The case against (and for) pit bulls

Our love and hate affairs with pit bulls.

click to enlarge Calypso, at four months, in a body bandage following her pit bull attack. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Calypso, at four months, in a body bandage following her pit bull attack.

I hope that dog dies.

One morning nine years ago, I woke up, made some coffee, and sat on my front porch with my 4-month-old dachshund puppy, Calypso. Across the street, a big red dog with a blocky head chased a cat. Abruptly, this dog changed direction and charged up my steps and grabbed my black-and-tan ball of fur.

Calypso, at under 10 pounds, was no match for this troglodyte. Everything you’ve heard about pit attacks – the shaking, the not letting go? — happened. I grabbed the dog’s collar and, with no small effort, pulled him off Calypso, holding him back so Calypso could get inside. When I released him to follow her, however, he pushed past me into my house, where he grabbed a terrified, screaming Calypso and shook her like a squeaky toy. I screamed and clawed at the dog, trying to get my hands in its jaws to pry them apart, finally succeeding.

I yanked him outside. Someone called in the distance, and the dog’s ears perked; I let go, and he ran. I gathered a still-shrieking, bloodied Calypso in a towel to bring her to the vet.

The dog chased us to the car.

click to enlarge Calypso shows almost no signs from her pit bull attack. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Calypso shows almost no signs from her pit bull attack.
Calypso had no broken bones, but the attack tore muscle away from her bones, so in addition to heavy doses of painkillers and copious amounts of antibiotics, the vet gave her a body bandage to help her muscle reattach to the bones.

Pinellas County Animal Services and I found the pit bull less than three blocks from my house, running loose. It had no tags, no chip, and, as far as I could tell, no owner.

I hope that dog dies. That’s what I wrote in my blog less than two hours after the attack, and 10 days later, Animal Services called to tell me no one had claimed the dog and they would destroy it. Good, I told them, and I meant it. Calypso woke screaming during the nights following the attack, screaming the same way she had after the attack.

Calypso recovered, mostly. She still screams when a big dog approaches, but she’s learned how to dominate the dogs, too.

I, however, can’t get past the panic when we see a pit.

Arin Greenwood (check out her piece on walking shelter dogs) has penned countless pieces on the affability of pits. She insists boxy-headed dogs pose no more of a threat than Calypso.

“Every reputable group that’s looked at this issue has come to the conclusion there’s no relationship between breed and a dog’s dangerousness,” she says. “We don’t have a dog census in this country, so no one knows how many pit bulls are currently lounging on people’s couches right this second. The best guess is there’s at least a few million of them, doing nothing other than being great companions. Breed and bite likelihood aren’t related.”

Evidence certainly suggests she may be right, and that Calypso’s run-in had less to do with breed and more to do with crappy owners.

Samantha Triplett, whose company, STK9, trains working and pet dogs, agrees (Read our full Q&A with Triplett at the end of this article.)

“There’s no such thing as a dog breed comprised of only ‘bad’ dogs,” she says. Both women also told CL no such breed as a “pit bull” exists.

"No one knows how many pit bulls are currently lounging on people’s couches right this second. The best guess is there’s at least a few million of them, doing nothing other than being great companions."

 “It is not a set type of dog the way a Labrador retriever is,” Triplett says. “Some people consider a Staffordshire terrier a pit bull. Many in the dog world do not. These types of discrepancies cause statistics and reports to be unreliable. Reports rarely define exactly what they mean by ‘pit bull’.”

“Dogs called pit bulls are mutts,” Greenwood says, “and you don’t know a damn thing about a mutt’s personality based on how that dog looks.”

Greenwood suspects people generalize the term to talk around other issues.

“A lot of the time, people say ‘pit bull’ as a proxy for certain groups of people they don’t like but don’t feel comfortable badmouthing in public,” she says, pointing to an article discussing “gang bangers’” proclivities for pit bulls.

Perhaps. I saw more pit bulls when I lived in predominantly black Bartlett Park than I did living on lily-white St. Pete Beach, but the dog attack didn’t change my views on race: A white person’s pit scares me as much as a black person’s.

“One thing everyone can agree on is that pit bulls are terriers and, like all terriers, have a strong prey drive. This drive is what makes terriers want to hunt, catch and kill moving things,” Triplett says. “When handled properly, this drive makes a dog trainable. It’s what makes terriers such good companions and partners. They don’t possess a stronger drive than, say, the Jack Russell terrier or the Yorkshire terrier; they just happen to be bigger.”

Greenwood stresses people should neither eschew nor choose a dog based on appearance or breed.

“Using breed, or appearance, as a proxy for safety is a bad idea,” she warns. “It leads to a false sense of security with some dogs, and leads to other dogs — great dogs — facing terrible discrimination. This has real consequences, for families and dogs.”

“Most pit bulls are great dogs, but they require exercise, attention and training — just like all dogs,” Triplett says, and I suspect she’s right.

Will I ever own a pit bull?

Probably not.

Does that make Greenwood and Triplett wrong?

I hope not. 

Sidebar: Rogue

Last year, St. Pete meter reader T. Collins rescued Rogue, a puppy Collins and her vet suspect local dogfighters used as bait in a local dogfighting ring. But how did “pit bulls” become the official dog of this cruel pastime?

click to enlarge Rogue, eight months after T. Collins rescued him. He remains her pet. - T. Collins
T. Collins
Rogue, eight months after T. Collins rescued him. He remains her pet.
According to Triplett, people initially trained big dogs to grab the noses of out -of-control bulls, which led to something called “bull-baiting,” or intentionally pitting dogs against angry bulls — and betting on the outcome. The name “pit bull” comes from the pits where dogs fought bulls. Once this became illegal, people would turn these bull-baiting dogs on each other. Voila, modern dogfighting.

Today, Rogue lives as a housepet with Collins. Skyway Animal Hospital treated Rogue’s severe injuries; that same office, eight years prior, treated Calypso’s not-quite-as-severe injuries. Both dogs —dachshund and pit bull — remain happy, healed, and healthy.

click to enlarge The case against (and for) pit bulls - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
The case against (and for) pit bulls

Because of strong emotions on both sides of the pit bull issue, CL wanted to run our unedited interview with dog trainers Samantha Triplett (Certified Master Dog Trainer, Owner of STK9 Training Company, President of Tampa Bay Protection Sports Association) and Chelsea Salzman (Pet Dog Trainer, STK9 Training Company) about the issues surrounding "pit bulls."

What evidence exists that pit bulls are not more likely to attack small animals and children than other breeds?

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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