American Pit Bull Terrier: American Icon or Demon Dog
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Pit Bull is simply the name of a dog. As monikers go, it’s an ominous one. It means many things to many people with one more or less commonly understood connotation: risk. I have had my Pit Bull since he was a puppy, going on nine years now. Until two years ago, I would have strongly disputed the general consensus that these highly controversial dogs are actually dangerous. If asked now, I would say I am not certain what I believe. I do think that “each dog is an individual,” ( personal correspondence, 1-23-2013) that has his or her own disposition and personality, but as I wade through this veritable ocean of research, I still have to wonder, are Pit Bulls genetically predisposed to be dangerous?
What I want to know
Are Pit Bulls dangerous to their owners? Are Pit Bulls more dog-aggressive than other breeds? Is it safe to have Pit Bulls in close proximity to small children? What is the genetic construction of a Pit Bull? Can fighting dogs be rehabilitated? What is the history of Pit Bulls? Do Pit Bulls actually have a “locking” jaw mechanism?
What makes Pit Bulls so potentially dangerous? Is breed-specific legislation justifiable, right or fair? Why do Pit Bulls often comprise the majority of animals in shelters? Can bad behavior in Pit Bulls be wholly attributed to the environment in which they are raised?
Can/do Pit bulls make good pets? Should Pit Bulls continue to be bred?
My Search Process
I suppose my search process began in November of 2004 when I walked past the litter of sickly Pit Bull pups in San Diego, California. Prior to adopting the one destined to be my dog, Robin, I began research on the breed. I had, at the time, a six year-old boy. There had been so much bad press involving Pit Bulls, and I didn’t want a potentially dangerous dog anywhere near my child. California was, at that time, a hot spot for the breed with the never-ending gang activity and dog fighting. Additionally, the death of Diane Whipple in San Francisco in 2001 was fresh in everyone’s minds. She was an athletic young professional who was mauled outside of her apartment by a large breed of dog called Presa Canario. These dogs are somewhat similar in appearance to Pit Bulls with the main exception being that they are larger in stature. Once news spread of her attack, all bully breeds were in the public’s crosshairs. Pit Bulls were inevitably put on the front line. My research continues now as I try to piece together the puzzle that is the much-maligned Pit Bull. Initially, I found the LIRN an invaluable resource which provided many journals and news articles. Most of them consisted of sensational Pit Bull maulings, a smattering of Michael Vick dogs, along with a heavy dollop of Breed-Specific Legislation articles from various parts of the country.
My search then segued into reaching out to Facebook friends whom I knew were actively involved in various Pit Bull advocacy organizations. These were the resources that would provide me with the main meat and scope for my research. My personal friend from college works at a non-profit organization in Asheville, North Carolina called Humane Alliance. I emailed her and she put in a word for me with her director, who then directed me to an organization called Animal Farm Foundation which is a mission-based organization devoted to Pit Bull advocacy and research. It was from their website, www.animalfarmfoundation.org that I found the book written by their director, Karen Delise.
As I devoured her masterpiece, The Pit Bull Placebo (K. Delise, 2007), I realized there was too much good information here for me to possibly even make use of it all for my humble I-Search essay. As far as finding subjects to interview, I began with the obvious. I called my veterinarian, the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast, and the property manager for an apartment complex that I knew to be breed-specific regarding their pet policy. When I got no call-backs, I printed copies of my questions, and drove them to each of these places. While I got no response call or email from my vet, or the apartment complex, I did get a very polite refusal via email from the Humane Society, citing their lack of qualification to properly answer my opinion-based queries. I then emailed every administrative contact from The Animal Farm Foundation. Within twenty- four hours, Inga McKay, who was their Education Specialist, replied that she was also unable to answer my questions “due to the fact that our organization is mission-driven, we base all our information on factual science,” (personal communication, January 23, 2013). It seemed my interview questions were a hot potato that nobody wanted to touch.
Finally, my friend, Michelle Baba Raiford, from Humane Alliance agreed to be interviewed via email. She was comfortable with my opinion-based format, and forthcoming regarding her own opinions. She seemed to be an advocate for the Pit Bull as a breed, saying she believed they could make good pets, although she did allow that “they are not the dog for everyone,” (personal communication, January 22, 2013). She refuted the urban myth that Pit Bulls have a locking-jaw mechanism, and went on to say that “Their jaws are no more powerful than other breeds,” (personal communication January 22, 2013), a viewpoint with which I disagree. She answered my loaded question, “Should Pit Bulls continue to be bred?” with a sentiment with which I fully agree, saying, “Personally, I am not a fan of breeding [dogs] at this time due to the pet overpopulation in the country. Pit Bulls are the #1 dog in shelters.
