What's in a Name?: Pit Bulls and Senior Citizens

In Shakespeare's play, "Romeo & Juliet," two star-crossed lovers fall in love, but they belong to two fueding families and are prohibited from being together because of their last names, Montague and Capulet.

Reflecting on the absurdity of denying their love because of the baggage associated with the warring families, Juliet asks, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

In the end, Romeo and Juliet kill themselves so they could be together in the afterlife, rather than live apart in this world.

How often are dogs killed because someone labeled, or named, them a "pit bull?" In areas with breed-specific legislation that bans their existence, it happens every day. In other areas where shelters/rescue groups place "special" adoption restrictions on dogs they label as pit bulls, countless dogs are killed instead of being adopted out to families who don't meet their "special" requirements. While some manage to get out, many other pit bulls die because there is no space.


So, to quote Juliet, "What's in a name?"

First let's look at a group that has nothing to do with dogs: senior citizens.

In the United States people are labeled as "senior citizens" in a variety of contexts, and the opportunities and treatment afforded to them varies depending on when that label is affixed and when it is not.

Is there a consistent definition of "senior citizen?" The answer is no.

Below is a list of organizations that offer or restrict opportunities (e.g., discounts, entitlement benefits) based on a person's age; the number is the age at which that organization considers someone to be a "senior citizen."

In one day, the same individual can go shopping for clothes, eat food, watch a movie, rent a car, apply for retirement benefits, and adopt a dog....and at some places she's defined as a "senior citizen," but at others she is not.

Same person, different contexts, different definitions.

I asked my Facebook friends, "At what age do you define a person as a senior citizen?"

The answers varied significantly and included: 65, 72, 70, 65 or 62, 60, 50, or 80.

So what about pit bulls? Is there a clear and consistent definition for a what a pit bull is?

The answer is no. Again, it depends on who is defining him, in what context he is being defined, and where the dog is located.

I'll use myself as an example -- that's me, Sarge, pictured below.

(Photo by Jennie Ruff)

Am I a "pit bull?" Depends on where I am, who is asking, and why.

If I am with The Real Pit Bull (a rescue, education, and advocacy group): NO, I am not a pit bull because they define them as purebred American Pit Bull Terriers.

If I am with the American Kennel Club: NO, I am just a mixed-breed dog because they only recognize purebred American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers (but not American Pit Bull Terriers); futhermore, they do not recognize the term "pit bull" as a breed.

If I am with the United Kennel Club: NO, I am just a mixed-breed dog because they only recognize purebred American Pit Bull Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers (but not American Staffordshire Terriers); furthermore, they do not recognize the term "pit bull" as a breed.

If I am in the City of Boston: YES, I am a pit bull because they define them as any/all dogs who "displays the majority of [physical] characteristics" of an "American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishable [physical] characteristics." [Note: Boston has BSL, so I am required to be muzzled if I enter the City of Boston because I "pose a significant threat to the health, welfare, and safety of the residents and visitors to the City of Boston.]

If I am at any PetSmart Hotel or Doggie Day Camp in the United States: YES, I am a pit bull because they define them as part of the "bully breed classification," which they define as "American Pit Bull Terriers, Miniature Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Bulldogs, Bull Terriers, OR mixed breeds that have the appearance or characteristics of [at least] ONE of these breeds." [NOTE: As a result, I am banned from coming to PetSmart Hotels or Doggie Day Camps "for the safety of all animals and associates."]

If I am in Omaha, Nebraska: YES, I am a pit bull because they define them as "any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Dogo Argentina, Presa Canario, Cane Corso, American Bulldog, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of these breeds."

If I am in the Pennsylvania SPCA shelter (where I was adopted from): YES, I am a pit bull because the person who made my kennel card listed me as a "pit bull terrier mix" based on my physical appearance.

If I am on the MARS Wisdom Panel DNA website: NO, I am not a pit bull because "due to the genetic diversity of this group, we cannot build a DNA profile for the pit bull."

[Note: According to my MARS Wisdom Panel DNA test, I am a mixed-breed dog with significant traces of Boxer, Boston Terrier, and American Staffordshire Terrier.]

I could go on and on citing examples from cities (especially those with BSL), shelters, rescue groups, businesses, etc, and come up with different answers for each one.

Same dog, different contexts, different definitions.

In 2011, A pit bull is whatever anyone says it is, whether we like it or not.

So what's really in a name?

Many people define things according to the behaviors they associate with the name, or label.

When my Facebook friends listed their definitions of "senior citizen," many of them listed behaviors. These included: when they start thinking of themselves as knowing it all; when they want to retire; when they want senior discounts; when they start feeling old; when you go into a nursing home; when they can no longer do every day things for themselves; when they feel stiff; when they forget things; or when they stop looking toward the future and focus only on the past.
Whether my friends realize it or not, all of these behaviors are based on stereotypes.

While there are certainly individuals who REALLY DO exhibit these behaviors, my friends might be surprised to learn the following stats about people age 65+ in the United States (current as of 2009, compiled by the US Administration on Aging) :

* 97% of seniors live in the community (in a house, apartment, etc); only 3 % live in an institutional setting (i.e., nursing home, hospital, jail).

* 75% of seniors living in the community do NOT require extra help with activities of daily living (i.e., "every day things" like bathing, eating, dressing, grooming, using the toilet).

* 41.6% of seniors living in the community assessed their health as "excellent" or "very good" (compared to 64.5% of people age 18 to 64).

* 87.5% of seniors DO NOT have Alzheimer's disease (which causes memory impairment).

Therefore, the majority of people age 65+ do not meet the criteria by which some people define "senior citizens."

What about pit bulls? Can we compile accurate statistics about pit bull behaviors, which could help us predict behavior of individual dogs who look a certain way?

No, we cannot.

The above statistics are based on individuals with documented dates of birth. The sample population only included people aged 65 and older (as of 2009) and was large enough to reflect the population as a whole, so researchers could accurately extrapolate from their sample to the entire 65+ population in the US.

With pit bull dogs in 2011, there is no way to gather a sample population that reflects the behavior of all dogs labeled as pit bulls.

Everyone defines them differently, so we'd be comparing apples to oranges. Although we could limit ourselves, for example, to American Pit Bull Terriers who are registered with the UKC, those dogs are not representative of all dogs labeled as "pit bulls" throughout the country. And it's highly likely that purebred American Pit Bull Terriers exist who are not registered or do not have any pedigree papers.

So why do communities with BSL define "pit bulls" by expected behaviors (dangerous, vicious, and threatening to society)?

Why do shelters and rescue groups believe they can predict how a pit bull (according their definition) will behave, and restrict adoptions accordingly?

It's all because of stereotypes.

We cannot allow stereotypes about groups to predict the behavior of every individual in that category, whether we're talking about senior citizens or pit bulls or any other group who has been labeled.

I hope you'll consider this next time a dog's life depends on the name assigned to his appearance. No dog should have to join Romeo and Juliet in the afterlife just because the rest of the world couldn't get past a label, or because the shelter/rescue worker was too lazy to get to know the individual dog in front of him.