She sported outsized bunny ears and a brownish-black coat still recovering from a nasty case of mange. Like many youngsters, she perched on Santa Claus’ lap with trepidation and the hope of a treat.
“Lizzy the Lab-mix” wiggle-butted her way into my heart from that PetFinder.com web page. Did she look like those glossy-coated Labs I’d read so much about, as I narrowed down my search for our first dog in two decades? Nope. But that didn’t matter to me or my wife. Lizzy, rechristened Ellie, was ours and we loved our baby girl.
To people who stopped to admire her shiny new coat and rippling “track star” muscles wherever we did our leash-training walks those first few months, she didn’t look much like a black Lab either.
“Is she a pit bull?”
“That’s a beautiful pit bull.”
I began to wonder if those folks knew something I didn’t. Was Ellie like one of those poor Michael Vick dogs (in the news around the time of her adoption)? Would she “turn” on me? A small child?
I researched as much as I could about “pit bulls”, learning that nearly all the Vick dog-fighting dogs had been rehabilitated and become family pets, therapy dogs and smooching love bugs. And I realized that ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Ellie’s breed specifics are—what matters is how she is perceived.
So she and I worked hard with leash-training. Focused on getting her to follow simple-but-important commands such as “Wait” on a canal path when joggers passed. Kept her leash super-short when we were at the veterinary hospital and other dogs roamed almost free-range on their retractable leashes. We did all we could to make sure I was a responsible owner and she a good dog citizen.
Now, a still robust 8-year-old, Ellie has a sixth sense about being extra gentle with children, those who [often known only to her initially] are dog-phobic, and even her 91-year-old “Grandma.” And, like many “pit bulls,” she is a big goofy clown; she gets my attention by showing me her speckled belly and giving me side-eye.
Since 2007, October is National Pit Bull Awareness Month, with the 27th designated as Pit Bull Awareness Day. A lot of progress has been made in the cultural rehabilitation of these canines; according to a 2012 study by VetStreet, the American Pit Bull Terrier is one of the top 3 pets in 28 states and the top dog in Rhode Island. However, of the 1.2 million dogs euthanized every year in this country, nearly 500,000 were identified as pit bull-type dogs.
While the myths about bully breeds linger, there are other major contributing factors behind these deaths, according to an article by Benjamin Moore in BarkPost.com.
- Overpopulation: bullies tend to have larger litters (6 to 12 pups on average) and many end up in shelters through no fault of their own.
- Breed Specific Legislation, such as those outlawing pit bulls in Denver and Miami, force families to surrender their dogs to shelters or rescue groups.
- In addition, prejudice against “pit bulls” lingers.
The irony: no one really knows what a “pitbull” is. As Bronwen Dickey noted in her excellent book, “Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon”, “the term ‘pit bull’ is an elastic, imprecise and subjective phrase…Ask a hundred different Americans to define what a ‘pit bull’ is…and you will get a hundred different answers.”
In fact, researchers have identified as many as 30 breeds of dogs who have the characteristics we think of as being a bully breed. So just because a dog may have a blocky head and muscular body doesn’t give it bully heritage.
Unfortunately, although other types of dogs have been cited in serious dog bite statistics in the United States, pit bull-type dogs are often singled out even though, as the American Veterinary Medicine Association notes, breed is a poor sole indicator in aggression. (And there again there’s that pesky issue of defining a “pit bull”.)
Fear is contagious. The small number of horrific dog bite cases becomes a mob of vicious animals running amok, attacking every child, dog and adult they see. Certain Internet sites feed on that fear like ticks on a dog, skewing findings to focus on “pit bulls”. They spread falsehoods such as “pit bulls” having “locking jaws” or pit bulls “turning on their owners”.
Moreover, as BarkPost’s Benjamin Moore noted, “study after study has shown that banning pit bulls does not decrease dog bites and, in fact, merely increases dog bites [reported about] non-pit-bull breeds like Labradors and Boxers.”
What is the answer? Preventing “Roverpopulation,” as we say at harnesslife.org, will help. (Indeed, 86% of fatal dog attacks involve unneutered male dogs, according to Huffington Post.) As will overturning breed-specific bans or stopping them from becoming law in the first place.
And, of course, eliminating the fear about pit bulls, even one dog at a time.
Ellie and I are committed to doing our part. We go out in public and even into stores that permit dogs, including some major big box stores, as much as possible. She sits still so that toddlers can pet her; greets everyone with a happy tail and soft eyes. Even Santa Claus.
Here’s a link to a page on our website with resources – advocacy groups, interesting articles, respected local rescue groups and even a couple of videos. Enjoy! – D²