Pit Bulls on Parade through Vicki's eyes
Vicki Hurley is the Family Dog Training Center (FDTC) representative who manned their booth at the August 29th, 2009, Pit Bulls on Parade. Here is a report she sent back to their agility and competition obedience e-mail lists:
"In America, the Pit Bull flourished. It was one of the most popular breeds, highly prized by a wide variety of people. The Pit Bull was used to represent the US in WW1 artwork; popular companies like RCA and the Buster Brown Shoe Company used the breed as their mascots. A Pit Bull named Petie starred in the popular children's television series, Our Gang; a Pit Bull mix named Stubby became a decorated WWI hero. Pit Bulls accompanied pioneer familes on their explorations. Famous individuals like Theodore Roosevelt and Helen Keller owned the breed. It was during this time that the Pit Bull truly became America's sweetheart breed, admired, respected and loved."
Good morning Everyone!
When I was a child everybody knew that German shepherds needed to be eradicated. It was soon enough after World War II that people were still aching from the losses of husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and sweethearts. I remember my parents talking about high school friends who were "killed in the war". People who had made it through combat alive had memories they wouldn't talk about. Consequently, all things German were regarded as repulsive -- liverwurst, the German style of knitting, and, of course, the famous shepherd dogs that the Nazis utilized for crowd control were regarded as being as savage and dangerous as the now defunct Nazi army. In England, they refused to even say "German shepherd". The breed was referred to as "Alsatians". I clearly remember, as a small child, sitting on the floor, in front of the television, hearing a narrator explain that German shepherds sometimes seem like good dogs, but DO NOT BUY ONE because inevitably, someday the dog WILL turn on you and try to kill you. They gave this line some extra dramatic punch by showing footage of small children playing with a German shepherd as this ominous threat was read.
Heavy! After all, can't you just picture our own Cathy Horrocks's Cyder creeping through the house late at night and attacking Cathy in her sleep? How about Stacy's Vita? (Well, wait a minute, Vita could be a serious threat. I can't picture Vita committing murder, but I have no trouble imagining Vita murdering Stacy and Jeromy's bank account by getting on the computer and booking a total blast of a vacation. Viva Vita!) As you consider other German shepherds of FDTC fame (and the walls of our training center are full of their pictures), the anti-German shepherd sentiments of the 50's seem silly and ignorant, don't they?
The picture above (if I can actually make it send along with this e-mail) is of Stubby -- a World War I dog. Old Stub was a pit bull who traveled through war torn Europe with the U.S. army. Yes, he actually received the Silver Star and other military medals for his bravery and faithfulness during several campaigns. Since the early days of our country, the pit bull has been high on the list of "most popular American dogs" -- you know, like baseball and apple pie -- right up to recent times. Every kid in my first grade class had Buster Brown shoes -- with a picture of Buster Brown and his pit bull on the insole liner. I grew up watching re-runs of the old "Our Gang" movies of a bunch of outrageous little kids and their pit bull, Petie. (Petie, by the way, was the most innocuous one of the bunch.) When I was in junior high school, we all played our music on RCA phonographs with a picture of a pit bull peering into an antique gramophone on the logo. This was not a fad thing. Pit bulls have been loved and honored throughout American history. I will spare you an account that could run for many paragraphs. I will just mention one item close to everyone's heart: Raise your hand if you once read Laura Ingalls Wilders' true "Little House on the Prairie" stories of her childhood as a pioneer. Remember their faithful dog, Jack? Pit bull.
"Wow!" you might say, "what HAPPENED?!" Again, I will spare you my personal theories. (I really do try to stick to facts in these booth reports.) The point is that, as with the German shepherd hysteria of the 50's, the current pit bull hysteria has little or nothing to do with the breed itself. Happily, German shepherd fanciers managed to work their way past all the bad memories of American GI's, the heavily slanted media misinformation, and the baseless hatred from the general public to re-establish the respect their breed deserves. Will pit bull fanciers be able to do the same? They have a tougher fight because of the increased communication abilities of the media and the media's INSISTENCE on emphasizing isolated bad incidents as indicative of normal pit bull behavior, but pit bulls are known for tenacity -- and so are their people. The pit bull folks continue to seek out positive ways to acquaint the public with their good dogs. This weekend, my border collie, Sylvie, and I had the opportunity to see that in action when we attended "Pit Bulls on Parade" at Reber Ranch.
