"Until one has loved
an animal, a part of
one's soul remains unawakened."
~ Anatole France
What is a "Pit Bull" ?
"Pit Bull type dog" is usually quickly shortened to "pit bull," and rarely are "pit bulls" true American Pit Bull Terriers or American Staffordshire Terriers, which are "papered" dogs by the American Kennel Club or the United Kennel Club. Consequently "Pit Bull" is usually just a slang term for a variety of dog mixes rather than a specific breed.
Furthermore, most pit bull type dogs are not bred from lines of fighting dogs. But an ever expanding group that includes politicians, TV reporters, newspaper reporters, police officers and even ordinary citizens are seemingly qualified to identify a "pit bull," and also determine that it's a dangerous dog just because of how it looks.
So--why does this matter? Read on to find out.
A Brief History of Dog Prejudice
by Keith L. Kendrick
First is was the Blood Hounds
Various breeds of dogs have been demonized since newspapers became more popular after the Civil War. First it was the Blood Hounds of Uncle Tom's Cabin that struck fear into the hearts of people throughout America. This dog was portrayed throughout the country as a savage, bloodthirsty, man-killing beast in vaudeville productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin towards the latter part of the 19th century. It didn't help that Bloodhounds had been used to hunt down runaway slaves and escaped criminals.
Then the public gradually realized that Blood Hounds were actually just another breed of dog with qualities similar to other dogs of about the same size.
Then the Malamutes and Huskies
The next demonized dogs were the Northern breeds, the Malamutes and Huskies, who were assumed by many to be the equivalent of wolves. Because of the extreme deprivation often suffered by sled dogs in the early North, and sometimes being let to roam free in packs, there were horrible fatal human incidents that the press gleefully fed the public. Can you imagine the horror of living in Canada's Northern Territories, leaving your small child outside for just a few minutes and when you go back your child is gone. Then after a short search you find a pack of Huskies ravenously eating something. You scare the dogs off--and find nothing but a few remains of flesh on the bones of your child? It certainly made for good newspaper press and sold lots of newspapers.
German Shepherds get a savior
As time passed, the Northern breeds lost favor as demons in the press and were replaced by the demon German Shepherd of WWI. However there was a mitigating factor that held back this breed's demonization: The advent of movies and then the TV series of RIN TIN TIN. The German Shepherd image in the public's eye was altered from a vicious, savage, man-killing beast into the amazing helper and protector of RIN TIN TIN--a "SuperDog" for humans.
Yet the German Shepherd is actually just another breed of dog with qualities similar to other dogs of around the same size.
An Early 1900's Family & Farm Dog
In the early 1900's an interesting development occurred: One of the most popular dogs in America gained a reputation in the press as an all-purpose family and farm dog because of it’s reputation for protecting its family’s children and farm. These dogs were even a main character in the famous short films and TV serial "Our Gang" (or "The Little Rascals"), and as well as the mascot for Buster Brown shoes and the dog featured next to an early phonograph in ads by RCA. But these dogs, with the unfortunate name of Pit Bull, were not ready for prime-time demonization.
Dobermans and Rottweilers hit it big
Next on the list of demonized dogs were Dobermans and Rottweilers, due to their use in WWII and afterwords in various militaries and their frequent use as guard dogs. The problem with using dogs as guards to protect property is that a dog simply cannot distinguish between a bad person and a good person. They only distinguish people as familiar or as strangers, and when used for guard purposes their territorial protective nature is maxed out. If somehow a stranger enters the dog's territory and acts erratic, the dog is primed to attack. This situation is made even worse if the stranger is a child or elderly person who suddenly runs and starts flailing his or her arms and squealing like a chased animal.
Gangs and dog-fighting
As the 1950's fell into the '60's and '70's, two relevant growing developments were occurring in rural areas and inner-city ghettos: organized dog fighting, and a dramatic increase in inner-city gangs accompanied by their increasing violence and use of illegal drugs. And the dog usually used in fighting was a pit bull type, but probably not for the reason you think.
Why not use bigger dogs in dog fighting?
There are two interesting things about using Pit Bulls in dog fighting: First, why were Pit Bulls weighing between 50 and 70 pounds used instead of Dobermans, Rottweilers, German Shepherds and Mastiffs?
