Why are Pit Bull owners and apologists so defensive? I recently came across an article and study that endeavors to answer that question.
“Pit Bull” and “Apologist” were once terms that carried no pejorative connotations, but as their definitions have blurred their usage has shifted decidedly towards the negative. Pit Bulls are now the most maligned and problematic dog breed due to their popularity as a thug accessory, their use in dog fighting, their implication in human attacks, their ubiquity in shelters, and the resulting reputation which is highlighted in the media. Apologetics was once the art of defending an earnestly held position against criticism, but now it’s increasingly associated with public-relations hacks who defend the indefensible. For purposes of this post, let’s roll back our understanding of these two terms to a neutral state.
There’s no shortage of Pit Bull advocacy blogs and websites with content that could justly be called pit bull apologia. And yet, almost all of these authors are coming from a unique segment of the pit bull owning population, namely the rescue community who neither breeds nor fights pit bulls. This is a culture unto itself that in many ways is fighting against or cleaning up the mess left by other communities within the greater pit bull culture.
On the one hand, some people might be drawn to this breed in the hope of exploiting and perpetuating its vicious reputation. Such owners seek to use these dogs as status symbols of power and aggression and to reap the secondary benefit of an intimidating persona.
On the other hand, some people might see qualities in this breed that run contrary to its negative image and want to establish “traditional” human-dog relationships with their pit bulls. Nevertheless, they “inherit,” and presumably have to contend with, adverse public perceptions of their pets.
Sociologically, this adverse perception can be considered a breed stigma where the animal itself has a “spoiled” or tainted identity and where owners may experience a courtesy stigma as a consequence of their association with, and ownership of, pit bulls.
In the face of social disapproval or even fear, stigmatized individuals seek to manage or respond to these adverse perceptions by relying on interpersonal strategies that minimize, neutralize, or evade their stigma.
If their dogs are status symbols, they are not valued as a totem of ferocity or power or violence, rather they are emblematic of more idealistic concerns: rescue, rehabilitation, redemption, second chances, countering stereotypes, and animal philanthropy.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for criticism here; although well-intentioned, such idealism can still suffer from the less desirable motives associated with “slumming,” “poverty pimping,” and misguided do-goodery. Sometimes this group’s lack of real engagement opportunities with the thug culture, dog fighting culture, or the complex of breeding > selling/giving > dumping adolescent pit bulls in shelter “culture” makes them turn on their peers closer to home. Some of the most vehement attacks against suburban and rural hobby breeding and pure bred dog culture comes from the ardent white-knights in pit bull rescue who are looking for people to blame and smite.
I’ve often found myself at odds with the greater messages coming out of the pit bull apologist community; some of their arguments just don’t hold water in my view [and I'll cover these in a later post] and some of their campaigns are less about the true problems in the greater pit bull world and more about attacking and jeopardizing purebred dog ownership and breeding. In trying to reconcile this community’s desire to help pit bulls but also analyze their shortcomings, I stumbled across a study that hasn’t gotten much traction on the pit bull apologist blogs. Despite almost universal coverage of published data like the Clifton Report (negative against pit bulls) and the American Temperament Test Society findings (generally positive data for pit bulls), one published survey has apparently no record of discussion among the most prominent pit bull advocates despite its contents being highly relevant to the authors themselves.
In 2000, the Tufts Center for Animal Advocacy published the results of an ethnographic survey of 28 pit bull owners titled: Managing the Stigma of Outlaw Breeds: A Case Study of Pit Bull Owners.
Ethnographic interviews were conducted with 28 pit bull “owners” to explore the sociological experience of having a dog with a negative image. Results indicate that the vast majority of respondents felt that these dogs were stigmatized because of their breed. Respondents made this conclusion because friends, family, and strangers were apprehensive in the presence of their dogs and because they made accusations about the breed’s viciousness and lack of predictability.
In the face of this stigma, respondents resorted to using a variety of interactional strategies to lessen the impact of this perception or prevent it from occurring. These strategies included passing their dogs as breeds other than pit bulls, denying that their behavior is biologically determined, debunking adverse media coverage, using humor, emphasizing counter-stereotypical behavior, avoiding stereotypical equipment or accessories, taking preventive measures, or becoming breed ambassadors.
This argument is quite popular and comes in many forms. Some apologists claim that since there is no single breed called “pit bull” that such designations are meaningless. Others will point out that there are too many breeds that can be confused with a pit bull or which belong to a class or landrace of bully breeds, some even cite the inability of genetic or picture tests to label these dogs correctly. Other manifestations of this same tactic are the “St. Francis Terrier,” “he’s a boxer-mix,” and other means to not use the term pit bull.
