Pit Bulls: From America’s Dog to Public Enemy #1

Flickr: Nickel3rd

A Pit bull puppy.

Do a news search for “pit bulls” and you’ll notice certain themes: neglect, dog bites, as well as proposals to ban them. No type of dog arouses more emotion than those identified– and misidentified– as Pits bulls. Yet a century ago, these dogs were so admired for their loyalty and bravery that they were considered “America’s Dog” and used on posters during World War I to sell war bonds and recruit for the U.S. military. Before that, Pit bulls were prized for their gentle disposition and willingness to watch over children whose parents were busy at work, in the fields. So how did a dog which was once respected become so feared?

President and CEO of the Washington Humane Society Lisa LaFontaine says, “If you take a historical look at the breeds involved in dog attacks, the dogs that had been trained by certain elements of society to be aggressive were the pariah breeds of their era.”

LaFontaine explains that during the era of slavery, “Attacks by Bloodhounds were common because Bloodhounds were used to track runaway slaves. They were used to doing something violent. Fast forward to the 1880s and New York City, where Newfoundlands were being used to guard markets, so a preponderance of bites came from Newfoundlands. After World War II, Dobermans were associated with Nazis and were seen as dangerous.

“It was really when gangs adopted Pit bulls that they became the latest pariah…these happy, healthy, well-adjusted dogs became a symbol of drug culture and violence because unfortunately, you can take all of a Pit’s positive traits and turn them negative.”

Some may ask, what positive traits does a Pit bull have? Once again, history provides answers– and some surprising examples of great, if not heroic dogs. The only dog ever to be promoted to the rank of “Sergeant” started out as a brindle puppy with an abbreviated tail, a trait which inspired his name, “Stubby”.
Continue reading

Dogs: Good for Irving Street and D.C.


My puppy on 14th Street, last spring. Note the prominent poop bags. We scoop!

First I blogged about dogs, then I pointed you towards some controversy over a Greater Greater Washington post…funnily enough, this post is about dogs and GGW. A few days ago, Lynda Laughlin wrote a post there called, “Irving Street becomes unofficial dog latrine“. In it, she asks, “how much dog urine is just too much for such a public space?”. That question hit home for me, literally.

For those of you who are familiar with this stretch of sidewalk, there is very little green space and the sidewalks are particularly crowded in the morning with commuters going to the Metro or waiting for one of the many buses.

With so little green space, dogs pee on the large planters in front of the apartment building, leaving behind noticeable puddles of dog urine. For the dogs that do make it to the tree boxes, they are not the first for the ground is already fairly saturated by 8 am…If you plan to own a dog in a city, shouldn’t you at least consider taking your dog further then just the nearest tree box?

I am going to dispute this respectfully, and then I’m going to present a different view, because lost in all the judgment of animals and their owners is one potent fact; dogs can make a neighborhood.
Continue reading

DCentric Conversation: Lisa LaFontaine on Pit bulls and More

Washington Humane Society

Lisa LaFontaine, President and CEO of the Washington Humane Society with her dog, Lila.

On Monday, I published the first part of a conversation I had with Lisa LaFontaine, the President and CEO of the Washington Humane Society (WHS). That post explored dog fighting in D.C., the high-profile theft of a puppy named Ivan and WHS’ efforts to educate the city about animal cruelty.

Today’s installment answers some of the questions I posed last week– my conversation with Lisa covered everything from breed confusion to whether there’s a “class” element to Pit bull ownership. We even discussed the history of pariah breeds in this country; a century ago, the “violent dog” du jour was not a Pit or even a terrier. After listening to Lisa and doing research for this piece, I’ll never look at Newfoundlands the same way, again.

All of that and more, after the jump.
Continue reading

DCentric Conversation: Lisa LaFontaine of the Washington Humane Society

Washington Humane Society

WHS President Lisa LaFontaine and her lovely dog, Lila.

On Friday, I mentioned that I had interviewed Lisa LaFontaine, the President and CEO of the Washington Humane Society (WHS). We discussed several topics, most notably the stigmatization of Pit Bulls, which is a compelling and divisive issue. If I were a gambler, I’d wager that the reason why my “teaser” of a post was shared 20 times on Facebook (not typical for DCentric, no matter how many eyelashes or shooting stars I wish on) has more to do with America’s scariest dog than humane education or your kind support of my dream job writing for WAMU.

