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Beyond breed

Author offers a clear-eyed view of the history of pit bull-type dogs

In September, author Bronwen Dickey kindly made a “pit” stop at our HSUS offices to discuss her new book, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. Over seven years, Dickey traveled to 15 states and interviewed 350 people as research for the book, which the Christian Science Monitor dubbed “a remarkable study of our capacities for cruelty and compassion toward dogs and other humans.” Despite pushback from anti-pit-bull activists (and a campaign to award the book one-star reviews on Amazon), Pit Bull has been widely praised as an evenhanded, factual exploration of how history and culture shape our perception of pit bull-type dogs (and, for what it’s worth, has still earned five stars on Amazon). The following is an edited transcript of Dickey’s discussion with HSUS staffers.

One of the first things people ask about any dog is, “What breed is that?” Why are humans so invested in categorizing dogs by breed, and when it comes to your own pit bull-type dog, what do you say to people who ask?

We think about these breeds of dog as being ancient, going back to tony estates hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and having these really dyed-in-the-wool roles, and that’s really not true. Over three-quarters of the breeds that we recognize today originated after 1859, when the first dog show happened in the U.K. So before then, they were just kind of different shapes of dogs that did different things. In Elizabethan England, a mastiff was really any large dog. A shepherd would be any dog that worked with livestock.

But in 1859 that really changed, and it became all about man exerting his influence over nature, like this living sculpture, and all these creation myths were glommed onto the dog. A lot of the dogs we think of as having these great working histories really didn’t. I mean, up until the 1960s, the Afghan Hound Club of America was still saying that there were two Afghan hounds on the Ark. It was just absurd.

But we are so attached to the idea that [breed] means something indelible across time and space, and we kind of forget that most dogs today are not bred for their working traits. They’re bred in a commercial market. They are bred to be companions. That doesn’t mean that breed traits don’t exist, but the people who are breeding rigorously and applying that continual selection pressure for behavior are very rare in the dog breeding world now.

When you don’t have that information, I think it’s better for [people] not to speculate. Then people are forced to interact with and make opinions about the dog in front of them, instead of bringing this idea and baggage to it. [As for my own dog,] it’s almost like, “the artist formerly known as Prince.” There’s so much more to the dog than we can see. Only this tiny, tiny fraction of the dog’s genome is visible to us. What do I say my dog is? She’s Nola. That’s really all that matters to me.

Should we stop labeling dogs as pit bulls, or should we be working to shed breed biases in general?

That’s a really tough question, and I don’t have the answer. I think it’s kind of an “is” versus “ought” thing. It would be nice if the term “pit bull” only applied to the pedigreed [American pit bull terrier] breed, but that horse left the barn almost a hundred years ago. You go back to the [early 1900s] and people were referring to random blockheaded dogs as pit bulls or bulldogs, and they weren’t pedigreed by any means.

So we’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s unfortunate for the people who really love the pedigreed dogs, because they don’t get that discrete [breed]. Like the Bichon Frise people get to have their fun Bichon Frise stuff, and that’s its distinct thing, but pit bulls are this huge, huge diverse group.

If the overuse of the term [pit bull] has done anything positive, it’s shown people how incredibly diverse this group of dogs is. There’s really nothing you can say about them at this point—they are so diverse. You can’t say they are better, faster, stronger, smarter, more cheerful, more anything, just like you can’t say they’re more dangerous, more unpredictable, etcetera; the pool is simply too large. It really is like saying, “What are Americans like?”

There are pit bull breeds, but saying “the breed” is not helpful and not accurate. Unless you know what your dog is, it’s kind of like the Ouroboros devouring its tail, it perpetuates the cycle.

Have you had much pushback from anti-pit bull activists?

Overwhelmingly, from readers and from people in animal welfare and from people in animal sciences, the feedback has been really, really great. There are so many layers to this; it’s so complicated. I really wanted to get it right, and I spent a long time, obviously, working on [the book] to [get it right.]

But of course there [are] core anti-pit bull [people] who are very motivated and who spend a lot of time online. So even before the book came out, they were launching an online smear campaign about me, [and] they posted photos of my house online. I had to get security cameras. Someone showed up at a reading and was so disruptive that the store had to call the police, and I had to leave with a police escort. It was really complete madness.

What was so interesting about that is that they were all very cavalier about not having read the book and refused even to read it on principle. They were alleging these arguments that I had never made. But I kind of realized that it really wasn’t about me as much as it was about them performing online for each other. They wanted to enlist me in the drama of their own outrage, and I wasn’t going to engage with that.

Did you find that most people’s outrage came from a personal experience with pit bull-types?

