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Friend Or Fiend? 'Pit Bull' Explores The History Of America's Most Feared Dog


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Pit bulls are probably the most feared dogs in the U.S. They're associated with dogfighting, attacking people and serving as guard dogs for drug dealers. Their bite is feared as being more dangerous than the bites of other dogs. Many cities and towns have passed laws making it illegal to own pit bulls. But in the new book "Pit Bull," my guest Bronwen Dickey says that a lot of the popular beliefs about pit bulls as predators are based on myth and misinformation.

Today's profiling of pit bulls contrast with the dogs' image in the first half of the 20th century when pit bulls were often cast in films as trick dogs and comic sidekick rolls. Luke the bull terrier performed tricks and comic stunts in Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Fatty Arbuckle films. A pit bull co-starred in the "Our Gang/Little Rascals" film comedies. A pitbull starred in the Buster Brown comic strips and appeared in the logo for Buster Brown children's shoes.

Bronwen Dickey's book is a history of pit bulls and our changing preconceptions of them. She is the daughter of the late writer James Dickey, who is most famous for his novel "Deliverance," which was adapted into the film of the same name.

Bronwen Dickey, welcome to FRESH AIR. So first of all, let's get it on the table that you say most dogs that we think of as pit bulls probably aren't pit bulls. So why is there so much confusion about what kind of dog is actually a pit bull? What's officially a pit bull? And that's important to know because you have all these stereotypes about pit bulls, and in some cities and towns, pit bulls - you're not even allowed to have a pit bull. It's important to know what is a pit bull?

BRONWEN DICKEY: Right. And that's the biggest misconception is that the term pit bull refers to one distinct breed when really it refers to at least four pedigreed breeds of dogs and then all these other dogs that get lumped into the category. So you have the American pit bull terrier. You have the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and a newer breed called the American bully.

But increasingly because those dogs are kind of generic looking and they share these characteristics with at least 25 other breeds of dogs, such as smooth coats or blocky heads, then anything becomes a pit bull. And so the category just grows and grows and grows. And when people ask, well, why are there so many pit bulls in the news? It's because at this point almost anything is considered a pit bull.

GROSS: So there are a lot of commonly held beliefs about pit bulls. Let me ask you about a couple of them. One is that they're natural fighters and they're hardwired to kill. Is that true?

DICKEY: No, there is absolutely no credible scientific evidence of that. You have specific subpopulations that have been used over time in the illegal pursuit of dogfighting, but they really can't be held up as the standard for all pit bulls in America. That would be - in the book I kind of say it would be like using the Navy SEALs as a standard for all American men. There's no evidence at all that this entire huge group of dogs - that there is anything different about them whatsoever.

GROSS: OK, and people believe that their bite is more lethal because once they bite their jaws kind of, like, lock. So, like, you are in the teeth of that dog and it's a stronger and more longly held bite.

DICKEY: Yeah, that's not true at all. And once again there is no credible scientific evidence to that. All the evidence we have shows that the biggest determinant of a dog's bite strength is actually its body mass and not its breed.

GROSS: So, like, the bigger the dog, the...


GROSS: ...The worse the bite?

DICKEY: The bigger the dog, yes.

GROSS: But you say that dogs learn to calibrate their bite when they're in the litter and when they're trained by their mother.

DICKEY: They do.

GROSS: But of course sometimes they're taken away kind of soon.

DICKEY: Exactly. There's a lot of individual variation. And I think with all of these things it's really important to remember that we think of breeds as being these static categories when in fact they aren't. There's tremendous variation within every single breed. And in fact the studies that have been done have shown there's more variation within breeds than between breeds.

GROSS: But weren't pit bulls initially bred to be fighters?

DICKEY: Yes, that is true. The original bull and terrier dogs in the 19th century - or, you know, you can even trace it back further than that - but the original American pit bull terrier that started in 1889 in Massachusetts, it was originally a fighting dog, yes.

GROSS: So doesn't it - wasn't it kind of bred to have fighting abilities?

DICKEY: Well, fighting abilities are extremely complicated and rare. So the dog fighting investigators that I have spoken with over the years who have studied this, who have studied hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these dogs and some have even gone undercover as dog fighters themselves, they stressed to me that if one dog in a litter - and this is a litter that has been actively selected for these certain traits - if one dog in a litter actually possesses the traits necessary to be a fighter then that's considered a very high success rate. So fighting is not just one static thing. It's a whole suite of very complex behaviors. And each one of those is different. And each dog will or will not display those at a different level.