Sylv and I arrived at Reber Ranch early on a cool, misty Saturday morning to find tents being set up north of the main store and storage barn complex. There is a LARGE, flat gravel area out there and it was perfect for a BIG vendor area. Actually, I wasn't expecting a BIG vendor area, since Bulls Eye Dog Rescue, the group putting on this event, had never done an event before. You know how it goes -- you see some group that has a booth at various events and, all of a sudden, they decide to do an event of their own. They pull together some contests and a couple of sponsors and have five or so vendors and that's it. Not this group! They put in time and research and it showed.
When we stopped at the information booth --- already completely set up and decorated with a whole lot of appealing raffle prizes (all proceeds to go to pit bull rescue) --- we were politely directed to our space (#24). All the spaces were neatly marked out in spray paint on the gravel parking lot. We had lots of space to unload and our next door neighbor, Daphne Lewis of Chalo Dog Sulkies, very kindly helped us set up our tent. (Sylvie was a little confused by Daphne's product -- she has been reprimanded for sulking.) Daphne makes and markets several types of two-wheeled carts that can be pulled by a medium to large size dog -- with the handler sitting in the cart!!! I was amazed and a little skeptical. Sylvie felt that a better application might be to hitch a SHEEP to the cart and put a young border collie in charge of direction and speed. Um, Sylv, in your house.
My plan was to get set up and then go introduce myself to Lorrie Kalmbach-Ehlers, the founder of Bulls Eye Rescue. You may have heard Lorrie this week on the radio. An announcer carefully reminded us how dangerous and awful pit bulls are and then introduced Lorrie as someone trying to convince us otherwise (now there's impartiality in journalism). Lorrie wasn't phased. She came on the air with a pleasant, cheerful voice and told everyone about Pit Bulls on Parade and all the fun events that would be offered there.
One of those events was an all day long Canine Good Citizen test. The pit bull people have wisely taken advantage of this excellent tool to fight the misconceptions. Bulls Eye Rescue strongly encourages pit bull owners to get that CGC certificate. Lorrie expected that she would get LOTS of people wanting to test their dogs. (Pre-registration for the test was not required.) She had two AKC certified evaluators lined up -- but one had a last minute emergency. Since I had e-mailed Lorrie about FDTC's strong support of the CGC program, she thought I was an evaluator and she asked me if I could be the replacement for the missing evaluator. I'm not an evaluator, of course, but I have helped FDTC's own certified CGC evaluator with the tests. I told Lorrie as much, sent her a list of contact information for REAL evaluators that our evaluator gave me, and told her that I was willing to help in any way I could. It seemed like I should sort of check in with her, but right away Sylvie and I were busy.
On the other side of the Chalo Sulkie lady was a Seattle Animal Shelter booth. As you recall, Sylvie came from there. We trotted right down to say hello. The lady in the booth was Cara who is in charge of volunteer programs at SAS. She knew all of our friends at SAS and we had a lot of things to talk about. Now, I WAS keeping one eye on my own booth during this visit. Even though Pit Bulls on Parade didn't officially open for another half hour, there were people and dogs wandering around checking out the booths that were set up. Our first visitor was a tall, good looking older man with a BEAUTIFUL Rottweiler. I can't remember his name (I was distracted by his wonderful dog), but he used to train at FDTC with his previous Rottweiler. His new dog, Merlin, is only a year old and the man wants to do competition obedience -- and anything else that sounds fun. Well, he has the dog to do it. Merlin is magnificent, attentive, and full of willing energy.
