January 30, 2008


Not a "chox mix." Not a "buff mastiff," either: a "shred of historical evidence" for Merritt Clifton. Click on photos to enlarge.

How unnerving it must seem, how humiliating, to be a professional breed-basher this week! Spend years stoking the urban legend machine, and what happens? Famous athlete gets busted for dogfighting, his "ticking time bombs" turn out to be good dogs, and the news is all about friendly pit bulls nestled in the loving arms of their foster moms and dads, or playing happily with other dogs. Playing with children, even.

It's almost enough to make a person feel sorry for Merritt Clifton. Almost.

Clifton is the editor, and I use the term loosely, who lists the "chox mix," the “Dauschund," the “East Highland terrier,” the “Weimaeaner,” the “Buff Mastiff,” etc. among dogs that bite: these are "clearly identified" animals, he states, labeled by people "with evident expertise." ["Clearly identified" and "evident expertise" also mean that the blue heeler, the Australian blue heeler, the Queensland heeler and the Australian cattle dog are described as separate breeds in Clifton's odd tabulation of dog bites, and mixes are lumped together with dogs labeled purebreds.]

No MLA format for Clifton: no footnotes, no in-text citations, no pages of works cited. And because some editors, reporters and columnists can't tell a peer-reviewed study from a pig in a poke, Clifton enjoys a certain amount of air time. Here he is on CNN, talking about pit bulls in general and the Vick dogs in particular:
Considering the risk the fighting dogs pose to shelters, potential owners and other animals, "they just don't have a chance," Clifton said.

"You can compare it to what happens with exotic cats and people who keep tigers in their backyard. It's not the tiger's fault, but you are still on the menu. They are victims, but you do have to treat them as animals that belong in maximum security."
Imagine how ignorant and how biased you'd have to be to make that sort of remark.

Now that the wheel of Karma is bearing down on him, Clifton is beginning to sound shrill:
Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, takes issue with my previous post, in which I wrote: "Remember that only a generation or two ago, pit bulls were renowned as 'America's family dog.'"

He promptly e-mails me, saying:

This is a total fiction. There isn't a shred of historical evidence that pit bulls ever amounted to more than 1% of the total U.S. dog population until under 15 years ago, or that they were ever commonly kept as family pets (or indeed by anyone except dogfighters) until then.
Clifton says that between 1900 and 1950 [according to search results on the NewspaperArchive.com website] 35 breeds of dog accounted for 3.5 million newspaper articles or ads which included the word "dog" and a mention of the breed's name.

Pit bull terriers, Staffordshires, and American bulldogs account for 34,770 results, roughly 1% of the 3.5 million, leading Clifton to believe that from 1900 to 1950 "pit bulls" made up no more than 1% of the U.S. dog population.

There are so many things wrong with this, it's hard to tell where to start.

Forget duplicate ads. Forget multiple references to Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin and Balto. Forget short stories, movie and book reviews, and breed names used figuratively or used in advertising. Forget the regional, racial and socioeconomic factors that affect what goes into a newspaper. And most of all, forget that Clifton failed to search for bulldogs and bull terriers: the two names most closely associated with the "pit bull" breed in the first half of the 20th century. Set all that aside, and the bias and ignorance still loom large. "Not a shred of historical evidence!" Not a shred, dammit!

To digress just a bit, how is it that people who don't know anything about dogs become dog experts? How is it that Jon Katz -- who allows his dogs to worry sheep and calls it "herding," who believes stockdogs are trained with a clicker, who views the no-kill sheltering movement as a threat to America's children, who [as far as anyone knows] has never trained a dog to do much of anything and has never attended a real sheepdog trial even as a spectator -- how is it that Jon Katz has become, in his publisher's words, "one of the country's most respected" writers on dogs?

How is it that Merritt Clifton -- who wouldn't recognize scientific research if he tripped over it, who thinks German shepherds are bred to "herd," who can't be troubled to edit his spelling errors or find out what dogs are really bred for, who has [as far as anyone knows] never cared for or trained or even patted a pit bull, who has written about "the custom" [known only to him, apparently] "of docking pit bulls' tails so that warning signals are not easily recognized," and who writes that "temperament is not the issue, nor is it even relevant," since virtually all pit bulls are "bad moments" waiting to happen -- how is it that Clifton has become an "expert" on the breed?

"There isn't a shred of historical evidence" [Clifton writes] that pit bulls "were ever commonly kept as family pets (or indeed by anyone except dogfighters)" until the 1980s.

Wrong. Again.

On the left: one example of a pit bull on a citrus crate label. I grew up in a region famous for its citrus crops, and love historic crate labels. Lots of the old ones feature popular breeds -- Airedales, Saint Bernards -- and these days modern breeds are occasionally photoshopped into old citrus labels. The Pup Brand label is an authentic oldie. This facsimile is for sale here.

