The Truth About Bullies

The Truth
About Bullies
Understanding America’s most controversial dog breed
by Heather Davis
I’ll never forget the day a woman brought her newly acquired American Pit Bull Terrier to
the animal hospital where I worked as a vet tech. She’d had him for a month and couldn’t
stop gushing about how loving, affectionate and smart he was. “He’s so gentle with our
five-year-old son,” she beamed. As she turned in her new client paperwork, I noticed that
she’d written “Boxer” as the breed of her new companion. Turns out she’d bought the dog
out of the newspaper and was told it was a Boxer, which she’d heard were great with kids
and made wonderful family pets. When I informed her that her dog was an American Pit
Bull Terrier, which were also great with children and made equally wonderful pets, she
gasped—and proceeded to tell me to either “put the thing down” or “get rid of it”. It both
shocked and infuriated me that this woman—who had just seconds earlier professed her
undying love for this dog—was now ready to put it to death all because of a name change.
Never mind that the dog at her feet—happily wagging his tail and grinning ear-to-ear—was
still the same loving and loyal companion he’d always been. The stigma of the breed alone
was enough to change him in her eyes.
After enlisting the help of the veterinarian to educate the woman about the breed, we still
couldn’t encourage her to keep this poor pooch as a member of her family. She signed the
dog over to us without another thought, and we in turn placed him into a rescue where he
eventually found a loving forever home. But he was lucky: according to Brenda Johnson of
Canine Counselors Inc., only 1 in 600 “pit bulls” ever finds a loving home. The others,
unfortunately, are put to death.
Understanding Pit Bull Breeds
Pit bulls, as they are most commonly called, are not actually a recognized breed in and of
themselves. Rather, “pit bull” is a collective term used to describe the dogs belonging to
three different breeds: American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and
Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The latter two are sometimes also referred to as “Am Staffs”.
Bred in the U.K. in the early 1800’s as bait dogs, what we know as American Pit Bull
Terriers (APBT) were unfortunately bred to be aggressive toward other dogs so they could
be fought in the ring. They were also bred specifically not to be aggressive toward humans,
so their trainers could handle them in the ring without being harmed. Due to this selective
breeding, these dogs (commonly referred to as “bulldogs” at the time) have become widely known for their fierce loyalty and love toward humans and are regarded as highly
trustworthy companions to those who know and understand the breed. In 1898, the United
Kennel Club (UKC) officially named the breed American Pit Bull Terrier; in the 1930’s, the
American Kennel Club (AKC) gave select lines the names of American Staffordshire
Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier in order to separate them from their reputation as pit
fighters. The Am Staffs were bred more toward conformation as show dogs while the APBT
continued to be bred for their working drive, stamina and speed.
While these breeds can be nearly impossible to distinguish from one another to the
untrained eye, their sizes, shapes and colors can vary widely. Some weigh in at a light twenty-five pounds while others may be eighty-five. They tend to be well muscled with short,
bristly coats that come in a wide range of markings and colors. (And despite urban legend,
they do not have “locking jaws” or exceedingly high bite pressure, which have both been
found false by the veterinary community.) Despite their physical variances, most bully
18 | August/September 2006
breeds all have one thing in common:
incredibly loveable personalities! As a rule,
bully breeds are fun loving, spunky and
often goofy dogs that keep their families
laughing with their antics. They are smart
and often do well in agility, flyball and other
canine sports. Their strong desire to please
and their absolute affection for people make
them easy to work with and a joy to have
around. Many pit bull breeds work as certified therapy dogs at retirement homes and
children’s hospitals; others are top searchand-rescue dogs and border patrol canine
officers. Despite their somewhat intimidating appearances, they are one of the most
gentle, loving and devoted human companions of all dog breeds.
A Heroic History
When immigrants brought their bully companions to America near the turn of the
century, the breed quickly gained national
attention as America’s favorite family pet.
