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Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon

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The hugely illuminating story of how a popular breed of dog became the most demonized and supposedly the most dangerous of dogs—and what role humans have played in the transformation.  

When Bronwen Dickey brought her new dog home, she saw no traces of the infamous viciousness in her affectionate, timid pit bull. Which made her wonder: How had the breed—beloved by Teddy Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and Hollywood’s “Little Rascals”—come to be known as a brutal fighter?

Her search for answers takes her from nineteenth-century New York City dogfighting pits—the cruelty of which drew the attention of the recently formed ASPCA—to early twentieth‑century movie sets, where pit bulls cavorted with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton; from the battlefields of Gettysburg and the Marne, where pit bulls earned presidential recognition, to desolate urban neighborhoods where the dogs were loved, prized—and sometimes brutalized.

Whether through love or fear, hatred or devotion, humans are bound to the history of the pit bull. With unfailing thoughtfulness, compassion, and a firm grasp of scientific fact, Dickey offers us a clear-eyed portrait of this extraordinary breed, and an insightful view of Americans’ relationship with their dogs.

330 pages, Hardcover

First published May 10, 2016

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Bronwen Dickey

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 319 reviews
Profile Image for Carly.
456 reviews184 followers
July 15, 2016
"As long as there are different classes of people, there will be different classes of dogs."
Pit bulls have to be the most demonized dog breed of all time.

Oh, wait:
"Pit bull" is not actually a breed of dog. It's a type of dog which includes a bevy of different breeds-- American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT), Staffordshire Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Bull Terrier, American Bully... well, you get the point.

I've been volunteering in animal shelters since high school. In most shelters in the US, pit bull mixes make up a majority of shelter dogs, so I've met (and loved) quite a few. The first pitt I met was named Punkin the Three Legged Pittie. While fighting dogs are rare--more on that later-- by his scars and injuries, he showed every sign of having been used in a fighting ring. His leg had been also chopped off with some sort of blade, apparently without anaesthetics. He hated humans with an undying and quite understandable passion. Every time anyone walked anywhere near his enclosure, he would throw himself again and again at the fence, growling, teeth bared, often biting at the fence. Then he'd back off and glare as he chewed meaningfully on a bone. In the years since, I occasionally looked him up on the shelter site; no one ever adopted him. Punkin gave me a healthy fear of pitt bulls that it took me a while to get over. (I'll admit to a few Punkin-fueled nightmares.) This wasn't helped by the inaccurate statistics about pits that I heard at every turn.

Over time, and as I spent more time at different shelters, I grew to love pit bulls and pit mixes. I love their open expressions and eager smiles and the way their lips actually turn up at the corners just like a human's. I love their boundless energy and their general derpy joie-de-vivre. I was trying to decide on my favourite pit and I realized I can't. I still love Ginger, a beautiful, happy girl who loved long walks and sprawling on my lap, and who had been so badly abused by a man that she went catatonic if any male came near her. Or Maui, who so loved the sun that she lay down like a sack whenever her walk was over and volunteers had to pick her up and carry all 70 pounds of passively protesting dead-weight dog back into her room. And then there was Jitterbug, who, like many shelter pits, ended up with a bad case of Happy Tail, where she so furiously wagged her tail at passerby that she gave herself huge bloody scrapes. (Once her tail was bandaged, I was the one with whip marks and bruises from being battered by her tail.) And so many more. I'm going to visit one of my current favourites, a year-old happy-go-lucky puppy, this weekend.

One ubiquitous "fact" about pits is that while they make up only 2% of the US dog population, they are responsible for about 70% of the deaths. As Dickey explains, this is a problematic factoid on two counts: first, the 2% comes from people who have registered their pits with the American Kennel Club and similar, so it doesn't account for mixes, breeds not acknowledged by the AKC, or dogs owned by people who don't care about purebred registries. Second, we also have to deal with cognitive biases: people believe that pits are monstrous Un-Dogs, so when dog-on-human violence happens, other breeds are routinely misidentified as pits. It's a vicious cycle: pit stories make good press; people believe pits are killer dogs; people misidentify a killer dog as a pit bull.

So where did all the maligning start? After all, at one point, the pit was the All-American Dog. Dickey makes a good case that the hatred of pits actually stems from racism, and that's one aspect that continues to fuel the stigma to this day. Pits are seen as vicious and thus their owners must be equally vicious; pits are also seen as "thug" or "gangster" dogs. As Dickey puts it, people are able to express racist views about the owners of pits by "using the dogs as proxies." Now add in the cities yanking dogs away from families, sticking them in shelters, and either euthanizing them or adopting them out to white suburban families and it puts even shelter work in a whole new light.

Dickey explores a wide range of viewpoints and current uses of pits. If you're looking for an utterly unbiased examination of bully breeds and their history, this is not the book for you. Dickey absolutely is on the side of pits and against breed-specific legislation (BSL), and she pushes her viewpoint via her characterization of her interview subjects and her impassioned rhetoric. Personally, I'm in full agreement that pits are maligned and BSL is awful. BSL is incredibly arbitrary, we have plenty of statistics that show it doesn't work. The people who are really affected by it are the socioeconomically disadvantaged, who aren't allowed to keep their dog because someone somewhere thinks it might be a pit mix.

However, I also believe that Dickey is doing her book and the pit a disservice. To me, she seemed to insist throughout that dogs are dogs are dogs, and that pits are effectively the same as golden retrievers or poodles. I just don't think that's true-- bully breeds, like guardian breeds, are wonderful dogs, but they have their own special needs. Pits have a strong prey drive, they often have lots of energy, and they need to learn socialization, as they have a tendency to be a bit clueless and in-your-face with other dogs. Pits are very powerful dogs, and they learn to take special care in "handicapping" themselves when playing with tiny dogs and weakling humans. (Personally, I avoid tug-of-war-style games because I don't want an overexcited dog to forget that I'm comparatively fragile.) With guardian breeds, sometimes you need to work on the dog's territorial or protection instinct as well. Personally, I'm more wary of mastiffs, rottweilers, and dobermans than I am of german shepherds, huskies, or pits because I can read the latter better, but I do believe all of those breeds have characteristics that should be considered when matching to a home.

