I love dogs.
I love pit bulls.
I’ve owned several pit bulls over a period of more than 20 years, one of whom was a certified therapy dog, visiting nursing homes, veterans, and so-called “at-risk youth” in her prime, and all of whom were/are great dogs. Not only have I owned pit bulls, but have further been involved with pit bull rescue and “rehabbing” abused pit bulls in an effort to rehome them.
I think that these bona fides make me more than qualified to comment on pit bulls, their nature, and the challenges of owning a pit bull.
Contrary to what many pit bull owners and pit bull advocates state, pit bulls are NOT just like any other dog, and not just anyone should own a pit bull.
I’ll relate the reasons I believe this via my experiences with these dogs.
College was my first experience not living with a dog; fortunately, college dormitories don’t permit one to have pets. The first year of college, I was without a companion animal. After one year in the dorm, I moved out… out to an apartment that allowed pets.
That summer, I was getting a dog.
A friend of mine at school who lived off campus had two pit bulls, and I’d always been impressed with his dogs… not just with their muscular, athletic appearance, but with the seemingly happy go-lucky, always up for anything attitude that his dogs–both of them–perpetually displayed. His dogs largely influenced me to get another dog, and were probably what piqued my interest in pit bulls.
As fate would have it, I decided I was getting a dog and almost in sync with that decision, a news story on the TV announced the breakup of a large dogfighting ring in my state’s capital some two and a half hours away. Furthermore, the story mentioned having dogs up for adoption.
My decision was made. I was getting one of these dogs that had been fought with the intention of rehabbing it, inviting it into my home, and living with it. I skipped classes, caught a ride with my pit bull owning buddy, and headed south.
Upon arrival at the shelter, I was disappointed to learn that all the adult dogs that had been fought were going to be destroyed… along with my grandiose plan. However, I was excited to learn that they did have several puppies up for adoption.
The puppies were small… too young to be away from their mother, perhaps five weeks old. I mentioned this at the shelter, to which the attendant responded by rolling her eyes and saying it didn’t matter, these puppies would likely be put down as well. That did it for me. I was taking one of these puppies.
The kennel had six or seven tiny puppies inside, most of them white with black or brown spots here and there, however, one puppy–one tiny little puppy–seemed determined to be out of that kennel, climbing on the door, yipping, licking, etc. She was bold… smaller than the other puppies, but also not one to let them push her away from the front. She was small, but she was tough; she was a survivor.
She was also very cute… copper penny brindle in color with a white chest, white stripe on her muzzle, and a white tip of the tail, I was in love. I had found my new puppy… a brindle pit bull that was quickly named Madeline.
Madeline was hands down my favorite dog of all time. Everyone loved her. Though she couldn’t make a dog lover from a non-dog person, she was more than capable of making a Madeline lover of a non-dog person. Many many times in her life, people came up to me and stated some version of: ‘I don’t really like dogs, but I really like THIS dog.’
Upon bringing Madeline home to my dad’s house in the summer, my father was horrified. Though he was a dog lover as well, he wasn’t prepared to share his home with a pit bull. He stated that ours was the wrong neighborhood, filled with kids, lots of pedestrians, and lots of tourist traffic. Not knowing what to do, but not knowing how to handle it, and knowing that I wasn’t getting rid of Madeline, I stated that I would “figure something out.”
Within a week, Madeline had figured it out for me. On a Saturday morning, my dad approached me and made the case for why Madeline should stay with him while I was away at school. “It just makes sense.” he would say, pointing out the nice neighborhood in which we lived and that he was retired, and would be there to take care of her full time.
I wasn’t buying it. She was my dog and she was coming with me.
Madeline was an exceptional pit bull ambassador, making friends wherever she went, and changing people’s minds about pit bulls any time people petting her asked “What kind of dog is this?” “Really, a pit bull?!?” was typical of the responses I received, which was usually followed by something like, “But she seems so friendly,” or “She’s not mean at all,” or “Aren’t you afraid she’ll turn on you?” In any case, people truly didn’t know how to perceive this friendly, sweet dog that just happened to be a pit bull.
