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.
Dickey, a contributing editor at the Oxford American, didn't know much about pit bulls, other than the fact that some consider them dangerous, until she and her husband adopted one. She became more interested as she looked into the curious history of this unfairly maligned animal. Dickey digs deep, investigating dog fighting and breeding, and interviewing more than 350 people, including dog trainers, animal control officers, and animal behaviorists. Her research illuminates many of the facts and exposes many of the myths surrounding pit bulls and dogs in general. As she quickly learns, a pit bull is more of a body type than a breed; many species fall under the general classification. Further, many of these same animals were considered to be terrific, loving, loyal pets until the early 1970s, when dog fighting burst into the collective consciousness along with high urban crime rates. That resulted in an entirely different perspective on bigger breeds such as rottweilers, German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, and especially pit bulls. Though media-fed panics regarding certain breeds are nothing new, the bad PR surrounding pit bulls has stuck, due to unrealistic expectations of dogs, often unreliable stats, and an always-on media in search of salacious stories. Dickey's immersive and illuminating work deserves a wide audience.
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Dickey has revealed the prejudice against these dogs as if she had turned over a rotten log, underneath we find racism, hysteria, fear, ignorance, and hatred. I was left genuinely disturbed that modern society could still harbor beliefs so toxic and destructive.