Prof: Pit bulls went from America’s best friend to public enemy – now they’re slowly coming full circle

By Colin Dayan, Vanderbilt University, via The Conversation

As recently as 50 years ago, the pit bull was America’s favorite dog. Pit bulls were everywhere. They were popular in advertising and used to promote the joys of pet-and-human friendship. Nipper on the RCA Victor label, Pete the Pup in the “Our Gang” comedy short films, and the flag-wrapped dog on a classic World War I poster all were pit bulls.

With National Pit Bull Awareness Day celebrated on Oct. 26, it’s a fitting time to ask how these dogs came to be seen as a dangerous threat.

Starting around 1990, multiple features of American life converged to inspire widespread bans that made pit bulls outlaws, called “four-legged guns” or “lethal weapons.” The drivers included some dog attacks, excessive parental caution, fearful insurance companies and a tie to the sport of dog fighting.

As a professor of humanities and law, I have studied the legal history of slaves, vagrants, criminals, terror suspects and others deemed threats to civilized society. For my books “The Law is a White Dog” and “With Dogs at the Edge of Life,” I explored human-dog relationships and how laws and regulations can deny equal protection to entire classes of beings.

In my experience with these dogs – including nearly 12 years living with Stella, the daughter of champion fighting dogs – I have learned that pit bulls are not inherently dangerous. Like other dogs, they can become dangerous in certain situations, and at the hands of certain owners. But in my view, there is no defensible rationale for condemning not only all pit bulls, but any dog with a single pit bull gene, as some laws do.

I see such action as canine profiling, which recalls another legal fiction: the taint or stain of blood that ordained human degradation and race hatred in the United States.

Bred to fight

The pit bull is strong. Its jaw grip is almost impossible to break. Bred over centuries to bite and hold large animals like bears and bulls around the face and head, it’s known as a “game dog.” Its bravery and strength won’t allow it to give up, no matter how long the struggle. It loves with the same strength; its loyalty remains the stuff of legend.

For decades pit bulls’ tenacity encouraged the sport of dogfighting, with the dogs “pitted” against each other. Fights often went to the death, and winning animals earned huge sums for those who bet on them.

But betting on dogs is not a high-class sport. Dogs are not horses; they cost little to acquire and maintain. Pit bulls easily and quickly became associated with the poor, and especially with Black men, in a narrative that connected pit bulls with gang violence and crime.

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That’s how prejudice works: The one-on-one lamination of the pit bull onto the African American male reduced people to their accessories.

Dogfighting was outlawed in all 50 states by 1976, although illegal businesses persisted. Coverage of the practice spawned broad assertions about the dogs that did the fighting. As breed bans proliferated, legal rulings proclaimed these dogs “dangerous to the safety or health of the community” and judged that “public interests demand that the worthless shall be exterminated.”

In 1987 Sports Illustrated put a pit bull, teeth bared, on its cover, with the headline “Beware of this Dog,” which it characterized as born with “a will to kill.” Time magazine published “Time Bombs on Legs” featuring this “vicious hound of the Baskervilles” that “seized small children like rag dolls and mauled them to death in a frenzy of bloodletting.”

Presumed vicious

If a dog has “vicious propensities,” the owner is assumed to share in this projected violence, both legally and generally in public perception. And once deemed “contraband,” both property and people are at risk.

This was evident in the much-publicized 2007 indictment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for running a dogfighting business called Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia. Even the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – two of the nation’s leading animal welfare advocacy groups – argued that the 47 pit bulls recovered from the facility should be killed because they posed a threat to people and other animals.

If not for the intervention of Best Friends Animal Society, Vick’s dogs would have been euthanized. As the film “Champions” recounts, a court-appointed special master determined each dog’s fate. Ultimately, nearly all of the dogs were successfully placed in sanctuaries or adoptive homes.

YouTube video
This 2010 report describes the successful rehabilitation of dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz dogfighting operation.

Debating breed bans

Pit bulls still suffer more than any other dogs from the fact that they are a type of dog, not a distinct breed. Once recognized by the American Kennel Club as an American Staffordshire terrier, popularly known as an Amstaff, and registered with the United Kennel Club and the American Dog Breeders Association as an American pit bull terrier, now any dog characterized as a “pit bull type” can be considered an outlaw in many communities.

For example, in its 2012 Tracey v. Solesky ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals modified the state’s common law in cases involving dog injuries. Any dog containing pit bull genes was “inherently dangerous” as a matter of law.