Dickey is passionate about her subject and has plenty of interesting and novel material. Not only did I learn a lot about pit history; I also found a new charity to support: The Coalition to Unchain Dogs, Inc, a fascinating organization that improves the welfare of dogs while empowering owners instead of taking their dogs from them. All in all, if you're interested in US history over the last few centuries viewed through the lens of a notorious dog, Pit Bull is well worth a look.
Profile Image for Chris.
Author 34 books11.1k followers
July 29, 2021
I loved this book, even the scenes that broke my heart. (And there are some.) Obviously, because I own a rescue dog that is 62% pit bull, I am biased -- because, as many of you know, I love my Jesse madly. But I learned so much about the dog who sleeps beside me when I write and wakes me up with kisses in the morning, and dozes between three of our four cats, and runs with me in our meadows (and sniffs at butterflies as they pass), and never barks -- including how an animal this sweet and gentle could be part of a breed that got such an UNFAIRLY gnarly reputation. (To wit: my home insurance provider canceled our policy when we rescued a dog that was 62% pit bull, and the company that WOULD cover us increased our premium by over 300 percent per year because we got Jesse.) Bonus? I learned so much about why dogs behave the way that they do.
Profile Image for M.M. Strawberry Library & Reviews.
3,985 reviews312 followers
September 7, 2022
This book, is very, very biased in favor of pit bulls.

Dickey completely glosses over the history of dogfighting and how it pertains to the problems of the pit bull in today's society. She does not talk to any dogfighters. Much of this book is pure fiction, as the author writes that dogfighting basically disappeared for decades and only resurfaced in the 1970's (and that between the 1900's and that time, pitbulls were popular family dogs)

She writes about famous pit bulls like Petey from Little Rascals, but she does not mention that there were several Peteys, nor does she mention some of them were known biters. She also mentions Teddy Roosevelt's pitbull, but makes no mention of the fact that it attacked the French Ambassador, and had to be banished from the White House. She also pushes the nanny dog myth, which has been proven to be false (and which in recent years has led to absolute disaster from people who adopt pitbulls after buying into that myth only to have their children or other innocent souls mauled)

She has also talked to breeders, but never chastises them for their contribution to the dog overpopulation problem. She also argues that prejudice against pitbulls are based off race and class (???)

Dickey also shows disdain for the victims of pitbull attacks and tries to minimize the deaths that have occurred from pitbull attacks.

No matter what people say, no mater what cutesy names they might come up with (pitties, pibbles, velvet hippos, for fuck's sake!) nothing will change the fact that pitbulls were bred for gameness/fighting, and that has given pits the features they're known for (high strength, prey drive, a head shape that makes their bite all the more devastating) and these exact features make them shitty pets. I've read waaaaay too many news articles of pitbulls that attacked people with no provocation, and the victims are all too often children because there are still people out there who believe that nanny dog bullshit.

i LOVE cats, but I sure as hell would not bring a bobcat, lynx, or even a Bengal into my house. The best thing to do with pitbulls is to put down any that attack other animals and people (because their size and strength easily trumps that of a chihuahua, a breed that pit enthusiasts like to condemn as aggressive and bite-y) and simply spay and neuter the rest out of existence - this is an artificial breed brought into this world by humans, and it is our responsibility to phase it back out of existence.

Also, American icon? Really? Doesn't the country already have a better and much cooler one? An bald eagle, as I recall...
Profile Image for Chelsea.
1,120 reviews600 followers
November 15, 2018
“What you have to understand,” Jane said, “is that we are now at the point which the very discussion of the problem advances the problem. The term ‘pit bull’ now has so much coin that everyone gets something out of it. Musicians, rappers, politicians, reporters, whoever. Everybody gains something from that term. Except the dogs. They just end up dead.”

I have to commend this book for something: it challenged me. Like, a lot. It’s not at all what I was expecting.

As an avid reader of animal based fiction and nonfiction, I tend to see a very similar narrative in books like these. Usually, these sorts of nonfiction books are chalk full of sentimental stories about amazing dogs and the lovely people who fight for them with some research and studies sprinkled in. I quite like those sorts of books; the hopeful ones that remind you of just how amazing dogs can be.

This book though; it’s not about dogs at all, really. It’s about people. It’s about how our culture reacts to fear mongering, our tendency towards hysteria when it comes to something that scares us; our gut reaction to eradicate an entire group of animals based on nothing but faulty headlines, media bias, and our own unwillingness to recognize where our prejudice and hatred may be stemming from.
The most inconvenient thing about obsessions is that they never announce themselves. One day you make a simple decision to adopt a shelter dog, and the next you find yourself building fences and visiting elderly pet owners in the hospital rooms. Five years later, your whole life has been consumed by the need to understand how the American pit bull became an American bogeyman. What is it about pit bulls that ignites such strong feelings? And what does that mean for us, as a society? The mascot came to be viewed as a monster not because the dogs changed, but because we did. Or, rather, because we failed to.

This book refused to present a simple viewpoint to me. It refused to tell me what I already know; that pit bulls are just like any other dog, but has been transformed into an inhuman monster in media, resulting in the murder of far, far more dogs labeled pit bulls than any damage they ever did to humans. It says those things, but it says a lot more than that, and never simply.