Because in the midst of a dogfight, men wouldn't be as able to control the larger and more powerful dogs! Furthermore, throughout the history of breeding Pit Bulls for fighting, if at any time in a dogfight a dog ever bit a handler the dog would be put down and culled from the breeding population. Consequently such Pit Bulls have been bred to actually be the least likely dog to bite humans.
I'm a MAN cuz my dog is mean
However as gangs multiplied and Pit Bulls gained a reputation for fighting and also an undeserved reputation for extraordinary viciousness, they became the favorite dog for gangs to boast their intimidating image. Pit bulls were being seen on street corners wearing big spike collars and with their ears cut off to make them look meaner, all to boost the “bad” image of their drug dealing masters. Such masters usually weren't too interested in having their dogs well socialized and trained. Unfortunately many such masters also severely neglected or even cruelly abused these dogs. Imagine any large breed dog, chained except for an occasional walk around the block, underfed, under socialized, and almost inevitably to be discarded like trash. Then people blame the whole general type of dog for not being friendly.
Sensationalism Does Its Damage
However in July of 1987 the public perception of Pit Bulls suddenly took a drastic turn for the worst: SPORTS ILLUSTRATED did an extremely inflammatory cover story on Pit Bulls with a cover picture of a mean looking, snarling Pit Bull with the headline: "BEWARE OF THIS DOG." The same month, TIME magazine also did a similar story called "Time Bomb On Legs,” with this as the first paragraph: "Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face."
So despite being well known as a highly regarded family dog in the early 1900's in the United States, because of such highly distorted journalism Pit Bulls immediately became the top demon dog. Two things resulted from this: Even more people likely to be involved in crime wanted to have Pit (and such people were more likely to be irresponsible and uncaring dog owners), and because then more people who owned Pits were bad owners, Pits got an even worse name.
Implementing a faulty solution
Secondly, many cities started to enact "breed specific" dog bans which outlawed any dog that resembled a Pit Bull, and irrational and inflammatory political grandstanding in banning Pit Bulls further tarnished the breed's image. It is so bad in Denver, Colorado that people had to relocate their families to protect their beloved dogs and the police were literally knocking down peoples' doors to take their dogs away to be killed just because of their breed--regardless of their behavior. And if you even pass through Denver with a dog that faintly resembles a Pit Bull you risk being stopped and having your dog taken and killed. This was all ultimately because of the so-called sport of dog fighting, sensationalistic and distorted journalism, and an irrational disregard of facts about dogs and how to deal with them.
Yet if you were to ask the hundreds of thousands of responsible owners of Pit Bulls in the U.S.A. about their dogs, you would likely get almost universal agreement that they are great household pets--just like when they were a popular family dog years ago before gangs, drug dealers, sensationalizing journalism and politicians took advantage of them.
Some myths & facts about Pit Bulls:
Myth: The U.S. Center for Disease Control (the CDC) has determined that the Pit Bull is the most dangerous dog in the U.S.
Fact: In 1999, the CDC formally quit compiling dog fatalities by breed, because they conceded they had been compiling all their statistics from newspaper reports, which were written by newspaper reporters. If a Yellow Lab bites a mailman, it is not very likely the incident will be in the newspaper. But if a Pit Bull even chases a mailman, the police will likely be called, and the incident will very likely to be in the newspaper. And a single pit bull attack is often repeated in dozens of newspapers, whereas dogs like labs don't suffer from such widely spread reporting.
Furthermore, most newspaper reporters, and even policemen, are not experts in dog identification. Example: Just last year in my hometown, there was a front-page headline: "Officer Shoots Pit Bull." Two days later, in the back of the newspaper, was the small headline "Dog Shot Is Misidentified." In the clarifying article, the dog was identified as being a Blue Heeler/Boxer mix. But the damage was done, and such shoddy reporting and consequent damage goes on daily across the U.S.
Finally, the CDC has stated that any of its previous statistics on breed identification and dog related fatalities are so flawed that they should not be used at all.
Myth: When Pit Bulls bite, their jaws lock.
Fact: Their jaws lock no more than any other dog, which is not at all.
Myth: They have the most powerful jaws.
Fact: German Shepherds and Dobermans have stronger bite pressure according to testing done by National Geographic. And based on size alone several dogs the same size or bigger than German Shepherds probably do too. Pit Bulls just have the wider jaw/narrower nose appearance, which makes their jaws just look more formidable, and cutting their ears off just emphasizes that look.