They were entrusted to protect the homestead, help with chores around the farm and
to be gentle companions and caretakers of
their family’s children. The happy, smiling
breed began appearing in posters and advertisements nationwide, gaining fame as the
poster pups for household brands such as
Buster Brown. They also became beloved
characters in popular cartoons and on television. (Remember Pudgy in the Betty Boop
cartoon and Petey as one of the Little
Rascals gang?) They graced World War I
posters as proud mascots of American bravery, and Stubby—a famed APBT war
hero—was even awarded a Purple Heart and
a Gold Medal of Honor for his role in saving nearly 1,000 American soldiers from the
threats of a German spy. The breed became
a favorite pet among many American officials, including President Coolidge and
President Roosevelt. And consider this:
Helen Keller considered an American Pit
Bull Terrier her closest and most trusted
Bullies Get a Bad Rap
Intelligent, loyal, trustworthy, affectionate…what’s not to love, right? Yet despite
all of the qualities that truly make bully
breeds perfect companions, they undoubtedly have the worst reputation of any in the
canine world. Walk down the street with
even the most well behaved pit bull and
you’ll notice how many pedestrians magically cross over to the opposite side of the
street. Open up a paper and you’ll read
headlines titled “Killer Pit Bull Mangles
Child”. It’s no wonder that these poor bullies have nowhere to turn: public perception
has revoked their status as America’s
Favorite Pet and has instead labeled them
America’s Most Wanted.
So why the bad rap? The 1980’s ushered in
an unfortunate era for bullies. As back alley
fighting pits became more popular with
gangs and criminals, pits began to be bred
and trained under horrible conditions. By
the 1990’s, the breed had become a symbol
of status, power and aggression, and was
quickly associated with poverty, crime and
fighting. Attacks by abused, neglected and
poorly socialized pit bulls began to surface
in the news—although oftentimes, these
dogs were not “pit bull” breeds at all. (To
see how easy it is to mistakenly label a dog
a “pit bull”, take the Find the Pit quiz online
A Kansas City news station reported on
March 6, 2006 that a pit bull had attacked a
twelve-year-old. When they showed footage
of the dog in question, however, it was clear
that it was anything but a pit bull; in fact, it
appeared to be a yellow Labrador Retriever
mix. When faced with complaints that their
story was not accurate, they removed the
photo of the dog from subsequent airings
yet continued to call the dog a pit bull. In
another attack, a newspaper ran the headline
“Pit Bull Attacks Baby”, spreading panic
and fear though the community. The family
soon came forward to set the record straight:
the truth was that the family’s American
Bulldog had attacked their baby, and their
American Pit Bull Terrier had attempted to
save the child by taking down the Bulldog.
Endless stories of mistaken (or purposely
misreported) identity exist, yet are hardly
ever corrected or apologized for by the
media. The public goes on believing that
bully breeds are responsible for these
attacks, and the breed continues to suffer
from the misinformation. To make matters
worse, only the negative stories ever seem
to gain national momentum in the press;
meanwhile, the everyday positive and heroic pit bull stories hardly even make local
news. With so much bad press, it’s no wonder that America’s beloved bullies have
become largely feared and unwanted.
Banning the Breed
Due to widespread misinformation and misunderstanding, our once celebrated pit bull
breeds now face a terrible fate: execution.
Many counties throughout the country (our
own Davidson County included) have
already banned the breed from dog parks,
and over 200 counties have banned them
altogether. After all, what if those select few
“bad seeds” wreck havoc on the entire city?
“You can’t base your assumptions about a
whole breed’s behavior on three or four
dogs,” says Karen Delise, the founder of the
National Canine Research Foundation,
which gathers statistics on dogs and public
safety. According to data collected by the
foundation, pit bulls have only accounted
for 45 out of 145 dog-related deaths since
Bully Rescue & Efforts
The issues surrounding bully breeds are numerous, and
the issue of rescuing and adopting out these wonderful
pets is another article altogether! If you think you’d like
to adopt a bully, or if you’d like more information in
order to help make positive changes for the breed, please
check out these resources. While we simply don’t have
room enough to cover all bully breed topics in one issue,
we have found these websites, books and videos to be
responsible, accurate and informational resources for
learning more about these breeds, the issues surrounding
them and responsible guardianship of the breed:
Recommended Websites
Recommended Book
Pit Bulls for Dummies
by D. Caroline Coile
Recommended Video
Off the Chain
by Bobby J. Brown
Ardustry Home Entertainment
1999. In fact, many of the deaths were caused by breeds no one would suspect: in 2000, a
Pomeranian climbed into the bed of a six-week-old girl in southern California and killed
The fact is, any breed of dog can potentially pose a threat given certain circumstances, especially when left unsupervised with a small child. Add to that abuse and neglect, and you’ve
got a ticking time bomb on your hands, no matter the breed. Statistically, a dog that is kept
on a chain and abused is more likely than a housedog to attack a child that wanders into its
territory. Given that pit bulls are America’s most abused and neglected breed, often living
out their lives on chains, it seems obvious that there will be heightened occurrences of
attack than with other breeds. However, it’s important to remember that these dogs are not
so much villains as they are victims: of the 45 pit bulls mentioned above, one had been
repeatedly beaten with a hammer to make him “tough”; another was starving to death on a
chain when an unsupervised child wandered up to him. Each had their own story of abuse
and neglect. And yet, the breed as a whole has been judged as guilty for the crimes their
humans have committed. To put it into perspective, consider this: approximately 3 people
are killed by pit bull breeds each year, while 113 are killed in traffic collisions with deer.