GROSS: When the American pit bull terrier was bred to be a fighting dog in Massachusetts in the late 1800s, what were dog fights like then compared to what dog fights are like now?

DICKEY: My understanding, at least from the historical literature, is they were tamer. And I use that kind of hesitantly because no matter what you're talking about, this is the torture of animals. But they were shorter. They were not as bloody and brutal. Dogs did not die very often, and in fact it was kind of rare for a dog to die in the pit. And then in the kind of '70s and '80s and '80s and today things got much more brutal. But fortunately...

GROSS: And more amped up - right? - with, like, steroids...


GROSS: ...And amphetamines.

DICKEY: Exactly. With drugs, cattle prods, things just kind of reached a new level of sadism, unfortunately, which isn't to excuse the fighting of the past. It was always pretty harrowing. But it definitely got worse.

GROSS: So it's interesting how, as you put it, the pit bull went from America's mascot to a symbol of, like, the fighting dog. And, you know, it was like the dog on the RCA logo and the dog in the Buster Brown logo and the dog in "Our Gang," you know, in the series of short films.

So what changed and when did it change to make the image of the pit bull, like, the fighting dog, the guard dog, the vicious dog?

DICKEY: Right. Well, there's always been a kind of subset of people who didn't like the dogs because of what they represented. And it is again - it is true that they did originate as fighting dogs. But throughout the 19th century, there were increasingly bred as pets and kept as pets by people all over the social spectrum but predominantly people in the working class.

And so the dog with the patch over his eye became kind of this branding symbol of pure tenacity and American fortitude and individualism. And then in the 1950s, there was more of a push for more genteel pedigree dogs - dogs like Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers and Irish setters that were more associated with kind of the genteel lifestyle that went more with what American families in the 1950s were trying to cultivate.

And then you had the '60s and '70s, there was a time of much more social upheaval. And there was a very well-intentioned move made by the humane movement to eradicate what was left of professional dogfighting because it was growing so brutal and sadistic. And because they operated in different states, they were very hard to catch.

So in order to make that crime a felony, the humane movement enlisted the help of the media. And there was this kind of media blitz to bring dogfighting to the forefront of the American mind and make people care. But it turned into kind of a speculative free-for-all, and the dogs really got caught in that.

And so once people started reading stories about these dogs called pit bulls that had these supposedly horrific characteristics, all the people who were already selecting dangerous dogs then just basically switched which dog they wanted.

GROSS: So you think the pit bulls were demonized instead of the people who were training them and fighting them?

DICKEY: Yes. Yes. They were almost presented as though they were kind of willing participants in their own torture, which was terribly sad and wrong-minded.

GROSS: So what did you hear from people in the humane movement about how they now think they got it wrong?

DICKEY: I heard a lot of regret. People who have been in the movement for a long time expressed to me that if they had it to do it over again, they would be a lot more careful with the things they said. They wouldn't allow wild speculation about the behavioral characteristics of the dogs because so little was known back then.

We just didn't have the understanding of animal behavior that we have now. And they certainly would not have presented all pit bulls as fighting dogs when really that's just such a small percentage.

GROSS: So what changed in the '70s, which is the decade that you cite as being the decade when pit bulls became popular guard dogs and did start being used as fighting dogs, though not to the extent that the popular imagination has thought that they'd become fighting dogs?

DICKEY: The culture of dogs changed a lot during the 1970s. As crime rose in American cities, people became basically terrified of being victimized. And this is the age before alarm systems. So it was increasingly popular during the 1970s to get guard dogs.

A huge number of guard dog businesses sprang up. And with that you had people very fly-by-night people kind of selling unstable dogs.

Bites escalated I believe in New York City. In 1974, there was something like 35,000 bites reported, whereas recently that was down to something like 3,500. So the whole culture of dogs changed.

GROSS: You suggest in your book that you think a lot of racism was projected onto pit bulls because they became popular in African-American urban communities not just as fight dogs and guard dogs but just as popular dogs to have at home and as dogs that could reliably help protect you if you needed protection. So in what ways do you think that, like, race entered into perceptions of pit bulls?

DICKEY: I think especially when kind of the stories about them started to spiral out of control in the late '70s and then into the Reagan '80s, they became kind of proxies for a lot of the racial tensions that were brewing in America.

