Friday, July 29, 2016

The "pit bull" term: clarity of purpose and language use.

Several years ago we wrote a post called "Ok so what the heck is a 'pit bull'?" (See top of sidebar, over on the right). The information in the post is still accurate and important with some further clarification needed. Instead of editing the old post, we've decided to do a NEW post as a part-two of sorts. Read the first blog to get a more "historical" look at things.

Pit Bulls have become pop culture-mainstream, and this popularity and new status of "popular, everyday dog" brings with it its own set of challenges. We of the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) contingency who have been around 20+ years have been forced to debunk a NEW collection of myths and clarify - again - use of language surrounding these dogs. There's such discordance and lack of continuity in Pit Bull rescue, education and advocacy circles that jumping from one website to the next can reveal such radically different ways of defining common terms and ways of doing things that it can make the landscape extremely difficult to navigate. But part of the problem lies with the fact that there is no single definition of the term Pit Bull and in fact, most people who label themselves as Pit Bull educators or advocates are actually not talking about American Pit Bull Terriers at all. In fact, as it turns out, all they are talking about is a dog that looks a certain way, not a breed.

Semantic change is the evolution of words, and it "...describes the gradual shift in the(ir) conventional meaning..., as people use them in new types of contexts and these usages become normal. Often in the course of semantic change, a word shifts its meaning to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage." A perfect example of semantic change is use of the term Pit Bull - now commonly written as "pit bull" or "pit bull type dog".

"Pit Bull" used to mean something very specific - since the 1800's it has been used to describe dogs used in the fighting pit, or dogs of the same breed or type as those used in the fighting pit, namely the then-newly emerging bull-and-terrier crosses, which would become the APBT. The American Pit Bull Terrier as a breed, once established, was nicknamed Pit Bull, Pit Bull Terrier, or Pit Bulldog. In what was once the fringe world of APBT culture, when you spoke of Pit Bulls, we all knew what you were talking about.

When the average person - or even someone working in advocacy - wants to get into a conversation about something they are calling Pit Bulls these days, usually we have no immediate idea what exactly that person is talking about. As a default, we now assume they are NOT talking about the American Pit Bull Terrier, but something that is often actually very different, and in reality can be almost any kind of short haired, stocky, blocky breed or mix. Because the nickname Pit Bull, which used to be reserved for the APBT, has now become "pit bull" (yes, include the quotation marks) and in common, everyday usage, simply means "A dog that has certain physical traits that are often attributed to the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any number of breeds or mixes, and that may be discriminated against because of those traits". Those physical traits? Such amorphous terms as "blocky", "short-haired", "broad skull", "cropped ears", etc. These physical characteristics could quite obviously be applied to a huge number of breeds as well as cross-breeds and dogs of completely mixed heritage. A large, probably majority, portion of the "pit bull" community aren't talking about a breed at all, not even a type (as in, "terrier", or "bull breed"). They are talking about dogs that possess a physical trait or traits that really are only in the eye of the beholder. And therefore, lots of dogs called "pit bulls" these days may not even be PART APBT/AmStaff or SBT, let alone purebreds.

A very important point to consider is that when advocates are talking about "pit bulls", they are labeling dogs based ONLY on appearance. There is no correlation in behavior in this amorphous group. There is no history to recite because these dogs are grouped together based ONLY on looks, no other connecting factors. When "pit bull" advocates start ascribing certain, what they deem positive, traits on this group of dogs that are not historically or genetically related, they are misapplying those traits. History that is talked about and connected to this group of dogs called "pit bulls" is fallacious due to the fact that "pit bull" advocates are actually talking about unrelated dogs of various breeds and mixes which may or may not even be part purebred. How can you ascribe behavioral traits or historical facts to a bunch of dogs that are not even able to necessarily be categorized as a breed or breeds? It's pure fiction and speculation on the part of most of these "pit bull" advocates, many of whom have never laid hands on an actual American Pit Bull Terrier. We are STRONGLY opposed to "pit bull" advocates using any specific, congruent language to describe the behavior or history of this random grouping of dogs and insist that historical facts connected to the American Pit Bull Terrier not be used when talking about this grouping. It is nothing short of appropriation to take the well documented history of the APBT breed and use it when talking about random short haired stocky or blocky dogs.

