I must preface this article by saying, the following is something I have been writing for nearly two months. I decided against making it public, until recently when I posted the above photo on my personal Facebook account with the following phrase below it:
“Pit Bulls” are dog aggressive.
This was an obvious attempt to be comical and extremely sarcastic, but was met by scrutiny and a snarky know-it-all elitist attitude from a fellow “Pit Bull” advocate. So, because of that, I felt the need to put some things in writing. We are all learning, and should continue to learn about the ways to better protect and give all dogs a chance at life without bias.
Rescue. Advocacy. Pit Bulls. Each word means something different to different people. When all are within the same sentence, it adds even more confusion to the discussion. Interpretations vary so much from one person to another that I wonder if anybody really, truly knows. The myths, stereotypes and other inaccuracies that are plagiarized over and over, somehow transform opinion into “popular” belief, or even worse…”fact.”
I’ve written about my dog, Preston, on numerous occasions. From the known background of his past, his current present day living with me, to our future together until one of us departs this current life form. I adopted him from a rescue, who saved him from a shelter that rescued him during a drug bust, where they allegedly used him for fighting purposes. The perpetrators were never charged with the animal fighting crime, so I only know fragmented pieces of the conditions he came from. When I adopted him in late 2008, he was the most human affectionate dog I’ve ever been in contact with, but he appeared to show some intolerance towards other dogs, and especially smaller animals (cats, squirrels, rabbits, etc.), which I perceived to be aggression. At one point in those earlier days, I actually thought I would have to seclude him from all other animals for the rest of his days. This was extremely difficult to accept since other members in my immediate family had dogs. My parents had two in their household, and my sister (at the time) had three in hers. Holidays and other gatherings were always filled with a house full of dogs, and I wanted to bring Preston to these special occasions too. Even though I’ve had dogs since I can remember, I admit, I treated him different. I felt I had a huge responsibility to uphold, and could not afford to mess up, not even once. One of the reasons I did this is because I live in Ohio, where, for 25 years the state law singled out these dogs by labeling them inherently vicious, and requiring owners to abide by unique requirements. By repeatedly telling its citizens they were different, they became different. I was also part of the problem.
When I got introduced to Pit Bull dogs, I, like many, believed in some of the hysteria that surrounds them, and I unknowingly made statements that were damaging and unfair to the same dogs I thought I was trying to help. I believed Pit Bulls were stronger than other dogs. I felt they had tendencies to be more aggressive. I bought in that they were somehow different than other breeds. And because of this, I believed I had to treat Preston different than the other dogs I’ve shared my home with. But, I am not alone. I’ve been told by people in rescue and advocacy that these dogs fight like no other; and never trust two Pit Bulls together, especially ones of the same sex.
Even with a dog I thought was animal aggressive, I continued to take Preston on daily walks at the park, where he saw (from a distance) many of the things that would trigger an almost immediate response. After a year passed, I began noticing a slight change in his behavior, and slowly things that previously made him quickly react started occurring less and less. Soon, squirrels would pass right in front of us, and rabbits would run off on the side, with little to no response. After a few years of being an only dog, I decided I wasn’t doing enough in the rescue community, and opened my home to a six month old “Pit Bull” puppy, who I named Era. I didn’t know what to expect from Preston, but by this time, I’d seen a huge transformation in his willingness to be with other dogs, and felt comfortable knowing his body language. On June 30, 2011, Era was saved from Cleveland City Kennel, and came to her new temporary home. From minute one, Preston and Era got along great. It was as if they were separated at birth. Everywhere Preston went, Era went, and vice-versa. I saw Preston was extremely tolerant of her puppy ways, none more evident than when I’d see Era hanging from his jowls without as much of a peep from him. This new experience was an indication that I didn’t know much what I thought I already knew about him. I saw a dog that needed companionship, and allowed Era’s bad puppy manners, so after a few months I decided I wanted to officially adopt her. She was home, and there was no reason to ever let her go.
About this time, I started seriously doubting breed labeling. I am by no means a breed expert, never claimed to be, and don’t really care to be one either. But, I’ve been involved in this debate for so long, I noticed one common trend to all the dogs labeled “Pit Bull” – they all looked so different. No other type of dog is there this much doubt over what it is and what it is not. Look no further than media accounts and eye witness identifications of 100lb Pit Bulls running havoc in our neighborhoods. As of late, I have found the conversation starts at the very beginning…what are we exactly talking about when we say “Pit Bull?” Clearly, there is a definition of what an American Pit Bull Terrier or American Staffordshire Terrier is, but “Pit Bull” is a rather cloudy term that is a little less definable. Because of the watered down use of the words, it’s nearly impossible to be on the same page when discussing it. It’s been proven that visual identification is a less than acceptable method to identify the breed of dog one may be. That point has been made countless times when disproving animal control department observations in cities around the United States, and world, where breed specific legislation exists.
