By STEVE DALE
Tribune Media Services
"I'm a Good Dog" is a book about pit bulls. You'd expect a book with that name to be about marvelously obedient dogs, therapy and service dogs, or dogs who heroically save lives -- about Collies (like Lassie), Golden or Labrador Retrievers, anything but pit bulls. However, author Ken Foster chimes, "Of course, pit bulls are all those things, really." He says the popular perception about dogs called pit bulls might continue to be perpetuated by the media, but the truth is another matter. "I am here to tell the truth," he adds. And that truth is the book's subtitle: "America's Most Beautiful and Misunderstood Pet."
Foster's fascination with dogs called pit bulls began while living in New York City in 2001.
"I saw how happy they were to be with their owners, like they're showing off their people as they walk with them," he recalls.
So, he adopted one -- a brindle-patterned (striped) pup named Brando that was supposed to top out at 60 pounds, but wound up at about 100 pounds.
"People would actually think I had a hyena," Foster says. "Can you imagine? That's crazy -- like I'm really walking down a New York City street with a hyena."
Like most dogs called pit bulls, Brando had the general phenotype (or physical characteristics) of a dog we might call a pit bull, including the brindle pattern, but when a genetic test was done, it turned out he was a Bullmastiff and hound mix. So while Brando shared features common to what people call pit bull dogs, there was no pit bull in him.
"That's the thing, and I realize it's very confusing," says Foster. "You have all these dogs that look like what we call pit bulls, but when they're DNA tested, it turns out they are not pit bulls at all. They're merely a combination of heritages, just like most Americans." That's why Foster says he calls pit bull-type dogs, the All-American dog.
In his book, Foster writes about how dogs called pit bulls -- which also include purebred American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers -- were once revered.
The acclaim for pit bull-type dogs arguably started with a war hero. Sgt. Stubby was America's first military working dog, serving in 17 battles in World War I, dramatically saving many lives. Two U.S. Presidents decorated Stubby. Similar-looking dogs were soon used in movies and magazine ads.
So, what happened? Certainly, their image took a turn for the worse as dogfighting became more common. Foster says that ultimately (pro football player) Michael Vick's dogfighting case helped people see that the dogs are only innocent victims; until then, the public and public officials somehow seemed to blame the dogs.
"Pit bulls in movies (and popular culture in general) became a shorthand for dangerous dogs, which made them more appealing to dangerous people," Foster adds.
And what about all the attacks on people by dogs described as pit bulls?
"Some might be, some are misidentified. No matter, we like to look at what causes any dog of any breed to attack," says Foster.
With a perception that they were protecting the general public, elected officials in many communities began to enact breed-specific bans.
"How you can ban pit bulls when you don't exactly know which dogs are pit bulls? Of course, the bans haven't worked," Foster notes.
On his book tour, Foster met several of the ex-Vick fighting dogs.
"They've clearly been treated horribly, but still manage to love. It is amazing. One of those things I may write about next is how dogs go on. It's inspiring," he says.
Foster admits to his own double-standards, saying in the book how important it is to consider each dog as an individual, instead of worrying about the breed you think a dog is.
"Yet, I spend so much of the book talking about how great pit bulls are," he notes. "I recognize the contradiction. But then I think they tend to be more affectionate and intelligent at least in ways we humans can pick up on. They try to make sense of things that other dogs would pay no attention to. I don't know how you can study or confirm this, but it wouldn't surprise me that if most of the time when a dog saves a human life, it's a dog described as a pit bull."
Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.
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