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Book Review
The Ultimate American Pit Bull Terrier
by Jacqueline O'Neil

Review by: Kate Connick, Aug. 2005

Jacqueline O'Neil's The Ultimate American Pit Bull Terrier is intended to be both a celebration of the breed and a basic care manual for inexperienced pet owners. Overall, it is a helpful and informative, although not indispensable, book.

The 213-page hardcover book opens with the inspirational account of a heroic, life-saving pit bull. The author then traces the breed's evolution from its ancient forerunners, through the heyday of bloodsports, and on to modern America. O'Neil graphically depicts the brutality of bull-baiting and dog-fighting, while explaining the Zeitgeist in which they emerged.

Although her point is well taken that a bad crowd became attracted to the breed and bastardized it by intermixing other, "larger and nastier dogs of any breed whatsoever," she is not entirely convincing when trying to draw the distinction between these "monster mongrels" and purebred APBTs.

O'Neil contends that, "The real American Pit Bull Terrier, those registered with the UKC or ADBA, is the same affectionate, reliable, people-loving dog it ever was." She further states that, "bad temperaments due to heredity are rare in registered American Pit Bull Terriers." This is misleading, as it implies that registration status is tantamount to a certification of quality, and that is, of course, nonsense. At best, registration papers provide a record of lineage, but even that can be fudged if a breeder lacks integrity. Surely there must be some of those bad thugs breeding foul-tempered, purebred, registered APBTs or unethically registering vicious pit mixes as bona fide APBTs. My point is just that registration status, per se, doesn't really mean much, contrary to what the author appears to be suggesting.

O'Neil rightfully characterizes the typical pit bull as a confident, intelligent, active, comical, and people-friendly dog. Although some might find her training methods too traditional for their own tastes, to her credit she encourages training and participation in dog activities ranging from simple play to pet therapy to competitive events.

While the author asserts that the breed is "the strongest dog in the world for its size," and "is absolutely not the ideal dog for everyone," I don't think she really makes it clear why that is so. There is little in this book to really dissuade anyone from wanting a pit bull.

In an effort to portray pit bulls in only the best possible light, O'Neil offers some puzzling inconsistencies. She asserts that, "the dog fighters... never wanted and never bred a dog that was aggressive toward people," which may very well be true when it comes specifically to a fighting dog redirecting aggression towards its handler or defensively biting the owner when its post-brawl wounds are being doctored. Yet she proclaims that, "the protective instinct... usually surfaces when the dog is approximately ten months old... the young dog doesn't need any encouragement to guard." Even if one values guarding or protectiveness as desirable and justified aggression, it still constitutes human-directed aggression and could get an owner into trouble if not managed or controlled. The author's recommendation to let a pit "guard at its own discretion" is unwise.

Similarly perplexing is the author's politically correct insistence that "most pit bull puppies grow up to become a reflection of both their owner's personality and the care and training they receive." Yes and no. There is also the undeniable effect of genetic influences.

I find that pet owners - unlike seasoned pit bull fanciers who accept and understand this as part of the breed's character - are often ill prepared to deal with the very real inter-dog issues that pit bulls may present. It's not that O'Neil doesn't mention the potential for inter-dog aggression; she does, repeatedly. It just feels understated, where a more exhaustive, practical treatment could be valuable to the pet owning audience reading the book.

For example, O'Neil suggests puppy classes to identify problems early on and acknowledges that, "from nine months of age on, (the) Pit Bull could suddenly develop a desire to test its strength against other dogs." She really doesn't offer much practical assistance beyond stressing the importance of obedience training, leadership, and secure confinement. It would have been helpful if she'd tackled some real life issues like how (or if) one should own multiple pit bulls, how to use a breaking stick, or basic first aid for dogfight wounds. Certainly not all pit bulls are dog aggressive, but enough of them are for these kinds of topics to merit attention in a book of this nature.

Unfortunately, only about half of the book is unmistakably breed-specific, while the remainder offers more general information about dog care and activities. I'd have preferred a tighter focus on pit bulls themselves.

For example, O'Neil gives a simple, 2-page description of weight pulling as an activity in which one could participate with his pit bull. In and of itself, that information is okay, but it would rise to the level of excellence if it included breed specifics like who the record holders are and how much they've pulled, or a sidebar highlighting the story of a particular dog and its experience learning to pull or competing. There is some, but not nearly enough, information of this kind.

Oddly, for a breed-specific book, almost no mention is made of specific foundation dogs, bloodlines, or kennels - probably a regrettable omission. I suppose that one could argue that it is unnecessary to focus on such things in a book with a pet owning target audience, but the author includes breed standards and even whelping information, so the content isn't entirely pet-centered.

Some of the husbandry advice appears problematic, especially for this particular breed. Tossing a tennis or rubber ball to one's dog for it to catch might result in a choking pit bull, given the size and shape of the breed's head and neck, for example.

Far worse are the suggestions regarding outdoor housing and chaining. While briefly acknowledging disadvantages, O'Neil states, "chances are that Pit Bulls have been raised on chains more than any other way... sometimes there is no alternative." The accompanying photo of a formidable looking pit bull, wearing a chain nearly as thick as his leg, doesn't win points in the public relations department. In today's world, I dare say it's better to have no dog at all than to have a pit bull living outdoors on the end of a chain.

In spite of my criticisms, this isn't really a bad overview of the breed and its ownership. O'Neil has a very readable writing style, knows her breed, and covers a lot of territory. It is worth reading, especially for the well done historical information and encouragement to train one's pit bull. This is the kind of book that leaves a reader wanting a pit bull or wanting to explore new activities with the dog he has.

The Ultimate American Pit Bull Terrier by Jacqueline O'Neil.
Published by Howell Book House, 1995. ISBN: 0876052480

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