Confusion surrounding the multiple names used to refer to pit bulls, as well as the inconsistency with which they were accurately identified, offered respondents an opportunity to present their dogs in a better light simply by the way in which they referred to their breed. Many owners attempted to manage breed stigma by studiously avoiding the term pit bull and replacing it with a more neutral and respectable name such as American Staffordshire Terrier. By using this term, respondents passed their pit bull as a more idealized version of the breed.
Other respondents chose to distance their pit bulls even further from the breed’s intimidating public persona by emphasizing their unknown or mixed heritage as shelter dogs. The notion of passing functioned more directly in this context insofar as owners avoided all references to the breed. Several owners referred to their dogs as a “mixed breed,” a “mutt,” or a “pound dog.” One respondent found that people often identi?ed her dog incorrectly and she chose not to correct their misconception.
Behavior is Not Biological
The extreme presentation of this tactic is the argument that Pit Bulls are a blank slate and that it is entirely nurture, and no nature which governs the negative outcomes in the breed. Less extreme interpretations still place blame squarely on the “owners” or “trainers” or thugs who create bad outcomes through intentional abuse and aggression training or simply through neglect.
A second strategy for neutralizing breed stigma was for respondents to prevent their own pit bulls, as well as the breed itself, from being blamed for bad behavior. This was accomplished in several ways: they emphasized the role of environment and training as determinants of behavior; they pointed out similarities between pit bull behavior and that found in other breeds; they noted that these dogs were unaware of their own strength; and they insisted that their dogs were unlike other, more stereotypical pit bulls.
These comments conveyed the belief that behavior does not occur in a vacuum; rather, pit bulls, like any other animal (including humans), are shaped by, and react to, their environment.
Training was also emphasized, particularly in terms of its contribution to aggressive behavior. One respondent remarked, “I think almost any breed can be trained to be bad-aggressive.” Another respondent, describing a group of pit bull owners he had seen in a nearby city, said, “They wanted a pit bull, they wanted this little, vicious dog that just barks at people. You know, they foster that and they want that. I think that’s why the dog ends up being that way.”
The assertion that pit bulls’ behavior is determined largely by their owners and their environment plays an important role in defusing breed stigma because these dogs are often perceived as naturally vicious. Although respondents acknowledged the unusual strength of these dogs, they denied any malicious intent on their part and maintained that owners could choose to channel these physical capabilities in positive or negative directions. The few respondents who witnessed aggressive and unwanted behavior in their dogs targeted inbreeding as the problem; dogs “born bad” were considered anomalies that had resulted from poor breeding, either accidental or deliberate.
Apologists often claim that the media coverage of the breed is sensationalist and biased, mostly surrounding reports of bites, maulings, and deaths. Although popular, these sorts of arguments aren’t really effective because they are essentially saying “it’s not as bad as you think” versus an affirmative “it’s not bad, this doesn’t happen.”
As a group, respondents had a complicated and somewhat ambivalent reaction to pit bull-related media coverage, and many of them took an active role in debunking press coverage and media reports. This approach to managing breed stigma included four general criticisms: selective reporting, sensationalism, a lack of objectivity, and a failure to provide context.
These respondents complained that journalists were more interested in reporting dog attacks and bites if they involved pit bulls. There was also frequent cynicism about articles and television reports that focused on the lurid details of pit bull attacks. One woman quipped, “What do they say? ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’” When asked about the breed of dog that was mentioned in a particular newspaper article, another owner said, “I think it was a pit bull; that’s what the paper said. Of course, because that’s what sells.” Owners argued that media coverage was fueled by a desire to sell papers or to attract television viewers and that reporters were simply giving people what they wanted to hear.
There’s nothing wrong with a little humor and given just how overwrought the image of vicious pitbulls is and even the melodramatic handling of dog fighting and shelter deaths, there’s not much you can object to about people bringing a little levity to the situation to remind us that these are dogs and not monsters.
Many respondents noticed a sharp discrepancy between the demeanor of their own pit bulls and the reputation of the breed as a whole; this contrast occasionally prompted jokes and humor. Although such a response did not involve an active rebuttal of the breed’s reputation, it allowed owners to reafrm their own perception of pit bulls. Like any breed of dog, pit bulls have many dimensions to their personalities, and the occasions for this humor allowed respondents the opportunity to refute the one-sidedness of breed stereotypes.
This humor often revolved around contrast and contradiction; although the popular image of pit bulls points to vicious, aggressive dogs, many owners had encountered the opposite behavior. For example, humor often resulted from the observation of a dog’s affability and playfulness in light of the expectation that pit bulls are tough, intimidating dogs.
