II. The Reality
V. An Analogy
Most people are afraid of pit bulls for the following reasons, however wrong they may be:
So, if all those stories and rumors about pit bulls are not true, why is everyone still so afraid of them? Why are there still stories in the newspaper about those pit bulls that got loose and attacked someone? Why do we still see pit bulls as the breed of choice for gangsters and thugs? Let's take a look.
If you were an ignorant moron who wanted a big, mean, scary dog to impress your idiot friends and attract attention when you walked down the street, what kind of dog would you get? A poodle? A chihuahua? How about a greyhound or a Golden Retriever? I don't think so. You'd probably pick a Doberman, Rottweiler, or "pit bull". Indeed, these are three kinds of dogs that thugs and punks commonly get when they are looking for a "cool" dog to boost their ego and their social status. We know that it is not due to some quality inherent in the breed. All three breeds are large and intimidating. They are powerful and muscular. But all of these breeds are intelligent, loving, loyal, and obedient. As responsible owners know, these dogs generally make fine pets when properly raised.
Pit bulls are desirable to the seamier elements of society because of their ill repute or their fighting abilities.These owners often buy a pit bull because they want to fight it against other dogs. They train their dog to act aggressively towards other animals. The pit bull is intelligent and stubborn, and this makes it a quick learner and a persistent fighter. As a result, owners who get the pit bull for fighting or attack purposes are using the dog in a manner looked down upon by the rest of society. This is not the dog's fault; it is the owner's fault.
The owner also typically engages in abusive behavior in order to make the dog fearful, aggressive and angry. This includes hitting, beating, teasing, surprising, and otherwise tormenting the dog - and this is abusive. The dog naturally becomes confused, angry, stressed, and aggressive in response to this abuse. The dog might then percieve humans (and their own handlers) as enemies, and will react aggressively towards the percieved threat. Abuse also makes the dog harder for the owner to control. This is not the dog's fault! Again, it is the owner's fault! Pit bulls, Rottweilers, and other so-called "aggressive" dogs are very likely to suffer from abusive, idiotic, or irresponsible owners.
In addition, news stations and talk shows buy into this stereotype and ignore owner responsibility. The stories treat the dogs' aggression as a natural trait. They do not question the owner's or victim's actions, and almost never explore the reasons behind the attack. As I explained in other sections, "pit bull" is a very general term that can refer to any of a number of Bull and Terrier breeds. News stations and talk shows have used this term loosely in sensational stories about dog bites wherein a pit bull may not even be involved! Mastiffs, Dobermans, English Bulldogs, German Shepherds, and even Chow Chows have been misidentified as "pit bulls" in sensational news stories.
In one story I read, a witness to a dog attack stated, "The dogs were small, but I could tell they were pit bulls by the way they walked." WOW! I own pit bulls, and I don't think the way they walk distinguishes them from any other breed. Certainly, when we were trying to determine what kind of dog Dozer was, we didn't walk him up and down the street studying his gait. Nevertheless, this witness's testimony apparently had strong credibility with the reporting news agency.
Another story I read (St. Petersburg Times online) was about two "pit bulls" that were loose and killed some goats. The story never defined the term "pit bull" and treated it like a breed. The author of the news story stated that the dogs' owner's whereabouts were unknown. The owner of the goats was quoted as saying, "I don't blame the (dogs' owners). But these are pit bulls, and you know how pit bulls are." This quote really seems to sum up the entire problem! Firstly, no one is questioning the owners when they were clearly irresponsible for allowing their two dangerous dogs to roam free. Secondly, no one seems to care about establishing the true identity of the breed, preferring to simply summarize by utilizing the generic, and damaging, term "pit bulls". And thirdly, everyone seems to assume that everyone else "knows how pit bulls are". The news story never bothers to clarify "how pit bulls are" - it doesn't need to. The stereotype rears its ugly head.
