Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beyond the Myth of Pit Bulls

In preparing for our upcoming book, "Lost Souls: Found! Inspiring Stories of Pit Bulls," I was recently introduced to Libby Sherrill, the creative heart behind the upcoming documentary Beyond The Myth. Going into editing the book, I knew nothing about Pit Bulls - in fact, I thought that "Pit Bull" was an actual breed (it's not!). I'm learning so much, and this interview that Libby graciously granted me has been the icing on the cake. It's a bit lengthy, but please read through the whole thing. I think that some of this information about Pit Bulls will surprise you!

HTB: What is your history with Pit Bull rescue? How did you get involved?

LS: I have an American Pit Bull Terrier (or what looks to be), Fern Blossom. She was rescued from the streets of Knoxville, Tennessee, and when a co-worker approached me with her pictures…well, I just couldn’t resist. My co-worker had heard that I was producing a film about pit bulls and so she thought, “Hey this would be a perfect fit.” She couldn’t have been more right. Fern is my first dog as an adult and she came to me a few months after production started on Beyond the Myth.

But even before I rescued Fern, I knew two other pit bulls, Angus and Boris who won my heart immediately. Even my 75-year-old mother (who is generally afraid of dogs) fell in love with them and learned that they are not bad dogs simply because they are of the bully breed. Angus and Boris are rescues too, and what a pair they are. Angus came from a local shelter and Boris hopped in my friend’s truck on a rainy night in downtown Knoxville (with a bullet in his head). Angus is hyper and needy and Boris is laid back and confident. Both are handsome fellows. Before Angus and Boris came into my life, I really didn’t know anything about pit bulls or the discrimination they and their owners face. Fern, Boris and Angus opened my mind and heart and I’m grateful for their influence.

For the record, there is no breed of dog officially know as a “pit bull.” For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say that the phrase pit bull is a catch-all for dogs with characteristics resembling that of the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

HTB: How did you come up with the idea of Beyond the Myth? What is it?

LS: I developed the concept as part of my senior project while attending graduate school at the University of Tennessee. I received my M.S. in Communications a little over two years ago, and left an eight-year career with Scripps Networks (HGTV) to produce Beyond The Myth. It wasn’t until this past December that I decided the title for the film would be “Beyond the Myth” and ironically, it was my mother (the person who used to fear pit bulls but now sleeps with Fern when she visits) who first suggested it. There were many other titles thrown around but none seemed to stick like Beyond the Myth.

The number-one goal of this film is to inform an uneducated and misguided public about the true pit bull-type dog and the weaknesses of breed specific legislation. Innocent companion animals (like Coco in Denver) are being murdered and responsible owners are being discriminated against and made to suffer because their dogs have certain physical characteristics. You can read Coco’s story on our website. Be prepared to cry. As one interviewee put it referring to the number of pit bulls being killed in cities like Denver, Cincinnati, and Miami, “It’s a canine holocaust.”

HTB: What are the biggest misconceptions about Pit Bulls? Why do you think the breed has been so singled out as "bad?"

LS: A few of the biggest myths about pit bulls are that they are inherently vicious, that they have locking jaws, and that they are not good with children. All untrue. No breed of dog has a locking jaw and the bite pressure per square inch (psi) of a pit bull is only 320 psi (humans average 175-200psi). This number, according to a test administered by National Geographic, is actually lower than that of Dobermans and German Shepherds. And, as for children, pit bulls were once referred to as nanny dogs in England. They can get along with kids just as well as any other breed, and better in many cases!

The number one reason that pit bulls have gotten a bad rap is biased media reports on dog attacks, or what I like to refer to as the agenda-setting function of the press. The agenda-setting theory states that the mass media has a large influence on audiences by their choice of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them.

The first level of influence occurs because of the amount of coverage a news source gives to a dog attack. Based on my research, when a “pit bull” attacks, the media picks it up and it’s reprinted and aired all over via many different mediums (tv, newspaper, etc.). Here, the media is telling you WHAT TO THINK ABOUT. All of the attention causes a grandma in small town Kentucky with no personal experience of pit bulls to think, “Gee, this news story is everywhere, it must be important.”
The second level of influence occurs when there is a dog attack that involves what the media “believes” (often times dogs are misidentified) to be pit bull type dog. Because headlines so often include the words “pit bull” and “attack,” an association is immediately created between pit bull and attack. Here again, the media is telling you WHAT TO THINK. Of course grandma thinks pit bulls must be vicious if they are constantly attacking people.

