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What Happened to America's Dog?

Pit Bulls were once loved and revered in America. How did they become so maligned in today's society?

 

You may have thought this story would be about a Labrador or golden retriever, but it’s about a group of dogs commonly referred to as “pit bulls” and their fall from grace in our society.

During the first half of the 20th century, pit bulls were the closest thing the United States had to a national dog, used by the U.S. in World War I and II recruiting posters, prominently featured as corporate mascots, and cast as the ideal family dog in television and movies.

Now the breed is demonized and battles everything from a media-driven reputation for being predators to abuse from their owners, to legislation that seeks to outlaw their existence. How did this happen to a dog that was once America’s sweetheart?

WHAT IS A PIT BULL?

The term "pit bull" doesn’t describe a single breed of dog; it’s a generic term used to define multiple breeds of working dogs that were initially bred by crossing bulldogs with terriers. The core breeds include the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, and the Staffordshire bull terrier, but the term is now used to encompass a wide array of muscular dogs with short hair, many of which are mixed breeds with a similar look but a different lineage. Dogs commonly mislabeled as pit bulls include boxers, mastiffs, American bulldogs, and Plott hounds, among others. 

For the purpose of this story, “pit bull” will be used to describe any mixes, mutts, or purebreds that share either the breed or visual traits that are common to these dogs and face the stigma. While it’s technically incorrect, this is how it’s used in our vocabulary today.

As a quick test for yourself, see if you’re able to pick out the actual American pit bull terrier from this group of photos -

http://www.pitbullsontheweb.com/petbull/findpit.html

HISTORY OF PIT BULLS IN AMERICA

It’s believed that the first pit bulls were brought to America by English and Irish immigrants before the Civil War. In Europe, the dogs had a mixed history of being used as working dogs to protect the family and field, and misused for savage sports like bull baiting, which was outlawed in the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835. When pit bulls came to the U.S., they were brought over as prized family possessions and were typically general purpose herding and working dogs, earning their keep as hunters, herders, guardians and household pets.

By the early 1900s, the pit bull was one of the most popular breeds in the U.S. and had become a symbol of American pride. They were used in posters to recruit soldiers and sell war bonds, and a pit bull mix named Sgt. Stubby was the first dog to be awarded Army medals. He not only survived being wounded twice in combat, but also saved his entire platoon by warning them of a poison gas attack. Stubby went on to become an American celebrity, meeting three different presidents and becoming the mascot for the Georgetown Hoyas football team.

Pit bulls were also embraced in popular culture, with respected companies like RCA and the Buster Brown Shoe Company using the pit bull as their mascot and in advertising, and “Petey,” the beloved dog from The Little Rascals with the ring around his eye, was also a pit. Popular figures from this era like Theodore Roosevelt, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Helen Keller were all proud pit bull owners. Because of their loyalty and temperament, they even earned the nickname “nanny dogs,” entrusted to watch over and protect the children while parents worked on the farm.

Pit bulls were America's sweetheart breed: admired, respected, and loved.

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

After WWII, the pit bull’s popularity began to decline as other breeds came into favor, but they were not feared or maligned until the 1980s, when the myth of the dangerous fighting dog started to take hold in the media. The negative publicity surrounding pit bulls actually served to encourage bad people with bad intentions to buy and breed these dogs, using brutality and torture to teach fighting and aggression. Gangs began assimilating pit bulls into their operations and the dogs became guilty by association with this violent, criminal culture.

The dogs that are born into and raised in this environment are victims; they are beaten, electrocuted, chained, starved and even fed gunpowder to make them tough and mean. Those that don’t fight back enough are killed or used as bait.

They are seen as a form of protection and symbol of strength in these communities, and they continue to be exploited for profit in dog fighting, a cruel and sadistic sport that is now illegal in all 50 states. Through no fault of their own, many dogs are thrown in to a very dark world of violence, and face a very difficult road out of it.

While these extreme cases are a minority of the pit bulls in the country, these brutalized dogs represent the vast majority of dog bites and news stories that contribute to the cycle of sensationalized media coverage, vilifying the dog as inherently aggressive and dangerous.

MEDIA BIAS

The media has been a driving factor in shaping America's perception of pit bulls and their coverage has been widespread and overwhelmingly negative for the last 30 years.

The sad truth is that a dog biting a person only becomes a story if there is reason to believe the dog might be a pit bull. Dog attacks involving a pit bull-type dog or pit mix have the power to make national news, while attacks by other breeds go largely unnoticed.

In fact, the ASPCA has reported that animal control officers have been told by media outlets across the country that they only have interest in reporting on pit bull attacks. Inaccurate reporting is also a problem, and the assumption is often made that muscular, short-haired dogs are pit bulls, while those that look different are simply referred to as “dogs.” To compound matters, most organizations that assess dog bite statistics do so based on media accounts, which is already distorted data. It’s a cycle.

If you’re not sure this is true, and you believe pit bulls are inherently dangerous, ask yourself how you’ve arrived at that decision. If you haven’t ever seen a pit bull be dangerous or aggressive, it’s very likely that the media has defined this perception for you. All dog breeds—including pit bulls—bite people. However, try to think of the last story you read where a dog attack involved something other than a pit bull.

