Behold America’s dog. The “Yankee Terrier” emerged in World War I propaganda as America’s fighting spirit in furred form — dogged and undaunted by bigger foes.
It kept America “Safe under the right protection,” boasted one cartoon, guarding the public (represented by wide-eyed kittens swaddled in the flag) from its glowering German enemy (a Doberman, of course). What did it look like?
It looked like a “pit bull” — or the range of breeds that roughly fit the term. Then, and for decades before and after, America’s dog was represented by this loosely identifiable melting-pot mutt. It showed up as Petey on “The Little Rascals.” It was the choice companion of presidents as different as Teddy Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter. It provided company to both Gary Cooper and Helen Keller. Theodor Geisel — the real name of Dr. Seuss — who wrote “The Cat in the Hat,” kept a pit bull in the parlor.
That was before a confluence of events, most beginning in the 1970s, knocked the pit bull off its pedestal. The dog turned into America’s bête noire, demonized in magazines and shock news reports — and euthanized by the millions as animal shelters gave up trying to find them homes.
It’s been long overdue, but the pit bull finally appears to be receiving a major restoration.
A new book, “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon,” by Bronwen Dickey, is the latest effort to rescue the dog from a 40-year character attack. Dickey scrupulously documents the metamorphosis of a dog that was once depicted protecting kittens into an urban nightmare purportedly trained to be bloodthirsty by attacking bags of kittens. That’s among the many myths Dickey questions here.
Another: The famous claims of the pit bull’s monstrous, Kraken-like jaws. The Texas Monthly once described them as “capable of applying 740 pounds of pressure per square inch.” The Los Angeles Times claimed it was more like “2,000 to 2,600” pounds of pressure. Still not satisfied, the San Jose Mercury-News reported that pit bull jaws can “exert as much as 3,500 pounds of pressure per square inch.” Even the Journal of Trauma reported in 1989 that pit bulls “bite with greater force than most dogs (up to 1,800 lb/sq. in).”
But this detail — apparently too good for any writer to pass up — has no clear source. Even the journal’s footnotes lead to “another phantom reference,” Dickey writes: a research paper without any mention of pit bulls. According to Dickey, no real study has been done on the pressure of a pit bull’s bite, though it’s considered likely to be influenced by the dog’s overall size.
The biggest myth, though, is that pit bulls have danger in their DNA — going back to the original fighting “pits” in turn-of-the-century New York City through to the dog-fighting rings of recent decades — bred so that they’re born to kill.
But as a geneticist explains in “Pit Bull,” the likelihood that a dog bred for the worst behavior imaginable could somehow pass on its unique genetic heritage without it being diluted is “absolutely ludicrous.” Besides, dog aggression, as Dickey points out, is largely considered to be influenced most by a dog’s early development, and how it’s been socialized with other dogs and humans.
So what led to the pit bull’s public downfall? Dickey see parallels with great past scares — from the Salem witch trials to the satanic ritual abuse fears of the 1980s — that seemed to spring from our own frenzied cultural id. She suggests the pit bull panic was borne out of a fear of crime, which surged in some big cities during the 1970s and 1980s, and conflicted feelings about “urban” life and race.
Along the way, sensational media coverage — specifically, overheated stories of an increase in dog-fighting rings in the 1970s, despite any real data — likened pit bulls to an urban underworld that terrified and titillated readers. Dickey suggests that before long, a media feedback loop might have helped forge a reality, and an actual increase in urban dog-fighting took place.
“Throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s, [dogfighting] cropped up in places where it had not existed for a hundred years, mostly poor inner-city neighborhoods,” she writes.
Soon, the pit bull’s image — fortified by rap culture that romanticized it as a killer, and pimped out by even more media attention — was fixed.
Until, at least, around the time Atlanta Falcons’ football star Michael Vick was arrested in 2007 and eventually convicted on federal felony dog-fighting conspiracy charges for not only raising and fighting pit bulls on his Bad Newz Kennel farm, but also helping kill them. Suddenly, the pit bull begin to appear less as predator than prey (ours).
Vick ultimately served 21 months in federal prison (and fairly quickly resumed his NFL career). And of the 49 dogs, 47 were able to be rehabilitated, and enjoyed widespread, sympathetic coverage. Soon, TV shows — “Pit Boss,” “Pit Bulls and Parolees” — appeared, and shelters and animal-welfare organizations renewed efforts to place the dogs. And there have also been popular one-off efforts like that of photographer Sophie Gamand, who has tried to soften the dog’s image with images of shelter dogs in halos of flowers. It quickly went viral and launched multiple knockoff campaigns.
For pit bulls, the moment of salvation appears to be now.
But Americans have an erratic relationship with our dogs, as Dickey writes. The dachshund was demonized during World War II as Hitler’s dog, as was, briefly, the German shepherd, though it rebounded quickly thanks to the success of “Rin Tin Tin.” And pity the poor, fluffy spitz, an adorable mainstay in a certain New York social milieu before panic set in that they were “snappish” and rabies-prone. They were rounded up en masse in the 1870s.
One minute you’re the adored “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” dog. The next, a neighborhood menace. (Note to Chihuahuas: Better watch your back.)