This book forced me to view the entire “pit bull” debate as a reflection of our own culture. It took me all the way back to the origin of dogfighting. It detailed all of the intricacies of the breeding world, how the genetics of a “pit bull” are so varying that the “breed” cannot conclusively be identified on a DNA test. It analyzed data and studies of dog bites throughout the years. It took the time to acknowledge the perspectives of those who breed pit bulls, those who advocate for them, and those who wish to see them disappear or be killed. It took the time to humanize people like Diane Jessup, who I would normally dismiss as an awful person; instead, Dickey takes the time to flesh out her motivations, her desire to do something good, though her approach is quite different from mine and many other pit bulls advocates (and we have her delightful quote “I refuse to face an uncertain future with a fucking Labradoodle” haha).

But the one thing I was not expecting this book to do was completely tear into the racism, classism, poverty and elitism that plays a huge role in how the pit bull has come to be perceived: as an extension of the people generally considered “thugs” by society.
If I felt any tightness in my chest that day, it arose when I looked at all the children. They were as yet completely unaware of the battles raging over pit bulls in boardrooms, courtrooms, and city halls. They took such luminous pride in their pets, and cling to them as though hanging on for dear life. Would they eventually be told by people who did not know them that there was something ugly and flawed about the dogs they grew up with—the dogs they loved, the dogs that made them feel safe? Would they be scrutinized as possible criminals and treated with suspicion?

This book took on such an objective, nuanced approach, that it was a bit of a difficult read for me. The pit bull problem is a subject I tend to have a very fixed mindset towards. I thought I knew exactly where I stood, but this book forced me to look at something I��m very passionate about in a different light. It’s given me a lot to think about, and I always appreciate a book that can do this.
“First we damned the dogs called pit bulls with all this scary, incorrect information,” she said. “Then we attached that label to mixed-breed dogs that aren’t even pit bulls. At this point, a pit bull is not even a dog; it’s a social construct! The term has a life of its own. But once you put that label on a dog, then the context of everything it does changes. And if something does wrong, God forbid, it’s the shot heard round the world.”

I do have to say that it wasn’t quite everything I hoped it would be. I’m much more anecdote-driven when it comes to nonfiction, and this one is much more focused on science and studies, which I do worry would not make this book accessible for most readers, especially those who don’t tend towards nonfiction.

Overall, I’m glad I was patient with this one. It didn’t just tell me what I wanted to hear, and I have a lot of respect for this book because of that. It’s probably not one of my new favorite nonfiction books, but it’s an impeccably researched and nuanced look at our culture in relation to our dogs, making it a novel well worthy of discussion on all fronts, not just from an animal advocate’s perspective.
Pit bulls are not dangerous or safe. Pit bulls aren’t saints or sinners. They are no more or less deserving than others dogs of love and compassion, no more of less deserving of good homes. They didn’t cause society’s ills, nor can their redemption...solve them. There is nothing that needs to be redeemed, anyway; they were never to blame on the first place...there never was a “pit bull problem”. What happened to these animals was a byproduct of human fears, and what humans feared most was one another.
After all we have put them through, maybe it is time to let pit bulls show us who they are, to let them have a part in writing their own stories. Pit bulls are not dogs with an asterisk. Pit bulls are just...dogs.
Profile Image for Jane Trucksis.
22 reviews2 followers
May 24, 2016
My first dog was a pit bull; actually, it was my ex-husband's dog. The first time I came over to his apartment, there was Pooch at the door, looking up at me and wagging her tail. She reminded me of the RCA Victor dog. When I asked Rob what kind of dog she was, he said the vet told him she was a pit bull. He'd gotten her from a cop he knew who "found her." Whatever her background, Pooch turned out to be a wonderful pet: affectionate, smart, loyal, devoted and playful.

When the anti-pit bull hysteria started a few years later, I was really upset. How could people condemn a whole breed of dogs based on hearsay about how terrible they were? I thought, "If they met Pooch, they'd change their tune!" It all reminded me of the negative comments about blacks that I heard from my schoolmates back in 1967, when Chicago was torn by racial turmoil. I knew they were just parroting the racist BS they heard from their parents, and doubted that any of them had ever met a black person.

In "Pit Bull," Bronwen Dickey conflates the prejudice against pit bulls with racism very clearly. She tells the history of the breed, how pit bulls were once "America's dog": think Petey from the Our Gang comedies, Buster Browns' dog Tige. The pit bull was thought of as the working man's dog. As time went on, they became associated with drug dealers and "thugs," fueled by the media, and it became convenient for covert racists to demonize the dog. Get this: when Dickey was talking to Dr. Alan Beck about his research on stray dogs in St. Louis during the 1970's, she questioned his findings, and

"He laughed and said, 'It would be nice to ban poor people, but we can't do that, so you have to use these surrogate measures.'"

Whoa! As appalling as his statement is, it's astounding that he reveals his bias so readily. We know what "poor people" is code for. And even if he's including poor whites, it's class prejudice, another factor in the defamation of pit bulls.

Dickey gives a very balanced account of the differing viewpoints on bit pulls of Diane Jessup, who breeds them for competitive sports like agility and flyball, and Jane Berkey, who rescues pit bulls and wants nothing more than to make good house pets of them. According to Berkey, "different is dead," and the more pit bulls are differentiated from other dogs, the harder it will be to dispel the negative stereotypes. Jessup celebrates what she sees as the inherent virtues of pit bulls, and wants to maintain their uniqueness. The both make valid points.

