BOOK REVIEW: DogTown: Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Redemption

DogTown: Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Redemption

Most of the major issues affecting man’s best friend are addressed in Stefan Bechtel‘s Dogtown, through the stories of individual canines residing at the world famous animal sanctuary Best Friends.

One of the dogs profiled is a mistreated dachshund who was rescued from a massive puppy mill in my backyard of Parkersburg, WV. Like many puppy mills, the Internet was a godsend for  “Whispering Oaks Kennels.”  The owners could present the mill as a quaint country farm, and ship puppies across the country to online buyers who would never see anything untoward about the condition of their kennel. Only one easily-missed hint that all wasn’t well appeared on the website:

The site mentioned, in passing, that although visitors were welcome, they were not allowed into the kennel where adult breeding dogs were kept.

(Puppy buyers, take heed: A real, professional breeder is proud of his/her operation and will not hesitate to allow you to meet your pup’s parents.) And why were visitors barred from viewing the kennels at Whispering Oaks?

Nearly a thousand dogs were confined in an assortment of small cages. In some cases, four or five dogs lived in one two-by-three-square-foot cage.

When this disaster area was discovered by police:

The owner was not charged with animal cruelty or neglect; she agreed to downsize the operation and voluntarily surrendered more than 900 dogs.

Ah, West Virginia law.

One of these dogs was Parker, a former breeding dog whose teeth and jaw were infected and deformed from the neglect he had endured.

The paperwork on his cage explained that he had been found living in a tiny rabbit hutch with three other dogs, a place he had probably rarely left since puppyhood.

Best Friends has accepted numerous former puppy mill animals over the years, and they’ve come to see a pattern in the kinds of problems they face:

Bad teeth are a problem typical of many breeding dogs in puppy mills. Dental work is generally considered an unnecessary frill and a potential threat to the bottom line. Problems of neglect, like bad teeth, matted fur, overgrown nails, and eye and ear infections, are allowed to fester, causing pain and greater suffering for the dogs.

This isn’t to mention the genetic problems caused by bad breeding practices or the psychological damage caused to a dog who has lived for years in a cage barely larger than her own body. By the way, the book also mentions that

Puppy mills produce an estimated four million dogs for sale each year in the United States.

…which is almost exactly the same number of dogs and cats euthanized in animal shelters yearly.

Puppy mills have been a part of humane community consciousness for at least the past sixty years. Another longtime animal welfare concern is the leghold trap, which is mentioned briefly in the story of an injured golden retriever:

Ava came to Dogtown after being found in the desert with her paw caught in a coyote trap. … [I]t was obvious that her injuries were serious.

Although Bechtel takes no position on the use of leghold traps, his description of Ava’s suffering and recovery should impress upon some readers what animals—including dogs and their physiologically identical wild cousins—endure when caught at in these devices.

Dogtown is a generally good, if breezy, read that offers mostly solid information to readers—that is, until Bechtel turns to the issue of pit bulls. Best Friends is perhaps most famous for taking in numerous fighting dogs rescued from the raid on Michael Vick’s illegal enterprise. While this gives them a front-row seat to the unique challenges involved with dogs from this background, the book unfortunately just repeats the astonishingly consistent “talking points” proffered by pit bull advocates everywhere. They’re nice little blurbs, but sadly, many just don’t hold up to scrutiny and are demonstrably false.

These dogs are very strong, very intelligent, and very loyal; this loyalty and their desire to please their masters has made them the current favorite of illegal dogfighting operations.

Pit bulls, Staffordshire bull terriers, and their close relations have  always been the favorite of dogfighters in the Western world. The “bull” in their name hints at their original work attacking and gripping bulls, first in assistance of butchers, later in the popular “sport” of bull-baiting. When bull-baiting was outlawed and fell out of favor, that’s when the fights began pitting the dogs against each other. The fighters have bred the dogs over hundreds of generations to refine them for the “sport.”

In three different sections, Bechtel also repeats the common argument that pit bulls were once popular family pets.

Pit bulls…are so sweet and affectionate with humans that at the turn of the century they were widely considered to be ideal dogs for families, including those with small children. … Pit bulls’ reputation as the bad boys of the dog world is largely a modern occurrence.

 In the first half of the 20th century, pit bulls—like Pete the Pup from the Our Gang movie series—were considered ideal family pets.

The reputation of pit bulls in the past 20 years has taken a hit.

In reality, pit bulls were never extremely popular as family pets in the first part of the 20th century, as searches of archived newspaper advertisements for dogs and puppies for sale  confirm.  The dogs were in fact relatively rare until the 1970s, when members of the breed began leaking out of the clandestine would of dogfighters and “gamedog” breeders into the general pet and shelter populations.

  “Petey”  was indeed a pit bull, and he was just a step away from the ugly world that created his breed. Less acknowledged is the fact that Petey’s father, Tudor’s Black Jack, was a champion fighting dog owned by an infamous dogfighter. A Google   image search turns up several photos of this dog and his offspring in action, some of which are disturbing.

As for the supposed nickname for pit bulls as  “nanny dog,”   the evidence simply isn’t there. The earliest known reference of a pit bull as a “nursemaid dog” comes from the 1970s, from a pit bull advocate who was trying to promote a more positive image of the breed.

Once adored and trusted companion animals, pit bulls are now believed by many to be terrifying “superpredators” bred for ferocity and aggression and unfit for human society.

