Set against the iron clouds and evergreen spires of Olympia, Washington, Diane Jessup’s carport looked like a hastily abandoned military training camp. A wooden treadmill with broken slats leaned against one wall. Empty metal crates were stacked up against another, most with their doors fallen open, as though something had escaped. Growling hellhounds on rusted metal signs warned trespassers in multiple languages—beware! ¡cuidado! achtung! and finally, warning: my pit bull will fucking kill you—above cardboard boxes that overflowed with tools and duct tape and old lengths of chain. In a far corner, just beyond a frayed rope hanging ominously from the ceiling, a shelf of trophies gathered dust.
And then there was the meat—bloody hunks of beef and bone lay scattered across the concrete, turning to goo.
“Ribs,” Jessup said as I got out of my rental car. “Fresh from the butcher. Backs, too. The dogs love ’em.”
By the time I finally met Jessup, I had read so many of her fire-breathing epistles on the “dumbing down” of the American pit bull terrier (APBT) that I pictured her in a horned Viking helmet and armored breastplate, carrying a spear. But when she shuffled outside to greet me, she wore knee-length khaki cargo shorts and an extra-large black T‑shirt that read: man’s best friend, hog’s worst enemy. The text appeared below a picture of an amber-eyed pit bull, frozen mid-pounce—a reference to the hunters who use Kevlar-clad APBTs to catch feral pigs on the plains of Texas. The drizzling rain had glued her feathered brown hair to her forehead and fogged up her eyeglasses, which slid down her nose. Fifty-three years old, she took slow, labored steps, hunched over pale legs stitched with scars that bowed out sharply at the knees.
“Christ,” she muttered, “I hate being a fat, old cripple.” Releasing a huge sigh and swiping at her bangs, she smiled, opened her arms, and bear-hugged me as though we were old comrades newly returned from war. “Call me Diane,” she said, sweeping an arm across the driveway. “You’re the first person to visit me in four years.”
If there were a pantheon of take-no-prisoners pit-bull diehards, Diane Jessup would occupy a prominent place in it. (One of the many surprising contradictions about the world of pit bulls, which is thought to be so full of machismo, is that a significant number of its most outspoken characters are women.) Since her first kennel job at age fourteen, she has worked with and trained protection, police, and scent-detection dogs of almost every large breed. For the past thirty years, she has focused on breeding and training high-drive American pit bull terriers. Eight of the dogs that she bred or selected have gone on to successful careers as scent-detecting dogs for law enforcement. To date, her personal dogs have won more than seventy titles in Schutzhund (a competitive sport that originated in Germany to evaluate protection dogs), French Ring Sport (similar to Schutzhund), obedience, weight pull, tracking, and herding, while also appearing in several Hollywood films, television commercials, and print advertising campaigns. Her three books about working APBTs—two histories and one novel—are considered essential reading for anyone interested in pit bulls.
Like the dogs she loves so passionately, Jessup is a controversial and polarizing figure. Though she worked as an animal-control officer for twenty years and finds dogfighting utterly repugnant, she believes that purebred American pit bull terriers from old fighting bloodlines (commonly known as “game” or “game-bred” dogs) have the most unflagging spirits of any working animals. “They aren’t the best at everything,” she said, “but they will try their damnedest at whatever you ask them to do.” She maintains that the courage and drive that is thought to have made the dogs of yesteryear successful in the pit can now be channeled effectively toward positive goals, like police work and competitive sports such as agility, dock diving, and flyball. If the game dogs die out, she fears that all that working potential will die out with them. A good dog, she insists, is “90 percent genetics.” The subset of APBT breeders who idolize Jessup agree.
Jessup does not care one whit whether people love or hate her. “I know what I know” is her personal credo, and she prefers practical knowledge to pointy-headed science. Case in point: her defense of inbreeding. Geneticists have found that tight inbreeding puts dogs at higher risk for heritable diseases and degrades their immune systems over time, but Jessup has no problem with the practice if it gets her what she wants, which is a dog possessed of enough strength and stamina to perform at the highest level of dog sport. Inbreeding, she says, is the fastest and most efficient way to set “type,” and for her, type is everything. If a puppy she breeds is not physically healthy or shows any aggression toward humans, she will have the dog euthanized. Her loyalty is not to the individual dog in front of her but to the breed as a whole. “I’m not someone out to save every little doggie in the world,” she wrote on her website. “I love the breed enough to believe in culling. And yes, culling may mean euthanasia . . . I deal in common sense.”
These days, the main targets of Jessup’s wrath are members of the animal-protection movement, whom she refers to as “humaniacs” or “old ladies in tennis shoes.” “We need bold, robust, exciting things in our lives,” she told me. “But we are now living in the age of the insipid, spineless person. Today’s pit bull is most threatened by two groups of people: those who hate them, and those who love them.” The ones who hate them are trying to have them banned, and the ones who love them, she says, are “watering down” the dogs by holding up “scatterbred,” “generic” shelter dogs as examples of what pit bulls can and should be.