In the "It's an ill wind that blow no good" Department, Dickey tells us that Hurricane Katrina provided a positive turning point in the public perception of pit bulls, as so many of them were rescued and either reunited with their owners or found new homes. The whole world was watching, and it helped. These days, New Orleans feels like Pit Bull Paradise. It seems that every third dog I see is a pit bull, their owners black, white, young and old. It's a joy to see so many happy pit bulls prancing alongside their people. Yeah, I'm partial; you never forget your first dog. R.I.P. Pooch.
Profile Image for Christelle.
6 reviews11 followers
May 22, 2016
I always start reading books about animals and especially animals in relationship to humans (pets being a specific subcategory to that) with a bit of apprehension. Most of the time, it's because anthropocentric nonsense leads a book that is self-marketed as rational and informative straight into a swamp of sentimentalism, which is not to be confused with love; one can love a pet without treating them like they're your thing and your property. These books want to defend a specific species and end up transforming them into a woobified harmless stuffed animal surrounded by Lassie-like stories and tearjerking moments, and to me, that is irresponsible (and boring). No pet is saint-like, no animal should bear the burden of being the perfect companion, simply because they do not exist for us. We simply keep each other company thanks to a mutually beneficial relationship, and that requires respect, empathy, and the wisdom to be able to back the hell off when our company is doing more harm than good to them.
This book avoids all of it; the sentimentalism, the good/bad pitfalls, the syrupy feel-good shit. It's backed by studies, sociology, science, it has solid references, and a very convincing and careful attitude towards itself, always warning that while people have unfairly villified pitbulls, one should be careful not to go the opposite way and say these dogs are pure, that they would never hurt you, that you can basically do what you want with them and never get bitten (confession time: reading about an adult someone who mistreated any kind of living creature and got a healthy but not lethal chunk of flesh ripped out never makes me sad for said someone; you don't get to poke and prod and be warned by the pet that you should stop, to ignore that, and then to whine about it being a brute; you're the brute). They're just like any dogs. And all dogs benefit from the portrait drawn by "Pit Bull", because it strips them from the breed myths and leaves the facts.
I especially enjoyed all the portraits of pitbull advocates and how different they all are, I was completely fascinated by the large chapter devoted to breeding science and genetics and darwinism, and I think one of the best things to take out of this book is the way dogs have been used to stigmatise their owners when this stigmatisation couldn't be carried out directly and in broad daylight. The testimonies of Black owners of pitbulls, the way they've been mistreated by law enforcement, animal defence associations and the general public, should be read by everyone regardless of their interest for pitbulls. The book teaches us as much about the media, racism, social failures and urban policies as it does about that special type of dog, and that made me love it even more than I was already planning to when I picked it up.
Profile Image for Kimberly  Carten Casey.
21 reviews1 follower
June 10, 2016
Very well researched and well written

I can't believe the one star reviews considering that they haven't read the book and spew the same falsehoods that the author proves with facts. Most people are shocked that my two loveable dogs are those vicious pit bulls, they say that as they pet them. I grew up around the breed, never been bit and never had a dog to bite anyone. If you been around the breed at all that our family pets, it's a joke because they our the biggest babies. They aren't good watch dogs, our girls see someone strange it's oh a new friend and lick them. Anyway really fabulous book and loved the pictures!
Profile Image for [Name Redacted].
776 reviews389 followers
January 21, 2018
This has some legitimately interesting historical and scientific information...but you have to wade through a LOT of unverifiable sob-stories, questionable declarations and ill-informed political screeds
just to reach those few precious nuggets of truth. I recommend giving this a pass, especially given the author's bold (and inaccurate) assertion at the beginning that she is being objective and not letting ideology or personal preferences cloud her judgment. This is more a collection of her personal essays masquerading as "factual analysis" than any real historical or scientific or sociological study.
Profile Image for Helen.
184 reviews6 followers
June 8, 2016
Please ignore the title of this book. Read only the subtitle, for that is the true subject of Dickey’s seven- year investigation into the history, hype, and true meaning of what it means to have, hate, or even think about pit bulls. When I first heard about Pit Bull from KC Dog Blogger, Brent Toellner, I was interested, but a little intimidated. With 34 pages of notes and bibliography (in very small print) I expected a densely-written tome dragged down by the weight of facts, quotes and references. What I found was a marvelously written reflection lifted up by facts, quotes and references.

Inspired by her own “dangerous dog,” Dickey set out to “contribute to a much larger dialogue about human-animal relationships in America.” And in doing so she’s opened the doors to even larger dialogues about human-human relationships in America.

Of course, Dickey begins at the beginning. Bulldogs and terriers were once revered and belonged to such notables as Helen Keller and Mark Twain, and were a great draw at the box office. Remember Pete the Pup from Our Gang? She also dissects the definition and evolution of the “pit bull,” explaining that the term actually refers to an entire category of dog, not a specific breed.

Upon Dickey’s closer examination, the statistics commonly associated with pit bulls are both greatly exaggerated and false. She highlights the ridiculous reversals of major publications like Sports Illustrated: the July 1987 cover feature “which had played a central role in the panic of 1987” showed a snarling dog with the headline “Beware of this Dog,” yet after Michael Vick’s arrest for dogfighting “ran a moving feature . . . that included one of Vick’s decidedly unfrightening pit bulls on the magazine’s cover.” With no official organization tracking dog bites, statistics have historically been culled from news articles with no verification of breed, or consideration of circumstance.

Most profoundly, Dickey makes a solid case that breed bans allow targeted racial and demographic-based discrimination. “The sociologist Arnold Arluke has noted that dogs, specifically pit bulls, can provide a convenient scrim behind which people can voice negative comments about other humans.” Historically, other breeds such as German Shepherds and Rottweilers have suffered similar campaigns against them, but they have typically been owned by a different demographic. “The wealthy owned the papers (pedigree), and the wealthy made the rules.” Additionally, the pit bull scare came at a time when the Internet allows for large-scale dissemination of misinformation. Suddenly, “people with fringe beliefs now have access to much larger information platforms.”

