Depending on who you talk to, pit bulls are either the sweetest dogs that have ever lived, or they’re dangerous. Some point out that they’re likely to be abused or euthanized, and therefore should be protected. Why do we have so many different narratives about pit bulls — and so many disagreements about who they really are?

Author Bronwen Dickey set out to document the winding path to define the modern-day “pit bull.” After seven years of research and four years of writing, the book Pit Bull is finally here.

PupJournal interviewed Dickey to find out more about who she encountered along her journey — and what she makes of it all.

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A “pit bull” puppy adopted from Oakland Animal Services. Source: Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

PupJournal: I have to know — who is the most endearing dog you met during your research and travels for this book?

Dickey: I would probably have to say an American Bully named Silas that I met in Longmont, CO. He had been seized, I believe, in some part of Iowa that had BSL [breed-specific legislation]. He was kind of squat, and snorty. He had cropped ears, and he was just an adorable, almost pig-like creature.

The head of the behavior team out at Longmont Humane Society told me his background. After he was seized, he was in solitary confinement at a local animal control for six weeks, because he was really stressed out, and he didn’t want to take treats from anyone’s hand. And when someone walked by his kennel, he put his paws up on the chain link, and they decided he was dangerous.

So he did not leave his kennel for six weeks – they hosed it down with him inside. He didn’t get walked or anything. And yet, here was this dog who was just absolutely amazing. I mean, he was so slow, and unthreatening — he was just a couch potato.

And when someone walked by his kennel, he put his paws up on the chain link, and they decided he was dangerous.

It really highlighted for me how resilient dogs are. This animal had been confined in a stressful area for six weeks, and was still just amazing. Yet, because of what he looked like, and because of where he lived, people interpreted anything he did as dangerous.

Related: How One Night Made Us Laugh, Cry, And Love Pit Bulls (Even More)
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A “pit bull,” reading Pit Bull. Source: Bronwen Dickey

At the book release at the Strand, you told some fascinating stories about the people you met and interviewed for the book. What is one of the stories that stands out the most?

There are so many. Diane Jessup stands out as a colorful character. Before I met her, she had this fire-breathing, dragon reputation on the internet, and I assumed that we would have absolutely nothing in common. She’s a breeder; she’s very hardcore and tough; she exudes this very badass vibe; and she likes that image for her dogs. Whereas I, you know, sit around on the couch with my dog, and my dog is from a shelter.

But when I actually went out to Washington State and I met her, I saw how extraordinarily passionate and kindhearted and generous she was, and how much she loved her dogs, and how special they were to her. And it really highlighted for me how exterior perceptions of people are so often highly inaccurate.

Even in online interactions, people can appear one way, and you can make assumptions about them, but you really have to go to where they are and have a face-to-face conversation before you know who somebody really is. And I’m so glad that I did that.

It really highlighted for me how exterior perceptions of people are so often highly inaccurate.

Because she and I – while there’s still plenty we don’t agree on, we were able to have some very interesting, thought-provoking, and important conversations about the relationship between humans and dogs that I was tremendously grateful to have had.

Elle the pit bull

Elle, a pit bull therapy dog. Source: Elle the Pit Bull

Given that more than half of America’s 77 million dogs are not purebred, there are a lot of mixed-breed dogs that are family pets. Many of these mixed-breed dogs are identified as “pit bulls.” Given the popularity of pit bull-type dogs as pets, why do you think the mythology and fear around pit bulls persists?

We’re all so used to the idea that most people have a negative perception of pit bulls – it’s been so ingrained over the past 40 years — that even though things have changed dramatically out on the streets and in people’s homes, we believe that overall more people have negative perceptions than positive.

But when I walk the streets of all of these cities and talk to people, so few of them actually had negative perceptions of the dogs, and so few were wary. They were open to new information. They were sick of the hysteria of the ’80s, and they were mistrustful of that. So I think on the whole, public perception has probably changed more than most of us think.

But, I also think the messages that went along with the media panic of the 1980s were incredibly strong, and they relied on terrifying anecdotes, and lots of wild speculation. Humans are fearful creatures; we are cautious creatures. Things that are terrifying stand out in our minds much more than things that are totally boring and benign.

