Bronwen Dickey talks pit bulls at the Charlottesville Reading Series

Bronwen Dickey reads her work at the Charlottesville Reading Series on Friday at UVA. The event is presented in partnership with Virginia Quarterly Review and begins at 7 PM. Photo: Publicity photo Bronwen Dickey reads her work at the Charlottesville Reading Series on Friday at UVA. The event is presented in partnership with Virginia Quarterly Review and begins at 7 PM. Photo: Publicity photo

Though books about dogs never go out of fashion, popular dog breeds change over time. After all, it wasn’t so very long ago that Labradoodles didn’t even exist and everyone wanted a dog like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin to help out in an emergency. A recent book by Bronwen Dickey, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, explores one popular breed that has fallen out of favor in the past few decades.

One of her own dogs, Nola, prompted Dickey to begin researching her debut book. An introverted and loving pit bull mix, Nola nevertheless elicited strong reactions from neighbors and passersby, causing Dickey to wonder how these misguided stereotypes were formed in the first place. Along the way she wound up grappling with issues of class, race, scientific research and social politics across a wide swath of history.

“I knew that I wanted the project to have a fairly wide scope,” says Dickey. “The issue of race haunted me from the beginning, but more so as the research process progressed. The sheer number of people who (often unwittingly) brought up racial stereotypes when discussing pit bull owners was enormous. It didn’t take long before I realized that I wasn’t really writing a book about dogs…I was writing about how people perceive dogs.” In doing so, she traces pit bulls from beloved American icons such as Petey, the dog in “The Little Rascals,” to vicious stereotypes like Michael Vick’s fighting dogs. She also examines other breeds that have fallen out of favor for various reasons, including dachshunds that were believed to be spies and other surprising dog stereotypes.

By her calculations, that research continued for seven years, which led to four years writing Pit Bull. “No matter how much I learned, I never felt that I knew enough, so I kept searching for more and more obscure details,” says Dickey. This includes poring over articles and books about topics ranging from canine biology to human-animal relationships as well as interviewing researchers behind the work. “Every place I went, I also made sure to visit the local shelter and interview their training staff and animal control officers,” says Dickey. “Sometimes, I literally asked people on the street to stop and talk to me about their views on pit bulls. I was never there to judge anyone, I simply wanted to learn from them.”

The result is a book that explores the ways in which Americans’ relationships with pit bulls mirror social values that extend beyond the pet store or animal shelter. By uniting perspectives of the everyman with trained experts, Dickey brings compassion and a probing curiosity to the work. Her experience as a critical essayist and editor lend elegant phrasing and a detailed approach to the social history that she builds. “My background in travel writing helped a great deal in that it primed me to be on the lookout for sensory details that would help the reader envision what I was seeing, and it prepared me to take an anthropologist’s view on the many different factions of pit bull culture,” says Dickey.

That writing has taken her to the Great Smoky Mountains, Thailand, Belize and countless places in between; Dickey’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Slate and other publications. She is also a contributing editor at Oxford American, and Virginia Quarterly Review published an adapted excerpt of Pit Bull in the spring 2016 issue, accompanied by haunting portraits of the breed from photographer Erika Schultz.

Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon has received a positive response from most readers and reviewers, but it’s clear that Dickey also struck a nerve by addressing an issue that is so divisive and emotionally charged that it’s practically taboo. “The most surprising part of the response to the book has been how upset and angry a small number of people have gotten without ever reading the book, which reinforces one of the book’s main theses: That these dogs are such powerful symbols to so many people that it’s difficult to have a calm, rational conversation about them anymore,” says Dickey.

She is quick to add that she never meant to take a side in the issue. “I don’t consider myself a ‘pit bull advocate,’ as fascinating as they are to write about,” Dickey says. “That would mean I somehow think pit bulls are more deserving of help than other types, and I actually don’t. The process of writing the book has inclined me to try as much as I can to look past breed and treat each dog as a unique member of the same species. If I advocate for anything, it’s science, compassion and better relationships between humans and animals.”

Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon has received a positive response from most readers and reviewers, but it’s clear that Bronwen Dickey also struck a nerve by addressing an issue that is so divisive and emotionally charged that it’s practically taboo.

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