Ask yourself: should this mean that we should ban deer or cars?
While many believe that breed banning (and the subsequent extinction of the breed) is safer
for the public, this theory has a major fault: breed banning only prevents law-abiding citizens from keeping pit bulls. In Off the Chain, a documentary in which director Bobby J.
Brown goes behind the scenes in the underground world of dog fighting, a top dog fighter
tells him, “If they banned pits in my state, it would not do anything to deter us from fighting these dogs.” He goes on to explain that he makes “a killing” off the dogs he fights, and
that any slap-on-the-wrist penalty in court is merely regarded as the cost of doing business.
It simply doesn’t make sense to take well-socialized, well-behaved pit bulls from loving,
responsible guardians and put them to death in the name of public safety when the criminals who are abusing the dogs and keeping them irresponsibly are left to continue on their
illegal and inhumane activities.
“You can’t base your assumptions about a whole
breed’s behavior on 3 or 4 dogs.”
- Karen Delise, founder of the National Canine
Research Foundation
Also take into consideration that breed-banning laws are very difficult to enforce fairly and
effectively, as the task of breed identification requires expert knowledge of dog breeds and
is further compounded by mixed breed dogs. Such is the case at our local dog parks, where
any dog exhibiting the “characteristics” of a “pit bull” is banned from entering. While the
case can certainly be made that pit bulls are not always the best candidates for off-leash play
with other dogs (we do encourage guardians of this breed to honestly evaluate your individual dog’s ability to be trusted off-leash around other dogs), it is often virtually impossible
to accurately determine which mixed breeds are part “pit” and which may simply have characteristics of Boxer, Mastiff, Bulldog, Rottweiler or other breeds that are routinely mistaken
for pit bulls. Using this logic, are dog park users expected to “police” one another, and who
exactly is supposed to determine if a particular dog is a “pit” or not?
Identification aside, any breed of dog can become out of control or aggressive during offleash play, and for a variety of reasons and at any time. The key is not in singling out any
whole breed, but in ensuring that all dog guardians are acting responsibly at all times and
that we all understand the need for obedience training, temperament monitoring and careful attention to dog posture and behavior throughout play, so that any early-stage aggression
can be stopped before a problem arises.
Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Companion Animal Section of the Humane
Society of the United States (HSUS), explains that rather than focusing resources on banning specific breeds, communities tend to have a higher rate of success when dog bite
legislation is applied to guardians of all
breeds equally, coupled with public education. “Legislation aimed at punishing the
[irresponsible guardian] of the dog rather
than punishing the dog [or breed] is far
more effective in reducing the number of
dog bites and attacks,” she says. She adds,
“Protecting residents from dangerous dogs
is a noble goal and one that communities
across the country are wrestling with. But
communities that have banned specific
breeds have discovered that it has not been
the easy answer they thought it would be.
Dangerous dogs come in all shapes and
sizes, and breed bans just don’t effectively
address the issue.”
