Please bear with us, as we are currently updating our site and this page is still under construction.
The purpose of this page is to share and, I hope, spread my enthusiasm for the cause of rescuing, rather than breeding or buying, animals in general until they all have forever-homes and the shelters are empty. I also, especially, want to share my love of bully breeds, especially pit bulls, and correct some of the misperceptions about them. Finally, I particularly want to explain why my belief, as a dog lover and trainer but also as an attorney, in pit bull advocacy is so strong.
Advocacy for Rescue Dogs
On Dogs Adopted From Shelters or Rescues
The fundamental reason for the rescue movement is the prevalence of euthanasia in overcrowded and underfunded shelters: according the the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1.2 million dogs are euthanized in shelters across the country every year (in contrast to the 1.4 million who are adopted).
I admit that circumstances, such as extremely dangerous behavior and quality of life (usually due to illness), sometimes necessitate the practice of euthanasia in shelters. The vast majority of rescue dogs, however, end up in shelters through no fault of their own: their human has passed away, their family can no longer afford to live in housing that is dog-friendly, etc. Therefore, I very much wish to help spread the truth that there is nothing “wrong” with shelter dogs! They are almost always simply victims of circumstance and they have the potential to be loving, particularly grateful, companions.
Furthermore, rescue dogs can often satisfy every characteristic the human wants in a dog and even offer advantages over others. For example, people wanting a purebred dog can find an organization that rescues one specific breed of dog, and such organizations exist for nearly every breed! Also, people who do not have the time, energy, or ability to raise a puppy can adopt an adult dog who is already well trained and thus much less work!
On Dogs Purchased Rather Than Adopted
I realize that responsible breeders do admirable work such as breeding out diseases (particularly cancer) in breeds that are traditionally prone to it. Unfortunately, however, many, perhaps if not most, breeders are not motivated by the goal of the betterment of the breed, but rather by profit. Even “backyard breeders,” even if well-intentioned, may have little or no expertise in the history, particularly the health history, of the breed (in contrast to reputable, certified breeders), and thus may contribute to the spread of health or even behavior problems in the breed. Regardless, when people purchase a dog from a backyard breeder, they do so instead of adopting a rescue dog in need of a home.
Far worse than backyard breeders are puppy mills. These are large-scale commercial operations whose only purpose is to profit from the sale of puppies and that often keep them in deplorable conditions. Dogs rescued from puppy mills are extremely fearful of almost everything in the outside world and are among the hardest to rehabilitate into happy, well-adjusted dogs. Click here to learn more about puppy mills. Thus, essentially, every purchase of a dog (or other animal) from a breeder, pet store, or puppy mill potentially perpetuates cruelty to animals, and it is absolutely a lost opportunity to save a rescue dog’s life.
Advocacy for Pit Bulls
The Controversy and Accusations Against Pit Bulls
I also want to express my views on a topic that is very important (and personal) to me: the often controversial topic of the family of breeds called pit bulls.
First of all, a “pit bull” is not a specific breed of dog but rather a variety of breeds. Furthermore, the perception of what counts as a “pit bull” is ever-expanding. “Increasingly, because those dogs are kind of generic looking and they share these characteristics with at least 25 other breeds of dogs, such as smooth coats or blocky heads, then anything becomes a pit bull.”
Bronwen Dickey, the author of the book Pit Bulls: The Battle Over an American Icon, states that the argument that pit bulls are “natural fighters … hardwired to kill [is grossly misrepresentative]. …Specific subpopulations …have been used over time in the illegal pursuit of dogfighting, but they really can’t be held up as the standard for all pit bulls in America. That would be … like using the Navy SEALs as a standard for all American men.
A pervasive myth about these dogs, unfortunately often perpetuated and even exacerbated by popular media, is that pit bulls (affectionately called “pibbles” to those of us who know and love them) are vicious, dangerous animals all of which should be restricted, banned, even killed.
One accusation against pit bulls is that they are “inherently dangerous” and, while some courts disagree, unfortunately others do not. A 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling called not only “pit bulls [but] cross-bred pit bulls… inherently dangerous.” Tracey v. Solesky, 50 A. 3d 1075 (Md. Ct. of Appeals) 2012. This breed profiling both reflects and encourages pit bulls’ public image as animals who should be feared. What breed discrimination obscures, though, is the fact that pit bulls are really just dogs like any other dogs and should be treated as such: considered as individuals, valued, treated humanely, and placed in loving homes with responsible humans.
Opponents of pit bulls often claim that they are genetically predisposed to be aggressive. In a very limited sense, this is partially true. For centuries, various dog breeds and families of breeds have been selectively bred for particular purposes. Unfortunately, some humans have indeed bred and continue to breed pit bulls to fight other dogs as a “sport”. That said, they have generally been unsuccessful.
Pit Bulls Out of the Doghouse
“The dogs [we]re … bred centuries ago in England and Ireland to bait bulls, among other animals. When that was outlawed, they were bred to fight dogs in pits…. The dogs were prized for their determination as fighters — their “gameness” — and their loyalty to their handlers….
“But in the last couple of decades, the dog has become a publicly reviled symbol of savagery…. [T]he pit bull became the canine of choice for gangbangers, drug dealers and other criminals protecting their turf. People who lived in those same dangerous neighborhoods bought them for protection.
“A flourishing underground for illegal dog fighting in Los Angeles started in the 1990s…. That led to further breeding to make them as aggressive as possible toward other dogs. When dogs weren’t deemed good enough for fighting, they were sold or given away and often ended up abused and even more antisocial.”
Read the full article here.
Not all pit bulls were selectively bred for fighting and even those that were have intermixed with the others as well as other dog breeds (and mixes) such that the gene pool has been diluted to the point that only those still breeding pit bulls for fighting know their pedigree. Obviously, having such a pedigree renders these dogs extremely valuable to their “owners”, so they would not be willing to part with them. Because dog fighting is illegal throughout the U.S., those involved in the “sport” are very secretive about it, so they would hardly risk exposure by selling those they breed but do not want as pets to the public or by surrendering them to shelters or rescues. (Click here for more on “The Criminal, Underground World of Dogfighting.”) Therefore, the average pet pit bull is not at all likely to be one of those with a strict pedigree of breeding for aggression.
While those breeding the dogs wanted the them to fight other dogs, the breeders still needed to be able to handle the dogs themselves without being attacked, so they chose to breed the ones that were friendly and gentle with humans.
The ASPCA’s Position Statement on Pit Bulls is very informative on the subject. (Click here for more on dog fighting and its effects on pibbles.) A rare subset of pit bulls may have a genetic predisposition toward aggression against other dogs. That is not, however, the whole truth: it ignores many other important factors involved in determining a dog’s (even a pit bull’s) behavior.
Demonization of Pit Bulls in the Media & Consequent Public Prejudice
Pit bulls have a horrible image, however undeserved, in the media. People who are actually familiar with pit bulls, however, recognize how misrepresentative this is. Everyone I meet who is the least bit familiar, sympathetic, or even just open-minded to pit bulls say, “They’ve gotten a bad rap.” The media is undoubtedly a major cause (maybe the cause) of the general public’s negative perception of pit bulls. Donna Reynolds, a leader of the advocacy group BADRAP, said, “People who tend to believe that they’re scary have been educated by the media.” She continued, “‘I say, “Have you hung out or met a dog you consider to be a true American pit bull?’ ‘No, I haven’t, but my neighbor has one chained out in the backyard.’ Well, any dog chained in the backyard is going to be mean.”
