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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What does breed discrimination accomplish?

During a recent visit to Barley Cove, a beach in southwest Ireland, I was surprised and dismayed to see this sign posted at the boardwalk to the beach:

Breed discrimination

I have heard about such blatant breed discrimination before, but this is the first time I’ve seen it myself. As you can see, German shepherds are on the list, along with many breeds that have acquired a negative public perception, thanks to decades of media hype and stereotyping.

Obviously, if you have a people- or dog-aggressive dog, you shouldn’t bring her to a public beach and let her off leash, regardless of breed. Which is why this ruling is so irritating to me. Dogs of ALL breeds can be dangerous. Yes, an aggressive chihuahua is going to do less damage to you than an aggressive akita, but the presumption that particular breeds are, by intrinsic nature, dangerous, could not be further from the truth. Dogs are individuals. A fear-reactive golden retriever could be much more dangerous to the public welfare than a well-socialized pit bull. By passing legislation like this, towns only further reinforce negative stereotypes about certain types of dogs.

To me, the irony of this ruling (breeds on this poster have to be leashed and muzzled) is that a dog who was on a beach like this, watching every other dog run around off leash, would be likely to be more reactive if he was the only dog leashed and muzzled. I know my dogs, who are on this list of banned breeds, would be immensely frustrated and probably act out if an off-leash dog ran up to them while they were constrained by a leash and muzzle.

Also, the crossbreeds addendum (the ruling applies to all dogs on the poster and their crossbreeds) is ludicrous to me. People, myself included, are notoriously bad at guessing breeds. Even shelter workers are just as bad at guessing which dogs are “pit bulls” and which aren’t. You simply can’t conclusively know a dog’s heritage by looking at him, and even if you could, the breed background wouldn’t tell you anything certain about the dog’s temperament. Our dog pal Howie is a great example:

Play date with Howie
Full German shepherd on the left, half German shepherd on the right. Would you have correctly guessed Howie’s “dangerous” parentage? (I wouldn’t have!)

Howie is half-lab, half-German shepherd. His mother was a purebred German shepherd who came into the rescue, but he bears hardly any resemblance to his mother’s breed. This sweet, shy pup would qualify as a “dangerous crossbreed” according to this legislation. But anyone who looked at him would think he was just a slightly leaner, leggier labrador.

Again, dogs are individuals. Our two purebred German shepherds are as different from each other, personality wise, as night and day.

Barley Cove
Barley Cove.

It makes me sad to think we haven’t moved past this in the 21st century, and especially in a country thought to be as progressive as Ireland.

And a related/recent update on this issue: The Battersea Dogs & Cats home in the UK just published a damning report of the breed discrimination law, including photos of dogs they euthanized because the dogs had a “pit bull” appearance.

What do you think about it? Do you think such bans are a good idea? Are there any breed discrimination laws in your area?

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“Yappy Hour” with the rescue group

Greeting Blake
Tyler and Pyrrha greet Blake at Yappy Hour.

What is it about seeing a bunch of dogs who are the same breed together that is so thrilling?

This past Sunday, Pyrrha’s rescue group, Southeast German Shepherd Rescue, held an event at a local vineyard, adorably titled “Yappy Hour.” Many adoptable shepherds were in attendance, along with a few from Pyrrha’s foster pack. We thought it might be a good way to expose her to some other dogs, especially dogs that she was already familiar with.

I was a little nervous about how she’d do with about 10 other big dogs, but it turns out that Pyrrha has no problem with shepherds. She’s kind of a breed-ist, apparently. During the initial introductions, she showed a little nervousness, but nothing like what she displays toward unfamiliar dogs on the street. I can’t help but think she remembered some of these dogs, too. In the photo above, she’s greeting gentle giant Blake, owned by one of the rescue’s coordinators, with Tyler, an adoptable dog who’s had a rough start.

Jagger!
Onyx bobs for drinks, while Jagger peeks his head out.

I think she was happy to be reunited with some of her foster pack. Pictured above from her foster family: Onyx, the adoptable Belgian malinois mix, goes bobbing for drinks, while Jagger pokes his head out for a look. Jagger, owned by Pyrrha’s foster, Cassie, is a sweetheart and I wish we had him around more to teach Pyrrha some manners. I have a feeling he keeps the pack in line, but leads with a firm and fair paw.

Rawhide time
Jagger and Onyx with rawhides.

I think I may have a weakness for sables. Next dog, maybe? …

Tyler
Tyler.

This is Tyler. He’s up for adoption and has had a really hard go of it. Cassie says he’s been returned seven times by potential adopters. So sad. He was found wandering the streets of a large, metropolitan area. Tyler looks much older than he is (which is about 4) and he’s struggled to keep any weight on. Unfortunately, after a recent check-up, the vets think he may have degenerative bone disease. He’s very gentle, though, and watches people closely. Here’s to hoping that he can recover quickly and find his forever home soon.

Cissy's ears!
Pyrrha and the adoptable puppy, Cissy (with flying ears).

We learned that Pyrrha is somewhat lacking in morals, as she is willing to steal candy from a baby. Cissy, the adoptable shepherd mix puppy above, would get a rawhide and then Pyrrha would sneak up and steal it from her. Tsk! Our girl needs to learn some general etiquette. Cissy, however, is pretty fearless and wasn’t afraid to fight Pyrrha for it; she even got it back a few times.

Relaxing a bit
Hanging out.

