Book review: ‘Pit Bull’ offers different view of controversial dog

The pit bull once reigned as our country’s most championed, most quintessentially American dog.

Obedient, loyal, eager to please, it was hard-working and easy to train. Favorites of presidents and celebrities, these “Yankee terriers” proved heroic on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Normandy. They cocked an ear in ads for the Victrola and made plucky, unfussy sidekicks for the “Little Rascals.”

Then came the rise of dogfighting. “Cast as a willing victim of its own abuse,” Bronwen Dickey writes of the pit bull, America’s sweetheart resurfaced as a hellhound no longer fit to star in films or grace the cover of Life magazine — a dog that could turn on you without the slightest provocation. News headlines reinvented the pit bull as an unpredictable, vicious monster unable to turn off its “aggression switch” and “biologically hardwired to kill.”

For the moment, that’s where the pit bull stands — trapped somewhere between the docile, trustworthy Petey of yesteryear and the snarling, slavering, bipolar Cujo of today. Beloved by many, the dog is reviled by others who call for bans and euthanasia.

Fortunately, the pit bull is finally getting a long-overdue, much-needed makeover in Dickey’s thoroughly researched, enlightening debut, “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.”

Dickey’s hope is not so much to change minds, as to re-educate the public, to undo years of “bad science, media sensationalism, political brinksmanship, moral panic, racial venom, (and) class prejudice.”

An essayist and journalist from North Carolina, Dickey spent seven years researching her book, talking to more than 350 people, including dog owners, breeders and trainers; animal control officers and shelter workers; cruelty investigators; law enforcement officers; dog bite victims; and animal behaviorists. She interviewed pit bull advocates, several of whom she profiles, investigated dog fighting, and dug through “archival materials that spanned over 250 years.”

The resulting compendium of history, statistics and personal testimony clearly and rigorously addresses the deep well of misinformation surrounding this much maligned dog. No matter which side you’re on, Dickey’s fascinating saga of the pit bull’s long journey to hell and (almost) back will leave you with a new understanding of both the dog and the society that condemns it.

Given the laundry list of myths rhapsodizing the pit bull’s alleged Godzilla-like powers — its superior bite force, its “locking jaw,” its so-called “aggression gene” — Dickey has her work cut out for her.

But, not only is there no evidence to support any of these tall tales, their longevity is due to a rabid media that knows pit bull news sells, Dickey says. She unmasks the site most often cited by the media as an authority on dog bite fatalities, dogsbite.org, as one of the more egregious sources for the spreading of sensationalist reports.

Another misconception that falls apart under Dickey’s methodical investigation is the notion of unprovoked rage. Fear and anxiety cause dogs to lash out, experts say; we may be unaware of the causes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Many news reports — as well as victims and neighbors — claim attacking dogs had no history of violence and were trusted family pets since puppyhood. Yet Dickey finds this is rarely the case, and that, far from the well-cared-for pet, it’s “resident” (or guard) dogs — neglected, chained up, unsocialized, unexercised — that account for most “unprovoked” incidents.

As for the screaming headlines blaming pit bulls for dog attacks? Dickey has two answers for that: 1. Of the 35 Americans killed each year by any type of dog, the rapidly rising ownership of pit bulls — now one of America’s three most popular dogs, with a population estimated at close to 4 million — partly accounts for the high number of pit bulls cited in attacks and bites. 2. misidentification, much of it by the media.

Pit bull isn’t a breed, but an umbrella term for the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, any mixes of those breeds, and any dog that resembles those dogs. Visual guesses as to a mixed dog’s breed are correct less than 87 percent of the time, and DNA shows that the “vicious pit bull” described by neighbors, witnesses and newspaper reporters isn’t always a pit bull, despite head and eye shape.

To challenge myths of the dog’s “fighting genes,” Dickey traces the pit bull’s origins and the importing of dogfighting to America by Europe’s underclass, with an emphasis on a notorious 19th century dogfighting pit in New York City’s Five Points. In fact, she observes, only a tiny percentage of pit bulls now qualify to fight; comparing them with the rest is like “using the Navy SEALS as a benchmark for all American men.” According to law enforcement sources, she says, most “live uneventful lives as family pets.”

As a pit bull owner and dog lover, this is where Dickey would like to see pit bulls in the future. Advocates and rescue organizations profiled in the book include the director of the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, whose testimony shows that poverty, not neglect or cruelty, is often the pit bull’s worst enemy; and a local outreach team in North Philly that offers free vaccinations, spay-and-neuter appointments, dog-training classes, pet food and supplies.

To curtail dog attacks and control the pit bull population, Dickey says, a combination of community and owner education is imperative. So is the rethinking of class issues inextricably tied up with the pit bull, decoding and eliminating the implicit racism and intolerance the dog has come to embody.

The pit bull’s plight is still far from over, and there are no simple answers. Dickey’s book may not change everyone’s attitudes. But, for those on the fence, it’s an eye-opening opportunity to set aside prejudices. As one advocate says, change “will happen one dog at a time, one mind at a time. The dogs will open people’s hearts.” The rest is up to us.

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