Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review: The Pit Bull Placebo by Karen Delise

Title: The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths, and Politics of Canine Aggression
Author: Karen Delise
Year published: 2007

Like the pharmacologically inactive sugar pill dispensed to placate a patient who supposes it to be medicine, eradication of the Pit Bull is heralded as the cure for severe dog attacks. However, a placebo is administered to appease a person's mental duress. In the present day climate of fear and misinformation about Pit Bulls and dog attacks, eradication of the Pit Bull is the placebo administered solely to appease the public's mental anxiety.

And so it goes. The Pit Bull: locking jaws, biting and holding while grinding, the dog that attacks like a shark. These are all media myths designed to demonize one particular dog breed.

The Pit Bull Placebo traces the media's coverage and the reality of dog bite attacks from the end of the 19th century through to today. Drawing on real cases and quoting from the newspapers' accounts of these cases, Karen Delise makes an incredibly simple case: There have always been dog attacks, some severe, some fatal. But it is the media's focus that has twisted the public's perception of the Pit Bull.

The Bloodhound was the original bad guy. Hyped up through plays based on Uncle Tom's Cabom in which the dogs chase down an escaped slave and her newborn child, these dogs were vilified and people were supposed to be frightened of them. But media reports, which did feature the dog's breed, generally focused more on the cause and effect aspect of the dog attack. They gave their readers a true picture of what caused the attack. It did not begin and end with the words "Vicious Bloodhound."

Then it was the German Shepherd Dog, which had two major saving graces: police work and Rin Tin Tin. While many substandard owners obtained German Shepherd Dogs for guard work and left them chained outside with little human interaction, many people recognized them as great, noble creatures.

The Doberman, which is still sometimes viewed in a negative light, followed on the heels of the German Shepherd Dog. The Doberman acquired its super-predator status through both reality and myth. The image of the Doberman used by Nazis was strong within people's minds. It was hard for them to see the dog as a gentle creature, a canine like any other, and so borne out of the harsh reality of life as a Nazi dog was the myth that Dobermans' heads were too small and their brains would outgrow it, thus leading to headaches that would cause them to snap. The Doberman had no saving grace like the German Shepherd Dog and only fell from this super-predator label when the Pit Bull emerged to take its place.

Through each of these decades, when the Bloodhound, the German Shepherd Dog, and the Doberman, were at the height of their turns as the supposed aggressive dogs, the newspapers continued to report dog bite attacks in a fairly realistic light.

It wasn't until the latter part of the 20th century when the media would begin to twist things to suit their need to always shock their audience. A good example of the media's twisting of the facts lies in their describing a dog that attacked as the "family dog." To most people, this description brings to mind Rover resting at the feet of his master while his master reads by the fireplace or Rover fetching the newspaper on Sunday morning. It brings to mind a well-socialized, friendly, family pet. What it does not bring to mind is a dog chained out back with a heavy logging chain, ignored for the most part, fed occasionally, often starved, beaten, or neglected. The latter cannot, in good conscience, be described as a "family dog." Delise, instead, describes it as a "resident dog." This is a more accurate term. But the media's use of "family dog" aids in leading people to the conclusion that these dogs will eventually turn on their owners.

There is just no basis for this claim. In fact, few, if any Pit Bull has turned on its owner without some sort of provocation.

Perhaps the best demonstration of the media's twisting of events can be seen in one particular case Delise outlines.

The media report can be summed up as: A 6-year-old girl was mauled to death by the family's pit bulls. The dogs were friendly, had been raised with the girl since they were puppies. In essence, they "turned on her."

The reality of the situation? The dogs (one male, one female), which belonged to the woman's recently-deceased boyfriend were intact and young. They had been confined to a basement of a vacant house while the mother and her daughter moved. They were underweight, starving (no food was found in their stomachs), and had ingested rat poison, nails, and rubber bands in an effort to feed themselves.

It sounds a bit different when they're described as they really were. Unsocialized, starving, and sick animals vs. family pet.

Delise makes the case that in order to truly understand dog attacks, one has to look at the people involved and the situation itself. Divvying up attacks by breed tells us nothing. Dogs that attack have often been chained out and neglected, are starving, have been abused, and are often intact.

Instead of looking at the real situation, the media has maligned an entire breed for sensationalism. And this has led to politicians taking up the cause and enacting breed bans.

Denver is often sited when discussions of Breed-Specific Legislation is brought up. They first enacted a ban on pit bull "type" dogs in 1989 and recently reinstated it. Their seven points in regard to why pit bulls needed to be banned were based on media sensationalism, twisted facts, contradictions, and "scientific" articles in such esteemed journals as Sports Illustrated. They brought in pseudoscience and anecdotes and called them facts. Even worse, this ban was enacted due to two incidents that happened three years apart: one fatal, one not.

What has happened to the Pit Bull has been a horrifying witch hunt that, just like the witch hunts of Salem, has no basic in reality. The Pit Bull is and can be a wonderful, real family pet if raised the proper way...just like any other breed of dog. To think that in less than 100 years human beings could create a monster of dog with anatomy unlike any other canine, is not only the height of arrogance, but is also ridiculous.

Unfortunately, this vilification is not likely to change until people start to think with a little bit more logic and the media starts to disseminate facts instead of twisted facts and sensationalized accounts that don't resemble reality.

The Pit Bull Placebo is now available online for free. Please download it and pass the link alone. This is an important book and Pit Bull owners everywhere would like you to see it.


  1. I adopted a Doberman-Pit Bull mix (I call her a Dober-Bull). I can assure you that she is the most "vicious" beast around (and by vicious I mean she is so excited to meet new people and dogs she practically knocks herself over wagging and piddles from excitement before rolling over for a belly rub and whines with excitement when we turn on to the road that leads to the dog park where she loves playing chase, tug, or wrestling with dogs of equally matched energy).

    I grew up with Rotties and Boxers and my rescue pittie mix is the most even temperament dog I have even owned.

    1. That sounds like all the pit bulls I know. I've been attacked multiple times. One knocked me to the ground (I was squatting, so unbalanced to start with) and covered my face with kisses. She got dirty paw prints ALL OVER ME.

      Another one hyperextended my knee! Unbelievable, that monster. He play bowed in front of my dig and turned to run away and ran right into my knee (darned knee-high dogs). Hurt like the devil and the dog start licking my face as I was laying on the ground howling in pain. SO VICIOUS.

      Pit bulls (and Rottweilers as well) are really common in this area. We meet and play with many while out on our walks. I've never had one even growl at us. And we've met a few who have gotten loose so temperaments were totally unknown. They all just wanted to wiggle and play. It makes me angry that they've gotten such bad reps when they're such good dogs.

  2. you are lucky that your survived those vicious attacks. lol

    ok dober-bull is known to head butt people who squat down to say hello. but she follows up with kisses. i think i she needs to be rehabilitated.

    BSL (and ignorance) be damned

    1. I'm very luck to not have been hurt more seriously. Vicious doggies.

      BSL and ignorance be damned indeed. It's a tough thing to fight against. There is SO much of it in the world.