Diane does not necessarily consider typical shelter dogs to be “real” pit bulls. In fact, she does not even consider most show-bred APBTs to be “real” pit bulls. Both can be wonderful pets, she says, but “real” pit bulls have an internal fire that comes only from game blood. This has put her at odds with many people, including some of her oldest friends, who feel that her chest-thumping statements about pit bulls being faster, stronger, and better than other dogs are frightening to the public, who look to her as an example. The nail that sticks out, they remind her, is the first to be hammered down. Diane is not bothered by that; in fact, on some level she hopes to frighten the public. If more people were intimidated by the thought of owning pit bulls, she says, then maybe the dogs would not be so carelessly bred in such great numbers.
In defiance of those who believe that a softened image will save the dogs’ lives, Diane assigns her pets tongue-in-cheek names like Freakshow, Grim, Maulie, Thing, and Hellboy, even though none of her APBTs has ever bitten anyone and she would never keep a dog around that had. Jessup has committed her life to preserving the American pit bull terrier as she believes it existed 200 years ago and as she believes it should exist 200 years from now: as a friendly, brave, athletic companion.
“Just wait until we put you in the bite sleeve,” she had said darkly over the phone, referring to the protective gear worn by human decoys in bite training. “You need to see what these dogs are capable of.” According to her, the APBT was a solid muscle of awe-inspiring, relentless power.
As we stood in the carport that first morning, a tan-colored puppy with a black snout bolted out from the doorway and zigzagged through my legs. She spun around like a dervish, pogoed up and down, and pawed at me until I finally knelt down to pet her, whereupon she licked my face furiously. I got the distinct impression that the dog was trying to enlist me in some sort of scheme. “Oh, Nell,” Diane said with a sigh, leaning her head back and squeezing her eyes shut. She resembled a long-suffering Sunday-school teacher. “Nell-Nell. Come on. Please.” The puppy continued to bounce around the carport as if made of compressed rubber. “Her full name is Boldog’s Mad Nell,” Diane said. “And you can see why.” (Boldog is the name of Jessup’s kennel.)
Diane was due at the veterinarian’s office in Tacoma, where she would find out if one of her seven pit bulls had finally gotten pregnant after several expensive rounds of artificial insemination. Before leaving the house, she made sure the dogs that remained behind were adequately separated. Some liked one another just fine, but others might get into gruesome, possibly fatal fights if she didn’t rotate them into and out of the house in “teams.” Normally, half of the dogs lounged with her in the living room, while the other half played in the one-acre yard, where they had rope swings, toys, and bones with which to occupy themselves. (All those ominous-looking implements in the carport, it turned out, were used for making and repairing toys and training tools.) She switched the teams every few hours, and none of them seemed to mind it. Most days, Jessup took at least one or two of her dogs swimming in cold mountain rivers or played long games of fetch with them in the shadow of Mount Rainier. They romped around like a tangle of high-school football players, tossing their toys in the air, shoving and head butting one another, and collapsed in heaps of exhausted brawn at day’s end.
On the back of Diane’s van were two bumper stickers: calm? submissive? why would i want a dog like that? And: i think, therefore i’m single.
On the front, a large, jagged hole had been torn from the right fender. “Thing seems to think that my van is a bull, and she likes to grab on to it,” Diane said, chuckling. “But that’s nothing compared to what Damien did to my drywall!” Indeed, Damien had clawed and chewed a giant hole through one of her walls in an attempt to find a rat that had gotten stuck between the studs.
Diane pulled an eight-milligram tab of the opioid painkiller Dilaudid out of her purse and washed it down with a draw from a large Coke. Then she put the van in gear and backed out of the driveway, humming “Mother’s Little Helper” by the Rolling Stones.
Chronic, debilitating pain has plagued Diane for most of her life. A doctor once predicted that she would be in a wheelchair by the time she was thirty—and that was before the back surgery, the thyroid cancer, and the double-knee replacements that for a time left her unable to function without the aid of a walker. Some of her doctors call this fibromyalgia, while others wonder if it is psoriatic arthritis. Pain pills and a strict anti-inflammatory diet helped her get rid of the walker, but she can still do only a fraction of the things she used to enjoy. And, in 2008, a barn fire destroyed many of her belongings. After the death of her favorite dog and a sharp decline in her health, she halted her work and travel and took an early retirement from her job as an animal-control officer. Ever since, she has focused every minute of her day and every cent of her income on her dogs. Without them, she says, she wouldn’t be here.
Stacks of bills, magazines, and greeting cards littered the van’s dashboard, along with rawhides, a broken telephone, the detached rearview mirror, some old cassette tapes, a T‑shirt, fast-food wrappers, soda bottles, and a DVD of Dark Shadows. “I’d be a hoarder if I had any money,” Diane deadpanned. A handicapped parking tag and a fake turkey foot dangled from the driver’s-side visor. Under the console, a nervous little black-brindle APBT was curled up and trembling with anticipation. She looked up pleadingly and whimpered.
