Monday, January 17, 2011

Whatever Happened to America's Dog?

Part I

At the time of this writing, many Americans believe that there is a breed of dog that is irredeemably, magically viscous.  This is not the only reason the current era is going to go down in history as one of the most remarkably hysterical and superstitious of all time, but it is a bigger reason than current speculation allows for.  The dog in question is said to be good at guarding dope dens, to suffer from something called Jekyll-Hyde syndrome, to be an indiscriminate killer of tires, weeds, kittens, and people, to exert two thousand or sometimes twenty thousand pounds of pressure per square inch with its double-or-triple-jointed jaws ... these dogs are popularly called "pit bulls".  They don't exist ....
--Vicki Hearne

Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog 
Highly Recommended

The last few decades have been hard for the Pit Bull in America. 

The breed that was once called  "America's Dog" has fallen on bad times.  There was a time when they were our heroes.  On posters from the First World War the French were depicted as a poodle, the English as a bull dog -- and America as a pit bull.  Not high-brow like the poodle or aristocratic like the bull dog – a scrappy, hard-muscled little working class dog with a huge heart, who never backed down from a fight.  (Very cool recreations of this period art can be seen and purchased at That’s how we saw ourselves, and the pit bull was our well-loved symbol.  It represented our heart, as the Bald Eagle was chosen by the founding fathers to represent the spirit of our loftiest ideals.

You know we almost wiped out the Bald Eagle too?

The most decorated war dog in U.S. history was called Sgt. Stubby.  He was variously described as being part pit bull, part Boston Terrier, or "Old Boston Bulldog" which at the time was another name for the Pit Bull Terrier.  If you look at his photos though, he's clearly the type of dog that would be labeled a pit bull in any shelter in America.  Sgt. Stubby -- he was officially promoted to the rank of Sergeant during the war -- he was wounded in battle, gassed (after which he learned to warn his fellow troops of the presence of poison gas), located wounded soldiers after battles, and learned to warn soldiers of incoming artillery shells.  He served from 1917 through the end of the war, and was awarded the "wound stripe" worn by soldiers in WWI to indicate they had been wounded, and a number of medals for his heroism, including a Humane Society medal presented by General John Pershing.  He met three Presidents.

When I was a kid they were still showing the re-runs of The Little Rascals on television.  The kids on that show had a beloved dog, Pete, who was a white faced pit bull with black over one eye.  Pete was never depicted as being anything but sweet and funny and loyal.

The Sioux medicine man, John Lame Deer (Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions) once wrote, "When a people begin destroying their own symbols, they're in a bad way."

Sometime in the last decades of the twentieth century the United States of American decided to turn on one of its symbols.  There's an old saying that "Every dog has his day", and sadly, that seems to be true.  When I was a kid it the seventies the monsters du jour were Doberman Pinschers.  They even made horror movies about them.  Then for a while in the seventies and eighties it was Rottweiler’s.  Way back in the 1940’s the official monster dog was the Bloodhound.  They were so feared and reviled that the writer James Thurber wrote essays to defend them.  The stories from back then sound a lot like the stories written about pit bulls today.  The more things change ....

Poet, philosopher and animal trainer Vicki Hearne chronicled her part in the "pit bull wars" in an amazing book called "Bandit, Dossier of a Dangerous Dog" .  It is the story of how she became involved with a Dog named Bandit, who was in trouble because his owner could not control him, because he had bitten someone who came onto his property, and because he was labeled a "pit bull".

Bandit was said to be a pit bull, but he is not.  He was said to be uncontrollably aggressive, but he is not, because random aggression requires pretty advanced intellectual capacities, the ability to live by abstract concepts and so on, and Bandit is not that bright.  He was said to suffer from the Jekyll-Hyde syndrome, but you have be human to suffer from the Jekyll-Hyde syndrome, and you have to be able to misread Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bandit can't read.  He was said to be diseased, but he is not.  He was said to be Untrainable because five years old, but he is not.  Untrainable, that is; he was at one point five years old ....

Vicki Hearne, who died in 2001 of lung cancer, is one of the most intellectually challenging and fascinating figures in the whole field of animal literature.  A poet, a philosopher and an animal trainer, she is interested in not just the concrete details of Bandit's case, but in the wider significance of the "pit bull wars" for our society -- in topics like the meaning of a dog bite (dogs being highly social animals, like primates, almost all their actions are meant to be communicative -- a dog that bites is not just being "vicious", he's trying to tell you something), the reason why we tell stories about 'monsters', and the connections between the demonization of certain dog breeds and racism.  