Until that problem is solved, breeding is irresponsible,” (personal communication, January 22, 2013). When she came to the question, “Can bad behavior in Pit Bulls be attributed to environment/how they are raised?,” she did admit “I accept that some behavioral issues may be genetic regardless of breed, but I think the causes of bad behavior are primarily environmental,” (personal communication January 22, 2013). This led me to the focus of my research. Pit Bulls are potentially dangerous, and their genetics are at the heart of this. Please note that I said potentially. Pit bulls are not starter dogs. They possess many specific and complicated needs, the greatest of these is an owner who is savvy and educated enough to recognize that his or her Pit Bull
is not a Labrador retriever, and likely won’t behave like one. Much like a shepherd type of dog tends to want to herd its charges; a Pit bull may revert to a genetic default of wanting to kill other dogs. The Pit Bull has been bred as a fighting dog. The German shepherd, Doberman pinscher and Rottweiler are all bred to guard human masters, their livestock and their property. Pit bulls are designed to kill other dogs…A common feature of allegedly aggressive breeds is that their litters include many potential alpha animals. Alphas are likely to try to lead any pack they find themselves in. Although alpha potentiality is probably inherited, dominance depends on the circumstances of the dog’s upbringing. Here, the owner’s behaviour [sic] matters. A dog may come to believe it is dominant without the owner realising [sic] that this has happened.
Then, when a conflict arises, the dog becomes aggressive, whereas an animal which did not think it was top dog would submit. In general, if pups are scrutinized for signs of a tendency to dominance, and then disciplined appropriately, they quickly stop making trouble (“Killer genes ate my dog”, 1991). It is apparent from this article that if an owner intends to head off any potential aggression in their Pit bull, it’s best to begin as one means to carry on, and begin earlier rather than later for the most efficacy in training. So who are these dogs? A Pit bull’s complications arise mainly from their troubling origins and their spotty genetic history. Throw in an ambiguous identification, and you have a canine recipe for disaster. These dogs were bred for a specific job, and then genetically re-engineered as needed to best fulfill their new requirements. Now, as we are faced with the results of our own creations, we, naturally, as humans will, disclaim responsibility and blame the dog whose only desire was to comply with our requests in the first place; often at the cost of its own life.
The blood sport of bull baiting began in England over 1,000 years ago. By the year 1500, the sport had become a national pastime for England. It was not long before Bulldogs were mentioned by name. Eventually, through further selective breeding, the Bulldog developed into a compact, muscular animal known for its tremendous jaw strength. Bull baiting was inevitably banned by an outraged public, and the breed’s owners then turned to the lesser blood sport of ratting, a spectacle sport in which many rats are put into a confined area. When a dog is introduced in with the rats, the objective for the dog is to kill as many rats as possible within a given time. The eventual cross-breeding of Bulldogs with terriers served to enhance their agility and prey drive, characteristics which made them much better ratters. It was the introduction of the terrier to the breed that created the modern day Pit bull terrier (http;//www.dogsbite.org/dangerous-dogs-pit-bull-faq.php, 2011) We as a society don’t have much use for any type of fighting dogs.
How can Pit bulls ever be repurposed to our satisfaction? This brings us to the question: What is a Pit bull type dog? Note the use of the word type. This word is useful due to the fact that it is almost impossible to draw a hard line for the breed. With all of the cross-breeding and various breed evolutions, as well as the American Kennel Club breed designations v. United Kennel Club designations; nobody really knows what a pit bull is anymore. The company line with many animal control agencies is that if it looks like a Pit bull, it usually is. “Here’s the real problem: Any mutt can be labeled a Pit bull mix,” (Skloot, 2007). While some have tried to slap a makeshift, catch-all identification on this hapless breed, “A Pit bull type dog is a combination of dog breeds that includes the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, American bulldog, and any other pure bred or mixed breed dog that is a combination of these dogs. Weight and shape can vary significantly amongst pit bull type dogs, from 35 to 100 plus pounds,” (http;//www.dogsbite.org/dangerous-dogs-pit-bull-faq.php, 2011). The reader may also note the inconsistencies throughout this essay regarding even the capitalization of the breed’s name. In essence Pit bulls are nobody. They have no identity. What is to become of them?
