Friday, December 08, 2017

Papers and Pit Bulls

dog ownership

School is over for 2017. When I turned in my final paper and walked out the door of Room 6 the other day I felt like I’d taken off a heavy coat and a tight girdle, both at once. I love the learning part of school, but academic writing is a whole new sport and I’m extraordinarily bad at it. None of the writing muscles I’ve developed over thirty years are useful in the academic genre and it’s maddening not to be able to use them. It’s like I’m a pole vaulter trying to do the hammer throw. 
        I wrote my paper about Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, a cozy 1896 novel about life in a coastal New England town. If you haven’t read it, brew yourself a mug of chamomile tea, curl up by the fire, and give it a try. Prepare to be charmed and perhaps a bit bored. I initially loved this book, but there was something about it, something small, that rubbed me the wrong way, and I decided it would be fun to try to identify and explore that small, annoying thing in my final paper. 

dog ownership meets grad school
        It was not fun. I started researching and brooding and rereading Country of the Pointed Firs and I ended up writing a 22-page paper about why I absolutely hate Country of the Pointed Firs which is like writing a paper about why you hate bunny rabbits.
And yet I somehow convinced myself, if not the professor, that Country of the Pointed Firs is a “dangerous” book. Do I really think so? I have no idea, but once I start arguing a case I can’t stop, like a pit bull whose jaw locks when she sinks her teeth into the tender neck of a toy poodle.
That’s a myth, of course, that pit bulls have locking jaws. They have perfectly ordinary jaws. I actually don’t have more to say about school or academic writing, I want to talk about pit bulls.
  When I started idly looking at dogs last summer, the pit bull was the one breed I would not consider. First of all, vicious. Second, ugly. My feelings about pit bulls were shaped by a notorious 2001 case in which two pit bulls attacked and killed a San Francisco woman in the hallway of her apartment building. Except here’s the thing: the dogs that attacked her weren’t pit bulls. They were Presa Canarios. But in my memory for the last 16 years they were pit bulls. Weird how that happens, but it happens a lot with the poor pit bull. The parallels with racial prejudice seem obvious to me.
Anyway, I didn’t adopt a pit bull. I adopted an adorable, scrawny boxer-whippet mix. So it was a little irritating when a kid on the street one day patted Gracie and said he loved pit bulls. I gently corrected him. Someone else pointed out that the tip of her tail was white, typical of the pit bull. I explained Gracie was a boxer-whippet mix. Then, a month or so ago, a woman I talk to all the time at the park said, “You know, Gracie looks a little pitty to me.” My heart sank. She looked a little pitty to me too in some lights and I didn’t like those lights. 

a little pitty?
To settle this issue, I took a swab of her saliva and sent it to a doggie DNA lab. It turns out the shelter hadnt been lying, Gracie has boxer and hound ancestry. But they had declined to mention, or perhaps did not know, that she is half pit bull. Or, I should say, American Staffordshire Terrier. 
I’m ashamed to admit that I was unsettled and instantly my beloved Gracie became less cute to me and for a few days I wondered if her boisterousness wasnt actually worrisome aggression. Then I read Pit Bull by Bronwen Dickey, a book I highly recommend if you accidentally adopt a pit bull. The pit bull hasn’t always been America’s most reviled dog. Helen Keller owned a pit bull and so did Teddy Roosevelt and Laura Ingalls Wilder. The pit was once considered a delightful and trustworthy family pet. But since the 1970s, it’s been the dog we enjoy villainizing, the dangerous Other of the canine world. I wouldn’t suggest anyone rush up to a strange pit bull with a spiked collar and start hugging him, but I’ve gotten to know a whole bunch of pit bulls and pit mixes since I started paying attention to dogs, and they’re pretty much all sweet, a few of them ridiculously so.  
After finishing Pit Bull, now completely woke about dog prejudice, I decided to do what I could to promote pit bull tolerance, like, I don’t know, actually telling people my cheery, petite, ebullient puppy was a pit bull mix?
Shortly thereafter Gracie and I were walking on our favorite trail when we encountered a woman with a gorgeous Australian shepherd puppy on a leash. The woman and I exchanged info about the breeds of our puppies and watched them romp for a minute or two. It was very chummy. We said good-bye and after we’d walked on for thirty seconds, Gracie couldn’t resist and ran back to play some more with her new pal. In the course of playing she “bit” the dog on the neck. I put “bit” in quotes because there is “biting” and there is biting. When puppies play they will “bite” their partner with a soft mouth, in other words, they don’t clamp down, they don’t exert pressure, they don’t truly bite. Gracie has joyfully “bitten” and been “bitten” by probably 100 dogs and never once has she hurt another animal. She doesn’t bite. Ever. I was approaching to grab Gracie’s collar when the woman started saying with an edge of hysteria in her voice: “Stop the biting, I don’t like that biting!” and then she shouted: “GET YOUR DOG!!!”
It was ludicrous. I understood she was anxious, but it was ludicrous. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Did she overreact because I’d told her Gracie was a pit bull mix? I pulled Gracie away and apologized, adding, “This is actually very normal puppy play.” The woman glared at me and walked away. I walked the other direction and thought, I bet she’s going to tell people about how she met this horrible pit bull on the trail who bit her puppy.
Typing this anecdote I really wanted to include certain details that would make the woman look precious and icky, portray her as the type of woman who would overreact to learning a puppy was a pit bull mix. You know, sort of like . . .  me a few months ago? 
       Typecasting is typecasting. It’s all pernicious.
       Dog ownership has been fascinating. I learned a lot this fall in the classroom, and even more from owning a dog.

