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This post has nothing to do with Sarah Palin.

This post is about pitbulls.  I love a pit mix. Since meeting her I have done a lot of reaserch about pits, overcome my fear of them, and spent a lot of time defending my dog from my fearful middleclass neighbors.  If interested, read on!

In Defense of Pitbulls

It happened again: another story on TV about the evil pitbull who mauled a child.

I knew a pit like that once.  This is the story:

A woman of my acquaintance was driving along a country road and she spotted a bag by the roadside. The bag was moving. She stopped to investigate and found two pitbull puppies in the bag.  Someone had thrown them out of a car and left them there to die.

She is basically a kind hearted person so she took the puppies home. At first it seemed that their story would have a happy ending. Her kids cooed over the puppies and played with them, her boyfriend tolerated them.

But the puppies did what puppies do: they pooed and peed all over the house and chewed on everything. The adults tried to discipline the puppies they same way they disciplined their kids, with about the same level of effectiveness: they yelled, hit, ignored, had bursts of affection, and then cycled back to yelling. The puppies had no more idea than the kids did what was right or wrong.

After a couple of weeks the puppies were exiled to the backyard.

Days went by. Weeks. Months. The puppies grew into dogs. Every day when the woman came out with their food they bounded up to her, hoping for some affection, some attention.

A quick pat is all they got, then back to boredom, isolation, fear of the long dark nights, misery in the hot flea season, misery in the cold of winter.  They learned that people did not care about them. They learned that they were on their own, to act on instinct.  As terriers their instinct was to kill small animals.  As pits their instinct was to be dog aggressive, people social, and to defend their territory. The two dogs were an accident waiting to happen.

They tried to entertain themselves by chewing on their leashes and eventually they succeeded; they escaped and ran around the neighborhood.  

They got in a fight with the neighbor’s Rottweiler mix.  They chased some cats.   They got hungry and raided some garbage cans.  People yelled at them and threw things at them.  They were scared and confused.  

The boyfriend got his shotgun and tracked them down. He shot one dead and wounded the other. The wounded dog fled into the woods.

They were less than two years old when they died.

According to the Humane Society pitbulls typically die young. They are the most frequent targets of abuse, neglect and exploitation through back yard breeding,  dog fighting, or use as "watch dogs".  Of every seven hundred turned into shelters, only one gets adopted.  Literally millions die each year at the hands of people.

So why are WE afraid of THEM?

The term "pitbull" is commonly used to refer to three separate breeds, breed mixes, and dogs with some of the physical features of the three breeds.  In other words, its an umbrella term which is used to refer to any medium sized smooth coated stocky dog with floppy ears.

The American Pitbull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier are closely related but recognized as separate breeds.  All three breeds are smooth coated, stocky, strong dogs with blocky heads and floppy ears.  All have the terrier heritage: bred for generations to hunt vermin, which, in the terrier mind, means anything small that scurries away.  All three breeds have a  tendency toward aggression  toward other dogs.  And all are highly people social, bred to be obedient people pleasers.  

The breeds originated in England  in the mid nineteenth century when bull baiting became illegal.  As a result, dog fighting was developed as a replacement "sport"  and dogs were bred to be fighters. The original pitbulls were bulldog/terrier crosses.  They very quickly became popular dogs for all kinds of purposes: farm dogs, pets, watch dogs, etc.  In the mid-1800’s these small, tough, smart dogs came to America where they quickly became the stereotypical family dog.  Dog fighting continued on the fringes of society but the "pit bulls" were accepted everywhere.

Hellen Keller had a pit bull. Teddy Roosevelt had one in the White House.  By the nineteen thirties pits were America’s family dog: three times on the cover of Life magazine, used in military recruitment posters, used in advertisements (the RCA puppy is a pit) and featured in family entertainment (Pete the Pup of the Little Rascals was a pit).

Why were they so popular?  The overriding breed characteristic of all three "pitbull" breeds is that they are highly people social and highly trainable.  They love people and they want to please so they become the dog their person wants them to be.  They make excellent service dogs, drug and bomb sniffing dogs, excel at agility training, and are affectionate, well behaved family pets.  For example: Wiggles, of the Washington State Patrol, who was saved from a kill shelter and now sniffs containers for bombs on the docks of Seattle.

Remember  the pitbulls rescued from Micheal Vick? Of the forty plus dogs rescued from his dog fighting kennel only one had to be euthanized. Please read this article:

"An underdog’s second chance
Saved from Michael Vick’s property By Cheryl Wittenauer
Associated Press Writer
updated 10:58 a.m. PT, Sun., Jan. 27, 2008
His back resting comfortably against her chest, Hector nestles his massive canine head into Leslie Nuccio’s shoulder, high-fiving pit bull paws against human hands.
The big dog — 52 pounds — is social, people-focused, happy now, it seems, wearing a rhinestone collar in his new home in sunny California.
But as Hector sits up, deep scars stand out on his chest, and his eyes are implorin

"I wish he could let us know what happened to him," says Nuccio, the big tan dog’s foster mother.
Hector ought to be dead, she knows — killed in one of his staged fights, or executed for not being "game" enough, not winning, or euthanized by those who see pit bulls seized in busts as "kennel trash," unsuited to any kind of normal life.