Their future, as individuals and as a breed, looks dim. Within the United States, breed-specific legislation is being enacted all over the place. Throughout the whole of the state of Colorado, no resident is allowed to own a Pit bull, or Pit Bull type of dog. Closer to home in Florida, where I reside with my own Pit bull, the state has prohibited any regulation by breed. “Miami-Dade County was exempted since it passed its ban in1989. They were grandfathered in and made it under the line since the state legislation was not passed until 1990,” (Sheidegger, 2012). As a result, many loyal owners of Pit bulls have moved to counties just outside of the reach of this hotly-contested piece of legislation. After belaboring the bad, I feel that I need to throw these poor dogs a bone. Pit bulls do make wonderful pets for many families. “Not all the traits that have been bred into the pit bull are bad.
They ought, in theory, to be fairly safe to handle, since (at least among those who breed them for fighting) pit bulls which attack men have usually been killed,” (“Killer genes ate my dog”, 1991). Since I have a Pit bull of my own, one whom I love dearly, I feel that I am a qualified witness for their defense. My dog, Robin, is, and has always been, wonderfully affectionate, loving and gentle with mine, and everyone else’s children. If, while walking him, we encounter children, he is ecstatic. Lick lick lick….followed by a submissive roll onto his back in order to present his belly for a good rub. I believe he knows when children are apprehensive, and he acts accordingly. He is a real lover, Robin is. Additionally, he is perfectly safe with any animal which he considers to be pack. This includes any other companion animal, whether it be dog, cat, or rat, which resides with our family. Robin spends most of his time in my ex-husband’s home, where he has inherited another Pit bull puppy, a sister to love. Those two are frick & frack: inseparable.
In my home, I have adopted an elderly Dachshund named Halo who needed a home. She lives with me along with Robin’s former pack mates, two dogs named Alex and Chica. Upon meeting Halo, Robin was a perfect gentleman. I think, having met her in my home, he understood that she was also pack. Conversely, Pit bulls are unpredictable whenever they encounter other dogs. I found this out the hard way when a walk in the park with Robin ended in an ill-fated encounter with an offleash dog, and resulted in stitches for my father. My lovingly reared buddy turned into someone I did not recognize, and it happened in the blink of an eye. Pit bull owners need to be very structured in the training of their dogs. Moreover, they must be vigilant when outside the safety of their homes. I recommend a choke collar for certain, as well as other strategies, such as avoiding areas that will put them in proximity to other dogs. All this and more, is needed if one is to avert the potential for disaster. Most importantly, and this is absolutely crucial: “Be the pack leader,” (http;//www.quotesdaddy.com/author/Cesar+Millan, 2013). The great Cesar Millan has always been my guru.
Much of my research brought me new information, while a great deal of it more or less reinforced what I already believed or knew. As the reader may have surmised, the subject of Pit bulls is one very close to my heart. In the next two or three years, I will most likely be losing one, if not both of my more elderly dogs. Chica, a large breed old lady is fifteen, an almost unheard of age for a dog in excess of 100 pounds. Alex, who is a Chihuahua-terrier mix, is coming up on twelve years, and he has an enlarged heart along with a murmur, which is expected to significantly
shorten his life, bless him. This will leave me Halo, who is pushing ten years. Naturally, I am going to adopt another dog from the local Humane Society. It used to be a foregone conclusion for me, that when I adopted, it would be a Pit bull. Now I’m not so sure. These dogs tug relentlessly at my heartstrings, and I know that I am a person who is adequately informed, prepared and qualified to be a Pit bull owner. So many owners are definitely not. The only question in my mind is whether introducing a Pittie , as we Pit bull aficionados have christened the breed, into my home will endanger Halo’s life. Am I willing to risk my pet’s life on the belief that I can make a difference to a Pit bull who needs me? If there is any possible salvation for these valiant (yes, valiant) creatures, it lays within the scope of public education and especially that of potential Pit bull owners. I have decided to be hopeful for their collective futures. Honestly, there is no way to go but up.
”Killer genes ate my dog”. (1991, june 1). the economist, p. 83.
http;//www.dogsbite.org/dangerous-dogs-pit-bull-faq.php. (2011, Oct. 16). Retrieved Jan. 24, 2013, from dogsbite.org. http;//www.quotesdaddy.com/author/Cesar+Millan. (2013, Oct. 30). Retrieved Jan. 30, 2013, from quotesdaddy.com: http;//www.quotesdaddy.com/author/Cesar+Millan Sheidegger, J. (2012). Pit bull ban continues in Miami-Dade county. DVM newsmagazine, 34. Skloot, R. (2007). “The biting truth”. Prevention, 196. Raiford, M. , (Jan. 22, 2013 interviewed by Sunday Mclean) McKay, I. , (Jan . 23, 2013 personal communication)