Some breeds have a bad reputation – why? What problems can people face owning a more powerful breed and are these powerful dogs for everyone?

Some breeds have a bad reputation – why? What problems can people face owning a more powerful breed and are these powerful dogs for everyone?

big pit and pup2

This is an interesting question and one that comes up more and more frequently in these days of dog attacks and canine horror stories.  The demonisation of breeds actually started once newspapers became more popular.  In the USA, this was after the Civil War.  A large part of the following information is taken from Keith L Kendrick’s essay “A Brief History of “Demon” Dogs” 2012.  To read the full article and visit Keith’s site go to

Although these days, the Pit Bull is likely to be the first dog that springs to mind when we think of a breed with a bad reputation, it is often closely followed by breeds such as the Rottweiler, and depending on where you live, dogs like the German Shepherd, Boerbul and so on.  This was not always the case.  For example, how many of us would put the Blood Hound up there on the list of scary dogs but during the latter part of the 19th Century they were felt to be bloodthirsty man-hunting and man-killing beasts.  All of this was due to the Blood Hounds described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the fact that they were used to track down runaway slaves and escaped criminals.

Interestingly Huskies and Malamutes were next on the list, and were considered equivalent to wolves.  There was actually a genuine need to fear these dogs as early sled dogs suffered deprivation and were often allowed to roam free in packs.  There were a number of stories reported of fatal incidents where these dogs had taken and eaten human children.  With WW1 and WWII German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Dobermans found themselves the subject of attention because they were the favoured dogs of the military used in guarding and patrolling.

It was the inner-city gangs and the development of organised dog fighting that led to the Pit Bull becoming the demon it is today.  However, if we look at the history of this dog as outlined by Keith L Kendrick he explains that in the early 1900’s this was one of the most popular dogs in America and was considered “an all purpose family dog” because it would protect the family and children yet was also classed as a fun dog with character.  It often took on the role of a mascot and appeared in films and TV serials.  In Cesar Millan’s discussion on Pit bBulls he also draws attention to the fact that during the 1930’s the name pit bull was a compliment given to good athletes and he cites that between the turn of the century and the 1980’s there was “exactly one dog attack story to make the national papers and mention pit bulls”.

It is interesting to discover that Pit Bulls were pulled into the fighting rings not for the reasons most of us think, but because large and powerful breeds like the GSD, Doberman, Rottweiler or Mastiff could never be controlled by a human handler in the middle of a full blown dog fight.  Any dog that bit a human handler was put down because biting a human was not acceptable.  This consequently (at the time) led to dogs that were less likely to bite humans.  Because Pit Bulls gained a reputation for fighting at the same time gangs were multiplying “they became the favourite dog for gangs to boast their intimidating image”.

These gangs of course were not much into training classes or socialising their dogs!  They also liked to neglect and abuse the dogs and this is where human psychology plays a part too.  Many of those who like to feel big and powerful come from abused and unbalanced backgrounds themselves, they also feel better about themselves by being powerful over an animal, especially one that is perceived as being dangerous.  Ego plays a huge role and yet, much of this is born of insecurity.  In order to make the dogs look even more frightening they would cut the ears shorter and put on spiked collars.

I would like to specifically quote a longer passage here from Kendrick’s work:

“In July of 1987 the public perception of Pit Bulls suddenly took a drastic turn to for the worst: SPORTS ILLUSTRATED did an extremely inflammatory cover story on Pit Bulls with a cover picture of a mean looking, snarling Pit Bull with the headline: “BEWARE OF THIS DOG.” The same month, TIME magazine also did a similar story called “Time Bomb On Legs,” with this as the first paragraph: “Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face.

So despite being known as the “nanny dog” in the early 1900’s, as well as in the United States as a well regarded all purpose family dog good with children, because of such highly distorted journalism Pit Bulls immediately became the top demon dog. Two things resulted from this: Even more people likely to be involved in crime wanted to have Pit (and such people were more likely to be irresponsible and uncaring dog owners), and because then more people who owned Pits were bad owners, Pits got an even worse name.  Secondly, many cities started to enact “breed specific” dog bans which outlawed any dog that resembled a Pit Bull, and irrational and inflammatory political grandstanding in banning Pit Bulls further tarnished the breed’s image.”

It should be noted that although Pit Bulls were ideally bred and selected not to bite humans, back street breeding in gangland has led to dogs that are selected and bred to be vicious.  Poor genetics and interbreeding have further led to these dogs being demonised.  As the New York Times (May 2010) stated, “One out of four drug searches and arrests in the four-county district of Charleston, Tennesee involves a house with guard dogs.  These dogs are the gang-member version of buying a home-security system”.  They verify what Kendrick states, that most of these dogs are unsterilised in order to increase the chance of them being aggressive.  Humane societies from some of the street gang areas state that there are backyard breeders who beat the dogs and bind their legs to make them more vicious and even keep them penned with smaller and weaker dogs to encourage them to attack.  Often the dogs are trained specifically to be killers so that they can be used as “four-legged weapons”.  Some of the dog pounds in these areas are even broken into by the gangs so that they can specifically steal pit bulls that have previously been picked up off the streets.

