years ago, Durham, N.C., author Bronwen Dickey was
driving around Atlanta and talking with a friend about
the book she was working on. Her friend admitted that
the topic — American pit bull terriers — frightened
just afraid of those dogs," he said. "They’re
owned by those big, muscly, macho guys and the dogs
always have those spiked collars on. The whole image of
that is completely terrifying to me."
were stopped at a red light in a nice neighborhood and,
almost on cue, a preppy looking guy walked by with his
pit. "How about that dog?" Dickey asked.
"Are you afraid of that dog?"
a pit bull?" her friend responded, incredulous.
Dickey’s friend, pit bulls were inseparable from their
hard knocks image — studded collars, tough owners and
the ever-present specter of dogfighting — yet almost
became different dogs when walked by a clean-cut
suburbanite in a polo shirt.
her new book, "Pit Bull: The Battle over an
American Icon," Dickey, who owns a pit bull,
explores how the breed came to be so vilified and
feared. Through seven years of exhaustive research, the
author sought the history, the science and the social
context of this controversial dog.
don’t expect to take everyone’s fear away from them,
but I hope the people who are open to learning more
would be willing to look at dogs as individuals in every
case, no matter what they look like," Dickey says.
She knows fear isn’t rational — she flies all over
the world as a journalist, for instance, and she’s
still afraid of airplanes.
wanted to dig into the truth of this story, regardless
of what I found," says Dickey, who felt there was
enough cheerleading already. "It really may be that
my dog and these other nice dogs I’ve met are outliers
and if they are, that’s still interesting, so let’s
explore that and let’s explore how we got to where we
of her background in journalism, she knew it was
important to check her own assumptions and to seek
people with markedly different views or experiences than
her own. She reached out to people who wanted pit bulls
banned — or exterminated — and she met with parents
whose children had been attacked by pits or alleged pit
mixes. She also consulted geneticists, pit bull trainers
and a slew of scientists and experts. She attended a
"Bully Barbecue," where the studded collars
were pure pageantry and the big-headed dogs were beloved
couch potatoes. She put on a bite sleeve and let a
trained pit bull attack it so she would experience at
least the force of a dog attack. That evening, she says
the same pit put his paws on her lap and leaned against
her, as if to say, "We’re cool, right?"
PIT BULLS OVER-IDENTIFIED?
discovered that statistics on pit bull attacks, bite
strength and ability (some reports claim a pit bull can
simultaneously clamp its front teeth and grind its rear
teeth — a physical impossibility, Dickey points out)
and even overall pit bull population are often
misleading, if not grossly inaccurate. Further
complicating these figures, many dogs identified as pits
or pit mixes in news coverage or bite reports may have
no pit bull in them whatsoever.
term ‘pit mix,’ at this point, is almost ‘dog, not
otherwise specified.’ If you have no idea what it is,
just say it’s a pit mix," Dickey says. "We
know from multiple studies that have been done since at
least 2009 that visual identification of mixed breed
dogs is highly inaccurate — over 87 percent of the
time it’s inaccurate."
the book, she presents an experiment in which a purebred
basenji and a cocker spaniel — two dogs whose
distinctive attributes have little overlap — were
mated. By the second generation, as the photos show, the
puppies looked very little like either original breed.
most interesting part of those studies, to me, was that
no two people can agree on what breeds are likely in a
given mixed-breed dog," Dickey says. "If two
people can’t agree … then that tells us that the
identification that’s been going on, not just in
shelters but in things like bite reports, medical data,
all that stuff, is dramatically called into
the statistical proof of pit bulls being inherently
dangerous is problematic, the social history of
vilifying specific dog breeds is more so: in the 1870s,
Spitzes were viewed as a rabies-ridden, sub-canine
nuisance and were clubbed or drowned in significant
numbers. This wasn’t because of anything scientific or
rational, but because of their association with German
immigrants. Rottweilers, dachshunds, Doberman pinschers
and German shepherds have all spent time under this
unfortunate limelight. Often, as with the Spitz, the
public outcry against a dog mirrors prejudice against a
minority associated with it.
there are tensions between social groups, often the dogs
of groups that we may find threatening or that our group
might be in conflict with often become proxies for their
people," Dickey says. "That kind of
undercurrent of really ugly, violent racism that was
simmering under American dog culture was really
cites both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s
decrees to have their slaves’ dogs killed, and notes
that Jews’ dogs were seized and killed in Nazi
Germany. In modern American cities where there are pit
bull bans, she writes, these can be used as excuses to
over-police African American neighborhoods under the
pretense of enforcing breed bans. Much of the language
used in decrying pit bulls and the people who own them,
she says, is often racially charged — words like
"thug" or "dealer."
easy to make judgments from a distance, Dickey says. To
really understand a person — or their dog — you have
to meet them and get to know them, no matter what
background they’re from.
reasons dogs become that way are extremely complicated
and they involve a ton of human factors," Dickey
says. "Every dog is a unique blend of genes and
environment. There is so much to this story beyond a dog
looks like X, and therefore it is going to behave like