Another rather solid strategy in the defense of pit bulls is simply being a good dog owner and responsible citizen and making sure your dog is prepared to be one as well. Again, not much to criticize or question when the strategy is doing right by the breed when so many others are doing wrong.
A seventh strategy used by some respondents entailed managing breed stigma by modifying their dogs’ behaviors or physical capabilities. By training their pit bulls to avoid questionable behavior, however innocent, many respondents sought to anticipate and defuse people’s concern. These preventive measures offered owners an effective method for ensuring that people did not misinterpret their pit bulls’ behavior, given the vicious reputation attributed to these dogs.
Although studies of pit bull anatomy have found no evidence of a “locking jaw,” this breed does have a very strong jaw and can grip with considerable tenacity. Several respondents had a policy of not playing tug-of-war with their dogs because they did not want to develop this jaw strength.
This is by far the most potent strategy to effect a change in the perception and stigma of pit bulls. Instead of just talking about problems and complaining about bias and what other people do, to become an existential role model and demonstrate that there is another pit bull ownership paradigm that doesn’t include violence or abuse or neglect or fences or sequestration or even “take my word for it.” It’s not enough to say the breed has a bad reputation if you’re not providing a good reputation to take its place. It’s not enough to say “stop valuing this breed based on their performance in a pit” if you’re not showing the world that we can value them for their performance on the competition fields or in the hospitals or at the dog park.
One of the most public and visible ways in which respondents managed breed stigma was to become an advocate or ambassador for pit bulls. These owners dened their responsibility in terms of the breed as a whole, and they sought to present these dogs – often through the example of their own pit bulls – as friendly, well behaved pets. This approach involved rebutting stereotypes and misconceptions as well as promoting the breed’s winning qualities. Owners often encouraged their pit bulls to act as their own ambassadors by showcasing the dogs’ friendly, outgoing personalities. In addition, some respondents filled the role of advocate/ambassador by serving as models of responsible dog ownership.
Preventive measures they undertook included a variety of approaches such as refusing to play particular games, discouraging “mouthiness,” training their dogs not to jump up on people, and implementing certain protocols around children.
In general I find the tactics to assuage pit bull negativity to be dead-ends and ineffective strategies to promote and defend the breed. Claiming that an individual dog is not a pit bull or obfuscating the issue by appealing to ignorance that one can never know what a pit bull even is or that there are just too many look-alike breeds will never convince anyone that pit bulls are not monsters because to deny an identity is to give up the ability to shape it. It’s self-defeating: you can’t advocate that pit bulls are good if you turn around and say that they don’t exist in a form that allows you to make any claims about them at all.
Denying that behavior is biological is likewise a losing strategy. We know better and to claim that dogs are a clean slate goes against everything else we know and believe about dogs and breeds and genetics. The entire paradigm of pure bred dogs is centered around the idea that characteristics and behavior have a strong genetic component and this can be selected for and preserved over generations. Even claims that breeders have been selecting against gameness and viciousness are not convincing if you insist that this has been done within a closed gene pool or within a landrace that includes other dogs bred for their bite. Otherwise we’re left with the argument that breeders have selected away from gameness and bite but have done so by magically finding dogs in the breed that despite strong selection for these traits, somehow lack them. And you also have to ignore the observation that people are still breeding these dogs for these now-negative traits. You can’t run from history nor from genetics, so this tactic is a poor one at best and a very dangerous one for sure.
Likewise complaining about media coverage doesn’t really change reality nor minds. You need something tangible to counter stereotypes or media portrayals and simply pointing out bias or selective reporting doesn’t rehabilitate pit bulls as much as it simply discredits the media. When the media reports that a pit bull attacked or killed someone, it doesn’t do much to help the breed image if all you can say in response is that this is not newsworthy or it’s being blown out of proportion. The image left in the public mind is still a negative one and the public is always going to sympathize with the victim over the dog due to their own fears and natural empathy towards other humans, especially children. Even if the media stopped reporting on pit bulls, it wouldn’t do much at all to change the extant factors on the ground of how these dogs are exploited and abandoned.
The other strategies are all very effective. Humor can cut through the drama, being a good owner is the sure way to mitigate negative experiences others might have with your dogs and the breed, and being a breed ambassador is an excellent way to maximize the positive exposure pit bulls can garner when they are allowed to flourish in roles they are normally not associated with.
* * *
If this post made you think and you'd like to read more like it, consider a donation to my 4 Border Collies' Treat and Toy Fund. They'll be glad you did. You can subscribe to the feed or enter your e-mail in the field on the right to receive notice of new content. You can also like BorderWars on Facebook for more frequent musings and curiosities.
* * *