A Dog by Any Other Name

by Molly Donnell - TOP Dog Volunteer

Honey  - a dog as sweet as her name.

Honey  - a dog as sweet as her name.

I met my first “pit bull” when I was an intern in Washington DC. My roommates let me take Honey when I went out at night as a safety measure. People steered clear of us, but Honey was as sweet as her name. I’m pretty sure if someone had actually approached me, she would have hidden behind my legs. She would even crawl into my bed in the evening, hoping I wouldn’t notice her so she could stay all night. (I did, but I still let her cuddle.)

When I began volunteering with BDAR, the “pitties” that I worked with were equally as sweet and endearing. My husband and I were initially reluctant to foster a pit bull, but when we took the plunge and welcomed a big, yellow blockhead into our home, we were taken by his gentle nature. He was adopted into a home with two young girls and a Pomeranian, and he absolutely flourished. Like many others in the world of animal welfare that encountered “pits” that didn’t fit the negative stereotype, I became fascinated with them. How could their reputation be so far off-base what I personally experienced? Their story is a fascinating one that closely aligns with our own American culture (and prejudices).

Molly's first fostered pit-bull.

Molly's first fostered pit-bull.

Whether it is “bull terrier,” “staffie,” “bulldog,” or even “pibble,” no other breed brings about as much controversy or strong emotion as the ‘pit bull.’

“Pit bull” is actually a term for a type of dog, rather than a specific breed. Like “retrievers,” “pointers,” or “setters,” there are several breeds that fall into the ‘type.’ The breeds that are most commonly considered pit bulls are the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Pit Bull Terrier, and the American Staffordshire Terrier.

Starting in the early 1900s, Americans began grabbing hold to the idea that there were inherently “bad” breeds of dogs. First was the Spitz, a small, white, fluffy German breed that was widely (and incorrectly) considered a carrier of rabies. Next came the Cuban Bloodhound, then the German Shepherd, followed by Dobermans and Rottweilers. These breeds were widely reported as being particularly vicious and a menace to society.

In the mid-1970’s a perfect storm of misinformation and sensationalism occurred. Some well-meaning animal rights activists tried to bring attention to the underground world of dog fighting. Many of the “facts” they presented were intended to shock and horrify the public as a call to action, but as an unintended result, dog fighting actually grew more popular in sections of society where it previously didn’t exist.

This happened in conjunction with the beginning of 24-hour news networks, where the scary stories were a successful way to draw viewers. Myths about pit bulls were created during this time (such as feeling no pain, having an excessively strong bite, locking or unhinging jaws, “turning” on people, being “killing machines,” etc.) and continued to be repeated until they were accepted as fact. In reality, NONE of these are remotely true and have been thoroughly disproven through subsequent research.

Today, the majority of the dogs that are euthanized in American shelters are pit bull-type dogs. Or, any dog with a blocky head and short coat. People are the ones who classify and breed dogs to fit certain standards or expectations. People are the ones who attach preconceived notions and prejudices to others. Our obsession with breed blinds us to seeing a dog for who it really is. While breeds do have some inherent traits, the ones for pit bulls are positive, such as being intelligent, friendly, loyal, and tolerant.

The best thing we can do for the “pit bull” is to stop seeing it as anything other than a normal dog. If more people meet/own happy, well-trained, healthy pit bull dogs, the tide will turn. My family adopted a pit bull, Mia, last December, and she is absolutely wonderful. She was born in a nasty shelter in New Mexico, and all of her siblings died there. But, you would never know that Mia came from a rough beginning…She is a rambunctious puppy who is everybody’s best friend. Our almost two year-old girl and Mia have become inseparable. I worry more about Mia encountering people who will fear/harm her due to her appearance than her ever harming anyone.  I also continue to foster pit bulls, and truly believe in my heart that they pose no additional safety risk than any other dog. If the dog would fit in with my family, I couldn't care less about its breed.

If you are looking for a dog, I strongly encourage you to skip right over the breed classification and learn about a dog’s personality to see if it matches you and your lifestyle. It might very well be a pit bull. 

Mia makes a great companion for 2 year old Ivy.  Note: For more information about the history and most current knowledge of the dogs commonly called pit bulls, check out "Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon" by Brownwen Dickey.

Mia makes a great companion for 2 year old Ivy.

Note: For more information about the history and most current knowledge of the dogs commonly called pit bulls, check out "Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon" by Brownwen Dickey.