All in all, we were really proud of how our girl did. I think she was happy to get to spend some time in the company of other dogs, without much stress or anxiety. The only dog that made her anxious all day was a boisterous yellow lab, who came bounding up to her; all the shepherds (both old friends and unfamiliar ones) didn’t cause much fear at all. It’s clear that we need to expose her to lots of different types of dogs, but I think we’ll get there. For now, it was heartening to see her with lots of other new dogs (even if they were all German shepherds) and not stressed out.

So, question: Do you think this is possible, that a dog could be comfortable with one specific breed and not with others? Have you seen that behavior in your own dog? Does your dog prefer certain breeds, or actively dislike others?

Review: Why Does My Dog Act That Way?

Why Does My Dog Act That Way?

I don’t know why I keep going back to read more Stanley Coren; I never really enjoy his books. But they always sound so interesting! I think I keep telling myself, “Maybe this one will have some pertinent and useful information…” Sigh. Nope.

Why Does My Dog Act That Way? is just more of the same, standard Coren fare: Breed discrimination based only on limiting stereotypes. Like every Coren book I’ve read so far, this one also has a considerable lack of plausible scientific support for his “research,” which presumably backs up his stereotypes. This book is basically an introduction to how Coren judges dogs based on their breed.

While the beginning of the book covers some fundamental material, like how dogs’ personalities are modified by internal or external factors, the rest of the book is haphazardly organized and contains a lot of irrelevant chapters, in my opinion. For example, Coren spends a whole chapter talking about his visit to a dog fight and how it is mostly impossible to trust any pit bull–even a pit bull not bred for fighting–with people, especially children.

As he is wont to do, he then splits up dog breeds into his own categories and then classifies them according to their personalities. The results just give these broad over-generalizations, sweeping across entire breeds: Expect border collies to be high-strung, German shepherds to have fear-based aggression, poodles to be finicky, sight hounds to be virtually untrainable, and so on.

I understand that it’s tempting to do this. We all like to read lists and we all like to read stereotypes, especially when they confirm what we already believe about someone or some dog. I for one, however, want to strive to see dogs as individuals and not make generic assumptions about them based on their breed or breed mix. I’ve met lazy border collies. I’ve met rough-and-tumble poodles. I’ve met very well-trained greyhounds. Every dog is different. I know that there are things you can expect and even predict from certain breeds, but to classify them in such a hard-lined way? No thanks, Stan.

Pup links!

The prototypical collie/shepherd. Source: LIFE Magazine Archives.

Dog-related links from around the Web this week.

Breed-based euthanasia proposed in NC county. This is so horrible that it barely seems real. Cumberland County in North Carolina has a proposal on the docket that will euthanize all incoming GSDs, bully breeds, dobermans, rottweilers, akitas, chows, and Great Danes within 72 hours and not give them a chance to be adopted. There is a petition collecting signatures here; I signed it last night and encourage you to do the same, if you feel so led. It’s hard for me to believe that this kind of egregious breed-based discrimination still exists. But, clearly and sadly, it does. (Examiner)

Puppy at 500 f/s. On a lighter note: This is a beautiful video and an excellent study in canine movement. Directors of an independent film studio, Kamerawerk, made this short film, titled “Afternoon Pleasures,” of their chocolate lab puppy chasing a ball (and other various objects) and it’s lovely and riveting. Sent to me by my friend Maggie. (Kamerawerk on Vimeo)

Judgment Is Easy, Understanding Takes Work. An inspiring and thoughtful post about reserving judgment of our fellow dog owners. It’s something that I have to work on too, even though I don’t have a dog of my own! (Rescuing Insanity)

De-bunking the “Alpha Dog” Theory. Pat Miller, a positive trainer I respect, reflects on why this theory of the “alpha dog” needs to fall by the wayside. This is something I definitely wish all dog owners knew today. It always surprises me how widespread this theory is–even at the shelter. Seasoned volunteers and sometimes staff members use “alpha dog” language to talk about “problem” dogs and I often wish I had enough credibility to speak up about it. (The Hydrant)

Preparing for Your New Pooch. A practical list of guidelines to help one prepare to bring a dog into the home. Even though I’ve read dozens of lists like this one, I always like finding them and comparing notes. (The Inquisitive Canine)

Mismark Case: Australian Shepherd. The canine-loving biologist writes a post on one of my all-time favorite breeds, the Aussie, and examines the different markings and genetic repercussions that occur in the breed. (Musings of a Biologist and Dog Lover)

Peter Clark Dog Collages. This artist makes collages of popular breeds from found maps and old stamps. The results are eye-catching! (Dog Milk)

Dog Snout Also Makes Handy Bath Snorkel. This pup has the right idea. (Best Week Ever)

Pup links!

You've got your Aussie and your Hunters. What more does a girl need? Source: Shirley Bittner

Elli and Forgiveness. A sweet post about how our dogs are often our moral superiors. (Identity: V+E)

Going Home: “The Perfect Day.” Slate published an excerpt this week from Jon Katz’s new book about saying goodbye when dogs die. Prepare to cry! (Slate)

Dealing with Breed Discrimination. Since we’re leaning toward adopting an adult GSD, breed discrimination is something that I occasionally worry about, especially with regard to renting and traveling. Amy writes some thoughtful points on how to be conscientious if you’re traveling with a dog whose breed is often discriminated against. Has anyone experienced this with their dog? If so, how do you handle it? (Take Paws)

2012 Calendar from River Dog Prints. I’m a sucker for cute calendars and these are adorable! (Dog Milk)

Halloween Costume Roundup. Will you dress your dog up for Halloween? What’s this year’s costume of choice? (Rescued Insanity)

Playground Police. You can always trust the dog to keep law and order. (Animals Being Di*ks)