After a string of attacks on humans, some of which resulted in human deaths, pit bulls have indeed been making headlines in South Africa. As a form of retaliation, there have been threats on the dogs, and politicians have called for them to be banned. These events draw on a long history of white South Africans using their dogs to threaten and assault black South Africans. After that, a racist incident made its way into the news when a dog lover lashed out in anger in response to the call for a ban. Sandra Swart is a historian from South Africa who specializes in the study of the role that dogs have played in human society. We wanted her to enlighten us on the situation, so we asked her. 

Is It True That Pit Bulls Are Dangerous Dogs, or Are They Being Made the Scapegoat for Something Else?

A Combination of the Two

At this time, not only are we dealing with a genuine crisis, but also a widespread sense of dread. The attacks are a genuine issue, and to address them, we can and should draw wisdom from the past. Overreaction (to gratify public outrage) and underreaction is both potentially disastrous outcomes of social panic, as the lessons of history have taught us (in favor of short-termism that avoids dealing with the bigger problem). 

Pit bulls were bred specifically in England for the blood sport of bull-baiting, in which bulls were attached to an iron stake and then attacked by dogs. They were then shipped to South Africa, primarily beginning in the 1970s, where they were further bred – some as police dogs, some as pets, and some for illegal dog fighting rings. Therefore, first and foremost, we need to comprehend the background of pit bulls. Pit bulls were originally bred in England for bull-baiting, in which 

Additionally, they have been bred to have a high pain tolerance. It’s possible that genetics accounts for up to sixty percent of their behavior, but keep in mind that a dog’s personality is malleable and can be dramatically altered through proper training and experience, particularly in the first three to twelve weeks of their lives. In addition, their training is frequently substandard or designed to purposefully incite aggressive behavior because they are frequently used as extenders of toxic masculinity, specifically as symbols of power with teeth. 

Having said that, there are a good number of them that are genuinely kept as household pets and are not likely to cause any harm. If they have a history of acting aggressively toward other people without justification, euthanasia may be the best option. If a dog’s owner is concerned, as they should be, they need to take their pet to the SPCA or a trained dog behaviorist so that they can get an evaluation. However, this does not address the more widespread issue facing society. 

What Lessons Can We Take Away From the Past?

No matter what the government decides to do at this point, the public needs to understand that in the past, other breeds were also considered to be inappropriate for South African society because they were considered to be too wild. In the 1920s, German shepherds, also known as “wolf dogs,” were considered to be an abomination by many people. Later on, there were several outbreaks of concern regarding Boerboels.

When the town of Parow, South Africa, considered outlawing rottweilers, Dobermans, bull terriers, and mastiffs during the winter of 1983, many residents were outraged. However, veterinarians were quick to highlight that Labrador retrievers and Pekingese were the breeds of dogs responsible for the majority of the attacks. Any breed that is classified as a power breed (characterized by a robust and muscular body, a large and broad head, and a bite-and-hold fighting style) and the vast majority of dogs are capable of causing serious injury or even the loss of life to a human. 

There Are Legislative Measures That Can Be Taken With a Longer Time Horizon

The first is breed-specific legislation, which prohibits certain breeds, and the second is legislation that addresses dangerous dogs (which target bad behavior rather than bad breeds). 

Breed-specific regulation is currently receiving a lot of attention and support, but even though it sounds appropriately dramatic, history suggests that it simply is not effective. Since 1929, when certain regions of Australia instituted a ban on German shepherds, the idea has been kicking around for a full century. The United Kingdom passed legislation in 1991 prohibiting the ownership of pit bulls in response to several attacks that occurred in the 1980s. Despite this, the number of dog bites did not decrease, as was the case in various counties across the United States. People merely purchased dogs of different vicious breeds. 

Keep in Mind That “Pit Bull” Does Not Refer to a Genetic Category That Can Be Easily Defined

A significant portion of identification is based solely on perception. There are at least ten different dog breeds that are frequently confused for pit bulls (which also leads to reporting them as perpetrators). Similarly, if pit bulls were made illegal tomorrow and the calls for their immediate eradication were heeded, then a great number of innocent dogs would be put to needless death.