“Okay, Freakshow, hang on.” Diane slowed the van to a crawl and craned her neck out the window. “My neighbors fucking hate me for this.” When the coast was sufficiently clear, she opened the driver’s-side door and Freakshow leaped out, exploding into a sprint. Diane hit the gas. “Watch her go!” The dog flew along the ground with her mouth open wide, shoulders and flanks shimmering in oily waves until all her limbs blurred together. Diane’s van trailed behind her like a support vehicle in the Tour de France. The speedometer crept upward, and soon we were clocking Freakshow at thirty-four miles an hour. “If someone else ran their dog off-leash like this, I’d call them an asshole,” Diane said, mouthing the straw of her Coke. “But Freaky is completely trustworthy. I don’t claim to be consistent.”
“There’s a lot about my obsession with animals that I still don’t understand,” Jessup told me in the vet’s office. Those closest to her didn’t understand, either, and that has always been a source of tension between her and them. A life devoted to dogs was not what her upper-middle-class parents had in mind. For the first seven years of her life, Jessup lived on a seven-acre farm on Vashon Island, in the middle of Puget Sound. Her father worked as a pilot for United Airlines, and her mother, a housewife, busied herself providing a Cleaver-esque home life for the couple’s three children. When the family moved across the water to West Seattle, the change from country living to city dwelling completely unmoored Diane. None of the material comforts of suburbia came close to what she felt among the sheep, goats, and geese back on the farm. “I was a little pagan heathen, even back then,” she said.
When she was fourteen, her parents bought her a yellow Labrador retriever named Arrow in an effort to console her. Arrow hated the water and hated other people, but Diane felt a unique sense of connection to her. “With me and my dogs,” she said, “there was this closeness of friendship. Humans and dogs are both predators, so our minds work the same, in a way. All my friends wanted horses, but ugh, why? A horse is an animal, but a dog is a friend. The dog is our species’ soul mate. I truly believe that.”
By the time she reached high school, Diane had grown into a lanky six-foot-tall tomboy in bell-bottoms who loved reading—especially British history—but hated being cooped up inside without her dog. Most afternoons she cut school to go hiking with Arrow in the densely forested mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Soon she and Arrow were spending all their time in the woods or roaming Seattle with other neighborhood dogs, which clustered around Diane in a big pack on walks down to the beach. The animal-rights movement, which gained momentum after the publication of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation in 1975, seemed to be the most natural extension of her interests, if not her conservative politics. The thought of animals being used in medical research particularly horrified her. She became a lifetime member of the American Anti-Vivisection Society and later began attending anticruelty vigils hosted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
It wasn’t enough for Diane to be around dogs, however. She wanted to work with them, teach them things. At fourteen, she took a part-time job cleaning kennels at a facility that trained guard dogs, one of a growing number of guard-dog businesses that sprang up as rates of violent crime across the country increased during the 1970s. Then she dropped out of high school to work in a vet’s office. After graduating by correspondence course and halfheartedly attending a few classes at the University of Washington, Diane opened one of her many dog magazines and saw an ad for an official guard-dog training school in Bakersfield, California. It occurred to her that she didn’t need to spend her time in classrooms if what she really wanted to do was train dogs. With tuition money from her parents and a new Doberman named Otto, she signed up to become a professional guard-dog trainer.
It was at training school that Diane met her first American pit bull terrier, in the form of a little white female that one of Diane’s roommates’ girlfriends brought up to visit. Diane was immediately captivated by the dog, but she also felt a tremendous sense of . . . relief. This APBT was cheerful and easygoing, elegantly athletic, and willing to work hard without needing to be cajoled, begged, or prodded. The other dogs Diane worked with—German shepherds, Dobermans, and rottweilers, mostly—seemed mean unless they had to be friendly, which is exactly what their training brought out in them. Otto, her own Doberman, was so nervous that he always seemed a hairbreadth from going off on somebody. This white dog appeared to be just the opposite: She was friendly with everyone unless forced to be otherwise.
The primary training protocol of that era was devised by William Koehler, a trainer for the US military during World War II who went on to become the head animal trainer at Walt Disney Studios. For many years, Koehler was revered by his students for his efficiency in training and his genuine love for dogs, but Koehler believed that a dog needed to be “dominated” by its human and that the animal would obey commands only if it feared punishment. He developed training techniques so punitive that most modern trainers consider them abusive: hitting, choking, “flanking” dogs with fire hoses, shocking them with electric collars, even holding their heads underwater. These methods grew especially merciless in the world of guard dogs during the 1970s. Thousands of years of evolution have inclined the domestic dog not to go after humans. In order to train police dogs in 1979, Diane was taught to make the dogs distrust people by punishing them whenever they relaxed.
“It was awful,” she told me. “Absolutely awful. I never treated my own dogs that way.” But Koehler’s dominance-based protocol was considered the only way to get results if you wanted to be a professional dog trainer, especially a guard-dog trainer. Diane soon quit the training business and became an animal-control officer instead. Years later, when she learned that treats and praise got her better results during training, she began enjoying the process much more herself. She never looked back. At present, her training group, the Washington Sport Dog Club, is the only Schutzhund club in the country that relies entirely on positive training methods.
