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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Should you get a pug? Or a bulldog?

English bulldog. Creative Commons license.
English bulldog. Creative Commons license.

Short answer: No. Please don’t.

Long answer:

Let’s have a brief and simplistic history lesson of the purebred dog, shall we?

Dogs have been around for a long time. When they were bred in the past, they were bred for function. Dogs that were good at herding were bred to other good herders; dogs that were good at hunting were bred to other good hunting dogs. And then you had sheepdogs and hounds. Their appearance probably varied greatly, but they were prized because they could get the job done.

But around the turn of the century, eugenics started to become popular. Maintaining the “purity” of races was all the rage (and we remember how that turned out, in the form of Nazi Germany). Victorian England decided to turn its racial purity sights onto their beloved dogs, and they created the Kennel Club in 1873 and with it, the notion of a “pure”-bred dog. Dog shows and an invented breed standard allowed wealthy dog owners to breed their pets into status symbols.

Kennel clubs exist all around the world today, and the typical purebred dog is bred to meet a breed standard, determined by a kennel club. This breed standard is determined by the breed clubs, and it is based on a somewhat mythical (and changeable) notion of what the “perfect” example of its breed should look like. Dog shows are strictly beauty pageants. Dogs have to meet an arbitrary, human-defined standard of beauty to be declared fit to be bred. And therein lies the problem.

When we make appearance the primary criteria for choosing a dog, we do a great disservice to the health and welfare of dogs everywhere.

These are the two main problems with making beauty the only thing that counts when breeding dogs:

  • Genetic diseases skyrocket. Among humans, it’d be gross/totally taboo for a grandfather to procreate with his granddaughter. But in the purebred dog world, this is completely common and even encouraged, especially if that sire is a ribbon winner. Naturally, this makes inherited disease vastly more common. As a weird/gross factoid of how far we’ve taken this, Imperial College London found that the approximately 10,000 pugs in the United Kingdom are equivalent to only 50 genetic individuals.
  • Anatomy gets screwed up to meet a capricious breed standard. Again, the breed standard is completely invented. There is no good reason for dachshunds to have one-inch-long legs anymore. There is no good reason for German shepherds to have back hocks that almost touch the ground. There is no good reason for bulldogs to be unable to respirate normally because of their squashed snouts. The dogs are bred this way to meet a breed standard, which is completely made up. And we are destroying their bodies in the process.
Pug. Creative Commons license.
Pug. Creative Commons license.

Didn’t your mother ever tell you looks don’t matter? It’s what’s on the inside that counts? And what’s on the inside of many purebreds, especially snub-nosed (brachycephalic), breeds is royally effed up, thanks to kennel clubs and breed standards.

I always get a lot of hate mail/negative comments when I express this opinion—that bulldogs and pugs are desperately unhealthy and over-bred—but I feel so strongly about this issue that it rolls off my back like water. I also have science on my side, so that helps.

Here’s a great summation of many of the physical problems with pedigree dogs, via following infographic from the RSPCA:

Dogs-deserve-better-infographic

If you have a pug, French bulldog, English bulldog, or pekingese, or any extremely over-bred/deformed purebred, I know you love your dog. I know your dog loves you. They’re little fighters. They suffer and they don’t complain.

I know it’s not directly your fault that your dog can’t breathe or reproduce naturally. It’s the fault of generations of eugenics inflicted on canines to fit a wholly arbitrary breed standard.

French bulldogs. Creative Commons license.
French bulldogs. Creative Commons license.

But what is terrifying and depressing now is how registrations of brachycephalic dogs have soared over the past decade. Pugs and bulldogs are extremely trendy right now. They appear in tons of marketing and ad campaigns, and it’s “hip” to have a dog with a squashed face, especially in big cities. French bulldogs and pugs are small and relatively “lazy” (largely because they are incapable of too much exertion because of their anatomy), and so they appeal to many city dwellers.

I see so many pugs and bulldogs on the street, and I feel crushed a little every time I do. If you even know the slightest bit about canine anatomy, you can observe how much these dogs labor and struggle to even walk or trot short distances, especially on hot days. My hair stylist’s 5-year-old English bulldog dropped dead in the park one summer day because his heart simply gave out. Her vet said she’d seen it happen multiple times with bulldogs. I grow sad when I hear owners laughing about how their pugs or bulldogs “snore” or grunt so much. It isn’t really funny; your dog snores so loudly because she actually can’t get enough air. It’s heartbreaking. Dogs deserve better than this. 

So, what are you to do, if you really like the look of pugs or French bulldogs? Here are a few ideas.

Alternatives to a pug/French bulldog/English bulldog

Puggle. Creative Commons license.
Puggle. Creative Commons license.
  • Puggle. Pug + beagle = dog who can breathe!
  • Pit bull or pit-type dogs. Still the squashed face that may appeal to you, but a much healthier build. And there are TONS of wonderful, happy pitties in shelters all around the country who are desperate to find happy homes.
  • Any mixed breed! Really. Breed is not a great determinant for personality. And modern purebreds, especially brachycephalic purebreds, tend to be genetic disasters.
A pit bull-type dog. Creative Commons license.
A pit bull-type dog. Creative Commons license.

But it’s time we spoke up for purebred dogs, who can’t speak up for themselves. Start demanding better breed standards from local breed clubs. Urge the kennel club in your country to take stronger measures to ensure that dogs are healthy and free of genetic disease.

The most important thing is to resist the urge to buy a puppy that’s bred to extremes. If we stop demanding snub-nosed breeds, the supply will decrease. Just say no to pugs and bulldogs. After all they give us, dogs deserve better, healthier, longer lives. And we have the power to give it to them.

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