This is a fascinating historical look at American society, and I’ll probably read it again, as well as Dickey’s other works.
Profile Image for Kristin.
979 reviews6 followers
May 13, 2016
This book is very pro-'pit bull', so if you come in with a set in stone bias against them, this probably isn't the book for you. I like bully breeds, although I tend to lean more towards the English bulldog, bull terrier, and bullmastiff moreso than 'pit bulls', although I've never shared a home with any such dog. I felt the author raised very valid points in her argument as to why pit bulls are getting a bad rap in today's society. Particularly of interest to me was her chapter on genetics and how the physical appearance of a dog doesn't necessarily indicate its breed, but people tend to label any short-haired dog with broad shoulders and a big head as a pit bull, even if there is no lineage of any traditional pit bull breeds. Her chapters on the history of dogs in America are enlightening too, that before pit bulls, Spitzes, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and even Dachshunds were targeted as unwelcome breeds in society and subject to the same punishments.
Unlike many of the anti-pit bull sources she cites, it is clear that Dickey has done her research and tried to see things from that perspective along with her own. She does not stand behind every dog 100% of the time, but in most cases, finds that there were other factors contributing to a negative situation with a pit bull or that pit bulls are being unfairly spotlighted while encounters involving other breeds get buried in the small print in the same newspapers that use big headlines when a pit bull is involved. She particularly takes issue with the term 'pit bull', which in and of itself carries a negative bias, and shows pictures of dogs which have been involved in bite incidents that were labelled as 'pit bulls' but bear stronger resemblance to other breeds like retrievers and shepherds.
Overall, an enlightening read, and while I know there are still dogs who look like the stereotypical 'pit bull' and demonstrate aggressive tendencies such that they would not be a good fit in my home, it did make me more willing to consider a sweet-looking pit bull-type dog should I encounter one in the shelter (particularly if there's a wrinkly dog apparently in its lineage too, I'm a sucker for wrinkles).
I obtained this book for free through the Goodreads FirstReads program, and have passed it along to my cousin who has a rescued pit bull among her trio of dogs and would enjoy this book as much as I did.
1 review
May 28, 2016
As an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction, although I'm only halfway through the second chapter, I am hooked. Ms. Dickey's writing, research and style reminds me of two of my favorite non-fiction authors--Nathaniel Philbrick and Erik Larson, as well as the late David Halberstam.

I lived with 3 pit bulls in 1980. They were lovable goofs. I adopted a pit mix puppy from a foster group almost 10 years ago, followed by another 1 yr old pit mix, three years later. He was a "wild man." Both are now registered Pet Partner therapy dogs. I have butted heads with "that small group" of detractors, having been called a sociopath and insane for endangering the children and adults me and my dogs volunteer with. I've been told that women like me with pit bull type dogs are the same type of woman who writes to serial killers in prison and then marries them. My husband of 32 years and I have gotten some good laughs over that one.

I have followed BSL and the anti-pit bull movement since adopting my puppy. I try to educate every person I encounter about the myths, but more importantly dog safety and often provide a list of well researched websites and books on the subject. This will be my new go-to book. I appreciate the years, dedication, blood, sweat and tears that I can see went into the writing to educate and give a fair perspective of these dogs and their owners. I appreciate that it is clear that no single breed or mix is right for any one family or owner and that all dogs are individuals. The history is fascinating. I already follow so many of the sources, articles, and citations listed in the bibliography and index. Living in Washington State, I have followed Diane Jessup for 10 years after she started the WA State Patrol LawDogs program. So thank you for including her. While I am a rescue person all the way, I do understand a reputable breeder's love and pride of their chosen breed. Most of us really just want a great family dog.

I suspect many people in my life will be receiving this book as a gift. It's not only about dogs, but about the aspects of societal issues in America today.
Profile Image for Susan Paxton.
360 reviews32 followers
June 3, 2016
This is a masterful, well researched and written, and deeply felt book. How did it all go so wrong over pit bulls? Bronwen Dickey looks not only at this one type of dog - not even really a breed, often, but just dogs that "look like" pit bulls - but into the history of breed discrimination and hysteria, which goes back, sadly, centuries. As to why pits and why now, a very obvious and brutally revealing answer from a pit hater is this: "It would be nice to ban poor people, but we can't do that, so you have to use these surrogate measures." In other words, BSL (Breed Specific Legislation) almost always has far less to do with the dogs and a lot more to do with America's obsession with racism and classism. Plenty of purebred, expensive, upper and middle class dogs are nasty, and some kill people. No one is trying to ban them. It is revealing to see that at least two of our "founding fathers" were equally dismissive and brutal to dogs owned by their slaves; Washington's slaves who kept dogs were whipped, and the dogs hanged.

Dickey draws the portraits of the people she interviews very finely, even in the case of people I suspect she found unlikable. Her research is not only complete but is footnoted for those who wish to read the sources for themselves. If you want to get your head around this issue, this is an excellent book to read.

One warning: the book opens with a brutal attack by police on an unthreatening pit bull. Many will find this horrifying (as I did), but police murders of pit bulls and other dogs is a major problem in the US that needs to be addressed and so far has not been. And I can assure any police reading this: do that to my dog, and you'd better save the next round for me.
Profile Image for Andrea.
714 reviews25 followers
May 4, 2016
I just absolutely loved this book, and am recommending it to every reader I know. It's a compulsively readable history of the pit bull - from the creation of the breed to impressions of pit bulls and pit bull mixes through history and today. From their use in dogfighting (in the late 1800s and today), to their role as beloved family pet and most patriotic of dogs, to the role of the 24 hour news cycle on their persistent and ongoing vilification, this book is incredibly informative and illuminating and just really interesting. Even if you have zero interest in pit bulls, this is interesting for Dickey's narrative of the nature of dog breeds (how true are breed characteristics) and genetics.
12 reviews4 followers
May 10, 2016
This book is filled with fiction. Never "America's Dog," never an AKC winner, never a nanny dog. Pit bulls are fighting breeds. What is true that some may never be aggressive or dangerous, but it is a crap shoot. If you are unlucky enough to have one that's aggressive, it can easily rip the skull off an adult. 14 children were killed by pit bulls last year alone. Last week in San Diego, an infant was killed by a newly adopted pit bull.

