Licked to Death by a Pit Bull

Illustration by John Cuneo
by Bronwen Dickey - Dec 2011/Jan 2012

And other tales of a faithful family dog

In the beginning, there was Angel.

I met her in the mountains of upstate South Carolina back in the winter of 2008—she belonged to some friends of mine—and the minute she trotted out to greet me, I felt certain that things would not go well. Her head looked like an anvil, for starters; it was framed by a wide jaw and lupine, almond-shaped eyes. Her silky black fur stretched over at least fifty pounds of muscle—she had the kind of physique you’d expect to see on a panther, not a pet. All the better to chase me down and devour me with, of course, because Angel was some kind of demon dog. You could tell just by looking at her. Angel was pure pit bull.

As it turned out, Angel wasn’t much of a fighter; she was more of a leaner. Astonishingly obedient. A bit on the needy side, if you want to know the truth. When the time came for her to chase the horses back into their corral, she did her job like an old pro, with precision and care, but most of the time she seemed more interested in soaking up human affection, however she could get it. 

So when the time came last year for my husband, Sean, and me to give our imperious, grumpy little pug some company, I started doing research on pit bulls, a breed I had always been taught to fear and revile. (Was I insane? Aren’t they bred for blood? Don’t they turn on their owners, and maul children without the slightest provocation? Don’t they have locking jaws?!)

Well, no. And no, and no, and no, and no (no dog has locking jaws, by the way, and a pit bull’s bite is weaker than, say, a German shepherd’s). There is no real DNA profile for the “pit-bull-type dog”; it’s at best a catchall term for what is pretty much a mutt all around, but I was shocked to learn that the American bulldog–
terrier mix was actually once cherished as a national icon, the canine embodiment of loyalty and courage and rock-solid temperament. The kind of dog you could always count on, and the kind you could trust with any job, from cutting cattle to search and rescue to, yes, babysitting. Petey, the Little Rascals’ sidekick from Our Gang? He was a pit bull. The RCA Victrola dog? A pit bull. The Buster Brown mascot? Pit bull. Sergeant Stubby, the most highly decorated dog in World War I? Pit bull. Portraits of pits draped in the American flag graced some of the most famous wartime recruitment posters. Even Theodore Roosevelt and Helen Keller adored the breed.

When I told friends what I learned, they hemmed and hawed as though I were considering the acquisition of a Bengal tiger. One politely told me that she “assumed certain things about people who owned pit bulls.” My mother, well versed in the child-mauling-
locking-jaw spiel, claimed I had a death wish. But the scales had fallen from my eyes. If a pit bull had been good enough for Helen Keller, then—what the hell?—I figured one was damn well good enough for us. So we decided to take our chances with the most notorious dog breed in America. And we had no trouble at all finding one, because all our shelters in North Carolina seemed to be overflowing with them.

“Pits have a hard time here,” one of the shelter volunteers told us, “because people are so scared of them. They’re surrendered all the time in the worst possible shape—sick, starved, beaten, tortured, you name it. And we have to put a lot of them down, which is such a shame, because they make excellent family dogs.”

We selected a young tan-and-white female with a red nose and honey-colored eyes who bounded over to us like a gazelle the first time we met her. Sean and I had recently returned from New Orleans and the Saints had just won the Super Bowl; our new addition, an underdog if there ever was one, looked elegant yet tough, refined yet scrappy. What could we do but name her Nola?

In the first few months after bringing Nola home, she consistently surprised us in every way. Our “junkyard dog,” she of dubious lineage and dangerous reputation, was more elaborate with her affection than any canine either of us had ever owned—more than all those retrievers, spaniels, hounds, terriers, and shepherds put together. If we were in any danger at all, it was the danger of having our faces licked off, the danger of drowning in slobber.