While Madeline was an exceptional ambassador, I was determined to be a responsible pit bull owner. I was determined that she be well socialized with people and other animals… people in particular. When she was young, I started taking her to the dogpark near my house. She did great. She was playful, happy to be there, loved people, seemed to love dogs, etc. We were regular fixtures at the dog park.
As Madeline got older things began to change. When we arrived at the dog park, it wasn’t like a game anymore… for Madeline this was serious business. It started small… enough were I could dismiss it at first.
In any group of dogs, some dog is going to be alpha. Madeline independently decided that she was going to be that dog. Early manifestations included her targeting the alpha dog at the dog park for harassment. She would charge them and knock them over by slamming into them with her stout chest. Any sign of resistance by the alpha was treated as hostile by Madeline, and by the time I’d broken up my third dogfight–started by my dog–at the dogpark, we were done.
Madeline wasn’t suited for the dogpark. After a while, she became unreliable around any dogs that displayed dominant tendencies. Several people in my apartment complex learned the hard way that Madeline didn’t tolerate any dominant behaviors from other dogs.
I learned to quickly recognize what constituted dominant behavior in canines, and would quickly remove Madeline from situations that would escalate.
Despite these challenges, Madeline was a great dog… just not good with other dogs.
Being ignorant of this, and I suppose in a bit of denial–despite having read extensively about these dogs–I decided to get another pit bull.
I adopted Otto from an organization that performed all-breed rescue. He was similar in collar to Madeline: copper penny brindle in color, a white chest, but having a dark face. Like Madison, Otto had white socks, one of which extended pretty far up his front leg, which I thought made him look like he had his sleeve rolled up.
Otto was also a good dog. Because I wasn’t taking Madeline to the dog parks any more, Otto didn’t get that kind of socialization, but was a good dog nonetheless.
After he was housetrained and could be relied upon to not destroy anything in the house (I could do a multipart series on the things my pit bulls have destroyed), I started leaving Otto out of his crate along with Madeline.
This is when I started to have problems. Though I’m sure there are things more disconcerting than this, I can’t tell you how upsetting it is to come home to a house that’s trashed with two injured dogs, which were often ironically, licking the wounds they created on the other dog. Though it was clear Otto and Madeline were part of the same pack, it was also clear they couldn’t get past their breeding and would periodically get into fights… sometimes in the house, sometimes when we were all just walking down the street.
They used to fight over anything—nothing really–palm fronds of all things were sure to create a fight… not that they did anything with them, but it got to the point where if I was a palm frond on the ground, I crossed the street. They would of course fight over anything, or nothing for that matter, but it could be the most mundane thing. The palm fronds were among the things I could never figure out.
For a while I tried to manage this, but it became clear that I couldn’t keep these dogs together by themselves. I eventually started to crate the dogs when I wasn’t home. While this worked, I felt bad that the dogs were reliable in terms of not messing the house and not destroying my things, but were completely unreliable with respect to not hurting one another to the point of requiring a vet visit somewhat regularly.
I was relating this to my father who had initially fallen in love with Madeline, but had also become fond of Otto; he proposed coming out and picking up Otto and keeping him. Though I wasn’t excited about the idea of giving Otto up (my father lived on the other side of the country), it seemed like the best solution: the dogs could be out of their crate, etc. and wouldn’t be in danger of hurting each other, and I would still be able to see Otto when I went home, etc.
Otto was good for my dad; he gave him a sense of purpose after his retirement. He got him out of the house and kept him active physically, but also kept him somewhat social; people would stop and ask about or pet Otto on his daily walks. He was very proud of that dog.
One of the things Otto was great at was catching Frisbees. My father had taught him to do this, and he excelled at catching Frisbees; he could snag a Frisbee from six or eight feet in the air routinely.
Picture this: A park in small town America on Saturday afternoon in July, kids playing, families picnicking, people riding their bikes, balloons, kids skipping rocks in the ponds at the park etc. This particular park has three ponds, and the park itself has a resident population of ducks and geese that fly from pond to pond throughout the day. My father was walking Otto near one of these ponds, when a flock of geese suddenly took to flight right over my father’s head on their way to one of the other ponds.
