Licked to Death by a Pit Bull
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.