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I’m going to show you pictures of my dog. Yes, this is potentially about as exciting as when someone corners you with the pictures in their wallet of relatives you don’t even know. I would apologize, but I don’t actually feel bad at all. Because my dog is a pit bull and I want you to see her.
Technically and more accurately, my dog is a mixed breed. She’s part American bulldog and part pit bull, which is actually a catch-all term rather than a breed-specific one. (The American Pit Bull Terrier is the specific breed that people think of but the label is applied much more widely.)
This chucks her into the category of dog known fondly as pitties. It also means that if breed-specific legislation, also known as BSL, banning pitties was ever passed in Florida, me and my dog would be in some trouble.
Maybe you’ve never much thought about pit bulls. Maybe you only know what you’ve read in hysterical news reports. Yeah, I said hysterical news reports -- not because I want to downplay how truly awful a dog attack can be but because, uh, if you didn’t know, media will often attribute those attacks to pits when the dog in question is not a pit type of dog. It's amazing how many, for example, German Shepards wind up labeled as pits if something bad happens.
I don’t chalk that up to maliciousness, though the outcome of that sort of reporting has led to thousands of dogs being euthanized. As with so many things, I think education and broadening people’s experiences is the necessary answer.
But in the meantime, many shelters do not even place pit type dogs up for adoption -- they are automatically euthanized. Statistics vary, but fully one half to upwards of two thirds of dogs euthanized in the American shelter systems are pit bulls. That's around a million dogs a year.
Freya, that's my dog's name, was something of a rescue. Our neighbors had the time had a wonderful dog named Dinah; Dinah and a dog named Skeeter had puppies. These were big dogs -- Dinah was about 90 pounds, and Skeeter weighed in at 120.
Our neighbors were not backyard breeders -- though many pit bulls are sourced that way. Dinah lost a huge amount of weight nursing and so her owner started giving the puppies away when they were 6 weeks old. That's pretty ridiculously early, actually.
But Freya was the runt (she's topped out at 55 pounds now), and she was crawling with fleas (you can't treat a nursing mother and Florida is lousy with fleas), and she needed a home. So we took her home with us.
Owning a pittie has become a political statement. This is, in largest part, because they have been bred as fighting dogs for almost 200 years. As fighting dogs, pitties were bred to be dog aggressive and human social -- to go after other dogs but never turn on their human handlers. This had the perhaps unexpected side effect of making pit bulls exceptional family dogs. Most pits just want to please their people.
Unfortunately, because jackholes and douchecanoes all over the country think pit ownership will beef up their macho image, many pitties don’t get that chance. Instead, they get reinforcement for their aggressive traits. They often get mistreated. And when they wind up in the shelter system, well, we've already covered that.
None of this should be taken as me saying pit bulls aren't without their challenges. Pitties, like all other dog breeds, have temperaments that are determined by nurture as well as genetics. There are specific traits that pits share, even across breed lines.
They tend to be quite smart -- but that also translates into quite headstrong. Pits are stubborn, and because they are strong, that can overwhelm an inexperienced or timid owner.
It also takes a certain kind of person, I think, to deal with the judgment of strangers. When we first got Freya, we ran into the grocery store with her -- she weighed barely five pounds, and we had her bundled in a towel. She spent a lot of time sleeping. A woman approached us. "Is that one of those dogs that grows up to bite little girls?"
There's no adequate response to that, especially when you really want to be able to return to that grocery store. And it's hardly the rudest thing that's been said to us.
Freya is two years old and has never demonstrated dog aggression. But we never take her to the dog park because any incident would be considered her fault; we'd rather set her up for successful dog interactions by controlling the environment a little better.
She lives in close quarters with four cats who boss her around on a regular basis. She's terrified of our resident elder cat -- my first pet as an independent adult, 13 years old and grouchy, a black cat named Hephaestus. He weighs 10 pounds and Freya won't cross his path.
We started puppy classes early and kept going with them. Freya passed her Canine Good Citizen exam, so now we're looking at agility classes to keep her occupied and exercised. She goes to a pit-friendly doggie daycare once or twice a week to keep her socialized (and exercised some more -- pits have a LOT of energy).
When I come home from work, Freya meets me at the door and then waits for me to sit down so she can stand on me.
For a while, we really emphasized the American bulldog part of Freya's breed. American bulldogs get classed as pitties as well, but having some sort of official breed name seemed to put a lot of people at ease.
But as time passes, and Freya continues to greet people with her jowly, floppy grin, it seems more and more important for Freya to play the role of a pit bull ambassador.
So many dogs spend their last days in shelters (spay or neuter, y'all, seriously), and so many of them are potentially incredible dogs who have no one to give them a chance. Pit bulls are no less suitable to be pets than any other breed.
So, please, the next time I'm out walking my dog, don't ask me if I'm afraid to own her. I'm only afraid of other people who hate my dog.
For more information on pit bulls, please visit BadRap.org.