Guest article written by Lauren Lee, Animal Advocate, Professional Writer and Editor | Animal Advocate & Rescuer | Freelance Article & Pet Content Writer, August 19, 2016, originally published in The Fifth Paw
We are a country that loves our dogs. In recent decades, there has been a boom in doggie parks, doggie daycare centers, doggie spas, hotels that allow dogs, and even restaurants that cater to humans and their canine counterparts. Yet we also can’t resist the media, and negative news – no matter how sensationalized – travels fast. And there is no dog that has become an American symbol, whether loved, hated, or feared, more than the pit bull.
For many people, the very mention of a pit bull conjures up images of Michael Vick and the numerous scarred and injured dogs being removed from his property, where he ran an illegal dog fighting ring. In fact, the reality is that most pit bulls are good-natured, loyal dogs.
Pit bulls fall under a category known as a “bully” breed. Despite its negative connotation, the term “bully” has nothing to do with these dogs’ temperament, but rather refers to their origin. Bully breeds are all descendants of the Molosser, a breed which had its origin in ancient Greece. Molossers were big dogs, with large bones and muscles, pendant ears, short and muscular necks, and short muzzles. Today’s “bully” breeds, as they have come to be called, are the result of centuries of the Molosser breeding with other dogs. Many of today’s “bully” breeds still share similar physical traits, such as the solid, muscular and rectangular body type, wide-set shoulders, and blocky head. So many breeds fall under the broad category actually defined as “bully breeds,” it would be too time consuming to list them all. The best known “bully” breeds are the American Pit bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Bulldog, Boxer, and Boston Terrier.
Is the pit bull really a breed at all?
Unfortunately, the one “breed” that seems to take the rap for the majority of negative acts involving large dogs is the pit bull. I put breed in quotations because many dogs who share similar physical traits like the large blocky head have come to be referred to as “pit bulls.” A 2014 article in insurancenewsnet.com discussed the discrepancies in the definition of a pit bull. It stated that:
“There are five main “bully” breeds that fit the common angular and muscled description of a pit bull: The American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and two subtypes of American bulldog….”
Some organizations only recognize the American Pit Bull Terrier as the only true “pit bull.” So, this begs the question: is what we are calling the “pit bull” really America’s mutt?
Good dog, bad dog, or bad humans?
There is no shortage of headlines portraying pit bull dogs and other “bully” breeds as vicious dogs that maul and mutilate humans and other animals. However, prior to the bully breed controversy, American pit bulls were known for their loyalty, affection, and penchant for children, earning them the nicknames “America’s dog” and “the nanny dog.” Several pit bulls were well-known symbols in American society, prevalent in advertising and film. In fact, one can find numerous photographs of the regal pit bull sitting with young children. Petey, canine protector and buddy to The Little Rascals, was one of the best known pit bulls. The dog used in the RCA Victor advertisements was also a pit bull. As most owners of pit bulls will tell you, these dogs are good-tempered, goofy, loving, family dogs.
It was in the 1980’s when opinions began to shift about the pit bull. People stopped thinking of the pit bull as “America’s dog” and began thinking of it as a dangerous breed, popular in low income areas where dog fighting and drugs were prevalent. Many decades ago, “bully” breeds” had been bred to protect livestock because of their strength. In the 1980’s, still known for their strength and build, gangs began using pit bulls for protection. Pit bulls unwittingly became a status symbol for people who chose to use their physical attributes as a means of intimidation. During the 1980’s dog fighting also saw a comeback in the U.S., noted John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy at the Humane Society of the United States.
Now in 2016, pit bulls are the target of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) – defined by globalanimal.org as: regulations that restrict ownership of certain breeds, with pit bulls being the most targeted. Is it fair to blame an entire breed of dog for mistreatment by some humans? An entire breed of dog does not simply just turn bad. Humans have been training animals for years. Just as some humans have trained dogs to live as domesticated pets, some people train them to be ugly. Sadly, some people train them to fight and attack. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) notes that in the pit bull controversy, one fact is greatly overlooked: any dog may attack if neglected, mistreated, or trained to be an aggressive dog.