This subjected owners and landlords to what the courts call “strict liability.” As the court declared: “When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous.”

Dissenting from the ruling, Judge Clayton Greene recognized the absurdity of the majority opinion’s “unworkable rule”: “How much ‘pit bull,’” he asked, “must there be in a dog to bring it within the strict liability edict?”

It’s equally unanswerable how to tell when a dog is a pit bull mix. From the shape of its head? Its stance? The way it looks at you?

Conundrums like these call into question statistics that show pit bulls to be more dangerous than other breeds. These figures vary a great deal depending on their sources.

Any statistics about pit bull attacks depend on the definition of a pit bull – yet it’s really hard to get good dog bite data that accurately IDs the breed.

YouTube video
Prince George’s County, Md., is negotiating with advocates suing to revoke the county’s pit bull ban.

Over the past decade, awareness has grown that breed-specific legislation does not make the public safer but does penalize responsible owners and their dogs. Currently 21 states prohibit local government from enforcing breed-specific legislation or naming specific breeds in dangerous dog laws. Maryland passed a law reversing the Tracey ruling in 2014. Yet 15 states still allow local communities to enact breed-specific bans.

Pit bulls demand a great deal more from humans than some dogs, but alongside their bracing way of being in the world, we humans learn another way of thinking and loving. Compared with many other breeds, they offer a more demanding but always affecting communion.The Conversation

Colin Dayan is a Professor of English, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, and a Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  1. When I was growing up the family down the street had a pitbull and said the same crap this article does. Then one day when they were all sitting around the dog charged their kid and ripped up his face for no reason and without warning. They changed their tune. All the people on here say the same stuff.. “my dog is gentle and sweet and loves his family”. “what about rotts or german shepherds”. blah blah blah. delusional twits…

  2. Why is the default narrative of the pit-lover always the same, “I’ve got a pit and it’s never been any trouble”? Is that all you got?

    Any casual perusal of online statistical studies support the conclusion that the pit is, by a large margin, the most dangerous breed there is and by a much larger margin, the breed most likely to kill.

  3. I think the people that like pitbulls are compensating for something or the type that fall in love with incarcerated criminals. It is amazing that out of so many dog breeds they lose their minds and want this one and defend them like they can’t have a dog if they can’t have a pit.

    A friend of mine is a lawyer that specializes in dog bites. He lives three blocks from the beach in miami and has a boat called “but the dog never” because that is almost always what the person getting sued starts with. He has done very well for himself and pitbulls paid for over 50% of his wealth.

  4. Propensity for attacks is not the issue. Many pit bulls are great pets. The issue to my mind is that the damage done by the breed during an attack puts it in a different category from other breeds. Other breeds may have higher statistics for attacks, but fatalities are almost exclusively from this one breed.

    1. What stands out is that a.) there have been those who saved lives b.) it’s pathetically easy to misidentify a pit even if you’re an expert (meaning that media reports are utterly worthless) c.) even if Colleen Lynn and dogsbite weren’t lying or using bad methodology it would still mean more than 99% of all pit bulls never attack d.) Colleen Lynn and Merrit Clifton HAVE lied or misused info (Colleen has claimed people who shot themselves were mauled, disregarded dna tests which proved certain dogs weren’t pitbulls and claimed that dogs who were beaten were raised in loving homes) d.) pretty much every expert not named Alan beck has found that environment and socialization is more important e.) pitbulls we’re bred for other purposes besides fighting f.) even pot bulls that were bred for fighting were bred not to attack people and were culled if they did g.) Pretty much every attempt to institute bsl caused an INCREASE in maulings while legislation that targeted bad owners has consistently gotten good results h.) pit haters either attack dog bite victims who don’t share their views or call people using data “science whores” and I.) of the fatal dog bite attacks that have occurred 75% or so involve poor socialization, negligence or not bothering to learn or teach how to comport themselves around dogs and no they really aren’t.

      People advocating breed bans are literally killing children and either seeking a simple solution, looking for reason to vent or don’t want to admit that it was their incompetence that got themselves or others hurt.

      I’ll take real experts over the equivalent of qanon

  5. Pit bulls kill an American every 15 days. As terriers, they are bred to kill. This instinct cannot be removed. Their victims are usually children. No child should die like this. The breed should be exterminated.