This book is fiction. If you are interested in truth, please check out this article. It has links to studies that show pits do far more damage than other dogs due to their inbred traits.

Profile Image for Carmen.
Author 93 books8,420 followers
July 7, 2016
This meticulously researched, compulsively readable, and occasionally devastating book should be required reading for anyone interested in pit bulls, dogs, American history, race, media studies, and rhetoric. An outstanding accomplishment.
Profile Image for Jenny.
798 reviews31 followers
April 16, 2017
Like most non-fiction books I pick up, this choice started with listening to Terri Gross interviewing Bronwen Dickey on Fresh Air last year. I remember both being fascinated by the discussion about pit bulls, which at the turn of the century were considered classic family dogs, and by the stories Dickey told about growing up in a household that involved both dogs and a famous parent with addiction issues. This fall, I worked with a former student several times in the writing center as she did research for a paper about discrimination against pit bulls. She listened to the audio version of this book and used several of Dickey’s points to bolster her argument that pit bulls were unfairly targeted as a dangerous breed.

Flash forward a few months to when I saw this book in a display at my community college library and nabbed it. The book ended up being even more interesting and timely than I could have imagined. That is, in exploring how pit bulls’ reputations have risen and fallen over the last century and a half, Dickey is telling a larger story that connects to class, race, constructions of identity, and the power of the media.

For example, I would love to use a chapter called “Looking Where the Light Is” to help Comp 1 students think about information literacy. In it, Dickey discusses how one employee of a Long Island Sheriff’s department, Karen Delise, began questioning the way the media seemed to be making judgments on what they called “killer breeds” based on limited evidence. Her research led her to identify some huge holes in the existing “proof” about pit bulls and other breeds being dangerous—data that called into question many legal and medical claims:

The lack of a scientific foundation for the claims made about pit bulls in the press, in medical journals, and in courts of law is deeply disturbing. Jeffrey Sacks likened dog bit research to the well-worn joke about the drunk trying to find his keys in a darkened parking lot. Another man comes out, sees the first one crawling around on his knees, and asks what he is doing. The first man says, “I’ve lost my keys. I can’t find them!” The second says, “Well, where were you when you dropped them?” The first points to the far side of the lot and says, “Over there.” “Over there?” the second man says. “Then what are you doing all the way over here?” The first man points up to the streetlamp and replies, “I’m looking where the light is.” (89-90)

Having just seen the documentary, Thirteenth, and started to read The New Jim Crow, it’s not hard to see the parallels between a media that constructs a certain breed of dog as naturally vicious and a media that constructs certain groups of people as “super predators” or “law breakers who are ruining America.” Dickey tells the story that in the 1870’s, a rabies outbreak in New York City was linked in the media to the breed of dog called Spitz (now called Pomeranians). That is, no one seemed to make the connection between the popularity of the dog and the number of rabies cases and human bites but instead doctors at the time suggested that certain breeds of dogs carried the virus. As a result, there was what was called the Spitz panic and Spitzes were destroyed in record numbers and in horrible ways. What is fascinating here is that pit bulls are not the first dog to be targeted in a breed focused way but rather they are one breed in a long line of breed panics. This is especially problematic because Dickey does a great job in showing both how fuzzy the concept of “breed” is in the world of dogs but also how misidentified actual pit bull terriers are.

If you love dogs or even if you don’t, this book is a fascinating read because it connects the complex world of canines to the even more complex (and dysfunctional) world of people.
Profile Image for Molly.
243 reviews1 follower
July 23, 2016
Disclaimer: I own a block-headed pup, so my reasons for reading this were clearly biased. The book, however, delivered much more than I expected. To be honest, I got this book expecting the normal apologetic defense of 'pit bulls' that I've been hearing for ages. Instead, I got an historical perspective, a ton of research (both secondary and fieldwork). There are so many takeaways from this book. I think first and foremost is that the media has made block-headed dogs a scapegoat-because, you know, only poor minorities own them. Secondly, these barrel-shaped pups are mixtures of many breeds that, at this point how can we still use the phrase pit bull? The beautiful pup that sits at my feet (literally!) as I write this might be more Boxer than American Staffordshire Terrier but she remains to most a 'pit bull.'
Dickey talks to pit bull lovers and haters (thank you, I will never look at Chris Rock the same).Her statistics, combined with real life stories of pits might not make you think any differently about pits, but it sure will make you THINK about dogs differently. (Did you know that Chihuahuas are banned at some shelters?! yep, because of people's views of Mexicans....Shake. My. Head. )
Profile Image for Lacy Broemel.
33 reviews
October 21, 2016
What a treasure of a book! I had a pit bull dog that was my best friend- he would sleep with me every night, follow me around the house, and had this wise & adoring spirit. I was always confounded at the hate and fear people projected onto him and the "breed" in general. It felt unjust. Dickey produced a well-researched and expertly written book that I felt was practically tailored for me. I enjoyed how personal the book felt to her as well. Her humor and guidance throughout the book made me immediately trust her. I also truly enjoyed the characters she met along the way in her research- people I won't soon forget.

I would suggest this book to anyone who is interested in learning about how fear and misunderstanding are bred in our culture. Additionally, if you are a dog lover, it's a must read. Now I'm off to go tell everyone what I've learned!
Profile Image for Jeffrey.
12 reviews2 followers
May 10, 2016
Horrible collection of dangerous and delusional myths masquerading as research.
Profile Image for Tracy Challis.
373 reviews14 followers
July 12, 2019
10 stars would not be enough for this book.