Despite the fact that many other breeds are often involved in bite cases, the media largely ignores or tones down these reports and sensationalizes anything involving the "vicious" pit bull. For instance, headlines covering attacks from other breeds may simply say, "Dog attacks woman" - if they are covered at all. However, if the dog was a "pit bull"-type dog, the headline blares, "Pit bull tears into woman, terrorizes neighborhood". Of the sampling of Internet-available news reports on dog bites which I went through, those which involved "pit bulls" declared as much right in their headlines. Those involving other dogs, such as German Shepherds or Rottweilers, did not mention the breed of the dog until much further into the article. I found no articles on common dogs such as Labradors or Cocker Spaniels, although we know from bite statistics that these dogs make up a large portion of dog bite instances. None of the articles questioned the competence of the dog's owner.
Another instance I might point out is the all-too-common scenario where three or four "pit bulls" terrorize the neighborhood, chase police officers, and attack some little kid who is playing in his yard. It should be noted here that no one ever seems to ask, "Well, what were the dogs doing loose in the first place?" Proper ownership means keeping dangerous dogs off the street, and these were clearly dangerous if they tried to attack a number of people. They were not dangerous because they were pit bulls - the breed doesn't matter in this case! They were dangerous because the owner did not take the time to socialize his/her dogs around people, and after failing to do this, allowed these maladjusted creatures to roam the streets around people. This is a classic recipe for trouble, no matter the breed.
Look at it another way. Who would let their dogs roam free all the time? Sometimes when a dog is loose it's an accident - the owner left the door open or forgot to close their back gate. This problem, when discovered, is quickly remedied. More frequently, persistently loose dogs are a result of people who don't care about their dogs (don't care whether they might get hit by a car, killed, or set on fire by neighborhood punks) or about the law (most urban areas have leash laws). What happens when a person doesn't care about their dogs? The dogs are ignored and live a lonely, unstructured life without rules or consequences. The dogs might be abused. They might be trained to fight or attack. They are not socialized. The dogs are not fit to be around other people or animals! But this is what happens. Careless, irresponsible, lazy, and/or cruel morons transform their dogs into anti-social beings, then let them run loose because they are too irresponsible to do otherwise. These people should not own ANY kind of animal, especially not a dog.
For Pit Bulls:
Because the pit bull has such a bad reputation, many cities have placed restrictions on, or prohibited, ownership of "pit bull-type" dogs. In many counties and cities, "pit bull" types of dogs are slaughtered by local animal control authorities when breed-specific legislation goes into effect. In other areas, BSL places such humiliating stigmas on pit bull owners that most responsible, law-abiding people won't want to get a pit bull. The unscrupulous law-breaking owners will simply ignore the restrictions and may keep their dog hidden so as not to get in trouble for owning an outlawed breed or not having the proper insurance/license. And a concealed pit bull probably isn't having a good life. It is certainly not being trained or socialized with other dogs or strangers. It is probably being fought.
Another problem being seen recently is that in cities that do permit pit bull ownership, city animal shelters and humane societies have been flooded with pit bulls, both puppies and adults. Because many pit bull owners are not the most responsible owners (due to the reasons cited above), they often fail to spay or neuter their dogs and tend to get rid of the dog when it develops behavioral problems (usually due to bad ownership). Thus, the animal shelters are inundated with pit bulls. The pit bulls are almost impossible to adopt out, again because of their reputation for aggression. Most responsible people will not adopt pit bulls because of the popular myth that pit bulls are uncontrollable, aggressive killers.
Pit bulls tend to find homes with not-so-nice people because the "good" citizen won't be seen with such a "vicious" animal. I have personally experienced this with my own dogs. When my dog and I are at the park or the store, the hoodlums and creeps come running up to me saying, "Wow! What a killer! I bet it's really mean! Will it bite me? Do you fight it? Do you breed it? Can you give me one of the puppies? I knew a guy that had a pit bull, it was so mean, I wanted that dog so bad, I bet it would beat any other dog in a fight! That dog was so cool, but it attacked the guy's kid, so he had to shoot it..." And so on. What kind of horrible person would think that a vicious dog is "cool"?? These are the kinds of people that scare the living heck out of me. Meanwhile, the mature, responsible dog owners watch my dog with wary glares, shudders, and whispers. From this example you can see quite clearly the kind of people who are most likely to get a pit bull on purpose.
