Book review: Bronwen Dickey’s Pit Bull

By on July 31, 2016 with 22 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

There are flashpoints in our relationship with animals – controversies where people are divided on important topics, from vegetarianism to captive wildlife in zoos to deer management. But surely one of the most controversial issues is our relationship with pit bull type dogs. Are they inherently dangerous, or are they like any other dogs, but just victims of the wrong people being attracted to them? HSUS board chairman Rick Bernthal, former managing partner of the Washington office of the global law firm Latham & Watkins, is a pit bull enthusiast and activist. I asked him to review Bronwen Dickey’s new, bestselling book, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, and Rick was only too happy to oblige. Dickey’s book is part of the enormous and growing body of serious-minded thinking and writing on animal issues. As Rick notes, she takes the discussion about these dogs to a whole new level, and I hope you’ll read his review.


Like millions of other Americans, I’m an incorrigible dog lover. But as a society we are also strangely selective with our affections. Some breeds, like pit bulls, are irrationally and historically maligned, and Bronwen Dickey’s wonderful new book, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, takes an in-depth look at the complicated social and cultural reasons why.

Bronwen Dickey

Bronwen Dickey

The public hysteria and misinformation about pit bulls is breathtaking in its scope, intensity, and inaccuracy. Thoughtful, intelligent people believe that these dogs have “powerful, locking jaws,” that they “turn” on their owners without warning, that they are somehow fundamentally different from, and far more dangerous than, other dogs. Many communities in the United States (including, notably, the cities of Miami and Denver) ban ownership of pit bulls altogether, despite the sheer absence of any statistical basis to justify treating them separately. (This “breed-specific legislation” is thankfully on the wane: the laws are expensive to enforce, grossly unfair to well-behaved dogs and law-abiding families, and utterly ineffective; they don’t reduce dog bites at all, anywhere.)

At long last, a scholar, historian, and journalist has invested the time and effort to chase down every canard and fear about pit bulls and set the record straight. In the process, she has placed the controversy over pit bulls in historic, social, and cultural context for us, so that we not only can learn the truth about these dogs, but also understand where all the misperceptions came from, and why they endure.

Pit Bull is a tour de force; the most comprehensive, thoughtful, and dispassionate treatment of this topic ever undertaken. Dickey has painstakingly interviewed pit bull lovers and haters, rescuers and abusers, breeders and buyers. She has combed history to enlighten us on the origins of these dogs and helped us see why we’ve had a need to vilify them, even when there is utterly no foundation for doing so. She demonstrates that much of our antipathy toward these dogs reflects our deep biases toward others of the human race who may not share our culture or social standing. The root cause of our view of pit bulls, Dickey argues, comes not from the animals themselves, but from our own ignorance, fear, and prejudice.

Pit bulls (like all dogs) make fabulous pets and loving family members, and their “cause” has been embraced by millions around the country. How to convince a doubting, fearing public? That only happens one dog, and one person, at a time.


At The HSUS, we work hard to educate the public about the realities of these misunderstood and maligned animals. Many other groups do, too. As Dickey writes about in the book, through our Pets for Life program, we are ensuring equal access to pet resources for all communities, including those most often connected with the negative stereotype of pit bulls. Dickey gives credit to The HSUS for focusing on closing the gap in animal welfare services that exists because of misconceptions and discrimination.

I grew up with boxers, that irrepressible, clownish, high-energy breed, and I had a boxer by my side (and on my bed) for decades thereafter. About 10 years ago, as my own interest in animal welfare began to broaden, I learned about the plight of the pit bull, and since then, my sons and I have welcomed six pitties into our family. We’ve rescued a dozen more. They are sweet, funny, fun-loving, loyal pooches – some are brilliant, others dumb as a box of rocks – wonderful with children, patient and forgiving, silly, cuddly, and bonded irrevocably to their human families. In other words, they are dogs.

Dickey’s book – a combination of exhaustive research, the presentation of impartial facts, the perceptive sense of social and political context and the addition of a rich and detailed historical framework – is an enormously valuable contribution to furthering this understanding.

For that, we are very much in Ms. Dickey’s debt.

Companion Animals

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  1. Thomas McCartney says:

    First, second and third we want, need and should demand public safety and personal security.