In 1985, Diane noticed a classified ad in the local paper that had been posted by a man selling a Schutzhund-trained male APBT. She still enjoyed protection-dog sports as a hobby, so she called him up. The man with the pit bull turned out to be, as she recalls, “a nasty scumbag with a chop shop,” and the dog wasn’t Schutzhund-trained at all. He offered her the chance to look at some puppies he was selling in the back instead. One handsome tiger-striped male was known as Old Carpetback because his littermates picked on him. Something about Old Carpetback resonated with Diane. She feared that if she didn’t remove him from that situation, some “creep” might subject him to a terrible fate. So she scooped up the puppy and took him home. In a nod to medieval England, she named the pup Dread.
Dread was a bit aloof at first, and, as Diane puts it, “he had opinions,” but he loved to train more than any dog Diane had ever worked with. “Training became fun for me again,” she recalled. “I got away from all the compulsion and fear and anger I saw in the guard-dog-training world. All you had to do with Dread was offer him a toy. He was freakishly smart, freakishly obedient. And he had an uncanny way of knowing when things were important. No matter what you asked him to do, he showed up for it.”
When Dread was a little over a year old, Diane signed him up for the novice division of a local kennel club’s all-breed obedience trials. Out of 121 dogs, he was the only APBT in the competition. After completing a round of timed tasks, Dread finished with a score of 198 out of a possible 200, higher than any other competitor. Dread’s second obedience trials were a repeat of the first. In his third, he and another dog tied for top marks. Small crowds began forming around Dread wherever he went.
Dread proceeded to rack up multiple titles in obedience, weight pull, sheepherding, duck herding, and tracking, but it was in protection dog sports, Schutzhund, and IPO (Internationale Prüfungsordnung, a German police-dog exam), that he truly excelled. Schutzhund, especially, required him to display strength, stamina, self-control, and a great deal of mental focus. He was so good at it that before long Diane barely had to give Dread verbal commands. “I know it sounds crazy,” she said, “but we knew what the other was thinking all the time.”
It would take science two more decades to discover in the lab what many owners of working dogs understand in their bones: that dog behavior may start with genes, but it can’t meaningfully be divorced from its human context. From birth to death, the lives of dogs are entirely circumscribed by us. Millennia of domestication have refined them into creatures uniquely attuned to everything we are and do. Dogs not only read (and respond to) our facial expressions but also follow human pointing gestures, though their next of kin (wolves) and ours (chimpanzees) do not. When presented with a puzzle to solve, dogs immediately look to their human handlers for cues on how to proceed, a process behaviorists call social referencing. They are watching us even when we are oblivious to it, right down to the movements of our eyes. A dog and its human, then, are not separate entities that occasionally intersect; they are two parts of one dynamic whole.
Dread went on to make star turns in many television shows and Hollywood films, including The Good Son, which required him to bare his teeth at Macaulay Culkin, a transgression that Culkin’s demented character repays with a crossbow bolt. Other trainers enjoyed having Dread on set because he tolerated the long hours and chaos of film production better than most of the other animals they worked with. Soon Dread was requested for so many engagements that Diane felt more like the dog’s agent or valet than his owner.
Dread was only one in a long line of Hollywood pit bulls. Unlike Dread in the 1980s, however, the pit bulls of Old Hollywood were never portrayed as frightening. Because of their athleticism and wide, “smiling” faces, they were almost always cast as “trick dogs” in comic sidekick roles. The trend started in 1901 with a dog named Mannie, who starred in Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog, a five-minute vaudeville short from Thomas Edison’s production company. Mannie went on to appear in several Buster Brown shorts, which were based on a popular comic strip of the day, before a new pit bull stole the spotlight thanks to Wilfred Lucas, an assistant director of the Keystone Kops comedies. While working on Love, Speed, and Thrills, with the actress Minta Durfee, Lucas promised Durfee that if she held on to the edge of a cliff long enough for him to film a key action sequence, he would give her a six-week-old puppy, which he did. Durfee and her husband, the silent-film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, named the tan-and-white pit bull Luke, after the director.
Luke grew up to become “the famous bull terrier comedian,” one of Hollywood’s first animal celebrities, performing tricks and comic stunts alongside Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Al St. John. Mack Sennett, the Academy Award–winning director who pioneered “slapstick” comedy, considered Luke his “most dependable performer.” One of Sennett’s employees recalled that Luke “never had to be told more than once what the scene required. That dog could jump off the high-diving board, chase after Al St. John from flat roof to flat roof. Mr. Sennett used to have that dog driven to the studio in [various luxury cars] . . . and Luke never asked for a raise, which made him happy.” In 1918, Arbuckle signed a contract that stipulated Luke would earn $50 a week—an exorbitant sum—because every time he appeared on camera with Arbuckle, the actor’s mail was “flooded daily with requests for the dog’s return.”
