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12 What exactly is "gameness"?




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This article is from the American Pit Bull Terriers Breed FAQ, by Michael Bur with numerous contributions by others.

12 What exactly is "gameness"?

[The following is an exchange that occured on bulldog-l between
Scott Bradwell and Wilf LeBlanc. The passages offset with ">"'s
are questions posed by Wilf.]

Gameness in APBT's is a canine virtue that is most akin to the human
virtue of unflagging courage. It is a determination to master any
situation and never back down out of fear. It was developed in
pit bulls by many generations of selective breeding. It is what
allows a pit bull to keep fighting non-stop for two or more hours,
in spite of broken bones, torn muscles, blood loss, dehydration,
and exhaustion. But it is also valued by APBT owners who would never
think of fighting their dogs. It is manifested in the can-do attitude
of pit bulls toward any type of challenge, whether agility competitions,
climbing up trees, or protecting their family against an armed attacker,
etc. (Yes, check out Richard Stratton's books for photos of pit bulls
actually climbing up the trunk of a big tree in order to nestle in the
branches 15 feet off the ground.)

Generally speaking, a game dog is an emotionally stable, easy-going dog,
especially good with kids. Gameness should not be confused with
aggressiveness. There are plenty of aggressive dogs that are not game,
and there are game pit bulls who are not aggressive toward other types
of dogs. Aggressiveness will propell a dog into a fight but will only
sustain him for the first few minutes. Gameness, on the other hand,
will not necessarily make a dog fight-happy; but if the dog has no
other choice but to fight, a game dog will fight until it wins or dies
trying, and will keep going as long as necessary. Gameness is an inner
quality of pit bulls. There is no way you can tell by looking at a
pit bull whether it is deeply game or not. The only test--and for many
years the main criterion for selecting a dog for breeding purposes--is
actually fighting the dog to see how it stands up to other dogs that
have likewise already proven their gameness in the pit. Dogs that are
emotionally unstable, or that fear-bite human beings are generally not
game. If you want a nice pit, you're generally better off getting one
that has been game-bred. These dogs represent the truest exemplars
of all the best qualities in the breed. Your questions about my post
on the nature of "gameness" posed a couple of very good questions that
I would like to try to answer.

> If it is indeed the case that the only way that you
> can be sure that your dog is truly "game" is to have
> a fight to (almost) the death, what is really the
> point of having a game dog ?

Many APBT owners like myself have no interest whatever in fighting
our dogs, yet we appreciate the quality of gameness in our breed.
I am quite content to know that just about any APBT, even one with
only mediocre gameness as far as APBT's go, is still going to be
far more game--that is, far more courageous and determined to succeed
against any challenge he may confront--than the gamest individuals of
just about any other breed. Thus, without ever having to match your
dog against another, you can be confident that your dog is game
simply by virtue of the fact of being an American Pit Bull Terrier.
Of course not all pit bulls are equally game. It has been pointed out
in a previous posts that there is a range in the variation in the
*DEGREE* of gameness among individual pit bulls. If you plotted a
distribution graph, you would get a classic bell curve, with a handful
of dogs exhibiting dead gameness, another handful of dogs who are
afraid of their own shadow, and the bulk of the dogs concentrated
around the average in between these two extremes. If you then
plotted the bell curves of gameness for other breeds, you would find
that there is little overlap between the APBT's bell curve and those
of all the rest. Your second question, Wilf, relates to whether the
degree of a particular pit bull's gameness can be assessed by some
test other than fighting; I'll return to this question below.

