I have never been afraid of dogs. I've been a collie fancier, a dog show fan; and the kind of kid that missed my dog instead of my parents when staying with my grandmother. I'm that annoying person who comes up to you and wants to pet your dog. There was only one type of dog that I never approached, and when the subject came up on town meeting floor, I added my voice to the vote requiring their owners to restrict them behind tall fences. That fear wasn't based on any actual experience, but on the stories of attacks on children and owners and I, like many, accepted the conventional wisdom that pit bulls were bred mean and are unpredictable. When a friend's teenage wannabe gangsta son came home with a full grown pit bull, I told her that her insurance rates would go up and that she might even be denied homeowner's insurance. The dog went back.
The day that I picked out my tan and white puppy from a litter of 'terrier mixes' born in a southern shelter and imported north, I noticed that two of the four puppies were smooth-haired and lantern-jawed. They looked like, gasp, pit bulls. I had a moment of buyer's regret, thinking that this cute little Jack Russell-like dog was actually a pit bull cross with wire hair. I discretely smoothed out her beard until I was satisfied that her jaw was narrow and her muzzle long. I sure didn't want my insurance rates to go up.
So why then, with all these preconceived notions, was my canine protagonist, Chance, a pit bull? I needed a dog that was unlikely to be adopted. I needed a tough guy who essentially mirrored my human protagonist in attitude. Not knowing at the outset where the story might go, I also needed a dog that I might be able to sacrifice without guilt. Instead, I got Chance, the philosophical pit bull. And I got a lesson in pit bulls from one of the dog's strongest advocates.
Jane Rotrosen Berkey is founder and president of Animal Farm Foundation, a pit bull rescue in New York. She also happens to be the principal of the Jane Rotrosen Agency, with which I have been associated for a very long time. At the time I was writing this book, I had no idea she was actively rescuing pit bulls. Lucky for me, she was more than happy to talk with me and help me overcome a number of misconceptions. Enlisting the help of an animal behaviorist, Bernice Clifford, CPDT, also of Animal Farm Foundation, I was saved from perpetuating myths and promoting misinformation about the pit bull, even a fictional one.
In the book, I used the term 'anger-dogs' to describe the dogs made to fight. I thought that it described the breed, or, more accurately, the breed type, one that lived to fight; one that had a short fuse and that was innately vicious. What I learned from Jane and Bernice is that people train these dogs to fight and they are good at it because they are doing what their masters want them to do. Once called the nanny dog because they were so good with children, these dogs have become more associated in the public mind with gangs and violence than with family life. That connection has taken the pit bull from "Our Gang" to gangsta.
But in the novel I still needed to make my point, that these dogs are good at their jobs. Then it dawned on me--these dogs are like gladiators, slaves fighting to the death for their rulers' entertainment. And gladiators they became in One Good Dog.
It's old news about football player Michael Vick and his dog fighting ring. He's done his time and is back on the playing field, although still scorned by many. Many of those abused dogs were successfully re-homed. One, Hector, has become a one-dog ambassador for animal shelters and visits schools promoting good relations between kids and animals. It is a testament to the resilience of mistreated dogs that they have the capacity to forgive human beings for unconscionable behavior. Not every pit bull which has been fought can be saved, but many can. For some, the years of torment have made them too damaged, too far gone. But others can find new lives, like my fictional Chance, as devoted pets.
I've overcome my prejudice with knowledge. But now I wonder what ever became of that pit bull I discouraged my friend from keeping.
For more information about pit bull rescue, visit Best Friends: Saving America's Dogs at http://www.bestfriends.org/nomorehomelesspets/pit_bulls.cfm, Animal Farm Foundation at http://www.animalfarmfoundation.org or Bad Rap at http://www.badrap.org/rescue.