After Luke, there was Pal, a small brindle-and-white pit bull with cropped ears who would eventually appear in more films than any other actor (on two feet or four) of his day. His owner and trainer, Harry Lucenay, told reporters that he found Pal right after World War I in a barn outside Bordeaux, France, where the dog was curled up beside the body of his dead mother, who had served as a dispatch carrier. But Lucenay was a seasoned showman (he even enjoyed a brief career as a heavyweight wrestler), and he might well have made that up. Some say Pal was sired by a famous Oklahoma fighting dog named Black Jack. If this is true, Pal never showed it; by all accounts, he enjoyed the company of people and other dogs equally. He was insured for $10,000 and earned the princely sum of $35 for one day’s work, and by the time he died in 1929, he had appeared in more than 220 films. In one of them, he actually did play the role of a “nursemaid.”
One of Pal’s pups, Pete, would become the most famous Hollywood pit bull of all time. Lucenay groomed Pete for show business when he was still quite young, securing the role of Tige for him in several Buster Brown films and training him for a comic turn in Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman in 1925. To make his mostly white face stand out on camera, Lucenay dyed a black ring around Pete’s eye, a “monocle” that would later become his trademark. Two years later, Pete auditioned for the director Hal Roach, who was casting a new comedy series called Our Gang and needed a dog companion for the mischievous band of child actors that would later be called “The Little Rascals.”
“The dogs we were using had no personality, and couldn’t do enough tricks,” Roach said later. “We looked at probably fifty dogs, and of all the fifty dogs we looked at, the best trained dog was the bulldog with the ring around his eye. I said, ‘Great, that’s the one we want; all you gotta do now is take the ring off the eye.’ ” But Lucenay couldn’t do that; the dye was permanent. Roach said, “What the hell, leave it on,” and “signed” Pete to a three-year contract at $125 a week, which later increased to $225. Children across America, including a young Fred Rogers, who once posed with Pete for a portrait, adored the dog. Between his film salaries and his public appearances, Pete made Lucenay more than $21,000 a year and traveled with his own valet, who gave Pete a morning bath, plucked his eyebrows, and trimmed his nails every day.
“Doubtless,” Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “when man shares with his dog the toils of a profession and the pleasures of an art, as with the shepherd or the poacher, the affection warms and strengthens till it fills the soul.” This shared toil was the essence of Diane’s bond with Dread. But when “killer pit bull” headlines saturated the media in 1987, Schutzhund clubs informed Diane that Dread could no longer compete. The clubs said they were too afraid of potential negative press. Finding this unjust and cowardly, Diane began offering public education seminars about dog bites and dog safety. She interspersed the lessons with flourishes of Dread’s spectacular training, which showed the public that there was much more to pit bulls than scary headlines. The presentations were so popular that she and Dread crisscrossed the United States multiple times and traveled from Bermuda to England, Scotland, and Canada.
When Diane looks back over their years together, that period on the road is what tugs most at her heart. She never felt safer with, closer to, or more accepted by anyone in her life than she felt during those trips with Dread. She never had any doubt that he would have laid down his life for her. “With Dread, I could have walked through the gates of hell unafraid,” she told me. “We were a match for anything.” When Dread died in 2000 at the age of fourteen, she knew that the best part of her life had ended. Diane buried Dread in the backyard, underneath her window, the same way that Walter Scott had done for Camp.
“People always say, ‘You must be deficient in some way because you want a strong dog,’ ” Diane said. “Or, ‘You must be compensating for something.’ And I say, ‘What’s wrong with you that you don’t want one? Why are you so threatened by a dog that is stronger than you are?’ ” As she told me this, she stared into an empty middle distance. “It’s a shame we don’t have better ways to talk about the friendship between dogs and people. Not love, or affection, or cutesy shit. Friendship. Real friendship.”
On the far wall of Diane’s living room, above a terrarium that housed Diane’s corn snake, was a giant collection of pit-bull photographs and pit-bull posters from Dread’s heyday, as well as professional shots of Diane’s other dogs from years past, all splashing through ponds and over obstacle-course jumps. They glistened in the light like action figures.
Giant bins filled with old books, newspapers, magazines, letters, and photographs that dated back to the turn of the twentieth century crowded the floor of the small kitchen. Diane called this her “archive.” She sat down and began digging through it, pulling out items for me to read. “Promise me you’ll read this one, okay?” She handed me a copy of Dumb-Bell of Brookfield, a collection of short stories by John Taintor Foote first published in 1917. Foote was known for writing tales in which the heroism of pit bulls figured prominently. He believed that people were drawn to the dogs for a spiritual reason, the same reason that films like Rocky and Braveheart endure: Because courage and valor are revered by all human cultures. Diane tapped the cover.
“Did you ever have one of those days where you walked out the door and felt like you could lick the whole world?” she asked. “That’s the way I feel around these dogs. I believe that what and who you’re around matters. It influences your character, man. There’s a reason that the Indians had totems. Brave animals inspire people. They just do. They always have. Courage either really speaks to you, or it really scares you.”