While she makes an excellent point, the word “educated” (by the media) is a misnomer – “misinformed” would be a more appropriate term. The problem is not just that the reporting can be inaccurate. It’s more that the choice of what stories to cover is overwhelmingly skewed toward negative coverage of pit bulls rather than either positive coverage of pit bulls or negative coverage of any other breed. It is this selective coverage that twists the truth to make people thinks that pit bulls are monsters, an aberration among all of the rest of the normal, nice dogs out there.
Pit bulls can and do bite, as do all dogs. Biting is the only method of self-defense dogs have, so any dog scared enough to think it has to bite to protect itself will do so. What separates pit bull bites is that they are covered disproportionately (more) than other breeds’ bites by the media.
For example, I recently had the opportunity to speak to an Animal Control Officer from the Washington Humane Society who had volunteered to accompany us on one of Leah’s tracks. Given the extent of his knowledge and experience, I asked him why, in contrast to other dog bite incidents, pit bulls seem to be the only ones who maul in their attacks. He replied that it was simply the media coverage, that there had recently been a mauling of three children by four Great Danes, but it was not covered in the media because, well, Great Danes are not pit bulls.
The Pitbull’s natural fighting ability put into context…
A common method of finding a dog who would become a successful fighting dog is by organising ‘scratch’ fights or a ‘roll’. A scratch is when two dogs are made to fight to assess their ‘gameness’ or willingness to fight.
Officers of the law experienced in dog fighting investigations and cases in the USA estimate that 80% of Pitbulls fail at this stage as they refuse ‘scratch’. They simply refuse to fight even under coercion and in the hostile atmosphere scratch fights take place in! This even applies to dogs who were born and raised within a professional dog fighting operation where their whole existence is geared up towards dog fighting!
Even selective breeding struggled to overcome the Pitbull’s genuine nature…. So, even professional dog fighting organisations and trainers struggle to get the Pitbull breed to become reliable fighters even with a selective ‘fighting bloodline’ breeding program and raising the dogs in the hostile, aggression inducing fight training environment.
It can be concluded from this information that even in the face of severe adversity and put in potentially life threatening situations the vast amount of Pitbull Terriers refuse to fight.
Read the full article here.
Furthermore, the comparative infrequency of serious dog bites emphasizes the disproportionate focus the media places on dog bites and attacks (particularly – in a vicious, so to speak, circle – by those breeds whose vilification that the media itself has largely created). In an interview with Life With Dogs, he concluded, the expert, Ian Dunbar, has offered a different, more tempered perspective:
Serious dog bites are very rare, and almost always due to the egregious incompetence of their owners. The fact is that most bites are fear based; a dog bites because he is afraid of people. Little dogs bite more often, but due to less harm [simply because their jaws are not as strong]. Big dogs bite less often, but do more harm. Dogs kill about twenty people in the USA every year; about twelve of those are children. Almost without exception, each incident is a case of amazing negligence directly attributable to the parents of those children.
He also provided a sad but sobering comparison that underscores the inappropriate amount of attention the media pays to serious dog attacks. “By comparison, two thousands kids were killed last year by their parents. Do we see much about that sad statistic in the media? No! It’s extremely unusual for a dog to kill anyone, but when it does happen, it’s news. And yet when kids are killed by cars or their parents, it’s often not news, because it happens several times every day.” Id.
Another article, “The American Pit Bull Terrier – A Realistic View” gave a similar analysis of the role of the media in the vilification of pit bulls and its consequences.
“Negative press is this breeds [sic] worst enemy, it encourages the wrong type of owner (often owners who shouldn’t have any type of pet!) and creates inaccurate negative stereotypes. There seems to be a trend where individual breeds are chosen by the press to be vilified; German Shepherds (1970s), then Dobermans (1980s), then Rottweilers (1990s) and also Akitas to some extent recently, but at the moment (2000 on) the Pitbull has been the breed of choice to sensationalise news stories.” Read the full article here.
Jean Donaldson is a leading expert in dog training and behavior, as well as their relationship to human behavior and culture. (She is the author of The Culture Clash, an amazing book that and changed my perspective of how humans view and treat dogs, and probably the best book on any dog-related topic I have ever read!) Donaldson gave an excellent interview on many aspects of pit bull prejudice and advocacy. It is so incredibly informative and insightful that I refer to it many times on this page and include it in its entirety in a later section. In this and other sections, I just include her comments on the relevant subject (noting the relevant section by its timing in the interview).
On the topic of media demonization of pit bulls, Donaldson points out two issues. First, the tendency of the media to create sensationalism functions to further its ultimate goal of attracting public attention (selling newspapers, etc.). Second, she addresses the public’s role: its receptiveness, even willingness to provide an audience amenable to the sensationalism that the media offers. She postulates that the media coverage appeals to a “lurid fascination with the idea that there might be a breed of dog that is … inherently bad … and … it plays to … the worst sort of propensities in people to categorize and to type different groups: to type people and to type dogs….” (Donaldson interview, 5:23 – 5:50.)
Unfortunately, as the “The American Pit Bull Terrier” article notes, demonizing a specific dog breed is nothing new. A senior Vice President of the ASPCA and one of the country’s leading dog bite experts commented, “I haven’t seen a fatality involving a Doberman for decades, whereas in the nineteen-seventies they were quite common. If you wanted a mean dog back then, you got a Doberman. I don’t think I even saw my first pit-bull case until the middle to late nineteen-eighties, and I didn’t start seeing Rottweilers until I’d already looked at a few hundred fatal dog attacks.”
“Now [in 2006] those dogs make up the preponderance of fatalities. The point is that it changes over time. It’s a reflection of what the dog of choice is among people who want to own an aggressive dog…. The dogs that bite people are … vicious because they have owners who want a vicious dog.” (emphasis added) Read the full article here.
One myth about pit bulls is that they have locking jaws. The anatomy of their jaws is identical to that of any other dog. The likely cause of the myth is simple: the pit bull’s jaws are not locked; the dog is just holding on. Furthermore, the power of pit bulls’ bites have been exaggerated by the media, often misrepresented as having the greatest strength of any breed. One (actually scientific) study tested the average bite force of pit bulls, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers. Pit bulls came in last – their bite force is the least powerful of the three.
In Jean Donaldson’s interview, she also mentions the secretive, illegal dog-fighting fraternity that is frequently linked to a drug-selling fraternity, usually the very people who want vicious dogs. (Donaldson interview, 1:18 – 1:45.) Similarly, though Donaldson does not address this point in this interview, this link parallels that between animal and human abuse: in cases where authorities find abuse of animals, the same cases often involve (frequently intra-family) abuse of people as well.
Justified or not, one breed is singled out and portrayed as inherently more dangerous than other dogs, not just dogs like all others. Nonetheless, society does not seem to learn from each successive episode but instead simply repeats it every decade or two with a new breed. As one pibble daddy lamented, “It’s like a scape-dog.” Whether they deserve it or not, pit bulls are blamed for all the evil any dog can or might do.
