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!

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:


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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What the dog has been up to lately

A goofball at heart.

Little Pyrrha stories from this week:

Mmm, toothpaste!

Guion called me yesterday and asked, “So, is too much dog toothpaste toxic?”

Oh, boy. I made another overconfident mistake with Pyrrha and thought we could trust her alone in the house, out of her crate, for an hour. She doesn’t get into anything when we’re home and we left her alone for 30 minutes the other day and nothing was touched; she was just dozing in her crate. So, I was all, “Sweet, she’ll be great on her own! We won’t even be gone that long.”

Pyr, however, found her canine toothpaste down in the bottom of a bin and went to TOWN on it. Guion said she was covered in gooey, green paste when he found her. It was all over the carpet, all over her paws, and the tube was obliterated. She’d sucked out all the paste and had started to chew up the plastic tube itself when Guion came home.

I proceeded to panic a little, and panicked even more when my I told my boss, she called her vet friend, and the vet friend said, “Call the animal poison control center immediately!” But Guion didn’t report that she was acting sick, and the toothpaste was a “natural” brand, so it didn’t have the typical chemical cocktail. And the poison control hotline costs $65.

So, I got in touch with her foster, her fairy-dog-mother, who recommended that I call the vet. I did, and they told me not to freak out, that she’d probably have an upset stomach and possibly vomit. She slept through the night without incident, though, and seems totally fine today, except for those sticky green stains still on her front legs…

What contraband item has your dog ingested? Did you freak out?

Crushin’ on Camden

Pyrrha is still getting used to greeting other dogs on leash, but I think she’s made pretty significant improvements since we first brought her home. She is still scared of any and all dogs, but I’ve been relaxing my hold on the leash a LOT and calming down significantly, and I think that’s helped tremendously. Her hackles still go up and her tail still tucks, but she seems like she wants to greet them now and she hasn’t had any snarling or growling incidents in a month. We’re still moving slowly with it, but I have been delighted to discover one thing: CAMDEN.

There is a young female chocolate-colored pit bull who lives on our street. Her name is Camden and we often see her out walking with her humans. I don’t know what it is or why, but Pyrrha ADORES Camden. Camden is the only dog that I’ve ever seen Pyrrha genuinely happy to spot. She runs right up to her, all wags and smiles, and starts to play bow all over the place. Camden responds in kind, and the other night, the two of them romped around in our front yard for a bit (albeit on long leads). It totally made my day.

Camden’s humans were shocked when I told them that Pyrrha doesn’t like other dogs. “Are you sure? She is so good with Camden! She loves her!” They protested. I said it was true, but it seems that Pyrrha only has room in her heart for Camden. They seemed pleased and surprised to hear that their baby was the only one who could tame our fearful beast.

Camden doesn’t have a fenced-in yard, so I told her people that we really ought to have a play-date with the girls. We didn’t exchange any information, however, so I’m hoping we’ll run into them again soon and make that happen.

Does your dog have a best friend? A dog he or she instantly preferred over others, for seemingly no apparent reason?


After my big fail of an attempt to teach Pyrrha to target, I am happy to report that she has successfully learned the “touch” cue! I took a lot of your advice to heart and stepped back a lot before I tried to re-teach it to her. I tried again when she was in a happy, relaxed space and I didn’t make any suspicious movements (like trying to pick up a clicker). She learned the cue in about four repetitions, and now we’re practicing it in other rooms, environments, and with other people. She performed it successfully with Guion last night, too. I am hoping that this command will be a helpful focusing bridge for her when we start obedience school in a few weeks.

What new command or behavior is your dog learning now?

Breed biases: When people judge your dog

Click for source.

So, I don’t even have a dog yet, but I’ve already felt judgment from people about him or her. Crazy, right? When people ask what kind of dog I want, and when I answer that we’re planning on adopting a German shepherd, I always brace myself for this frequent reaction: “Ew, really? Why? They’re so MEAN!” It doesn’t happen every time, but it happens enough to be noticeable.

I also bridle when people express astonishment that I work with and deeply enjoy the company of pit bulls and pit mixes at the SPCA. “But they’re so vicious! I could never be around one of those.” This usually launches me into a 10-minute speech about how pits are unfairly judged and how they are some of the most cuddly, affectionate, and sweet dogs that I ever play with at the shelter.

