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Book Review
Pit Bulls & Tenacious Guard Dogs
by Carl Semencic

Review by: Kate Connick, June 2003

Carl Semencic's Pit Bulls & Tenacious Guard Dogs is a colorful, richly illustrated, encyclopedic collection of historical information, breed standards, and the author's personal assessment of 22 breeds of dog considered suitable as "effective home and personal guardian breeds."

A chapter is dedicated to each featured breed, and the author's remarks are largely directed towards the breeds' functional ability as guardians. Breeds selected for inclusion in the book are all deemed potential "manstoppers," i.e., "a dog possessing both the temperament and physical ability to stop a human intruder by inflicting such serious bodily harm as to render further advance physically impossible."

Semencic specifically declares that any breed omitted from the book was done so intentionally, leaving some readers to puzzle over his choices. Belgian Malinois, for example, are not included in the book, although they are widely and successfully employed in military, police, and other guardian roles. Yet Bull Terriers are included, even though - by the author's own admission - they are too small in stature to genuinely be considered "manstoppers." Certainly the author does appear to have a strong preference for bully and molossus breeds, and this may be reflected in his breed selections.

This book is a public relations nightmare for those breeders and breed aficionados who are trying to cultivate and promote dogs that are non-aggressive, companion-dog material.

Semencic dismisses as myth the notion that pit bulls are too people-loving to be meaningful attack dogs, insisting that these dogs, "would oppose any enemy of the family with a ferocity that was unprecedented in the world of dogs." Similarly, he pooh-pooh's politically correct American Bulldog breeders as being deceitful when they claim that their dogs are completely non-aggressive.

Rottweilers are described as having a bite "roughly twice as powerful as that of a German Shepherd or a Doberman Pinscher." Regarding Bull Terriers, he asserts that, "you will have to kill the dog to stop it from attacking you," but that "one will be hard pressed to destroy a Bull Terrier before one is seriously injured."

A Neapolitan Mastiff's "overall appearance... suggests a potential for unprecedented brutality... (that) can easily be realized should the Neopolitan's home or family be seriously threatened." And, "probably no very large breed living today is as able to sustain prolonged combat as is the Tosa."

You get the idea. The sensationalistic descriptions of how formidable these animals can be are a bit creepy. Although one might question the author's believability when he claims, "today's Dogo is capable of tracking, attacking, and actually killing a puma or jaguar single-handedly," at least one of his breed descriptions has proven to be chillingly prophetic.

Semencic reports that a Canary Dog "will not hesitate to attack anyone whom it perceives as a threat to its family or home. Such an attack could only be a hopeless situation for any man involved." Ten years after this book was published, two of these dogs mauled Diane Whipple to death in a highly publicized case. The attack was a hopeless situation indeed for this innocent victim.

Most of my book reviews are written with the average, suburban pet owner in mind - the kind of person who has no business owning the type of dog that the author salivates over in this book. It's one thing to harbor - as a deterrent to crime - an animal that appears superficially menacing but merely barks deeply in a display of limited protectiveness. That's what regular folks really want in a canine guardian.

The average person neither wants nor needs (nor is capable of managing) an animal that will actually attack, cripple, or kill a perceived intruder. In that respect, I have a fundamental problem with the underlying thesis that a dog that is willing and able to maim an intruder is a desirable family pet. It is not.

That being said, it is intriguing to read a book written from this perspective. Although included in the book, the author dismisses most Boxers, German Shepherd Dogs, and Doberman Pinschers as being useless guardians. He stresses the versatility and stability of Bouviers and Giant Schnauzers, indicating their ability to be reliable guide dogs for the blind. In fact, these breeds often make the most successful family companions because of the absence of explosive aggressiveness that the author finds desirable. Although Semencic bemoans breeders that water down a breed's inherent aggressive potential, many of us find this to be a virtue and are pleased that he acknowledges its occurrence in some of the more popular breeds.

Semencic's style of writing is casually conversational and quite readable. He's at his best when relating breed history and at his weakest when delivering personal rants. In a way, this book feels a bit like reading a personal diary. It's highly subjective and strongly opinionated, although that gives it a certain genuineness of spirit (if not of actual fact).

Sometimes his subjectivity gets the best of him. Pit bulls are the perfect dog in his estimation, although they are not especially large - something he holds against other breeds like Bull Terriers and Tibetan Mastiffs.

Similarly, he rails against Bullmastiff breeders for propagating unhealthy dogs. Yet he admits breeding his own Bullmastiff at ten months of age - an animal that he reports had lifelong immune system dysfunction as evidenced by "bleeding sores that covered his face for the first year and a half of his life... interdigital cysts, enormous skin infections... constant ear infections and incurable eye infections." One of the unhealthy Bullmastiffs that he complains about is his own dog's son, so it is ironic when he professes, "I personally have serious concern for the process of selection employed by modern Bullmastiff breeders... I am so unhappy with the breed and its breeders."

To his credit, the author at least attempts to mention some fundamental contraindications for owning a manstopping guard dog, although the real risk of potential tragedy and legal liability of an imperfectly controlled guardian is understated. Romantic descriptions and glossy photos of formidable dogs - often shown with children snuggling up to them - give the impression that such an undertaking is quite benign.

Semancic does state that the owner of a manstopper needs to evaluate his own motives for acquisition, dominance of character, and physical power. Given that most of these breeds can easily outpower any owner with a single, aggressive lunge, he discourages apartment or urban ownership. He also sensibly warns that, "Converting any good dog chosen from among the naturally dominant breeds from a would-be stable companion, family pet, and trustworthy home guardian into an overly aggressive and dangerous animal is generally a very easy matter." Realistically, many readers won't read or ponder these cautions but will instead savor the image of a big, tough dog that will love them and their children and maul their enemies without ever making a mistake.

I'm inclined to doubt that anyone competent enough to possess a "manstopper" needs this book. Further, I think that the people who would be most swayed by the book are perhaps the ones who should least acquire this type of animal. One could argue that at least some of the information is dated, as well. The book is not then useful in any meaningful way, but if one is drawn to large, powerful dogs, the book might be of interest for its very good photography and its notes on breed history.

Note: This book is out of print. You'll have to buy it used or find it at your local library.

Pit Bulls and Tenacious Guard Dogs by Dr. Carl Semencic.
Published by T.F.H. Publications, 1991. ISBN: 0866226397

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