Q. Are American Bulldogs for everyone?
A. Not only are American Bulldogs not for everyone, most of the people that buy these dogs have no business owning one. Our breed’s initial popularity was fueled by the Disney Movie, “Homeward Bound,” this is when we first saw large numbers of suburbanites getting into the breed, people who were not interested in doing man work, catching wild boar, busting up packs of wild dogs or any of the other traditional hardcore tasks that ABs were bred for in the days before the suburban Bulldog population explosion.
The original movie and its sequels offered a fairly accurate portrayal of the breed as far as athleticism and overall drive was concerned, but they also implied that ABs always get along great with cats and other dogs and made no reference to the innate human aggression found in many strains. Thousands of Bulldog puppy purchasers considered these movies to be documentaries that gave a precise blueprint of the temperament of the average American Bulldog. Based on these misconceptions, an army of neophyte bulldog owners raised their dogs as though they had acquired large white Labrador Retrievers.
Since American Bulldogs are often slow to mature, this army of AB owners had their misconceptions reinforced at first. Their young Bulldogs were allowed to play off leash with strange dogs. Many of them were not kept on chains or inside well made kennels, but permitted to roam their neighborhoods unsupervised. Many of these Bulldogs developed along these lines: for the first few months of their lives they weren’t necessarily dog aggressive, as they entered their second year many of them discovered that they liked to fight with other dogs and minor trouble started brewing, as they approached two years of age large numbers of them started getting into serious trouble, incidents occurred where ABs killed or injured local dogs and cats. Across the country, American Bulldogs proved to be more than their owners could handle. The number one temperamental complaint was and is, my Bulldog is dangerous to other animals.
The army of neophyte Bulldog owners is unfortunately backed up by a second army, neophyte Bulldog breeders. Inexperienced breeders are attracted to ABs for many of the same reasons as inexperienced owners. Both groups like the appearance of the dog: the big head, the muscular body, and the white or piebald coloration. These are all the same reasons why the dogs continue to be featured in movies, TV shows and commercials. ABs are extremely photogenic. A large percentage of neophyte Bulldog breeders also have a more nefarious motivation. Many of them simply want to cash in on the popularity craze of the breed and line their pockets.
Compounding these problems is the fact that there is no clear division between working strains of American Bulldog and non-working strains. In the traditional European guardian breeds there is a great division between the small number of hardcore animals developed through protection sport and the huge numbers of dogs bred by AKC breeders. An AKC German Shepherd is a radically different animal than a German bloodline GSD that has evolved with Schutzhund being the primary breed test. American and German bloodlines are almost never crossed. There are actually two different breeds of dog that share the same name. Responsible AKC German Shepherd breeders use the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test the way the German breeders use protection sport or police work as a breed test. And responsible AKC German Shepherd breeders are not ashamed of this fact.
Breeders that produce hardcore European bloodline German Shepherds are very good about screening their puppy customers. The great gulf between their working culture and the AKC culture is a huge advantage in this task. When a potential puppy customer approaches a European bloodline GSD breeder many of the potential problems that a working AB breeder might face are also present. The naďve puppy customer may be attracted to the European GSD because he saw the movie, “Chip the War Dog.” Or the puppy customer may have been raised on stories about Rin-tin-tin. But the working GSD breeder has only to inquire about the prospect’s background in Schutzhund, Personal Protection or Ring Sport and can easily separate the sheep from the goats.
If the working GSD breeder is faced with a customer that would do poorly with a working dog, the breeder has an easy solution, all he has to do is to point the naďve puppy prospect in a different direction. He can refer him to a responsible AKC breeder. In this way everyone is happy and the neophyte puppy prospect does not wind up with too much dog, an animal that he is not equipped to handle. We don’t yet see this happy state of affairs in the AB community.
A small part of the problem lies with the working breeders. Many of them eschew the different titling systems that exist within our community. No matter what sort of work the hardcore breeder participates in, there is a title that corresponds with his favored activity. There are traditional European sport titles, there are less traditional breed specific sport titles and there are truly innovative titles created specifically for American Bulldogs, such as the Catch Dog titles for hog/cattle work. This is a self-correcting problem as more and more working breeders embrace the formalized aspect of the various titling systems. Every day the ranks of titled ABs swell as breeders come to realize that this is the only way to maintain and expand the working aspects of our breed in the face of litigation and against the backdrop of the huge numbers of non-working breeders, dog people that must be segregated and isolated from the working community. The titles are walls that will perfect this isolation, preventing the interbreeding of working and non-working strains. Working breeders are coming to realize that the solution to our problem is to foster a gulf between themselves and the non-working breeders, to create an exclusive club that bars admittance to those not dedicated to the principles of the governing body that issues the title.
The principal problem that leads to the huge numbers of puppy customers that end up with an American Bulldog that is too much for them to handle (or worse - an unstable sharp/shy dog that no one would want under any circumstance) is the legion of non-working breeders that either want to create high drive animals without the knowledge or discipline this endeavor requires and the unscrupulous breeders that will breed anything to make a buck. What the non-working breeders should do is take a page from their AKC counterparts. The non-working breeders should use the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) as their primary breed test and OFA/Penn-hip as their secondary breed test. Their goals should be to produce a structurally sound animal that has a rock steady and super safe temperament. They should focus on lack of animal aggression, lack of dog aggression, lack of sensitivity to sound/new situations and overall stability. Every dog they breed should pass the CGC, this should be the cornerstone of 99% of American Bulldog breeding programs. Non-working breeders should be stacking up generations of CGCs the same way that working breeders should be stacking up generations of Catch Dog titles and/or sport titles. And if the non-working breeders want to do more with their dogs, they should pursue advanced obedience titles, which is exactly what the better AKC breeders do. Most American Bulldogs breeders should not scoff at the better AKC breeders, but should imitate them.
This is how working breeders can help: they should embrace their non-working brethren that put CGC titles on their dogs with open arms, and drop the supercilious attitude. There is nothing wrong with producing American Bulldogs that have very stable temperaments but are not worked on men or animals. The alternative to huge numbers of American Bulldogs that have CGCs and are not worked on boars or men is huge numbers of American Bulldogs that are not temperament tested and are still not worked on boars or men. What the American Bulldog community must do is come to terms with the real vs. the ideal. There will never be and there can never be more than a handful of working breeders. Working American Bulldogs are not for everyone. The future of the Working American Bulldog is secure, that is not the problem. There are hundreds of titled ABs. The problem is inadequate numbers of responsible non-working breeders. There are not hundreds of ABs with CGCs. Even more alarming, most of the ABs with CGCs either have working titles or are in the process of acquiring working titles. Virtually zero non-working breeders are utilizing formal temperament tests. The over arching problem is that non-working breeders refuse to acknowledge their true status and focus on realistic goals.
This is what it means to come to terms with the real vs. the ideal: In an ideal world, every American Bulldog breed candidate would have certified hips and a working title. And every puppy customer would be carefully screened to make sure that he or she was able to raise and train a Bulldog with strong working drives. In the real world we must admit that this is impossible, and create a second path for responsible breeders to travel. In a nutshell, any breeder that doesn’t have working titles on his breed candidates should have CGCs.
©2001, Dave Putnam
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