Wherever one of us went, Nola trundled alongside, and wherever we reclined together, Nola wedged between us like a balloon at a seventh-grade dance, curling into a bizarre contortion that we now call the “pit ball.” She dutifully checked the perimeter of whatever room we happened to be in. She groomed us and nuzzled us and rolled onto her side to spoon when we watched movies. Since we could never seem to peel her off of us, I joked that we might as well put a bonnet on her and start pushing her around in a stroller. (When I was at home alone at night, however, I didn’t exactly mind having a pit bull at my side. Potential intruders didn’t need to know that she was a love sponge.)

Every time I looked at Nola, she dished her ears forward, cocked her head appraisingly, and furrowed her brow in a way that let me know gears were turning back there, trying desperately to figure out what I wanted her to do. If I took her out for a hilly three-mile trail run, she pushed herself to the limit, racing ahead like some kind of spotted bullet. If I felt under the weather, she was content resting her head in the crook of my arm while I read a book. She picked up new commands and solved puzzle toys in minutes (thanks for nothing, Kong!), so our main challenge, if you can call it that, was keeping her from being bored. To paraphrase the late animal behaviorist and pit bull advocate Vicki Hearne, it was as though we weren’t so much training Nola as we were reminding her of something.

But when it came time to take her out in public, people reliably cringed and scooted away from Nola. I tried to offer up to wary strangers all the counterintuitive factoids I had come across from veterinarians and behaviorists—like the fact that pits are some of the most social dogs around, that they rank right up there with Labs and golden retrievers in terms of how much they seek out human attention. Or that the American Temperament Test Society, which has tested nearly a thousand pit bulls, gives them a passing score of 86 percent, higher than that of beagles and border collies.

Even armed with the data, we quickly realized that Nola’s affectionate nature was no match for decades of media hype. That didn’t make me sad for her (she didn’t know the difference) as much as it saddened me for the thousands of stable, adoptable pit-bull-type dogs in shelters across America that are euthanized every year because of this hysteria (in 2009, 58 percent of all euthanized dogs were pits), and for the folks I met who were missing out on the companionship of such a capable, versatile breed.

We have all read those headlines, hundreds of them, about horrifying, often fatal, pit bull attacks, and after Michael Vick’s famous arrest, we are all more familiar than we probably want to be with the evils of the dogfighting industry. Fear sells much better than reason, but fear also can’t bloom without ignorance. Chain up any kind of dog, subject it to the jeers and taunts of passing strangers, and deny it food, shelter, and meaningful human company, and you may very well end up with a dangerous, unstable animal. With pit bulls, the media-stoked firestorm about their “viciousness” has created a tragic feedback loop: They have a terrible reputation, so the animal abusers are even more drawn to them; these dogs are then treated miserably and sometimes end up reinforcing the stereotype. Behind every broken dog is a severely broken person. You can’t have one without the other.

Here’s another way of thinking about it, though: What does it tell you about the pit bull that, in the brutal world of dogfights, the animal is so focused on pleasing its owner that it will readily accept injury, or even death? And what does it tell you about the breed’s resilience that, even after being systematically trained to fight, many of these animals can be rehabilitated, and some now work as therapy dogs?

In a hundred years, the pit bull has gone from national hero to unpredictable monster, and the dogs are still the same. We’re the ones who have changed. Despite the variances in their size and shape and traditional uses, all breeds of the domesticated dog trace their genes back to one species: Canis lupus familiaris. The strongest element in their DNA is that they want to be with us, that they want to do what we ask of them. That is both the blessing and the burden of their loyalty.

As I write this, my arm is buckling under the significant weight of a big, blocky head. A pink nose is twitching near my keyboard, and every so often, a heaving sigh escapes it. I am being stared at with an intensity that tells me to please hurry up, it’s way past dinnertime, waiting has now become unacceptable.

So I will end with this:
I now make certain assumptions about people who own pit bulls, too. I assume they are independent thinkers, they have transcended a long-standing prejudice, and, more important, they know a damn good dog when they see one.