Along with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October is also Pit Bull Awareness Month, and given dog rescue – and pit bull rescue in particular – is a cause very close to my heart, I wanted to share a post about my girls to bring a little attention to it, even if only in this very small way.
As with any issue, I think educating oneself before formulating any kind of opinion or stance is vitally important, so I'm hoping my girls' story helps shed a little light on the controversial nature of the pit bull breed(s) (I put the "s" there because the pit bull label actually encompasses several different breeds).
Here are just a few of the things my husband and I heard when we told people what kind of dog we were planning to adopt:
"Is that safe?"
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
"You know, pit bulls are more likely to turn on their owners than any other breed."
"I have a friend (family member, neighbor, etc.) whose dog was attacked by a pit bull."
(We got several variations of this one, with the teller recounting every horror story they'd ever heard.)
"Aren't they supposed to be mean?"
And so on.
It was heartbreaking to get reactions like those both from friends and family as well as strangers, especially since we hadn't even brought Gracie home yet. It was an eye-opening time for us, and made us both all the more determined to be advocates for the breed(s).
Since bringing Gracie home however, we've encountered no outright hostility, mostly due to the fact that she's an exemplary breed ambassador. It's hard to accuse pit bulls of being vicious killers when a smiling, wiggling mass of dog with a face that's an absurdly lovable combination of Yoda, a gremlin, and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon is waddling toward you. (Though we did have one woman tell us after meeting Gracie that she didn't realize pit bulls could be "tame". Um. What? We didn't adopt a lion cub.)
Her ears. I die.
What we hear most often now is perhaps the most innocent-sounding of all the comments about pit bulls we've had directed our way, but also the most damaging for the breed(s):
"You know, it's all in how they're raised."
At first glance this seems like a nice sentiment, a compliment directed at me and my husband that suggests Gracie's sweet nature can be attributed to us. Under the surface however, what this comment actually implies is that a pit bull is nothing more than a reflection of its upbringing – a bad dog when raised by bad people and a good one when raised by good people – when I would argue the opposite is really true. Pit bulls are loving and loyal companion dogs often despite their upbringing. It's this reasoning that sees adult pit bulls at the top of the euthanasia list at the shelter, or languishing in rescues for years as they continually get passed over in favor of puppies.
We adopted Gracie at 2 years old and take absolutely NO credit for the amazing dog she is. She came to us chock-full of personality (seriously, she's ridiculous) and sweetness (except when she's being a stubborn a-hole), and we've done nothing but fall madly in love with her.
I'm not so blindly passionate about my girls though that I can't understand why people might be afraid of them. Gracie in particular is built like a brick shithouse, with a head and chest that comprise at least 70% of her body weight, and it's one of the first things people comment on when they meet her. We hear "that's a thick dog" or "she's got a chest on her" all the time, forcing me to tell Gracie to flaunt what God gave her so she doesn't take it personally ;-)
Physically, both Gracie and Mya are intimidating, so when people see them and ask us what kind of dogs they are, I can't really hold it against them when they take a step back or yank their hand away when they hear "pit bull". I get it. I do. But what I want people to understand most is pit bulls are not an inherently dangerous breed. They're not what any of the myths surrounding them say they are. They don't have a special kill/fight gene bred into them. They don't have magical jaws that lock and never let go. They're just dogs. Strong, muscular dogs capable of inflicting damage who are used in cruel ways for just that reason, yes, but they are not the first breed of dog, nor will they be the last, to be used as such.
Mya is a perfect example what I hope people will start to see when they look at a pit bull. Many of you already know a little of Mya's story from what I've shared with you previously, but knowing more of the details I hope will go a long way toward revealing the true nature of the breed(s).
