Why Do Pit Bulls Have Such a Bad Rep? Is it Simply a Matter of “Bad” Breeding?


My sister has been talking about getting a dog for the last four months. But that’s only the four months that I’ve known about her wanting a dog. According to her, it’s been going on for a lot longer than four months. She had a dog that passed away several years ago and after that, her son brought home another dog but took that dog with him when he moved out west to work at a brewery, then on a “farm” (lucky dog, both of them).

So we’ve been looking at dogs in animal shelters for a while now.  Not every day.  Not even every week, but here and there when the mood strikes her and the shelter happens to be within the general area of some other errand she needs to run.  The problem is there’s simply not enough dogs to go around these days.  I know, you’re probably thinking, “Wait. I’m always hearing stuff about the horrors of ‘kill shelters’ and how people need to get their dogs neutered because there’s just too many dogs out there and not enough good homes for them!”

That’s true to a certain extent.  There are quite a few dogs available for adoption, but not enough puppies.  And everyone wants a puppy; not a mature dog whose personality, bad habits and poor training has already been drilled into them by some other, most likely, inept and possibly unstable, human being.  So yes, there are some mature dogs out there but they’ve already been poisoned by their previous “daddy or mommy” and taken on the neuroses, faults, and frailties of that unhinged parental alpha figure, who, probably due to some major psychological disorder, had to give up said dog for adoption several years into his or her young life, rendering said dog “unadoptable.” And don’t believe the line they give you at the shelter about how the previous owner had to move and their new landlord doesn’t allow pets.  That’s bullshit.  Or, that the dog was owned by an eighty-year-old lady who recently passed away and had no family to take the dog in. Ask yourself:  “Why would an eighty-year-old lady adopt a dog that was in all likelihood going to outlive her?”

So there’s that to worry about when you consider adopting an adult dog.  Not only are the available mature dogs probably suffering from some disturbing and irreparable personality disorder, but they are are also most likely, of the pit bull variety. Now please don’t get all indignant and start bombarding me with information that purports to dispel the myths and misconceptions about pit bulls.  I know, pit bulls can be very kind, gentle animals that are wonderful with kids!  They also have a bite force (the scientific measurement of the amount of pressure in a dog’s bite) of 235 pounds.  Sounds pretty scary, but in reality not all that impressive.  A wolf has a bite force of 406 pounds, but that can go as high as 1,200 when it’s protecting itself or its family.  Rottweilers clock in at 328 pounds; Dobermans at 600, and a mastiff can push 525 pounds.  So, when you really think about it, the bite force of a pit bull isn’t that bad.  But they’re still scary.  There’s that whole thing about them being (according to Wikipedia) “particularly serious, as they tend to bite deeply, and grind their molars into the tissue” that you may want to consider when you’re thinking about going near a pit bull.

Contrary to popular belief, pit bulls do not have a “locking jaw mechanism” but they are known to have “wide skulls, well-developed facial muscles, and strong jaws.” But fear not!  Breaking an ammonia capsule and holding it up to their nose can sometimes get them to release their hold!  Good to know. I will lay in a big supply of ammonia capsules and carry them with me wherever I go and hope that they don’t break in my pocket and lead people to wonder if I have pissed myself.

So why are pit bulls so misunderstood?  Maybe it has to do with their history.  By that I mean, what they were originally designed for. Pit bulls are the result of cross-breeding “bull-baiting dogs” (dogs that hold the faces and heads of larger animals such as bulls in their mouth), with terriers.  Nice.  They’re also known as really good “blood sports” dogs, and are especially good at hunting bulls and bears.  Whew!  I feel so much better now that I understand them.  Over the years, pit bulls became the choice of dog for illegal fighting matches (to the death) and also for nefarious purposes such as guarding illegal narcotics operations (blame Wikipedia, not me).  Again, not the pit bull’s fault, but still a  pretty tough stigma to “shed.”  Hmm, I’m thinking about getting a dog that likes to kill other dogs when it’s not guarding heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine…