Now, whether pit bulls are “superpredators” and “unfit for human society” are obviously emotionally-charged opinions up for debate. However, the fact that pit bulls and their close relations have been bred for hundreds of years to do a specific task—fight other animals—mustn’t be ignored. There is a reason that retrievers love carrying things in their mouths and scent hounds follow their noses, even though the vast majority of these animals are now suburban pets, not hunting companions. Responsible pit bull ownership groups are frank about the fact that many pit bulls have a high prey drive and most will eventually develop some degree of dog aggression. These dogs aren’t for everyone, and potential owners must be adequately prepared and informed about breed traits and history—and breed traits aren’t something that can be loved out of an animal.

Ironically, the author himself unwittingly confirms this when discussing the crimes of Michael Vick and other dogfighters:

Nonperforming or unaggressive dogs had apparently been hanged, drowned, electrocuted, shot, or slammed into the ground until dead.  … The “culling” of nonaggressive animals is a kind of sadistic Darwinism, meant to select only traits that lead to savage victory in the dog pit.

After all of that, Bechtel still wasn’t through.

[E]very age seems to have a “villain” dog—and at this particular moment in history, pit bulls are it. In the late 1880s, bloodhounds were said to be vicious and bloodthirsty…Later it was bulldogs, then German shepherds and Doberman pinschers—especially after World War II, when they became associated with Nazis.

The bloodhound story is misleading. The large, aggressive   “bloodhound”  once used to terrorize slaves and prisoners was an animal called the Cuban (or Siberian) bloodhound, a hunting/fighting breed similar to the presa canario. No one would mistake the Cuban for the droopy-faced English bloodhound. “Bulldog,” as the author himself earlier notes, was the early term for pit bulls and their close relations. And while the “macho dog” and “guard dog” of choice has changed over the years, there’s no evidence that German shepherds and Dobermans were ever bred in large scale for dogfighting purposes, as the pit bull was and is.

One of the most prominent untruths is that pit bulls have a unique jaw structure that allows them to “lock” onto their victims.

While dogs aren’t machines and no dog has a truly “locking” jaw, it is true that “bully” breeds have a unique biting style honed in their early days battling large animals. Their bite style is to bite, grip, and shake. The tenacious manner in which they can hang on can make it very difficult for an untrained person, even an adult, to break a pit bull’s grip. Responsible pit bull ownership groups recommend that owners carry something called a “break stick,” which is used to pry open a pit bull’s jaws if he should happen to bite another dog.

[P]it bulls are involved in a fairly large number of attacks primarily because there are so many pit bulls—a kind of statistical fluke suggesting that they are more dangerous than they really are.

Available data indicates that pit bulls represent less than 5% of the total U.S. pet dog population. However, they make up about 60% of the dogs involved in fatal bite incidents. While most pit bulls will never harm a human being, their gripping bite style means that when they do, they have the potential to cause great damage. When a shih tzu has a bad day, it might require an outpatient visit to the emergency room for stitches. When a large fighting breed has a bad day, it might involve a  LifeFlight helicopter. (Of note in this book is that when two serious dog attacks on a Best Friends staffer are mentioned, the breed of the dog involved is not described.)

According to the American Temperament Society website, pit bulls consistently score above average on the American Temperament Test for all dog breeds tested.

The “Truth About Pitbulls” blog offers a highly detailed response:

The ATTS test was initially intended to test working dogs for jobs such as police work. The test favors bold dogs, dogs that need to face danger head on without hesitation and fear. Courage was desired and rewarded, timidity was not. The ATTS favors dogs like pit bulls over dogs like collies. It is important to note, the test does not evaluate dogs for “pet” suitability.

But back to the Vick dogs specifically. Paul Berry of Best Friends is quoted in the text:

“[W]e’re quite confident that by recovering their trust and teaching them life skills, many can be adoptable, given the right home environment.”

It is unfortunate news that this has not come to pass, with most of the dogs given to Best Friends remaining in the sanctuary. While long-term or life housing is something Best Friends is equipped for, most city and county shelters which receive fight bust dogs will not be able to consider this option. Recently, another unforeseen  hurdle  in the Vick dogs’ story occurred when Tug, a “Vicktory” pit bull, tore through at least two fences on Best Friends property to attack two other pit bulls, killing the first and injuring the second.

A sizeable portion of the chapter featuring Vicktory dog Merle is devoted to arguing against breed-specific legislation, or BSL. BSL puts restrictions on certain breeds of dogs and pit bulls are almost always a target of such legislation. However, BSL differs in extremity depending upon the region. It is understandable that a group such as Best Friends would oppose BSL that bars anyone from keeping a pit bull and demands that all pit bull-type dogs entering shelters be euthanized. However, there are also less-extreme versions that allow pit bulls as pets but requires their owners to maintain fenced pens or have their pets altered.

Despite the objections of Best Friends and pit bull advocates, the tide of BSL is showing no signs of stopping. It would seem that one of the ways Best Friends can fight BSL, and the tragedies that often drive it, is to be completely honest with potential owners of pit bulls and related breeds. Owners should be informed about the breed’s history and traits, as well as the history of the individual animal being adopted. If owners are adequately prepared, it might cut down on the number of dog bites as well as attacks on other animals. It appears, however, that at least in the book Dogtown, Best Friends is not doing this, instead choosing to repeat a bunch of moldy soundbites, some of which are misleading.

(This review originally appeared at

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