Most of the shelter workers I know love pit bulls. Many – myself arguably among them — have chosen these dogs for their own family members. (I say “arguably” because, although my Ruby has the broad jaws and wide smile of a pitty, science has proven that visual breed identification is wrong as much as 87% of the time. For this reason, Northside Animal Shelter, where I volunteer and adopted Ruby, has joined the growing trend among shelters that refuse to give dogs breed labels.)
I and my colleagues at Northside lament the prejudices that we hear from shelter visitors who respond, when asked what kind of dog they’re looking for, “Nothing with any pit in it.” The majority of animal advocates today deplore breed restrictions. This book will arm would-be defenders of pit bulls with all the evidence needed to refute the myths, the hype, the misinformation. For those who may have doubts – and, as I wrote in my post “The Pit Question,” http://www.aheartforshelterdogs.com/2016/07/13/the-pit-question/ I once was one of them — Bronwen Dickey effectively lays them to rest.
“Undogs.” “Frankenmaulers.” “Sharks on paws.” These are just a few of the damning labels that have been inflicted on the pit bull, a dog that was once, as the book’s subtitle says, an American icon. Helen Keller had a beloved pit bull companion. The dog that won America’s hearts on “The Little Rascals” was a pit bull. Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, James Thurber, were just a few of the celebrated Americans who owned and loved the breed. Pit bulls were movie stars; they were widely enshrined as college mascots; they accompanied troops into various wars and served heroically and loyally. Throughout the early and mid-twentieth century they were, in short, beloved, and believed to represent the best of the American spirit, so much so that they were nicknamed “Yankee terriers.”
But over the past roughly fifty years, a media blitz fueled, as Dickey painstakingly documents, by faulty science and outright sensationalism recast the pit bull as a monster. Breed restrictions proliferated so that pit bull owners could not find rental housing and in some cases had their dogs seized from them or were forced to surrender them. Insurers refused coverage to homes with pit bulls. Shelters, unable to adopt out these dogs, euthanized them on arrival.
Just what is a pit bull? The term includes dogs of the bulldog, bull terrier, and Staffordshire terrier breeds. But confusion abounds. “The latest genetic research,” Dickey writes, “indicates that many mixed-breed dogs identified as ‘pit mixes’ actually aren’t. ‘Pit bull,’ as it is most commonly used, has become a slapdash shorthand for a general shape of dog – a medium-sized, smooth coated mutt – or a ‘dog not otherwise specified.’”
This difficulty of precise identification hasn’t stopped the media from making definite assertions about supposed members of the breed. Such as, that pit bulls are inherently dangerous dogs. “A 2011 Canadian study found no significant difference in the behaviors of forty pit-bull-type dogs adopted from animal shelters and forty-two dogs from other breeds,” Dickey notes. “Pit bulls scored slightly higher than average on aggression directed toward other dogs, but several other breeds, including dachshunds, equaled or surpassed them on that scale. The pit bulls were well within the range of normal.”
As for the misapprehension that pit bulls are responsible for the majority of dog bites, a panel of veterinary experts, animal control officers, animal behaviorists and humane advocates convened by the dean of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine came to the conclusion that “the available data did not support the claim that pit bull terrier-type dogs were overrepresented among biting animals.”
The media myth machine. So how did pit bulls become “Frankenmaulers” in the public mind? Dickey documents that other dogs throughout history have been similarly vilified: German shepherds, spitz-type dogs, “Cuban bloodhounds,” dachshunds, Dobermans, Rottweilers.
The difference is, these panics “occurred before the technology existed to put frightening images and gory details on a constant loop in the public’s mind.” Combine a “dramatic increase in the speed of information” with “the precipitous decline in critical thinking” among the American public and you have myths proliferating, such as that the pit bull has a hinged jaw that opens extra-wide and won’t let go. And that the pit bull’s teeth can exert pressure of (the figures vary widely, from 740 pounds per square inch compared to the 45 or 50 psi of a German shepherd’s bite, to even more stratospheric claims). And that the pit bull’s front teeth hold on while the back teeth operate independently to gnaw and shred. All utterly false.
The stigmatization of the pit bull began, Dickey says, in the 1970s, with the exposure of high profile dog fighting cases in which pit bulls, the victims, were portrayed as the aggressors. This reputation caused them to be “exiled to the most turbulent margins of society.” The unspoken ugly truth beneath the media hype about pit bulls, Dickey maintains, is that it is a not-so-thinly veiled expression of anxiety about race and class.
She concludes: “There never was a ‘pit bull problem.’ What happened to these animals was a byproduct of human fears, and what humans feared most was one another.” Her bottom line: “Pit bulls are not dogs with an asterisk. Pit bulls are just…dogs.”
Thanks to Dickey I am even more confident about telling prospective adopters, “All dogs are individuals. Any kind of dog can be a loving and wonderful companion.” And then, perhaps, I’ll add, “Here, let me introduce you to the biggest cuddlebug in the shelter…. ”