    Anything that stands in the way of this must be removed, not changed, not modified, not altered but Removed completely.

    To argue in effect for breed neutral legislation that is not preemptive but reactive and dependent on responsible ownership is an oxymoron that has no purpose nor use and will not stand.

    Yes Pit bull ownership going underground due to BSL would be a good thing, through this fact one would rarely encounter the owner or mutant undog and the likelihood of attack from them both would be drastically reduced into obscurity, what can’t access you can’t hurt you.

    Having them hidden in far far smaller numbers in some basement or attic is far preferable to having the current numbers allowed to be owned where the safety of said community would be wholly dependent on the responsibility of pit bull owners when such ownership does not nor has it existed in the last 30+ years.

    To think that if we merely ask and say pretty please and try to inform the pit bull owner of what his responsibilities should be that he will then undertake them is foolish, naive, and dangerous.

    Their numbers will not decline, the pit bull owners will not become responsible and an ever worsening status quo will be the outcome of such viewpoints.

    Most pit bull owners are fully aware of what they own, their history and capability, they just don’t care nor will they.

    This battle is not about semantics, it is about truth, facts and life and death, these are what need to be imparted to the general public so that they understand the reality of what the pit bull type dog is so they can react accordingly, this must be phrased in a stark black and white contrast.

    Playing word games & using PR obfuscation merely distracts the public from the real core safety issue involved, in the immortal words of Joe Friday they need the facts, just the real facts mame.

    The pit nutters minds can’t be changed by facts or anything because they are not rational sentient beings, they are culls and a lost cause.

    But facts will change and direct the silent majority to the reality of the situation and then they will do the rest for us all.

    You can NOT be a responsible Lion owner in a residential suburban context, nor a responsible owner of a tiger, cougar, cobra or wolverine, to try to sell the concept that one can be a responsible pit bull type dog owner is as irrational as any of those options would be in regards to the vast % of pit bull type dogs and there owners.

    Pit bull owners don’t care about your right of freedom to be safe, they don’t care about their obligation to be responsible and don’t recognize the existence of said concept.

    They will never agree to any restriction placed upon them, even a leash law, S/N law or that they undergo a basic training course with their undogs are an anathema to them, how are you going to get them to agree to really serious restrictions like insurance, muzzleing, kenneling, short lease, getting their undogs fixed and chipped, registered with photos, if you believe any of that is possible you are living in a dream world that is a fantasy that will be the death of us all.

    When it comes to pit bull type dog owners you are talking about narcissistic sociopaths who don’t care who don’t feel, to whom you, yours and anyone is expendable whose lives have no purpose nor meaning to pit nutters.

    To think that one can get them to change and accept responsibility and restrictions on their undogs for our betterment is foolish and delusional.

    They don’t even care about their own dogs and consider them disposable, so to think they will agree to these restrictions for their undogs sake is misguided at best.

    Pit bull owners have lost their minds and never had their hearts, the only thing that will work is hard core enforcement of severe BSL unless you want the status quo expounded many times over in blood facts on the pavement.

    BSL is the only solution, any breed neutral abstract application of psychology would be doomed to failure.!!!!

    • John Mayer says:

      Thomas, you know there are only 20 to 30 deaths from dog bite each year in the US, right? Why are you so fearful? You’re about as likely to be kicked to death by an ostrich on an ostrich farm as to be killed by a pitbull. Do you check under your bed at night to make sure no pitbull has found its way there? Many millions of people own pitbulls so, plainly, they are NOT predisposed to kill their owners or their neighbors. Their very numbers are going to increase the odds of an infinitesimal percentage being involved in fatal bites. The fact that more Fords than Mazeratis are involved in fatal car accidents doesn’t mean Fords are safer to drive than Mazeratis.

      I’m glad that people are beginning to realize the foolishness of BSL and phasing it out. Sorry that upsets you so, but try to maintain; foaming at the mouth is sure to alarm your neighbors.

      Thanks for providing such a clear example of the mindless, lethal menace against which pitbull owners must defend their beloved companions.

