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!

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?