So I think on the whole, public perception has probably changed more than most of us think.

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Carl the dog snuggles Austin the puppy. Source: Mr. Bones & Co.

There was this great example of this that didn’t make the book: I was with a friend of mine, and I had just started the book. We were driving along, going out for lunch, and he said, “I’m just – I’m afraid of those dogs. Everything about them, the spiked collars, cropped ears, and the big muscly guys they’re always with. I mean, the whole thing is just terrifying to me.”

And we stopped at a red light, and right in front of us, a kind of preppy, suburban-looking guy was walking a pit bull right across the road in front of our car. And I said, “Well, what about that dog right there? Does that scare you?” And he said, “That’s a pit bull?”

It looked like a very purebred either American Pit Bull Terrier or American Staffordshire Terrier, and I said, “Yeah, that’s what they look like.” And he said, “Oh.”

It didn’t even occur to him that a dog that didn’t have all the frightening regalia could be a pit bull.

So I think those images that were out there are really, really strong. And, they just stick in our minds. Fear isn’t rational, but it sure does drive a whole lot of what we do.

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Mazama, a pit bull adopted from a local Humane Society. Source: Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You talk about the ways in which we hold dogs — including pit bulls — to almost impossible moral standards. We expect them to always be “childlike” in their innocence but also stoic when they experience discomfort, pain, or harm. 

That was something that the trainers that I spoke with, and the animal behaviorists I spoke with, drove home for me pretty intensely.

I spoke a lot about this with Jean Donaldson, and she said that 100 years ago, it was just assumed you would not bother a dog when it’s eating. We understood that a dog is an animal, and it’s kind of rude and invasive to stick your hand in a dog’s food bowl. If you got bitten while you were doing that, it was considered your own fault. And the phrase “let sleeping dogs lie” – you know, it’s there for a reason.

But I think as we’ve grown farther and farther away from wilderness in general, from the agricultural life, from any kind of close connection with animals, we’ve almost expected our dogs to become human surrogates – like surrogates for human children or something.

And the phrase “let sleeping dogs lie” – you know, it’s there for a reason.

And so when they remind us that they are in fact animals, and that they can’t speak, and they don’t have hands, and their way of communicating is with their mouth, we feel very insulted, and upset, and fearful.

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Petey, a pit bull puppy. Source: Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

As I traveled around the country, talking to more people and meeting more dogs, it became such a theme of sadness for me when I thought about how capable, and interesting, and resilient, and flexible the domestic dog is as an animal – and yet increasingly they live these lives where they’re not allowed to dig, or chew, or bark, or chase small animals, and if they’re upset or frightened, or irritable, they absolutely can’t bite, even if it’s very minimal. As Jean Donaldson said, they’re never allowed to say “no.”

And yet, in a way that is sometimes very positive, our dogs are more and more a part of our lives, too. You think about all of the places, like restaurants, and stores, and public spaces, that are increasingly dog friendly.

Yet, even though dogs are constantly thrust into strange situations with all kinds of weird stimuli and loud noises, and people running around, our tolerance for them ever having any kind of negative reaction to that is absolutely zero. So, a dog that might get frightened and nip someone gets euthanized.

As Jean Donaldson said, they’re never allowed to say “no.”

It’s probably because our lives are just so far removed from animals at this point. A lot of people, instead of having children, are just getting more pets. And that puts a lot of pressure on animals, to fill that role in our lives.

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A “pit bull-type” dog. Source: Flickr/Mike Sinko (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On the other hand, you also have people who feel so compelled by the ‘victim narrative’ of pit bulls that they would tolerate behavior that probably shouldn’t be tolerated for any dog anywhere. For example, dogs lunging at people, or dogs that were clearly unstable — people would say, “Oh, well he was abused, so we let it slide.” But I kept thinking: is that really helping anybody?

Throughout the book, the theme of human-animal relationships, and the ways in which dogs are an extension of ourselves, is prevalent. How are dogs a proxy for human emotions, or represent our perceptions of ourselves?