Ken Foster, the author of The Dogs Who Found Me and the founder of the Sula Foundation, wrote another book called I’m a Good Dog – Pit Bulls, America’s Most Beautiful (and Misunderstood) Pet.
I identify very strongly with both the experiences and the sentiments in the introduction:
By the time I learned what a pit bull really was, it was too late; I was already in love. Of course I’d heard the stories, but I had never put these almost mythological urban tales together with the dogs in my neighborhood…. [D]og watching was a spectator sport among those of us who were still dogless. There were dogs of every shape and size, but my eye kept going to the short, stocky, exuberant dogs that seemed like cartoons. You could tell by the gleam in their eye they felt very lucky to be here, in the city, walking with the person they kept on the other end of a leash….
By the time I’d decided to take the plunge into the world of dog ownership, I knew this was the dog for me. Nothing fancy, just an American dog. I was too shy to ask what kind of dog they might be – it seemed so personal! – but I finally broke down and popped the question. It was a girl dog named Dumpling, [who] smiled at me and wagged her tail…. [T]he man walking her said, “She’s a pit bull.”
[One pit bull adoption and one foster-ship later:]
I brought her home, temporarily, I thought, and then we fell in love. And when you fall in love with a pit bull – and you inevitably will, if you meet one, fall in love – you need to be prepared to answer a lot of questions from skeptics on the street. “Why would you have a pit bull?” they ask, and sometimes they aren’t that polite.
Does the fact that people question our pit bull love make it that much more intense? Possibly – because, in the case of Sula [the one who made Foster, ironically, a “failed foster”], I know that I saved her life, and despite what some people say, saving an animal’s life is never a selfless act; there are huge emotional rewards…. [E]ach time anyone questions or disapproves of our love, we defiantly love each other even more than before. But I think, like most other pit bull owners I know, that my love of Sula had more to do with this: She made me laugh; she had the good sense to turn and run away from bad music on the street; she liked to hug. And she loved to play practical jokes like hiding my glasses while I was taking a bath…. Sula changed my life…. [T]here wasn’t a day that people didn’t judge her solely on how she looked.
Pit bulls are devoted. They are known to sing, proudly, in ridiculously operatic voices. I know pit bulls who have nursed kittens and another who adopted a piglet as its own…. [P]it bulls are capable of expressing anguish and despair, as well as their euphoric joy in being alive.
What did I do before pit bulls? Sometimes I can’t remember, no matter how hard I try…. Increasingly, they were the subjects of my work, and even when I writing about people, it was the pit bulls of the world who took on the role of my muse…. One of the things [Sula] taught me is that there is a whole world of people who love their pit bulls, and everyone else’s too…. Pit bulls are what we have in common, and once it is known that we have that in common, all other social barriers are gone.
I have a T-shirt that reads “I Love My Pit Bull”…. [I do too, and I happen to be wearing it right as I write this.*] Actually, I have three of these shirts, so that I know there is always one clean and ready to wear…. People see me wearing them and ask where I found them, or they point and say, “That’s funny!” because they know pit bulls as dogs that are undeserving of anyone’s love.
“But I do love my pit bull,” I tell them, and then, if one of my dogs is with me, I might demonstrate the famously enthusiastic pit bull kiss. That is what we do when truly love things…. We want to show them off in the best possible light. So this is my introduction. Some people might say that my point of view is a little bit skewed. And to them I say that the answer should be clear on every page that follows. Yes. Absolutely, yes.
Ken Foster with one of his sweet pitties.
*I also have T-shirts that say:
I also have bumper stickers that say:
The Daily Realities of Life With a Pit Bulls
Pit bulls are an incredibly high-energy breed, and their intelligence level is even higher, so keeping them physically and mentally exercised can be quite a challenge. They can also be a bit heavy – despite their size, they are sure they are sure they are lap dogs, not to mention their conviction that your entire bed is theirs!
In my experience as both a pit bull trainer and a pibble doggie-mama, I can attest that they are clearly the most intelligent breed I know. (Caveat: the most intelligent breed I know well. I have not worked with many border collies and have not lived with any.) Much as I love my Leah, Duchess was the smartest dog I have ever known. She was able to learn about a word every day and, to challenge her even more, I taught her everything she knew in English in French. She learned not just her commands, but all of her words (e.g., bowl, food, thirsty, hungry, water, etc.) in a week. To give credit where credit is due, though, Leah seems to have a special talent for names: she learns humans’ names in 5-10 minutes and doesn’t forget them. (She later cries if you say they name and don’t follow it up directly by producing the human.)
Pit bulls do fulfill one of the stereotypes about them (apart from their strength): their incredible loyalty. I grew up with Irish Setters who would run away (far, far away and not come back) any chance they got, so I still remember the first time Duchess got away from me. I don’t remember exactly what happened – I probably accidentally dropped her leash – and she just continued to romp and play around me as we had been before. She was free and, because she was well more than leash-length away from me, she knew it, but she didn’t run away. I called her and she came. I was absolutely dumbstruck. You’re not running away?! You actually want to stay around me?! Not running away, though, was just a small show of her loyalty. I have no doubt that, had it ever been necessary, she would have given her life for me.
Another impressive aspect of pibble personality (dog-ality?) is their ability to communicate. Again, this could be partly just my perspective: the contrast between the bulk of my dog-experience – with Irish Setters, who have the communication abilities and intelligence comparable to that of a box of hammers – and pit bulls. Regardless, I have never seen communication from dogs so clear as that which pit bulls display.
Leah has what began (during potty-training) as a potty-bell and has become something of an all-purpose “I need something” bell hanging from our door. If we come in from a walk and she rings it, I know to check everything else and chances are that I have neglected to keep her food or water bowl full, or that she has some other legitimate reason for asking me to do something. And, almost without fail, if I think she is ringing it for no reason and ignore her, I usually discover later that I missed something and, as usual, she was right.
One of my favorite pibble characteristics is perhaps less impressive than their intelligence, loyalty, or ability to communicate so clearly with their human, but I love it at least as much: their goofy sense of humor. I love watching them amuse themselves on their own, throwing their toys for themselves when no playmate is available. Even just their natural behavior, such as goofy sleeping positions, rolling around, and super-cute facial expressions, come across as hilarious. Sometimes, however, it is more overt and thus even funnier.
Once Duchess tried to get me to trade a Dove dark chocolate square for her wet, well-chewed rawhide by dropping the latter in my lap as I unwrapped the candy. That would have been a horrible trade (and I think we both knew it), but she got, as they say, an “A for effort.”
They can also combine theses traits in various, often adorable ways. For example, Duchess made herself my alarm clock. If I stayed in bed and was not get up to take her outside by 7:01 in the morning, she would jump on my bed and lie on my back until I relented and got up.
In addition to all of these other admirable qualities, I think pibbles’ most impressive and most endearing quality is their capacity for joy and love. It is, in my experience, absolutely unparalleled. The caption of many pictures, posters, etc. is, “Happiness is a pit bull smile,” and I can’t disagree.
In an admittedly anthropomorphized interpretation, their joy seems to show us humans how to “live in the moment” and, perhaps just to assuage the guilt on behalf of our species, they seem so willing to forget the past, as though they have an inexhaustible willingness to forgive any abuse they may have suffered in the past and embrace their new humans with love and loyalty.