It is an unfortunate truth that people often pick a certain type of dog because it expresses something about them, and not because the dog is the right breed for them.  Many ordinary, every day owners, also pick dogs because they look good and I have lost count of how many people I have met who buy dogs because they have squashed faces.  Owning dogs for the wrong reason, and more so, choosing a specific breed for the wrong reason, is probably the biggest single reason for a mismatch between dog and human.  In my experience, the same applies for owners of horses also.  Usually it’s the eyes with a horse but falling for the eyes or “the way he looked at me” is a problem for humans searching for their canine companion.  Other reasons are often the cute face, the fur ball or the dog’s magnificence. Matching and owner’s energy to that of the best dog for them is important.  It’s no good owning a dog that loves to run, has enormous amounts of stamina and requires lots of room if you are someone who prefers a short stroll to the local cafe as your form of exercise and live in a small apartment without a garden.

german-shepherd-fluffy puppy-01When we look specifically at powerful breeds like the Rottweiler or the Doberman, owners of these dogs often choose them for a number of reasons – but high on the list of reasons are protection and their powerful magnificence.  Of course, we can’t apply a broad brush to all owners of these dogs – some want to train them in obedience or as working dogs, but sadly many of the dogs of this type I have come across have been chosen for the reasons listed above.  People forget the fact that these breeds need exercise and as pure breeds have strong drives – like herding or hunting and they forget that the protection side of these dogs comes from these abilities.  Too often people focus on the look of the dog and how intimidating it can appear.  They want it to keep people out of the back yard and believe that having the run of the garden is enough exercise.  They forget about their three year old toddler, or the fact that they like their mail to be delivered and their pool to be cleaned by service providers.  With the German Shepherd, the average owner falls for the fluffy cute puppy and forgets its ability to protect, guard and herd.  They just think of the status symbol and the obedience witnessed in some full grown dogs.  They don’t realise the training required to take a dog to a good level of obedience.  It won’t stay at the cute and fluffy stage forever.

GSD high level obedience

Why do Rottweilers having bad reputation: 

Sadly the Rottweiler has also been branded “the devil dog”.  Of the attacks on children the most featured dogs are both the Rottweiler and Pit Bull.

Unfortunately, because they have been involved in some vicious attacks on humans (some of which have resulted in deaths) they have gained a reputation as one of the canine bad boys.  The problem is that if a big dog “goes bad” they inflict more damage (and more quickly) than a small dog.  They are also harder to remove from a fight or in mid-attack due to their size, bulk and power.  As noted in the opening discussion on Pit Bulls, one reason Pits were chosen as fighting dogs over dogs like the Rottweiler was because the latter is much harder for a human handler to control when it is in full attack mode.  Rottweilers are big dogs and most attacks (actually most dog attacks in general) tend to be on children.  Not only does an attack on a child raise more media attention and receive public outcry, but the damage done to a child is always much greater because they often smaller than the dog or of dog height.

At one time the GSD and Rottweiler were at the top of the list of bad boys, but the Pit Bull has overtaken them by far.  Once upon a time, the Rottweiler was always in the news, nowadays it tends to be the Pit Bull.  One can look up statistics for attacks, but as Kendrick says in his article, the CDC (the US Centre for Disease Control) stated that is statistics on breed identification and dog related fatalities are so flawed that they should not be used at all.  They stopped compiling information as most of it was based on newspaper reports (written by newspaper reporters) and as Kendrick points out, a lab biting a mailman is less likely to make the news than a Pit Bull or Rottweiler attacking a child.

When one reads the reports on these dog attacks, a common phrase seems to be “the dog just attacked out of nowhere” or it “attacked without warning”.  If we study dogs, we know that in most cases there is a warning.  Yes, dogs react quickly, some react faster than others and some with less warning than others.  However, the bigger problem is that humans are less observant, they don’t notice the signs and they literally don’t see at the same speed as a dog.  Even if they do notice a problem, they have much slower response times than dogs, in fact much slower response times than most animals.

Between 2005 and 2012 apparently 73% of the total recorded fatal attacks (US and Canada) were by Pit Bulls and Rottweilers.  When one looks closely one sees that these records were complied from press accounts.  Pit Bull attacks and those of their mixes (according to the report) more than double the attacks inflicted by Rottweilers.  What many media stories do not cover is the fact that a large number of child attacks fall into the following categories: a child brought into the home of a friend or relative who owns one of these two breeds, or the opposite, that one of these breeds is temporarily staying in the home of a child.  