On another subject, if you want to read a wonderful “unabashed appreciation” of Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, check this out. I bought Smitten Kitchen Every Day and I’ve made the broccoli melts twice (recipe is also on her blog) and foresee making them a hundred more times. Easy, delicious. Her sausage, kale and crouton saute is also easy and great. Now that I’ve shucked the heavy coat and tight girdle of school, at least for a while, I hope to do more cooking and pole vaulting.


  1. I thought you were going to Seoul at Thanksgiving; report to follow?

  2. My sweet mutt also looks Pitt-ish, which I never had a problem with, bc she is THE SWEETEST dog with people, and especially with kids. We had a blood dna test done on her, Bc my husband is in the navy, and some bases have breed restrictions. It came back 40% sharpei (also a “fighting dog”, but no one seems alarmed by it in the way they are when they assume she’s a pittbull), 12% golden retriever (which I don’t see), and everything else was in such small increments, they couldn’t be detected.) I’ve had people cross to the other side of the street when I’m walking her, to put distance between us. It’s bizarre.

  3. First, you are the best writer on the internet, and I can't wait for you to graduate and get back to blogging full time. If academic writing had even an ounce of your tone and ability with detail, we would all be studying. Love the dog story. I'm in the same camp regarding prejudice about certain breeds. We had a gorgeous Weimareiner with steel blue eyes who terrified everyone because of them and his size, but he was always a goofy puppy who loved to frolic. But I get why he seemed imposing. I hope you post as much as possible while school is out of session!

  4. I adopted my first pittie 2 years ago. I was a little nervous at first because of the overall media prejudice and panic regarding this group of dogs. My fears quickly slipped away as I discovered her to be the most people friendly of any dog I've ever had. She lives to interact with people. We went for her annual vet appointment this morning and she charmed the socks off of everyone. You can expect some prejudice but more and more people are getting the memo that they are just dogs. Olive gets along beautifully with our other dog. We had problems with dog/cat relations, at first, because she was afraid of the cat. I started her in agility last year to provide her with some form of mental and physical exercise. Since then we have been to two competitions. She isn't setting the world on fire with her agility skills but she is an excellent ambassador for her "breed". I wouldn't hesitate to adopt another pittie, in fact,that would be my first choice.

  5. I hope for you to be always guided to the right way to the truth and then live in peace always.

  6. God loves righteous and faithful , i wish you become one of them , best wishes to be guided to the right way to god

  7. I wrote a paper about Country of the Pointed Firs in a lesbian lit class in college (very rad for the late 80s) but couldn't for the life of me tell you what it was about. (I believe I did a "lesbian reading" of that and another novel I can no longer remember.) One of my dear friends wrote her English thesis on Sarah Orne Jewett, but I don't think dangerousness was part of her argument.

    Re: pitbulls, you might want to look for Arin Greenwood online, an animal writer who writes a lot about them (and about efforts to overcome bias against them).

    And re: Smitten Kitchen, I haven't made anything from the new book yet, but II've made her butternut squash and caramelized onion galette from the first book for Thanksgiving for the past few years, and this year, my 14-year-old niece informed me she looks forward to the galette all year!! I also recently made her kale salad from the blog and couldn't stop eating it, which is not my usual reaction to a kale salad.

