Studies show that pit bull owners employ strategies to disguise the true nature of the breed by engaging in distortions, denial and overcompensation and by projecting blame after attacks.
To understand the experience of owning a negatively perceived dog, Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy did a case study on pit bull owners that was published in 2000. Researchers found that with "outlaw" breeds, such as pit bulls, the human-dog relationship is sociologically more complex than previously known. Owners of pit bulls, they discovered, directly feel the stigma targeted at their breed and resort to various tactics to mitigate it. These strategies included:
"passing their dogs as breeds other than pit bulls, denying that their behavior is biologically determined, debunking adverse media coverage, using humor, emphasizing counter-stereotypical behavior, avoiding stereotypical equipment or accessories, taking preventive measures, or becoming breed ambassadors."1
The study is sympathetic to pit bull owners and makes unsourced claims, but does show the basis of pro-pit bull propaganda. Strategies identified by the researchers are the same strategies employed by pit bull advocates to stop a municipality from enacting a pit bull ordinance. For instance, owners will claim that a pit bull cannot be identified, that there is a media conspiracy against pit bulls and that pit bulls are "just big babies" that only want to "lick you to death."
As identified in the Tufts study, pit bull owners frequently pass their dogs off as other breeds to diminish a perceived stigma. They also lie about their dog's breed to confuse the public about the pit bull breed and to evade breed-specific laws. For instance, a pit bull owner might claim his dog as a "boxer-mix" or "labrador-mix" after a pit bull law goes into effect. Animal groups, however, are the guiltiest in creating confusion about the breed. This began in earnest in the mid 1930s.
The many names of the pit bull over the course of history is why breed-specific legislation defines the pit bull as a "class of dogs" that includes the following breeds and their mixes: American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier and American bulldog.13 Despite attempts by kennel clubs, animal welfare groups and dogfighters to obscure the name of the pit bull breed, well-written breed-specific laws always encapsulate the multiple names of the breed.
Pit bull owners frequently blame the "environment" after a pit bull mauls or kills a person. A participant in the Tufts study illustrates this clearly, "If you get some kid that has been beaten all his life, he's going to go out and be aggressive towards people."14 The intention is to assert that an aggressive pit bull must have been beaten or taught to attack by their owners instead of admitting to the genetic traits that define the breed (See: Why do people say that pit bulls "don't let go?")
Pit bull defenders frequently blame a victim's actions after an attack too. Examples include blaming a "sudden cough" or "being in a bouncy chair" as a trigger for a fatal mauling. Ledy VanKavage, a top lobbyist for pit bulls, even blamed a baby crying as a pretext.15 Pit bull fans say such actions sufficiently explain why the pit bull killed the person. These excuses, however, always fail to explain the disproportionate response by the dog to an otherwise harmless activity.
Host: "So I asked her about the tragic death of 14-month old Daxton Borchardt. The little boy who was ripped from the arms of his babysitter by her two supposedly family friendly dogs. Was that 'fake news' too?"
"It is very very tragic," VanKavage replied, "but most of the dog-related fatalities involve unsupervised children. I don't know what happened that day."
Host: "She was holding the child at the time."
"I don't know if the child was crying?" VanKavage said. "I don't know the history of the dogs."
Host: "But if the child was crying?" - The Fifth Estate, September 22, 2017
In 2014, after a 20-year old woman was scalped by three pit bull-mixes in front of one of the dogs' owners -- who was helpless to stop her own dogs -- the owner blamed the violent attack on the dogs mistaking her ponytail for a rope toy.16 Her "death sentence" actions included bending down to pick up a ball the dogs were playing with. The "ponytail" excuse was popularized by SeaWorld after a killer whale with a history of fatal human attacks killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.17
Klemetti said the day of the attack, his wife, Victoria, was with Morrison, who had looked after the dogs before. When Morrison knelt down to pick up a tennis ball they were playing with, the first thing the dogs went after was Morrison's ponytail.