When one reads the statistics put out by dog bite organisations and anti-dog groups (yes, there are whole groups of people specifically organising themselves in such a way!) then one can see why there is so much fear flying around.  Some of these organisations are not run by “experts” in the field and sadly they like to sensationalise.  Just as Kendrick points out, many gather information only from media reports.  Another interesting article “The REAL Dog Bite Statistics Plus Media, Myths & Colleen Lynn EXPOSED” by Sloane Quealy-Miner January 2012, is dedicated to this discussion and offers links to various websites with statistics and additional information.  The report states that in 2012 there were 34 fatalities recorded within a population of more than 310 million and a canine population estimated at over 70 million.  The plan is for the final report to be be available in the first week of 2014.

Dog bite-related human fatalities have always been exceedingly rare, yet they can attract the kind of publicity that creates an impression that they are more prevalent than they actually are. The annual total of such fatalities has risen and fallen with no discernible pattern or trend, even though the canine population in the U.S. has continued its steady increase.

From year-to-year, the truth behind the tragedy of dog bite-related human fatalities remains consistent. As rare as they are, they would be even rarer in the absence of reckless ownership practices, neglect, and abuse. If there is anything that analysis of these isolated tragedies can teach us, it is that all dog owners have an unequivocal responsibility for the humane care (including proper diet, veterinary care, socialisation and training), custody (including licensing and microchipping), and control of their dogs”.

Physical characteristics and needs of powerful dogs like the Rottweiler:  Rottweilers are classified as working dogs and because of their intelligence, strength and working nature, the breed profiles recommend that only experienced and involved, pro-active dog owners should take on a Rottweiler.

The dog is considered a very large breed with males being around 50-60kg and females 35-48kg.


The Rottweiler is a dog of great strength.  It probably has origins in the Mastiff type and as a droving dog from ancient times.  Their ancestors worked with sheep and cattle to move them (often with armies as they traveled their meat on the hoof) and the dogs would also to guard these herds.  History documents that these early Rottweiler types were used to guard the camps of humans as well as drove and that they were often trained as warriors for battle.  There is no denying that they were bred for a purpose and had the intelligence to do their job and understand commands, complex situations and changes in duties.

Ultimately they were mostly used by butchers to herd pigs and cattle long distances to market as well as guard the herds.  During these long drives, during a time of highway robbery, traveling with valuables was dangerous and money bags were often tied to the dog’s collar. Thus for all the purposes outlined above, a “strong dog with staying power along with the energy and courage to impose its own will on cattle, with self-will and physical strength” was developed.  The dogs had to be reliable and quiet also – which is not so difficult to achieve with this breed if they are given a job to do and the ability to use their strength and energy.  Their strength was such that they were also useful for pulling carts for farmers, butchers, bakers and pedlars.  Even today the Rottweiler is a good cart pulling dog.

They are known to be dogs of intelligence, devotion, courage, vigilance and with a great desire to work.  Being owned by someone who is shy and retiring, unwilling to get greatly involved in training or who will not socialise the dog is asking for trouble.  They need direction, motivation and confidence.  The characteristics of the Rottweiler mean that they are also not suited to the person who is a bully or who is of a less agreeable in nature.  They need calm, assertive leaders to give them direction and because they have been bred specifically to have some decision making ability themselves.  This was  needed for herding and to reading they cattle they worked.  If someone is not a leader, the dog can assert this role.  Given the right training and guidance (and they are highly trainable) they can show a sense of understanding right from wrong, this again coming from a certain amount of decision making ability bred into dogs needed for herding.

Rottweilers, being herders and protectors, need obedience training and ongoing good training because what they were bred for can lead to resource guarding – of their home, food, toys, owner etc.  A conscientious, dedicated owner who is active, outgoing and consistent is essential for this breed and I would say, any large, powerful breed.

Psychological needs of dogs like Rottweilers:  Rottweilers need to be walked as they are strong, fit dogs and the walk will give them the chance to socialise, meet other humans and animals and experience a varied and stimulating environment.  However, as they are intelligent dogs they need mental stimulation as much as they need physical work, so exercising, even in the back yard such as throwing and fetching etc, is important for the Rottweiler – it fulfils part of their breed need.  They often love water and swimming and this is another energy draining and stimulating exercise.  The owner who thinks this is all that is necessary would be making a mistake.  The main reasons that Rottweilers end up in shelters is, according to “Rescue Every Dog” is:  “The owner’s inability to provide for this breed’s intense emotional needs, socialising, and training requirements, and improper behaviours, which usually develop out of frustration, lack of proper training, and inadequate exercise”.

