It took me two weeks to finally crack open Bronwen Dickey’s book, “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.”
As excited as I was to read the well-received book, I was equally nervous about the content. Would I be subjected to detailed reports of animal abuse and dog fighting? Would reading about the treatment of these misunderstood dogs overwhelm me and make it impossible to finish the book?
“Pit Bull: The Battle Over an America Icon” did indeed start with a story that brought tears to my eyes. I had to close the book several times during those first few pages to mull over the injustice of what I was reading. I knew I was going to have a hard time slogging through it if the rest of the book was as heartbreaking as the story that opened it.
Thankfully, the book shifts into pit bull history in the following chapters and goes on to detail how the public’s perception of pit bulls went off the rails. There’s additional harrowing content as the book continues (you can’t track the history of the pit bull without acknowledging how we’ve mishandled them) but the crux of the book is charting the facts behind the pit bull’s fall from grace from beloved companion to canine outlaw.
Dickey’s research for the book took her to the trenches, from building fences with an anti-chaining advocacy group to donning a bite sleeve and getting pummeled by a trained Schutzhund (protection) dog. Immersing herself in all things pit bull for over seven years and through fifteen states took a toll on Dickey.
“By the time I finished the book, I was exhausted: mentally, emotionally, and even physically,” she says. “But I kept going because I hoped that what I eventually wrote would play some role – even a very small one – in reducing cruelty and panicked policy-making.”
The book benefits greatly from Dickey’s journalism background. The research presented is an elegant point-by-point takedown of commonly accepted pit bull myths, from their “locking” jaws to their “born killer” bloodlines. Dickey’s dissection of the half-truths and flat out lies that have plagued pit bulls and their people for decades should be required reading for anyone in positions of authority making a case against the dogs, including the police, insurance companies and the media. Her research is a powerful retort.
Dickey is honest enough to admit that when she began working on the book she had her own preconceived notions about the dogs known as pit bulls and the people who own them.
“I started the project assuming what most of us often hear in the media, that the pit bull world is overflowing with people who simply don’t care about their animals and often end up abandoning them. That could not have been more false. What I encountered in much greater numbers were warm, generous people who were hanging on by their fingernails and doing the very best they could with limited resources.”
The stories of people, like eighty-nine-year-old wheelchair-bound Doris and her beloved pit bull Pretty Girl gently, illustrate her point.
While the book dismantles the mythology surrounding pit bulls as relentless killing machines—like the idea that pit bulls have teeth that can lock and gnash at the same time (it’s physically impossible), or that they can exert over 3,500 pounds of bite pressure per square inch (the number has jumped dramatically through the years with insufficient testing to back it up)—Dickey believes that a subtler perspective has more of an impact in how we view them.
“I think the most damaging part of all this hype is the enduring belief that there are ‘regular dogs’ and then there are ‘pit bulls,’” she says. “That formulation is everywhere, especially in academia […] the implication is that pit bulls deserve to be separated out for scrutiny, while other types of dogs can be lumped into one giant group called ‘non-pit-bull.’ That’s not helpful.”
Happily, the tide might be turning for these misunderstood dogs. As Dickey traveled the country, she asked strangers what they thought about pit bulls.
“To my surprise, only a small handful of people actively disliked the dogs,” she said. “The rest either held positive views or were open to change their minds.”
And she’s noticed that people’s reactions to her seven-year old pit mix, Nola, have changed over the past few years as well. While some still cross the street to move away from her dog, just as many cross the street to meet Nola.
“But I kept going because I hoped that what I eventually wrote would play some role – even a very small one – in reducing cruelty and panicked policy-making.”
I’m an unabashed pit bull lover. I’ve worked with many during my 15-year training career, and I fostered a sweet pit mix named Freddy for five months last year. I already knew that pit-type dogs are wonderful, loving companions, so the book merely reinforced what I’ve already experienced firsthand.
That said, the book did teach me a very important lesson: the need to look at what we accept as fact with a critical eye. Dickey’s unrelenting digging and questioning as she tried to uncover the truth made it clear that we often allow self-proclaimed experts armed with dubious research to form our opinions, whether about pit bulls or politicians. The book underscored the need for a reassessment of why we believe what we believe, and an opportunity for these misinterpreted dogs to be exactly that; just dogs.
Victoria Schade is a dog trainer, author & speaker who has contributed to The Washington Post, Martha Stewart, and other publications.