At the shelter, I asked to meet Gracie. I wanted to make sure that I felt comfortable with her, comfortable enough to bring her to our home, to temporarily join our family while she delivered and nursed her puppies.
Gracie’s breed, like a large proportion of the canines housed at the Humane Society of Huron Valley, was listed as Terrier, Pit Bull / mix. Visual breed identification is extremely unreliable, even when the guesser is an expert. Dogs with blocky heads, unless they have other strongly competing characteristics that bring to mind another breed, are often labeled as pit bulls (meaning they appear to have some traits associated with the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier).
In fact, dogs with these characteristics and labels are estimated to make up about 33% of shelter populations nationally, with that number being much higher, up to 65%, in larger cities. Why? Pitties have been attributed with such characteristics as loyalty, tenacity, high energy, athleticism, high intelligence, determination, and willingness to please humans. While these natural tendencies have contributed to pitties’ rich history as wonderful family pets and success in service fields, they have also opened them to vulnerability to those who would exploit them in fighting rings. Some humans have welcomed pitties into their homes, hearts, and families. Others have watched them fight to the death, breeding only those exhibiting particular aggression and ferocity to other canines.
News biases do not help the pitties out. Among reported dog bites, several other breeds outrank the pit bull in bite incidents. The laborador retriever, current gold standard family pet, tops the list, being responsible for over 13% of reported bites. When small dogs, such as dachshunds and chihuahuas bite, the damage is less likely to be severe and the bites are less likely to need medical care or be reported. When large dogs, such as Rottweilers and pitties bite, the damage can be extensive. This severity, coupled with the pit bull’s current reputation, makes for exciting news fodder. Someone is more likely to click on the headline “Pit Bull Mauls Owner” than “Chihuahua Draws Blood on Visitor’s Leg”.
What this perpetuation of fear has done for the pit bull, and all the hapless pups that may share some physical characteristics with the collection of breeds, is earned them a “bully breed” label. That label translates into restrictions in housing and even entire communities. Breed specific legislation refers to laws that only apply to certain breeds of dogs, or dogs that look like they may have certain breed characteristics. Whole communities, like Denver, CO, prohibit owning a pit bull. Even in my forward thinking community of Ann Arbor, MI, pit bull owners relocating to the area would be hard pressed to find an apartment complex that would also accept their canine family.
Some states are starting to respond to public outcry regarding breed specific legislation. The map below (originally posted by Huffington Post) shows the states that have passed (dark blue) or are considering (light blue) laws prohibiting BSL. While this shift is a step in the right direction, it may be too little too late for the reputation of pit bull type dogs.
Even understanding the origin of, and having examined my own, prejudices against pit bulls, I still felt my heart speed up standing in front of Gracie’s kennel. What lay hidden in her genetic composition? Was I a fool for even considering taking her home?
Just like people, dogs are individuals with their own complex histories and personalities. While labs may top the reported bite list, I cannot even fathom a situation that would elicit a bite (to a dog or human) from my own sweet Livie. Still, if I brought a lab home and it bit someone, I do believe the sentiment would be “who would have thought?” while if I bring a pittie home and she bites someone shouldn’t I really have known?
I stepped into Gracie’s kennel, but she didn’t rise. She thumped her tail at me and gazed up with sad eyes. I leaned over to pet her. After a few minutes, I sat on her bed beside her. She rested her giant head in my lap gently and snoozed. Up close, I could see that her ears had been crudely cut off, certainly not by a professional (do professionals even do such things to dogs?). What had Gracie experienced before this moment? What events had led her here? Regardless, she deserved better and I knew in that moment I would be bringing her home.