I say "on purpose" because most responsible owners do not ever intend to adopt or otherwise obtain a pit bull for a pet. I have heard many pit bull owners say, "I NEVER wanted a pit bull, I was so scared of those dogs, but one day I saw this pit bull at the animal shelter and...I fell in love." Still other pit bull owners say that they never even knew what breed their dog was, until one day the vet, the neighbor, a friend, or a picture on the Internet tipped them off. Sometimes, the pit bull is simply renamed so as to avoid the stigma its name places on it. For instance, the San Francisco SPCA adopts out pit bulls under the name "St. Francis Terrier". Such renaming gives the dogs a better chance at being adopted by a responsible owner, but it also creates problems for responsible owners who are trying to fight breed-specific legislation and discrimination against pit bulls.
We can see, therefore, that pit bulls are often condemned to unfortunate circumstances and bad owners that only perpetuate the pit bull's stereotype. Many such idiotic owners will torment the dog until it lives up to its reputation. My own dog Fel is a prime example. Her previous owner wanted a mean dog, and so he got a pit bull. He named her "Felony". It soon became clear that she was a sweet, submissive dog and was not at all interested in fighting or being aggressive. So, he pinched her stomach, stepped on her feet, shoved her, poked her, teased her... tried everything he could to make her mean without being downright violently abusive. He did not succeed in making her into an attack dog. But when I got her, she was a bundle of nerves, anxious about strange people, startled by strange noises, and skittish about being touched. She was a nervous wreck. Suppose another dog had gone through the abuse that she did, or worse. Another dog might have gone crazy from such abuse. Another dog might have become vicious and aggressive. Another dog might have bitten a person or attacked the neighbor's dog.
And so we come upon the final problem created by the pit bull's reputation. Any misbehavior resulting from abuse or neglect is blamed on the dog rather than the owner. It is assumed that the pit bull is naturally aggressive and vicious. Responsible pit bull owners know this is not true! But almost everyone else does not know this. So when a pit bull gets out of its yard and bites someone, no one says, "What did the owner do to make this dog act aggressively? What did the victim do to make this dog bite him/her? Why is the dog out of its yard in the first place?" It is always the pit bull's fault! The pit bull is sentenced to death under dangerous dog laws, but the irresponsible owner is free to get another dog and turn it into a monster.
This doesn't make sense! When a dog, ANY dog, gets out of its yard, runs loose in the neighborhood, bites someone, kills someone's cat, you can not blame the dog! The dog is just a dog! It is doing what dogs do! Dogs do not think like people. They do not understand the long-term consequences of their behavior. They do not realize that when they attack the neighbor, they will be caught, judged, and probably euthanized. They only know that the neighbor has been poking at them with a stick. They do not realize that when they escape from the backyard, they may end up at the pound. They only want to relieve boredom by exploring. They act on the here and now, not the later.
We should be blaming the dog's owner. We should be asking the owner, "Why aren't YOU being responsible for your dog? Why are YOU letting your dog run loose? Why are YOU letting your dog bite people and cause trouble?" Responsible dog owners take steps to make sure their dog is never in such a situation! Responsible dog owners make sure they have a secure fence, a strong leash, and obedience training. They keep an eye on their dog at all times and maintain an extremely close relationship with the dog. They never abuse their dog or encourage aggression. And their dog will never get in the kind of trouble you hear about in the news.
The stereotype is far-reaching and persistent. Responsible pit bull owners feel the effects of the stereotype even though they may have loving, obedient, friendly dogs.
Breed-specific legislation (BSL) is one major blow to responsible pit bull owners. BSL comes in many shapes and forms across the country. Some such legislation requires pit bull owners to muzzle their dogs when in public. Other laws require pit bulls to be kept in a secure enclosure at all times, and are not permitted in public at all. Still other BSL requires pit bull owners to pay for an annual license to keep such a dog (in addition to the standard registration for all breeds), and may require the owner to purchase some form of insurance in case the dog should ever hurt anyone or cause damage.
