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It's Not All In How They Are Raised

Clapton (right) was in pitness protection for almost a year. He was babesia positive and covered in bite wounds. And he flourished.

Though well intentioned, saying "it's all in how they are raised" a) isn't true and b) isn't helping anyone. I got asked to speak about this at Petcon this year, and I thought i'd share my thoughts:

Quite honestly, this is something I used to say! But what I’ve really learned is dogs are freakishly resilient. If you truly believe it’s all in how they are raised, no shelter dog would be able to be adopted and succeed in a home. Why would this be any different for pitbulls? They’re just dogs. Even some of the dogs raised and fought by Michael Vick have gone on to become therapy dogs and advocates for survivors of cruelty.

Trish McMillan writes about this beautifully in her piece about Theodore, her fight bust dog from her time as a consultant with the ASPCA. You can follow Theo @pibblingwiththeodore. She writes, “Theodore amazes us. He loves everyone- humans, dogs, horses, and even cats. He is confident in the city, on trails, and (once he got over chewing seatbelts) rides in the car like a pro. He loves hikes and is obedient off leash. This little fight bust dog is incredibly smart, busy, and full of mischief and probably too energetic for a lot of households. He is also perpetually happy, charming, clownish, and creative. No dog has ever made me laugh as often or as hard as Theodore does. His antics keep an army of facebook friends laughing every day too. Theodore helps me tremendously in my animal behavior business- his fluency in dog language astonishes me. Ask any behaviorist what’s more important- nature or nurture- and they’ll answer “both”. Some dogs can be raised by the book, socialized to everything, and still become dangerously aggressive. And others, like Theodore, can come from a background designed to create frustration and dog aggression, and their natural resilience and joy can win over.”

I just love that.

In my experience with the Field Investigations and Response team for the ASPCA, I have worked with literally hundreds of dogs seized as federal evidence in dog fighting rings. I fell so in love with the resiliency of these dogs, I’ve taken 7 fight bust dogs home in the past 2 years as fosters. Each and every one of them lived beautifully with my female pitbull and has gone on to be adopted and are flourishing as pet dogs. 5 out 7 of them even frequent dog parks and the other two are just too old to enjoy running around anymore. Felicity, my first fight bust foster had all of her teeth filed down and was used as a breeder dog. She was considered the most aggressive female the fighters had, so they strapped her down and forced her to breed. She currently resides with 2 other dogs and is always found snuggling on the couch with them.

Each and every one of these dogs has stolen my heart in a way that can’t even compare to my other fosters. Watching them go through this whole journey- from first being taken off their heavy chains, their transport to our “pitness protection shelter”, forensic exams, months of waiting in limbo for court cases, to the always traumatic car ride home and eventually, their ride to their adoptive homes is just beautiful.

Obviously, there’s no denying that nurture is important, but it simply isn’t everything, Every dog should be assessed as an individual, regardless of background.


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