I cannot overstate how well-written, how meticulously researched, how coherently and logically constructed this book was.

I love dogs. I have and adore one (maybe two) that the world would identify as a pit. I have seen and heard, first hand, some of the incorrect stereotypes and misinformation about this type of dog. I have even believed some of the misinformation myself. This book opened my eyes to so much.

Dogs considered to be pit bulls (and this book makes it clear that there is a real problem people have in figuring out just exactly what that means) are subjected to breed bans, higher euthanasia rates, and ridiculously exaggerated bad press. They have been demonized and lied about. PETA has come out against them and one of my favorite writers and media pundits, Dan Savage, once said, “ Pit bulls should be boiled alive like lobsters and fed to their idiot owners.” (I have to admit, that has dropped him in my estimation quite a bit.). So much has gone into making these animals so controversial, and so little of it has been their own fault.

There is also misinformation on the pro pit bull side that can often muddy the waters and confuse people.
“ What you have to understand is that we are now at the point at which the very discussion of the problem advances the problem. The term pit bull now has so much coin that everyone gets something out of it. Musicians, rappers, politicians, reporters, whoever. Everybody gains something from that term. Except the dogs. They just end up dead.”

This book also takes on the racial problem embedded in the pit bull controversy. It made connections and opened my eyes in ways that had me reading and re-reading sections.

I know this might not be a topic that immediately seems interesting to many people, but I cannot state strongly enough how important this book is. It has so much to say about how our society reacts when we fear something. When we don’t understand something. When we think we understand something but are so misinformed. This book was powerful.

I learned so much from this book, and I could go on and on. But I will just end with one of the many quotes I loved from this amazing book.

“ Pitbulls are not dangerous or safe. Pitbulls aren’t saints or sinners. They are no more or less deserving than other dogs of love and compassion, no more or less deserving of good homes. They didn’t cause societies ills, nor can their redemption – real or imagined – solve them. There is nothing that needs to be redeemed, anyway; they were never to blame in the first place. To frame anything in such narrow terms is to look at human-animal relationships through the wrong end of the telescope. More important, there never was a ‘pit bull problem’. What happened to these animals was a byproduct of human fears, and what humans feared most was one another. After all we have put them through, maybe it is time to let pit bulls show us who they are, to let them have a part in writing their own story. Pit bulls are not dogs with an asterisk. Pit bulls are just… dogs.

Read this book. It is one of the best non- fiction books I have ever read.
Profile Image for Caryn Adams.
14 reviews
January 24, 2022
This is a very interesting book on many levels. The story is well-written and from my limited "checks" it appears to be well-researched and cited. I found the connections between the media magnifications surrounding the pit bull and our current social and political challenges with Covid very insightful. If you are interested in some the subtleties behind our current racial difficulties, you could gain some insight here as well. What started out for me as an interesting non-fiction read challenged me to look at my beliefs and what influences me in new ways. That's a pretty big win in my book.
10 reviews1 follower
August 13, 2016
I thought by now I knew pretty much all there was to know about their plight/perception in modern society, but was I ever wrong (and I was wrong in some "facts" I believed). The amount of research and data in this book (which is nothing like the "data" presented by the media, which the author discusses), is staggering. If you're a pibble lover or a hater, this book is for you. Even if you have no "dog in the fight" (and you may find yourself actually having commonality with dog fighters), but you love dogs, or epidemiology, or history, or biology/anatomy/genetics, or are interested in the subtle/not-so-subtle ways we continue to oppress fellow humans, this book will be of interest to you. I honestly can't recommend it enough.
Profile Image for Maureen.
464 reviews28 followers
September 30, 2016
Really well written and researched. I did not expect a book about a dog breed to be this informative, interesting, or political, but that just shows how little I actually knew about a breed I've felt an affection and sympathy for. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in dogs obviously, but also to people interested in enriching their understanding of media frenzy and its relation to racism and social control, or urban poverty and that relation to pet care, as I also learned quite a bit more about these topics. Well done Bronwen Dickey!
Profile Image for Abby.
1,395 reviews178 followers
October 3, 2016
A book for anyone interested in animal and human welfare in America. Bronwen Dickey does an excellent job surveying the history of the pit bull, particularly regarding the hysteria and fear around the breed, which is entirely unreasonable and based in a lot of flat-out racism. She writes with clarity and reason and avoids the overemotional trap of such a heart-rending subject. It's an eye-opening and important book. As one of her sources says: As long as we have different classes of dogs in America, we will have different classes of people.
Profile Image for Chris.
212 reviews43 followers
July 20, 2017
First, a bit about me: I have had 2 dogs with "pit bull" traits (smooth coat, batwing ears, wide jaw, broad chest, white spot on chest, compact muscular body, etc.), one which I adopted unawares from a rescue, and one which had been deemed "unadoptable" and a "liability" by the local Humane Society. They both came to me at 6-9 months of age with loving, enthusiastic, friendly personalities. I have also supported BAD RAP and the Unexpected Pit Bull.

I'm also a historian, so I'm well aware of how the meanings of things are socially constructed and change over time. I also already knew that there is no such thing as a "pit bull."

This book is about how the meanings associated with "pit bull"-type dogs have changed over time, how the '80s and '90s stigma of "pit bulls" came to be (including lots of discussion of race and class), the current advocacy work being done to support "pit bull" owners and de-stigmatize the breed, and how what is supposedly "known" about "pit bulls," violence, dog bites, etc., is sketchy at best.

