“You shouldn’t own such a dangerous dog!”
I turned away when the dog owner walking away from me on a Boston street yelled this at me. His loose Lab had just sauntered up to me and my Pit Bull, Hudson, causing me to pull Huddie between my legs for protection. I had asked the dog owner to put his dog on a leash — it’s the law in Boston — and he had said: “My dog is friendly.” I returned with “My dog isn’t,” and hence his dismissive reply.
Anger welled within me — he was in the wrong, after all. I hadn’t had time to explain that Hudson didn’t like other dogs but he loved people, nor did I get to call him what I would have liked to.
But I get frustrated with some Pit Bull advocates, too. I’ve heard it time and again: “Pit Bulls are easy dogs to own. They’re all dog-and people-friendly. Anyone can own them,” as if owning a Pit Bull is just like owning a Golden Retriever. Well, in my opinion, it’s not!
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I have had the privilege of adopting four Pit Bulls: Hudson (The Fighter), Amber (The Lover), Falstaff (The Buddha), and Bunch (The Model).
I’m certainly not a Pit Bull expert, but after years of working with them, I feel I can say I have the traits you want to see in a Pit Bull owner. I am objective about Pit Bulls‘ characteristics, willing to be an ambassador for them, and willing to have limitations placed on my life because of breed-specific legislation. I am also active, tough, tenacious, loving, adaptive, and resilient — all qualities of Pit Bulls, too. I even look a bit like a Pit Bull.
What is a Pit Bull? A Pit Bull is a type of dog, not a breed. He is, essentially, a mutt, a mix of an American Pit Bull Terrier or other bully dog and any other breed or breeds. The bully side of the Pit Bull tends to override the other breeds in his makeup but if you know or can guess what those breeds are, it can be helpful, because they can help define their personality.
Case in point: In 2000, I saw a four-month-old black puppy at a Mighty Mutts event in New York City, lying languidly on the ground, calm and friendly. I learned his Pit Bull father had been a champion dog fighter on Coney Island, but this puppy didn’t seem to have a fighting bone in his body. When I arrived to adopt this pup a few weeks later, there was confusion — another woman was there to adopt that same guy. Ah, but there was another puppy from that litter, so I gladly took him.
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That was Hudson. He was trouble from the start.
As Hudson grew up, I knew he was different from any other dog I’d owned. For one thing, he started fights with my Golden mix, Manny, and Lab mix, Kingfish — and while they backed down immediately, Hudson kept going until he was stopped. He had the sometimes Pit Bull trait of knowing how to inflict damage quickly when fighting.
For the first time in my life, I realized that my dogs had to be separated, that Huddie couldn’t be left alone with Manny and Kingfish, so he got stuck in the bedroom every time I went out — an example of being adaptive when necessary with Pit Bulls. Of course, this could happen to many other dogs. But if you forget to isolate a dog-aggressive Pit Bull, you might come home to some serious canine injuries.
But even though this tenacious trait propelled Huddie’s fighting instincts, he was also tenacious in his almost constant attentiveness to me. It was as if he wanted me to direct his every move. Any time my ex-husband raised his voice at me, Hudson got between us and barked. I felt safe in the house and out on walks, which boosted my confidence. He was my protective shadow for 13 years. So that’s how a Pit Bull’s seemingly only negative trait can be positive, too.
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Here are some more common Pit Bull characteristics (at least in my opinion) and how they affected me and could affect you if you become a Pit Bull owner:
Pit Bulls are intense. They even look intense, which is why some people are scared of them. My Pit Bull Amber LOVED all humans. When we went on walks, it took all of my strength (toughness) to keep her from accosting everyone with affection. A Yorkie jumping up on a stranger is considered cute, but a Pit Bull jumping up on a stranger is considered scary. You must be strong and tenacious in your training of a Pit Bull.
Not all Pit Bulls are as energetic as Amber was or my current Pit Bull, Bunch. Both could run 10 miles a day and still not be tired. However, Falstaff was very mellow and preferred to be a constant couch potato. If you want to be a Pit Bull owner, you have to be prepared to exercise with your dog a lot, as high energy seems to be mostly the case.
3. Absolute devotion and sensitivity
Your Pit Bull will do anything for you, and he’ll also try his hardest to please you (at least most of the time). This is a great responsibility, as I learned with Hudson and his protectiveness. As a Pit Bull owner, you must make certain your devoted dog will always listen to you.
