Review of “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon”

My sister & her husband were looking to adopt a dog when they came across Jovi at a local rescue. She’d been hit by a car, & the rescue suspected she’d need to have one of her back legs amputated. Despite being in extreme pain, Jovi impressed them with her sweetness, her calm demeanor, & her friendly personality, so they adopted her.

Fast forward four years, and not much has changed about Jovi, not even her number of legs (still got all 4!).

Jovi might literally be the sweetest dog I’ve ever met, & she’s a complete gem with my sister’s cats & with her nieces. She’s absolutely sweeter than my own dog, & I can say that because I love my dog more than anything.

Jovi is so sweet, in fact, that other dogs often try to bully her. But she never snaps back at them, never stands up for herself. She just turns aside as if to say, “Okay, chihuahua, you can have your way if you just stop yelling at me!”

Jokingly we all started calling her Monster because she’s about as far removed from a vicious animal as could possibly be. She now answers to both names.

pit bull, dog, jovi

Jovi the Monster Bull

Despite never owning a pit bull myself, I knew that people often give pit bulls & their humans a hard time. But I was still not prepared for the reactions she got when out in public. People pulled their children across the road to walk on the opposite side from Jovi. Veterinarians questioned how much money should be spent on “just a rescued pit bull.” Even other pet owners would throw shade at the dog park.

Why does this happen? How did pit bulls gain their fearsome reputation?

This week I read Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey. Inspired by her own experiences after adopting a pit bull named Nola, Bronwen has extensively researched the history of these dogs, from their heritage as bull-baiting dogs to their role as beloved WWII mascots to today’s vilified modern bully breeds.

The mascot came to be viewed as a monster, not because dogs changed, but because we did.

Bronwen’s book is a good balance of anecdote & information. She presents the case against the pit bull, describing how they’re said to have locking jaws, to turn against their owners, to be genetically destined to be vicious killers of other animals & people.

book cover, pit bull the battle over an american icon by bronwen dickey

Then she presents the facts (with exhaustive sources). Here is just a tiny sampling:

  • Among 19th century pit fighting dogs, a dog who was “game” (a.k.a. a dog who actually wanted to fight) was so rare as to be considered a treasure. Almost every pit dog had to be bullied & abused into fighting.
  • The very first SPCA rescued dogs from the abuse of these fighting pits only to later drown them. It was never about the animals. The upper class used the guise of animal welfare to enact war on a pastime enjoyed by the lower class & then couldn’t be bothered with the dogs they had “rescued.”
  • In the “Spitz panic” of the 1870s, Pomeranians were considered evil, vicious creatures who spread rabies, despite zero evidence that this was true. The little dogs were slaughtered by the thousands. In reality, this panic was a backlash against the German & Polish immigrants who brought these dogs with them. She writes, “The most unsettling aspect of the 1870s Spitz panic is that Americans seemed to take so much pleasure in it. The act of hating both the dogs and the people who owned them energized large swaths of the populace.”
  • During WWII, pit bulls were dubbed “Yankee terriers” & were used as all-American mascots. The flip side of this is that dachshunds were used in propaganda to represent Germany, which lead to people murdering their own pet dachshunds for “being German.”

I won’t lie–this was a difficult book to get through, & I had to take several breaks. Bronwen details a lot of kindness, but also a lot of cruelty in her volume. Yet the point she tries to make is that it has never been about the dogs. When humans fear & hate each other, they often turn those emotions on the symbols & representations of the people they hate, including their dogs.

Every decade or so, we find a new breed to fear (in the ’60s, it was the doberman; in the ’70s, it was the St. Bernard; in the ’80s, it was the rottweiler, etc.). Now it just happens to be the pit bull’s turn.

jovi 2b

“But wait,” I hear the anti-pit bull crowd yelling, “What about how pit bulls are inherently more vicious? What about all of the kids & old ladies mauled to death by pit bulls every year? My neighbor’s cousin’s mother-in-law knew somebody who that happened to!”

This book is stuffed to the brim with statistics, & I don’t have time to list them all here. But I will give one more:

  • The number of Americans killed annually by all breeds of dog (about 35 per year) is so low as to be statistically invisible. It amounts to 0.0007% of reported dog bites. By contrast, 12,000 people are killed annually in equine sports (but you don’t see people trying to ban horses).

So what’s my final verdict? If you love pit bulls, you should read this book. If you hate pit bulls, you should read this book. Actually if you care at all about how people & animals are treated in this world, you should read this book.

Because it’s not about the dogs. It’s about us, & we can do better.


I was tagged by Margarida over at Icthus Book Corner to do the Seven Deadly Sins book tag!

Greed: What is the most expensive book you own?

That would have to be my out-of-print Cowboy Bebop manga. You have to get them from 3rd party sellers, so they can be pretty pricey at times if you want a copy in good condition (which I absolutely do).

Gluttony: What book or books have you shamelessly devoured many times?

This is really a tough one because I pretty much never re-read books. There are just so many I haven’t read yet! How can I go back to something I’ve already finished?? But I did read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall all of two times, so that’s probably the winner.

Sloth: What book or series have you neglected over sheer laziness?

Prior to December, I’d have said Jane Austen’s books! But there are a lot of classics that probably still fall into this category. I’ve never read anything by the Bronte sisters, for example, or Tolstoy. Also I bought a nice copy of Les Miserable at a great sale, but after reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I just don’t know if I’m up for it!

Pride: What book or books do you bring up when you want to sound like an intellectual reader?

As far as volume goes, Stephen King’s IT is a good one. It’s so stupidly long that relatively few people have actually read it, which means it’s pretty much good for a merit badge. But when it comes to being a smarty pants, I’d probably say Faust or some obscure non-fiction title (Genetics and the Social Behavior of Dogs, anyone?).

Lust: What attributes do you find most attractive in your characters?

Just don’t be stupid. I hate characters who do & say stupid things.

Envy: What books would you most like to receive as a gift?

How about the rest of the Cowboy Bebop manga volumes? 🙂

Wrath: What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?

Hahaha, I don’t know! Almost all of them? If you read enough of any one person’s work, at some point, they’re inevitably going to disappoint you. Off the top of my head, I can think of J.K. Rowling (seriously, what was the deal with book 7) & C.S. Lewis (phenomenal writer, but maybe you don’t need to beat us over the head with your message the ENTIRE time?).

Thanks for the tag, Margarida! I tag Arlene at Loc Pressed Books & Naty at Naty’s Bookshelf!

P.S. Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to 799books and/or follow me on Twitter & Instagram!

  • Leave a Reply