Though we have no way of proving that type of assertion, I can attest that, when I trained dogs at the Washington Humane Society, every pittie with whom I worked lavished affection and invitations to play upon me immediately, whether or not I had ever even met the dog before.
Not only do pit bulls have this capacity for joy and love, they are sooo expressive of it!
In fact, it’s part of this display that is one of my few, and probably my biggest, complaint about pibbles: their habit of licking enthusiastically, incessantly, and persistently. My beloved Leah tries to give me a full “bath” every morning when we get up – so insistently that I actually had to teach her a “stop licking” hand signal – and she’s only part pit!
I am certainly not the only one to have observed this proclivity and, as with other parts of pit bull character (like the “aggressive snuggler” picture above), pibble lovers have used it to parody the negative stereotypes about pit bulls.
Despite this “hardship”, life with a pittie is well worth the “sacrifice” just to get to share their joy and love!
Persistent Prejudice Against Pibble Parents and Its Effects
Being a pibble parent is absolutely a blessing, but it’s definitely a mixed blessing. Because pit bulls are definitely the doggie villains of choice for the time being, having one can be challenging for a number of reasons. The resulting public perception makes it very difficult for people who do have pit bulls in a variety of ways. Reynolds (of BAD RAP) notes, “It’s hard out there for a pit and its owner. People cross the street when they see them coming, even when the dogs are leashed. Some dog walkers won’t take pit bulls as clients. Not all insurance companies offer liability coverage to their owners.” Read the full article here, and see BAD RAP’s page on insurance here. Another, often larger obstacle for pittie parents is that many property owners will not allow people with pit bulls to live there. (Countless sad separations followed the epidemic of home foreclosures from 2009 on, when families evicted from their homes could not find somewhere they could afford to live that would permit their dog to live there too.)
I experienced the suspicion Reynolds described ever since I began to live and work with pibbles. With Duchess, I would see the look on the faces of mothers pushing strollers coming toward us, and I would try to diffuse it by warning them, “Watch out – she loves to lick toes!” I was lucky enough, though, that with Duchess I never to have any overtly negative incidents with humans. My Leah is only a pit mix – many people ask me if she is a lab, which I do think is another part of her mix – and yet I have experienced the same discrimination: when I walk her, we definitely get our share of nasty looks and people who cross the street to avoid us. I have even had one person shout at me, “Muzzle that thing!” In a separate, more dramatic example, another pittie-mama, whose year-old puppy plays happily and socializes well with other dogs in addition to people, had an even more accusatory experience. She recounted that “a couple of older neighbors … said, ‘That dog is a weapon!’ She chuckled. ‘Like I was standing there with a .44 magnum.'” Id.
I was recently walking Leah, who is incredibly friendly to all human adults, and having a conversation with a neighbor sitting on his stoop who made Leah’s day by greeting her, petting her, and letting her lick him. Our conversation was about dogs in general and, after he learned that Leah is a working dog who saves other pets’ lives, the conversation turned to specific breeds. When I said that I adore pit bulls, he shook his head and said he doesn’t trust them. I asked him if he really knows any and he admitted that he didn’t. I asked him whether he trusted Leah, and he said he did because she was clearly very well trained and well disciplined, as well as of how she was acting toward him. I would like to think that that conversation changed my neighbor’s mind about pibbles or at least made him reconsider the basis of his mistrust, but I am not so naive as to assume that changing anti-pittie people’s minds is that simple or that easy.
Life With a Pit Bull
Introductions to Pit Bulls
My introduction to pit bulls was a very positive experience. At a shelter called PAWS (Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society), I offered walk their more difficult dogs because I to handle poorly socialized, behaved, and trained dogs, but I had very little knowledge of the huge variety of breeds. As far as I knew, I had never met or even seen a pit bull. After frequent walks with a dog named Duchess, I agreed to foster her. She was essentially the shelter’s behavioral basket case, but I realized that she was essentially just somebody’s baby trying to figure out how to get along in the world, and I couldn’t resist helping her. It was then that I was informed of her breed, but it did not deter me from fostering her in the least. My sister told me she had to spend the next day convincing my dad that Duchess wouldn’t eat me! Despite his doubts, I had already fallen in love with my new best friend.
Even without the prevalent prejudice, saying life with pit bulls is happy and easy all the time would be as much an overgeneralization and as inaccurate as it would be to say that pit bulls are generally bad or dangerous. Life with a pit bull can involve an incredible amount of work, particularly if he or she is reactive. Any dog can develop fears and other behavior problems at any point in his or her life, and having a dog involves taking this risk and dealing with it when it happens.
With rescue dogs in particular, fosters and adopters often have little or no knowledge of the dog’s background so they are far from being guaranteed a well-socialized, well-behaved dog. The dog may have been abused, may lack good socialization in any number of ways, or may simply have an anxious personality. In any of these cases, the practical result is usually behavior modification, sometimes intense and often for the rest of the dog’s life.
Duchess had not been well socialized to other dogs and this manifested itself in behavior that looked like aggression. At first. this made her appear vicious, even to me, but I realized that, after each encounter where she exhibited this behavior, she would shake for several minutes. This was how I learned that her actions were fear-based, as are those of more than 90% of similar behaviors in other dogs. (This is why trainers use the term “reactive”, meaning presenting a disproportionate reaction to a stimulus or trigger, rather than “aggressive”. To label dogs “aggressive” it makes them sound mean when they have no malice, only fear.) Eventually, I helped Duchess get over her big-dog reactivity (though I think she continued to see small dogs as big squirrels – terriers typically do have a very high prey drive!). At the beginning of my time fostering her, I would take her to a nice, fenced park, but if there was another dog there, or if another dog came, we would have to leave. Slowly, though, she developed a friendship with an Akita simply because we usually walked at the same time through the same park. By the end of my time fostering her, she would be disappointed if we went to the park and she did not get to play with another dog. To continue this socialization process, she moved to another foster home where she would have another dog as her foster-brother: a big boy a year older and 10 pounds heavier.
The main point, though, is that life with any dog, but especially a rescue dog, means that imperfect behavior is normal, or at least typical; and part of having a dog is confronting, managing, and dealing with the problems that arise. Sometimes, when the problem is severe enough, the result is surprising: the human does not have a choice but to help the dog deal with her problem, and the processes of training and behavior modification are so interesting and so addictive that the human ends up becoming a dog trainer. It happened to me and, from what I have heard, that is how most dog trainers get their start.
Having a pibble as a member of the family sometimes includes an opportunity: it has the potential to contribute to altering the public perception of pibbles. One article on changes in public perceptions of pit bulls notes that, “Many who own or rescue pit bulls want to rehabilitate the image of a breed they believe has been unfairly maligned. ‘[W]e’re trying to restore the image,’ said Donna Reynolds … of BADRAP….” that seeks to dispel the belief that pit bulls are vicious and unmanageable….’ [She continued,] a pit bull is ‘an exceptional family pet.'” Many, many rescued pit bulls have become what pibble advocates call “breed ambassadors,” meaning that they show off all of the dogs’ best qualities in public and may help rehabilitate the popular image of pit bulls.
Particularly compelling stories of pibbles as breed ambassadors are the ones in which pits, especially rehabilitated pits, have become therapy dogs, basically the highest achievement of “good dog” status in the eyes of humans. Here are two such stories, both from a website called stubbydog.org (named for Sergeant Stubby, the military hero pit bull in World War I – see below) whose subtitle is, “Rediscover the Pit Bull.”