"I think what happened is that she had a ponytail and she reached down to get something and one of the dogs said 'Hey, this looks like my rope toy' and jumped up," Klemetti said. - Opelika-Auburn News, May 29, 2014
In multiple instances of fatal pit bull maulings, family members have blamed the attack on the victim suffering a seizure beforehand as well. The majority of these attacks are owner-directed, where the pit bull kills its owner. There is an immediate assumption by family members that because the victim suffered from seizures in the past, he or she must have had one, including during the middle of the night, and the pit bull(s) "naturally reacted to it" by killing the person.18
When a pit bull advocate is killed by their own dogs, defenders of pit bulls unravel even further by fabricating stories. After 22-year old Bethany Stephens was fatally attacked and eaten by her two pit bulls in 2017, the Goochland County Sheriff's Office had to give a second press conference due to the misinformation being disseminated by pit bull advocates on social media. Their many conspiracy theories ranged from Stephens being "murdered" to being "attacked by a bear."19
After 32-year old Darla Napora was killed by her male pit bull named "Gunner" in 2011, a blogger for the now defunct Examiner.com, Cindy Marabito, spread the false rumor that Darla "fell off a ladder and hit her head."20 Napora was six months pregnant at the time and an avid supporter of BadRap, which supports the "Pit Bull Cause." After her horrific death, her husband said he did not blame the dog, and he planned to bury Napora with "Gunner's" cremated remains in her casket.21
A day after the family's pit bull fatally attacked his pregnant wife, Greg Napora said Friday he doesn't blame the dog. He even plans to bury his spouse, Darla, with their pet's cremated remains in her casket.
"They are the most loving animals I have ever had in my life. Whatever happened right now was not the breed's fault," said Napora." - Mercury News, August 12, 2011
Both Steve Klemetti and Greg Napora also publically characterized these savage attacks as a "freak accident" afterward. The term "freak accident" has been used by the owners of vicious dogs -- primarily pit bulls -- to deny responsibility after monolithic maulings and fatal attacks since 1985.22 Statistically, over the 16-year period of 2005 to 2020, pit bulls killed an American every 15 days on average. Thus, these fatal attacks are routine, not a freak accident, as illustrated here.
According to the Tufts study, the most public way in which pit bull owners managed breed stigma was to become a fierce advocate for the breed. These owners seek to "educate" the public -- often through their own well-behaved pets -- by discounting stereotypes and promoting the finer qualities of the breed. For instance, to help deflect the fear that pit bulls incite about children, one respondent kept a photo handy that showed three children rubbing her pit bull's tummy.23
Examples of breed ambassador imagery are easily found on the Internet, like the YouTube video, "Pit Bull Viciously Attacks Baby," which depicts happy babies lying near pit bulls. Some breed ambassadors, however, take activism of the "Pit Bull Cause" to reckless levels. Despite warnings from pit bull experts to "avoid dog parks" at all costs,24 such persons purposely visit dog parks to show other dog owners that pit bulls are safe, reliable dogs that are merely "misunderstood."
Since the publication of the Tufts study in 2000, traditional "breed ambassador programs" have been fading, including BadRap's Pit Bull Hall project and Ambassadog Project.25 However, "therapy" pit bulls are still used to indoctrinate children though "reading" programs at elementary schools and libraries.26 Breed advocates also attempt to insert pit bulls into pet therapy programs at children's hospitals and hospices. When success is not achieved, outrage can follow.27
Police K9 Stunt Pit Bulls
Beginning in 2015,28 a new type of breed ambassador program was started by Animal Farm Foundation, the leading financers of the Pit Bull Lobby. The group began paying Bradley Croft of Universal K9 to train "rescued and sheltered" pit bulls as K-9 detection dogs, which the group then gave away freely to police departments.29 The PR emphasis was on officers that sweep schools with K-9s to detect drugs in order to place these K-9 stunt pit bulls in front of children.30
"Our goal in that was to get good PR for shelter dogs," Coleman said. Her organization would sponsor the care for the dogs and pay for two weeks of training for handlers and their expenses while staying in San Antonio. Animal Farm Foundation contributed $111,750 to Universal K9 in 2016.31
In 2017, they contributed $130,500, according to tax returns.32
The group did not renew their grant with Universal K9 in 2018, citing that Universal K9 wanted to expand the program beyond what they were willing to fund.33 In August 2018, the FBI and IRS raided the Universal K9 facility in San Antonio and seized 26 dogs. Croft was later indicted on eight counts of wire fraud, four counts of aggravated identity theft and two counts of money laundering in a scheme that defrauded the government to obtain GI Bill benefit payments.34
The public's response to the K-9s met with some skepticism. When the Clay County Sheriff's Office announced their K-9 pits bulls in 2017, they stated that both pit bulls "are only single purpose dogs, meaning they are only trained in narcotics detection. They are not and never will be trained in criminal apprehension or bite work. No Pitbull/Pitbull mixes granted by Animal Farm Foundation and Universal K9 will ever be trained in bite work or criminal apprehension."35
Service and Support Dogs
Today, "ambassador" status for pit bulls is often achieved through fake service dogs, due to the loopholes in the American for Disabilities Act (ADA). After multiple attacks by emotional support animals (ESAs) on aircrafts, airlines began to more tightly scrutinize them, including Delta Air Lines banning pit bulls as service and support dogs in July of 2018. "Untrained, pit bull-type dogs posing as both service and support animals are a potential safety risk," Delta said at that time.