Another year had passed, and I was seeing another dog, Fergie, being circulated on Facebook needing help at the Cleveland City Kennel. There was little interest, and her time up was approaching fast. She was previously being used as a breeding dog, and was diagnosed heartworm positive along with several other treatable and less severe ailments. I decided to donate hoping a rescue would pull her to safety, but when one didn’t I began contacting the local rescues I know, and gave my pledge to get her better in my home on a foster basis only. I don’t live in a big home. I rent, and when I picked this house it was only Preston and me. This became a new challenge, as Fergie had to be segregated for around two months while going through treatment to cure and rid her of the heartworms that would have eventually taken her life. She could not be stimulated in any way, only allowing brief periods out of her crate for bathroom breaks and couch cuddling. Any stimulation could kill her. When I brought her home on August, 11, 2012, I decided to keep her in my home office, since it was the only room that wasn’t easily accessible to Preston and Era. By accident, Preston out of curiosity snuck in the room the next morning when I went to check on her. He looked at her in her crate, and she let out a series of growls and barks. My first thought was Preston would react back, and quite frankly I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did. It was then, another defining moment, I realized there was something special about this little black dog I fell in love with. Instead of aggressing, he calmly backed up, and when I instructed him to leave the room, he quickly ran out. No aggression. None.
The word aggression gets overused and tossed around quite a bit, to the point where nobody is trying to figure out what is bothering the dog to act in a way to be perceived aggressive in the first place. It’s a trait that is commonly associated with dogs people call Pit Bulls. Generally speaking, true Pit Bulls, meaning dogs who are American Pit Bull Terriers or American Staffordshire Terriers, may possess some levels of intolerance towards dogs or other animals instinctively, but this is a terrier trait, not a Pit Bull trait. Some people even excuse a dog’s behavior because it’s “common” to the breed. I’ve even had a friend tell me her reasons why she knows her mixed breed dog is a Pit Bull – “Because she is dog aggressive.” Technically speaking, dog aggression can exist in all breeds. Socialization is the key to success for all dogs, and proper management is essential and the responsibility of their human counterparts. I actually don’t even like using the word “aggression,” because it gives a false sense of where the problem actually is. I prefer words like reactivity, because in most cases there is a variable the dog is responding to. Aggression sounds like something unfixable, or for that matter, unmanageable. I use Preston in these examples often. A dog I once believed could not be around other dogs, or even see a squirrel without looking like the Tasmanian Devil, be able to be desensitized and accept other animals in the area he is in. There is a famous quote by a well known American speaker, Wayne Dyer, that goes “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.” I truly believe in this.
After a few months of segregation, I began to see a change in Fergie as well. She was cleared of being heartworm positive, and given a clean bill of health. I decided to start letting Fergie out the front door, where she had to pass Preston and Era locked behind a child gate in my bedroom. Her whole body language became better, so much so, she sought them out and kissed them through the gate. A dog, who clearly was in defense mode prior, letting her guard down. She was no longer in a scary place, with the unknown around the corner. She knew what to expect, and confident I wasn’t going to let anything happen to her. I built her trust. The same thing Preston wanted and expected from me years before. I am convinced, if either one of these dogs (Preston or Fergie) were in a different home, a home that didn’t try to understand their behavior, they would be labeled aggressive and never able to break that barrier.
Fast forward to the other day, and the reason this post even exists publicly. The person I was “debating” with made several claims relating to Pit Bulls and dog aggression. What she didn’t understand is, the photo was a joke of sorts. I didn’t discount the fact true Pit Bulls (again, terrier in general is more appropriate) may have higher risks of intolerance towards other dogs and animals. But that is saying we are dealing with a Pit Bull, and not just a “Pit Bull” with dog issues. We just have not been able to reliably identify breeds, and even the makers of DNA tests won’t 100% guarantee their results. But she still argued, and made preposterous claims that even if there is a “chance” a dog has any Pit Bull, the owner has a duty to be alert of possible dog aggression. She also stated she talks people out of getting this “breed” whenever possible, and that is what really upsets me, because by doing so it is actually promoting breed specific legislation, and I can only wonder how many dogs died due to talking out a viable candidate because the dog “might” have “Pit Bull.” Our time would be better served if we had a blanket good dog owner manual covering all dogs and their owners, regardless of whether a dog is a Chihuahua, or a Golden Retriever…, or a Pit Bull. Understanding our dogs and their limitations is something every dog owner should do, so that we do not set up our dogs for failure. Words are that powerful. They affect how we see, treat, and feel about things. Once they’re said, you cannot take them back. Sometimes through our actions, we are a “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing.”