Review: “Pit Bull: The battle over an American icon”

This. Book.

Honestly, author Bronwen Dickey could’ve titled it “Pit Bull: The battle over America.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read something so brilliant and so devastating in all my life.

It’s not brilliant because it’s original — most of the themes are present in an untold number of blog posts and articles by rescuers, advocates and enthusiasts — but Dickey has exhaustively researched and cohesively documented the plethora of complex issues surroundings pit bulls. Really, though, it’s not about pit bulls. It’s about us. It’s about Americans. It’s about people. And it’s never been more relevant.

I thought I knew quite a bit about dogs when we decided to adopt one. I’ve learned a lot since then, so I thought I knew some stuff about dogs when I started this book. If this book taught me anything, it’s that I don’t know jack.

I don’t mean to imply that the book leaves things in any state of nebulous ambiguity; it definitely doesn’t. It’s far from a collection of philosophical, amoral musings about our life with dogs. Rather, it chronicles the development of hysteria and myth so well that I’m left to wonder what other fear-based myths I’ve been believing my whole life. Who has been hurt because I believed those myths? How have I profited — unconsciously, inadvertently — from those myths?

In regard to the pit bull-specific research, it was eye-opening even to someone with some background in the facts. There were things I already knew were complete falsehoods, like the assertion that pit bulls have an unnaturally strong bite, but I didn’t realize the extent to which they had been sensationalized. There were things I still believed in unquestioningly, like the bait dog. While Dickey doesn’t say no dogs are used in such a manner, her research suggests they’re much less prevalent than the public is led to believe. She tracks these myths through history, gives them cultural context right up until 2015, and it is, most of the time, infuriating. Whether it’s the systematic removal of slaves’ dogs in the pre-Civil War era or the lazy reporting of a journalist in the 1970s, the events that got us to this point seem to be a record of society’s worst beliefs, reactions, or moments.

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One of my favorites parts of the book? The 34 pages of notes and bibliography. Because, you know, that’s how actual research works.

The overall tone of the book is much less despairing than this blog post; it’s matter-of-fact and very readable. However, the fact remains that the anti-pit bull attitudes are still prevalent, still loud, and there’s almost nothing we can do about them. As Dickey notes, you can’t reason someone out of a belief they weren’t reasoned into, and if anyone would know, it’s her. She’s been harassed and threatened (read the comments on that link, if you dare) by people who haven’t even read the book. Quebec is pushing for a breed ban as I write this, and Friday, I listened to Canadian radio host Barry Morgan ask the same misguided questions people have been asking for years: What about pit bulls having stronger bite force? What about their instinct to fight?

For all of humanity’s failures catalogued in Pit Bull, the saddest part about the book is the fact that it wouldn’t make a difference to the violently anti-pit bull faction even if you could force them to read it (assuming they can actually read). For the people who don’t fall into that unfortunate category, though, this book is so important. If you own a pit bull, it’s is a fantastic way to educate yourself about the history and hysteria surrounding your own dog. If you don’t own a pit bull or even a dog — maybe you’re just a casual bystander too smart to believe everything the media tells you but unsure of what the truth may be — it’s a look at American history and culture through a fascinating lense.

I guess the last thing I’d like to say is a sincere “thank-you” to Bronwen Dickey. As the saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished,” but it still makes me furious that she’s getting hate for such a well-written, well-researched book. Haters aside, she’s given pit bull owners and advocates an amazing tool, and I’m so grateful she chose to devote her talent to this topic.

P.S. If you want to support the fight against BSL (breed-specific legislation) in Canada, check out this awesome T-shirt campaign.

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