Know this: when there is a dog attack that involves what the media believes to be of another breed of dog, the media often omits the breed from the headline so no association is created in the minds of the audience, and many times the story isn’t published at all. So, by deferment, people believe that no other breeds attacks except pit bulls. The bottom line is that the press has created an illusionary correlation between pit bulls and dog attacks.

There are many other underlying environmental factors that are ignored, but you’ll have to watch Behind The Myth to learn about them – it’s too much to talk about in one post. One other thing to note, however, is that pit bulls have been labeled as vicious “fighting dogs,” but the true viciousness rests in the heart of man. Despite being illegal in all 50 states, the cruel, inhumane, immoral blood “sport” of dog fighting continues to thrive. Pit bulls are the most desired type of dog to use for fighting because of their prey drive and gameness, their athleticism, their tenacity, musculature, and willingness to please—all traits that can be just as easily fostered to create a wonderful family companion. Just look at the Michael Vick dogs - many of the survivors have been rehabilitated and moved on to live a happy dogs life with a loving family.

HTB: What are three things you would tell someone who wants to get a Pit Bull?

LS: 1. Temperament:
Pit bulls are very affectionate, people loving (even with kids), loyal, and intelligent, and are often times downright silly hambones. They are usually very energetic and need more exercise than many breeds. Many people say that the most dangerous thing on a pit bull is its tongue (my friend calls it a bovine kiss) and wagging tail! I can speak from experience on that one! But seriously, they are very athletic dogs that are generally eager to please and usually exhibit a high prey drive, which makes them very trainable, Around 85 % of the Pit Bulls (American Pit Bull Terriers) tested by The American Temperament Test Society pass, which is 1% higher than Golden Retrievers, and almost 20% higher than standard schnauzers (%66 pass rate). You can see all stats here

2. Consider rescuing a pit bull in need:
Before you decide to purchase a puppy from a pet store or backyard breeder, remember that pit bulls are the most abused, abandoned dog of our time, and shelters across the country are full of them. Based on my research, pit bulls and pit bull mixes can account for 60% of the total number of dogs in shelters, regardless of the geographical location. There are thousands of loving, adoptable pit bulls waiting to go home with a loving family.

3. Do your Research:
Know the breed you have, and regardless of breed, never leave your child alone with a dog. We are the caretakers and should be in attendance to monitor the dog/child interaction. Research your breed and give your dog the attention and care that promotes both a sound mind and body. Since pit bulls are very energetic, they need a lot of time from their caretakers and will thrive in an environment where they have room to be themselves. If you rescue a pit bull, make sure he or she can get along well with any other animals that you may have. Dogs of any breed can exhibit dog-on-dog aggression, so have shelter or rescue help you determine which pit bull is right for you.

HTB: What are three ways people can help fight the Pit Bull myths?

LS: People can break stereotypes by being responsible owners and giving their dogs proper/adequate obedience training, socialization, exercise and medical care.

1. Make your pit bull a breed ambassador:
Take your well-behaved dog to parks and events; make them very public. Take pictures of your dog with your kids and put those pics on Facebook, etc. Show people that your pit bull is a member of your family, not a dog you’re chaining up in the backyard. Get your pit CGC (Canine Good Citizen certified) and frame his or her certificate so all your friends can see! And, if you don’t have a pit bull but know someone who does, introduce those friends and their dog to your family, co-workers and other friends. Meet up with them at dog parks and let people see your dog of a different breed interact with a pit bull.

2. Address behavioral issues:
All owners should openly address any unstable behavior and aggressiveness right away by contacting a trainer or behaviorist who can work with the dog in question. These responsible owner criteria are not just applicable to pits, but to all breeds.

3. Go Beyond the media hype:
Educate people and encourage everyone you know to think for themselves instead of letting the media tell them what to think; and of course, introduce as many people as you can to your well-mannered pittie. A positive personal experience is the best defense you can provide against some person’s misconception/bias that all pit bulls are vicious.

HTB: What are you going to do once you have completed Beyond the Myth? What's next?

LS: Wow, that’s a tough question! Once Beyond the Myth is completed (late 2009), I’ll hopefully be touring the country showing the film in independent art houses/theatres and holding educational screenings at Universities and at dog/animal advocacy events. We’re taking the show on the road! Sign up to our mailing list to find out if we’ll be in a town near you.

HTB: Hey readers, feeling inspired to help some Pitties? The Beyond The Myth folks are selling some great t-shirts to help fund the production of their documentary. Please support them by picking up a shirt!

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