Thursday, November 1, 2012

I'm A Good Dog

The following book review was originally published by Animal People on November 1, 2012.
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I'm a good dog: Pit Bulls, America's Most Beautiful (and most Misunderstood) Pet
by Ken Foster
Viking Studio
(c/o Penguin USA, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2012.
143 pages, paperback. $25.00.

The major question in assessing I'm a good dog, by Ken Foster, is deciding whether Foster sincerely believes his many misrepresentations, most of which occur by omission.

For example, Foster mentions one of the most notorious bloodlines in the annals of dogfighting without mentioning the dogfighting connection. Later Foster mentions the high prices paid for some dogs of fighting lineage, again without mentioning fighting. Foster quotes the late pit bull advocate Vicki Hearne's assertion that a pit bull who had attacked several people might be any of eight purportedly different breeds without mentioning that all eight are pit bull variants. Foster also recites that pit bulls were featured in the "Buster Brown" and "Our Gang" film shorts without mentioning that the dogs' roles included chasing and attacking people, and that some of the dogs who played those roles were biters in real life, too.

Foster mentions that some pit bulls were mascots of troops during the U.S. Civil War, but not that pit bulls and pit bull derivatives, such as "Cuban bloodhounds", were extensively used to track and dismember fugitive slaves, as a warning to other slaves who might think of escaping. Neither does Foster acknowledge the use of pit bulls by the Ku Klux Klan in connection with lynchings, as described--for example--by Cayton's Weekly for August 2, 1919, easily accessible online.

Foster asserts that "The term 'pit bull' is used to describe 10-to-20% of the dogs found in the U.S." Reality is that the entire molosser class of dogs, including pit bulls, Rottweilers, mastiffs, boxers, and many other breeds, comes to barely 9%, according to surveys of classified ads offering dogs for sale or adoption. Pit bulls, by all of the names commonly used for them, amount to no more than 5.5%.

Promoting the acquisition of pit bulls as family pets, Foster claims that "The pit bull has been a family dog for more than a century--in short, for as long as the dogs have been known to exist." But there are scant historical references to pit bulls being commonly kept for any purpose other than fighting until the past two decades. Even early 20th century breeders John P. Colby and Charles Werner, who sold pit bulls as pets, continued to breed fighting dogs.

Denying the relationship of form with function, Foster asserts that "Pit bulls do not attack like sharks. Or do anything like sharks do." But the dismembering wounds inflicted by pit bulls have been likened to shark bites by, among others, the authors of medical journal articles about how to try to repair the damage.

"Pit bulls seem particularly suited for life with kids," alleges Foster, offering photos of children engaging in behavior around pit bulls that would be ill-advised with any dog.

Pit bulls, at this writing, have killed eight Americans in 34 days; Rottweilers, sharing molosser ancestry with pit bulls, have killed one more. Two pit bull rescuers have been killed by the dogs in their care within 54 days. The number of known animal victims is about 10 times higher.

Of the 241 fatalities and 1,302 disfigurements inflicted by pit bulls on humans during the past 30 years, 126 fatalities and 640 disfigurements have come since the April 2007 impoundment of football player and convicted dogfighter Michael Vick's dogs escalated the popularity of pit bull rescue. Pit bulls had already accounted for just about half of all the dog attack fatalities and disfigurements inflicted by dogs of any sort during the preceding 25 years.
--Merritt Clifton