Myth: Pits are very human aggressive.
Fact: In breeding them for dog fighting, they have been bred to be very people friendly. A Pit Bull that bit a handler was a goner. Consequently the dogs left for breeding are the least likely to bite a human. Why don't dog-fighters use other dogs, especially bigger dogs? Because they would be much more difficult to control in a dogfight.
Furthermore, according to the American Temperament Test Society, Inc., the leading institution on evaluating canine temperament, the following dogs all have worse temperament failure rates than American Pit Bull Terriers: Akita, American Eskimo, Australian Shepherd, Australian Cattle dog, Boxer, Dalmatian, Doberman, German Shepherd, Great Dane, Golden Retriever, Greyhound, Mastiff, Rottweiler, Shar-Pei. And yes, you read that right--Golden Retriever.
Fact: A big problem dog fighters have is that they sometimes have a hard time getting their “Pit Bull” to fight.
Fact: There has NEVER been a documented case of a sexually altered, single household family pet Pit Bull killing a human. By household pet, I mean not kept chained up out-side the house or kept just in a kennel or used as a guard dog. And you can bet that if this had ever happened, it would be well publicized.
Fact: Pit Bulls often have a prey drive that can be easily activated. So do most dogs, including the bigger ones such as German Shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, Boxers, Akitas, and Labradors, as well as smaller dogs that have also been involved in human and dog fatalities.
Opinion: Anyone who leaves a child alone with more than one sexually intact dog of a comparable size or larger is committing negligence.
One book you need to read if you want to be up-to-date and well informed about the issue of aggressive dogs is:
"The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression," by Karen Delise.
Well researched with extensive footnotes and well written, it's a masterpiece about canine behavior in connection with politics and journalism.
Another excellent book is “Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous” by Janis Bradley. This book really puts the issue of dangerous dogs in perspective. Both books can be found at Amazon.com, click on the images on the left.
Permission is granted to reproduce or post this writing in its entirety, but please let me know.
And a great read for any lover of dogs is this one about the dogs saved from Michael Vick's dog fighting ring.
I've been a Registered Nurse since 1976 and have worked in MANY different capacities as a nurse. But enough about that.
The pittie on the left and in the tutu is Peaches, who passed away in 2019 due to bone cancer. Peaches was a rescue from the dog pound who had been found on the streets of Eugene, Oregon. She was very people friendly and got along with most other dogs. One exceptional thing about her--she absolutely LOVED swimming; I've never seen another dog who just loved to paddle around as much as her.
And a note about the pink tutu: I sometimes took her to local events, especially farmer's markets, wearing her pink tutu. I loved how it brought smiles to so many people. But it amazed me how often people would comment on "him," despite that she was wearing a pink rhinestone collar and a pink tutu. BTW--the tutu didn't bother her at all--she couldn't have cared less.
On the upper right is our new one, Romeo. He was a rescue from a high kill shelter in Oklahoma and brought to Albany, Oregon by Flights for Fido. In this photo he looks like a puppy but is actually a little over two. He's super friendly with people and does well at the off-leash dog park.
A mildly interesting story about how my wife and I became pit bull advocates:
I was setting up my little sailboat to get in the water, and up drove this truck with two little girls and this big pit bull in the back of it. I thought hmmm . . . that's interesting considering what I'd heard about them. But because I'm an adventuress guy, I walked up to the truck and this pittie quickly ran over to greet me and ended up licking my face!
When I came home I told my wife about this, and her first reaction was "you shouldn't have done that. You know what those dogs are like!"
But around a year later we wanted another dog to be with our old lab, and when we went to an adoption event with about a dozen dogs there, the one that got along with our old lab the best was Peaches the pit bull (the one in the pink tutu photo and next to our brown Coated Xoloitzcuintli). So partly because I've usually rooted for the underdog, and partly because Peaches became a cherished member of our family, and partly because I soon found out that some people have a fear or even an irrational hatred of pit bulls, I began researching and writing about them, which led to this site.
Other than dogs and volunteering at the local animal shelter for the last 11 years, my main hobby for over four decades has been photography. Click on the landscape photo below to see my photos on flickr.com