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Mary Wakefield

In praise of the pit bull terrier

I grew up with a pit bull, and they aren’t devil dogs. They are the best of breeds

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

Last night I saw a woman dancing with a pit bull terrier. It was about 9 p.m. and her curtains were open, lights on. Music must have been playing, though I couldn’t hear it through the glass, because she was singing as she danced the dog about, leaning back to balance his considerable weight. Her arms made a seat for him, as you might carry a child, his paws on her shoulders. The woman gazed down lovingly at the dog, who looked embarrassed but patient, as if this wasn’t his first dance and wouldn’t be his last.

I watched them for a while, standing unseen in the street, half-wondering whether to take a photo — not for fun or for Facebook, but to show to all the crosspatch busybodies who support the ban on ‘devil dogs’. Perhaps also to send to the ‘dangerous dog’ sentencing committee that meets this month to decide the fate of thousands of pit bull owners nationwide.

The ban on pit bulls has failed — any Zone 2 Londoner will tell you that. There are three of them living on my street alone, longer-legged than the froggish Staffie, foursquare and cocksure. The ban has failed, but not just, I think, for the reasons that most anxious bossy-bootses assume. It’s a popular idea that London swarms with devil dogs because the soulless underclass breeds them to use as weapons, but I have an alternative theory, developed as I trot around the streets of Hackney, peering into people’s windows. People keep breeding and buying pit bulls because, though banned, they’re the best of dogs: loyal, good-humoured, bright.

I can testify to a pit bull’s basic decency. My father’s favourite child was a pit bull, a rescue dog, orange, name of Brigand. Briggie slept by my father’s bed at night, and in the evening lay beside him on the sofa watching the News at Ten, one proprietorial paw on his knee. Other dads have photos of their kids around the home. For my father it was just Brigand looking noble in different locations. It’s a tribute to Brig’s character that neither me nor my brothers resented him.

Shake your head all you like, but Brigand was typical of his breed. It’s often argued that pit bulls were bred to fight and are therefore by nature always poised to attack, but they were bred to go for bears and badgers, not people. Back in the grimy days of pit fights, it was vital that a dog, even a battle-ready one, never turned on humans. Most modern pit bulls are mortified at even the slightest cross word.

The RSPCA are hostile to the ban on dangerous dogs on the grounds that there’s no such thing as a bad dog, only bad owners. It would be an enjoyable novelty to be at one with the RSPCA, but I’m not sure I agree. I know several chihuahuas who’d rip your throat out if only they could leap high enough. A recent study carried out on 6,000 dogs and their owners found that the five most aggressive breeds (of 33 studied) were, in order: dachshunds, chihuahuas, Jack Russells, Australian cattle dogs and cocker spaniels. A nicely treated bull terrier — pit, Staffie or English — poses an existential threat only to cats. And when you’ve seen a cat enjoy the death struggles of a robin, claw through heart, the odd death by dog can seem like natural justice.

So what of all the real attacks on humans? The terrible tabloid photos of children mauled by snarling devil dogs? Well, it is a fact that dog attacks are on the up, but that’s no justification for the ban — merely a sign of its uselessness. Dogs aren’t becoming more vicious, it’s just that there are more of them: dog ownership of all sorts in Britain is rising even faster than the rate of bites.

And German shepherds, those wolves in pets’ clothing, must take their share of the blame. Yet who ever tries to ban German shepherds, the swot of the dog world? The vast majority of pit bull attacks, like most other unspeakable things, happen in the home; in unstable and violent homes all manner of things become weapons. But this, again, is no reason to ban the breed. Would you ban kitchen knives from nasty council estates? Baseball bats? Stepfathers? What if the dog-abusing classes took a shine to labradors, who then began to feature in the dog-bite charts? Would you ban them?

All this middle-class head-wagging over an animal that poses them no threat! As Brendan O’Neill once wrote in this magazine, it looks suspiciously like a displaced desire to ban not so much the pit bulls but the people who are assumed to own them.

Here, I imagine the police preparing their reply, talking darkly of unstable ‘status dogs’ and all the doughty officers who must face these monsters daily. I’d feel more sympathetic if it weren’t for stories like that of the Merseyside swoop last year. Officers from the Merseyside ‘Matrix’ unit, named I hope after the kung-fu sci-fi film, broke into family homes at dawn with no warning and seized a clutch of family pets. These pit bulls had been on a special ‘safe list’ for banned but provably non-dangerous dogs. Nonetheless, the brave officers of the Matrix killed them, having cleverly spotted that their insurance had run out.

I’ve heard police say that gangs hang dogs from trees to strengthen their jaws’ already lethal grip. I’ve walked the streets of Hackney at all hours in the hope of seeing a parkful of pit bulls all at head height, frogs’ legs dangling, but not a one.

Of course there are such things as ‘status dogs’, and I’m sure they’re rife on sink estates, as the Met claim. But if so, isn’t that at least in part because they make a thug think twice, in places bobbies fear to tread? So who’s to say they don’t do more good than harm?

As it happens, I have a plan to reduce pit bull attacks that’s better, I think, than any concocted so far. It’s said that their ‘banned’ status is actually what gives the pit bulls their cred. So why not legalise them, then train them up to work with cops? Not only would they fall instantly from favour with every gang, but the reputation of this noblest of breeds would be restored.

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