And I think as people felt these tensions - yet it was increasingly unpopular to voice them out loud about other groups of people, I think gradually those just got shunted onto the dogs. And so the dogs became proxies for human prejudice really because when the dogs were kind of working-class, average Joe, all-American dogs in the 1920s, that was one thing.

But when the dogs became associated with the urban poor, then there was this move to ban them and to eradicate them and to portray them - as we know, I mean, you think about kind of Hillary Clinton's unfortunate superpredator comment, the dogs were also called superpredators.

GROSS: You have a pit bull.

DICKEY: Yeah. Well, I have a shelter dog who may or may not be a pit bull.

GROSS: What do you mean may or may not be a pit bull?

DICKEY: Well, we know that lots of dogs that are identified as pit bulls in shelters are identified based on just kind of someone's guess as to what the dog's heritage is. And we know that recent studies have said that visual identification of breeds is really not reliable.

In fact, it's not reliable over 80 percent of the time. So the fact that she may look a certain way, who really knows what's in her genetic background? We can only guess.

GROSS: Well, you know - you actually had her DNA tested...


GROSS: ...Didn't you?


DICKEY: Yes, right.

GROSS: So tell us...

DICKEY: And they're actually - yes, we did have her DNA tested. And statistically speaking, there were a quarter of Australian shepherd genes floating around there. So, you know, again, she looks very much like a type E (ph) pit bull, and yet there's more going on there underneath the surface.

GROSS: So she's part German Shepherd?

DICKEY: Australian Shepherd...

GROSS: Australian shepherd, OK...

DICKEY: But what's important about the DNA tests though because they haven't been scientifically verified in labs - they're consumer products - they really are dealing in statistical probabilities and not metaphysical certainty.

GROSS: So from the way you describe your dog, it sounds like your dog loves to snuggle (laughter).

DICKEY: She does. She does. She does.


DICKEY: She's probably one of the most affectionate pets I've ever had.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bronwen Dickey. She's the author of a new book "Pit Bull." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Bronwen Dickey, author of the new book "Pit Bull: The Battle Over An American Icon." So a lot of pit bulls were euthanized without the shelters giving them a chance to find a home. You said that at some facilities, the bodies of dead pit bulls were piled so high that they resembled a sandbag fortress. You even have a picture like that in the book. Did you see evidence of this?

DICKEY: No, I didn't take that photograph. That photograph was given to me by someone who had seen it. But I certainly attended euthanasias of shelter pit bulls, and it was very sad. The dogs that I saw that were euthanized were, to my untrained eye, just completely normal, happy-go-lucky pets that would've been fine in any home. But the shelters were so crowded with them, they had to be put down.

GROSS: So some animal lovers say there's no bad dogs, there's just bad owners. But you point out that there are some dogs with chemical imbalances or neurological problems that aren't from abuse and they're not from training. So can you talk about those kinds of problems and the subsequent problems that they create, you know, when a dog has a chemical imbalance or a neurological problem?

DICKEY: Sure. I think it's really important that people don't paint with any broad brushes. And so when people have said to me, you know, the, quote, "pit bull problem" is all about X, such as there are no bad dogs, there are only bad owners or it's all how you raise them, that's just as inaccurate as saying that they are all kind of biologically hardwired to kill. There are certain neurological problems that behavioral geneticists has been tracking for years, such as tail chasing in English bull terriers.

That's, you know, a well-known neurological problem that causes the dog to - basically, it's like OCD, and it causes the dog to compulsively chase its tail. And that's not something that a certain amount of love or training can help with. That requires the help of trained professionals and medical professionals.

GROSS: So one of the stories that really brought pit bulls to the attention of the American public was the story of football star Michael Vick's 49 fight dogs that he had. And I think all those dogs were confiscated and then many were retrained, rehabilitated and found good homes afterwards. So how do you interpret that story? What does that story mean to you?

DICKEY: For me, especially when I first read about it, it was an incredibly powerful reminder of, one, how resilient dogs are, and, two, that even dogs from the most dire and severe circumstances deserve a full behavior evaluation and a full shot. That doesn't mean that every single dog from a severe situation, such as a fight bust, can necessarily come through that. Just like humans, we all deal with trauma differently. And some people handle it better than others. But they certainly deserve a fair shot. Writing them all off is a real missed opportunity.

GROSS: Pit bulls aren't the only breed that's faced discrimination. For instance, you say after World War I, dachshunds faced discrimination because they were German dogs - or considered German dogs.


GROSS: So tell us about the dachshund after World War I.