In a posthumous collection of her poems, Tricks of the LightHearne, when she arranged for him to give a reading at the University of Riverside.  This is how he describes her:

When I asked her what it was she worked at, she replied that she trained dogs and horses, to which I may have responded in a less than fascinated way.  But within a very few minutes she had elicited my complete absorption.  She spoke right away of her interest in the relation between psychologists' behavioristic accounts of what an animal was doing when it was learning to respond to a command or signal, and the very different kinds of stories that trainers would tell each other and themselves—about what was going on.  When she began to meditate on why it was that believing those stories helped the trainers work immeasurably better, I hesitantly mentioned that more general concerns of just that nature had been of interest to twentieth-century philosophers.
Before I could finish she was discussing particular passages of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, followed by her consideration of the history of observations on horse-training from Xenophon on through some Renaissance humanists. This was followed by all sorts of other historical accounts of such matters as the relation between humane societies and Tory politics in England, the cultural construction of breeds, together with such exemplary stories  as that of the demonization or the Doberman in the later 1930's as a Nazi dog and a host of other tales, issues,  problems, and enigmas.

This is exactly the kind of mind that is on display in "Bandit", with her incredibly broad knowledge, her poet's eye, and a philosopher's inclination to question everything.  

But what interests her most is the moral capacity of animals -- not their moral worth which other philosophers and animal rights activists stress -- but their stature a moral agents, as beings capable of choice and rich communication in their own right.  She believes that animals, in their individuality, can relate to humans emotionally and morally in ways that are much more complex than usually acknowledged. Bandit is a book that should be read, certainly, by anyone interested in the fate of pit bulls and the legal battles that have been fought over them.  And by anyone interested in broader questions of animal rights (a concept which Hearne rejects on philosophical grounds), animal training, or interspecies communication.  It also raises questions about the cycles of demonization that our culture experiences, the constant need to find or manufacture "monsters" to scare each other with.  It is a book that will fascinate, challenge and infuriate
people on all sides of the issues.

 Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous DogAdam's Task: Calling Animals by NameTricks of the Light: New and Selected PoemsThe White German ShepherdAnimal Happiness: A Moving Exploration of Animals and Their EmotionsNervous Horses

Part II

The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption 

Highly Recommended

I remember the day that I first heard the name Michael Vick.  I'm not really a football fan, so his being the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons didn't even register with me.  But the news that he and his friends had been running a dog fighting operation -- and that 51 pit bulls had been seized in the raid -- did.  I remember reading the first reports to my best friend with tears in my eyes.  There was very little information about the animals then.  But I have been a kennel volunteer and a pit bull lover for many years and I knew -- with a certainty that made me feel sick -- what the outcome was going to be.  Pit bulls don't get second chances.  Pit bulls don't get mercy or compassion.  Around the country for years the trend had been toward greater and greater restrictions on any dog that looked like a pit bull.  Cities like Denver and Miami and Cincinnati   -- and the entire province of Ontario in Canada -- had outlawed pit bulls.  In those places, pit bulls that come into shelters never come out again.  But most conservative estimates millions of dogs die in shelters around the country every year, and of all dogs, pit bulls are judged most harshly.  The dog that was once called "America's Dog", that was once celebrated on TV and in films (the Little Rascals had a pit bull), had become a pariah and a public enemy.  So when I read about Michael Vick's dogs I started grieving.  I was sure the dogs were doomed.

"You should call someone," my friend told me.  "You should find out what's happening."

And so I did.  I called the Humane Society.  I called local shelters in the Atlanta area.  I called newspapers and everyone I knew in rescue.  There was almost no news to be had.  The dogs were still alive, but at the moment that might just because they were evidence.  The case against Vick and his friends was still pending.   
I had no hope at all.

And then a miracle happened.

Jim Gorant's book "The Lost Dogs" is, in large part, the story of that miracle.  It's an engaging story, with plenty of heroes and villains -- and in Gorant's hands even the "bad guys" become human beings, with histories and motivations that help us understand -- if certainly not sympathize with -- their actions. 
For the first time, in a high profile dog fighting case, in the United States, the justice system decided to treat the dogs not just as property or evidence, but as victims.  From around the country relief groups and volunteers and shelters stepped forward.   47 of the dogs taken from Bad Newz Kennels were saved.  Many of them would go on to become family pets, therapy dogs, and survivors.  They also became media stars, appearing in magazines and newspapers across the country, challenging the public's image of pit bulls.  The Lost Dogs documents the heroic people who worked so hard to save them, and the heroism of the dogs themselves.

Along the way, Gorant gives us fascinating details of how the case against Vick was built, the work of the forensic investigators and the prosecutors.  He delves into the history of pit bulls and of dog fighting, and shows us some of the public controversy surrounding the breed.  But most of all, he shows us the dogs, lets us get to know them, feel the pain they endured, and rejoice at their rescue.  

"The Lost Dogs" is a powerful account of these animals -- many scarred physically and mentally by their ordeal -- who turned out to be, not the worst of the worst, but dogs, brave and loyal dogs who wanted love and human companionship.  Not so lost after all.

In an interview with NPR Gorant noted that, because of the great press the Vick Dogs have received and their remarkable success, the Michael Vick case might ironically turn out to be one of the best things that has  happened to pit bulls in a long time.
I hope he's right.