Many years ago, in an effort to re-brand the animal and encourage greater adoption, the people at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) came up with a “brilliant” idea.  They renamed the pit bull “The St. Francis Terrier.”  I don’t know if this was to give “props” to Saint Francis of Assisi (a well-known religious leader and animal lover) or just because San Francisco translated from Spanish to English, is “Saint Francis.”   Or is it “Whale’s Vagina?”  No, that’s the English translation of San Diego, according to Ron Burgundy (from the movie “Anchorman”). Either way, it didn’t work out so well.  Oh, it did increase adoption rates all right. Some sixty “temperament-screened” pit bulls (I mean St. Francis Terriers) were adopted. Unfortunately, the newly adopted dogs killed many, many cats and the re-branding effort was immediately halted… goodbye cats, goodbye St. Francis Terrier, welcome back pit bull.  The New York Center for Animal Care and Control tried something similar and started a movement to rename pit bulls “New Yorkies.” Probably because pit bulls are virtually indistinguishable from Yorkies. Yup.  I shit you not; like, they were separated at birth! That re-branding effort was dropped in the face of overwhelming opposition.

In spite of all the efforts and money spent on trying to dispel the myths surrounding pit bulls and their viciousness (or lack thereof), they are still misunderstood.  In fact, they’ve been the target of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) that’s been passed in more than 550 jurisdictions, and adopted by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Legislation that has either banned possession of pit bulls outright, or has put severe restrictions and conditions on their ownership.  Some have called for mandatory spaying/neutering, microchip implanting, and owner liability insurance.  Others prohibit convicted felons from owning pit bulls (which I support wholeheartedly).  Sorry, those of you who consider yourselves felonious “monks.”  Get it? No, huh?

Anyway, the airlines, always eager to embrace any reason to pose further restrictions on anything, jumped on the bandwagon by placing embargoes on pit bulls, who they deemed as “brachycephalic animals,” which puts them at high risk for injury or death due to the heat and humidity associated with air travel. (I’ve always thought it’s supposed to be really cold and dry at 30,000 feet, but that’s just me).  Air France does not permit pit bulls, no explanation given — none needed — as pit bulls are an American breed and we all know how the French hate, I mean HATE, the Americans.

Alaska Airlines has a “fly at your own risk” policy, meaning no payout for you if the dog is injured or dies during transit.  I wonder, does the pit bull have to put his paw print on a release form before he can fly? American Airlines’ policy states, “no brachycephalic or ‘snub-nosed’ dogs allowed as checked luggage.”  Does that mean they’re free to roam about the cabin, terrorizing old people and small children as they snarl and snap their toothy mouths set in wide skulls with strong facial muscles?  Delta says that snub-nosed dogs will be embargoed when the temperature at the departure point or any stop along the travel route is expected to exceed 75 degrees Fahrenheit.  United Airlines has no problem with pit bulls and embraces a full-on, hearty, “Welcome aboard, D-Pitty!” attitude. I believe United even gives pit bulls those plastic pilot wings as they board the aircraft.  I still think it’s a good idea if you’re a pit bull, to get yourself a complete physical before traveling and to bring a doctor’s note with you to the airport that says you are in fact, fit to fly!  Just in case.

So, back to my sister and her mission to adopt a dog.  I mean, a puppy. A puppy that is NOT a pit bull.  A few days ago she asked me if I would take a ride from her home in central New Jersey to an adoption center on the North Shore of Long Island.  Sure, no problem, love to.  We left her home at 1:00 pm and discussed our plan of attack along the way.  By plan of attack, I’m referring to the Seinfeld-esque discussion that all New York/Jersey people have whenever driving anywhere.  And that is, what’s the best way for us to get there. That’s when opinions usually start to fly.

Should we take the Garden State Parkway to Woodbridge, then jump over to the Turnpike and take that to the Outer Bridge Crossing and cut through Brooklyn?  Or, should we stay on the Turnpike and take it to I-80 East to the G.W. Bridge, and if we take the G.W., should we take George or Martha (meaning Upper or Lower… it’s a Jersey thing)…  Nah, let’s do the Turnpike to the Lincoln Tunnel and cut through the city (Never say Manhattan, it’s just called “the city”).  Oh, shit, we’re on the 1/9 now, guess we’re taking the Holland Tunnel and we can go up the West Side Highway or Seventh Ave. to 34th Street and take that crosstown to the Midtown Tunnel.  Yeah.  Good.  Except now we’re on the Long Island Expressway (L.I.E.) and it’s not moving.  Quick, take the Van Wyck to the Grand Central Parkway.  Shit, the GCP isn’t moving either.  Take the Cross Island back over to the L.I.E.  What-Eva!