Mya was purchased by a dog fighter as a puppy, and while we can only imagine the horrors she endured the first year of her life under his "care", we do know the specifics of her last day with him and what led to her rescue. When she proved to be an inadequate fighting dog, Mya was used for breeding. She ended up miscarrying her litter of puppies, and for her misfortune was kicked repeatedly in the belly hard enough that her uterus eventually came out and she was left in the yard to bleed to death. A neighbor saw the beating take place and thankfully stepped in, paying the owner a fee for him to hand Mya over and then rushing her to the vet. After her surgery she found her way into a rescue and loving foster home, and that's where we found her a little over a year later.
As a result of everything she went through, Mya is understandably wary of new people. This wariness presents as growling and sometimes escalates to alarm barking when it looks to her as though someone she doesn't know is going to come into her space. Her primary triggers are extended eye contact, objects in people's hands (even treats), and hands reaching toward her face, all of which result in her hunching down to make herself a smaller target and growling.
I'm not sharing Mya's story to shock or horrify (though it is both shocking and horrifying), but to educate. While Mya does have some trouble in larger social situations, she's also a beautiful example of how resilient a pit bull can be. Despite the nightmare that was the first year of her life, she came out the other side happy and wiggly, and wants nothing more than to be near her people. While "trained" to fight, she absolutely adores other dogs, and shows not even the slightest hint of aggression no matter how other dogs behave toward her.
Because those who meet her don't know her history, however, the growling to them says "aggressive" rather than "fearful", and as a result, Mya has the very real ability to confirm the pit bull stereotype for some people. (We are currently working with a behaviorist to help us be what Mya needs us to be to thrive, and she has made a staggering amount of progress in the 5 months we've had her. We have ways to go yet, but we'll get there:))
I wish every single person who hears her growl could know her story. Know that her wariness has absolutely nothing to do with her breed, and everything to do with being abused. People hurt her. People failed her. Yet she is the one who bears the burden of that failure because she sometimes plays into the stigma of a pit bull. Mya's story circles back to the "it's all in how they're raised" comment. She was raised to be vicious. Raised to fight, to attack, to use that mythical jaw to inflict as much damage as possible for sport. But despite all that, my husband and I have a dog who loves to snuggle and give kisses. Who is unbearably gentle in disposition and wants so badly to please us that her body never stops wiggling in our presence. Both she and Gracie are more than their separate upbringings, and my hope for the future is to see an end to breed specific legislation and the idea that the breed(s) as a whole is violent.
I know there are many who would read this post and rant and rave at me about things they've seen, heard or experienced regarding pit bulls, citing dog bite statistics and sensationalized articles about attacks, and I honestly can't refute their claims having not witnessed them personally. The only thing I can say is what I know of pit bulls being involved in rescue and having two of my own, and that is despite the circumstances of how they were raised – Gracie, a neglected stray with 15 minutes to spare before she was put down at the shelter, and Mya, a survivor of nightmare-inducing abuse – they are sweet-natured and loving to the core.
For those of you who might be interested in learning more about pit bulls, there's an outstanding documentary currently on Netflix called The Champions. It's the story of the dogs rescued from NFL star Michael Vick's dog fighting operation, a landmark case marking the first time dogs involved in a fighting ring weren't automatically euthanized. They were given the opportunity to be rehabilitated instead, and it follows 5 or 6 of them that were eventually adopted out into loving homes. It's a very honest documentary and one that's pro-pit bull for sure, but it also doesn't show this case as all rainbows and unicorns where every dog has a happy ending either. There are a number of dogs that were simply too brutalized to be able to fully recover emotionally and mentally, and those dogs will live the rest of their lives in the safety of a sanctuary. It's light on details in terms of the actual abuse while a part of Vick's operation, so all you fellow animal lovers don't have to worry on that front!
This was a very long, very personal post as my dogs are my kids, and I hope it might inspire you to do some research into the breed(s) or into dog rescue in general!
Before I go, a few more pictures of my girls in all their pit bull glory:)
"Helping" Dad lay sod in the backyard.
Gracie doesn't like to snuggle with us all that much,
but with Mya she has no concept of personal space.