Changing the Pit Bull Bias, One Stranger at a Time

Lea Jarataz

Kayden Pit Bull

My heart did a little pitter patter when I got the dog DNA test results saying that my 7-year-old shelter dog was mainly American Staffordshire Terrier. The fact that Kayden was likely a Pit Bull was no surprise to me. We’ve treated him as an unofficial Pit Bull since day one, opting not to buy a home in any of the local municipalities that have Pit Bull breed bans. We’ve avoided local dog parks where they’re restricted. In fact, if we walk 3 blocks north from our home into the next city, he could be impounded and I could be charged with a misdemeanor, just because of the way he looks. Now, having official results saying that he is a Pit Bull mix, the laws not only become more clarified for our family, but we’ve become official advocates for the Pit Bull-type dog.

Breed biases aren’t just at the governmental level. When I told a fellow hardcore dog-loving friend that Kayden was American Staffordshire mixed with Cattle Dog and a touch of Golden Retriever, she said it was the “little bit of Golden” that offset the Pit Bull temperament, making him so personable. In fact, most Pit Bull owners would probably agree that it’s actually the Pit Bull temperament that’s made him so stoic and sweet. It wasn’t until I heard a lifelong animal lover and dog owner needing to rationalize why my Pit bull is such a sweetheart that I realized the extent of the misinformation and fear surrounding the dog.

When I told my mom (who Skypes with Kayden weekly) that Kay’s test said he was an American Sstaffordshire, she said “I thought he was a Pit Bull.” Many breed advocates argue that this identification issue is at the crux of the breed’s bad rap. Few people realize that “Pit Bull” is a classification of several breeds, just as “Retrievers” is a classification of a large group of popular dog breeds. When the media talks about a dog bite they talk about the “Pit Bull.” When pet parents are talking about their sweet, loyal, and intelligent American Staffordshire Terrier, their American Pit Bull Terrier, or their Staffordshire Bull Terrier, it sounds more distinguished, more well bred, more trained. It doesn’t sound related to the chained fighting dog making headlines. But, in reality, they’re all cousins, and can be fighting dogs, family dogs, and in some cases both retired fighters and well-adjusted pets.

The way I talk about my Pit Bull is the first and perhaps most important part of breaking down breed biases: When people ask what kind of dog Kayden is, I say that he is a Pit Bull mix. I don’t dress it up calling him an American Staffordshire, or make it sound cute by calling him a “pibble”. By associating a well-behaved dog with the vilified words “Pit Bull” I am helping to reconstruct the breed’s image.

The monstrous myth that Pit Bulls have locking jaws seems to be fading away like the urban legend that it is. But people still commonly believe that Pit Bulls will become aggressive suddenly and without warning, turning on their families. (Statistically, Pit Bulls are no more likely to “turn” than any other breed.) Sadly, I think it’s hard to prove to people that this is simply not the case, as they’ll quietly assume it’s just a matter of time. It doesn’t seem to matter to some when I say that Kayden has his Canine Good Citizen certification. In fact, many nursing homes and hospitals continue to prohibit certified therapy pit bulls from visiting, and service pit bulls are often the center of housing controversy in places where breed-specific legislation exist.

Pit Bull Bias

While I cannot convince some people that he’ll never turn on us, I never miss a chance to tell people that he is amazing with our kids and how lucky we are to have him. I tell stories about how he sneaks into my daughter’s room to sleep on her pink rug when there are thunderstorms. I show pictures of him enjoying tea parties with our family. I take him on walks and car rides where he is demonstrating the breed’s calm and loyal personality under public scrutiny.

As a Pit Bull pet parent, one of my most important jobs is to set my dog up for success. I am respectful of my dog’s size, strength, and personality. He is a very strong, lean, 70-pound dog that is “dog tolerant” but not exactly enthused about other dogs, so we carefully select who he plays with and supervise playtimes closely. I do not allow him to play with my children unsupervised and do not push him even close to his comfort threshold around strangers or new situations. We obey breed-specific laws. I don’t expect more of him than I have of any of my other dogs. But, I am aware that others are waiting for him to screw up, and I’m determined not to let that happen.

Kayden isn’t a famous retired fighting dog gracing the covers of magazines or being featured in documentaries. He’s not a therapy dog meeting hundreds of people each day. He’s just a regular dog, who doesn’t know about how many people think he is mean or dangerous. But, I blush when a new veterinarian meets with him and then looks me in the eye and tells me what a great dog he is. I love how our neighbors talk kindly to him over the fence, even though they’re “little dog people.” I overlook it when a party guest sneaks him a little pizza because he’s a “good boy.” I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce my friendly Pit Bull to as many people as I can, in hopes that some might see his breed in a kinder light.

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