At the top of this post is a photo of a book called The Dog Album. From the dust jacket: "For the nineteenth-century businessman, newly engaged couple, or Victorian family dressed in their Sunday best, a photo session was indeed a special occasion. Which makes it all the more fascinating to see how often the family dog participated in the event." The Dog Album includes a dozen or so photos of pit bull type dogs with their people. There are more pit bulls in this book than collies. More pit bulls than pugs, in fact. Even more pit bulls than Saint Bernards.

Vintage photos of people and their pit bulls are a staple on eBay. Here's a link to the photo below.

And here's a shot of a handsome pit bull with a group of railroad engineers:

On the right, a postcard of a lady. No, Zelig fans, it's not the same dog ;~)

A pit bull is the subject of New Yorker icon James Thurber's classic Snapshot of a Dog. "'An American bull terrier,' we used to say, proudly; none of your English bulls." "American bull terrier" was one of many names given to the dog now called a pit bull, according to American Kennel Gazette editor Arthur Frederick Jones. Jones wrote a chapter on terriers for the National Geographic Book of Dogs, and began the chapter with an appreciation of Joffre, the Staffordshire terrier his family owned when Jones was a boy.

Anyone familiar with pit bulls knows that these dogs have always been called bulldogs in rural areas and in southern parts of the U.S. When Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about the family bulldog, Jack, she's writing about a dog we would recognize as a pit bull. In the great children's book Sounder the dog of the title is half hound, half bulldog: that is, half pit bull.

Listen to Texan Jim Crainer of Hawgs, Dawgs, and Hunting:
Hello David,

I appreciate you taking the time to write. Your question is "Do I hunt with pitbulls and do I presently have any pups I'm selling or giving away". First, Do I hunt with Bull dogs? Yes, but I only use them in a catch dog capacity. When the hog is bayed up, I get as close as I can and release a protected vest covered and cut collar wearing bull dog to go catch the hog. I dont have bull dogs that I let hunt for me, but know of some people who do. Its just a personal preference on type of dogs is the reason I dont. Suprisingly to alot of people, some strains of bull dogs are good hunters and have a good nose especially for rig or hood hunting. But its like any breed of dog, you have to find the right dog to do it with. Such as, just because a fella has a blackmouth cur or a catahoula doesnt mean he will bay cattle or hogs. Or just because a person has a walker hound doesnt mean he will tree a coon. You have to go thru a number of them or get them from reputible breeders to find one that will work for you. Second, Do I have any bull dogs puppies to sell or give away? I usually raise one litter of bull dog pups a year, there is a picture of the two I kept on the baydog pictures, Under Dogs, picture #3. I do sell them occasionally when I raise a litter. Thanks again for your question.

Good Hunting,

[Crainer writes elsewhere that he favors the Carver line of pit bulls -- a fighting strain --and won't bother with a pit bull unless it's people friendly and can ride loose in the rig with other dogs.]

If Merritt Clifton actually knew much about dogs, or cared enough to study the history of dogs in the U.S., he would know all this. Pit bulls -- bulldogs -- have been common for the better part of a century and a half, though not as ubiquitous as they are today. They were, and are, kept and loved by all sorts of people.

The photo below was taken in the 1890s. The toddler is my maternal great-aunt [a wonderful woman who loved dogs, and owned some legendary ones -- legendary in our household, anyway] and her uncle Albert. Albert was crippled: the dog in the photo is helping to hide Albert's legs in addition to providing support for the child. Seventy years after this photo was taken, my great-aunt remembered the dog's name and spoke of him fondly as "our bulldog." Her parents were hard-working, pragmatic Iowa farmers who liked good dogs and didn't keep bad ones. They were not dogfighters.

(Thanks to EmilyS for the note that prompted this post.)


Anonymous said...

"When Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about the family bulldog, Jack, she's writing about a dog we would recognize as a pit bull."

All Wilder says is that he has a stump of a tail and his teeth show a little because he's a bulldog, and that he's brown and brindled. I do agree that one could question Jack's breed, but what makes you believe he was a pit bull?

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was funny when she found out I got my first pit bull. She was so upset, scared, angry that I'd be so stupid. Until she met her and found out that the dogs now called "pit bulls" are pretty much the same as the "bulldog" her uncle had when my grandmother was a little girl (she's 89 years old now). Suddenly she wasn't scared anymore. She knows these dogs- they were commonplace family pets when she was a girl.

Somewhere there exists a picture of her sitting on the front porch with the dog, and I really wish that I could find it.

Anonymous said...

People like Clifton (a handful come to mind although he's the champ) are unfortunate and if they weren't so dangerous it might almost be cruel to mock them.

They have some kind of irrational fear and rather than trying to address and work through it through exposure and learning more, they support it with what amounts to gossip and a rather perverted form of creativity - they make stuff up and call it fact. Their lack of intelligence and analytical ability handicaps them further.

Of course, those in the media who are too lazy to read actual reports, court documents or scientific papers (they're boring) or consult with real experts (they use big words which aren't appropriate for the readership)just love people like Clifton.