DICKEY: Yes, after - during and after World War I, the dachshund was widely persecuted because they were thought to be sneaky and treacherous. And so in wartime propaganda posters, they were also often seen wearing kind of pickle helmets and marching behind the Kaiser. And people took to stoning them in the streets while breeders in the U.S. actually scrambled to rename them liberty pups and liberty hounds. So, yeah, that was quite a trend.

GROSS: How did that change?

DICKEY: I think just over time, people moved on to other breeds and just realized that this was nationalistic silliness, that it really didn't have to do with the dogs at all. It had to do with groups of people.

GROSS: Did German shepherds face any kind of discrimination after World War I or World War II?

DICKEY: They did, but, ironically, a number of servicemen brought German shepherds home with them and thought that there would be wonderful possibilities to use them here as police dogs, which, obviously, there were, and they became popular here. But there was a certain movement to brand them as sneaky and treacherous as well - also, much like the pit bull, to brand them as explosive and unpredictable and savage. And in New York City at one point, there was a move to ban them here.

GROSS: So did Rin Tin Tin change things around 'cause Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd?


GROSS: And he was a hero.

DICKEY: Yes, Rin Tin Tin...

GROSS: He saved lives every week.

DICKEY: ...and Strongheart. Yes - and Strongheart, his predecessor. Yes, once they became phenomenal movie stars, things changed for them quite a bit.

GROSS: My guest is Bronwen Dickey, author of the new book "Pit Bull." After we take a short break, we'll talk about dogs in her life and we'll talk about her late father James Dickey, who's best known for his novel "Deliverance," which was adapted into a film starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, author of the new book - no, I'm not (laughter). My guest is. My guest, Bronwen Dickey, is author of the new book "Pit Bull." It's a history of the dog and how the popular image of pit bulls was transformed from family pet, comedy movie sidekick and popular mascot to America's most feared dog. And she says many of those fears are based on misconceptions.

So let's talk about a little bit about dogs in your life. Your father is the late writer James Dickey. Your mother was, I think, his second wife. And he was a heavy drinker. She had become a drug addict. You had nine dogs growing up. And you write, none of them lived with us longer than a few years. Most roamed the neighborhood where one was hit by a car, some were chained in the backyard, where one strangled and died, all of them howled long into the night. And because of all of this, your neighbors viewed you all with contempt and thought of you as being irresponsible in terms of how you treated your dogs. So what was your relationship to dogs growing up with these nine different dogs who neighbors thought your parents treated irresponsibly?

DICKEY: I always wanted to have close relationships with dogs when I was young. And I think - I watched a lot of television. I watched "Lassie." I looked at my neighbors and their children and the relationships they had with their pets, and that was something I wanted very badly. But because there was so much chaos in my family, that was very, very hard to have.

And I think that kind of alerted me early on to the fact that love is one thing but life is very complicated and people have a lot of layers to them. And just because you might not be able to provide for an animal in the way you would like to doesn't necessarily mean you don't love it. And I saw that a lot when I was reporting out in the streets, looking at people with their pit bulls for sure.

GROSS: Why did your parents want so many dogs? I assume they didn't have nine at one time, but that...


GROSS: ...That they were...

DICKEY: No, I think probably for me. I think - I really loved animals, and I think sometimes they probably bought me a puppy here and there because it was something that I really wanted. But the dogs just got lost in a very tumultuous and chaotic family cycle.

GROSS: So were these child-friendly dogs?

DICKEY: Yes, very much so, even despite their hard and deprived existences. They were all wonderful.

GROSS: You write that you were 6 when your mother told you she had a drug problem. You were 9 when your mother was arrested for cocaine possession. You were 12 when your father's liver failed from years of drinking and 15 when he died of liver failure. How did they take care of you when you were young if they couldn't take care of the dogs?

DICKEY: That's a good question. They did the best they could. And I think that's really all I can say. They did the best they could. I never felt that I was unloved at all. And fortunately we had the financial resources - which many American families don't have - that I was always looked out for by someone at some point. But my parents, just because they had problems doesn't mean they were bad people. And just because they couldn't provide certain levels of care, whether, you know, it was for our pets or even for me, it certainly doesn't mean they were bad. They were just complicated and their lives were very chaotic and troubled.

GROSS: At some point, Christopher, who was the son of your father's first marriage, intervened and arranged for you to attend boarding school. Was that helpful for you?

DICKEY: It was. My parents had separated at that point. And I was 14 and I think he saw that my father didn't have much time left and wanted me to be in a place that was safe and relatively stable when my father passed away. So, yes, that provided a level of structure that I really needed at that point in my life.