Instead, Hector is learning how to be a pet.
After the hell of a fighting ring, he has reached a heaven of sorts: saved by a series of unlikely breaks, transported thousands of miles, along with other dogs rescued with him, by devoted strangers, and now nurtured by Nuccio, her roommate, Danielle White, and their three other dogs.
The animals barrel around the house, with 4-year-old Hector leading the puppy-like antics — stealth underwear grabs from the laundry basket, sprints across the living room, food heists from the coffee table — until it’s "love time" and he decelerates and engulfs the women in a hug.
Nuccio wishes he could let her know all that happened.
But what she does know is this: Hector has come such a long way since he was trapped in the horrors of Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels.
Inside Vick's dogfighting operation
Authorities descending last year on 1915 Moonlight Road in Smithfield, Va., found where Vick, the former NFL quarterback, and others staged pit bull fights in covered sheds, tested the animals’ fighting prowess and destroyed and disposed of dogs that weren’t good fighters.
(snip).
Officers who carried out the raid found dogs, some injured and scarred, chained to buried car axles. (snip)
A bewildered Hector and more than 50 other American Pit Bull Terriers or pit bull mixes were gathered up. (snip).
Hector was bunked in the Hanover pound in a cage below a dog named Uba who was smaller and more clearly showing anxiety.
Uba flattened on all fours when Tim Racer, an evaluator on a team assembled by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, arrived at his cage.
"Are you going to kill me now?" was the message another evaluator, Donna Reynolds, read in Uba’s eyes.
The black-and-white dog tried to wriggle away once out of the cage, but he came around after a while. He wagged his tail when the team showed him a 4-foot doll, to test his response to children. He spun around and got into a play position when they brought out a dog.
"This is the big secret. Most of them were dog-tolerant to dog-social. It was completely opposite of what we were led to believe," Reynolds said.
How much to trust the capacity of fighting dogs to have a new life as pets or working dogs in law enforcement or therapy settings is an issue that has divided animal advocates; some believe most such animals should be put down as a precaution, while others say they must be evaluated individually. One dog seized at Bad Newz was euthanized as too aggressive, but the others, four dozen plus in all, have had different fates.
Nearly half have been sent to a Utah sanctuary, Best Friends Animal Society, where handlers will work with them. None showed human aggression and many have potential for adoption someday. Others, evaluated as being immediate candidates for foster care and eventual adoption, went to several other groups."

Pitbulls are people social. This cannot be emphasized enough: they have been bred for generations to be obedient people pleasers. Think about it: if you were going to bred a dog to be strong, have a hard bite, and be a determined fighter of dogs, would you want the dog to be aggressive toward humans? Of course not. You wouldn’t want that bite to be turned on you! The three pit breeds have been bred specifically to NOT be aggressive to people so they would be easy to control during the excitement of a fight.

In fact, according to the American Temperament Test results, pits are as people social as golden retrievers.

Ceasar Millan’s best behaved dog, Daddy, is a pit.

So what happened? How did America’s family dog become the evil monster of TV news broadcasts?  Partly because, as in many media myths, there is a little truth: pitbulls are the number two dog named as the biter in dog bite incidents that are serious enough to require some kind of medical treatment. (Mix breed is number one).

How come a people social dog is responsible for so much biting and how come the other breeds in the top ten get no bad publicity?

Let’s take the first half of that question first. According to the Humane Society there is no such thing as a biting breed of dog but there is a certain type of person whose dog will bite. That type of person is usually male  and has an unnuetered male dog that lives on the chain in the yard and is either ignored or socialized to be "a watch dog."  It doesn’t matter what breed the dog is: a dog that is treated that way--neglected, lonely, scared--will bite strangers that come into its territory and, if it gets loose, will bite strangers outside its territory.  Unfortunately for pitbulls  they are more likely than other breeds--say standard poodles--to be treated that way: hence biting behavior from a people social breed.

Also there are a lot of pitbulls. Pits are the number one backyard breeder dog.  There are an estimated eight million pits in the US.  Why is it a surprise that the most common dog shows up as the second most common biter?  The statistic that matters isn’t the raw totals. It’s the proportion. And the proportion of pits that bite people is smaller than the proportion of Great Danes that do.

Besides, hardly anyone can define what a pit is.  The term has become so general that it gets applied to any dog that isn’t clearly some other breed.  One of the problems with breed ban legislation is that the label "pitbull" gets slapped on any dog that has a smooth coat and floppy ears.  Boxers have been misidentified as pits, for example. A self-fulfilling prophesy is in place. Since pits are assumed to be biters, then, if a dog bites a person, the dog is assumed to be a pit ( unless, of course it is obviously something else).