Fortunately, while there are a few of these bozos out there, they are vastly outnumbered by honest experts and researchers on the subject.

My friend, who has bred AmStaffs for decades (I'd love to have one of her dogs but the Ontario govt insists on 'protecting' me from myself because I'm apparently not a grownup yet) told me that the bull dogs came to N. America with settlers from the UK. They were all-round utility dogs, watchdogs, hunting dogs and companions for the family.

They are still one of the best all-round utility dogs out there, especially as they are rather generalized in shape - nothing extreme, few health problems, minimal grooming, medium size, thrifty to keep.

I must fish out and scan my picture of 'Uncle Joe' (not sure who he is, maybe my maternal grandma's brother) sitting on the steps in Montreal with his bull dog in the early 30s.

Great post. Keep it up!

No BSL said...

Great post!

Maybe it`s just time to ignore you know who.

I notice the only people that quote him are the "feeding frenzy" posters that jump in after an incident.

These are the same people that attack those that are looking at ALL the circumstances surrounding a bite or a
They have no interest in finding solutions,they are only interested in blame.
Why would anyone with a brain cell blame a dog?

Maybe Hector,the media darling(abused by M. PR$#K )
could interview MC and get some answers!
I`d pay to see that interview.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for hogging comments but I followed the link, read Clifton's garbled list (alphabetical order would have helped). I note no mention of Bloodhounds, the 'pit bulls' of their day. Strange.

I guess ol' Clifton has never seen this:

Or this:


Looks as though the American Bull terrier (the Yankee terrier) represented the US in WWI.

I guess Clifton isn't privy to the work of Dr L Brisbin either. His research fellow debunked the Mechanical Advantage/Locking Jaw fable in 1988, published in the Proceedings of the S. Carolina Academy of Sciences in '89 using rigorous and reproducible scientific methods. The findings are unchallenged and unrefuted to this day. Also, Dr Brisbin, who has an interest in rare and endangered species of wild swine, uses the APBT exclusively to catch his research subjects - because they use a bite and hold grip which leaves the swine unharmed.

But there I go again, picking on a caricature of a self-styled 'expert'.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. Great job of researching the real Pit bulls (yes, all the newspapers and people back then called them bulldogs, bull terriers or bull dogs - not Am Staffs or APBT!!) - The fact that he would enter Am Staffs or APBT in a search of old newspapers shows how unbelievably clueless this man is.
Merritt-less Clifton is probably the worst "researcher and/or statistician" I have ever witnessed at "work." (and I use those terms VERY loosely).
The fact that Kenneth Phillips (Dog Bite Law) uses his stuff on his website shows just how "bright" the average person really is.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this is SUCH a good post. How wonderful to be able to cite this, next time someone regurgitates this moron's 'statistics' in an argument about the 'vicious' Pit Bull.

Thurber is my favorite author, and let's not forget his great story "Lo, The Gentle Bloodhound" - written in answer to his generation's irrational fear of the 'vicious' Bloodhound.

Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.

Luisa said...

Thanks, guys. The updated, 11/07 version of Clifton's dog bite list [pdf file] can be found here. Remarkably (or not, as the case may be), all the errors are intact: the mastiffs are still buff, etc.

My comments on Clifton's dog bite list are here and here.

Social Mange said...

Well done.

Clifton has lost so much credibility (he had any?) that he's being avoided by the people he used to manipulate into passing BSL. No wonder he's getting shrill.

Anonymous said...

Also, for those who may need to address Clifton's report and the ridiculous "methodology" of his "fatal dog attacks and maimings study" please go to the National Canine Research Council's page at:

Luisa said...

That National Canine Research Council link deserves to be posted again [and again and again]:
Dog Bite Statistics: Science or Junk Science?

The NCRC's site is the best: intelligent, thorough and meticulously accurate.

Anonymous said...

You know, I braced myself and decided to read Clifton's report again.
Does this man have no shame? His stuff (because it certainly isn't a study) is beyond bad, beyond irresponsible, beyond trash, it is surreal.
How on God's green earth anyone take this stuff seriously?
Forget all the breed ID nonsense (pit bull-doberman-GSD-lab X!)and the "golden lab" and all the other errors this blog has pointed out. How about the fact that he includes bites and maulings in with people who have had NO bites from dog, but were accidently strangled or died of massive infection from a very minor bite?
Talk about apples and oranges - his "study" contains apples, oranges, peas, unicorns, rotten tomatoes and stinkweed.

Anonymous said...

"All Wilder says is that he has a stump of a tail and his teeth show a little because he's a bulldog, and that he's brown and brindled. I do agree that one could question Jack's breed, but what makes you believe he was a pit bull?"

Laura Wilder worked closely with Garth William on the drawings in the books. The drawings of Jack (for example in the chapter "Fever 'n' Ague, in Little House on the Prairie) show a Pit Bull Terrier.

John said...

Great blog, thanks for sharing.....

Meghna Uniyal said...

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