Now Doctor Jes is the first to admit she is not a writer, but she is super-smart, fantastically evil, and has mad proofreading skillz. She might not be a writer, but she knows what writing should be like, and if there is shit in your WIP she will call you on it. It’s glorious. If she’s got something to say about your work, you’d best pay attention to it.
Over to you, Doctor Jes!
This arose from a conversation with the author of a book I have been beta reading. They used a comment along the lines of “vicious as a pit bull” and off we went. So here’s some things to consider when stereotyping; it has bad effects in real life for animals just as it does for humans (for bonus awareness points, consider how many stereotypes about pit bulls you can substitute interchangeably with stereotypes about black men). I will be happy to expand on any of these points if anybody requests.
1) Labradors are (or were several years ago, I’m recalling a fairly old study) the breed most likely to bite someone, by straight number. In good part, that’s because they are the most common breed kept as pets in the US, and therefore the most likely to be encountered. Why not use Labrador in the same phrase? Because “the saying” doesn’t involve Labradors, and it sounds silly to use that breed in place, right? Well logic out the saying, and I think you’ll stop using it, even if you never personally feel the need to go adopt a pitty.
2) A study a couple of years back found that the factors most associated with biting were, in order: being an intact male dog [Note: “Intact” means “not sterilized” AKA “not neutered or spayed” in this instance.], being an intact female dog, being a dog from a low-income neighborhood, and being a terrier breed. That’s intact dogs of any breed, and terrier dogs as an entire group (everything from Yorkshire to Staffordshire). This means there are a lot of factors regarding pet ownership that have more influence on a dog’s likelihood of biting than breed does.
3) A recent study on breed-specific legislation shows no value to banning “aggressive” breeds; the problem isn’t the dogs’ breeds, it’s the training and environment.
4) Third study compared DNA testing to people’s identification of breeds by appearance – people who work at shelters and in veterinary clinics, not just people off the street – and often it’s little better than chance whether someone can identify the actual breed of a dog, which means there is a lot of “collateral damage” to the perception of pit bulls being universally mean. Literally hundreds of thousands of dogs are being mislabeled as pit bulls (which is, by the way, a sub-category of terrier, comprised of 4 different actual breeds, not a breed itself).
5) The same study compared adoption rates of dogs labeled by breed and dogs in unlabeled kennels at rescues. Dogs labeled pit bull are much less likely to get adopted, which means thousands of (for instance) boxer- and spaniel-mix dogs, are being euthanized yearly because someone thought they looked like pit bulls. Hundreds of thousands of pit bulls get euthanized yearly for no reason except that they are pit bulls. (Well, and general overpopulation and irresponsible pet ownership, but that’s a different rant).
6) Anecdotes aren’t data, but here’s my personal experience of interacting with hundreds (probably thousands) of dogs [Note: Remember Doctor Jes is a Real Live Animal Doctor! Might want to listen to her on this.] – I’ve met three incredibly aggressive pit bull type dogs. I’ve met dozens of unmanageably aggressive Cocker spaniels and heelers. The single worst bite I’ve ever received was from a Miniature Schnauzer – entirely unprovoked and with no warning before he went from standing still to latched into my hand so hard I had to pry his mouth open by forcing his jaw down with the hand that was impaled on his teeth. One of the two dogs I currently have is a pit mix, and she is a doll. Super submissive; even when scared or hurt she doesn’t redirect into anger. For example, when my cousins’ two-year-old son was stomping on and kicking her, she waited until he wasn’t actually touching her then jumped up and ran off – not a single motion toward him. (The break there was his mother and I yelling at him to stop because we saw what he was doing.) I have a friend who has worked at the local Humane Society for a couple decades. She specifically adopts pitties because she finds them very agreeable for living in her small house with an endless train of foster kittens.
7) Yes, some pit bulls are quite large (again, group, not distinct breed – some are medium-sized dogs), and large dogs can do a lot of damage when they bite. (You are more likely to be bitten by a Jack Russell; you’re more likely to be hospitalized by a German Shepherd.) The rumors about pit bulls having “locking jaws” is bullshit; there is not “ratchet” in their TMJ and no unexpected anatomical weirdness. They actually have a lower pound/square-inch bite force than several other breeds (Wolf >/= Mastiff > Rottweiler > German Shepherd >/= Pit Bull, per National Geographic).
8) The American Veterinary Medical Association’s statement on the topic: https://www.avma.org/Advocacy/StateAndLocal/Documents/Welfare-Implications-of-the-role-of-breed.pdf
I know “vicious as a pit bull” was a single phrase in a book that otherwise didn’t mention dogs at all. Nobody’s going to be reading it intending to develop an opinion about dog breeds. But every use, and perhaps especially casual use (often accepted without conscious consideration) adds to the overall perception of the breed. You are wordsmiths. Your words can be wielded as weapons. Please craft them carefully.
Thank you, Doctor Jes! We truly appreciate your time, and are fortunate to have your input. That was a fantastic post!
Writers, you heard the Doctor. Watch your mouth.