“Insipid” was Diane’s favorite word, and it described her least favorite quality—in humans, in dogs, in life. But an insipid dog struck her as being particularly tragic. She believed that turning a remarkable animal that had stood beside us since the Pleistocene epoch into a spoiled milquetoast that wears outfits was the pinnacle of disrespect. A real dog, a “dog of character,” on the other hand, was an ancient line in the sand, drawn against a feckless modern world that, at its core, feels contempt for the natural instincts of creatures it claims to love.
Late on a drizzly Washington afternoon, we headed out to the house owned by Diane’s friend Linda, which sat on large acreage that called to mind a tony, old-money Virginia horse farm. In Diane’s estimation, Linda is one of the top obedience trainers in the country. Inside the large barn that Linda had converted into a private training facility was a big ring filled with agility equipment and competition jumps surrounded by a plastic lattice of fencing, behind which Linda’s Belgian shepherds reclined in separate portable pens like black sphinxes, all facing the same direction. Linda took each one out separately and put it through a short obedience course. As expected, they performed flawlessly. Then they went back to sitting perfectly upright in their pens in a way that faintly reminded me of grim reapers.
Diane’s three female APBTs were messier. Nell cannonballed into the plastic fencing, which tipped over drunkenly as Linda’s jaw tightened. But when the time came to work, Freakshow, Guppy, and Nell snapped to attention. Diane took a few steps in her pained arthritic gait. Guppy took the same three steps, watching her. Diane backed up, and Guppy backed up, as if she were standing on Diane’s feet. Diane motioned toward an obstacle or a jump, and Guppy bounded over it. The two quickened and slowed, heeled and stayed. It was the same routine that Linda’s dogs had just completed, but it seemed much different. There was a noticeable sense of levity and pride freely circulating in the air. Then I realized what had changed: It was joy, entirely unselfconscious joy.
Every time one of her dogs made the correct choice, Diane whooped and clapped her hands like a mother at her child’s first birthday party, showering treats and praise. “You have to be willing to look like a fool,” Diane called over to me. “The dogs love it!” In return, the animals pushed themselves to exceed her expectations. “Look at that,” Linda whispered to me, shaking her head. “Diane’s dogs,” she said, “they’re just so . . . easy, aren’t they?”
No longer was Diane the “crippled ex-dogcatcher” or the author of angry internet screeds. Nor was she preoccupied with foreclosures or money troubles or surgeries or pain pills. In that space, she was a charismatic partner in a dance she had mastered long ago. She and her dogs positively floated, as if some glowing invisible cord held them all together. The late author and animal trainer Vicki Hearne, who knew Diane through the training circuit, once said that watching Jessup work with animals was a true “joy to behold.” When I reminded Diane of this, she shrugged it off, returning to her usual mode of self-deprecation. “Vicki was full of shit.”
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hearne was one of the only public voices defending pit bulls in the press, writing odes to the American pit bull terrier in Harper’s and the New York Times, as well as devoting an entire book, Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog, to the philosophical questions raised by the public’s fear of pit bulls. When I first came across it, I was taken with Hearne’s strong voice, her easy command of history and philosophy, and her beautifully crafted sentences. The more I read, however, the more uncomfortable I grew with her conclusions. Like that of many game-dog enthusiasts, Hearne’s work veered dangerously close to dogfighting apologia in a way that echoed the moonlight-and-magnolias nostalgia of the American South. She heaped praise upon Richard Stratton, a breed historian with strong ties to the world of dogfighting, calling him “an authentic and intelligent admirer” of the pit bull. “No one wants [dog-fights] especially,” Hearne wrote, “and when they occur, they are framed by attempts to stop them . . . but at the center there is nonetheless awe and admiration in the presence of a beautiful and nearly pure cynosure: when Bull Terriers fight, what we see approaches a Platonic form.” Unlike Diane, Hearne remained a Koehler acolyte throughout her life, insisting that Koehler’s methods had been misunderstood and misrepresented by “humaniacs,” a term Koehler himself had coined.
Most of the modern game-dog crowd has no contact with what is left of the fighting circuit. For many, including Diane, the appeal of a game-bred pit bull that will never be fought is a lot like the appeal of a muscle car that will never be raced; the frame is sleek and powerful-looking, but its “engine” (what the game-dog folks would call the dog’s “heart”) is its most impressive attribute. But a vocal constituency of game-dog owners, of which Hearne was one, are more openly hostile to the humane groups that shut down dogfighters than they are to the fighters who put their animals in such a terrible position in the first place. Isn’t it unfair, I thought, to define modern pit bulls by the men who abused their ancestors? Aren’t we clasping the chains that bind them?
During my last day with Diane, I joined a training session with her Schutzhund club. The dogs started by following tracks through grassy fields and locating objects by scent, then moved on to protection work, which involves locating, barking at (“alerting”), then finally grabbing on to and immobilizing human decoys in padded suits (the “bad guys”), in order to demonstrate their willingness to obey commands under stress. Most Schutzhund trainers work with German or Belgian guarding breeds (German shepherds, Dobermans, rottweilers, or Belgian Malinois), but Diane’s club was notable both for its reliance on positive reinforcement and because several members worked with pit bulls.
