Are Rottweilers Dangerous Dogs?

27 March 2014

On Wednesday 11 January 2012 , a child was bitten by a Rottweiler on Clifton beach and required medical attention. Although many newspapers report that the child was severely injured and describe the attack in the most horrific terms, ER24 spokesman Andre Visser described the injury as "moderate" and consisting only of puncture wounds to the left calf (as reported in the George Herald ).

However, regardless of the injury, the child has obviously suffered a traumatic experience and we sympathise with her and her family. In this case it appears that there were mitigating circumstances that reflect rather badly on the owner of the dog i.e. the beach is apparently not open to dogs in the first place and the owner had three Rottweilers off the lead in this area without sufficient control over them.

What is even more damaging however, is that according to news reports the owner turns out to be Mr James Lech, the so-called "South African Dog Whisperer" who a few months ago was involved in another incident where one of his dogs, also a Rottweiler, bit a child in a shopping mall. The incident occurred in a restaurant in the mall and the dog was supposedly there because Mr Lech claims to have an undisclosed condition which requires him to have a service dog.

It is not clear how the supposedly rehabilitated dog fits the criteria of a service dog, but footage taken at the mall shows Mr Lech clearly paying little attention to the dog and being totally unaware of the fact that prior to the attack on the child, the dog has already lunged at the child once and is staring at the child constantly.

Sadly, both these incidents have brought the Rottweiler breed into disrepute. However, one has to consider that in a case where the same owner (we do not know if it is the same dog, as Mr Lech seems to have several Rottweilers) is involved, that this is not a simple "breed problem".

For a long time now qualified dog behaviourists have been trying to warn the public that following the unscientific methods of "dog whisperers" who typically use physical and psychological intimidation to "solve" behaviour problems is risky and even downright dangerous. Suppressing behaviour through punishment while failing to deal with the underlying cause of the behaviour (which could be a variety of things) results in dogs becoming "ticking time bombs".

What this means is that while the dog may appear to be non-reactive on the surface, beneath the surface the dog's mental and emotional state remains volatile and will "explode" given the "right" set of circumstances. Furthermore, because all the early warning signals like growling and barking have been punished out of the dog, when the dog does end up reacting, the aggression the dog displays can be far more serious.

One cannot ignore the prior training and handling of the dog or dogs in these incidents.However, leaving all this aside for the moment, it is worth looking at the Rottweiler as a breed and considering what we do know about them. Unfortunately in many minds Rottweilers are lumped together with the "fighting" breeds like Pitbulls and Staffies.

Perhaps this is because of their muscular builds. However, it must be remembered that the origin of the Rottweiler is not as a fighter or baiter of other animals. Rottweilers were originally cattle drovers' dogs and in early times were used for herding and guarding. They were also used for pulling carts and over the years their ability as guardians and army/police dogs took them in this more modern direction. This means that unlike the fighting breeds, Rottweilers are not "finishers" i.e. dogs selected for their readiness to use a "kill-bite" on other animals.

While studies have shown that the fighting breeds tend to have low reactivity thresholds for aggression in various circumstances and that they are not good at responding to appeasement signals (i.e. aggression does not switch off even when the opponent gives up), Rottweilers do not have these inherent tendencies and are able to respond in a normal way to threats and appeasement behaviours.

The recent mapping of canine DNA has supported this by showing that Rottweilers are genetically dissimilar to the fighting breeds.

Why is it then, that Rottweilers have generally gotten such a bad name? There are several reasons:

1. Rottweilers are large, intimidating looking dogs. They are also extremely strong. Any large and strong dog is capable of doing damage if they decide to defend themselves. People tend to react to such dogs in a very negative way and this can make it hard for owners to socialise their dogs. Many Rottweiler owners will tell stories of how they have been discriminated against even at dog clubs and by dog trainers who tend to treat them like pariah's and insist on keeping them on the outskirts of the class and away from other dog owners. This attitude has perpetuated the dangerous dog stereotype.

2. Rottweilers, like many other breeds, have traditionally been used for their ability to guard property and be defensive with strangers. This means that they were selected (through breeding) to be territorial and to not accept strangers easily (what use would a guard dog be if it welcomed strangers onto the property?). However, occasionally a poor breeder will produce fearful dogs that lack confidence because they mistake the resulting fear-aggression as good "guard-dog" material. This has happened in many of the "guardian" breeds with German Shepherds perhaps being the worst affected. It must always be remembered that fearful dogs are the ones most likely to bite in the wrong circumstances!

3. Rottweilers are often acquired as guard dogs by ignorant people who do not understand that it is difficult and often impossible to selectively develop aggression in a dog for home protection purposes while expecting the dog to be friendly and biddable with friends and family. Many people intentionally isolate their dogs in order to make them suspicious and anti-social and then are horrified when their dogs behave in that manner.

4. Traditional dog training methods of jerking, yanking, hanging and otherwise physically manhandling dogs are sadly still used in many dog training circles. This is especially true when trainers deal with dogs like Rottweilers (dogs that are mistakenly thought to be "dominant") and they will usually encourage owners to use these coercive methods as well. These methods may temporarily suppress some behaviours, but they will invariably result in an unstable, unpredictable and aggressive dog. The fact that more Rottweilers don't bite their owners as a result of this ongoing abuse is a testament to the stability of their temperament.

5. Rottweilers are extremely playful dogs. They are often quite mouthy, bark to initiate play and are usually obsessed with toys and games of tug. If people do not understand their play behaviours they may misinterpret them as aggression. As a result many Rotties are punished simply for trying to play. They may then become defensive and unsure of how to interact with people. Also when people react fearfully to playful overtures, the dog will usually pick up that something is wrong and their own attitude may change from playfulness to confusion and finally to defensiveness.

How do we ensure that we protect the breed from further disrepute and show people what wonderful dogs Rotties can be?

1. Rottweiler Breeders must endeavour to breed confident dogs – confident dogs are easier to socialise and less likely to perceive threats where there are none

2. We must ensure that all dogs are well-socialised, not just as pups, but as adults as well.

3. We must home dogs carefully and ensure that all prospective owners are responsible and educated

4. We must do away with harmful attitudes and training practises and train humanely and scientifically

5. We must step in to help with rescued Rottweilers and ensure that those who are rehabilitating them have the necessary credentials

6. We must all be responsible dog owners and obey the laws of our communities in this regard

Rottweilers are wonderful dogs, but they are "a lot of dog" and are not for those who are half-hearted about sharing their lives with canine companions. Because of their size and presence whatever they do gets noticed – we at the Cape Rottweiler Club will endeavour to ensure that what is noticed shows the Rottweiler for the excellent animal that it is.


1. Alexandra Semyonova: Heritability of Behavior in the Abnormally Aggressive Dog

2. KA Houpt: Review article Genetics of Canine Behaviour

3. R. Coppinger and L. Coppinger: Dogs: a new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution, University of Chicago Press, 2001

Article by: Taryn Blyth CAPBT SA Practitioner Member