In real life functional terms a pitbull is a mutt. And smooth coated floppy eared mutts are as common as grass.  

But that isn’t why you and I have the image in our heads of the evil pit that for no reason viciously attacks an innocent person.  That image comes from TV.

As all of us liberals have learned TV "news" isn’t news.  It’s entertainment. The reporters don’t do research. They don’t gather information, and present facts in context, with background and perspective.  They report stories and they choose stories that fit established narratives and discard stories that don’t. The pitbull as evil biter of humans is a well establish narrative, therefore pitbull bite incidents get played up, but other dog bite stories get played down.

There was an excellent example of this out here in Washington this summer.  Two pitbulls running loose (how much do you want to bet they were intact males?) attacked a golden retriever and bit the golden’s people when they tried to defend her.  It was all over TV--nice white couple in their nice white suburb and their nice white suburban dog attacked by evil pit bulls!  Well, the two dogs in question certainly should not have been out on the loose, but the truth is any two  dog aggressive dogs (German shepherds, Rotts, blue heelers...) might have done the same thing.

But the real irony is that this other story did not get on the news: a woman, drunk, tripped over a dog that was chained up on the porch late one night. The dog nearly tore her face off. She had to be airlifted to Seattle by helicopter...spectacular story, right? No. Never made the news. The woman wasn’t white, it wasn’t a suburban neighborhood and the dog was a Great Dane.

So the question is: why has the narrative developed that pits are biters?  It is a recent narrative. Thirty years ago no one thought twice about pits.  

At every  point in the history of our culture there has been a breed of dog that was the dog of choice for the kind of people who shouldn’t have a dog at all: the type of human who wants a dog to enhance masculinity,  in other words the type of owner the Humane Society describes as being the kind who makes a biter out of their dog. In the nineteen seventies the fad was to keep a Dobermann chained up, isolated, lonely, scared, in the back yard.  Then Dobies went out of fashion and Rottweilers became the dog of choice for those who wanted a mean dog in the yard. Now its pitbulls.

Middle class people tend to associate that sort of dog owner, the kind who wants a mean dog, with the poor.  The stereotype is of the mean dog chained up behind the double wide, the mean dog in the back yard of a rental.   Low class people with their low class dogs.  As with most stereotypes there is some truth: low income people are more frequently the targets of crime and have more to fear than suburbanites and have more need of a guard dog.  A dog that barks to warn off intruders can be of real service to a family that lives in a scarey neighborhood.  However a distinction needs to be made between the family that socializes the dog and controls the dog’s behavior so that the dog is only a danger to an intruder and the family that simply chains up the dog in the yard and forgets about it or, worse, actually encourages territoriality.  The problem isn’t the use of a dog as a guard per se and the problem certainly isn’t the income level of the family. The problem is with those families who do not involve the dog in family life and do not show the dog who is welcome on their property and who isn’t.

So Dobies and Rotts were demonized by association with the poor who are demonized as being the types who want their dogs to be mean.  This is how narratives are born: stereotypes, shorthand, assumptions, conventional unwisdoms from shallow misunderstandings.

With pitbulls the guilt by association is even worse: for pits the association is with the poor and with African American men.

Who is the stereotype pit bull owner? African American inner city criminal.  
In a culture that harbors fears of  the angry black man, it’s no surprise that the angry black man’s dog would also be demonized.  And guess what: the narrative about evil pit bulls developed right after rap music and the stereoptype of the mean, black rapper hit the mass media.

So why did I write all of this? Well not because I think people who fear pitbulls are racists. Racism is, in my opinion at the root of the demonization of pits, (along with class issues) but most people who fear pits do so simply because they saw evil-pit-bites-person the stories on the local TV news. People tend to trust their local news.  Why would anyone think that stories about dog bites would be part of a biased narrative?

I wrote this because, in spite of all the stories on the news, the truth is that people have harmed pits more than pits harm people. The Humane Society estimates that only one of every seven hundred pits that goes to a shelter gets adopted. The rest are euthanized. Many shelters don’t even bother to list pits -they just take them straight back to the euthanasia room.  As I said before pits are the most common backyard breeder dog. That means that there are far, far too many of them, far too many for good homes but people keep on exploiting them for profit.  Pitbulls on average only live two years.  They are further victimized by breed specific legislation.  And then there is the dog fighting , the neglect, the abuse.

.

I hope that you, dear reader, will fight against breed specific legislation if it rears it’s head in your community. I hope that you will consider making a  donation to a pitbull rescue, and that you might even consider rescuing a pit yourself.  But please, next time you see that evil pitbull story on TV remember that the akita who bit someone did not make the news and that pit who did was probably a victim too.

Originally posted to wren on Thu Sep 18, 2008 at 02:33 PM PDT.

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