Review: Pitbull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey

I have to admit, I hesitated a bit when my wife first showed me a picture of Tiki on her computer screen. We had just gotten married, and were in the final stages of getting a house. A dog was something that we had talked about for quite a while, and we had gone through the ups and downs of searching through countless pictures of pets from the local shelters. I had my heart set on finding a black lab, a type of dog that I’ve always seen as loyal and family-friendly.

The description said ‘Lab Mix’, one of the more generic labels that a shelter can put on a dog. I hesitated because Megan pointed out that he was probably part pit bull.

I had only met a pit bull once, and it was a good experience. A friend of Megan’s owns a sweet dog named Peaches, who had broken every stereotype of the dog. Regardless, we went up to meet Tiki, and fell in love instantly. He’s currently sulking down in our living room because he was subjected to a bath.  He is, as my dad described him, a ‘dog’s dog’, the base unit of dog. Snout, tail, ears, friendly attitude, etc.

I came across Bronwen Dickey’s book after reading an article about the negative response to her debut book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon. After the book’s release earlier this spring, she’s had to get extra security and endure a relentless bout of harassment from anti-Pit activists who have condemned her as a sort of propagandist for the animals.

The book is a fascinating history of the type of dog – not a breed – but more importantly, it’s an in-depth look at how ideas get embedded in society, and how these ideas are slowly changed. I didn’t expect it, but it’s probably one of the best self-examinations of media sensationalism and good journalistic practice. It’s also a great book about dogs and how their role as human companions has changed with time.

The Pit Bull, Dickey argues, is a type of dog that has been maligned recently – in the early 20th Century and earlier, it was viewed as the best sort of dog – good with families, good companions, and so on. Dickey looks as the dog’s legacy as a fighter, which was eventually rolled into coverage whenever a dog bit or killed someone. The shorthand article of a dog whose history includes fighting kills someone only reinforces the idea that the bite or death was inevitable.

Pit Bulls have bitten people, and a they have killed people. It’s impossible to get away from that point. However, she notes, all other types of dogs are responsible for the same actions: there are golden retrievers and labs that have bitten and killed as well. Part of the general impression of these dogs stems from the type of coverage that they receive, which is disproportionately angled against these particular animals. They also aren’t the first – they’re just the latest in a long string of movements where they’re at the wrong end of public opinion.

Furthermore, there’s a deeply embedded level of racism that’s associated with these dogs.

Furthermore, there’s a deeply embedded level of racism that’s associated with these dogs. During the 1970s and 1980s, the dogs became synonymous with rising crime levels and as guard dogs for – predominantly inner-city (read: black) – residents. This further solidified the general impression that these animals had no purpose other than violence. Dickey points to the rise of breed-specific legislation as a means of not only quelling white, suburban homeowner fears about ‘killer dogs’, but also as a good way to discourage minorities – who prominently owned the dogs – from moving in.

The combined series of events and circumstances have really tainted the reputation of the dog, which is unfortunate, given that there’s absolutely no indication that there’s a ‘killer gene’ that makes these particular dogs inherently dangerous. Numerous studies and data show that there’s no breed more dangerous than any others.

What makes dogs dangerous? It’s likely living conditions and abnormal stresses from owners who want dogs but are ill equipped to deal with them, and that doesn’t extend to just pits. Dickey closes out the book with efforts that groups are putting together to help dog owners, whether it’s providing fencing, training, neutering, food or basic healthcare for those who might not ordinarily be able to afford it. Similarly, breed-specific legislations are beginning to fall across the United States, an incredibly positive step.

Stress also has its impact. Tiki is an incredibly friendly, happy member of the family, but he has his buttons that we sometimes inadvertently push. I got a bite on the hand once when I tried to get him out of the car – he had hopped in expecting a ride, but got nervous as I tried to grab him by the collar to pull him out. I hadn’t recognized how anxious he was, and how afraid he when I raised my voice. I now know how to recognize the signs when he’s upset, and haven’t had an issue since. When he hopped into the car the other day expecting a ride (seriously, saying the words ‘Car Ride’ gets him excited), I just hooked a leash to his collar and was able to get him out of the car without a fuss.

I’ve met more Pit Bulls or Pit-type dogs since we’ve adopted Tiki: some are sweet and adorable animals who are bursting with energy and ready to play and receive attention. Others encounters haven’t gone well: while walking Tiki one day, we came across a female Pit that grew really angry as we walked past: she slipped out of the tennis court that she was in with her owners, closed the distance between us and attacked Tiki, biting him in the neck. (His wounds were superficial), but the inattention of the owners (hers and myself – we should have turned around and walked the other way) led to the encounter. It appears to have been an isolated incident. Tiki was already a slightly stressed and anxious dog, and the encounter has certainly made an impact, one that we’ve worked on with training and reinforcement.

If you like Pit Bulls or really dislike them, Dickey’s book is one that’s really well worth picking up and giving an honest read. This is a book that’s evenly balanced, and cuts through hearsay and the accumulated bullshit that had become truth to so many people. (Another author to check out in the same vein is Maureen Ogle, with her book In Meat We Trust, a spectacular history of meat and the United States). Dickey’s book has had the unexpected impact of making me a better journalist and pet owner, all while providing a really interesting history of dogs and how we interact with them. I hope that it will help improve things for the dogs.

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