Two animal behaviorists respond to the Pitbull attack on grandmother that was blamed on Thunder on Dogsbite.org
Insights from Behaviorists
DogsBite.org along with commenters have become alarmed at the misleading rationale that a “normal” response by a “noise-sensitive” dog is to attack and kill a family member when under the duress of loud sounds, like the crack of thunder. It is even more disconcerting that a police captain is echoing this false rationale provided by the dog’s owner. One wonders if the dog had busted through the front door and killed a neighboring child, if police would be so easily misled?
DogsBite.org reaches out to animal behaviorists Gary Wilkes and Alexandra Semyonova:
The most common reaction of a noise-sensitive dog in the presence of loud noises is to run from the sound or “hole up.” If the noise does not go away, they may frantically bite and claw through sheet-rock or sheet metal to try to escape…whether an exit beyond the obstacle would lead to safety or not. Once free of its cage, a normal dog would likely maintain its panicked attempts at flight or solicit comfort from a known human. The behavior of this dog is the opposite of what one would expect. Instead of becoming fearfully aroused it apparently became violently aroused. It has been suggested that the noise caused this dog to attack a human being. If true, I cannot understand why that would extenuate its behavior. It would seem to me that this explanation makes pit bulls many times more dangerous than any other type of dog. “Occam’s Razor” is a logical test of assumptions. It states that if there are two explanations for something, pick the more simple of the two. In this case, adding the thunder aspect seems to be an attempt to mask the dog’s history of violence and breed type. If an English pointer stands fixated at a parakeet perched in a cage, the simplest explanation is that the dog is a pointer. The simplest conclusion in this case is that the dog is a Pit Bull Terrier with a history of breed-specific behavior and unchecked violence.1
Gary Wilkes is an internationally acclaimed animal behaviorist, trainer, author, columnist and lecturer. View additional posts by Gary Wilkes.
A normal dog who is afraid of thunder, fireworks, marching bands, or other loud noises will panic and try to flee or hide. The normal dog in this state of panic becomes deaf and blind to things in its surroundings, interested only in escaping the noise. It won’t take treats, won’t be comforted, won’t engage in any social interactions (including fighting). All it wants to do is get away from the noise. Every fiber of its being is concentrated on that and only that. People who own normal dogs don’t need to worry that their dog will suddenly attack and kill them because there’s stormy weather outside.
Pit bulls are different. Deathly fear or total panic is a state of high arousal. It’s well known that the pit bull doesn’t compose a socially appropriate response to various kinds of arousal. They often react to any type of arousal by starting to unfold their genetically determined, breed-specific, sustained attack behavior. They often do this if they get excited during what started as play with another dog, during attempts to mate, or even during a petting session if the pit bull gets too excited about the human affection it’s receiving. Startle is also known to trigger the genetic program the pit bull carries — for example, an owner slipping on the ice. If this pit bull’s reaction was related to hearing thunder, then it can only be in the sense that the thunder, like any startle or arousal, triggered a highly breed-specific reaction that only the pit-bull type dog will show.
This pit bull already had a history of aggression. It had already shown it reacted to various triggers by executing its breed-specific behavior. I’m not sure why Captain Nelson would feel so sure that this time the trigger was hearing thunder. It’s not clear why that would — even if accurate — somehow excuse not only the behavior of this pit bull, but also of all the others that attack in response to a stimulus that would cause any other dog to flee, to mate, or to bring its owner a favorite toy. The key to understanding this case isn’t in pinpointing what the trigger for the pit bull was this time. We’ll never know. It could just as well have been that this woman sneezed. The key to understanding this case lies in acknowledging that any kind of arousal in a pit bull can be fatal.
The idea that this woman’s stay in the hospital played some role is also ridiculous. When a known person comes home after an absence, even carrying unusual scents from a strange place, a dog still recognizes that person. The normal reaction is to be glad to see a friend who was gone for awhile. Normal dogs will show interest in the new smells, a kind of ‘hey, where ya been?’ interest. If one of the new smells makes a dog anxious (for example, it reminds him of how the vet’s office smells), the normal dog will move away or hide (‘you’re not taking me to the vet today if you can’t find me!’). People change their clothes, that kind of smell subsides quickly But it is in any case not a normal reaction to become highly aggressive and execute a sustained, killing attack just because someone has been gone for awhile or smells a bit odd.
The only baffling thing about this case is why so many people, even a police captain, are so anxious to blame pit bull behavior on anything and everything except hundreds of years of selecting for highly breed-specific sudden killing behavior. The problem here wasn’t thunder, and it wasn’t that this woman had been in the hospital. The problem here was that the dog was a pit bull.2
Alexandra Semyonova is an internationally acclaimed animal behaviorist, behavioral biologist, anthropologist and author of book. 100 Silliest Things People Say about Dogs.