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Have You Ever Had an Unconscious Bias Against Pit Bulls?

I took in a Pit Bull foster and found myself facing fears I didn't know I had.

Kezia Willingham  |  Nov 13th 2014


Once upon a time, I was afraid of dogs. All dogs. And when it came to Pit Bulls, I was downright terrified. These fears came about when I was a kid.

I changed after adopting my first cat in 2012. My late-in-life affection for cats eventually developed into a late-in-life affection for dogs. My daughter, Zinnia, and I would visit the dogs in the shelter every time volunteered weekly with the cats. So I guess it was really Zinnia who got me interested in pups, as she had always wanted one.

As time passed, I became more and more comfortable around dogs, even the large power breeds, as I visited them in their kennels. I started to learn more about Pit Bulls and the discrimination they face. I read lots of stories about what great pets they can be, in between stories about them mauling people to death.

It didn’t take a whole lot more time for me to fancy Pit Bulls as the underdogs of the dog world. Plus, I learned to like the way they looked, and decided I wanted to have one of my own.

After adopting my four dogs, I also decided I didn’t want to foster anymore because I get attached to many of the animals and have a hard time letting them go.

But last month, Lori, my foster coordinator, sent out an email looking for a foster for a large, female, senior Pit Bull mix with skin issues and a history of neglect; she needed long-term care.

I promptly deleted the email, but I kept thinking about that dog over the weekend. So on Monday, I told Lori I could take my dogs to meet her after work, but warned her that my dogs are female and May Belle, in particular, doesn’t really like other dogs. Plus, we have cats. So I wasn’t sure we would be the best placement. Lori and I made a plan that if no one else took this white Pittie in, then I would bring in May Belle and see if it would be a go (I was fairly sure it would not).

I wouldn’t be writing this story if someone else had offered to take the white dog in. Nor would I be writing it if May Belle had freaked out upon meeting her.

For the purposes of this story, I am going to call the white dog Crystal. Due to her history of neglect, with the county intervening, I have been asked not to reveal many details about her past. And honestly, I don’t know a whole lot more, except that the circumstances leading to her confiscation would make any Dogster reader sad.

But as sad as dog rescue may be, it is also full of as many magical and happy stories fueled by kindhearted people willing to do the dirty work so many others would rather not.

Crystal has now been with us for about a month. Her coming to live with us has led me to confront internalized biases I didn’t know I had.

Crystal is a large dog. She weighs about 60 pounds and is very strong. In fact, on one of the first walks we took with her, she saw some small, fenced dogs and ran downhill toward them with such vigor that she almost pulled my 17-year-old daughter out into the street.

I grabbed Crystal’s leash, and it took most of my strength to pull her in another direction. Plus, she was shrieking like a banshee. I broke out into a sweat, and the only thing I could focus on was getting her, my kids, and my small dogs home.

It was weird because Crystal was fine in our house. She was calm around our Chihuahuas and showed only mild interest in our cats. She did not bark inside the house unless we put her in a crate. Then she would start screaming like she was an old woman being tortured. She kind of sounded like Chewbacca. So we started to call her Chew-Blanca. And she started sleeping in my daughter’s bed so the neighbors wouldn’t call the authorities.

The next few times we took Crystal out for a walk, she also became very reactive, pulling, yelping, barking, and screaming when she saw other dogs. One day I looked up “reactive dog” on Dogster and found a bunch of stories.

It turns out there are some dogs who become so excited upon seeing another dog that they cannot control their energy. I think this is Crystal’s issue, as she is not aggressive unless another dog comes at her with aggression.

I also learned that as a Pit Bull guardian, I would have to take more responsibility than most other dog owners and to expect to be blamed for any harm that could happen.

This is when I started to get scared. There’d been a recent series of news reports in my local paper about Pit Bulls attacking people and small dogs. Would Crystal attack one of my kids, dogs, or cats?

So far she’s shown no interest in harming any one of us, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the attacks I read about in the news. Would these stories poison even a liberal, benevolent-hearted type who doesn’t believe in stereotypes, such as myself?

I didn’t really like how I felt and how fear had permeated my unconscious thoughts.

I wished I had a partner to help me with my kids and rescue animals. I also thought about returning Crystal to the shelter. But I don’t have a partner, and Crystal’s age, skin condition, and leash reactivity wouldn’t do much for her if she needed to be adopted.

So I asked Lori if the shelter would pay for me to take a behavior class. These classes are expensive, so I didn’t think they would say yes. But they did!

The shelter also supplied me with a Gentle Leader head harness, which I picked up a few days ago. I will be bringing Crystal to her first behavior class next week, but for the first session, we had to come without our dogs to meet the other people in the class and pick up some training handouts. It was very helpful just having the chance to talk about leash reactivity with other dog owners dealing with the same thing.

We were advised to find a coping strategy to help get us through the period until the first class with our dogs. Avoidance of other dogs has been our primary technique when we walk Crystal. This means we often walk her late at night. We also now know which route to take in our neighborhood in order to avoid yards with dogs in them. It’s harder to do than I would have previously expected! And every time we see a dog coming, we change direction, making me feel like I am a kid playing some kind of game. It’s hard, but it’s working.

As far as my fear, I have decided to focus on rational, logical thoughts as opposed to the what-ifs. So far, Crystal has made no aggressive moves toward any beings in my house. And she looks at me with the most soulful eyes.

The problem with focusing on a specific breed when reporting on dog attacks is that it creates an inaccurate bias against these dogs and leads to the false belief that one is always safe in the company of other breeds. I hate to admit it, but my Chihuahuas have bitten other people in my own house. Crystal has not.

I don’t like to admit that I have this bias against certain dogs, but I am proud to be working through it.

What about you, readers? Have you ever been scared of a particular breed or size of dog? Have you ever had a leash-reactive dog? Tell us your experiences in the comments!

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About the author: Kezia Willinghamis a Breadwinning Laundry Queen who works as a Health Coordinator for Head Start. She is a regular contributor to Catster and Dogster. Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and multiple anthologies. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family, which includes a number of rescued cats and dogs.You can follow her on Twitter.