Furthermore, what should be done with mixed breed dogs, such as those that are half pit bull and half mini schnauzer, for example? Should they also be put down? This would be a serious breach of ethical standards. On the other hand, it would be a waste of time because a breed that is prohibited can easily be renamed to something else, and the risk would still exist. 

In addition, breed-specific law ignores behavioral and other biological aspects, such as the fact that dangerous dogs are significantly more likely to be male, to be unneutered, and to be the most likely to be unsocialized (including usually being held on a chain) or openly encouraged in their aggressive tendencies. 

Therefore, this law is both overinclusive and underinclusive because it includes a large number of low-energy dogs (it misses a lot of vicious dogs). It is simple to pass legislation, but extremely difficult to uphold. It gives people a sense of false security, despite its widespread use. 

And Dangerous Dog Regulations?

The laws governing dangerous dogs are difficult to understand, hurt public relations, are costly, and require a lot of effort to enforce. But aggressive dog rules do work. They take into account the previous behavior of each dog, and they are modifiable to place a greater emphasis on the “power breeds” of dogs or larger dogs than a predetermined threshold.

They are not quick fixes, but they are effective in the long run because they put the responsibility for the dog squarely on the shoulders of the owner. It is the same as being a gun owner; if you cause injury to another person through carelessness while handling your firearm, you will be held criminally liable and may face serious consequences, including incarceration. 

There are a lot of different ideas that can be taken from this, such as requiring special permits, requiring special insurance coverage, and requiring mandated by law forced sterilization for power breeds, or dogs over a specific weight, or known offenders. These are just some of the ideas that can be taken from this.

Dogs would’ve been punished for their bad behavior rather than their breeds, which are difficult to define genetically if they were microchipped and kept in a database of previous offenses. This would be made possible by keeping a database of previous offenses. After that, each circumstance can be judged according to its own merits. In addition to this, public-private partnerships are required. In addition, the state, in collaboration with the SPCA, is obligated to uphold anti-roaming laws vigilantly. Although they might not prevent all dog bites, they would significantly cut down on the number of fatalities. 

Which More Fundamental Historical Problems Are Brought Up by the Topic?

The minds of South Africans seem to be preoccupied with canine-related topics. Our national character is in a state of disarray. The image of the growling German shepherd struggling at the end of the apartheid policeman’s leash is the one that endures most vividly in the minds of the general public. In South Africa, there is a profound sense of ambivalence toward dogs, and we need to figure out why this is the case. 

There is something peculiar about the relationship between dogs and people, as well as the relationship between people and people regarding dogs. In my upcoming book, which is called The Lion’s Historian, I discuss how the history of this peculiarity can be understood through the lens of the police dog.

Big dogs have become symbols of the anxieties and stereotypes that white people and black people have of each other, particularly the fear of the police dog, as a result of the misuse of police dogs (and also, often, privately run dogs) as agencies of direct authority in the officers and bio-surveillance in the suburbs. 

In point of fact, “police dogs” weren’t used to attack people until after 1961, when crowd control made it necessary. For the previous fifty years, the state’s police only permitted police dogs to perform the role of smell detectives; they were never allowed to threaten or hurt anyone. 

Inverting this outdated model of apartheid and presenting entirely new canine educational roadshows in schools are both things that we are capable of doing. The majority of victims are young children. It might be helpful to educate people on how to be responsible dog owners as well as how to behave safely around dogs. 

What Other Options Do We Have?

In close collaboration with the SPCA, South Africa’s priority crime division, the Hawks, must successfully dismantle underground dog fighting ring networks (which already do so much). When dog fighting is finally put to an end, there will be less of an incentive to breed pit bull genetics that is aggressive, and there will be more financial incentive to breed pit genetics that are good with families. Aggression can be reduced through careful breeding and observation of the offspring’s behavior.

Other breeds, such as the old English bulldog, also trace their ancestry back to fighting stock in the beginning. It wasn’t until the authorities started cracking down hard on their fighting that there was less of an incentive to keep breeding aggressiveness into the breeds; as a result, today they are well-known for being calm and friendly family pets. There are currently breeders who concentrate on friendlier and gentler lines of pit bulls, so the necessary genetic material is already present.