Related Reading

Also, pit bulls are pit bull terriers.  Even in the most bulldoggy individuals, there will be something -- a sprightliness in the stance, some suggestion of the possibilities of tap dancing and vaudeville, some impish gleam in the eye -- to suggest the terrier.  It is a subtle thing, but often obvious when you put a pit bull next to a bulldog of any variety -- you can see, faintly, the blackface, and hear the tambourines. 
--Vicki Hearne

The Working Pit Bull 

Colby's Book of the American Pit Bull Terrier 

Recommended.  (Highly Recommended for the true 'Pit Bull Person')

If you're like me, then just leafing through these two beautifully illustrated books can bring tears to your eyes.
Diane Jessup has been an Animal Control Officer, a trainer, a breeder, an educator, a writer -- and is founder of Lawdogs ( a pioneering effort to train and promote American Pit Bull Terriers as law enforcement dogs.  (The program has regrettably been shut down because of lack of funding.)  He work on behalf of pit bulls -- as well as other game animals like Gamecocks -- has been unflagging.  As she herself points out, there is a paradox in someone who has been both an animal control officer -- who has seen the horrors of abuse and animal fighting first hand -- but who has deep and abiding love for the game animals that come out of those traditions.  But she embraces that contradiction, is outspoken in the defense of what she loves, and is never afraid to offend anyone on any side of animal issues. (Dog fighters on one side and many animal rights groups on the other come under fire in her writings.)
The Working Pit  Bull (see her website also is first and foremost a love letter to the breed.  Filled with history, anecdotes, personal experience -- and most importantly with the amazing accomplishments of the dogs themselves -- it is a true joy to anyone who loves dogs.  Especially to anyone who is infected with difficult, often painful love for that greatest of all breeds -- The American Pit Bull Terrier.  Jessup's own dog -- Bandog Dread -- was the most titled Champion in Breed history, winning acclaim in every competition and field of endeavor in which pit bulls participate.  (His photo on the cover is pretty much worth the price of the book).  

Louis B. Colby comes from a very different background.  He is the son of John P. Colby, the most famous breeder of Pit Bulls in history (and also a dog fighter).  Louis is therefore the heir to the most celebrated lineage of Pit Bulls ever bread, going back over a hundred years and recognized around the world as the standard to which the breed aspires.  (Supposedly, the American Kennel Club, which doesn't recognize Pit Bulls, nonetheless used a Colby dog to set the standard for the American Staffordshire Terrier.  Even to this day, many dogs are dually registered, as American Staffordshires with the AKC and with as American Pit Bull Terriers with UKC and other registries which recognize the breed.)

This book, which Colby co-authored with Diane Jessup, is a history of his family's dogs, the legendary line of champions which they created.  It is, of course, impossible to avoid the subject of dog fighting in such a history, and Colby obviously takes great pride in the stories and legends of the great dogs which came from his family's line.  All the great champions are here, and their exploits are noted and honored.  There are no grim details of fighting here, no graphic descriptions -- and Colby is a little coy about whether he himself has participated in, or continues to participate in, dog fighting.  Diane Jessup points out that only a tiny percentage of pit bulls were ever used for fighting, and that the breed has been accomplished in many other fields, successful at just about task that dogs perform.  She notes her own ambivalence when asked to help write Colby's history, but in the end her love of the breed, and her acceptance that they are what they are because of where they came from, prevailed.  

Those qualms aside, Colby's Book of the American Pit Bull Terrier is a joy to read and look at.  It is filled with photos of dogs from the very beginning of the breed almost up to modern day.  Those of us who love the breed will love this book, no matter how uncomfortable we may feel about some aspects of the history.  What also comes through so clearly in this book is the Colby family's love of their dogs -- which is hard perhaps to reconcile with their other activities, but obviously real.  And if we want, we can write off the people entirely and just enjoy this book for the dogs.  They are magnificent.

The Working Pit BullThe Dog Who Spoke with GodsColby's Book of the American Pit Bull Terrier

This Is the American Pit Bull Terrier 


A somewhat different take on the American Pit Bull Terrier is offered by Richard F. Stratton in "This is the American Pit Bull Terrier"  and other books.  Stratton is clear eyed about the strengths and weaknesses of the breed -- and like others he shares a deep respect and love for them.  But he often seems to be too enamored of the mythos of pit fighting and comes very close to actually condoning it.  Still, his knowledge of the dogs, and his different take on their history (Stratton, for instance, does not believe that the American Staffordshire and the American Pit Bull are the same dog today, despite their common origins).   I personally have the original 1976 edition of "This is the American Pit Bull Terrier" which I appreciate both for its older photos and for its outspokenness in a time before pit bulls were feared and reviled.  A more difficult and perplexing writer, but a book well worth checking out for the true enthusiast.

This Is the American Pit Bull Terrier 

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