It’s admirable and reassuring that so many rehabilitated pit bulls have become breed ambassadors, and I am genuinely proud of what I see as “my dogs” showing such resilience. Still, it would be unrealistic and unfair to expect every pit bull (or any other dog) to behave perfectly throughout its life. To put this in human terms, one might ask how many people have never so much as raised their voice at someone else.
Just as maintaining this standard throughout a person’s life is an unrealistic expectation for a human, expecting perfect behavior (i.e., “perfect” according to a human definition) from a dog throughout his or her life is likewise unrealistic. In the canine context, however, it would be an even higher standard given that what humans’ view as “imperfect” behavior from dogs is simply a display of their only means of letting their human know that a situation is too much for them, they are nervous or scared, and their human needs to get them out of that situation. And, in keeping with the theme that pibbles are not monsters but just dogs like any other dogs, not every dog of any species can be an ambassador for his or her breed.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that not every pittie can be a breed ambassador. I read an excellent article by Meghan lodge titled, “My Pit Bull Is Not a Breed Ambassador, But I Am Not Ashamed!” and subtitled, “I used to think I had to make my pit bull a saint to counter the breed’s bad publicity.” I first read the article before my beloved Leah became dog-reactive and I was sympathetic to it them, but I am even more so now.
I too felt pressure to make sure Leah behaved perfectly all of the time to show the world how wonderful pit bulls really are. For almost all of her adult life, however, her behavior is far from perfect. Many aspects of it are wonderful: she gives incredibly joyful greetings to every adult she meets, and many of those people tell me that she has made their day. She also helps dogs (and cats) by tracking them when they are lost. She simply does not interact well with dogs up-close. It has been difficult for me, both as a pit bull lover and a professional trainer, to come to terms with Leah’s non-ambassador status, but I have come to realize that expecting her to be perfect would be asking way too much of her (much more than I ask of myself or any other human or dog). Like every dog and human, she has good and bad qualities and I love her just as she is, breed ambassador or not.
Kinship Among Pit Bull Lovers
I am always heartened and reassured when I meet someone else who has a pit bull or even just someone else who loves pit bulls. There’s an immediate kinship and bonding over their best characteristics: their sweetness, the “pittie-butt-wiggle,” their sense of humor, and their enthusiastic (if constant, insistent, and overly-licky) shows of affection. In addition to the instant interest in the other person’s dog, present or not, we just love to share our favorite positive pittie stories and experiences.
It’s a wonderful antidote to all of the prejudice against pibbles and the negativity that comes with it. I am also encouraged when someone who had assumed the media’s portrayal of pit bulls changes and gives a pit bull a chance. Meghan Lodge wrote an article titled, “I Used to Think Pit Bulls Were Monsters Until I Got One.” “For years,” she wrote, “I had bad feelings about the breed. Then a sweet boy named Axle changed my thinking.” Read the full article here. These stories are a wonderful antidote to all of the prejudice against pibbles and all of the negativity that comes with it.
We Really, Really Love Our Pibbles!
Despite all of the difficulties of having a pit bull, especially one with Leah’s serious issues (severe noise sensitivity, general anxiety, and severe dog-reactivity), I wouldn’t even want to imagine life without her. And I am not alone. There are plenty of T-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. that say, “The More People I Meet, The More I Love My Pit Bull.” On the left are the picture and title of an article that is another, (really funny) more elaborate expression of the same sentiment. Here is the complete version.
To summarize, there are persistent myths and popular negative associations that affect those of us who love and live with pit bulls; and the dogs themselves do, of course, have their share of typical problems. Those difficulties are not the whole story, though. They are not even half of it, not even close. The vast majority of life with a pit bull is incredibly positive! The joy they bring us is amazing, and the joy they exhibit is almost unbelievable. Cliche though it is, I cannot neglect to say that pitties also bring their families constant, unwavering, unconditional love. Those of us lucky enough to have one in our family usually cannot imagine having it any other way.
Breed-Specific Legislation and Opposition to It
Ill-informed prejudice and fear often lead to Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL). For a basic summary of BSL, see “The five ‘W’s of breed specific legislation.” BSL can take a wide variety of forms, public and non-public. The worst is complete bans of pit bulls in which any pit bull, or any dog even resembling a pit bull (in the eyes of animal control officers) that is found in such a jurisdiction can be immediately (legally!) confiscated and killed.
The National Canine Research Council offers a wealth of information, specifically FAQs, on BSL here. The graphics below show details on and degrees of public BSL laws by state in each U.S. state across the country. The one on the left is an interactive map of states from which one can click on each specific state to see its current BSL laws (2016). The one on the right shows the opposite: a map of states that have an anti-BSL law as well as states that are considering enacting one (2014, with a note that the map mischaracterized Massachusetts, which enacted anti-BSL legislation in 2012).
Click on the map below for an
interactive version of the current state-by-state status of BSL legislation.
Best Friends Animal Society also has state-by-state information on BSL.
Click on the map below for a larger map of
Current and Possible Future Anti-BSL Legislation
Despite its popularity, BSL has been ineffective and is widely denounced. The ASPCA has written that, “There is no evidence that breed-specific laws—which are costly and difficult to enforce—make communities safer for people or companion animals.” This assertion has been echoed in similar statements or policies against BSL, by others animal rights organizations; private individuals; experts in the fields of dog training and behavior; veterinary authorities; countless groups (many formed for the specific purpose of pit bull advocacy); non-profit foundations; and professional associations. Major organizations and other entities not usually associated with pit bulls or even animal rights issues, such as the Centers for Disease Control, the American Bar Association, state courts; and even President Obama’s administration have also publicized statements opposing it.
One of the many problems with this type of legislation is that it does not take into account scientific research refutes myths and instead presents documented facts. Thanks to efforts to educate the public, there are many sites that seek to inform people (which is to say, those people who care enough to find and read those sites) and dispel the myths and explain the reality, in other words, the facts that contradict the myths.
Below is a sample of those sites. I chose one from among the many others because it has two of the most far-fetched myths (both of which actually made me laugh out loud).
Here are other sites that provide accurate information to correct popular misperceptions that are actually just myths.
Here are some other statistics that put the alleged danger that pit bulls pose into perspective.
Furthermore, at one of the seminars I attended given by the famous veterinarian, behaviorist, and pioneer of positive training Dr. Ian Dunbar, he pointed out the irrationality of Breed Specific Legislation. He asked the audience what breed was responsible for the most dog bites every year and what breed was the most common victim of dog bites every year. The answers to the two questions were the same: mixed breeds. BSL is thus irrational: banning any specific breed (or group of similar breeds) would inevitably fail to eliminate the majority of dogs responsible for bites. Therefore, Dr. Dunbar concluded, that “breed bans are frankly stupid.”
Another expert, Jean Donaldson, gave a video interview with an extensive discussion on BSL. (Donaldson interview, 3:01 – 6:50)
As she explained, BSL is both overinclusive and underinclusive: it covers many, many dogs who pose no threat to the public but excludes many, many other dogs who clearly show threatening behavior. (Donaldson interview, 6:30 – 6:50) Importantly, in the interview, she also explains why BSL is irrational and ineffective, but is still appealing to the public, as well as her interpretation of the root problem, obviously not pit bulls or any other breed. Here is a statistic of its overinclusivity.