I try not to get too riled up about it, because the fact is that people have breed biases. I have them, too (although not for the same reasons that people judge GSDs and pits; more in the, I could never live with one myself way). I also understand where some of these breed stereotypes originated. Both German shepherds and pit bulls have been misused by humans for terrible, terrible things in the past (see: Nazis in the Holocaust, Southern police forces during the Civil Rights Movement, dog baiting, and dog fighting, just to name a few). I understand where these negative reactions come from, but they are still dismaying.

It makes me want to try all the harder to raise an upstanding, well-trained, and gentle ambassador for a breed–for whatever breed we end up with. This is notably easier to do if you have a breed like a golden retriever, who are universally loved and lovable in return. But I think there really is something to be said for generous, sweet, and intelligently raised German shepherds, dobermans, rottweilers, pit bulls, chihuahuas, and terriers. They change people’s minds and break down their judgments faster than anything else.

Do you have a dog whose breed or breed mix is often unfairly judged? How do you handle it graciously?

Pup links!

Floppy, cuddly German shepherd puppies. Click for source.

In rescue news, the anticipation is killing me. I applied too early, I think, because the groups have been super-responsive and they’ve all told me that nothing can really happen until our home visit. Even still, I obsessively check the postings of dogs up for adoption (like, several times a day), which is really just making me more anxious. I need to stop. I need someone to block these rescue groups’ websites and Petfinder and the SPCA… for my own sanity!

Anyway. Here are some happy and interesting dog-related links from around the Web this past week:

Crufts Show Dogs Disqualified. This has been the big news in the dog world this week. While I don’t want to open a can of worms, I’m curious what you think: Are independent vet checks a good idea at dog shows? I don’t know anything about the show world, but I am all for improving the breed standards of many purebreds raised only for their looks. I hope that that will eventually be the outcome of this controversial decision. (The Bark blog)

Dog-Friendly Yard Work. Advice from Maureen Gilmer, horticulturalist and dog lover, about dog-friendly plants and other projects for your garden this spring. I’m happy to know that dried rosemary can act as a flea repellent; we will be inheriting a huge rosemary bush with our new house. (The Bark)

Mudley. Part of me has always wanted a big, slobbery Newfoundland… (Shirley Bittner Photography)

Ollydog Mt. Tm Running Belt and Leash. This looks like pretty serious gear, but I can imagine that it would be really great to have while hiking or running. (Dog Milk)

Cheap and Easy Training Treats. Kristine shares some of her ideas for inexpensive, make-at-home treats. I will definitely be trying some of these in the months to come! (Rescued Insanity)

Impeccable Style. I actually really like this line of preppy/nautical-looking dog products, from the company Milk and Pepper. (Under the Blanket)

Canine Comforts. A beautiful suite of dog beds and bags from Cloud 7. The photography for their ad campaign is also beautiful–so natural-looking. (Design Hunter)

Guess the Genotype #56. I was going to guess that the breed was a mini-borzoi, but that’s kind of what it is: Has anyone heard of the silken windhound before? Despite the goofy name, I’m intrigued… (Musings of a Biologist and a Dog Lover)

Why Calling Her a Pit Bull Matters. A thoughtful and well-expressed post about why a pit bull mama calls her girl a pit bull, and not an AmStaff or other breed euphemism. (Save the Pit Bull, Save the World)

My Other Best Friend. One blogger’s reflections on her relationship with her dog, Bodhi. (Elephantine)

Charlie at Home. Our wonderful wedding photographer shares some photos of her sister’s sweet dog, Charlie. (Meredith Perdue Photography)

Gallery of toys and terriers

I’ll admit that the toy group and the terrier group are my least favorite groups in the AKC system. Not that I have any personal vendetta against these dogs–I just can’t imagine myself ever living with one of them. That said, I have met some very pleasant terriers and some very enjoyable toy breeds. And my time at the SPCA has convinced me that pit bulls are totally wonderful. (Of all these dogs, I’d be most likely to take a pit home.) And you can’t deny that they are adorable. Look at those faces! That said, here are some toys and terriers I could possibly coexist with.

(Click on an image to be taken to its source.)

Airedale terrier

Airedale puppy

Border terrier

Border terrier puppy

Cairn terriers

Cairn terrier puppy

Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy

Cavalier King Charles spaniel


Papillon puppy

Pit bull

Pit puppies


Pomeranian puppy

Dogs I could have adopted

I spent a lovely Sunday morning at the SPCA this past week. I began the day with a handful of dogs that I could have seen myself taking home. All of the dogs were very different from one another, but I found myself daydreaming what my life could be like if I had adopted them…


You may recall Estella from an earlier post. I was surprised that this docile, polite lady was still at the shelter. The last time I saw her was nearly a month ago and I assumed that she, being a small but mostly purebred German shepherd, would have been adopted by now. I’m guessing that she’s still at the shelter because a.) she’s a bit old; I’d guess maybe six or seven, and b.) she’s not especially intimidating. Which is a good thing, in my opinion. She was the first dog I walked when I arrived and she was a wonderful and peaceful way to begin what turned out to be an otherwise stressful day at the SPCA.

