America's Pit Bulls: The Numbers Versus the Narrative

By Jessica Burtch

February 21, 2015 5 min read

Earlier this month, a 30-something Caucasian male attempted to rob a gas station in Saco, Maine. According to authorities, the suspect, still at large, wore a dark-green mask, black gloves and a hoodie. He also carried a gun, and in the course of demanding cash, he shoved that gun in the face of 21-year-old store clerk Justin Ireland.

Big mistake.

Because while Ireland initially was rattled and unsure of how to proceed when confronted by the pistol-wielding robber, his dog, Thor, had no such qualms. In the video that captures the incident, the faithful boxer-pittie literally leaps into action, first nipping at the intruder's gun-wielding hand, then at his face, effectively sending the criminal scampering with his tail between his legs.

Three cheers and a meaty bone for Thor.

The reporting of this story has been widespread. CBS, Huffington Post, Fox and, of course, BarkPost all praise Thor as "heroic" and "deserving of his name" (the Norse god Thor is associated with the protection of mankind) and his actions as "defending his human" and "protecting his friend."

But in the telling of this tale, just as many others, most prominently the New York Daily Post, describe Thor as a "vicious guard dog." The Portland Press-Herald wrapped up their report with this kicker: "For his part, Thor immediately resumed wagging his tail after the brief encounter. He is part boxer, after all."

Because, after all, that happy tail-wagging trait couldn't possibly be the pit bull in Thor, "vicious" dogs that they are.

Will the myth of pit bull as bloodthirsty, lock-jawed demon dog ever go the way of the Roman Empire, or is this faithful hodgepodge of breeds with the goofy grin forever doomed to be the victim of our schizophrenic narrative?

We Americans are a shifty lot. We rail on women for aborting fetuses as unforgivingly as we shame them for raising babies without fathers. Few of us would hire a felon, but we see ourselves as a forgiving people. We are a nation of immigrants who believe all our troubles would be solved by deportation. By all standards, we imprison more people than any other country in the world. And yet, to ask us, we're "soft on crime."

We're suffering a narrative-versus-numbers identity crisis, and our treatment of pit bulls is no exception. When Russ Mead, chairman of StubbyDog, a pit bull advocacy group, presented to Cedar City, Utah, in hopes of persuading them against a pit-bull ban, he began, "In looking at your dog-bite statistics, you don't have a pit-bull problem; you have a cocker-spaniel problem."

If we are to have any hope of one day reconciling the numbers with the narrative, we need to own who we really are. Right now, we are a nation of "bleeding hearts" whose shelters kill more than a million dogs a year — and about 80 percent of those killed are pit bulls. These same dogs who are rescued in the thousands are discarded in the millions.

In January, Americans stampeded to adopt a pit bull-like dog an ocean away whose hard-luck story went viral, even as thousands of others were quietly killed in our shelters that very day . A month later, American journalists unthinkingly perpetuated the myth of the "vicious" pit bull even as part of a story purporting to celebrate his heroism.

Some days it feels like you gotta be a Labradoodle to catch a break around here.

In truth, we're tilting at windmills. The "breed" that's united such beacons of goodwill as landlords, insurance companies and personal injury lawyers doesn't exist. A little bulldog, a little terrier, a dog that looks enough like either or both... Breed legislation is a language of best guesses, in which DNA and individuality have no voice and life-or-death decisions are based solely on physical characteristics. This, in a country full of people who want to be loved for who they are and not what they look like.

Sounds about right.

Jessica Burtch was the longtime editor and writer for Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis. She is an even longer-time lover of dogs and critters in general. Follow her @sicaleigh. Email her at [email protected] Read more at

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