The condemnations of BSL focus not only on its injustice but its irrationality and ineffectiveness. Anti-pit bull BSL will not prevent bites by any other breeds. For example, it would not have prevented an incident in which a Frenchwoman was mauled so severely that she had to be given the world’s first face transplant. The breed of the dog responsible for that attack was a Labrador Retriever, the stereotypically happy-go-lucky, good-natured family dog. Ironically, Labradors are the breed that scored the highest in the study conducted by the American Temperament Test Society; they were the only breed that out-scored the pit bull . (See the A.T.T.S. study results below.) Nonetheless, pit bulls remain the most feared and reviled breed these days.
Another complicating factor is that, given the definition of “pit bull” (or, more accurately, the lack thereof), the question of implementation and enforcement of BSL. Even if the words of the legislation targeting “pit bulls” are clear, identification of a “pit bull” is anything but. Recognizing a pit bull (i.e., a member of one of the breeds lumped together as “pit bulls”) is complex and difficult. For example, there are multiple posters that challenge viewer to pick out the pit bull.
See the full article here.
I have lived and worked with pit bulls for more than 7 years, and, though I cannot remember which poster I saw, I do remember that my answer was wrong! If a certified professional dog trainer with this much experience with and love for pit bulls cannot accurately identify one, what is the chance that a member of the general public can?
Article on “Judging a Dog by Its Cover: The Dangers of Breed Misidentification.” (not the right dog)
“Recent studies have said that visual identification of breeds is really not reliable … over 80% of the time.” NPR
As an aside, one of my favorite aspects of the rescue movement and pit bull advocacy is its use of humor as way to diffuse the frustration with the frequent injustice, setbacks, and unhappy endings we encounter. The following is a graphic depicting media bias against pit bulls discussed earlier as well as popular inability to identify a pibble accurately.
To return to the topic of critiquing BSL, its unenforcability – due to such issues as the difficulty of identifying the target breeds – makes it a poor use of public resources, which would be much better spent to address other societal problems. (Donaldson interview, 3:10 – 3:52)
Clearly, the dogs are not the problem; it’s the people who force them to fight. Therefore, BSL, which focuses on the dogs instead of the humans, will not make people any safer. It only punishes innocent dogs preemptively and deprives the dogs’ owners – or, as we rescue-people say, “guardians” – of that family member’s love and affection. (An interesting and thought-provoking article in a recent issue of Harvard magazine called “Are Animals ‘Things’?” …
The answer to that question, at least among the rescue community, is a resounding “no”! And yet, almost all current laws treat them that way, which is part of what allows BSL to continue. Anti-cruelty, but rights? Recognizes that they are sentient beings, but Catch 22:
Ironically, BSL is also counterproductive in that it focuses on the behavior of the dog instead of that of the human. Laws and regulations that have been lauded as model laws that actually are effective in reducing dog bites focus on responsible ownership rather than genetic profiling. Those laws consider factors such as how the owner has raised the dog (well-socialized to people and other dogs or chained in the back yard alone all the time), the efforts of the owner to practice responsible ownership (obeying leash laws, keeping the dogs in a fenced-in area when they are out playing, etc.), and whether the owner had any prior knowledge of aggressive behavior from the dog. Controlling these elements and enacting and enforcing laws based on them rather than on a dog’s genetics or appearance would be (in BSL jurisdictions) and (in non-BSL jurisdictions) is a far better way to achieve BSL’s original goal reducing dog bite incidents and keeping the community safer in general. Therefore, in focusing on (and punishing) all “breed-specific” dogs rather than only irresponsible owners, BSL does the double harm of counting on ineffective, unjust policies and simultaneously ignoring effective, just ways of reaching its goal.
Finally, even if the most radical BSL proponents got their way and all the pit bulls in the world were killed, it would not solve the root problems that led to pit bulls’ genetic predisposition for dog-dog aggression. The many, deplorably many people involved in dog fighting know how to breed dog-dog aggression into a particular breed, so they would simply do so in another breed. Preposterous as it seems now, if BLS supporters got their way, decades from now maybe yellow labs would take pit bulls’ place as the feared, fierce, fighting monsters that the media portrays and much of the public assumes them to be. Then, the problem would resurface, only this time people would be clamoring to ban or even kill yellow labs.
donaldson video (1:45 – 1:55)
contrast w/ rationality – donaldson (3:52 – 4:40) – base policy on science
A fundamental problem with BSL is that it does not address the root causes of the problem. Jean Donaldson opines that the core of the issue is the disenfranchisement. (See “Discrimination” section below; Donaldson interview, 2:00 – 3:02)
Efforts to eradicate BSL have made great progress thanks to studies that track statistics on breeds, bites, and BSL and prove its inefficacy in achieving the goal of keeping the public safer. One entire nation, the Netherland, repealed its BSL for just this reason. “The Dutch government [announced it would] lift a long-standing ban on pit bulls because it did not lead to any decrease in bite incidents.”
best friends pit bull initiatives
Unfortunately, many of these myths persist in the public perception and are therefore used to justify BSL. Some major U.S. cities, including Denver and Miami, maintain pit bull bans, and over 700 municipalities regulate pit bulls in some way. Support for this mentality comes from people who fear and despise, but seldom actually know, pit bulls. One particularly cruel comment written by Dan Savage (ironic last name!): “Pit Bulls Should be Boiled Alive like Lobsters and Fed to Their Idiot Owners.” Despite all of this evidence and the widespread condemnation of it, BSL still exists in contexts from municipal and state laws to housing discrimination, and it still has many active supporters, and many more passive ones who simply do nothing to fight it.
Persistence of BSL
Unfortunately and ironically, the U.S. military nonetheless embraces Breed-Specific Legislation (see below) and maintains a ban on pit bulls and pit bull mixes on all military bases. Although the Obama administration has made statements inconsistent with such a ban (see below), it has not abolished the policy.
It may seem extreme to liken BSL to discrimination, particularly racism, among humans. First, I confess that I am unabashedly species-ist: as much as I love and advocate for dogs, I recognize that they are not humans, and I value a human’s life over an animal’s life. (For this reason, I strongly disagree with assertions like “Dogfighters should be thrown in a pit and forced to fight each other to death.” Furthermore, this flies in the face of two of the greatest things we can learn from pit bulls are forgiveness and rehabilitation. That said, I have no problem with a dog chewing a Michael Vick dog toy’s head – or any other part – off! See picture below.)
Nonetheless, the principles of discrimination and racism are no different when applied to dogs than when applied to people. They
Additionally, this discrimination against dogs, although hardly ever stated overtly, can also be a proxy or just a mask for discrimination against people. In this rare instance, one minor politician did (perhaps inadvertently) admit this prejudice:
Aurora, Colo., City Councilor Bob Fitzgerald, … sponsored a pit bull breed ban for Aurora based off Denver’s. When asked why he brought the ordinance to the Council, Fitzgerald said on record [!], “We don’t want ‘those people’ here,” referring to the pit bull owners from Denver who were likely to flee the city because of the [Denver] ban and move to Aurora.
