Blue nose American pit bull terrier
The trend in dog-hating changes from one breed to another over the years. My dad was glad to have his German shepherd watch over us kids, not because he thought the dog was dangerous to people outside the family, but because other people did. Their fear of the dog would keep them away from us kids when we played in the yard.
By the time I entered college Doberman pinschers had replaced German shepherds as the most evil dogs, which reminds me of a particularly bad prank one of my classmates played on another.
Tom did yard work for an old lady near the campus. She had a Doberman puppy named Hans. When he reached adolescence his exuberance and strength made him difficult for her to handle. Tom and Hans had become friends so when she offered the dog to Tom he gladly took him.
A half dozen or so of us met after our last class on Fridays to imbibe a few malted beverages at a local tavern. We always met outside the building where the last of our group, Fred, finished class. We sat on a curb across from the building. On the first Friday that Hans began living with Tom, Tom brought him along.
Fred was terrified of dogs. Because of their reputation, Doberman pinschers especially petrified him. Hans, on the other hand, loved people and looked forward to making new friends.
Fred came out of the building and started down its concrete steps. He froze near the bottom when he saw Hans straining against his leash. To everyone’s surprise, Tom pointed at Fred, unleashed Hans and shouted, “Kill!” Hans had no idea what kill meant of course but, seeing a potential new friend, he charged forward. Fred dropped his books and fell backwards on the concrete steps.
Tom laughed uproariously. I’m afraid the rest of us did too.
Then it seemed to occur to us all at once: Banging his head against those unforgiving concrete steps could have injured Fred, maybe seriously. He had been so terrified he hadn’t even put a hand out to block his fall. We all leaped up and raced over to check on him. He lay on his back, eyes closed tightly and faced clenched. While Hans, tail wagging, stood on Fred’s chest and stomach, joyfully licking his face.
As it turned out Fred was okay except for a big lump on the back of his head but he was, understandably, immensely angry. He didn’t join us that night and he never forgave Tom.
At some point, pit bulls replaced Dobermans as the meanest dogs. Article after article appeared about them attacking people. I’m not sure when this began. When we lived in Virginia in the late ’80s and early ’90s Dobermans were still the most hated dog, with Rottweilers a close second, so it must have been after that. Incidentally, there’s some confusion over what the breed is. American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers and even bulldogs have been included.
Hating them was something new. Throughout most of the twentieth century we loved the dog. During World War I the country adopted the image of the pit bull because of its strength, courage and tenacity.
World War I poster featuring an American pit bull terrier
Several became famous in the military. One is shown in the famous picture listening to “his master’s voice” emanating from a Victrola. In sports, referring to a star as a pit bull was considered the highest compliment. They were often associated with children. One appeared in the Our Gang comedies and another with Buster Brown in his shoe.
Pete the Pup in an "Our Gang" movie
Why the drastic change in attitude? For one thing, despite being illegal in all fifty states, dog fighting made a comeback in the late ’80s or early ’90s. (Imported from the UK, it had been a popular underground “sport” in the nineteenth century in the US.) Pit bulls became the dogs of choice for many trainers. Drug dealers and gangs also began using them as guard dogs. There were several highly publicized accounts of their dogs mauling or killing people. I remember a tragic incident in which a pit bull guarding a marijuana field in California killed a two or three year old boy.
Unfortunately, many communities which once banned Doberman pinschers now ban pit bulls. Our city does. I worked with a young couple in one of Denver’s suburbs who raised registered American pit bulls. They fought, and lost, a fight to keep that jurisdiction from banning the breed.
The tide against pit bull hysteria is turning a little bit. The ASPCA gives the breed an endorsement fit for a golden retriever. Its web site says, “A well-socialized and well-trained pit bull is one of the most delightful, intelligent, and gentle dogs imaginable.” An organization called Pits for Patriots trains them to care for wounded veterans. Says one patient in the program, “Veterans don’t want to walk with canes. They would rather walk with a dog. Some vets need to put more pressure on that cane, so you couldn’t put as much pressure on a Labrador (retriever) than [sic] you could put on a pit bull” because of its strength.
It takes only a brief look at the stories behind anti-pit bull articles to see that the dogs are not the problem; the humans who train and misuse them are. The solution is to return to the method used successfully for over a hundred years: hold the dog owners responsible. Then this iconic American dog can return to its rightful place as one of man’s best friends.