by Ashton Blackwell
Ever since I was a little girl, I loved dogs. I accumulated an impressive menagerie of stuffed animals and dog books, and I excitedly educated anyone who would indulge me on my almost strangely encyclopedic knowledge of the breeds. My parents received ingratiating misspelled notes regularly, begging them for a dog of my own. I wanted a golden retriever, like my grandmother’s beloved and surpassingly gentle Penny––the perfect dog for a little girl.
Instead, we had pit bulls––but they were most assuredly my father’s dogs. A tough and self-sufficient man, he was drawn to the breed for their indomitable attitude and fearlessness. In short, he was drawn to their “gameness,” as pit dog men say. Our first two pit bulls were even-tempered with children and cherished, but the third proved to be an ill-fated choice who narrowly missed bringing about a family tragedy.
Without so much as a growl of warning, “Abigail” attempted to seize me by my throat when I was ten. My father, having at no point been under any illusions about the breed, pre-emptively had his hand under her collar and pulled her back before she could make contact with my neck and kill or disfigure me.
Despite this traumatic experience, my foundational love of dogs and compassion for dogs in helpless situations led to my later working for one of the largest no-kill humane societies in the U.S., and volunteering with several prominent shelterless rescue/foster agencies.
The sum of my experiences brought me to speak out against blind and frivolous pit bull advocacy.
People are fond of dressing pit bulls in silly costumes like bunny ears or princess tiaras to mock the stereotype that the dogs are vicious, and by extension mocking those who have not jumped on the exculpatory progressive bandwagon.
Compare to Richard F. Stratton
Compare this to the cover of The Book of the American Pit Bull Terrier, written by renowned pit dog man and breeder Richard F. Stratton. It pictures a chained red-nosed pit bull lunging forward, tongue lolling between wide and capable jaws, singularly focused on a stimulus out of the frame.
Chapter Two of This is the American Pit Bull Terrier is called, “The Clinging Death.” There Stratton writes that the dog is a “threat to other dogs,” and that while “ordinary canids rely heavily on threat display in a fight… [the pit bull terrier has been bred to] almost completely lose the threat display.”
In other words, the violence of a pit bull terrier has been genetically shaped to be unpredictable.
Continues Stratton, “Just as a student of the greyhound should learn something about dog racing in order to fully understand his breed… so should the person with a serious interest in the pit bull learn something about dogfighting.”
A further telling quote from Stratton: “Countless centuries have been involved in developing the American pit bull terrier into a fighting machine beyond comparison… So strong is this love for battle that a well-bred individual of this breed will never cease fighting, not even when taking a beating, not even when tired and thirsty and hot. This is the trait that is called gameness by pit dog men, and it makes the breed indomitable! It is manifested when you have to save a small individual of the breed from a larger one who had him down throttling the life out of him. If he is a typical pit bull, he will cry pitifully to get back to the other dog…”
Such politically incorrect, but factually correct, words would shock the general public, who have been trained to docilely think “It’s the owner, not the dog.”
Peddlers of propaganda
The peddlers of the pit bull propaganda that has saturated and misguided public opinion have been deeply irresponsible. Pit bulls have found their way from the dogfighting pits of their origin into middle American living rooms and picket fences under the guise that they have been unfairly discriminated against.
Pit bulls have been enshrined as victims by bleeding-heart “rescue angels,” and by blinkered adopters whose guilt and goodwill do them no service.
Rescue organizations unfortunately tend to attract emotionally compromised people, many of whom have savior complexes. A pitiful refrain I heard in rescue was, “I like animals better than people; at least you can trust them.”
I am sure I will be attacked for writing this, and will be called an ignorant bigot, but the truth is I have more personal experience with pit bulls than practically anyone short of a breeder. I have also done more for dogs than most people ever will: I committed an inordinate amount of my personal energy and finances to them, opened my home to them, even crawled into disgusting kennels to give a chance to the most pathetic and frightened of them, shaking in back corners of disorientingly loud shelters. I risked being bitten the hundreds of times I administered food or dog aggression tests for admission candidates to the no-kill facility.
The cruelty I witnessed made me cry, including ingrown collars, malnourishment, and abandonment.
When I started working in rescue, I had a healthy aversion to pit bulls. However, through peer pressure, I gradually unlearned it, or at least became more open to believing that my experience with our family pit bull was a fluke, or that she was a bad egg, or that I simply did not understand what I had done wrong to elicit the violent behavior of the dog.
(See “Parallels between the messages sent by advocates for aggressive dogs, and the messages internalized by victims of domestic violence,” by Branwyn Finch, http://wp.me/p4pKmM-OU.)
But regardless of the ideological mandate that pit bulls “deserved” good homes just like any other dog, there was a good deal of cognitive dissonance codified in the actual policies of the no-kill humane society. Pit bulls were to be admitted only if stringent behavioral criteria were met. The shelter had to manage its resources intelligently and compassionately, and an unstable pit bull occupying a kennel for ten years would reduce the amount of adoptable dogs the shelter could save from kill shelters.
Not only that, such pit bulls were tacitly understood to be serious liabilities.