  8. We have just adopted a dog who is probably part Chihuahua (also omnipresent in the shelters) and who, immediately upon coming home, got a parvo diagnosis which (yay!) he has just survived. I like all doggies, included pits and pit mixes, although I will confess to being a little more cautious with that breed, along with some others. I think, if I were you, I'd share the info later in the acquaintance. I would adore to meet your Gracie one day.

  9. When I first moved to NYC I had an acquaintance who traveled for work all the time and had a super cool pad in the Village and a pit bull. I used to take care of her. She was super sweet and would curl up on my lap. She had a Kong toy which she had to hold in her mouth at all times while we were at the dog park, otherwise she would cause bleeding in the dogs she played with. She didn't mean any harm, she just was too exuberant.

    1. Really? "...she would cause bleeding...She didn't mean any harm..." What is you definition of 'bleeding' and 'harm'? I'm completely lost here.

  10. This is tough one. I actually heard a defendant in court testifying that his pit bulls were friendly to people because otherwise he killed them, just too dangerous to keep. (His dogs got out of his yard and killed several smaller dogs in the neighbors yard after jumping the fence). I am sure most pit bulls or pit bull mix are good, friendly and loving.....however, just from size alone you should be careful. Just as you would around a any large Un-neutered male of any species. So, keep them on leash, make sure they know basic commands, and realize the responsibility is on you, not the dog.

  11. It's great to see a post and know that you have negotiated the first bit of grad school without injury! I bet it was a shock to the senses - so regimented, so narrow in focus. But I don't doubt that your writing is the best in your class, seriously. From the little I know of you, it seems to be your super power.
    I admit to being somewhat fearful of a lot of large breed dogs, including German Shepards. I am a dog person, but exuberant large dogs can be scary until you get to know them. A neighbor of mine has a Rottweiler that he allows to run in the neighborhood, and it is a problem when I walk my small dogs. So, I say most dogs can be good dogs with training and supervision, but a large and untrained dog has the capacity for great harm, while a small dog who misbehaves does not. I think that is why people are afraid of pit bulls. I know until I get to know them, that is why I am cautious around them. (I am also a horse person, but I am very cautious around strange horses for the same reason. They also have potential for great harm.) But if you are supervising her and training her, people will learn she is a good and sweet dog. I would be happy to meet Gracie.

  12. Jen, pit bull reputations came about largely because of the kind of PEOPLE that wished to exploit the 'bully breeds' and not because of the breed itself. Pits are strong, very owner-loyal, and have a strong prey response. These characteristics are true of many dog breeds and sadly, they are characteristics that can be taken gross advantage of by a bad owner. Moreover, your baby is a mutt, and since the hybrid organism tends to self-select for good qualities, you baby's mixed breed heritage inclines her toward a good disposition and good health. Use a firm hand with her, look at some puppy training, she's fine. (Read Temple Grandin, she makes a persuasive argument for the good nature of canids who show white coloration on their faces).She's also cute as a button, and apparently in need of more chew toys...though it's nice to see that she's a reader.

  13. To each their own, but I for one would not own a pit bull. Two recent articles:

  14. I am probably biased, but I have found pitties to be the kissiest dogs ever. Ever! I have met Labs that don't kiss as much as pitties!

  15. I have a shelter pittie who is certainly half pitbull and half something else, but when I tell people they don't believe me. She looks like a hilariously small black lab. Anyway, I notice people are afraid of her (rightfully so) because she has horrible leash and dog reactivity, not because they think she's a pitbull. Her life (and ours) would be very hard though if she did look more pit. I've tried everything to break her, but have not succeeded. She's sweet as can be to people, loves kids, but just will not stop mad barking at other dogs and strangers. I manage by keeping the yard secure, and we go on walks later at night to avoid meeting others.

    On the flip side, I also have a tiny little stinky french bulldog. I've had an old woman in a grooming salon with her two dauchsunds FREAK OUT at me, screaming to not let her doxies near that "pitbull". The groomers laughed hysterically. I also had people on the street come up to me to ask about my pitbull (aka the frenchie) and ask if I cut his ears and docked his tail. No, that's just how they look. It's hysterical.

    People don't know anything about dogs, pay no mind to the woman freaking out about the puppy.