In a world so primed to fear these dogs anyway, I wasn’t sure if training high-drive, working APBTs to go after people, even in a competitive athletic sport, was a good idea. America does not need to see any more images of pit bulls “attacking” humans. For every experienced Schutzhund trainer like Diane, there are a hundred tough-guy wannabes who have no idea what they’re doing and put both people and animals at serious risk. I observed one Chicago “training class” that involved so much yelling and choking of dogs wearing prong collars that I left in tears and did not return. But if I wanted to see what a highly trained pit-bull athlete “was capable of,” as Jessup promised, this was my only chance. These dogs were, without question, the best of the best.
It was a brutally cold, rainy morning. Out on the baseball field where the club trained, Diane introduced me to a woman named Shade and to the only male member of the club, Gabe. Both seemed too focused on skill development to engage in much conversation. While they took turns working with their dogs, I sat in the dugout with a woman named Jenny. Both of us inched toward a space heater that someone had found to take the edge off the cold. She told me that she owned a male pit bull named Blue.
“There are two things that everyone loves to fight over,” Jenny said, “pit bulls and abortion. I’d rather avoid those topics with most people as much as possible.” Fair enough. We watched Shade’s German shepherd repeatedly launch himself at Gabe, who was wearing a fully padded decoy suit. He lightly rapped on the dog’s flank with a plastic stick. The shepherd tugged and shook and gave him hell. “We expect so much from dogs, when you think about it,” Jenny continued. “They’re supposed to protect us when we want them to, but also to put up with strangers when we want them to. We want them to do scary-looking Schutzhund stuff when we want them to, but not to mind when kids crawl all over them or shout in their ears or pull their tails. They should only want to play when we feel like it, not when they do. And they can’t ever bark, chew, or dig. All the things that make dogs dogs. That’s an awful lot to ask, isn’t it?”
I nodded. Then I saw Diane beckoning me. “You ready?” she asked.
I stood up, dusted off my jeans, and pulled up the hood of my parka.
The bite sleeve was a stiff cone made out of industrial canvas and wrapped with heavy rope. It looked a bit like an oversized hockey glove without fingers, and it covered my entire arm, up past the shoulder. At the very bottom was a bar for the wearer to hold onto. The whole apparatus weighed between five and eight pounds. I slid my arm into it and walked out to center field.
The dog Diane had selected for my decoy experience was Guppy, a buckskin-colored female APBT who weighed a little more than fifty pounds. “You’re going to stand right there,” Diane said, pointing, “hold the sleeve in front of you, and hit it a couple times to show Guppy the target, okay?” I nodded. “When I give the command, Guppy is going to run and grab the sleeve, and you’re going to try to run away. She’s going to try to keep you from doing that, obviously. Whenever you’ve had enough, just let go of the sleeve and let her have it. It’s like a toy for her. Got it?”
Guppy’s tail began to wag.
Diane led Guppy back about forty feet and turned around. “Ready?” “Ready.” I lowered my center of gravity like a wrestler and thumped the sleeve. It sounded hollow and drumlike. I prepared myself for Jack London’s “clinging death.”
“All right, Gup-Gup.” Diane unsnapped the dog’s leash. “Go get her!” Guppy trotted over, grabbed the sleeve casually, let it go, and trotted back to Diane, whose face had fallen. “Aw, Gup. Come on.”
We tried again, with the same result. I kept hearing Diane’s words when we first spoke on the phone: “You need to see what these dogs are capable of.” Now, with brows knitted together and eyes narrowed, she said, “Huh.” After thinking for a second, she led Guppy back to the van. “Well,” she said, “it looks like I’ll just have to get Damien out.” Damien was Diane’s most impassive pit bull and, at seventy-two pounds, her largest. He had recently returned from a television shoot, where he had played the role of “demon dog” on NBC’s supernatural drama series Grimm. Damien jumped out of the van, and Diane led him onto the field. Unlike Guppy, Damien saw the bite sleeve and immediately began to strain at his collar so hard that he chuffed and coughed, his feet wheeling underneath him and kicking up mud. He thundered when he exhaled.
I swallowed hard, braced my legs, and drummed the bite sleeve again. “Ready!”
“Okay, Damie.” The metallic click of the leash. “Get her!”
He closed the distance in what felt like both milliseconds and years. The crack that rang out when he hit me sounded like a motorcycle collision, which is a bit what it felt like. For a moment, I thought Damien had knocked the air out of my lungs, but in fact I had simply forgotten to breathe.
Nothing can prepare you for what seventy-two pounds of trained muscle feels like when it is hanging on to your arm. How people decoyed for 100-pound German shepherds and 130-pound rottweilers, I have no idea. I staggered backward a few steps, dragging Damien with me. Diane called out, “Can you kind of, you know, twist around and make it fun for him?” As best I could, I feinted one direction, then staggered another. I pulled my arm across my chest, pitched to the side, then turned around and pulled it the other way. I changed my levels from low to high, high to low, and swiveled back around. My heartbeat whooshed inside my ears. Damien held fast, occasionally shaking the sleeve lightly but mostly just holding onto it.
