The way we see pit bulls matters

In the circles I move in, it surprises me whenever I hear that people still harbor such negative opinions of pit bulls or dogs who resemble the bully breed type. When I volunteered at our local SPCA, some of my friends expressed concern about all of the pit bulls there and asked me if I was afraid of them. And I’d say no, I didn’t have time to be afraid of them, because all of them were spending all of their energy trying to crawl into my lap and lick my mouth. I was surprised. Isn’t everyone on board with pit bulls now? Apparently not.

I was also startled, when visiting a beach in Ireland this summer, to see that (really shockingly and stupidly broad) breed-specific legislation was being enforced there. I shouldn’t have been: the United Kingdom and Ireland are on the long list of countries that ban bully breeds.

And just a few weeks ago, Montréal joined the list of major cities that aim to ban pit bulls.* (*It sounds like there is an effort to put this on hold? Will be interested to hear how this develops.) Denver and Miami still ban them, and it is plausible to assume that other cities around the world will continue to buy into breed-based discrimination in the name of “safety” and “public order.” There are still very vocal “advocacy” groups hell bent on outlawing pit bulls.

How I wish more people and more legislators would read Bronwen Dickey’s excellent book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon.

Dickey approaches the story of the “breed” (more like dog type) with the clear-headed mind of a journalist and historian. She is a thorough researcher and weaves together a variety of subjects, interviews, and studies to explain why we see pit bulls the way we do now.

What results is a genuinely fascinating narrative of the ebb and flow of US public opinion regarding this dog. Americans have freaked out about particular dog breeds before — there was a murder campaign over the tiny, innocuous-looking German spitz in the early 1900s (totally surprised to learn about this one), and then, more recently, other German breeds, like German shepherds, dobermans, and rottweilers — but no terror seems to have lasted as long as the one we’ve directed at pit bulls.

Dickey makes a powerful case that a lot of our disdain and fear of pit bulls stems from systemic racism. Pit bulls are often featured in lower-income neighborhoods, and in America, we set up our neighborhoods so that the poorest ones are organized by race. She quotes a Baltimore activist, Lawrence Grandpre, in the Baltimore Sun:

“Over time, it seems that ‘pit bull’ has become a synonym for ‘black,’ and thus a similar bias seems to be at play here. As a black person raised in Baltimore, pit bulls were a central part of the social fabric of my life. The best dog I ever had was a pit bull, and he was the sweetest thing I have ever met. I am confident that if you were to ask the vast majority of pit bull owners in this city, they will tell you the same thing. For black folks like me who grew up with them, we love them because when we were born into a violent world not of our choosing, they protected us.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pit bulls, Dickey concludes, are just dogs. They are no more virtuous or vicious than any other dog. But we have really caused them to suffer because of our own prejudices. It is a sad thing indeed.

I’d encourage anyone with an interest in canine and human welfare to read this book and to share it with others.

Have you read Pit Bull? What do you think?

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Disclaimer: I was not asked to write this review or compensated in any way. Just really loved the book and wanted to share!

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10 best books for dog owners

I have read a lot of books about dogs. I read about 60 books about dog behavior, training, and psychology before we adopted our first dog, Pyrrha, and I still love to read dog books today.

I get asked from time to time by new dog owners about what they should read. Following are the top 10 books I’d recommend to people with dogs, covering everything from training to behavior to history. I link to the reviews I’ve written of these books, and if not available, I provide a link to the book’s Goodreads page.

Dog lovers, read away!

  1. The Other End of the Leash, Patricia McConnell
  2. The Power of Positive Dog Training, Pat Miller
  3. Bones Would Rain from the Sky, Suzanne Clothier
  4. For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell
  5. Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz
  6. Dog Sense, John Bradshaw
  7. On Talking Terms with Dogs, Turid Rugaas
  8. Love Has No Age Limit, Patricia McConnell
  9. Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt
  10. The Adopted Dog Bible, Kim Saunders

(As you can see, my general opinions is that if you read anyone on dogs, start with Patricia McConnell. I think she’s the gold standard for modern writing on dogs. Her blog, The Other End of the Leash, is predictably fantastic as well.)

Honorable mentions

What are your favorite books about dogs? What would you add to these lists?

Review: In Defence of Dogs

In Defence of Dogs, John BradshawOur little public library in London had a small shelf of dog books, and so I was pleased to find a copy of John Bradshaw’s book In Defence of Dogs, which was not available at my library in the US.

I had previously read and enjoyed Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense, and this book might be the same book as Dog Sense, just under a UK title. Ha. It’s been so long since I’ve read Dog Sense and the material is so similar that I’m actually not sure. Even if it’s the same, it was a pleasure to re-read and to reinforce what I have already learned about the development and history of canine science.

“Dogs have been adapted, or have adapted themselves, to all kinds of roles, in a way unmatched by any other domestic animal, and such flexibility must lie at the heart of the enduring power of the human–canine relationship.”

