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.