what i'm reading: pit bull: the battle over an american icon

If you have an opinion about pitbulls, chances are good that it's based on myth, misinformation, and even disinformation. I know a good deal about dogs, and I thought I knew a lot about pitbulls, yet I was constantly amazed and enlightened by Bronwen Dickey's Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.

Here are some of the things you will learn if you read this book.

There is no agreement on what a pitbull is.

No one can correctly identify a dog's breed-mix based on the dog's appearance, including experts.

Many or most media stories about pitbulls are based on uncorroborated heresay and myths, and many are actually fiction.

Many dog-bite incidents reported as involving pitbulls actually involved Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Poodles, and other breeds.

Accurate statistics about dog bites, especially those that account for severity, do not exist.

There is nothing special about a pitbull's jaws or the strength of its bite. In fact, no test exists to measure the strength of a dog's bite, thus "facts" about a pitbull's bite being x pounds of pressure compared to other dogs' bites, are pure fiction.

Reading this book, you will consider connections between the media's portrayal of pitbulls and racism, between fear of pitbulls and fear of urban youth, the dynamics of a social phenomenon known as "moral panic", and how the moral panic over pitbulls mirrors the one about crack cocaine. And did you know that in pre-Civil War America, dogs of slaves were confiscated and put to death, as were dogs in Jewish homes in Nazi Germany?

All this might be merely interesting, or perhaps fascinating, if ignorance and moral panic didn't inform law-making. Sadly and infuriatingly, this is not the case. Thousands of dogs labeled as pitbulls that never harmed anyone or showed any signs of aggression have been killed. Thousands of people were forced to choose between their beloved dogs and homelessness, when any dog deemed a pitbull was banned from most public housing and much private housing. This is not about a dangerous dog being euthanized. This is the wholesale round-up and (attempted) eradication of dogs based on appearance only.

In one of the many insightful looks into media coverage of dog-bite stories, Dickey uncovers the total lack of credentials, expertise, and experience of the owner of a professional-looking website called dogsbite.org. She notes that on one side of the so-called debate are the Center for Disease Control, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the National Animal Care and Control Association, the Animal Behavior Society, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. and all but one animal welfare organization. On the other side, the owner of an attractive website with unsourced claims. But the media, in the name of "balance", will give these two sides equal weight, without questioning where dogsbite.org gets its information. The answer is: they make it up.

Dickey introduces the reader to two important, remarkable organizations: the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, now called Beyond Fences, and a Humane Society program called Pets for Life. In the past, the only thing animal control organizations could do for neglected dogs was remove them from homes -- a chilling echo of how children were removed from certain homes under the guise of protection. These two groups help people keep their animals, by offering free veterinary care, free quality dog food, and free dog-care education. Because -- go figure -- it turns out low-income families love their animals just as much as affluent families. The descriptions of dogs and people whose lives have been transformed by the dedicated people of these organizations are the most beautiful and hopeful parts of this book.

Dickey introduces the reader to many amazing people -- dedicated rescuers and trainers, as well as people who are amazing for all the wrong reasons -- amazingly ignorant, willfully ill-informed, and close-minded, determined to rid the world of one supposed breed based on a refusal to acknowledge facts.

Dickey's book is a tour de force of research and synthesis. It's not so much a book about dogs, as a book of history, sociology, science, and information studies where dogs are the organizing principle. I wish that everyone who has an opinion about pitbulls was required to read this book.


karen said...

I only ever knew one pitbull. He was a white boy named Casper with a crooked jaw from being kicked as a puppy. He belonged to my daughter's best friend's family, who rescued him from the kicker. I used to go to their house to pick up my daughter and have coffee with the mom. Casper could invariably be found with the kids, but my favourite image is of the kids laying on their tummies on the floor looking up at the tv and Casper between them with his back legs out behind him like a frog, watching the tv too. He was as good, gentle and loving dog as any I have known.
I feel like this book will reinforce my favourable prejudice toward these dogs. I am really interested to learn of the Pets For Life program. The province is currently burning down and our SPCA and humane society have other things on their plate just now, but I'm going to look into the program when the fires are out. I think pets add immeasurably to our lives, and a program that helps people keep their pets is something I would love to support.

Jay Farquharson said...

As a former "pittie" owner, thank you for publishing this.

Of all the dog's I've had in my life, Casey was the kindest, the gentlest, the most caring of people and animals around her, and a joy to have known.

When we are ready for dogs again in our lives, they will be pittie-x rescues just like Casey was.

laura k said...

Jay, that's so great to hear. I decided to write this review without talking about my own connection to pitbulls. It was intense and life-changing. They are some of the greatest animals on this planet.

PS: That black sheperd-y dog (maybe Belgian Shepherd?) in your pic is so beautiful!

laura k said...

Karen, I was so moved by the Pets for Life and Unchain Dogs stories. I hope to connect with them one day, too.

I hope you and your family are safe!

johngoldfine said...

I grew up reading Albert Payson Terhune's collie stories. Terhune was a great believer in good bloodlines, racial hierarchies, 'scientific' eugenics, and so on--all the usual received wisdom of his era. But, although he despised "curs" (I have to smile. Most of my dogs have been what he'd call curs.), he even more despised the moral panic that sent whole villages hysterical with cries of 'mad dog' and killing any strays who wandered into town panting for water on a hot day.

I think that, like me, he rather preferred dogs, even curs, to people, and perhaps that's why I read those claptrap stories over and over.

laura k said...

the moral panic that sent whole villages hysterical with cries of 'mad dog' and killing any strays who wandered into town panting for water on a hot day.

The author recounts another moral panic over the Spitz -- or any dog thought to be a Spitz. There was a belief that they carried rabies! They were rounded up and killed. This was in the 1870s. Apparently we've learned nothing since then.

Jay Farquharson said...

Belgian Shepard X, Digger,

Another foster, Casey picked him out at the dog park, they had 16 years together with us, we bought them a farm.

laura k said...


allan said...

Your last paragraph was so good that I found Dickey's webpage and sent her this link. (Who wouldn't want to read that an intelligent reader thought her work a "tour de force"?)

She replied:

"Oh, wow. Thank you so much for this kind note, Allan! Glad your partner found the book helpful. Sending hugs to your family (both two- and four-footed members). :)
All best,

laura k said...

Wow, thank you for that!! The compliment and the send. Such a nice reply from the author.

I did tweet the link to her -- I always do if I can find an author on Twitter -- but perhaps she doesn't see tweets.