Bradshaw’s underlying message is clear: If dog owners knew a little more dog science, dogs and people would be better off. 

There is a trend, particularly in America, to mistrust “experts” and science. Dog training originated as more of a craft than a science, and that model persists today. Anyone can call himself a dog trainer. It is not a certified profession in the same way that law or medicine are. And thus dogs suffer from this lack of a scientific standard or professional code. Because the recent decades of canine research have shown us that most of what traditional trainers have assumed about dogs is flatly wrong.

For instance, dogs are not constantly seeking to undermine us and rule the household. Dogs do not behave like captive wolves, and so the old dominance models, which were fixated on “pack leadership” and who was the “alpha” are both completely passé and damaging to our relationships with our dogs. Bradshaw, a professor of anthrozoology at the University of Bristol, uses plentiful examples from the scientific literature to make his case. He writes:

“Personally, I am delighted that the most recent scientific evidence backs up an approach to managing dogs that I am comfortable with. As a scientist as well as a dog-lover, I am dedicated to assessing the best evidence available and then deciding on the most logical approach to adopt. If wild wolf packs had turned out to be as fraught with tension as their counterparts in zoos, I would have had to agree that the dominance approach had merit. I would still have been reluctant to adopt punishment rather than reward as my philosophy for training my dog, because for me the whole point of having a dog is the companionship it brings, and for me domination and companionship do not gel. As a dog owner, I was relieved by the discrediting of the wolf-pack idea, since I could then explain to myself and, more importantly, to others why routinely punishing a dog is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.” (Emphasis added)

And this is what I also find so pleasing: Science confirms that gentleness and respect, not dominance and punishment, is the preferable approach to relating to our dogs.

Bradshaw also reviews the history of the domestication of the dog, dog training myths, and the perils of the purebred dog, among other topics.

Darwin's sketch of a submissive dog.
Darwin’s sketch of a submissive dog.

It’s a compelling and eminently readable book, and his chapters debunking the dominance myth should be required reading for all dog owners. I was pleased to refresh my memory of many of these studies, and In Defence of Dogs profoundly renewed my interest in canine science and general advocacy.

Have you read John Bradshaw before? 

Review: What the Dog Knows

What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working DogsAs soon as I heard about Cat Warren’s book, What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs, I added it to my reading list. The book combines several of my favorite things: canine science + German shepherds + North Carolina.

And this book certainly did not disappoint! Part history, part scientific narrative, and part memoir, What the Dog Knows delivers a compelling account of working with cadaver dogs — dogs who are trained to work with law enforcement and their handlers to find bodies.

Warren, a German shepherd enthusiast, found a new working-line shepherd puppy after her previous dog passed away, but he came with some reservations. Solo, as he came to be named, was a singleton puppy (aka a solo puppy without any littermates). Warren was well aware of the warnings that come with singleton puppies, from Patricia McConnell and other dog experts, but she and her husband signed up for the challenge.

Solo turned out to be a very driven, stubborn, nose-oriented pup and caused Warren to cry to her husband on the first night that she didn’t like the puppy. But, as you can expect, their relationship grew and strengthened dramatically as Solo grew up and as Warren found the perfect profession for him: cadaver dog. Solo remained a headstrong, determined dog, but Warren quickly learned that he had the ideal personality for this work. As one of her trainers told her, the perfect working dog is one who is basically an asshole.

In cataloging her experiences of training and working with Solo, Warren also provides valuable research about working dogs and their history. Her anecdotes are also humorous, engaging, and thought-provoking. While reading, I was repeatedly recounting stories to Guion from this book, usually followed by the exclamations: Can you believe that?, that’s insane!, and dogs are SO cool!

As an aside, it’s also a pleasure to read a dog book that’s well written. Dog lovers abound, but not many of them are also great writers. Warren is a journalism professor at NC State University, so she certainly knows her way around a sentence. The book was a pleasure to read, and I enjoyed its language and narratives from start to finish.

Warren also maintains a great blog, with more working dog stories and photos of her beautiful shepherds, Solo and Coda.

If you’re interested in working dogs, or even if you just want to know more about how the dog’s nose and brain work, this book comes with our hearty recommendation.

Disclosure: I was kindly provided with a review copy of this book by the author, but she didn’t request a review. I just really liked it! All opinions are my own.

Review: Dogs Rule Nonchalantly

Dogs Rule NonchalantlyI was delighted to receive a copy of the artist Mark Ulriksen’s new book, Dogs Rule Nonchalantly. I’m familiar with Ulriksen’s work largely through the New Yorker, and it was a treat to discover that he’s an avid dog lover. I love his style, and this is a brief and beautifully collected book about life with dogs (both in general and in his personal history).

The paintings are wonderfully reproduced (as you can see from these sample pages), and the text is very funny and engaging. I also liked that the text appeared to be handwritten (presumably, a font was made of Ulriksen’s handwriting). Most of the paintings in the book are either from private commissions or covers of celebrated magazines (Ulriksen is a regular on the cover of the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly).