The real pit bull
So, you may wonder what the temperament of a pit bull should be, barring poor training and treatment. Like any animal, every pittie develops his or her own personality. However, the American Temperament Test Society, Inc. (ATTS) a national not-for-profit organization registered in the state of Missouri, was designed to provide a uniform national program of temperament testing of purebred and spayed/neutered mixed-breed dogs. The Temperament Test focuses on different aspects of temperament. Some of the traits tested for are stability, shyness, aggressiveness, friendliness, and self-preservation in the face of threat. The most recent ATTS Breed Statistics (February 2013) indicated that out of 870 pit bulls tested, 755 passed and 115 did not pass, giving pit bulls an 86 percent pass rate. Out of 785 Golden Retrievers tested, 669 passed and 116 did not pass. Golden Retrievers pass rate was an 85.2 percent. Interestingly, pit bulls are marginally less apt to show aggression than the popular Golden Retriever.
Although some people take issue with the ATTS, this testing “simulates a casual walk through a park or neighborhood where everyday life situations are encountered,” The ATTS statistics also indicated that pit bulls were less likely to show aggressive behavior under the same conditions than several well-known breeds including: Beagles, Basset Hounds, Corgis, Chihuahuas, German Shepherds, Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, and many other breeds. (http://dogtime.com/dog-health/general/1220-american-pit-bull-terrier-temperament-dog-bites)
A victory for “bully” breeds
Though it was a horrific example of human behavior at its worst, nothing did more to raise awareness about the horrors of underground dog breeding and fighting than the 2007 federal investigation and seizure of pit bulls from former Atlanta Falcon Michael Vick’s “Bad Newz Kennels.” More importantly, nothing speaks more poignantly to the resilience and gentle, forgiving nature of these dogs than the dogs that subsequently survived the horrors of Vick’s dog fighting ring. Once rescued, these dogs were not only in horrible physical condition, but having endured a lifetime of abuse and fighting, many people, including many humane rescue groups, believed they had been trained to be so vicious that rehabilitation wasn’t possible. The humane option, many experts agreed, was to euthanize them. Ultimately, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a no-kill animal sanctuary based out of Kanab, Utah was able to take 22 of the most traumatized pit bulls. It was at Best Friends that they began a long and difficult road to becoming “normal dogs.” Many of these dogs defied the odds and went on to become such fine ambassadors of the breed, that they are known as the “Vicktory Dogs.”
Many of those original 22 went on to earn their Canine Good Citizen Certificates. Some went on to become service dogs or therapy dogs. Many completed their recovery and were adopted out to loving homes.
In an article titled, “The brave, beautiful dogs out of Bad Newz Kennel,” published by
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, it states: Their astonishing courage proved that there’s no such thing as “too damaged” or “beyond hope.” And that no dog is inherently vicious, no matter her breed or background.
Some of the “Vicktory dogs” names are well known by now. Of the 22 former fighting dogs that went to Best Friends Animal Rescue, two were court-ordered to remain at the Sanctuary for life. One was Lucas, Vick’s grand champion fighting dog, who blossomed into a love at the animal sanctuary. Lucas was known to greet visitors in the office by smothering them with kisses. He passed away in 2013, at which time Best Friends sent all of its members a leaflet, similar to what would be passed out at a funeral, containing staff members’ favorite thoughts and memories about Lucas. On the front was simply a picture of Lucas, who could be any dog, but for the unmistakable scars on his face. Below were the words, “We promised Lucas a lifetime of care, and in return he gave us his heart.” Lucas’s scars remained a staggering reminder of the horrors humans are capable of. Since his rescue, Lucas was an example of forgiveness and kindness, both of which many would agree he had every reason not to possess.
Another well-known Vicktory dog was Georgia. Scars and all, people knew her for her wrinkly, silly face and sweet demeanor. She was adopted and spent her last two years of life in a loving home of her own. She had her own Facebook™ page and made television appearances. Sadly, she passed away in December of 2013. “The Champions,” a documentary film released in 2016, follows the journey of several “Vicktory dogs,” painting a picture that is both heartbreaking and uplifting. The film shares where the dogs are today and what they have accomplished since their hard fought recovery.
There is still much work to be done to change public opinion about “bully” breeds, specifically the pit bull. Is this dog capable of causing harm because of its formidable size and strength? Unequivocally, yes. And so are many other large dog breeds. Anything powerful has the potential to cause harm if it falls into the wrong hands, as evidenced by Lucas’s story, Georgia’s story, and countless others, less known. Power, when used for the wrong reasons, is dangerous. But to say that animals that possess strength and size are therefore dangerous is to misplace the blame for a very real problem. We cannot blame a relatively small number of negative incidents on innocent animals. Animals are simply not born evil.
The ASPCA states that the pit bull is possibly one of the least-responsibly cared for breeds in the country. Many theorize that the way people treat their animals is an indicator of how they treat people. Is this what we want for America’s dog? Pit bulls deserve better.