All dog owners think there is something unique and superlative about
their own dog's breed. Gameness is what I, as an APBT chauvanist,
think is so special about pit bulls. Actually, let me modify that.
What I love best about my own dog is how cute and cuddly and friendly
she is with everyone. She's a dog I am proud to bring anywhere. She
makes everyone laugh with her insane kissing compulsion. But these
two qualities are not unrelated. As I mentioned in my prvious post,
gameness seems to go hand in hand with a lovable, outgoing, licky
disposition toward people. I have to say that I don't know and don't
really care exactly *how* game my dog is relative to others of her
breed. I imagine she's no great shakes, since her parents were
weight-pullers, not fighters, and you'd have to go back to her
great-grandparents to find dogs that were game-tested. But I can tell
you that she is known, among more than a few neighborhood dog owners,
as "the friendliest dog in Hyde Park." She is beside herself with
happiness--literally leaping up and down for joy--whenever a passerby
so much as smiles at her. It's important for people to understand
the paradoxical truth that she, like all the other nice, human-loving
pit bulls out there, is the way she is BECAUSE OF--NOT IN SPITE OF--her
breed's history of selective breeding for fighting purposes.

Until about 15 years ago, there were only a small handful of
dedicated breeders who maintained this breed, and I would guess that
nearly all of these breeders bred for gameness and game-tested their
dogs in order to choose the ones to be bred. During all that time,
you never heard of pit bulls mauling 5-year old kids. It was only
when the breed became immensely popular in the 1980s--i.e., when lots
of ignoramuses suddenly became backyard breeders--that you began to
read stories (at least some of them must have been true) about
man-eating pit bulls. These monster dogs were not "fighting dogs," but
just the opposite. The scrupulous criteria that old-time breeders had
used for selecting or culling dogs in breeding programs were thrown
out the window--along with plain common sense. The backyard breeders
didn't know the difference between gameness and aggressiveness. Many
of them didn't grasp the fact that a champion fighting dog is born,
not made; so they tried to make their dogs into "fighting dogs." How?

Through abuse, teasing, "practice" on non-fighting dogs, etc.--all
sorts of things that knowledgeable pit enthusiasts would find
cruel and abhorrent--and counterproductive as preparation for
pit contests. I read a story not long ago that was enough to
turn my stomach; it was about the arrest of an 18-year old kid in
Philadelphia on charges of animal abuse; he was keeping his wretched
pit bull isolated in a tiny feces-covered kennel. The dog's only
contact with the outside world was when this jerk would "feed" it
live cats and dogs that he had stolen from neighobrs' homes.
He thought he was preparing the dog to be a good fighter. Needless
to say, it is this sort of person, rather than the old-time dedicated
breeders, that the public--thanks to the mass media--associates with
the breed. Speaking of the mass media, I wouldn't be surprised if
this particular jerk got his bizarre ideas about schooling a pit dog
from watching the sort of distorted, sensationalistic news coverage
that purports to "expose" what pit fighting is all about.

In the hands of ignorant breeders, the gentle, affectionate qualities
that were so crucial to the old-time breeders also went out the
window. You began to see idiotic ads in the classified section
announcing "Pitbull pups for sale. Big-boned. Big heads. Excellent
attack dogs. No papers. $250" From the old-time breeders' point of
view, the gentle qualities were an absolutely indispensable safety
precaution to be bred into a fighting dog, since no dog could be
fought if it couldn't be safely handled by its owner during a pit
contest. These breeders bred for a type that was extremely easy-going
and docile around people and would NEVER think of biting a friendly
hand, even amid the fury of a fight. A well-bred pit bull is so
reliable in this respect that even if he is badly hurt in an
automobile accident and is in extreme pain, he won't snap at his owner
who tries to pick him up--unlike most dogs in that situation.
Well-bred pit bulls are like labs in that they will never try to
dominate their owners through threats, such as growling or baring
teeth or snapping. Sure, they will try to dominate you--by
outsmarting you, by doing something sneaky to get their way when they
know you're not looking. But it is a very rare pit bull that will
growl when you pick up his food dish or reach into his mouth to take
a bone away. The analogy to labs is fitting because both of these
breeds were selectively bred for tasks that demanded an extreme level
of generosity toward people. Can you imagine a lab that snarled when
you tried to take the duck from his mouth? Such a dog would have
been culled from a serious performance-based breeding program. Likewise,
any APBT that showed the least sign of aggression toward people was
culled as unsuitable for breeding. Whether true or not, it was an
article of faith among old-time breeders that a human-aggressive dog
simply could not be dead game. In any case, such a dog would have been
unsuitable for fighting purposes: no one would volunteer to be its
handler or to referee the match. As a result of this careful breeding
history, the APBT is an extremely easy-going, human-loving dog.