I guess that Otto didn’t see much difference between a goose and a Frisbee, jumped up, snagged a goose from air as it flew overhead, and promptly shook it to death in about a half a second.
I doubt that someone with an automatic weapon would have created a bigger disturbance: Kids ran away screaming, parents packed up their picnic stuff and collected their kids, police officers contemplated what should be done, while my dad is standing there, leashed pit bull in hand, with a bloodied dead goose at his feet.
My dad frantically walked the dog home… blood covering his snout, chest, and paws in a panic. My dad was a retired city official, and this was likely to be big news in our small town. To make a long story short, my father agreed to get rid of Otto, and now that Madeline was older, I agreed to take him back.
For the most part, they were good. Madeline was a crotchety old girl at this point, but wasn’t overly dog aggressive. Most of the fighting stopped between them. I was grateful for that.
Madeline, though a great dog, wasn’t one to tolerate other dogs very well at any point in her life. For her entire life, I could count on her to react badly to dominant dogs. The most substantive incident occurred when I was walking her in my girlfriend’s apartment complex. A Great Dane randomly pulled a dominant move on her, placing his head over her shoulders, and she launched and grabbed a hold of the dogs entire lower jaw and just started pulling. At this point, the Great Dane started to freak out, yelping, jumping scratching and pulling away from his owner; the dog outweighed the owner by a solid 35 lbs and broke free of the owner’s grip.
The Dane is running across the apartment complex yelping and trying to shake Madeline off of him. I still had Otto on the other leash, from which he was desperately trying to break free. I held on to Otto’s leash with everything I had (I’m 6’0″, 215, completely lean, work out all the time), which was a struggle. The struggle ended when Otto turned to face me and somehow, slipped his collar over his massive oversized head, and he was gone chasing after the Dane.
After what seemed an eternity, but was probably only about 10 seconds, I caught up to the tangle of dogs. Madeline still had this dogs lower jaw clenched between hers, and Otto had the dogs front leg in his mouth, the Dane yelping–no, screaming–in agony.
I could not get my dogs to let go of this Great Dane. The owner was simultaneously yelling at me and hitting Madeline with a big stick. Voice commands were ignored; grabbing my dogs back legs just lifted them off the ground. I finally got Madeline off by literally prying her jaws open with my hands, causing the Dane to bite me in the process. I restrained Madeline with a leash and tried to approach the fight, but with Madeline off his jaw, the Dane was attempting to fight back at Otto.
Otto eventually let go, and I was able to restrain him, but I’d been bitten by the Dane and scratched up pretty badly by all three dogs. Fortunately for her, the Dane’s owner was physically unscathed, but was in tears. Her dog was a mess, blood running from his lower jaw/mouth, and a badly injured front leg.
Legally, I did nothing wrong. My dogs had been properly leashed and I made a good faith effort to restrain them; things just got out of hand. My dogs were well-trained; they’ll respond to a “Come” command on chase. This wasn’t an issue of training; this is who they are as dogs. The most serious repercussion for me was that my girlfriend was unable to retain that apartment.
Madeline lived the rest of her life without incident, and Otto is still with me. Somewhere along the way, I acquired Jake… a feisty red-nosed pit bull that is all pit bull.
He’s a good boy… I just don’t trust him; I can’t trust him.
I live in the woods. A couple of years ago, I had no neighbors and nothing around me. When I first got Jake, I felt okay about letting him run around my property at night unrestrained. He always sticks close to the property and comes when called. When he got to be a bit older… maybe about a year and a half or so, he started killing wildlife. I would come out of my house and routinely find dead possums mostly, but occasionally a dead raccoon or turkey. I stopped letting him run at night for this reason, since then the area around our property has been developed.
I can’t let him run anymore.