    • Pat Baker says:

      After reading Mr. McCartney comment I felt the need to add a comment. First, my daughter rescued a pit bull several years ago and she has never been considered to be a narcissistic sociopath by her friends, family or employer.
      Second, my cute terrier who I love very much is more aggressive than her pit bull. Her dog never bit anyone while my cute terrier has. My dog does conform to the sterotype of being a feisty terrier. Suggest you consider looking at the statics of which dog breeds in the US are known to have caused dog bites. The terrier is number three while pit bulls don’t even merit the number one or two slot. Should terriers be removed or maybe I should just hide him in an attic or basement.
      And finally I have volunteered at my local humane society for several years and none of the pit bulls that I walk regularly have ever shown any aggression toward me or anyone else. And none have been returned to the humane society for misbehavior.
      So, I disagree with your comment and suggest that you consider spending some time at your local humane society and get to know some pit bulls. You just might change your mind!!

  2. Annie Brown says:

    My daughter and I were both in separate attacks by pit bulls and both luckily escaped. I worked for a vet and for the local Humane Society for many many years and never had the same experience with other dogs as with pit bulls. If there is hysteria over this breed Ms. Dickey, it’s because the dogs cause it themselves by attacking and causing severe damage if not death. It’s not only insulting to victims of these regular maulers, but also misleading to the point of being criminal when you talk about these dogs being no more dangerous than other dogs. It’s simply NOT TRUE. If you actually included victims and former owner victims of these dogs in your book you would know that. I’m sorry that you have taken up the task of misleading the public and endangering people. It won’t bode well for you as the attacks continue to escalate.

    • Grama Bounce says:

      I’m sorry are pit bulls the only dogs that have ever attacked. I do believe there are Rottweiler and German Shepherd and so many other breeds that attack.So pits are not only ones. You all have focused on one breed and when these gentle dogs , yes I said gentlec, do something against your idea of what you believe they are you jaters ignore. You are bigots. You have your reasons what ever they be, imagined or real , but you are passing judgement on a breed of dog by the experience with one or two that you have had a bad experience with. Sid you look at the situation the owners , were they scared. I have owned many and one of mine was attacked by another very vicious pit and almost killed her. Do I hate the breed no. I know each is individual. Just like we are. So you all live in your bigoted world but you are missing out on one of the most sweetest loving gently forgiving dogs there are. Your loss.

  3. Robynne Catheron says:

    A good friend has an adorable, loving, playful and gentle pit bull, so I know they exist. But if the very first story you ever hear about the breed is a violent, heartbreaking one, it’s difficult to change one’s mindset.

    However, with the HSUS spearheading the action to shut down and prosecute dog-fighting circles, hopefully there will be less people perpetuating the violent behavior and thus the breed’s negative stigma.

  4. Julie Wall says:

    HSUS silences the victims of pit bull attacks by not sharing their tragedies. Ignoring this problem is going to make it worse for people, pets, livestock and pit bulls.

  5. Cheryl Huerta says:

    Thank you for this positive review and for being a voice for these much maligned group of dog breeds we refer to as pit bulls.

    As a pit bull advocate the moment I heard about this book I purchased a copy and read it as an audio book…twice (and will likely read it again). I purchased a hard copy so I could highlight and utilize certain facts and passages in my efforts to educate people on responsible dog ownership especially in reference to pit bull type dogs. I have come to refer to Ms. Dickeys throughly researched and well-written book as ‘the pit bull encyclopedia’ and have already used facts and ideals from the book to educate people about these dogs and the people who have them.

    In addition I have been forced to call into question some of my own attitudes and philosophy’s about these dogs, the people who have them and how best to help both groups (dogs and dog owners). It has helped me to become a better, more rational and better informed voice for these dogs and their owners. My focus on educating the public about pit bull type dogs and those who have them has always been to promote responsible dog ownership and reading the book has caused me to put even more energy into that knowing that a rising tide lifts all boats. The more dog owners we can help, NOT judge, to be responsible dog owners the safer the public will be from dog related injuries and fatalities.

    Also I’m proud to say that Ms. Dickey and I have connected via social media and I consider her an ally in advocating for these dogs and for the people who have them.

  6. Dan says:

    Totally agree. I only hope that somehow those who just KNOW they’re right about all the ways Piut Bulsl are evil actually take the time to read this. But most of us are just lazy: we don’t want to bother making up our own mind; it’s just so easy for someone else to do it for us.

    So I hope doubters take responsibility for their beliefs and read this book. And The Lost Dogs. And The Pit Bull Placebo.

