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October 19, 2011

What is it About Pit Bulls?

Misunderstood dogs face uphill battle to change public perception...

Pit Bull. Two simple words, but so very charged, the reaction to which varies wildly. There are their fearful detractors, those who would have them demonized, having fallen prey to the dogs’ misrepresentation in the media. And then there are their champions, who are struggling to change the tide of public opinion. “Pit Bull” is, in fact, a loose term for many distinct “bully” breed dogs, such as the American Staffordshire Terrier, the American Pit Bull Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. There is a general misunderstanding of the nature of dogs that fall into the Pit Bull camp, one that can be blamed largely on the sad fact that any aggressive attack is often inaccurately blamed on the scapegoated Pit Bull with little concern as to the offender’s actual breed. According to testing by The National Canine Temperament Testing Association, the Golden Retriever, Poodle, Border Collie, English Setter, and numerous other breeds are considered more likely to become aggressive than the breeds commonly referred to as Pit Bulls. While the average score of the 231 breeds tested was a mere 82.4 percent, Pit Bulls scored a 86.5 percent (the higher the score the better).

In truth, bully breeds are goofy, loyal, lovey dogs, by and large fantastic with children. In the UK, they were known as “nanny” dogs, and many Victorian illustrations of family life portray a sweet Pit Bull-type dog overseeing his chubby, beribboned charges.

Yes, this personable package comes wrapped in a powerhouse of a body, one that historically was bred for the cruel blood sport of dog fighting, but these dogs are anything but mean by nature. Sure, some, if left unchecked, have more of a tendency toward dog-aggression than, say, the average affable Labrador Retriever does, but if ever there was a testament to the underlying sweet nature of these dogs, it is seen in the rehabilitation stories of the Pit Bulls seized from Bad Newz Kennels, the Virginia dogfighting ring that was run by NFL quarterback Michael Vick.

Subject to some of the worst humanity has to offer, these were dogs that were caged or chained alone in the woods, tortured, and forced to fight, the torn-apart losers of the battles callously dumped in mass graves, the females tethered to rape tables. And yet, thanks to public outcry and an unprecedented ruling by the judge overseeing the Vick case, nearly $1 million was put aside for the rescue and rehabilitation of these dogs. With the help of a great many caring individuals and organizations who were unwilling to see them put down after having suffered only abuse at the hands of humans, these former dog-ring fighters have now been adopted into homes with other dogs, and are volunteering in elder-care facilities and schools to help children learn to read.

Hector, one of the Bad Newz victims, bears deep scars on his chest. He was adopted by Roo Yori, best known as the guardian of Wallace the Pit Bill, a national flying-disc champ (see the Summer 2010 issue of Modern Dog for photos of Wallace and his high-flying Frisbee grabs). Hector is now ensconced in the Yori household, where he happily shares a home with Yori, his wife, Clara, and Wallace, as well as a Rat Terrier named Scooby, Angus, a black Lab mix, and Mindy Lou, a toy Australian Shepherd. What better testament to the forgiving nature of these animals? As Jim Gorant, author of The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption (Gotham, 2010) has noted, “Generalizations and preconceptions are as unhelpful and counterproductive for Pit Bulls as they are for people.”

There is much work to do, though, to change public opinion. Many, many dogs falling into the Pit Bull camp, lumped together under this one inaccurate label, are crowding shelters, their numbers vast, the available homes few. Moved by the plight of these dogs, Brooklyn-based photographer Bethany Obrecht turned her lens to some of these animals, who hopefully faced her camera.

Sadly, most of the dogs Obrecht photographed didn’t make it, victims of an overburdened shelter system and an uninformed public. We’re hoping we can change that with a positive public relations campaign taking aim at their misrepresentation and drawing attention to the plight of legion Pit Bull-type dogs in desperate need of a home. Adopt a sweet, goofy, grinning Pit Bull today. We’re willing to bet you won’t regret it.

By Rose Frosek | Photographed by Bethany Obrecht

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