After discussing competition obedience classes and FDTC's new FREESTYLE CLASS with us, Merlin and his boss went next door to take a look at the dog sulkies. Daphne had a sign on one of her rigs that said something like, "Hitch your dog to the cart and see how it works." Now there's something I would never offer if I were selling dog sulkies. The possibilities for disaster seemed too numerous for me. Not so Daphne. Before you could say, "Mush", she was showing the man how to buckle Merlin into the harness. Merlin was a little doubtful at first, but Daphne is obviously experienced with this sort of thing and Merlin's boss has established himself as a pack leader that his dog can trust. In minutes, Merlin was trotting enthusiastically around the vendor area (with his boss running alongside, not riding in the cart) giving Daphne some really fine free advertising. Amazing. Her next customer was a man with a huge, taupe colored American Staffordshire terrier. When you put the harness on the dog, some of the straps go around the dog's mid-section and it tickles. Also, Daphne is a stranger handling the dog --- see also "stand for exam". A lot of dogs have trouble with that sort of thing. The owner of the Am Staff spoke to his dog and the dog held perfectly still, giving complete attention to his owner. It was IMPRESSIVE.
About that "American Staffordshire terrier" thing --- the words "pit bull" cover a lot of ground. I saw a wide variety of dogs on Saturday. I thought maybe it was like the Border Collie situation. My Sylvie is the old style Border Collie. She's slender and light weight under her shaggy coat and she tends to slink. There is another type that has a smooth coat. Then there is the AKC breed standard Border Collie that is heavier, larger boned, and looks more like an Aussie (no slinking) -- but they are all Border Collies. Later, FDTC instructor, Byron Clary explained the pit bull breed situation to me and it's much more confusing than that. The UKC recognizes a breed called the American Pit Bull Terrier. That is not recognized by the AKC. They have the American Staffordshire Terrier on their rosters. Are those two the same breed? It depends on who you talk to. Then there is a miniature version (Byron showed me the picture on the AKC dog breed chart on the wall at FDTC) which IS a separate breed. There is also the bull terrier -- that's like General Patton's dog. The American Bulldog is a large long-legged breed often mistaken for an Am Staff by non-dog people. I was reading on the internet that there are 3 or 4 exotic breeds that also are referred to as "pit bull-type dogs". Add to that the myriad of mixes that contain a significant amount of each of those breeds. ALL of the above are referred to as "pit bulls". If you are a news reporter, you expand that to calling any dog that displays aggressive behavior a pit bull. (You may think that was a harsh judgment on my part, but I recall a TV news report about a year ago on a truly terrible dog attack. The reporter emphasized over and over again that a PIT BULL was the attacker. Then he made a fatal error -- he showed a photo of the evil pit bull. The dog had a tapering muzzle and its bewildered face was surrounded by fluffy fur. Oops.) My point is that "pit bull" refers to a LARGE collection of breeds and mixes --- something to think about when you hear someone wailing about, "Why are there SO many pit bull attacks?!"
As the Pit Bulls on Parade picked up steam, I was dazzled by the amazing variety of dogs visiting our booth. The breed standard for Am Staffs says "any color" and they are not kidding. I saw brindle and taupe and black and white and brown and palomino dogs. No, that last one was not somebody exercising a horse on the nearby track. The dog was, no kidding, the same color as my grandfather's palomino horse. At one point, I turned around and found myself looking into the face of what I thought was a sculpture. It was a dog the dark, shaded color of that really old bronze. His ears were up and his massive face was perfect in every detail. But he moved, he was alive. The other end of the spectrum was the "hi, I'm just here because I love you" performance of a dog who couldn't stay still long enough for me to pet him. What was consistent was good behavior. I will admit, a massive Am Staff (my favorite of all the "pit bull type breeds") looks like he is capable of doing serious damage and, thanks to the constant barrage of media misinformation, I tend to tense up a little when I see one. I met -- and petted -- several on Saturday. All the ones I met were doggie darlings -- and quite capable of accepting a treat with no harm to my hand. There was one dog in the crowd that was causing a lot of problems --- a Labrador retriever cavorting on the end of an overly long leash.