  6. Very interesting conversation. I own two pit bull/lab mix dogs. They are sisters and have been spayed. They both attended obedience classes as well. They are now 2 yrs old and have totally different personalities. I am very strict with them and I have socialized them since getting them at 8 was old. I will say this about the pit bull – they are bully dogs and will take charge if you allow them to. One of them is fear reactive – she is afraid of strangers and has “nipped” them before but never drawn blood. However, if the person gives her a milk bone she is her best friend. I NEVER fully trust any dog with children – I also have a chihuahua and don’t allow small children with him unsupervised as well. Children should ALWAYS be supervised closely around any dog! My pits have been going to the dog park since they were 4 mo old and I have never had a problem with them there either. If raised with love and affection they are great dogs, but if you let them be the boss they can be dangerous like any other dog.

    1. Karen, “Statistical data from a 15-year period shows that pit bulls are over 11 times more likely to kill their owner than any other dog breed.”

    2. They never attack until they do. Then your life will be over or ruined. Even if it is only a three percent chance, is a pit so much better than other dogs that it is worth it?

  7. I do not understand why some people are putting dogs before their children’s safety! Dogs are not ” fur babies ” they are dogs. If my Greyhound looked at one of my children cross eyed, off to the vet she would go to get the needle. I love my dog, but I love my children more.

  8. They are good dogs it’s the way you raised them you talk bout dogs look at all the people killing there families or other drive by shootings road rage omg!!!!our family has 5 they protect the kids as well look at the people around you they could kill you too stupid is what I say for those bad comments

  9. They are good dogs it’s the way you raised them you talk bout dogs look at all the people killing there families or other drive by shootings road rage omg!!!!our family has 5 they protect the kids as well look at the people around you they could kill you too stupid is what I say for those bad comments

    1. So the people whose infants were killed by pits raised them to be baby killers? good to know.

  10. When the author gets a material fact wrong in the very first paragraph, why should the reader rely on anything else he says? Nipper was a fox terrier. If you go to the RCA site, THEY identify they dog as a fox terrier, possible a Jack Russell. The rest of the article is just babble with carefully inserted words like can/possibly/maybe. Articles from pit bull apologists splitting hairs about what is or isn’t a pit bull always reminds me of that that Supreme Court article about porn- hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Glad to see that the majority of the comments are people who have woken up to the menace that pit bulls present to our communities. Not wanting them around is not a form of dog racism and even if it is, who cares?

  11. Due to the jaw strength and extreme bite pressure of some breeds, they are capable of easily killing people. Children and elderly are especially vulnerable. Jaw strength and bite pressure are not based on opinion, they are measurable, demonstrable facts. No matter how well the dog is trained and treated these characteristics remain.

  12. First, 21 and 15 equals 36. Not 50. You can’t even do math right. (The number of states)

    Next, the RCA dog was not a pit bull. And even if it was, it wouldn’t change anything about pit bulls. And look at Sergeant stubby, it was tiny. That was not a pit bull either.

    Next, pit bulls bulls were never, ever America’s dog.

    Next, you totally contradict yourself, you say that put bulls can’t be identified, they’re not a breed, they’re not different than other dogs and then say this “Compared with many other breeds, they offer a more demanding but always affecting communion.” and WTF does that even mean?!?! Lol that made me laugh out loud literally!!

    And trying to compare a rational fear or distrust of the dogs that maim and kill more people than every other dog breed combined to racism is actually racist!! The vast majority of pit bulls out there or even attacking are not owned by any specific race or buy any kind of hugs. Most are owned by “fur mamas” Who are totally clueless, and put their dogs in sweaters and tutus. And then are shocked when it tears their children’s faces apart.

    Finally, ask the Bernard family in TN why they would raise their two pit bulls for eight years to kill their two year olds and five month old child!!

    Just because you owned a pit bull that hasn’t killed anyone yet, does not make you an expert. AT ALL. Please do your homework. This is literally some of the worst propaganda and lies about pit bulls than I’ve seen, and that says a lot! You should really ask your university for your money back!!!

    1. The Dogs in TN are not Pit Bull. The very first Petey was a Pit Bull coming off Tudor’s Gr Ch Blackjack

    2. The Dogs in TN are not Pit Bulls . The only and real Pit Bulls are the APBT . Tudor’s Gr Ch Blackjack, Colby’s Pincher , Walling Bullyson 2xw 1xLoser, Wood’s Snooty 2xw2xLoser. Dogs that fought in the Pit. These are old pit fighting dogs and real pit bulls . All real Pit Bulls are Game Bred and have Bloodlines . No Bloodlines No Pit Bulls

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