When bringing up "pit bulls", the net is cast so wide as to make it impossible to try and talk specifically about ANY of the dogs that get caught up in it. You can't really say they are "nice" dogs, or "good with children", or "get along well with other animals" or even have their own history because one "pit bull" might be a Lab mix, while another "pit bull" may be Boxer, Great Dane, Boerboel, short haired, blocky mix/pure/whathaveyou and you really cannot create a narrative surrounding a "pit bull" when it's anything other than a DOG. Right?

But a narrative has indeed been created. Go to just about any pro-"pit bull" website and you'll read about all these heroics of famous "pit bulls" (referencing often dogs that are actually REAL Pit Bulls, that elusive creature we in the know call the APBT); snippets of history stolen from actual real breeds of dog, desirable behavioral traits that are ascribed to "pit bulls" (that's like saying all black or white or bi-colored or speckled dogs have XYZ behavioral characteristics - "pit bulls" are so vaguely categorized that you cannot ascribe ANY traits to them because they are no specific thing, just a bunch of dogs grouped together that look sort of vaguely similar). Technically, you cannot talk specifics about such a grouping, and should only be talking about DOG TRAITS and EVOLUTION, not breed-specifics.

It is quite obvious that organizations like RPB that still focus on a specific breed of dog (the APBT, what we have been calling the REAL Pit Bull), and those organizations that are using the current redefinition of "pit bull" are talking about two different things. But one thing all of us do seem to agree upon these days is that "pit bulls" are discriminated against, need our love and protection, and are dogs worth being judged as individuals. From a political standpoint (we're all against breed specific legislation, promote responsible ownership, and want equal treatment of all dogs regardless of what those dogs look like), we're all on the same page. Where RPB deviates is its focus on a specific BREED, while the other "pit bull" groups are focused merely on dogs that look a certain way. That means WE educate about very specific breed traits, standards, registries, and care/management specifics. The other groups that aren't talking about a specific breed do not (or should not - some still do despite the fact that they claim " 'pit bulls' are not a breed").

Under the new definition of "pit bull" the APBT is absolutely included. But "pit bull" no longer applies ONLY to the APBT. Trying to enforce an organizational policy and general educational message of "The term Pit Bull only applies to the APBT!" has proven no longer possible due to the widespread acceptance of the NEW definition of "pit bull". This new definition has been a constant thorn in our side and caused conflict when we are trying to promote breed specific material that then gets thrown back in our face because " 'pit bulls' are not a breed!", or "you have to take each dog as an individual!". We are slowly changing our language, on both our site and vast array of hard copy educational material. RPB is absolutely still all about the American Pit Bull Terrier. What was once an organizational name meant to promote the REAL version of a dog that was vastly different from what the media had portrayed it to be, has now taken on a whole new light: The REAL Pit Bull, the original dog called Pit Bull, the only TRUE Pit Bull is what we, RPB represent. That doesn't mean the vast array of dogs called "pit bulls" that other groups support and promote are any less important, it just means that RPB is an organization dedicated to one of the SPECIFIC breeds that gets lumped into the "pit bull" category - the APBT. We'll be updating some of our policies and mission statements over the next few weeks/months and hope to continue to try to improve the communication between the vast array of groups and individuals that impact the lives of dogs and the language and legislation surrounding any dog that may be called a "pit bull". We at RPB will continue to be the voice and advocate of the REAL Pit Bull, the American Pit Bull Terrier. We are your source for fact vs fiction, when it comes to this breed. We absolutely are proud to support and advocate for a specific BREED of dog while also promoting policies and legislation that do not discriminate against ANY dog and take each dog for what it is as an individual.