The vendor area, as I said before, was huge. There were more than thirty vendors neatly spaced around the parking lot. In a nearby building they were having weight pull competitions. There was, of course, the on-going CGC test. Over the course of the day, they tested FIFTY SEVEN DOGS!!! If you had a pit bull, the testing was free and for other breeds there was a small fee. They also had a large agility course where people could sign up to try agility. I heard something about a "disk dog" event, but I didn't get to go look for it. I was busy greeting the many, MANY dog owners who brought their pit bulls to this event. Anyone could bring their dogs, but only pit bulls could participate in the various contests featured in this well-organized effort. I was introducing Sylvie to people as a "long-haired pit bull". Sylv didn't care -- many of these people noticed the free dog biscuit dish and knew how to use it. There were people with older dogs, just out to enjoy the event. There were several rescue groups showing off adoptable dogs. I saw at least half a dozen people with pit bull puppies, carefully socializing their young dogs. I say carefully 'cause I didn't see much of that "Just go up and say hi" stuff that starts so many fights. One man was out in the middle of the vendor area with his little daughter and their pretty black pit bull puppy. The man was playing with his dog and allowing carefully controlled greetings with a select few other dogs of similar age and size. The little dog was so wonderful and the man was so obviously intent on raising both child and dog properly that I couldn't resist a little aggressive marketing. I walked over and gave him FDTC literature and a $10 off coupon and told him how happy we would be if he would consider bringing his good dog to our school.
Another of my favorites was a sleek, pale taupe colored female pit bull wearing an elegant pink brocade collar and matching leash. She was every bit the lady she appeared to be. I had the honor of ruffling her lovely ears. Yet another highlight was a half grown, dark brindle puppy with BIG ears. He came rambling over with his boss. "Does he sit?" I asked. Well, yes. He recognized the word and, before I could give a real command, he gave me a very pretty sit -- with his eyes focused on my face and his ears at "up ears" attention. With his boss's permission, I gave him a cookie --- and he continued to hold his sit and his focus. (Hey, Sylvie, do you see this?)
Did I see any of the much publicized pit bull aggression? No. I did not --- and that is VERY impressive under the circumstances. As most of you know, at any large dog event, you see a lot of stupidity. You see people chatting and paying no attention to what their dogs are doing on the end of LONG leashes. You see the afore-mentioned "just go say hi" thing where people send their dogs right into other dogs' faces. You see people allowing their dogs to give other dogs hard, hostile stares. I saw a record setter on Saturday -- a lady with a truly gigantic, magnificent Am Staff was busy looking at merchandise in a vendor booth. Her dog, meanwhile, was being hassled by a brace of smaller pit bulls (with an equally oblivious owner) while another large pit bull was sniffing intently at his tail region. You know, if I were that dog, I would have bit somebody. The dog retained his self control and life went on. I also saw a small, unsupervised child step between two large pit bulls that were giving each other a long hard look. Oh gosh. Again, the worst never happened. Yes, folks, the potential for disaster was there at this event, but other than one brief "I'm the big dog", "No, I'M the big dog" dust-up, I didn't see any happen.
This was my first major experience with the smooth dog world. (All of my dogs have been shaggy, herding breeds.) I've got to tell you, I liked it -- A LOT. When Byron Clary and his Rottweiler, Madison (wearing a crisp pink and green floral print neck scarf), showed up at 1:00 to take over so I could race back to FDTC to help with our own CGC testing, I was sorry to leave. This well-organized, delightful event was a GOOD move on the part of the pit bull people. I hope they do a lot more because exposure to these pleasant, friendly, easy to train dogs is the best possible way to show people that there is something seriously wrong with the propaganda. Do I plan to get a pit bull? Well, I'll tell you, recently someone pointed out to me that people are like their dogs. Border collies are DRIVEN. They have to be DOING something (or the world WILL end). Sylvie and I often drive down the freeway singing, "Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride! I've got to keep on MOVIN'. Oh no! Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride. I'm runnin' and I won't touch ground......" It's our new theme song. I'm guess I'm a border collie in my heart. In spite of the affection and appreciation I have gained for pit bulls this weekend, I am afraid they are too mellow and easy going to relate to my frenzied intensity.
What I will do is congratulate Lorrie Kalmbach-Ehlers and her colleagues at Bulls Eye Rescue on an excellent event. In my opinion, they are doing a great job in a hard battle and they deserve a loud HURRAY from the rest of the dog community.
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