By the time we got to the adoption center, it was after 4:00 pm and there was a line of about 40 people standing in the rain outside.  Apparently, since the center is so small, they only allow thirty or so people in at a time and everyone waiting outside, in the cold rain, has to wait for the warm, dry people to come out before we can go in.  We waited, for like, an hour.  Then we went in and found out that you could not “reserve” a dog, then go home and think about it for a while, and come back to get him or her in a few days.  You had to pull the trigger right there, on the spot, right then.  Adopt now, same day, or risk losing the one non-pit-bull-puppy-on-the-planet forever.

We looked at  a lot of puppies, many of whom were labeled “lab/terrier mix or Shepard/terrier mix, or yadda, yadda, yadda/terrier mix,” descriptors which are all really dog shelter code for pit bull.  It was fun, though, looking at all these funny, little dogs.  But it was more fun looking at the people wanting to adopt all the funny, little dogs.  There was this one shelter worker holding a puppy in front of a nice family while saying, “He has conjunctivitis in his left eye, an intestinal infection and he’s being treated with antibiotics for worms.”  I couldn’t help myself and blurted out, “and his name is Lucky.”  Blank stares, all around.

There was a really nice Puerto Rican guy who joined in the fun with me, as he was adopting a dog that had scarring on his cornea, and as a result was blind in one eye.  I pointed out to him how much fun he could have sneaking up on the dog’s “blind side” and he was in full agreement.  Then, there was this hippy-dippy-nuts-and-granola-eating-Subaru-driving-type lady with her three (no doubt marvelous) children who my sister asked if they had picked a dog out yet, to which they enthusiastically replied, “Yes! We have!”  My sister then asked the mother what they named the dog, to which she replied, “Mars.”  I pointed out that Mercury is in retrograde and she explained that her and her children (all under the age of seven) were “artists” and that “Mars” was short for “Mars Black,” a paint pigment.  I later found out that “Mars Black” is an iron oxide pigment that is more opaque and less toxic than other black pigments.  Oh yeah, and it’s rated as one of the most satisfactory black pigments for acrylic paints with regard to opacity, light-fastness, and permanence.  And, it takes its name from Mars, the God of war and patron of iron.  Just so you know, it’s quite safe for her marvelous artist children to (hopefully) ingest, otherwise, I would have reported her.  (I think I still should’ve reported her just for referring to her under-the-age-of-seven children “artists.”)  Really… pass the crayons, and make mine “Mars Black” please.

Back on point.  This woman then asked my sister if we had picked a dog and if so, what might its name be?  I couldn’t help myself and instantly said, “Cerulean Blue!” I was delighted at my quick wit and that I even knew enough to say “Cerulean Blue” at all!  She was not as impressed with me as I was, and corrected my pronunciation of “suh-ril-ee-un” blue (which I later googled and found my pronunciation to be spot on).  She should consider herself lucky because I held myself back from saying the rest of what I really wanted to say which was, “We’re kind of on the fence still, and thinking about maybe naming him ‘Titanium White,’ or ‘Burnt Sienna,’ or maybe ‘Sea-Foam Green,’ you know, that color that was really popular in the more ostentatious houses in Boca Raton in the 80s?”  She (that woman) is the reason why I like dogs better than people.

So my sister got her dog, a twelve-week-old “lab mix” and she named him Leo.  I like Leo.  He’s smart, polite, calm, and pisses and craps pretty consistently on newspaper.  I’ve been watching him closely for a few days now and I’ve noticed that his back legs stand out from behind his body in a somewhat threatening, ready-to-pounce posture, and his head seems to be getting more wide and square by the minute.  He also has these whitish toenails (not black, or even “Mars Black” like most other labs have), and the interior of his gums seem unnaturally pink. He kinda looks like he could, maybe just a little… be part pit bull? Nah. No way. Nuh-uh. But still, I’m thinking about having his “bite force” tested at some point down the road.