Lisa was so generous, she spent twice the allotted time speaking with me and for that I am grateful. Because we covered so much information, I’m splitting the interview in to two posts; part two will be up Wednesday morning.

Some of you may be wondering, what do dogs have to do with race and class; interestingly enough, this weekend and earlier today, whenever I was speaking with people involved with animals, their immediate response was, “Everything”. A colleague added, “Unfortunately, the stereotype is that the only people who own Pit Bulls are either white rednecks or Black drug dealers.” After speaking to Lisa LaFontaine, I know that such assumptions are inaccurate– and dangerous for a breed which was once affectionately referred to as a “Nanny dog”.
Continue reading

Next Week: Lisa LaFontaine of the WHS on Dogs, D.C. and More

Washington Humane Society

I just got off the phone with Lisa LaFontaine, the President & CEO of the Washington Humane Society.

We had an edifying discussion about “Pit Bulls” (though that’s not how the WHS refers to them) and the humane education programming the group does in D.C.; we also explored how a breed once known as “America’s Dog”, which enjoyed starring roles on classic television programs like the Li’l Rascals is now a pariah.

Interestingly enough, LaFontaine mentioned that frontier icon Laura Ingalls had a dog named Jack, who may have been a Bull Terrier– and when I looked for links, I found several which corroborated this bit of history– as well as a few which hotly disputed it, and termed it “pit bull propaganda”. That 15 minutes of web-surfing reinforced how much of an issue this controversial breed can be for some, but why?

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about “Pit Bulls”– even though most people can’t correctly identify them, when tested. Are people of a certain race more likely to own one? Is it a class thing– are they more likely to be in Ward 8 than Ward 2? And how prevalent is dog-fighting in Washington, D.C.?

The answers might surprise you– check back on Monday, for more.

Dog Poo and Racial Epithets, Oh My.


More pleasant than a broom, but that's just me

Well, THIS is an interesting feature on TBD– the “Neighbor Hall of Shame“. I’m extra interested in this story for a few reasons– I think D.C.’ers need to be more neighborly, it involves “shame” and it has to do with dog poo. As the proud caretaker of a poky little puppy, I deal with such foulness at least twice a day…but at least I dispose of it properly, unlike this Hill East resident:

Handley accuses a neighbor in the 1700 block of Massachusetts Ave. SE, directly across the rear alley from him, of regularly sweeping his dog’s feces out of his back yard and into the alley. “This is his standard practice and has been going on for years,” Handley says. “What he tends to do is sweep it out there, and then maybe later he’ll take a hose and flush it down the alley.” The situation gets even worse in the summer months, Handley says, when “you really smell it.”

It’s a mind-boggling neighborhood issue on number of levels. So many questions come to mind. Is it really more work to pick up the poop and dispose of it properly than it is to grab a broom and start sweeping? Does this guy use that broom inside his house?

Continue reading

Ivan has been found!

Washington Humane Society

Ivan the puppy.

Great news! The four-month old pit bull puppy who was stolen from the Washington Humane Society’s New York Avenue shelter has been found. Here’s more, from The Washington Times:

Scott Giacoppo, a spokesman for the humane society, confirmed for The Washington Times that they have located the 4-month-old pit bull, named Ivan.

And here’s something I didn’t see reported elsewhere:

Sources told The Times that three youths thought to be involved in the highly publicized theft of the dog were wards of the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. The sources, who talked The Times on condition anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the subject, said the three juveniles were at the agency’s headquarters on Wednesday.

I’m so relieved that this puppy is safe.

Have you seen this puppy?

Washington Humane Society

Ivan is a four-month old pit bull puppy; he was stolen on Monday.

Last February, I adopted a little black and white puppy who was surrendered with her litter at the Washington Humane Society’s New York Avenue shelter, so I am extra-sad about this:

Four month old Ivan was snatched from his kennel at the New York Avenue shelter early on Monday afternoon. Three suspects were caught on surveillance video taking the dog from the shelter. The individuals entered the shelter on 1201 New York Avenue, NE posing as potential adopters. Once inside the shelter the suspects took Ivan from his cage and escaped by breaking through a wooden fence behind the building.

On the news, I saw a WHS official describe the crime by saying that the suspects entered a restricted area and then kicked down a wooden fence to exit with the puppy.  As commenters on other news sites and blogs have pointed out, the dog-nappers look young, and it’s possible that a local teacher or school employee might recognize them. I hope that’s exactly what happens and that the story is picked up by other outlets, so more people can see the suspects.
Continue reading