Along with devotion comes neediness, which is great if you want your dog to be around you constantly and don’t mind a plethora of Pit Bull kisses morning, noon, and night. This also means Pit Bulls should not be left alone for long periods. Hudson destroyed three couches before I figured this out.
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4. People friendly — or not
Pit Bulls are almost always super people friendly, but not all people are Pit Bull friendly. Once, when out with Amber, I had a parent accuse her of “attacking” her child. Amber was just doing her overly friendly/jumping thing and I wasn’t paying attention the way I should have. You will have to respect others’ space when you’re out with your Pit Bull.
Hudson barked at everyone but me, especially that evil ex-husband. It was tough to have people over unless I put Huddie in another room. I probably should have socialized Hudson better as a pup. Be prepared for people to give you a bad look or two, or have them prefer to go to a Pit-Bull-free house for dinner.
5. Dog friendly — or not
Falstaff and Bunch were dog-friendly, and I’d say most Pit Bulls are friendly with other dogs, but you need to be careful in finding that out. Never take your Pit to a dog park until you are 100 percent certain.
I worked with Falstaff, on leash, meeting other dogs on leash and could tell that he was not agitated in any way — he didn’t raise his hackles, his tail was wagging, and he didn’t show any signs of dominance. I adopted Bunch at age two, and she was in a foster home with another dog and had been going to the dog park.
Some Pit Bulls are not friendly with other dogs. I get in trouble for saying this, but consider each dog’s background and whether it includes dog fighting. If your Pit Bull is dog-aggressive, it can be very difficult to train this out, so you should talk to a professional. This is true especially if you adopt them as adults, and especially if they were used in dog fighting or dog fighting is in their recent genetic history.
If your Pit Bull shows fighting tendencies, it would be more than irresponsible for you to take her to dog parks or play groups — ever.
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6. Good with other family dogs — or not
In my experience, some Pits who are not good with strange dogs will do fine with siblings in the house. Hudson is obviously a case where this isn’t so true, but Amber was excellent with my other dogs, and when Hudson got older, he mellowed. If you adopt a Pit Bull and have other dogs, make sure they meet first so you can see if they will get along.
Ah, Hudson. I’ve been through it and it means always being on your toes in case there’s a dog fight or crating the dog who starts them. If you adopt a Pit Bull and then discover there is tension with your other dogs, reinforce your status as alpha, spend a lot of time training the potential instigator, and be prepared to be on guard. If there is a fight, separate all of the dogs for at least a day and call in a behavior specialist. Again, consider fostering a Pit Bull before adopting him to see how he gets along with everybody.
7. Can you handle the stereotypes?
If you think you’re tough enough to adopt a Pit Bull, there’s something more to consider — public opinion. I have had people cross the street when they see me walking with one of my Pits, and mothers hide their children. When I was looking for an apartment in New York City, there were some co-ops that banned only Pit Bulls.
And I will never forgive Denver, where I lived long ago, for banning Pit Bulls, not grandfathering any of them in but confiscating them and putting them down immediately. (See: Myths About Canine Aggression.)
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To recap, as a Pit Bull owner, you should be willing to recognize and deal with your Pit Bull’s attributes and faults. You should have lots of energy, time, and affection for your dog. You shouldn’t mind dealing with lots of attention from others, positive as well as negative. You also shouldn’t mind having limitations put on your life because of breed specific legislation or others’ ignorance about Pits.
And you especially should not mind lots of dog slobber from Pit Bull kisses!
Before you adopt a Pit Bull, your best bet is to meet as many of them as you can. Volunteer for a Pit Bull rescue, offer to dog sit-for friends who own Pit Bulls, and stop friendly looking Pit Bull owners and their dogs on the street. Let people know you’re thinking about adopting one, ask questions and do balanced research because, although Pit Bulls are certainly misunderstood and maligned, they can also be tough to own. I don’t recommend them for first-time dog owners. They are strong dogs, some of them have a history of dog fighting, and their tenacity is endless. But they are also extremely loving and excellent companions.
In my opinion, Pit Bulls are the best dogs ever (although, I do love them all). But, if you want to own a Pit Bull, you’d better be someone who isn’t afraid to strut your stuff with your dog despite the disparaging remarks and crooked looks you might get along the way.
Photo: Outdoor Portrait standing American Pit Bull Terrier by Shutterstock