When I think about that theme, I think about a study that was done about how the perceptions of a dog’s behavior are directly tied into our perceptions of the human standing next to the dog. Researchers took photos of various breeds of dogs with various types of people and had subjects score the dogs on perceived intelligence, friendliness, and aggressiveness.

The beefy pit bull-type dog was rated significantly higher on aggression when it was posed next to a “rough-looking” man than when it was posed next to a child or an elderly woman.

That has nothing to do with the actual dog’s behavior — that was just based on still images. We think we’re not doing it, or at least we’re not aware of it, but all the trappings of human society and human stereotypes really come into play.

The beefy pit bull-type dog was rated significantly higher on aggression when it was posed next to a “rough-looking” man than when it was posed next to a child or an elderly woman.

Related: Pit Bull Used in Dog Fighting Feels Loved for the First Time
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Mickey the pit bull puppy. Source: Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

You delve deeply into the history of breeding, and the ways in which dog breeding even took on the ‘characteristics of a secular religion’ in its early days. What surprised you the most about the history of dog breeding in the U.S.?

Most of the breeds that we feel have gone back forever and ever were invented only in 1850s and after. So, the way we think about dogs today and the way we think about breeds – pointers “pointing” and retrievers “retrieving” — that’s such a historically recent thing. That was an outgrowth of the Victorian obsession with fashion and social status. It wasn’t necessarily about the dog’s utility or the working purposes they actually served for the rest of the 35,000 years we’ve lived with dogs.

And yet, in 150, 160 years, it’s become the only framework, the only lens through which we see dogs. And there’s something about that that struck me as kind of sad.

I hope it’s clear in the book, and I certainly tell this to everyone I talk to: it’s not that breeds are bad, or that breeders are bad. I really don’t believe that at all. I love how many breeds of dogs there are, and how many cool shapes, and different functions there are.

But I think when breed eclipses everything else about a dog, there’s just something very sad about that, because it doesn’t allow for all of the amazing individual quirks of dogs as unique creatures.

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Fern, a rescue pup and certified therapy dog. Source: Fern the Dog

I was talking to my husband one night and saying, if someone has a yellow lab, or a cocker spaniel, what they love about that yellow lab isn’t necessarily its yellow lab-ness; it’s Sparky that they love. And you could line up 50 other yellow labs and none of them would be Sparky. It’s that amazing relationship we have that’s so wonderful, and I hate that it sometimes gets swept under the rug in favor of this really rigid breed obsession.

Related: This Formerly Abused Pup Is Now A Superhero Therapy Dog

You talk about the ways in which we are all prone to error when trying to identify “pit bulls” by physical appearance alone. Why is that?

If you have a Rottweiler, that dog comes in one color combination and one shape, and it has a general weight range. But pit bulls have always been a very diverse group of dogs. They were more of a working and, yes, fighting, breed before they were a show breed. They include four “pure” breeds, and those breeds range in size from 25-100 lbs; they come in 16 colors; their ears can be natural, or rose ears, or cropped.

The four pedigreed breeds include the American Pit Bull Terrier; the American Staffordshire Terrier; the Staffordshire Bull Terrier from the U.K., which is much, much smaller; and the American Bully, which was started in the 1990s, and was derived specifically from the American Staffordshire Terrier.

Pit bulls are already such a huge category to begin with, even when you’re talking about purebreds, that with all of the hype, people have tended to lump everything that has any kind of wide head and short coat into the category “pit bull,” or even more nebulous, “pit bull mix” – which is like the most meaningless term in the world.

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Adoptable dog Bernie. Source: Twenty Paws Rescue

The latest studies on visual breed identification of mixed breed dogs tell us that the guesses we’re making about the genetic heritage of mixed-breed dogs are wrong over 87% of the time.

We are so attuned to what we can see, that we think a dog’s shape tells us everything about its behavior and its genetic background, but science is increasingly telling us that’s not true.

If we’re basing bite statistics or fatality statistics or any of that on “breed,” the visual breed identification problem calls all of that data into question.

