There have been many news stories lately about negative profiling directed toward Arab-Americans. This isn’t the first time prejudicial profiling has been directed against entire races and ethnicities. Any and every group that is different than the dominant culture seems to undergo some level of suspicion, scrutiny, and bad press until they become more understood, less feared, and conform to the accepted norms of society. As human beings, this is what we do. And we do it to animals, as well.
In the 50’s and 60’s the most feared and least desirable dog breeds to adopt as family pets were Rottweilers, German shepherd dogs, and Doberman pinchers. Then came Alexandra Day’s books about Carl the Rottweiler, the popular Rin-Tin-Tin television show, and increased awareness of the Doberman pincher’s acute intelligence and fierce loyalty to its owner (as well as a falling off of the cropped-ear fashion, which softens the face of these beautiful dogs), and our perceptions and profiling of these wonderful breeds were completely transformed.
During this same time period, collies, cocker spaniels, and bully breeds–including pit bulls–enjoyed the most positive profiles and were the pets of choice. Everybody loved Lassie; cockers were cute, cuddly, child-sized pets; and pit bulls were viewed as familiar, appealing fun dogs. Petey, the pit bull of Our Gang and Little Rascals fame, was the most popular kid-companion dog around, and every American child wanted a puppy just like him.
In those days, we all wore Buster Brown shoes, and Tige, Buster Brown’s pit bull friend and logo-mate, became so popular that he appeared in his own comic book series. Every household owned an RCA Victor record player which displayed an enchanting picture of Nipper listening intently to music coming out of an old fashioned speaker. And, we all enjoyed stories from our grandfathers about Stubby, the WWI pit bull hero who was decorated with several medals for bravery and honored in a special ceremony at the White House.
So, how did the pit bull’s profile devolve over the last half century into one of a “killer dog” that attacks small children without provocation? This breed’s reputation has fallen so low, in fact, that pit bulls and bully mixes are deemed unworthy of being rescued or kept alive by many animal shelters across the country.
The pre-judging (prejudice) and negative press accorded pit bulls worked its way into my subconscious just like it did into everyone else’s. I didn’t realize this had happened until a man brought his perfectly sweet bully mix to play with the other dogs at our local park and I found myself hustling my dog, Max, into the car to avoid contact with this potentially dangerous pup. On the way home, I thought about another Max: my childhood neighbor’s black and white pit bull, who followed us everywhere, and would sit patiently by my side during Alan’s little league baseball games–no matter how many hours it took them to finish a game. I’m sure he must have gotten hungry, or thirsty, or had to relieve himself. But, so long as his boy was in the game, Max wouldn’t think of leaving the bleachers or taking his eyes off his, and my, best friend.
Though there are probably thousands of dogs like Max we rarely hear about them. They aren’t news. Michael Vick’s fighting dogs are. And, unfortunately, these are the stories that lodge themselves somewhere in the fear lobe of our subconscious.
When a neighbor was interviewed after an incident involving a pit bull, her take on the situation was sadly familiar. “Their dogs have never been violent,” she witnessed, “They’ve always been chained up and they’ve always had them in the backyard.” In the good old days of my childhood, dogs were never chained up, isolated from the rest of the family, or left alone for hours and days at a time–at least not by intelligent, responsible pet owners. They participated in the ebb and flow of the everyday life of their family (their pack) from day one.
For the most part, our mothers were housewives, so our pets were never alone. As long as dogs were licensed and inoculated, they were free to be out and about. When we returned home after school, we changed our clothes, went outside to play, and our pets came with us. Every playground, ball field, and backyard was full of kids and dogs–kids playing with other kids and dogs, dogs playing with other dogs and kids. When summer rolled around, pets either came along on family vacations or moved-in with one of their canine friends for a couple of weeks. Sure, occasional dog fights erupted. But, just like kid fights, once grievances were settled, everyone went back to being friends, again.
Chaining and isolating dogs from human and canine interaction is cruel, abusive, unnatural, and against the law in most areas of the country. Of course a lonely, bored, frustrated, unsocialized dog, with years of repressed, pent-up energy churning in his gut, will reach a psychological breaking point or become over stimulated when the opportunity to break free presents itself. Pit bull attacks are almost always the tragic result of human, not canine, behavior problems. These dogs are not, by nature, killing machines and fighters.
Michael Vick’s dogs are a case in point. After being rescued, nursed back to health, and socialized, nearly every one of these brutalized animals has been placed with a family and is doing great. Leo’s story is an especially touching one. He became a therapy dog at California’s Camino Infusion Center where he brought comfort to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The center’s oncology director, Paula Reed, stated that the patients all loved Leo–especially his “eyes and gentleness.” She believes that because he is a survivor, Leo can extend a special kind of empathy to cancer survivors.
In his spare time, Leo also worked with young men on probation who seemed to identify with him as a former tough guy. Marthina McClay, president of “Our Pack,” an advocacy group for pit bulls says: “I think they saw this dog’s awful background, and it communicates to kids that you can end up being what you want to be…Leo is definitely an ambassador to the breed. The staff at various facilities will say, ‘I will never see pit bulls the same again.’”
Although pit bulls continue to appear on merchandise logos and in commercials and movies; although it is the only breed to appear on the cover of Life Magazine three times; although pit bulls are owned as pets by many celebrities (Rosie Perez, Rachel Ray, Usher, Alicia Silverstone, Bernadette Peters, and John Stuart to name a few); and, although they continue to be honored for their intelligence and bravery (The Ken-L-Ration dog hero of 1993 was the Pit Bull, “Weela,” who rescued 30 people, 29 dogs, 13 horses, and a cat during a flood in Southern California) such facts and stories never seem to hit the press with the same force and frequency as sporadic attacks and dog fighting stories. Pit bulls are definitely in need of ambassadors, advocacy, and a revised, more accurate profile makeover. Fortunately, an ever-increasing number of people seem to agree with me. In addition to the large number of internet sites devoted to educating the public about this breed, advocacy groups are springing up all across the country.
Perhaps, in the not too distant future, the pit bull profile will come full circle: Humans will re-learn what it takes to be appropriate companions to and owners of this once beloved breed; and pit bulls will reclaim their status as valued family members and a breed in possession of many positive and unique talents, attributes, and skills.
This article is from the Pet Tails Magazine archives, (c) 2009; it was written by Karen Reed Hadalski.
Feature Photos Copyright: Cindy Thibault @fromwagstowhiskersinc