I must give him credit: The dog was a consummate professional. He did not seem angry or frightened or even wild-eyed. There was no growling. He did not corncob up and down my arm, as if he wanted to sever it, or lunge at my throat, or anything of that sort. In fact, he seemed to be taking it easy on me. He had done this hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I never felt threatened, but I did feel physically exhausted. Fending off an untrained, legitimately dangerous dog of that weight would have been impossible, at least for me. After maybe twenty or thirty seconds, moons of sweat grew under my arms. Sucking wind, I let go of the sleeve, and it fell to the ground, where Damien chomped on it happily. I took a few Jell-O-kneed steps over to Diane, who was laughing at me.
“Nice job!” she said. “Now do you see what I mean?” She grabbed the sleeve from Damien and said, “Aus.” He let it go, wagged his tail, and sat down.
Back at the house, Damien put his paws on my lap and leaned his head into me, as if to tell me that there were no hard feelings. Of all Diane’s dogs, he was the only one who had never seemed particularly friendly, but now it appeared that I had been admitted into his inner circle. I scratched his ears, and he closed his eyes contentedly.
Diane leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “So, now do you think pit bulls are different?”
I did not know quite how to answer this. “Depends on what you mean by ‘pit bull,’ ” I said, “and what you mean by ‘different.’ ” From what I could tell, they all seemed different from one another. The dozens of other pit bulls I’d met did not have the tenacity of Diane’s elite sport dogs; mine didn’t even enjoy long runs anymore. My youngest, Nola, lived what I am sure Diane would call an “insipid” life. Why not accept that the dogs of today may be mellower, instead of expecting them to be the same as they might have been a hundred years ago?
For the first time, an angry squall passed over Diane’s face. “Why do you care so much about generic dogs?”
“Why don’t you?”
She paused and stared at me as if I had just emerged from a spaceship. “Because our ancestors busted their asses to produce capable dogs, and they produced one of the most people-friendly, tolerant, trustworthy breeds on Earth, okay? I don’t think scatter-bred curs should ruin that. I think that we should be caretakers of dog breeds.”
“Why?” I asked, shrugging. “Most of us don’t need dogs to pin cattle anymore.”
“But a hundred years from now, who knows?” She leaned across the table. “There may be another need for that dog. Look at things from a historical viewpoint. We aren’t that far from needing to hunt and fight to survive. We’re only a few generations away from Braveheart. Just because our culture right now is insipid, I don’t think that we should say it’s always going to be insipid. We’re all just sitting around watching TV, playing our computer games and stuff, but the way the world is going with overpopulation, there’s something coming. There’s a reckoning coming. I don’t think it’s going to be pretty. I’m not a doomsday prepper, but I’m not blind. All it takes is somebody to cut the power grid, and you’re going to wish you had a capable dog. You’re going to wish to God that you didn’t have a Labradoodle.”
She jabbed the air to make sure I didn’t miss her point. “That’s the difference between me and other people. I refuse to face an uncertain future with a fucking Labradoodle.”
When I arrived to say good-bye the next morning, all had been forgiven, and there was a stack of vintage pit-bull magazines from the 1920s and several books on the kitchen table that Diane wanted me to take home and read.
“It’s hard for me to talk about the emotional stuff sometimes,” she said. “I’m not good at that shit. But when I thought about it, I wanted you to know something.” She sat down next to me. “I look to these dogs for how I want to live my life. That’s what it comes down to. You can’t be around pit bulls and not be inspired by how brave they are. How much heart they have. How cheerful and loving they are, even when they are sick or hurt and feel terrible . . .” Her voice trailed off for a second, and she looked down at the floor, spinning the silver Celtic band she wore on her ring finger. “I know these guys run my life. My parents can’t stand the fact that I don’t have a husband and kids, that I grew up to be a broke, messy dog person. Everyone thinks I must be so sad and lonely. But I’m not. I have had a better life than anyone I know. The dogs are Peter Pans that keep me in touch with things that are exciting, with the woods, with nature.”
Diane’s eyes started to mist up, and her voice trembled slightly. Nell scrambled up into her lap, as if to comfort her. “All the times I’ve had health problems and surgeries, I have had these dogs waiting in the wings saying, ‘Get better. Let’s go. Get better. Let’s go out and do bite work. Let’s do decoy.’” She cradled Nell like a giant baby, and the dog licked her face. “If I didn’t have them, I would have given up a long time ago. I owe them everything, and I want to be brave like they are.” She turned her head and looked out the window. “I don’t want to be a cur.”
I told her I understood, because I did. She needed something different from her dogs than I needed from mine, and who was I (or anyone else) to begrudge her that? As Diane often pointed out, she and her APBTs weren’t hurting anybody. For almost thirty years, she had accepted her dogs as they were, and in turn they accepted her. It was not the history of dogfighting she loved, but the spirit of the fighter. Whether her dogs really possessed it—or whether it was enough to believe they did—did not matter. They gave her strength all the same.