I want to be clear, because some people seem to think I’m saying there is no such thing as a pit bull, or that no one can identify pit bull – and that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that there’s a whole lot of confusion about how the dogs should be defined, and there’s a lot of over-identification of what’s a pit bull and what isn’t.

We are so attuned to what we can see, that we think a dog’s shape tells us everything about its behavior and its genetic background, but science is increasingly telling us that’s not true.

Even the thought that “pit bull” is considered one breed instead of four is really bizarre, and it’s unprecedented. I mean, you don’t see people comparing Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and hounds. Or a Schnauzer, a Doberman, and a “working dog.” You have to be more rigorous when you’re doing statistics, but people don’t even think about it, and assume pit bulls are one breed.

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Bindi and Lola. Source: Meredeth Oliver

What are some steps that animal rescue groups have taken to address the misidentification (or over-identification) of pit bulls?

That brings up an important point – sometimes people who love the dogs over-identify what they are too. I’ve had plenty of people come up to me and say, “Oh, I love my pit bull so much, my pit bull changed my life” – and then show me a photograph. I swear, one of them was a photo of a dog that looked exactly like a Corgi. Instead of the white and tan face, it had a black and tan face. This tiny dog with exceptionally short legs, and I thought, ‘I’m glad you love this dog, but that doesn’t look like any pit bull I’ve ever seen.’

Same thing with dogs that look completely generic, or look like hounds. None of this stuff is accurate visually, but the perception, or the over-identification, goes both ways. And so that calls all of our data into question even more.

In order to address that issue, there have been a number of shelters around the country that have stopped labeling the dogs in their care according to breed unless they know that breed, unless the owner said, ‘my dog is a pedigreed X’ when the dog was surrendered. Because if the science isn’t reliable, then it doesn’t make sense to speculate about something you truly don’t know, especially if it affects the way that dog is going to be perceived, or how many people are interested in that dog.

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Evan, Penelope, and Emmett. Source: Heather Stephenson

It’s much better to report on the behaviors and the stuff that you actually know when the dog’s in your care, and that focuses more on the individual personality than the expectation that it will behave in a certain way because it belongs to a certain “breed.”

For shelters that have stopped using breed labels, and just said “Hi, this is marshmallow, she likes to play with toys, she’s very food-motivated, she has a medium energy level,” that kind of thing — their adoption rates have gone up.

Related: 7 Questions For A Pup Rescued From A Dog Fighting Ring

Has writing this book changed your relationship with your dog?

Yes, so much. When I was first starting to research the book, my attitudes went in waves – there was an evolution. I was so interested in the pit bull breeds that I almost interpreted her behavior more according to breed description than was really there. For instance, I kept imagining her as this super brave animal, because she’s very energetic, and athletic, and very sensitive and smart.

But in fact, when I put that all aside, and really looked at Nola as Nola, I actually saw that there were several situations that made her really fearful. She’s more of a wallflower when she’s in uncertain territory.

So, the more research I did, the more I learned to appreciate her as an individual and appreciate how strong the bond we have is, and not bring the baggage of all that other stuff to it, whether it was good or bad.

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A brindle “pit bull.” Source: Found Animals Foundation (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By the same token, though, it made me appreciate all dogs as individuals on a whole new level. When I went into the project, I considered myself a medium- or large-dog person, and I thought that I just wasn’t into small dogs (even though I also have a pug). I thought I could never have a Chihuahua, because that’s just a purse dog, and they’re yappy , and ankle-biters, and all kinds of stuff.

But over the course of this process, I’ve met so many amazing Chihuahuas that defy that stereotype, that are old souls, and very mellow and fun. I was wrong about this. Same with Rottweilers – even when I was open to thinking differently about pit bulls, of course, I was really intimidated by Rottweilers, because I just thought they were terrifying. And I’ve met so many that just weren’t that way.

It’s really been cool, actually, that I don’t carry those stereotypes around with me anymore.

I can delight in foofy pedigreed dogs, and big bulky working dogs, and they’re all so much more alike than they are different — as are we.

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Electra, an adoptable dog in San Francisco. Source: San Francisco SPCA

Related: 7 Amazing Pit Bull Therapy Dogs You Should Follow Right Now

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Header image via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)