Bully Abuse on the Rise
Meanwhile, these precious bullies continue
to be abused and exploited, subjected to
unthinkable suffering for the monetary gain
of their trainers and breeders. From a young
age, they are harshly trained to fight in the
ring, suffering physical and emotional abuse
and neglect from their trainers. Trainers
anesthetize their dogs in order to sharpen
their teeth into fine razor-edged points and
the dogs are pumped full of hormones to
increase their aggression. In rural backwoods and urban back alley pits, these
innocent bullies are forced to fight one
another inside closed pits while crowds
cheer and wager on who will “win”. During
a fight, a dog suffers unthinkable pain and
suffering: ears are torn, eyes are gouged,
legs are snapped in half, abdomens are disemboweled. And yet, they are forced to
continue fighting until one becomes either
too exhausted or too wounded to carry on.
The “winner” is taken home, where the
trainer haphazardly stitches up wounds to
get the dog in shape to do it all over again.
The “loser” is typically left lying to die, or
suffers further abuse from his humiliated
trainer and then is often shot, beaten to
death or set ablaze before the crowd to show
that the trainer is not “weak” and will not
tolerate “weak dogs” in his breeding line.
Only 1 in 600 “pit bulls”
ever find a loving
home. The others,
unfortunately, are put
to death.
According to law officials, dog fighting is a
billion dollar industry worldwide, with
America exporting bullies to as far away as
Japan, Taiwan and Bosnia. Most of the time,
fighting pits are also directly linked to illegal drug and weapons trade, as well. Yet,
much of the American public has no idea
just how huge this illegal industry is, and
how many thousands of dogs are forced to
suffer this abuse day in and day out.
“It’s so far underground, so well entrenched,
that the American public has no idea it’s
even taking place,” says Sergeant Steve
Brownstein of the Chicago Police
Department, who continues to work to bust
up illegal fighting operations. The problem
is that it’s nearly impossible to get close
enough to the rings in order to go undercover. “Dog men”, as they’re called, are a
tightly knit group, and not just anyone can
get into a fighting pit. Entrance fees are
often $50 or more, and you need to be
known in the gang and criminal community
as one of their own before you can be trusted. Pits are equipped with police radios and
heavily armed doormen, and often the scene
has been cleared by the time law enforcement officers arrive. When raids are
successful, the dogs involved are often
deemed “unadoptable” and are euthanized.
And if you don’t think it’s happening in
your neck of the woods, think again. This
June, a couple from Hamilton County,
Tennessee pled guilty to dog and cock fighting charges after attempting to sell a
fighting dog to undercover officers. (They
tried to “close the sale” by turning the dog
on another dog so that the potential “buyers” could see that he was “game” for
fighting.) According to Guy Bilyev, the
executive director of the Humane
Educational Society, “officers found a treadmill, spring poles, break sticks, dog fighting
publications and other devices used for
training dogs” for fighting in the couple’s
home. A grand jury indicted John David
Putnam and Israela Katz, who received a
one-year suspended sentence with good
behavior. The couple is no longer allowed to
keep animals. Unfortunately, according to
officers, the 22 dogs taken from the property were scared, badly injured and “unfit for
Now, another dog cruelty case hangs in the
balance: animal advocates recently uncovered what is likely a fight-dog breeding and
training facility in Lexington, Tennessee.
Armed with photographs of decapitated and
mutilated dogs lying about the property, as
well as photos of abused and neglected dogs
tied to trees with no food or water, they
pushed the Henderson County Sheriff’s
Department to investigate. An arrest was
made and the breeder was charged with a
Class E felony for aggravated cruelty to animals. The $10,000 bond, however, was
quickly reduced to $5,000—mere pocket
change for a fight trainer—and the case has
continually been pushed back in court due
to pending psychiatric evaluations. The next
court date is set for August 18th.
Fortunately, five dogs were rescued from
the property by the Henderson County
Humane Society. The society’s treasurer,
Debbie Foster, says the dogs are now safe
and have been placed into loving homes.
“We rescued two males, 2 female pups and
a pregnant female, which gave birth to
twelve puppies soon after we rescued her.
They are all happy and doing well now.” As
for the court case, Foster suggests that the
public make their voices heard to Jerry
Woodal, the county’s District Attorney
General. If you’d like to urge the courts to
punish the crimes of this case to the fullest
extent of the law, please contact Atty.
Woodal at (731) 423-5800 or write a letter
to: Jerry Woodal, District Attorney GeneralCriminal Division, 225 Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr, Jackson, TN 38301.