    …rather than just “know”

  7. Sally Palmer says:

    This is the kind of high-energy, well-researched information that is transforming our view of animal beings. Thank you, Wayne, for your leadership in bringing such wonderful insights by Bronwen Dickey and Rick Bernthal that help dispel ignorance and fear about pit bulls and open up people’s hearts and minds to this breed. It serves as a great demonstration to never give up on finding and presenting the facts to create change.

    • Debbie Bell says:

      No one who actually cares about dog welfare wants to support the continued breeding of THE dogs created to mature, to “start” to “turn on” and display the instincts and abilities to hunt for and kill their own family.

      Bully people say that bully dogs need “early socialization” in an effort to prevent these mutant manmade instincts.

      But do bully people care about the victims or the bully dogs who never receive that socialization? Obviously not!

      If you haven’t seen a “good” game, which means insane, pit go from kissng to killing, you don’t know pits.

  8. Debbie Stinnett says:

    Any dog can be dangerous. You going to ban them all? Leave the bulldogs alone!

    • PamelaL. says:

      The vast majority of dogs could not be dangerous, even if they were to attack. They are not large or strong enough. Anyone knows this.

  9. Mary Ann Redfern says:

    Pit bull “advocacy” is getting people, pets and livestock animals maimed and killed by the thousands each year in the USA. AND it is doing NOTHING to help pit bulls. Pit bulls, bred for killing each other for bloodsport, are NEVER appropriate pet dogs. The dogmen who created this breed over two centuries ago in England would not know whether to laugh or cry at the idea of people bringing these fighting/gripping breed dogs into their homes amongst their loved ones. The folly of it is simply mind-boggling.

  10. Mike Okey says:

    Well we have two different groups posting here. One showing complete ingorance about dogs and life in general. Then regular folks that use common sense and logic to come to a rational decision. T.M. Advocates for torture and painfull deaths of your pets. Over and over.

  11. Lane Hatcher says:

    I adopted a 4-month old pittie type, and I loved her as I loved my other dogs. She was vacc’d, collared, fed high quality foods, and socialized to my cats, horses, and kids/adults who visited. Just like my other dog.

    When my pittie type was four y.o., I brought home a yearling llama. I introduced it carefully to the horses and dogs. When all seemed well after a few days, I allowed the llama into the pasture. Ten minutes later, Missy, the pittie type, had grabbed the llama by the neck and had brought it down. This was an entirely unprovoked attack.

    The llama survived, but my vet advised me that once Missy got “a taste” for killing, she wouldn’t stop. He told me of clients who’d had a similar experience to mine, and their pittie type graduated to bringing down and killing one of their horses.

    My neighbors had young children, I had horses, and I could not risk any further attacks. I cried like a baby when we put Missy down.

    My antipathy for pittie types is born of my personal horrible experience. I don’t give a **** who owns piities in general or particular. Pits were bred to attack bulls, for many decades if not centuries. We fully expect retrievers to retrieve, because they have been bred to do so. To throw out a pit’s breeding and suggest we have biases against them because we don’t like the “kind of people” who stereotypically own them is absurd and not even remotely the result of any kind of scientific rigor in the author’s reviews of theses dogs.

    I completely ignored any breeding issues, I completely bought the whole “it’s the owner, not the dog” BS, and both my dog and I got completely burned.

    And where was my golden retriever mix when my pittie type was trying to kill the llama? She was hiding under the horse trailer, terrified.