My own manager had fostered a young pit bull, even promoted him to be adopted on the local news. Yet that pit bull attacked her so violently in the abdomen that she required hospitalization.
The lifetime resident dogs at the shelter are all pit bulls. While their happy-go-lucky images are promoted on advertising materials, in the shelter there are strict rules about how these same dogs are to be handled by staff.
Pits with “stranger issues” only tolerate the presence of a few staff members and are aggressive towards all others. An adoption of one of the pits with “stranger issues” resulted in a quick return when she bit her new owner a few days later.
The pits are walked on a carefully designed timetable and route system to avoid run-ins with other dogs. When this was mishandled a couple of years ago, two pit bulls made contact and injured each other so badly that they both had to be euthanized.
On another occasion an adorable-looking three-month-old pit mix adopted out for Christmas in Santa regalia was returned less than a year later after savaging the family’s other dog, landing the victim dog at the emergency vet and leaving the family traumatized.
However, you will rarely if ever hear of such cases from rescues. The real nature of pit bulls is too unsavory for the feel-good, therapeutic culture that predominates today. Pit bulls are pushed on the public as if they are like any other breed, as if there are no features that make a pit bull any greater of a risk than a Labrador to the general public.
Someone else’s problem
It is telling that no one at the humane society where I worked had adopted the flagship dogs: they are to be someone else’s problem. Someone else is to make room in their home, out of compassion for an unstable and dangerous animal whom no one even wants to deal with in the rescue world.
Through the rescue networks, problem dogs are disseminated out into American neighborhoods to people who are hold profoundly mistaken assumptions about their natures.
I know many clownish pit bull mixes that I believe to not be of serious public safety concern––but I also know that most dogs with serious behavioral problems in rescues are pit bulls, foisted onto the public as a noblesse oblige duty rather than being euthanized.
Managing a dangerous dog safely in a human settlement––that is, ensuring that the dog does not wiggle out of the door when you are getting the mail and shake the life out of the neighbor’s dog, or attack a visitor, or jump the fence and tackle a child off of a bicycle–– is an extremely stressful, and inherently high risk proposition, regardless of how well-meaning an adopter may be. One instance of complacence or bad luck can spell disaster.
Though there are many resources for people who want to “responsibly” own an aggressive dog, in truth it is often, if not always, the right choice to euthanize the dog. This ensures that the dog cannot kill, dismember, disfigure or cause injury to other neighborhood dogs, cats, children, the elderly, and even able-bodied adults.
Expecting laymen to be able to train and manage aggressive dogs to the level of canine police academies is borderline insane, not to mention vindictive (http://samthedogtrainer.com/articles/dealing-with-aggressive-dogs/). The intense supervision and constant awareness it takes to manage a dangerous dog seriously compromises the guilt stricken owner’s quality of life––and personal safety, as well as the safety of family, friends, neighbors, visitors, passers-by, and other pets.
Though today my parents cite it as one of the most harebrained, sentimental and irresponsible decisions of their lives, they did not euthanize Abigail after her domestic violence episode with me. My father was an experienced dog owner, and I think his emotional attachment to the dog compromised his judgment that he could neutralize the risk she posed by managing her kenneling very carefully.
This proved to be true, but there was a final undoing in store. When I was seventeen, I was walking Abigail––having grown confident in the intervening years that I could handle her––and I was nothing if not hard-headed as a teenager. Our neighbor approached me to chat, with her little girl in tow. The years without incident and my deep want to be good to the dog and think well of our pet had made me insensitive to the threat she still posed.
As a result of my foolishly anthropomorphizing her as reformed, I let my guard down and was not expecting it when Abigail leapt up and bit little Rose in the mouth. In a horrifying flurry of screaming and blood in her blonde hair, Rose was rushed to the hospital. Long overdue, Abigail was euthanized two weeks later, after a required quarantine period.
Those are just a handful of stories I have about my experience with pit bulls. I have more from dog parks and friends’ dogs who always seem to leave a wake of conflict at social events. Not all of the pit mixes in shelters are “game bred”––gameness is polygenetic and diminishes through outcrossing––but enough of them are to warrant serious counseling to potential adopters. I strongly recommend people against this breed. They are a wildly inappropriate pet for a child, and I believe there needs to be a more honest public discourse about what these dogs are bred for and capable of.
Unlike a firearm
Pro pit bull propaganda and advocacy has become systemically entrenched in the mainstream media and shelter culture– much to the detriment of well-meaning adopters, who deserve peace in their homes and hearts. But even as a libertarian-leaning conservative hostile to most government regulation, I do not see breed specific legislation regarding the pit bull as a ghastly trespass against individual liberty.
Unlike a firearm that is only discharged through the action of a human agent, a pit bull has its own primitive mind. It is from gladiator stock, and it has a genetic imperative to fight. That it is so increasingly an accepted feature of American family life is telling of the power of the media to neutralize people’s instincts towards self-protection, with fables of moral equivalence and painstaking non-judgment in spite of backward “stereotypes” spelling the reinforcement of yet another domestic threat.
(See also Why pit bulls will break your heart, by Beth Clifton)