Untrained ESA pit bulls have been involved in a number of high profile attacks, including a $1.1 million dollar lawsuit against the Port of Portland and Alaska Airlines after an unconfined support pit bull mauled a child in the face in 2017. In June of 2018, a support pit bull attacked a Delta flight attendant in the face then bit a customer service agent who came to help.36 Also in 2018, a fake service pit bull attacked a passenger on a New York subway causing its owner to be arrested.
A behavioral trait not addressed in the Tufts study has been dubbed the "Lion Tamer Complex." Many pit bull owners believe they are superior dog owners and through this superiority can control their "game bred" pit bull by teaching discipline and love. While not all pit bulls are inherently vicious, their genetic history cannot be "loved" out of them either. As demonstrated by numerous press reports of pit bulls attacking their owners, this complex has serious and deadly ramifications.
A classic example of the Lion Tamer Complex involves a pit bull named "Bosco" that was declared "dangerous" in Fulton County, Ohio in 2016 after biting its owner.37 The dog was quickly trafficked out-of-state into the care of Jacqueline Johnson in Arizona, who then worked for Best Friends Animal Society. Johnson began her "taming" career after receiving one of Michael Vick's dogs in 2008.38 At the time Johnson took Bosco into her home, she also had two former fighting pit bulls.39
In April 2017, Johnson wrote on her now defunct Ray the Victory Dog blog, "I have postponed writing this post, because it's hard to admit that sometimes the things you have always done are not working." Bosco had started "triggering" at every turn, acting aggressively. Her theory was that a "pheromone collar" and "B complex vitamins" could do the trick, along with "limiting his exposure to triggers." Johnson wrote she had to "hit a reset button on almost all of Bosco's activities."40
In early December 2017, Bosco viciously attacked Johnson. A December 5 post on her Facebook stated in part, "I currently do not have use of either hand. However, they were able to re-attach the finger on my left hand, which was severed. I will go in a week from today for major surgery on my right arm as most of the bones are totally shattered."41 A GoFundMe campaign started by her daughter stated, "Both her arms were broken, wrist shattered and nearly lost a finger."42
After the violent attack, Johnson's earlier blog posts about Bosco came under scrutiny by safety and victims' advocates, so she took down her entire Ray the Victory Dog blog. The posts, however, still live on in the Internet Archives.
As was true in the case of Bosco, pit bull rescuers often covet "saving" pit bulls legally declared "dangerous." For instance, the "Save Gus" campaign succeeded in getting a serial attacker off death row and sent to Cesar Millan's Dog Psychology Center.43 Upon leaving the center, the dog attacked two more people and landed on death row again.44 Attempts to "save" vicious pit bulls also results in animal control staff being attacked while the owners fight destruction orders.45
Finally, some "extreme rescuers" pay with their lives. In 2019, Christine Liquori, 52, who was passionate about saving pit bulls, started her volunteer shift at the Humane Society of St. Lucie County. She took a pit bull out to a playpen and never returned alive. The dog "mutilated" her, reports said. In 2018, Robin Conway, 64, was elated to "save" a death row pit bull, formerly named "Bullet," in a nearby state. The male pit bull brutally attacked and killed her two weeks later.
In 2006, the Journal of Interpersonal Violence published a study that focused on Ohio dog owners.46 The results showed that criminals are more likely to own vicious dogs. For the purposes of the study, researchers used agreed definitions of "vicious dogs" found within local ordinances. All ordinances included pit bulls because during this period Ohio state law automatically declared all pit bulls "vicious." The report is best summarized by one of its authors, Jaclyn Barnes:
"Owners of vicious dogs who have been cited for failing to register a dog (or) failing to keep a dog confined on the premises ... are more than nine times more likely to have been convicted for a crime involving children, three times more likely to have been convicted of domestic violence ... and nearly eight times more likely to be charged with drug (crimes) than owners of low-risk licensed dogs."
There is no denying that dangerous people are attracted to dangerous dogs. These same people also have a higher likelihood of being irresponsible owners. Pit bulls are the dog of choice for criminals and are often used in drug and gang-related activities.47 Police officers are frequently forced to shoot dangerous pit bulls when serving search warrants as well.48 The combination of criminals and pit bulls exponentially increases the danger these dogs pose to communities.