The sign ___ on the right ___ is another overt example of wording reminiscent of past (and likely still present) discrimination against other humans:
Even when anti-pit bull sentiment is not a cover for racism against humans, it can nonetheless provides an opportunity to discuss prejudice in general:
“Pia Salk, a clinical psychologist and dog rescuer, even thinks pit bull ownership can help teach children about prejudice. ‘It’s a dialogue about social justice… ‘You know, kids, people are going to say you shouldn’t have a pit bull, they’re dangerous.’ You say, ‘Maybe we take more care with this dog. You’ve just shown your kids we’re a family that’s smart, we won’t just take the party line, we’re willing to give this dog a chance.”
Read the full article here.
One final factor in favor of characterizing BSL as discrimination is that many of the most prominent figures in the field of canine behavior (mentioned above in the list of canine professionals who oppose BSL), do so; in fact, they use the term “racism” as well. Ian Dunbar has said, “Breedism is the doggie equivalent of racism, and breed bands [sic] are frankly stupid. They instill fear in people’s minds and turn them against perfectly normal dogs. It’s really sad.”
Jean Donaldson uses the term as well, citing BSL as a “form of legal racism where we get to be racist where it’s not that politically incorrect, but it really is: it’s basically breed racism, it’s saying that this particular group of individuals are more likely to do something, therefore let’s slaughter them before they do it.” (Donaldson video, from 5:50 – 6:04)
Another example is an excerpt Malcolm Gladwell’s article, “Troublemakers – What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Profiling,” in which he uses prejudice against pit bulls to demonstrate his thesis on the pitfalls of profiling. While this article simply analogizes prejudice against pit bulls to prejudice against people, rather than directly linking the two, it still aims to highlight BSL as a form of discrimination.
Jean Donaldson also opines that the isolation and disenfranchisement of some humans are the ultimate source of problem:
What … is at the heart of the problem here is the problem of disenfranchised young men in our society, people … who have probably or … perceive or think that they have no other possible way of gaining status or power in society other than through a reputation for violence or potential violence. One way they can … gain a reputation in these circles is to have a dog that looks very dangerous or looks really tough. Pit bulls fit that bill: they’re very physically strong and they’ve certainly got the reputation, which has been … hyped up, so they’re … the dog of choice right now in those circles.
If you want to get rid of the problem, you’ve got to deal with it as a supply and demand. You’ve got to have some other way of empowering these young people and helping them to feel … that they’ve got a chance in society other than going around with these … threatening-looking weapons.
That’s something far beyond anything to do with dog behavior and training. It’s a deeper societal issue. So dogs are basically victimized here, and pit bulls in particular.
(Donaldson interview, 2:00 – 3:02)
[N]ot all pit bulls are dangerous. Most don’t bite anyone….When we say that pit bulls are dangerous, we are making a generalization…. Another word for generalization, though, is “stereotype,” and stereotypes are usually not considered desirable dimensions of our decision-making lives. The process of moving from the specific to the general is both necessary and perilous…. Behind each generalization is a choice of what factors to leave in and what factors to leave out, and those choices can prove surprisingly complicated…. How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?
[P]rofiling’s “category problem” … [is that] generalizations involve matching a category … to a behavior or trait…. But for that process to work, you have to be able both to define and to identify the category you are generalizing about…. Pit-bull bans involve a category problem … because pit bulls … aren’t a single breed. The name refers to … a number of related breeds…. [T]he Ontario [pit bull] ban prohibits not only these … breeds but any ‘dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar’ to theirs; the term of art is ‘pit bull-type’ dogs….
[T]hinking about dangerous dogs as anything substantially similar to a pit bull is a generalization about a generalization. ‘The way a lot of these laws are written, pit bulls are whatever they say they are… And for most people it just means [a] big, nasty, scary dog that bites.’ …The goal of pit-bull bans, obviously, isn’t to prohibit dogs that look like pit bulls. The pit bull appearance is a proxy for the pit-bull temperament – for some trait that these dogs share. But ‘pit bullness’ turns out to be elusive….
[The] American Temperament Test Society has put twenty-five thousand dogs through a ten-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog’s stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people…. ‘We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs,’ Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says. “I’ve tested about half of them. And of the number I’ve tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children.’ [See A.T.T.S. study results below.]
It can even be argued that the same traits that make the pit bull so aggressive to other dogs are what make it so nice to humans. ‘There are a lot of pit bulls these days who are licensed therapy dogs,’ the writer Vicki Hearne points out. ‘Their stability and resoluteness make them excellent for work with people who might not like a more bouncy, flibbertigibbet [!] sort of dog. When pit bulls set out to provide comfort, they are as resolute as they are when they fight, but what they are resolute about is being gentle. And, because they are fearless, they can be gentle with anybody.’
…A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pitbullness but to the extent that it deviates from it. A pit-bull ban is a generalization about a generalization about a trait that is not, in fact, general. That’s a category problem….
When we have more problems with pit bulls, it’s not necessarily a sign that pit bulls are more dangerous than other dogs. It could just be a sign that pit bulls have become more numerous. “I’ve seen virtually every bred involved in fatalities, including Pomeranians and everything else, except a beagle or a basset hound,” Randall Lockwood … of the ASPCA and one of the country’s leading dogbite experts, told me.
[Unfortunately, i]t’s always easier just to ban the breed.
Read the entire article here.
By the way, Gladwell wrote this back in 2006! And yet BSL is still in place all over the country and beyond.
Back when I was in law school, I spent a summer in post-war Kosovo and discovered that the UN temporary government there, which had allegedly come to restore the rule of law, was arresting and detaining indefinitely people who had yet to commit a crime. Outrageous as I found these allegedly preventive measures, BSL is yet worse because, in some cases, it goes so far as to permit the perpetrators to kill their as-yet-innocent victims.
donaldson (5:57 – 6:30)
preventive punishment (5:50 – 6:30); repeat: disenfranchisement (2:00 – 3:02)
that’s not how our society works!
also connected in animal-abuse human-abuse link
Therefore, I understand why some might be taken aback or even offended by the use of terms “discrimination” and “racism” to refer to dogs, and perhaps feel that it belittles the experiences of human beings who have been subjected to these wrongs. For this reason, I do somewhat limit my terms by calling BSL “doggie-racism” rather than just straight “racism”, but I openly call it “discrimination”, and I certainly don’t sugar-coat it by using the term “breed-specific”. And, while I agree with critics of applying these terms to animals that protection of human life is more important, I still maintain that applying same the appalling ideas to pit bulls (or any other breed, for that matter), the vast majority of whom are innocent and sentient but voiceless creatures, is equally wrong. My hope is that the use of these terms to make people see the injustice of the practice.
Positive Pibble Publicity
One element of pit bulls’ selective breeding history mentioned before, lack of aggression toward humans has combined with another trait typical of their temperament to produce a behavior that involves no violence whatsoever, but rather its antithesis: their attachment to and care for children. In fact, pit bulls used to be “affectionately known as ‘America’s Nanny Dog.’”
A fictional representation of pit bulls’ affinity for and partnership with children was the TV show The Little Rascals in which the dog who constantly accompanies a group of children is a pit bull. Interestingly, in this case as in many others, there was no focus on the dog’s breed.
