I knew when I got Herbie that owning a pit bull came with certain stigma. I was prepared for people to be afraid of her. I was prepared for people to cross the street to avoid us on walks. I was ready for the comments about how pit bulls are dangerous and can’t be trusted. I was prepared to have to work harder to find a place to live, a place to stay, a place to walk my dog.
What I wasn’t prepared for was for the dog’s feelings to get hurt about it. I figured most people who didn’t like pits would simply avoid her and that was fine by me. You don’t have to like my dog. I like her and that’s enough.
Herbie is a happy go lucky, sweet, and friendly dog. She greets everyone with enthusiasm and cheer. People are her best friends, and she will try to entice anyone to play fetch with her until she drops. To Herbie, all humans are created equal and she loves them all. Sadly for her, she is a pit bull, and the feeling is not always mutual. I go to great strides to make sure that the hatred people feel towards my dog because of her breed never affects her. We live at an apartment with a landlord who adores our dogs. All of our friends love Herbie and Julio. We go to endurance rides where many other riders have their own pits and pit mixes and spend time fawning over our dogs. I still deal with some breed hate on a regular basis, but my dogs have no idea.
There is one encounter in particular, however, that stands out in my mind. This is the tale of one woman’s ignorance and the day it left me standing at the side of the trail, wanting to wrap my dog in a protective hug, like the parent of a kid who is being bullied at school.
When Herbie was about a year old, we went hiking at a pretty popular park in north Jersey. We met a friend and her black lab there for the day, and the dogs were having a grand old time. We wound up taking one of the more crowded paths through the park, and both dogs were on leash, walking like good dogs do.
We reached the top of a hill and a woman was walking the other way. She spotted our friend’s lab and got really excited.
“Is that a lab? I love labs! My friend has a lab and I take him for walks and I love him. I wish my husband would let me have dogs. I would have all labs. Lab lab lab lab lab…”
She was fawning all over our friend’s dog, petting her, kissing her, and gushing up a storm. Meanwhile, Herbie was sitting politely on the end of her leash, ears pricked, eyes bright, tail wagging, waiting for her turn.
What happened next left me stunned.
The woman finished petting my friend’s dog, stood up, brushed off her pants, looked directly at Herbie, sitting merely two feet away, and said, “And you… look like a pit bull. And I make a point of never petting a pit bull.”
She spun on her heel and walked away. Herbie looked absolutely crushed. She hung her head, and looked forlornly over her shoulder at us, as if to ask what she had done wrong. The other dog had gotten pats and kisses. Herbie had gotten the cold shoulder.
It was a moment that broke my heart. As I stood on the trail, mouth gaping open and shut like a fish out of water, I formulated many responses, most of which are too snarky and rude to post on this blog. In the end, my overwhelming thought was, “Well, nobody asked you!”
I am a proud pit bull owner, and am lucky enough to have many people in my life who adore both of my big, bully dogs. While I have to take extra precautions about certain things (and read the fine print on “dog friendly” areas), my dogs have no idea what breed they are. They don’t know that they’re different. They don’t know that there’s a whole community of people who can’t stand them or wish them harm. But on that day, Herbie knew, and that bothered me more than all the anonymous hate combined.
That’s the thing about breed hate. Sure, it hurts the dogs in the big, obvious ways: euthanasia, overcrowded shelters, people being forced to give up beloved family pets. It also hurts in small, subtle ways, ways that you just can’t explain to the dogs in question.