The truth about pit bulls temperament – “Pit bulls score higher than ______”

“Pit bulls score higher than ______”
As soon as the topic of pit bulls hits the comment sections, the pit bull apologia goes on the defensive and more often than not, the ATTS (American Temperament Testing Society) is the weapon of choice from their arsenal of myths. Typically the pit bull’s ATTS scores will be inflated to unbelievable heights. It is not uncommon to read “pit bulls score higher than ANY other breed.” A quick check of the available on demand ATTS statistics will bust that myth straight away. But the pit bull does score higher than many popular, safe, family friendly breeds of dogs. How could the dog responsible for roughly 50% of all fatal attacks, score better than Lassie?

This blog post spells out how and why and touches on the following aspects: The history of the test, the test requirements, the test itself, the evaluation, criticisms of the test, junk science, and examples — in their own words — of pit bull owners who acknowledge the test’s biases and invalidity.

Pit bull advocates have much invested in the ATTS myth. They clutch to these scores and parade them around as though they were the definitive tool that proves that their dogs are not only safe to be in the community but SAFER than most other dog breeds. From the NCRC to Best Friends to Badrap, from Jane Berkey to Diane Jessup to Leslie Haller to Adrien P, they all extol the virtues of the mighty ATTS. They mislead the public and preach the superiority of pit bulls based on this flawed test and its perverted results that are further exaggerated when regurgitated ad nauseam by the pit bull ideologues.

Researching the American Temperament Testing Society (the actual organization) was quite an education in and of itself. Information was difficult to obtain, for example the names of the board of directors and testers were not easy to come by. I finally found the names of the board of directors through the Missouri secretary of state website, but good luck finding the names of testers. Unearthing underground dog fighting information would be an easier task.

Suspicious secret society aside, the problem with the ATTS is complex and any discussion of the problematic statistics should begin with the inherent bias of the test, the testers, the testees and the myths surrounding what exactly this test measures.

schutzhund photography

ATTS History
The temperament test was developed by Alfons Ertelt in 1977. Mr Ertelt was not an animal behaviorist, he worked in the print industry but his passion was dogs and he was involved in schutzhund. (schutzhund is a dog sport that mirrors the training of police dog work and it is dominated by german shepherds) The ATTS test was initially intended to test working dogs for jobs such as police work. The test favors bold dogs, dogs that need to face danger head on without hesitation and fear. Courage was desired and rewarded, timidity was not. The ATTS favors dogs like pit bulls over dogs like collies. It is important to note, the test does not evaluate dogs for “pet” suitability. It comes as no surprise that when you look at the numbers tested by breed, four of the top five breeds (5357 rottweilers, 3038 german shepherds, 1574 dobermans, 968 mixed breeds, and 893 bouviers) excel in schutzhund. Presently, their website states the ATTS was established to “work for the betterment of all breeds of dogs.” Mr Ertelt left the ATTS a few years after its inception and in 1983 formed the German Shepherd Dog Schutzhund Club of Los Angeles. In 1990 Carl Herkstroeter, his wife Carolyn, and Harriet Ann Pahlmann and Margaret B Pahlmann incorporated the ATTS into a for profit business in the state of Missouri. One year later, they created the non-profit. Records indicate there has been only a few board changes over the last 20 years.

Test Requirements
Dogs must be at least 18 months of age and on a 6 ft lead. The handler is not allowed to talk to or correct the dog. If the dog fails, it is allowed to retake the test after 5 months, but only one retest is allowed. It is not clear if or how this is monitored and enforced.

Entry level testers are called Apprentice Testers and they must be at least 21 years of age and active in dog sport or employed in the veterinary field for at least the past 5 years. As the testers become more experienced, they can work their way up through the ranks.
Provisional Testers
Temperament Testers
Provisional Chief Testers
Certified Chief Tester
Teaching Chief Tester
Since the testers are required to have a great deal of dog sport experience, the testers are often very involved in their breed clubs, therefore the testers are often evaluating their friends and acquaintances and usually the breed of their choice. In other words, they are testing dogs that they have a vested interest in seeing pass the test.

The Test
The test takes approximately 10 minutes and at least 3 ATTS trained evaluators score the dogs. The test is usually sponsored by breed clubs, most often rottweiler clubs but other large powerful breed clubs like german shepherds, pit bulls and akitas sponsor the test as well. The sponsor can request the test be closed to other breeds or open to all. It is easy to see how a lab or a collie would be at a serious disadvantage at a pit bull sponsored test being evaluated by people who not only don’t possess breed specific knowledge of labs or collies but also might harbor resentment towards the other more popular and socially accepted breeds.

The dogs are on a 6 ft leash. The owner/handler is forbidden to speak, give commands or corrections. As the dog progresses through the test, it becomes increasingly more stressful. The dogs’ reactions are measured toward a neutral stranger and a friendly stranger. The dog/handler then progress to hidden noises, first the metal bucket with coins then gunshots. From there the dog has an umbrella open suddenly nearby and then walks across plastic sheeting and wire grating. The final phase of the test measures a dog’s self protective/aggressive behavior by exposing the dog first to a weirdly dressed non-threatening stranger, then a threatening stranger and finally an aggressive stranger.

If a dog panics and does not recover or if the dog shows strong avoidance or unprovoked aggression, it fails. Re: aggression, breed specific temperament and the prior experience and training of the dogs are taken into account. The website states that aggressive responses during the final phase of the test is okay for a dog with schutzhund training but an untrained husky displaying aggression toward the stranger may fail. It is obvious that these judges possess far too much discretion in these tests. Some pit bull owners report that their pit bulls passed when it launched aggressively at the stranger while other pit bulls have passed when it barely acknowledged the stranger. Passing or failing is completely dependent upon the whims of the testers.

The handlers are advised to come early so they can do a walk through of the test, without their dogs.

The Evaluation
There are a total of 10 subtests and each test is scored by at least 3 testers who rate the dog on a scale of 0-10. All dogs start with a score of 5 on each subtest. Points are added to the score of 5 for the dogs who perform positively and points are deducted for dogs who perform negatively. A score of zero on one test is a failure, even if the dog scored a 10 on each of the other 9 subtests. And oddly enough, a dog would pass if it received a score of 1 on each test. If the testers are not in agreement, the majority rules. Click here for a more in depth explanation of the 0-10 rating scale. Since more often than not, these tests are sponsored by breed clubs, and tested by club officers, there is an inherent bias in the testers to see their breed of choice pass and others fail.

ATTS Tests

Current ATTS scores for pit bull type dogs:
american pit bull 86%
american bulldog 84.8%
american staffordshire 83.9%
bull terrier 90.4%
staffordshire bull terrier 89.6%

Current ATTS scores for a few popular breeds of dogs in America:
cocker spaniel 81.9%
collie 79.7%
beagle 80.3%
chihuahua 71.1%
labrador retriever 92.3%
golden retriever 84.6%
german shepherd 84.2%
jack russell 84.1%
mutt 86%
pomeranian 75.8%
pug 90.9%
standard poodle 86%

Of the 30,000+ dogs tested by the ATTS to date, 82.4% have passed.

*The breed of dog with the overall lowest passing score was the skye terrier at 37.5%.

Read more pit bull owners have only chosen their best dogs – the ones without the common genetic traits and skewed the statistics in their favor.

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