Book Review: Pit Bull - The Battle over an American Icon

Reviewed by Ken Foster, September 2016, Updated October 2017
Pit Bull - The Battle over an American Icon
Pit Bull - The Battle over an American Icon

Despite its name, Bronwen Dickey’s Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon is about much more than Pit Bulls. In this thoroughly researched and compellingly told narrative, she unravels the dogs’ origins as well as the strange, misleading mythologies that have blurred their narrative. Dickey argues that while the dogs and their owners have in recent years been marginalized as “pariahs,” the Pit Bull has a venerable history as a companion and working dog, accepted as unremarkable even while living in Teddy Roosevelt’s White House.

Dickey, a seasoned journalist, had her curiosity piqued by meeting a friend’s Pit Bull and not recognizing it as one of the monster dogs she had long heard about. Pit Bull, the book, is the result of years of research in archives and in the flesh. Dickey traveled the country, interviewing anyone who had an opinion and was willing to share it, from scientific and behavioral professionals to ordinary dog owners. What emerges is a compelling portrait of the best—and worst—of what defines America, as the story of this breed becomes intrinsically tied to our prejudices regarding social class, economics and race.

Yet, as serious and thought-provoking as this work is, Dickey never loses sight of the story’s real heart: our very American love of dogs, whatever their breed. “There may be no creature on earth that lends itself to as much love, hate and myth-making as the domestic dog,” she writes. “The literature of dogs has mostly become a literature of longing: for home, for safety, for acceptance and probably for some f licker of the wildness we ourselves have lost.” Now, to that great canon of canine literature, we can add this remarkable book.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 86: Summer 2016
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Ken Foster, creator of the Sula Foundation, is the author of, among others, The Dogs Who Found Me and Im a Good Dog. He currently works as the Community Dogs Program Coordinator at New York City’s Animal Care Centers.