Essayist and journalist Bronwen Dickey investigates how one of America’s most popular dog breeds became one of its most maligned in her illuminating and thoroughly researched new book, Pit Bull: The Battle over An American Icon.
What was your goal in writing this book?
I hope the book will be a case study in critical thinking, especially when it comes to stereotypes. During the seven years I spent doing research on pit bulls, I met thousands of people who had strong beliefs about the dogs, but when I asked them what their views were based on, many didn't really know. They were just repeating things they heard from friends or had read on the Internet. After tracing the most common claims about pit bulls back to their original sources, I found that the vast majority of these "facts" were based on nothing but air.
How would you describe the qualities that made pit bulls “American icons” and popular family pets in earlier eras?
By far, the qualities most associated with pit bulls in the 19th and early 20th centuries were courage, tenacity and loyalty. Because they originated as fighting dogs, they were seen as the type of dogs who can fall down nine times and get up 10. In reality, though, some were like that and many were not, but the symbolism overtook the flesh-and-bone animals. Pit bulls also fit nicely into the bootstrapping vision of the American dream that writers like Horatio Alger made famous because they traditionally belonged to working-class people. Contrary to popular belief, however, the dogs were not universally adored, even back then. There were always a number of folks who looked down their noses at pit bulls and considered them "savage." That had more to do with disliking their owners than anything else.
I always believed that pit bulls had stronger jaws than other dogs because of the frequently cited "pounds of pressure" statistic. Not only is the statistic bogus, each new person to cite it adds a few hundred psi just for fun! How did this idea take root?
That's one of the most common truth-claims circulated about pit bulls, and it is absolutely not true. According to the available science, the biggest determinant of a dog's bite strength is body size, not breed. There's folklore about the strength of "bulldog jaws" that goes back over a hundred years, but the PSI figures didn't become popular until 1969, when a couple of researchers claimed that German shepherd military working dogs could be trained to exert a jaw strength of between 400 and 450 pounds-per-square-inch (PSI). The researchers never cited a source for this claim (and they probably did not even have equipment to measure it), but it became a common motif in stories about guard dogs, which lots of people were buying in the 1960s and 1970s in response to rising crime rates. The numbers simply spiraled out of control from there, like a game of telephone.
You have a dog that's at least fractionally a pit bull. How is she? Did you look at her differently while researching this book?
She's doing great; thank you!
I learned so much about the power of perception while researching and writing this book. One of the women I interviewed said that the idea of "pit bull" now looms so large that it has become "unmoored" from the actual animals, and I think that's absolutely right. When we first brought Nola home, I interpreted everything she did as a possible "pit bull trait." She and I were playing a game of keep-away in the yard once, for example, and she accidentally nipped my arm while jumping up for the ball. Even though I was not hurt in the slightest (she only left a tiny bruise you had to squint to see), the fact that her teeth made contact with my skin caused me to panic because, oh my God, she was a "pit bull"! What if she was turning on me?!
It went the other way, too. When I steeped myself in gung-ho pit bull history, I imagined that she was much more courageous than she actually is. For awhile, I worshipped at the altar of "breed traits." The more I learned about the extraordinarily complex science of behavior, however, the more I realized how unfair all that baggage was to her. It was also scientifically inaccurate. I wasn't appreciating her as an individual who has preferences and quirks just like I do. Nola is not an abstraction or a poorly-defined category; she's just Nola.
I perhaps foolishly didn't expect a story about pit bulls to be so tied to class and race. Had you made the connection before you started writing or did it surprise you?
I began to see some disturbing patterns in the way people talked about pit bulls fairly early on, specifically after I began volunteering with a non-profit that provides free veterinary resources to people living in poverty so that their pets can stay in the homes they already have. Most of the families I met were incredibly warm and welcoming to me, and most owned dogs they described as pit bulls, whom they loved very much. Yet people who had never been to these communities insisted that pit bulls were only owned by "thugs" who kept the dogs to be "macho," and that urban dogfighting was "everywhere." Once again, that simply was not true in my home state of North Carolina, nor was it true in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Oakland, or any of the other places I visited, but comments about "those people" and their "vicious animals" abound.
The landscape has changed so much over the years, but the story we tell ourselves about these dogs and their people hasn't, and that's a big problem. I wish the tendency to use dogs as proxies for human groups was a new trend, but that, too, goes back a very long time.
What does our treatment of pit bulls say more broadly about our relationship with dogs?
More than anything, I think it reveals how invested we are in the idea of breed, which is pretty historically recent. For many thousands of years, dogs were grouped according to their working function, not their appearance. In the mid-19th century, the Victorians wedded a dog's breed to its moral character, and by extension, the moral character of the person who owned it. Yet all dogs share 99.8 percent of their DNA, and "pit bulls" are not even one breed! That label is a messy, subjective category inside which at least four breeds are contained. While certain traits may be seen in greater or lesser degrees in specific working lines of some dog breeds, most pit bulls, like most American dogs, simply live as pets, and each one is different. That's what is so wonderful, surprising, and instructive about dogs in general.
Many aspects of this story were hard to read. How did you keep at a job that must have been overwhelming at times?
It was incredibly difficult emotionally, psychologically, and at times, even physically. I lost a lot of sleep. The history of dogfighting was profoundly upsetting. Also, pit bull enthusiasts are extremely passionate, and several of my sources strongly disagreed with each other. They each wanted me to see things his or her way. But this story is so big and so complex that I wanted to introduce readers to many different perspectives. I have great respect for everyone I met, but I didn't accept anyone's views wholesale. Sometimes they didn't like that, but I hope when they see the finished product they will understand why I approached it the way I did.
Terrible reporting about pit bulls has been nearly impossible to debunk. Do you see any signs that the tide is turning, in the media or in public opinion?
Without a doubt. I traveled through 15 states doing interviews for the book, and one of the biggest surprises was not how many people harbored negative feelings about pit bulls, but how few. Overwhelmingly, the people I encountered (even perfect strangers I chatted up at restaurants and whatnot) were looking for any reason at all not to be afraid. They were sick of the sensational fearmongering. Even the ones who were wary of pit bulls because of everything they had read in the media were open to changing their minds. The idea that "people hate pit bulls" is simply not true. We'll never know definitively, but if I had to guess, I'd say the dogs are more popular now than they ever have been.
Even fans can’t agree about what’s best for pit bulls—if one simply wants to erase the stigma attached to the breed, another worries that pit mixes are watering down the breed’s integrity. Where do you see the hope for their future?
If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that what goes up very quickly comes down. Pit bulls were built up to an impossible height only to crash to an unforeseen low in the space of a hundred years. It's such a fascinating story of myth-making and re-invention. What's more American than that? But, as I like to remind people, the dogs themselves were never consulted about the story we wrote them into! They simply got swept up in our human drama.
Today, anything you can say about a large, diverse group of people—say, "Americans"—you can say about pit bulls. Some are outstanding and some are unsound, but most fall in the vast, utterly normal space in between.
I'd love to see us loosen our grip on the symbolism of breed. We'll never let it go, of course, but I hope we can come to appreciate all dogs for the unique individuals they are. They would really benefit from that. So would we.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Pit Bull.