Imagine the extra expense and effort required to keep a pit bull under such hostile conditions! Loving dog owners are not interested in keeping a dog chained in the backyard! They want a dog that can go places with them! The dog suffers because it can not socialize with other dogs, go to obedience class, and the owner can not take it to the park, board it at a kennel, take it on rides, etc. And both dog and owner suffer humiliation when walking down the street with a muzzle that practically screams "Vicious Dog!!" even though the dog may be incredibly sweet. The resulting fear and avoidance from strangers will undoubtably make the dog nervous, antisocial, and insecure - and the owner certainly won't be able to socialize with a "clearly dangerous" dog standing beside him/her. Insurance and extra registration is yet another unneccessary stigma for the breed.
Discrimination runs rampant because of the breed's reputation. Many homeowner's insurance companies will not insure a house wherein a pit bull-type dog resides. Pit bulls are not allowed at all obedience classes, vets, kennels, or doggy daycares. Taking a walk down the street with a pit bull can be extremely trying for the responsible pit bull owner. Parents rush their children inside, neighbors stare suspiciously, and other walkers cross to the opposite sidewalk to avoid the pit bull. I have heard stories of pit bull owners who were spat on, yelled at, and even attacked by a stranger who hated them and their dog simply because it was a pit bull.
At the same time, I am sometimes tempted to use the pit bull's reputation to my own advantage, and I am sure that many pit bull owners do the same without realizing that they are only making the problem worse. Who wouldn't love to say to the door-to-door salesman, "Well, I'd love to chat with you about your fascinating product, but unfortunately, I've got two pit bulls that might eat you if you come in. Maybe next time." Or to the hitchhiker who asks you for a ride, "Er, sorry, but the two pit bulls in the back seat might have something different to say about that." Sometimes I'm tempted to put up a little sticker on our front window, like those little security alarm stickers, that says, "Warning! Protected by Pit Bulls!" and let the breed's reputation work for me. But I know that it doesn't help the breed's reputation whatsoever. My mother would probably not set foot in my front door if I had such a little sticker in my front window. If I talk up the breed's "viciousness", I am reinforcing a destructive stereotype, and it will inevitably come back to bite me.
Responsible pit bull owners face a huge number of problems and questions created by a persistent cyclical stereotype. To own a pit bull you can not be shy. You must be able to stomach social rejection. You can not be ignorant about the breed. You must know about pit bulls and be able to state pit bull facts succinctly and accurately in the face of criticism. You have to understand the nature of the stereotype, how it comes about, and how it is stopped. And you must be active in the struggle to smother the breed's undeserved reputation, or the breed is doomed.
To better explain the stereotype and some common fallacies in logic that permit the stereotype to exist, I would like to look at an analogy.
Let's look at the knife. The knife is very useful. We use it to cut things. We can eat our peas with it. I use a knife to cut holes in cardboard boxes for my cat to play in. If you are good at whittling, a knife is a good thing to whittle with. But in the wrong hands, the knife is very dangerous. It can stab, slice, and kill a person. If a nasty person wants to hurt another person, what sort of utensil will the nasty person use? A spoon? No way. A fork? Well... maybe, but probably not. A knife? Yes! But do we ban knives because they might be used the wrong way? Do we dull the edges? Do we make everyone get a license to own a knife? No, that wouldn't make sense.
The knife is like the pit bull. Pit bulls are generally useful (as much as any dog is useful), and typically harmless. But in the wrong hands, a pit bull may be taught to be vicious. And it is more likely that a person who wants a vicious dog will get a pit bull than some other breed (i.e. poodle, labrador retriever). But is banning the breed the right answer? Or requiring muzzles or specific registration of pit bulls? No, such things don't make any sense, just as dulling the sharp edge of the knife makes it useless, and requiring a knife-operating license is silly. The key is to stop nasty people from using knives/pit bulls that way. If a person uses a knife to kill another person, do we run around saying, "That horrible knife! That nasty knife! Break that knife right away!"? No way! We say, "The person who did this was a horrible person. We must make sure he/she does not ever use a knife in this way again." The blame lies in the pit bull owner who uses their dog to hurt others