  12. Lisa Forster says:

    It is exactly people like Thomas McCartney, first comment, that need to read this book. Most likely, he won’t bother as it appears his mind is already closed and he seems to not care about opening it. I will be ordering this book ASAP. We already have one pit bull that we rescued from my abusive psychopathic ex SIL about 7 years ago. He got her as a puppy and for 3 years he did everything to make her mean including knocking out 2 teeth. She does not have it in her to be anything but loveable. We literally kidnapped her from him during the divorce. Then about 14 months ago we had a young female pit arrive at our house from out of nowhere. My daughter took her, she lives next door and we are in the country. Anyway, she eventually started staying at me and my husband’s house and even figured out how to open the door and come in the house. So, she became ours. Now here we sit, just 7 days later, so mad and painfully sad and feeling like we can’t go on. Why? Because 7 days ago, someone on our road intentionally hit her with their vehicle and killed her!! Most likely because of her breed!! I am afraid of what I will do to these people if I find out their name!! It was so uncalled for and has caused 7 people a tremendous amount of pain! You would have to know all the situations here, too long to even list, to understand why I know this was intentional. I don’t understand how she became lost, whoever had her before, obviously loved her very much. We tried but never could find them. We used to run a rescue and have had over 300 mostly dogs, some cats come thru us to their forever homes. We had a puppy mill close by that dumped several on us. We tried everything to get her closed down, no luck, but she finally retired. Anyway, Miranda lived with us for about 14 months. I would say she was about the best dog of all. She was the sweetest, funniest, most trusting dog. She loved our 2 young grandkids so much. We trusted her completely. Only twice did we see her growl at 2 certain people, only growl. Personally I would have shot them if I could. They totally deserved it. She was scared of certain things like when other dogs would start a fight, she would run. When it thundered, she had to come in the house, find one of us and sit or lie so close till it was over. She loved our other dogs, our cats and our chickens. Her favorite thing to do was play with our cats. So Thomas McCartney, I do not appreciate at all, you lumping all pit bull owners into one group. There are bad owners and good, as with everything!! You have shown your bias and total lack of understanding with every word you wrote. The media are just as bad always reporting anything bad that happens with this breed. Do some research and you will discover all breeds capable of these things, but not reported on. They have done the same thing with other breeds during the past several years, it just depends on which breed they are spotlighting. Almost every animal or human will turn out bad, it depends on how they are raised. I want to read the book to understand more. I wish you and others like you would like to understand the world around them better. It might open your mind.

  13. Cynthia Duffy says:

    I have had bad issues w/ pit bulls myself, but both times, I blame the owner. The one owner I know for a fact used to fight his dogs. His pits used to come in my yard frequently to try & catch my cats. What I’ve been told is that cats are used in the training of pit bulls, for fighting purposes. These dogs went so far as to bust into my screen porch & almost got in my house trying to get to my cats. I actually came home from work one day to 3 dead, mutilated cats & I was devastated. What was even worse is that animal services didn’t even try & take the people dogs. I’ve had friends that had neighbors pit bulls come into their yard & kill their small dogs. It’s really a very hard debate in my opinion. I have had pit bulls that I knew, come at me to attack & thank God I got over the fence & he didn’t follow. Since then I’ve had a couple neighbor w/ pits & ive actually gotten friendly w/ some of the dogs. I had one neighbor that didn’t feed or water their pit & I started feeding him thru the fence & would lick my arm. We developed a bond & I was saddened when they moved. My neighbor breeds pits & has tried to help me better understand the dog & he has said that inbreeding is part of what cause them to be mean. I do believe the owners cause a lot of it to. I’ve watched some of my neighbors & the way they do the dogs & it makes me sick. Even w/ the bad experiences I’ve had w/ pit bulls, I really can’t help to wonder if a lot of their behavior issues are a result of how they are treated. I’m definitely going to try & get this book & read it tho.

  14. Dana Keefe says:

    Thank you for the review. I wonder if you have read and reviewed another book titled, “The Pit Bull Placebo, The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression” by Karen Delise. Copyright 2007
    I found it very interesting, but a bit long. It also discusses Denver’s ban.

  15. PamelaL says:

    Terrible, misleading article. Pit bulls have killed several hundred people in the U.S. over just the last few years. These are irrefutable facts. Thousands of others have been gravely injured, suffering through years of surgeries and in some cases, being left permanently disabled. Tens of thousands of pets have been killed, virtually always in unprovoked attacks. Your article does nothing to refute this, and typically, pro-pitbull postings are anecdotal at best. “MY pit is very sweet.” It’s what everyone claims, even though every few weeks, a pit kills a member of its human family, typically a child. They are unpredictable, having been bred to fight and physically equipped to do terrible damage in a matter of seconds. People’s lives- and the lives of their pets – are more important than your desire to own a certain breed of dog. I have the right to feel safe walking down the street in my own neighborhood. If this were a defect in the manufacturing of a car, every single vehicle would be recalled, because we understand that if it happens once, that is one time too many. Why can we not apply the same logic to dog breeds?

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