This isn't just a personal, impressionistic perspective of mine. The
American Canine Temperament Testing Association is an organization that
titles dogs for passing its temperament test. The test consists of
putting the dog into a series of unexpected situations, some involving
strangers. The dog fails the test if it shows any signs of unprovoked
aggression or panic around people. Of all dogs that take the test, 77%
on average pass. But among pit bulls who take the test, 95% on average
pass--one of the highest passing rates of all breeds.

One wonderful thing about APBTs is that they have an uncanny
ability to size up a potentially threatening situation correctly and
decide whether or not it is actually something to get agitated over.
This is related to their fearlessness and unphasability. Let me
relate three stories about my dog Ruby that illustrate this point.
(Please note: I'm definitely not claiming that Ruby is exceptionally
game; all I'm saying is that she has a typical pit bull personality).
This past summer, my wife had Ruby out in the back yard of our
apartment building. Out of nowhere a little kid about 6 years old
came charging at Ruby, swinging a big plastic sword over his head and
screaming. He was pretending to be a Ninja turtle. Before my wife
could cut him off, he ran right up to Ruby and whacked her right in
the middle of the back with his sword. Ruby responded as she always
does to the approach of little kids: celebratory dancing. She thought
it was all a big game, just like tag. She was prancing up and down and
straining at the leash to get close enough to lick the kid's face. A
similar event occured this summer when my wife and I went out, with
Ruby, to visit her brother in Portland, OR. My brother-in-law has an
8-year old kid, Ben, who is clinically diagnosed as suffering
hyperactive/attention-deficit disorder. He's a nice kid but completely
out of control. He acts impulsively without thinking of the
consequences of his actions. He and Ruby fell in love instantly, but
we vowed not to let him be alone with Ruby unsupervised. Not that we
didn't trust Ruby, we didn't trust Ben. Well, one day the two of them
somehow got out alone in the back yard. I was walking up the stairs
inside the house when I glanced out the back window and, to my
amazement, I saw Ben hauling off and repeatedly slugging Ruby in the
face! I yelled out the window for him to stop it, and he did. But
the incredible thing was Ruby's reaction: she was jumping up and down
for joy as if getting punched in the face was the funnest game on
earth. There was nothing Ben could do to her that she would see as
threatening. She followed Ben right in the back door of the house.
My brother-in-law sent Ben to his room for punishment. Ruby knew
something was wrong. She stood outside the closed door of Ben's room,
crying forlornly for her buddy to come back out and play. I told my
brother-in-law, "Ben's lucky that the dog he decided to torment was
a pit bull, and not a cocker spaniel or bichon. Otherwise, he might
be missing a limb!"

On the other hand, Ruby has growled only once in her life, and it was
in an appropriate context. We live in the south side of Chicago,
which has one of the highest crime rates in the country. 5 of the 9
apartment units in our building have been burglarized in the last two
years; a foreign grad student was held up at gunpoint in the foyer of our
building last year. There have been 4 fatal shootings in a three-block
radius of our apartment since we moved in two years ago. You can hear
gunfire most nights. So we're always a little anxious when we go out
after dark, even just to take Ruby out to pee. Well, one night my wife
took Ruby down to pee at about midnight. My wife noticed a guy
walking down the other side of the street muttering to himself and
shadow-boxing the air. He seemed to be drunk or on drugs. When he
saw my wife, he crossed the street, still shadow-boxing and muttering,
and approached her. Ruby didn't like the looks of this one bit. Her
hair went up on her back, her whole body began shaking, and when this
guy got within about 15 feet, she began to snarl in a deep, menacing
tone. The guy backed off, muttering, "Whoa, pit bull, pit bull,
pit bull," and crossed back over to the other side of the street and
continued on his way, no doubt looking for an easier victim. We
were pleasantly surprised to find out that Ruby actually had it in her
to be protective; we had always thought she was just too goofy and too
overly trusting of strangers to act the way she did.