Originally I thought so, [but] there’s also a whole contingent of people who haven’t been directly affected by this. I think, for them, it was kind of this free-floating outrage that was looking for something to attach to.

What’s really sad about that for me is that people who have been seriously injured by dogs or other animals do deserve advocacy. Those are horrible injuries, and in a lot of cases, the owners are never held to account. I can’t imagine. Regardless of what breed of dog it was, I would be really angry and upset and hurt too.

I think our laws have a long way to go. It’s just that [they] need to be distributed equally among all dog owners and we all need to be held to a higher standard. The [anti-pit bull activists] who are so ugly to me aren’t doing the people they claim to advocate for any good by shouting at people on the internet. The people who have been injured by dogs deserve someone who’s hanging out at city hall, not in the comments section.

People all over the country own and want pit bull-types, but a lot of the dogs are being euthanized in shelters, as well. Why do you think there’s a perception that pit bull-types are unadoptable?

When I really started digging into the research, whether it was the economic research or the stuff that’s been done on relinquishment in shelters, I had this idea that pit bulls ended up in shelters because people didn’t want them. In fact, they end up in shelters because tons of people want them, and those people can’t find anywhere to live. The number one reason for pet relinquishment, according to the most rigorous studies, is housing [restrictions].

[The perception] also has to do with who we are asking and who we are listening to about what kind of dogs they want. In so many neighborhoods I’ve been to, it’s “Pit bulls are the number one most popular dog ever” and “Pit bulls are the best.” It’s just that, like any other industry, animal welfare can be kind of hermetic, and people think that if a certain demographic coming into a certain shelter doesn’t want a type of dog, nobody wants that type of dog. But in the rest of the world these dogs are incredibly popular.

The biggest issue that I saw, by far, was housing. But even with housing, even lobbying for housing laws, insurance companies dictate those rules. You can make all the laws you want saying landlords can’t discriminate against breed, but without the insurance piece, the landlords are just going to say, “OK, well, you can’t have a dog above 20 pounds.” I think the more we can push for fair, just, equitable communities for people to live in, the more we’re going to have fair, just, equitable communities for pets to live in. In my experience, a lot of these [housing restrictions] had to do with wanting a certain type of person off the property, and it’s an ugly, ugly thing. And that has to be called out for what it is.

For years, the animal welfare movement defended pit bull-types with the argument: “It’s not the dog; it’s the ‘bad people.’” What are your thoughts on how to defend the dogs without suggesting an ugly race/class stereotype?

So many of the most damaging things about the dogs were said by people who really thought they were helping. They were just trying to stop dogfighting. It just happened that to make people afraid enough of dogfighting and to make them hate dogfighters enough to vote [to make it a felony], people speculated in this really wild and irresponsible way. Back in the ’70s, when the animal welfare groups were teaming up with the press to make dogfighting a front-page issue, no one could have foreseen that all that glut of coverage would have actually interested people in dogfighting instead of making them horrified by it.

So then the corrective measure, once that started to happen, was to blame the people who were interested in the dogs, especially African American and Latino young men. There was certainly a bad spike of urban dogfighting in the ’90s, but now it’s this idea that any urban neighborhood, or any neighborhood that’s populated by majority people of color, is somehow some hotbed of dogfighting, and that’s just not true. I’ve been to North Philly and East Atlanta and Oakland and Compton and Watts [in Los Angeles]. All over the country. And it’s just not true. Does it exist? Sure. But it’s not nearly at the scale that [people] seem to believe.

I think it’s really important that the focus isn’t on placing blame, but rather on fixing problems. When people say things like, “Pit bulls would be so great if all those thugs didn’t own them, or gangsters, or drug dealers,” or whatever, that’s just creating this monster in the background. And that feeds [breed-specific legislation]—the idea that [pit bulls are] prevalent among drug dealers or whatever. So I think the dogs aren’t served by vilifying anyone. I think it’s really important to watch, of course, how we speak about the dogs, but it’s really important to watch how we speak about people just as much.

A condensed version of this discussion appears in the Animal Sheltering January/February 2017 issue.

About the Author

Bethany Wynn Adams is a senior editor at Animal Sheltering, a quarterly magazine for anyone who cares about the health and happiness of animals and their people, and From tales of shelter mascots to guidance on backyard chickens, Bethany works with experts from across the country and within the Humane Society of the United States to bring wide-ranging, engaging print and web news to the animal welfare community. Winner of the Cat Writers' Association's MUSE Medallion and finalist in the 2019 Content Marketing World and 2018 Eddie & Ozzie Folio awards, she lives in Maryland with her husband and two naughty rescue dogs.