If I had adopted Estella: I’d get her on a good diet (the SPCA feeds the dogs Science Diet, since it’s what they can afford, despite the fact that it is a low-quality kibble) to get her health and coat back into order. Her coat was very dry and flaky and did not appear very healthy. She loves to run and I’d love taking her on all the trails around here. She also seems very friendly toward and interested in other dogs. I’d also work with her on curing a few fears. She balked upon entering doorways she was unfamiliar with. Not sure what that stems from, but I imagine it’s something we’d have to work on. I also think I would have kept her name. Somehow, I think it fits her.


Lady is built like a pro-wrestler. This big girl is a TANK and walks with swagger, but she’s really a cuddle bug. I have never really wanted a pit bull, but I have always enjoyed their company at the SPCA. We have a constant rotation of pits and pit mixes, like most shelters these days, and I find them to be extremely affectionate–if occasionally super high-energy–dogs. Lady and I romped around in one of the larger, enclosed play areas and she was so sweet and happy. (Although that growl she emitted when we played tug was a little scary… even though I knew it was just for the sake of fun!)

If I had adopted Lady: First thing, I would have trimmed her nails. This reminds me that I should have left a note for the staff that her nails were pretty overgrown. I imagine that they were making it somewhat difficult for her to walk (they were even longer than they appear in this photo). I would have given her a healthy, fresh diet. I would be happy and proud to have her at my side. She is a regal and admirable ambassador for her much-maligned breed.


Dear Charlie. Charlie (a lady dog) has been at the shelter since I started back in May. She was adopted a few months ago, and so you can imagine my dismay when I saw her at the SPCA again, back in her same kennel. I got the scoop from one of the other volunteers. Apparently, the staff determined that Charlie would be best in a family without kids, due to some of her excitability and food possessiveness. She’s also been known to have a few scuffles with other dogs. However, a family with young children decided they wanted Charlie and they ended up taking her home. I don’t know what happened, but clearly, the family was not equipped to care for Charlie in the way that she needed. I was dismayed that the SPCA let this family take Charlie, as it seemed evident from the outset that they could not provide her with a good environment for her temperament. While I was sad to see her back, I was happy to get to spend a little time with her. Like Phantom before her, Charlie has a frightening kennel manner. When you approach door, she lunges at it and barks loudly, all gleaming teeth and tongue. However, as soon as you open it to snap on her leash, she is as quiet and docile as can be. She walks very well and never pulls. She even seems to have adapted to the constant presence of other dogs and no longer wants to snap at them. While with her, I walked to my car to take off my sweatshirt. She seemed excited about this and as soon as I opened the car door, she jumped in, tail wagging, face full of eagerness. My heart was warmed. I wished I could have hopped in next to her and taken her home right then.

If I had adopted Charlie: First things first: I would have given her a better name. Brynn, Sloane, or Gemma? Some stout, continental name. I would have worked on her with her barking and her instinct to freak out whenever people passed. I would have begun to carefully and cautiously condition her with older, respectable children, until she learned that kids could be trusted. She would be a delight to have around the house. She seems to have a very happy heart. I hope someone will give her a good home soon.


Spunky is a little dreamboat. This handsome lad appears to be some kind of spaniel/setter mix and he is somewhat new to the shelter. Because of his good looks and his laidback temperament, I have a feeling he won’t be around for too much longer at the SPCA. He was a delightful walking companion. I was impressed by how quiet his movements were. You could barely hear him walk, even when we were trudging through piles of crunchy fallen leaves. He seems to glide over the ground. This is not a particularly great photo of him, but he is adorable in person. He has a long, glossy coat and a beautiful feathered white tail. His joie de vivre was all-encompassing and I would have taken him home in a heartbeat.

If I had adopted Spunky: Name change also necessary. He deserves something more dignified. I was thinking “Keeper,” in honor of Emily Bronte’s constant companion. I started thinking of this when I was walking him, and by the end of our time together, I was calling him Keeper. He is such a happy dog. He would make us laugh. I would take him everywhere with me, introduce him to everything. I need to stop meditating on his handsome face; I want to get in my car and go to the SPCA right now! Sigh. Six more months, six more months…