GROSS: And I should mention that in addition to James Dickey's poems and novels, what he's probably most famous for is writing "Deliverance," which was adapted into the film with Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. There was a long stretch of his life, you say, during which he believed that nothing really counted but his great poetic project. What was that project?

DICKEY: His desire to create and surpass his own talent, I guess - to keep striving for poetry that could attain something he previously thought unattainable. And so everything for - I would say probably for most of the '70s, everything in his life was devoted to that. And unfortunately I don't think he cared much who he alienated during that time in his life.

GROSS: Does that include you? Did you feel like you came in second to the great poetic project?

DICKEY: No. No, no. And that was what was really interesting about my upbringing versus Chris's. And that by the time I was born in 1981, a lot of that had kind of burned itself out. And he was very, very present for me as a father in terms of his attention, in terms of reading to me, spending time with me, listening to my questions, teaching me to ask others. He was very, very devoted in a way that he unfortunately wasn't for Chris and my brother Kevin - or he was for Chris early on but then kind of the "Deliverance" fame shoved that to the side a bit.

GROSS: Yeah, and I should mention your brother Chris is Christopher Dickey, who was a longtime Newsweek correspondent and is now often seen on MSNBC, has an international affairs blog. He has covered the Islamic world for a long time. He is based in France. So did your father, James Dickey, make writing seem like torture or like something really wonderful?

DICKEY: For him it was wonderful. It was difficult, but it was wonderful. He got up at 6 a.m, played guitar every morning and then went straight to his typewriter. And he always instilled in me the idea that if you work hard enough at it, things will get so much better. He would take a poem through perhaps a hundred drafts if he had to. But he always put the work in. He did not believe in what he called the Mozartian (ph) flights of the imagination. Not to say he didn't believe in talent, but he worked at his writing every day and he worked very hard. But he never felt that writing was a burden and he never conveyed that to me.

GROSS: Since your family dogs had several misfortunes and since your parents weren't considered to be very responsible owners of those dogs, how old were you when you felt like you could get a dog and take care of it well?

DICKEY: I was 21. And for a long time I think it was kind of a really powerful statement as to how much I carried that shame with me, that I didn't really feel I deserved the love or companionship of a dog until I was probably 21 years old. And even then it was filled with a lot of doubt and fear and worry that somehow I would screw things up or that I wouldn't do a good job. And so I really felt so much for the people I met while reporting this story. The kids that I saw out in the neighborhoods who so wanted that relationship with a dog and just didn't have the right resources to be able to have it, it really kind of pulled at my heart pretty strong.

GROSS: Tell us something about your first dog.

DICKEY: My first dog was a shelter dog that I rescued. Her name was Roxy. And she was a beautiful, beautiful dog. I had always wanted a German Shepherd when I was a kid because I watched reruns of "Rin Tin Tin." And my mom had a German Shepherd when she was a child. And I was - I think also growing up in a situation of turbulence and chaos, I was very drawn to the idea of having a dog that was a protector. I wanted to feel protected.

And so I adopted a dog when I was 21, 22 named Roxy. And she was some kind of mixy-something (ph), but she looked kind of like a German Shepherd. But she was really way too much dog for me to handle. I didn't know my limits. I didn't - she was too large. I didn't really know how to properly train and manage her, so I had to give her back to the rescue, unfortunately, after a few weeks. So then...

GROSS: Oh, that must have felt so terrible.

DICKEY: It was. It was. It was actually crushing. I felt that I had failed again. So then I kind of went to the other end of the spectrum. And my first dog that I raised successfully was a pug.

GROSS: Why did you want a pug?

DICKEY: Oh, I think I probably...

GROSS: Small.

DICKEY: They're, yeah, small, easy to walk and frankly just adorable. And so he was my little buddy. And he just turned - he just turned 12.

GROSS: So you still have him?

DICKEY: I do. And he's declining as he ages. But, yes, I still have him - Oscar. He's my buddy.

GROSS: How does he get along with your pit bull?

DICKEY: Oh, they get along fine. They're complete polar opposites of one another, but they work quite well together.

GROSS: Bronwen Dickey, thank you so much for talking with us.

DICKEY: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Bronwen Dickey is the author of the new book "Pit Bull." After we take a short break, rock historian Ed Ward will profile Clarence Carter, who he describes as one of soul's great singers and songwriters. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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