> If gameness manifests itself as climbing trees,
> (etc etc) then aren't all these legitimate tests for gameness?


Pit bulls will generally excel in activities that require sustained
determination and that test their bodies' ability to endure pain and
exhaustion to an extreme. But the fact is that there are very few
activities that will test a dog's gameness to its limits, or that will
provide a basis for comparing one dog's degree of gameness to
another's. For example, wild boar hunting, in spite of the high level
of risk to the dog involved, doesn't really test the limits of a dog's
gameness. The tangle between boar and dog is fast, furious, and
generally quite short (compared with a pit contest). Athletic ability,
agility, explosive power, strength of bite, and smarts are of a higher
priority here than gameness, which never really has a chance to come
into play in so brief an encounter. The dog will either take the boar
down or be killed before the depth of his gameness can make much of a
difference. Several larger breeds of dogs--American Bulldogs and
Argentine Dogos--seem to be at least equally adept at boar hunting as
pit bulls. But this doesn't make them as game as pit bulls.

Just because a game disposition will aid a dog in excelling at many
different activities--such as agility competition, flyball races,
tree-climbing, etc.--doesn't mean that these activities are
sufficient tests for gameness. Gameness is multi-dimensional; the
above activities do not stress all of these dimensions simultaneously
to their extreme limits . Gameness is, in positive terms, a happy
eagerness to pursue a challenge; but it is also, in negative terms,
the stubborn refusal to heed the cries of the nervous system to stop
struggling and and to flee the situation that is causing so much pain.
None of the activities above can fully assess this second dimension.
Unfortunately,the only activity that really tests the full extent of a
dog's gameness is pit contests. It's a pity that this is the case.
Personally, I don't much like the idea of dog fighting, especially
when money is involved and takes precedence over the well-being of
the dogs. If I knew of another method--say, a DNA test--which could
determine gameness, I'd be happily promoting that method right now.
But genetic research has a long way to go before it could provide such
a test. And with slightly more imporant concerns, such as preventing
cancer, I don't expect many research dollars to flow into DNA game
-testing. As a result, I'm left in the rather hypocritical position
of celebrating a canine virtue that is only made possible by a human
vice. So be it. I still prefer game dogs.

I said at the beginning of the post that I am uninterested in finding
out just how game my own dog is. You might ask, "Why would anyone be
interested in knowing exactly how game their dogs are?" Well, I'm not
a breeder. Understandably, breeders only want to choose the very best
exemplars of the breed in their breeding programs. If you breed APBTs
without regard for their degree of gameness, their gameness will
gradually be lost with each succeeding generation. This is essentially
what has occurred with Am Staffs and Staffy Bulls, which for many
generations have been selectively bred for appearance rather than for
the invisible inner quality of gameness. (Furthermore, I should add,
less than scrupulous selection of all these breeds also risks the loss
of the breed's excellent dispostion toward people.) In order to maintain
a high degree of the desired qualities, a breeder must carefully select
only those dogs that have them in the highest degree. Gameness was an
extremely difficult trait to develop; it took more than a century of
tiny, incremental improvements through selective breeding to produce
today's APBT. Though achieved only with great difficulty, gameness is
easily lost, sometimes even in the hands of good breeders. If you mate
two grand champions, you will be lucky if just one or two of the pups
is of the same quality as the parents. Traditonally, the job of breeders
was to identify these offspring and use only them to continue the
breeding program. Sometimes it's the case that two great dogs will not
produce any offspring who are their equals.

You are right, Wilf, in the sense that the presence of gameness in a
dog has nothing to do with making the dog fight. Fighting a dog
obviously will not improve the genes it was born with. But if you were
a breeder interested in *maintaining* the gameness of your line, well,
that's a different story.



 

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