Several years ago, Bronwen Dickey was driving around and talking with a friend about the book she was working on. Her friend admitted that the topic — American pit bull terriers — frightened him.
“I’m 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.”
They 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?”
“That’s a pit bull?” her friend responded, incredulous.
In her new book, “Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon” (Alfred A. Knopf, 330 pp., $26.95), Dickey, who lives in Durham, North Carolina, and 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, science and social context of this controversial dog.
“I 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.
Dickey, a journalist who has written for the Oxford American, The New York Times and other publications, 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. She also consulted geneticists, trainers and a slew of scientists and experts. 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?”
Dickey discovered that statistics on pit bull attacks, bite strength and even overall population are often misleading, if not grossly inaccurate. Many dogs identified as pits or pit mixes in news coverage or bite reports may have no pit bull in them whatsoever.
“The term ‘pit mix,’ at this point, is almost ‘dog, not otherwise specified,’” 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.”
In 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.
If 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.
“When 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 sad.”
She 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.”
It’s 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.
“The 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 Y.”