Jake has always had a high prey drive… also around the time he turned one and a half, he killed our family cat. I will fully acknowledge this was my fault. I had closed off the portion of our house where the dog door is… the cat’s escape because Jake had chewed a hole in my fence, gotten out and frightened my neighbors. I saw the cat heading to get out, but I was leaving, had my hands full, and figured he’d be fine. When I arrived home about 15 minutes later, my cat was dead–mangled–at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the dog door.
I was devastated, but it wasn’t Jake’s fault… I knew he had a high prey drive, and I knew the cat was trying to get out, but couldn’t. It was a simple mistake, but it cost my cat her life and was traumatic for my kids. My girls had owned that cat for about 7 years. Jake had only been around for a little more than a year.
We have another cat now… it just showed up as a kitten. The only reason Jake hasn’t killed this cat is because the cat isn’t scared of him and doesn’t act like prey.
Though my house is in the woods still, I have neighbors now. I can’t let Jake out without a leash. I walk in woods near my house that are completely undeveloped for a couple of years, we didn’t see anyone up there, but I do occasionally run into people up there… people and their dogs. Because of this, I can’t walk Jake up there off the leash with any confidence. I keep him on the leash in remote woods on the off chance that I might run into someone and their dog.
Perhaps the only time I’ve been upset at my children recently was when they accidentally let the dog get by them and go out the door unrestrained. Ironically, the thought of Jake running around unrestrained and unleased frightens and horrifies me… this is the same dog that is GREAT with my children… tolerant, obedient, submissive to people, and an all-around sweetheart. I trust him as much as any dog around my kids, but don’t trust with other animals or out of my sight for a nanosecond.
I’m not one to advocate breed specific legislation, aka pit bull bans, but at the same time, I have to be realistic and honest about pit bull, what they are, and what they’re capable of.
Most people should not own a pit bull.
- If you’re a person who desires to own more than a single dog, a pit bull isn’t a good choice.
- If you’re a person who wants to own cats and dogs, a pit bull is not a good choice.
- If you’re a person who enjoys bringing their dog to the dog park, a pit bull is not a good choice.
- If you’re a person who likes to let your dog run off the leash, please don’t get a pit bull, an unrestrained pit bull is a disaster waiting to happen.
In short, pit bulls are not typical dogs. They can be extremely dangerous… even a good one. All of my pit bulls have been good dogs… completely trustworthy with people, obedient, loyal, and easy to train, however, they all have been involved with some sort of mayhem… fighting among themselves, fighting other dogs, killing other animals, scaring the neighbors, etc.
One could easily brush these incidents off as being my fault. I won’t argue with you, and I don’t think there’s any point in arguing about it. The fact of the matter is that people are going to mistakes. If you have a dog for 12 or 15 years, you’ll make a mistake too. The question is not will you make a mistake, the relevant question is this: What are the consequences of that mistake?
The consequences of a poodle, Labrador, or basset hound accidentally getting out of the door and running around the neighborhood are laughable when compared to a pit bull getting loose and running around the neighborhood. This fact is confirmed by dog bite statistics; whether we like it or not, pit bull owners must acknowledge that pit bulls are responsible for the majority of fatal maulings in the United States. Pit bulls consistently top the list for attacks, with Rottweilers ranking a distant second.
Pit bulls are not just like any other dogs. For that reason–as much as I love my pit bulls–Jake will be my last pit bull. I enjoy letting my dog run off the leash in the woods. If I venture to let Jake off the leash in the woods, I can’t even enjoy my hike. I’m constantly concerned about where he is. I’m concerned about running into people. I spend my hike calculating the probability of running into people at different points on the trail.
I don’t want to launch into a hysterical search for the dog if my young children happen to let Jake out by mistake and he runs off. My kids shouldn’t bear the burden of that responsibility either. If Jake gets out and heads 150 yards through the woods to my neighbors, there’s a good chance he’ll kill her small lap dog.
Sadly, after more than 20 years of owning and loving my pit bulls. I’m done. I want a dog that I can enjoy all the time, a dog that can interact with other animals, and a dog for whom mistakes don’t carry potentially lethal consequences.