These dogs are very people oriented and often suffer separation anxiety, so someone who is highly extrovert, but to the extent that they socialise themselves more than their dog, could be an issue for it.

Powerful breeds (of course all dogs) need mental and physical direction and stimulation, but the consequences of not fulfilling such a dog’s needs are always going to be more obvious because of its size and power.  A small, yappy dog that nips is less likely to come to anyone’s attention and it less likely to hit the news headlines.  As a point of interest, according to a study made in 2008 by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania at the top of the list of aggressive dogs were dachshunds, followed by chihuahuas and then Jack Russells.  Imagine what would happen if they were the size of the Rottweiler, Doberman or German Shepherd.

Dogs that were used for hunting, guarding and protection and the characteristics of hunting, guarding and protecting form part of many large and powerful breeds’ natures, it is vital that they are socialised and habituated to humans and other dogs and that they receive appropriate training.  Because, for example, of the Rottweiler’s decision making capability, the dog can readily come to the defence of its owner.

What human personalities might find themselves struggling with owning a powerful breed?  There is less room with these breeds to be vague or ambiguous.  They need assertive leadership without too much chopping and changing of ideas so someone with a highly butterfly personality who might like to try one training method one moment and another the next without fully following through on any will find that inconsistency breeds frustration and lack of respect from a powerful and focused breed of dog.

If we stick with our example of the Rottweiler, they are considered dogs who don’t like too much uncertainty and change, thus, the overly open person could prove a problem for this dog as they are much more likely to chop and change and this could create uncertainty and stress to the dog.

Humans who lack any kind of openness are likely to be far too aggressive and antagonistic, both to dogs and to other humans.  On the seriously “unopen” side and lacking in agreeableness are the aforementioned gang members.  Looking at the psychological profiles of gang members, there is a suggestion by some criminologists concerned with the psychological make up of gangs, that they fall into approximately four groups:

  • The Socialised Criminal:  Who is emotionally normal but becomes a criminal as a result of learning.
  • The Neurotic Criminal:  Who becomes a criminal as a result of a personality distortion 
  • The Psychotic Criminal:  Who has a more severe personality disorder
  • The Sociopathic Criminal:  who is egocentric and has a less delusional and compelling personality disorder than the psychotic

Of course, there are many complexities in these studies and of too great a number to cover in our short discussion here as to why some dog breeds have a bad reputation but it is interesting to note that of the groups listed above “the sociopathic youth is produced by the social milieu that trains him to develop sociopathic personality traits.  He lives in disorganised slum neighbourhoods, is mot prone to participation in violent gangs and is characteristically unable to experience the pain of the violence he may inflict on others since he does not have the ability to identify or empathise with any others”  (Yablonsky quoted in the chapter “The Role of Crime Acts Constituting the Gang’s Mentality” by Inger-Liese Lien from the book “European Street Gangs and Troublesome Youth Groups” Scott H Decker and Frank M Weerman).  These are the types that choose powerful breeds for all the reasons outlined at the beginning of the question in the section taken from Kendrick’s essay on the Pit Bull.

So who else might struggle with owning a powerful breed?  Well, interestingly, extroverts might also struggle but it’s very important to note that we are not talking about those who are of a generally extroverted nature and who enjoy training and going out and about with their dog as these types would in fact make good powerful breed owners and are generally confident and assertive.  Those who put their own enjoyment and partying first are the ones who would not be suitable for a dog that needs training, human company and certain routines of good habit.  They might, for argument’s sake, also be the personality type who chooses a powerful breed looks good and seems like a cool dog to have.  The party goer who lies in and wants to skip a day’s training or dog walking or who leaves their dog at home a lot because of a busy social life are not going to be doing themselves or their dog any favours if they choose a powerful dog with strong breed characteristics.

On a slightly lighter note, extroverts should be warned that they might meet fewer people walking a dog like a Rottweiler, as often other dog owners (and people in general) cross the road to avoid the breed being walked!  This is often because of the perceptions and preconceived ideas about these dogs put out by the press.  On the plus side, if anyone is going to be cheerful and outgoing enough to get help their Rottweiler make other dog and human friends, the extrovert will able to do it!

And Finally:

The more powerful the breed and/or the more intelligent the breed, the more balanced the owner needs to be.  Although balance is required for all dogs, with many breeds, if someone is much stronger in one personality area than another, they are not likely to come to much harm and neither their characteristics or those of their dog will clash.  However, with a powerful and intelligent breed, there is less room for error and the more conscientious the owner, the more chance they will have at cultivating a successful relationship with their powerful breed dog.