I've always hated the term "pit bull." The connotations are unavoidable, almost subconscious: vicious, fighting, aggressive. I hate saying it; I know my listeners are struggling with the same connotations in their own heads. I hate thinking it. It's like a dirty word.
The problems with "pit bull" are numerous, beginning with the fact that it is essentially undefinable. There is no agreed-upon definition. What is a "pit bull"?
Is it an American Pit Bull Terrier? An American Staffordshire Terrier? A Staffordshire Bull Terrier?
Is it a Bull Terrier, American Bulldog, English Bulldog, Boston Terrier, French Bulldog, Boxer, or any other dog that is somewhat related to the now-extinct Old English Bulldog that used to fight bulls, bears, and other dogs?
A recent news article headline screamed "Child bit by pit bull" when the body of the same article stated the dog in question was a Rottweiler. Dog bite articles in the past have labeled Dogo Argentinos, Cane Corsos, German Shepherds, Labs, and other unrelated breeds as "pit bulls." Are "pit bulls" any dog that bites?
Lakewood (OH) and Miami-Dade County (FL) are just two municipalities to make recent headlines after their breed bans resulted in confiscation of "pit bulls" that DNA tests subsequently proved were not "pit bulls," nor even "pit bull" mixes. Not that it mattered; these dogs were still prohibited because they retained the appearance of a "pit bull."
To municipalities with breed-specific legislation, it's not really about breed or type at all--it's about a dog's appearance. Any short-haired, mixed-breed dog can be labeled a "pit bull" in these places, depending on who is doing the judging. It is impossible to prove that one's dog is not a "pit bull" because the legal definition of "pit bull" is subjective (based on an individual's assessment of a dog's appearance).
The most recent embarrassment in Lakewood involved Otis, a dog that was obviously a Boxer, a breed that is not banned in Lakewood. The city nevertheless declared Otis a "pit bull" and kicked him out, unmoved by public outcry. While his owner prepares to move out of the city to join his dog, Otis is staying at... guess where... a Boxer rescue!
There's so much fuss and confusion over what it means to be a "pit bull" that the term feels worthless.
Yet, it's unavoidable in conversation. On the other side, people are trying to help these dogs known as "pit bulls." There are low-cost and free spay/neuter and training classes just for "pit bulls." There are advocates and rescue groups for "pit bulls."
How do we talk about saving "pit bulls" if we can't, or don't try to, define that term? So advocates come up with their own definitions for the term. They don't all agree, either.
Because of the negative connotations attached to the term "pit bull," some groups have proposed calling these dogs by another name--something more positive, more removed from violence and death. This has been attempted in the past, as well, with terms like "St. Francis Terrier."
Although I like the idea, I think it cannot work for practical reasons. It's already confusing enough without a whole new term to add to the mix. I don't know how I would reach people who are looking for information on "pit bulls" if I were calling them something totally different. I don't know how we could fight BSL if we weren't combating the public perception of "pit bulls" as naturally aggressive beasts.
Renaming to remove connotations doesn't really solve the fundamental problem. If people still believe that certain breeds or types of dogs are genetically inclined to "snap," eat babies, maul grandmothers, etc., then we still have a problem--total lack of public education regarding dog behavior. All the cutesy labelling in the world won't solve that. It just means people will add the "new breed" to their list of "dangerous" dogs.
Despite my pessimism, I wouldn't fight such an attempt to rename. I'd still like to see a well-thought-out plan implemented--something that would bring a unified, accepted definition of these dogs to the table. The most important part, I think, and the most difficult, is to get everyone on the same page. Whatever the new term may be, it cannot be applied subjectively and inconsistently, as "pit bull" is today.