Pit bull placebo (the)

Delise - Pit BullPUBLISHING YEAR: 2007

SUMMARY: Critical investigation of public beliefs and press coverage of the latest scapegoat breed, the Pit bull; and of fatal dog attacks in general.

AUDIENCE: Any dog professionals working with dog aggression or bite risk assessments needs to read this book.

02 Professional


The author: Karen Delise was trained as a veterinary technician. She is also a talented amateur historian and investigative journalist, judging by this book.

Style and contents: Karen Delise digs beyond the grabby headlines, and goes after the (often aberrant) reasons behind the dramatic attacks reported in the press. She goes beyond breed stereotypes and analyzes why each particular incident took place.

She then takes a step back and examines reported attacks through history, then looks at how these incidents are reported in the press. She also reviews the ‘bad press’ breed as they each take turn as the latest scapegoat since the 1800’s: bloodhound, bulldog, German shepherd, Doberman and the latest mug: the pit bull.

And she examines the self-fulfilling prophecy that is giving a breed a bad name: more ‘wrong’ owners will want this breed for the wrong reasons, so more dogs of that breed will be raised ‘wrong’. And there you have your usual ‘bad breed’ vicious circle which no amount of Breed Specific Legislation will ever break.

The chapters detailing the circumstances around the severe attacks reported in the press make for gruesome reading, I won’t lie to you. As does the chapter on dog fighting. But this close look will give you a better understanding of the factors behind nearly every dog attack: a dog that is severely abused, neglected, under-socialized and often taunted.

The book’s message corroborates Janis Bradley’s in “Dog bites” to a T: pit bull paranoia (and dog bite paranoia for that matter) is just that: paranoia; an obsessive fear of a microscopic risk. The two books are similar in other ways: they are rigorous in their research, scathing in their criticism, and written for the layman. Both great reads.

It is perhaps suitable that a book featuring terriers should have its author so doggedly determined to chase the details of every claim back to its origin. This diligence is what makes the book so powerful: it dissects the various strands of misinformation about dog breeds, and exposes them to the light of facts, revealing them to be the scaremongering memes they are.


  • Insightful review of the history of dog bite epistemiology.
  • Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! A book that cites its sources in-text. Congrats to Karen Delise on her transparency as this is a rare move in non academic publications.
  • Her look into the (entirely made up) crazed Doberman theories gave me a few ha haa moments as I realized that I too believed these stories as a kid, and that my parents probably still do.
  • A historical overview table (in appendix) showing all reports of a serious dog attack since the 1800’s in chronological order, and featuring all relevant details of the attack. An invaluable tool for anyone wanting to glance at trends and common factors behind severe aggression.
  • A systematic breakdown of the factors known to contribute to canine aggression (appendix D)

Some passages were great at encapsulating the issues at hand. Clearly Karen Delise knows her way around the art of writing, and masters the topic she discusses:

  • “The Witch hunt was on. The fixation with pit bull narrowed the focus to the dog, rather than on the relationship between the dog and the human.” (Foreword)
  • “… meaningless statistics and pseudoscience to replace rational thought and basic, common-sense knowledge of the canine and human behaviors which have long been recognized to contribute to dog attacks” (Introduction)
  • “…. controversial, and often the most disastrous for dogs and humans alike, is the task of protecting man from his fellow man” (Chapter 1)
  • “The line between a justified attack and an attack that would cost the dog its life was thin indeed” (Chapter 1)
  • “And as is often the case with dog ownership, a lack of humanity and/or intelligence did not prevent the acquisition, training or keeping of dogs” (Chapter 1)
  • “… humans are in essence architects, and can either use those blueprints to build on those behaviors or ignore the blueprints and build/train the dog for a different function”
  • “Either Dobermans were truly vicious but terribly ineffective in causing injuries, or their image was not based in reality” (Chapter 8)
  • “the fact that government officials […] can enter your home to seize your property (Pit bulls or mixed breed dogs that may look like Pit bulls) based on these grade-school-level assessments of canine behavior is a frightening reality.” (Chapter 10)
  • “And if over-reporting and erroneous reporting of Pit bull attacks were not enough for the media, they have concocted a new and novel way to titillate their readers. Incredibly, the media now reports Pit bull almost attacks or escape from attacks.” (Chapter 13)
  • “In addition to the news media and politicians, an unholy trilogy of misinformation has been formed with the Internet.” (Chapter 15)

To me, the take-home message – the message I have to pass on to my audiences – was this: “The media is NOT a credible or impartial source of information on the nature or behavior of dogs involved in attacks” (Appendix C).

Possible improvement

  • The passages about bloodhounds ran a little long for my liking. You’ll come out of this book as a specialist in this historical breed. Not exactly why I had picked it up myself.
  • There are a couple of mentions of dogs being pack animals/about dominance (treading into dodgy definitional waters here, Ms. Delize), and about dogs being predators (overtly incorrect: in terms of food habits, they are scavengers). But this does not form the core of the book, so it’s a complete aside.

The verdict: An absolute must-read if you are involved with dog aggression professionally. This scathing and intelligent book condemns scare-mongering, sensationalistic PR stunts by politicians and journalists. One can dream that the politicians and journalists who are whipping up the Pit bull frenzy will also take a peek, but one is not holding her breath…

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Author: Delise Karen
Genre: pop science
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