing is it that the fight bust dog is helping the retired show dog with his canine social skills? This is a prime example of the fallacy of labels being predictive of behavior. Put any label you want on a dog, but labels don’t dictate behavior; the situations dogs come from aren’t necessarily predictive of future behavior, either. Every dog needs to be taken on a case by case basis.
Do fight bust dogs need a lot of training and socialization when they come to you?
Yes, they do. Where they come from, the dogs don’t get socialization, they do not undergo any sort of companion dog training. They are basically left chained up in a yard, bred, and fought. So when we bring a fight bust dog into a foster home, that dog is initially shell shocked and has no clue what domestic life is all about. They don’t know what a couch is, they don’t understand sounds coming from the TV, and they don’t know how to navigate stairs. They require a lot of remedial socialization. That is the biggest issue these dogs face: remedial socialization.
The ideal socialization period for dogs is up through the age of 16 weeks. That is when they are most receptive to learning about their environment, what is and is not safe, and how to navigate a human world. With fight bust dogs, we’re dealing with dogs that are 1 year, 2 years, 6-plus years old that have never been off the dog fighter’s yard. They don’t know what life is like past the end of a chain. So when they come into rescue, we are definitely in for an uphill battle in terms of making up for lost socialization time. We need to start from the ground up.
When Sedona came into our program for instance, she did not have any understanding of human gesturing, how to follow a treat to be lured into position, and the sound of a clicker caused her to tremble and retreat in fear. But she is learning, and starting to get that life can actually be fun and enjoyable, and training time is now a game she is getting into. Figuring out that she can sit for treats was a huge epiphany for her. We celebrated big time when she figured out “Oooo butt-on-floor equals something yummy! I get it, I get it!”
How are Pit Bulls rescued from fight busts different from dogs saved from other sorts of abusive situations? Are there similarities?
Mostly, fight bust dogs are the same as any other dogs coming from extreme abuse situations like hoarding, puppymills, etc.: they experience pain, receive no love or kind words from a human, are kept in relative isolation, and experience extreme neglect. All the symptoms that go along with that sort of cruelty are present in fight bust dogs: fear, withdrawal, avoidance, lack of trust, physical and emotional trauma. Fight bust dogs need to learn to trust, they need to physically and emotionally heal, to learn that life can be beautiful and enjoyable.
One thing that does make fight bust dogs stand out from dogs from other abuse situations is that Pit Bulls tend to be more resilient than your average dog of another breed. If other breeds went through what fight bust Pit Bulls go through, there would likely be a lot fewer that could be saved, socialized, trained and moved into a home life as companion dogs. Pit Bulls have good bounce-back. The breed is just such a human-oriented and intelligent breed that they can withstand so much abuse and neglect and as soon as they are given a little bit of love and care, they just go, “Oh hey, this is awesome, I love everyone now!” and they are off and running.
The main point that needs to be driven home is that fight bust dogs are VICTIMS of ABUSE. They should be afforded the same care and consideration as dogs coming from any other abuse situation.