Of course, I also had to take a photo of one of the paintings that included a German shepherd. This one was featured on the cover of the New Yorker in 1996:

Dogs Rule Nonchalantly | Mark Ulriksen

Some favorite quotes and lines:

1: “Personally, I was never big on little dogs, and cats are a little too independent, too aloof to get close to. But dogs are different, they give you their undivided attention. They watch your every gesture, read your every emotion, listen attentively to every word you say — until they hear the rustle of a bag of chips being opened.”

2: “Whether you’ve been gone for 5 minutes or 5 hours, they’ll greet you like you’ve been gone for 5 years.”

And 3:

A typical dog 12-step program:

1. Wake up, stretch
2. Eat meal in three seconds
3. Go outside, pee, walk, poop, walk, pee, smell everything
4. Go inside, follow human’s every movement, check all floors for microscopic food particles
5. Nap
6. Repeat Steps 1-6

This certainly describes my dogs’ lives! And finally, a sweet one:

4: “Dogs have such short lives. They deserve to be spoiled.”

This book would make an excellent gift for any dog lover, and it’d even serve as a beautiful coffee table book. I could also imagine it being fun to read to children, because of the simple text and the entrancing artwork. All in all, a hearty recommendation from us!

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Citizen Canine

Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs
Citizen Canine, by David Grimm.

In the past few years, I have read at least 75 books about dogs, so when a new dog book comes out, I kind of assume that I’ve already read some iteration of it before. I’m sure many of you feel the same way.

But this has proven to be a false assumption with David Grimm’s new book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs.

Grimm explores the fast-paced and monumental success of American pets to become the most legally protected animals in the country. Given Americans’ deep love of their dogs and cats, and the billions of dollars a year we shell out on them, it is no longer surprising to hear that we consider our pets to be valid members of our families. But what does this mean for us as a culture? And what does it mean for the dogs and cats?

The author talks with scientists, canine researchers, animal shelters, law enforcement, inmates, and everyday pet lovers as he unpacks this significant modern conundrum. He presents us with an array of ponderous questions: What kind of emotions do animals feel? Should the punishments for animal abuse be equal to those of child abuse? How far do we take the “personhood” movement for pets? And what about all of the other animals, who aren’t lucky enough to live in our homes and sleep in our beds? What kind of obligations do we owe them? It’s dizzying to even begin to think about, but it’s an important consideration for those of us who willingly share our lives — and our pocketbooks — with these beloved, domesticated creatures.

Some of the researchers (such as Marc Bekoff, Brian Hare, and Alexandra Horowitz) and their opinions recounted in the book are already very familiar to me — as they may be to many of you — but they provide important context to Grimm’s exploration of the topic. His chapter on pit bull hysteria is also particularly excellent, providing a great deal of historical and contemporary context. It’s a well-researched and well-documented book, and Grimm does a superb job balancing a variety of perspectives here.

I heartily recommend this book to any US-based intellectual pet owner who has ever thought about the philosophical, legal, and cultural implications of pets as members of a human family.

Disclosure: I was NOT provided with a review copy; I checked this book out for myself at my local public library.

Review: A Wolf Called Romeo

A Wolf Called Romeo

After reading that Patricia McConnell — my dog lady hero — loved this book, I knew I had to add it to my reading docket. I was pleased to discover that my local library had a copy, and I tore through this book as quickly as McConnell promised I would.

Nick Jans tells a riveting story of a friendship that developed between a community of dog-lovers and a lone wolf. In the early 2000s, the community of Juneau, Alaska, started to notice this gorgeous male black wolf stalking around near their neighborhoods. Was he a threat? Was he dangerous? Where was his pack? The wolf’s background remained largely a mystery, but his purposes soon became clear: this wolf just loved dogs.

Yes. This enormous wild wolf was crazy about dogs, and all he wanted to do was play with them. He started to sit outside Jans’s house, waiting for him to come out with his dogs — including his true love, Dakotah the lab, who is pictured in that unbelievable cover photo above — earning him the moniker “Romeo.”

What follows is a riveting, well-told account of a three-way inter-species friendship between a wolf, dogs, and humans. Naturally, complications arise when the humans get more involved in Romeo’s story, and so you’ll have to read the book yourself to learn more. (Full disclosure: This book made me cry three times, and I am not one for sappy animal stories, as much as I love animals in the flesh. Jans doesn’t unfairly toy with one’s emotions. This is just a real, heart-rending story.)

My sole complaint of the book is that I wish that the photos had been reproduced in color; they are really beautiful, even in grayscale. I was able to find this color reproduction of Romeo, presumably taken by Jans, which appears in the book:

Romeo. (c) Nick Jans.
Romeo. (c) John Hyde.

He really sounded like a remarkable wolf, and he provided Jans with a remarkable story to tell. A highly recommended book to anyone who loves animals, especially wolves, and the mysteries of inter-species relationships.

Disclosure: I was NOT provided with a review copy or asked to write this review. I checked it out myself from the library.