Like I say, not a lot of this was news to me, but I did appreciate Dickey's thorough review of the dog-bite related literature, her likening of "pit bulls" to Honda Civics (e.g., just because some people steal and illegally race what are basic, good cars, we should ban the cars?), her in-depth examination of "pit bull" advocates of various stripes, and her questioning of the "pit bull" advocacy movement itself. This book already feels a little outdated because the stigma is fading, you don't see as much news about BSL anymore, lots of people are adopting pit-mixes as family pets, etc. It reminded me to choose my future dogs based on their own personalities, not any social meanings they supposedly embody.

I will say it felt odd to me that on the second-to-last page, Dickey reports the results of a DNA test she did on her dog, who inspired her to write the book: she "is not really a pit bull at all. Or, rather, she is only about half of one. Her test results came back as 25% American Staffordshire terrier, 25% Staffordshire bull terrier, 25% unknown 'terrier mix,' and 25%...Australian shepherd." Dickey has just spent 270+ pages informing us that 1) breed-wise, there's no such thing as a "pit bull;" 2) dog DNA tests tell you nothing; and 3) it's not the actual genetic makeup of "pit bull" type dogs that matters--it's the perception of traits presumed to be "pit-bull"-like and the social meanings attached to those. So using this information to conclude the book seemed counterproductive.
Profile Image for Bobby.
300 reviews10 followers
May 8, 2016
While Bronwen Dickey's book Pit Bull centers around a certain kind of dog (no matter how hard it is to define with certainty!), much of the detail centers around the humans who have dictated much of the narrative. Dickey goes into much historical detail in the early pages of the book, immersing the reader in the history of dog fighting in mid-19th century New York City, introducing us to characters like Kit Burns, an entrepreneur who had no qualms about making money off of human or canine violence. Then she spends many pages elucidating the history of dog breeding, particularly of breeds that are generally referred to as "pit bulls." It is after this foundation that the book really opens up and becomes the book it was meant to be, becoming much more conversational and alive in a way the first three chapters only hinted at. Dickey searches out people who have played significant roles in defining these dogs, whether for better or for worse, whether out of a love for them or out of hatred and suspicion. The author shows that the narrative on these dogs has been shaped in a way not entirely fair to them, or as one source said it (to paraphrase), that a cocker spaniel can bite a person and just be a dog that bit someone, but a pit bull is always thought of as a representative of his or her breed. In the latter chapters of the book Dickey begins the process of trying to see these dogs in a more fair and accurate light and ultimately shows that humans are capable of making things right, so to speak, by not only being more objective, not to mention factually accurate, about the dogs but by also giving the same consideration to the people who have pit bulls as pets. After a slow start, bogged down ever so slightly in history, Pit Bull really took off and was a riveting read that documents a unique situation in the animal world. In the end both the dogs and many humans come out looking the better for the treatment and perspective of the author.
Profile Image for Amy Martinez.
2 reviews
June 6, 2016
I started this book because I'm an APBT mommy and wanted to better understand the fear associated with this animal that's best job of keeping strangers out of the house is sleeping in front of the door. I just hope he stays asleep or all my valuables will be history--thank Heaven for my Yorkies! I needed to understand why people felt the need to apologize for my dog like he did something wrong. People don't say "It's all how you raise them" about my Yorkies. This book had me screaming and shouting and crying! It had me misunderstanding the purpose of PETA (Nazi Terroists) And at one point when a man was quoted as saying these dogs should be bashed in the head with baseball bats, all I could think was: And they call Pit Bulls violent and aggressive... Some humans should be banned from society!! No matter what side you stand on, you should read this well researched book so you can get a better understanding of why people feel so much fear and anxiety at the mere mention of the breed. If you've never known an APBT or a "Pit Bull" type dog, you should meet one and get to know their grin and their heart before vilifying the entire breed. They really are spectacular.
Profile Image for M.
104 reviews2 followers
June 19, 2019
I started getting interested in Pit Bulls when I thought about getting one and much more once I got a dog that had some Pit Bull likeness. After reading this book, I will not call my dog a Pit Bull. He's just a mutt, and that is perfectly fine with me.

Dickey goes into the historical relationship between human and dog to illustrate just how tumultuous that relationship has been. She explains the genetics, classifications, breeds and why the term Pit Bull is so loosely defined. She interviews activists and proponents of breed specific legislation. She includes data driven reasons why breed specific legislation is unjust and how much of the data used to promote it is flawed.

The consequences for carrying a label are shockingly numerous and horrific. However, throughout the book, Dickey emphasizes how the issue has less to do with dogs as it does with humans and our constant inability to coexist with each other.
Profile Image for Sassafras Lowrey.
Author 26 books173 followers
July 12, 2016
"What pitbulls have taught us is that justice for animals cannot happen at the expense of justice for humans....if we fail to do that, the cycle is destined to repeat itself" pg 266

Just one of the many quotes that stood out to me as I read this significantly important book. Pit Bull is not only a thoughtful and balanced piece of journalism (not easy to pull off in the dog world) but culturally relevant on every level, and in particular the ways in which it framed the development of the "pit bull" aligned with systemic racism and classism. I learned so much (and I thought I already was pretty knowledgable ) about the creation of the myth that is the pit bull, and the history of dogs in America, and I have so much respect for the way the author wrote about and portrayed each of her interview subjects and their experience.

One of the best books I've read this year. the copy I read came from the library - I'll be buying my own copy to keep as a resource.
Profile Image for Meghan.
Author 2 books8 followers
March 10, 2016
This is, quite frankly, the best book on the topic. And the most thorough and intelligent discussion of what it means to be a pit bull. Dickey has done an astonishing amount of research, synthesized it beautifully, and gives us not only a scientific and historical context for this "breed" and others (and, indeed, the very concept of a breed), but also a very moving story. 'Pit Bull' is an expert blend of personal detail, deep, thoughtful journalism, and insightful cultural critique that will educate and entertain any reader, anywhere, regardless of his or her interest--or lack of interest--in dogs. I'll be passing this one to everyone I know.
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