Other situations in which pit bulls have been and continue to be featured in many segments of American history and daily life, again without any focus on their breed. The U.S. military has used pit bulls in propaganda, as mascots, and as working war dogs for nearly a century. The most famous was Stubby, a pit bull who served in World War I and “the only dog to be promoted to sergeant,” deeds saved so many soldiers that he was awarded the purple heart. Other historic examples include Jack Brutus from the Spanish-American War, and Sallie, Jack and Old Harvey from the Civil War.
Pit bulls also serve in the modern military, which employs dogs in roles from law enforcement to search-and-rescue, explosive detection and therapy for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Pit bulls also work as scent dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, police dogs, and therapy dogs in non-military contexts as well.
Coal the Super Dog – “This rescued pit bull comforts returning soldiers, works as a search and rescue dog, and shines as an all-around ambassador.”
Unfortunately and ironically, the U.S. military nonetheless embraces Breed-Specific Legislation (see below) and maintains a ban on pit bulls and pit bull mixes on all military bases. Although the Obama administration has made statements inconsistent with such a ban (see below), it has yet abolish the policy.
trainers love them – donaldson (4:46 – 5:02)
Evidence of Pit Bulls’ Good Character
The virtues of pit bulls are not, however, limited to anecdotes featuring heroic rescues or historic tales about specific dogs.
donaldson re individuality ()
This affection and care for children is not just historic or fictional.
TV Shows and Mascots
In an abundance of cases, pit bulls have protected children, toddlers, and even babies in a variety of ways. (A Google search for “pit bull saves baby” generates over 4,000,000 results!) Here are just a few cases from 2015 alone:
Furthermore, children are by no means the only humans saved by pit bulls. The United Kennel Club “also notes that pitbulls ‘have always been noted for their love of children,’ but aren’t ‘the best choice for a guard dog since they are extremely friendly, even with strangers.’” One website features “50 Super Hero Pitbull Stories” and the Pit Bull Heroes Hall of Fame has links to 82 “[s]tories about pit bull bravery and heroism.”
A more scientific and modern assessment of pit bulls’ temperaments, based on actual data rather than references to breeding or reputation (positive or negative) is the practice of temperament testing. American Temperament Test Results have shown that pit bull breeds’ passing rate exceeded that of the average of all breeds for every year reported and was consistently higher than that of many popular breeds such as Golden Retrievers, Beagles, Australian Shepherds, and Cocker Spaniels. One year, “Pit Bulls Pass[ed the] ATTS Temperament Test With [at least] 86.4%.” Ironically, my research revealed this statistic on the website of an insurance company (yes, one that offers, among other types, dog liability insurance). Even though this data supports the contention that pit bulls are generally friendly, well-tempered dogs, the most important point is still that each dog is an individual and should be treated as such.
Experts in the field agree with this assessment as well. Veterinarian, pioneer of positive training, and canine behaviorist Ian Dunbar has said, “In spite of their reputation, bully breeds are in fact among the friendliest, most playful dogs there are. Should I ever have kids in my family again, I would love a Rottweiler or Pit Bull, which would be among my first choices, because they are so accepting of children.”
donaldson (5:02 – 5:17)
Fortunately, the examples pointing to a reversal of the negative stereotyping of pit bulls are even appearing in the popular media, formerly (and often still) the chief source of demonization of pit bulls. Obviously, this is conflicting evidence, but there are some that give cause for hope. Here are a few examples of articles that acknowledge and refute the negative myths about pit bulls and instead portray them from a positive perspective:
Time magazine’s 2013 article “The Great Pit Bull Makeover.”
“These 16 Dogs Are Heroes. They Are Also Pit Bulls.” Huffington Post.
“The State of the American Dog.” Esquire. “The most ubiquitous dog in the U.S. – the dog in whose face we see our collective reflection – is now the pit bull. Which makes it curious that we as a culture kill as many as three thousand of them per day.”
“10 Stereotypes About Pit Bulls That Are Just. Dead. Wrong.” Huffington Post.
Hall, Carla. “Pit Bulls Out of the Dog House.” L.A. Times. (August 3, 2006).
_______The actual article’s title was: “
NPR interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, speaking with Bronwen Dickey, the author of a new book called Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. The interview itself is called, “Friend or Friend? ‘Pit Bull’ Explores the History of America’s Most Feared Dog.”
a pit rescued in 1985 on the streets of South L.A. by County Fire Station 14 was the station’s beloved mascot for years. LA times
Changing Public Opinion
Good news for pit bulls! Their negative image seems to be changing, at least somewhat. Many possible factors could be contributing to this trend. First of all, shelters across the country are filled with pit bulls; so, as the rescue movement grows, more and more people are adopting them and discovering what wonderful dogs they are.
The Vicktory Dogs
This shift may also be due in part to the story of the dogs seized from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels dog-fighting ring back in 2007. For the first time, the dogs seized from a fighting ring were not immediately euthanized but rather, justly and appropriately, evaluated as individuals by experts qualified to do so. Following these evaluations, “only one was deemed behaviorally unfit for rehabilitation and recommended for euthanasia,” and the remaining 49 were sent to various shelters and rescues, including 22 to Best Friends Animal Society (nicknamed the Vicktory Dogs) and 11 to DC’s own Washington Animal Rescue League.
The success in rehabilitating these dogs surpassed nearly everyone’s expectations, eventually leading to the adoption of many of them. In 2013, Best Friends hosted a Vicktory Dog reunion, at which a staff member commented, “The Vicktory dogs have gone on to be amazing ambassadors for this breed and are helping save even more lives, which of course is why we are all here.” In fact, four of them have even become therapy dogs.
The Vicktory Dogs have been instrumental in getting the public to see the dogs in fighting rings as the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime; and they have become important symbols for the general potential for rehabilitating dogs seized from fighting rings. Jim Gorant wrote an excellent account of the Vicktory Dogs’ story called The Lost Dogs.
Vicktory Dog Art
Grassroots Pit Bull Advocacy
The media are not the only arena in which pit bulls are regaining acceptance and justice. They are also doing so in legal contexts as BSL policies and bans in particular continue to be lifted. Even an entire nation has renounced its BSL policy: “The Dutch government says it will lift a long-standing ban on pit bulls because it did not lead to any decrease in bite incidents.” Finally, private citizens have formed more and more groups advocating for pit bull and often holding public events to educate others about the issue. For example, a group called the Stand Up for Pit Bulls Foundation organizes a Million Pibble March in Washington DC each year. I attended one of these events and, rather than finding an angry crowd shouting about BSL and vehemently demonizing those on the other side of the controversy, I was delighted to discover that it was characterized by a celebratory, happy atmosphere. What I heard (and said) most was, “May I pet your dog?”
Celebrities, Pit Bulls, and Celebrity Pit Bulls
Another aspect of the rehabilitation of pibbles’ public image is the active endorsement of their cause by celebrities as well as tacit endorsement by the many, many celebrities who advocate for pitties simply by including them in their families. This section features some of the cutest pictures around of celebrities with their beloved pibbles.
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I love pit bulls for their adorable features and their impressive intelligence. More than that, though, I never cease to be astounded by their capacity for joy, their resilience, and their seeming willingness to forgive any wrong done to them in the past and simply love their human. Particularly in light of the way humans have mistreated them, it’s time that we treat them the way they deserve: value each as an individual; find all of them loving forever-homes; educate others about them; advocate for them against those who would discriminate against or even kill them; respect them as the amazing creatures they are; and return the love they so generously give us.
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