FACTS (statistics from the Humane Society and BestFriends.org)

  • In 2007, pit bulls were involved in 25 percent of reported dog abuse cases
  • About half of the dogs killed in shelters today will be pit bulls or pit bull mixes
  • Nationwide, 75 percent of shelters euthanize all pit bulls, regardless of temperament, age, history, etc.
  • No breed of dog is inherently aggressive or dangerous
  • The biggest risk factors for dog aggression are malicious or neglectful dog owners and dogs that have not been spayed or neutered
  • Pit bulls are commonly used in police work, rehabilitation therapy, search and rescue and in bomb and narcotic detection
  • Like any dog that’s raised responsibly, pit bulls are gentle, loving and loyal, and they make great family pets

RESPONSIBLE OWNERSHIP

Pit bulls are not for everyone, and typically not the best fit for the first-time dog owner. They are intelligent, energetic and strong-willed dogs who need consistent leadership from their owner and a commitment to their training, daily exercise, and socialization.

Owning any powerful breed of dog comes with this additional responsibility. When you own a pit bull, you need to be prepared for negative comments and bias towards your dog, and be ready to educate and address them in a positive way. You must also lead by example and make sure your dog is an ambassador for the breed.

MY PIT PUPS

This was a challenging story to write because it’s personal to me, and there are so many points I want to include. I’m the proud owner of the two pit bull pups that you see in the main photo. Both were rescued from abusive situations and both are the sweetest dogs you will ever meet. 

Cleo was found at nine weeks old, malnourished and abandoned in a sealed box in the middle of the road. She was nurtured back to health by a dedicated rescue organization and is now a friendly, well-adjusted dog that still trusts and loves unconditionally every human she meets.

Zoe is our newest addition, and as a young pup, she is still a work in progress. She was the victim of an animal cruelty case at just 3 months old, and was offered up for free on Craig’s List by her former owners. Thankfully, a Good Samaritan who knew that pit pups can easily fall into the wrong hands for the wrong reasons stepped up to save her. She spent the first year of her life in a kennel, so we are working to teach her the typical puppy lessons she hasn’t yet had a chance to learn.

Even though both dogs had tough starts in life, they are good canine citizens: great with other dogs, gentle with children, respectful, smart and a joy to have as part of our family. Pit bulls are the least likely breed to be adopted, but are some of the most loyal and loving dogs you will ever find. Cleo and Zoe are great examples of all the wonderful pit bull rescue dogs that need and deserve good homes.

The defamation of pit bulls and their portrayal as predators is a man-made problem. They are victims of widespread abuse and their problems are amplified by a sensational media. No dogs are inherently dangerous, but as a strong breed, pit bulls do require responsible ownership.

If you are interested in adopting one of our amazing resident pit Pups, go to the Mutts Matter Adoption Page and fill out an application, or if you want to learn more you can contact Suzanne at suzanne@muttsmatterrescue.com

Follow Mutts Matter on Facebook to learn more about us and see new pups coming into the rescue!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

yvonne bachman August 08, 2012 at 11:46 PM
Beautiful dogs. And here in town they are always on a leash. Thank you fellow residents for that.
Mike Fisher September 06, 2012 at 07:24 PM
The thing with dogs is that they are wild animals that descended from wolves. Pill Bulls and Rotweilers especially account for more dog bites, injuries and fatalities than any other breed. According to the CDC, 800,000 americans are hospitalized for dog bites and over half of them are children.Of those, 386,000 require emergency treatment and 16 die. The rate of dog related bites are mostly towards children from 5-9 years of age, then decline as they get older. http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/dog-bites/dogbite-factsheet.html According to this next PDF of further study by the FCC (quite a long time ago), one third of dog bite related fatalities were from pit bulls and half of them were from rottweilers. It does on to say that at least 25 breeds of dogs were involved in dog bite related deaths, but over half of them were from pit bulls and rottweilers. In defense, it does also say that most of these deaths were from unleashed dogs and things like that. http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/images/dogbreeds-a.pdf Personal experience, my Godmother had two pit bulls and they were both nasty dogs, always had to be put outside when people were over because they would bite people. I have a friend now with a bit pull and he is very rough with people and often fights with the other dog in the house (don't know the breed, but a calm dog in general). Dogs are not far from wolves and are wild, unpredictable animals. We don't see these problems with cats.
Mike Fisher September 06, 2012 at 07:30 PM
I personally don't care much for dogs. I've had both dogs and cats, I even watched a mini daschund give birth when I was like 7 or 8, beautiful experience and they were very nice dogs, never bit anyone or anything. I think people just need to face facts that many breeds of dogs can become violent and aggressive towards humans at any time. They are wild animals, direct descendants of wolves and some dogs are simply more dangerous than others. I am more of a cat person myself because they know how to use a toilet, aren't noisy and generally live in peace with their owners most of the time. Cats, like dogs, are easily trained, it just takes more patience. Dogs can fly off the handle at any time, in my experience. They bark and try to run after people walking by even when out for a walk on a leash. I'm not saying dogs are monsters, but I am saying they are highly unpredictable at times especially when we're talking about pit bulls and rottweilers, dogs known for attacking and killing people. By the way, anyone who says that cats are not companion animals have either never owned one or never took the extra time and effort to bond and get to know and understand their cats. :)
Steve September 06, 2012 at 07:54 PM
But if you live alone and you die, cats will eat you dogs won't. I witnessed it firsthand.
Mike Fisher September 06, 2012 at 07:59 PM
This is true, I've heard of this happening before, but cats aren't killing people. They fill dead bodies with formaldehyde or cremate them anyway and the cat could be starving if the owner was dead for awhile and lived alone and a secluded life. That cat is just trying to survive and human meat is sustenance, but they won't kill a live human. Declawed cats are more likely to be aggressive and is in fact, inhumane in itself. Declawing is, quite literally, equal to cutting off your finger at the first joint to stop your fingernails from growing. A cat's first line of defense is it's claws, without them, they bite more and bite harder. Declawing cats should be illegal and it is in many places.

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