Pit Bull: Battle over an American Icon
by Bronwen Dickey
Pit bulls have to be the most demonized dog breed of all time.
"Pit bull" is not actually a breed of dog. It's a type of dog which includes a bevy of different breeds-- American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT), Staffordshire Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Bull Terrier, American Bully... well, you get the point.
I've been volunteering in animal shelters since high school. In most shelters in the US, pit bull mixes make up a majority of shelter dogs, so I've met (and loved) quite a few. The first pitt I met was named Punkin the Three Legged Pittie. While fighting dogs are rare--more on that later-- by his scars and injuries, he showed every sign of having been used in a fighting ring. His leg had been also chopped off with some sort of blade, apparently without anaesthetics. He hatedhumans with an undying and quite understandable passion. Every time anyone walked anywhere near his enclosure, he would throw himself again and again at the fence, growling, teeth bared, often biting at the fence. Then he'd back off and glare as he chewed meaningfully on a bone. In the years since, I occasionally looked him up on the shelter site; no one ever adopted him. Punkin gave me a healthy fear of pitt bulls that it took me a while to get over. (I'll admit to a few Punkin-fueled nightmares.) This wasn't helped by the inaccurate statistics about pits that I heard at every turn.
Over time, and as I spent more time at different shelters, I grew to love pit bulls and pit mixes. I love their open expressions and eager smiles and the way their lips actually turn up at the corners just like a human's. I love their boundless energy and their general derpy joie-de-vivre. I was trying to decide on my favourite pit and I realized I can't. I still love Ginger, a beautiful, happy girl who loved long walks and sprawling on my lap, and who had been so badly abused by a man that she went catatonic if any male came near her. Or Maui, who so loved the sun that she lay down like a sack whenever her walk was over and volunteers had to pick her up and carry all 70 pounds of passively protesting dead-weight dog back into her room. And then there was Jitterbug, who, like many shelter pits, ended up with a bad case of Happy Tail, where she so furiously wagged her tail at passerby that she gave herself huge bloody scrapes. (Once her tail was bandaged, I was the one with whip marks and bruises from being battered by her tail.) And so many more. I'm going to visit one of my current favourites, a year-old happy-go-lucky puppy, this weekend.
One ubiquitous "fact" about pits is that while they make up only 2% of the US dog population, they are responsible for about 70% of the deaths. As Dickey explains, this is a problematic factoid on two counts: first, the 2% comes from people who have registered their pits with the American Kennel Club and similar, so it doesn't account for mixes, breeds not acknowledged by the AKC, or dogs owned by people who don't care about purebred registries. Second, we also have to deal with cognitive biases: people believe that pits are monstrous Un-Dogs, so when dog-on-human violence happens, other breeds are routinely misidentified as pits. It's a vicious cycle: pit stories make good press; people believe pits are killer dogs; people misidentify a killer dog as a pit bull.
So where did all the maligning start? After all, at one point, the pit was the All-American Dog. Dickey makes a good case that the hatred of pits actually stems from racism, and that's one aspect that continues to fuel the stigma to this day. Pits are seen as vicious and thus their owners must be equally vicious; pits are also seen as "thug" or "gangster" dogs. As Dickey puts it, people are able to express racist views about the owners of pits by "using the dogs as proxies." Now add in the cities yanking dogs away from families, sticking them in shelters, and either euthanizing them or adopting them out to white suburban families and it puts even shelter work in a whole new light.
Dickey explores a wide range of viewpoints and current uses of pits. If you're looking for an utterly unbiased examination of bully breeds and their history, this is not the book for you. Dickey absolutely is on the side of pits and against breed-specific legislation (BSL), and she pushes her viewpoint via her characterization of her interview subjects and her impassioned rhetoric. Personally, I'm in full agreement that pits are maligned and BSL is awful. BSL is incredibly arbitrary, we have plenty of statistics that show it doesn't work. The people who are really affected by it are the socioeconomically disadvantaged, who aren't allowed to keep their dog because someone somewhere thinks it might be a pit mix.
However, I also believe that Dickey is doing her book and the pit a disservice. To me, she seemed to insist throughout that dogs are dogs are dogs, and that pits are effectively the same as golden retrievers or poodles. I just don't think that's true-- bully breeds, like guardian breeds, are wonderful dogs, but they have their own special needs. Pits have a strong prey drive, they often have lots of energy, and they need to learn socialization, as they have a tendency to be a bit clueless and in-your-face with other dogs. Pits are very powerful dogs, and they learn to take special care in "handicapping" themselves when playing with tiny dogs and weakling humans. (Personally, I avoid tug-of-war-style games because I don't want an overexcited dog to forget that I'm comparatively fragile.) With guardian breeds, sometimes you need to work on the dog's territorial or protection instinct as well. Personally, I'm more wary of mastiffs, rottweilers, and dobermans than I am of german shepherds, huskies, or pits because I can read the latter better, but I do believe all of those breeds have characteristics that should be considered when matching to a home.
Dickey is passionate about her subject and has plenty of interesting and novel material. Not only did I learn a lot about pit history; I also found a new charity to support: The Coalition to Unchain Dogs, Inc, a fascinating organization that improves the welfare of dogs while empowering owners instead of taking their dogs from them. All in all, if you're interested in US history over the last few centuries viewed through the lens of a notorious dog, Pit Bull is well worth a look.