The answer to that question is very simple: Yes. In my biased opinion, we do. For those immersed in all things pit bull, this likely seems obvious. For others, who may not be actively involved, whether personally or professionally, in their day-to-day lives, with pit bulls, it may seem that we’ve come so far we can rest on our laurels, think it will never touch us (as I naively did) or think that we are doing more damage than good. And it’s easy to see how someone might come to those conclusions- pit bulls HAVE become more mainstream, many of us are safe from discrimination and quite honestly, not all advocacy is equal.
First, we have to address the fact that visual identification is still pretty much the standard for determining which dogs fall under the pit bull umbrella and which don’t. Here’s 2 examples- my own dogs:
Savannah. Visually identified (by me) as a cocker spaniel/beagle mix. 13 years old, never faced discrimination of any type.
Hazel. Visually identified as a pit bull terrier mix by the shelter she was adopted from, 4 years old. Wisdom Panel swabbed (by me) and identified as an American Bulldog/Boxer/Miniature Bull Terrier/Yorkshire Terrier mix. This puts her in the bully breed category, making her a target for discrimination. I live in Pennsylvania, where Breed Specific Legislation does not exist, but insurance discrimination does and homeowners associations and landlords have the right to deny someone housing based on their dog’s breed or type.
Many people have said that Hazel doesn’t look very pit bull-ish and depending on the angle you look at her at, she really doesn’t. I call her pit bull lite. But, I have yet to meet a person who isn’t actively involved with dogs that didn’t immediately identify her as a pit bull, even if they knew nothing about her and the bottom line is- like it or not, it’s what her adoption profile called her. So, for all intents and purposes, Hazel is a pit bull. I’m okay with that, even if my homeowners association is not.
I should be upfront and say that up until a few months ago, I was questioning the state of my own advocacy. Did the name Your Pit Bull and You really represent what we were doing since we share things that are relevant to all dogs? Was breed discrimination something we still really needed to worry about? Had society’s attitude turned so in favor of our dogs that we could sit back, relax and enjoy the show? We certainly weren’t there, but it seemed more and more that there was less and less to worry about.
And then The Incident happened. The incident that brought my entire quiet little tourist town to multiple borough council meetings. The incident that had people talking in the streets. The incident that made me fear my dog would be targeted. A fear that I carry every day and try my very best to assuage in myself by being Extra Responsible.
Two dogs identified as pit bulls by the shelter they were adopted from and by everyone they encountered escaped their backyard and killed a small dog. Now, those of us with rational minds and a little bit of knowledge can say “well, big dogs sometimes attack and/or kill small dogs because they see them as prey” or “if these dogs were the vicious killers people are saying they are, wouldn’t they have killed each other first or go for the humans, too?” but people who have a negative history with these dog’s owners, other dogs they have owned and their general lack of responsible dog ownership are not likely to be rational and who can blame them, really? A terrible thing happened in their community, to their neighbor’s dog, by dogs of other neighbors that they already didn’t think too highly of.
This all came about at a time when my husband and I were getting ready to move back into an adjacent community, one where people routinely let their dogs run off-leash. As someone who firmly believes that dogs should not be off-leash unless in a designated area and that leash laws should be enforced, my fear was already high. Most on-leash dogs (and mine are always on-leash when out in public, regardless of breed or type) do not appreciate being approached by off-leash dogs and if I’m being honest, I think it’s rude and entitled for people to let their dogs loose in areas where there’s no shortage of signs saying that dogs must be leashed. With this incident, I achieved a level of fear and anxiety I thought I would never experience. My safe little BSL-free cocoon was burst wide open. What if my HOA decided that pit bulls were no longer welcome? I’d fight it, of course, and have a nice little army of knowledgeable friends who’d help me go about it in the right way, but who wants to have to fight about anything, really, especially with their neighbors? I love my dog, I’d fight as long as necessary and as hard as necessary for her, but, I like living a quiet little life. This was not something I ever dreamed I’d have to do and suddenly, it seemed like a reality. What if my neighbors decided they didn’t want her around? What if we became a target for hate or misunderstanding? I can now say that this was absolutely the scariest thing I have ever experienced in my personal life. The thought of losing my dog for any reason other than illness or old age is not something I can easily handle. And so, my thoughts about advocacy changed again. We are not there and in many cases, when it comes to individual people, we are not even close.
And yet…..this is my bias and I recognize it as such. My bias says there’s much more work to do and though we have come very, very far and many have done great work well before I joined the party, we are by no means done. And unless you’ve got a viable alternative to the words “pit bull”, and can make it stick, there’s not much point in saying that we need to get rid of the label. I’m not a big fan of the word “mutt”, which technically describes pit bulls and millions of other dogs, but has long also been used as a derogatory term used to describe a person of mixed racial descent. I prefer the term “mixed breed” and would love to see that used as a primary label for shelter dogs, but that doesn’t change the fact visual identification may still be used by homeowners associations, landlords , insurance companies, animal control agencies, law enforcement and, indeed, entire municipalities and not everyone can just pick up and go or has the resources or knowledge to be able to fight it.
So, back to my original question: Do we still need pit bull awareness? Yes, we do. We need people to know that our dogs are, in fact, dogs. That they learn the same way as other breeds and that the media sensationalism we see is just that- sensationalism. At YPBY, we focus on learning, on training and on behavior. We don’t talk much about BSL, prejudice, bias, hate, misunderstanding and all of the other stuff that can come with pit bull territory. And that’s not because we don’t think it doesn’t exist or that it’s not important, it’s just not our field of expertise. But, some anti-pit bull sentiment existing in one’s own quiet community can cause one’s eyes to be forced wide open. You learn fast how to best protect your dog. You learn what the laws are, you learn what people think of your dog that they haven’t even met. You learn that the fight isn’t over when someone says “I believe all pit bulls are born killers” standing at a microphone in front of a crowded room. You learn that the pit you feel in your stomach is pure fear.
We’ve not made a big deal out of Pit Bull Awareness Month or Pit Bull Awareness Day for a couple of years. In part because there are organizations that focus on issues like BSL that do it better. In part because it feels a bit like a Hallmark holiday, another made up thing to get people to Buy Stuff. And I don’t say that to dismiss the efforts of my colleagues, I say it because it’s my bias, my opinion and my feeling. None of that makes it true.