If a dog bites, it’s a “bad” dog, right? But, is a dog automatically bad because of its breed? Is it the deed or the breed, or is it a pervading sense of what’s politically correct?
Pit bulldogs, Doberman pinchers, German shepherds, mastiffs, and Rotweillers are summarily dumped in the dangerous dog classification because their ancestors were bred to guard and fight. These breeds are most often identified in mauling incidents and fatal attacks.
Efforts to ban the ownership of such breeds have resulted in passage of laws and ordinances by local governments. Pit bulldogs, for example, are currently the most maligned because of media publicity across the nation. Whether merited or not, breed specific laws are based on the fear of the general public about behaviors that probably aren’t bred into the animals but rather caused by their owners or individual situations.
The first pit bulldog I can ever recall seeing was an Appalachian hunting dog, not a guard dog. It was not a “catch” dog used for subduing bulls, wild boars, or black bears. Nor was it a fighting pit dog. Buster was a squirrel-hunting dog, and he wasn’t even the leader of the pack.
Buster had the classic body shape of the pit bull, known as the Staffordshire bull terrier, a/k/a American pit bull terrier, in the purebred state. However, as with many so-called pit bulls, Buster had a healthy mix of other breeds in his background.
He was square-headed, bow-legged, and of deep chest. He was powerfully muscled, and he could carry a basketball in his strong jaws.
But, he was thoroughly cowed by a 15-lb. rat terrier named Suzie.
Suzie was one of a long line of rat terriers bearing the same name on my grandparents’ Appalachian farm. Grandpa Mack always had a Suzie pup or two waiting in the wings, in case the current adult name-holder expired of accident, illness, or old age.
Rat terriers, also known in some areas of the mountains as “feist” dogs, came to these shores from England, just like the pit bulldogs. Small, robust, and fast moving dogs, they were used to control rodent populations on farms and ships.
In this case, Suzie was the boss of a much larger and more powerful dog. Buster could have snapped her in half with his steel-trap jaws, but he was subservient and loyal toward the feist. Together, they made an efficient and deadly squirrel-hunting team.
Suzie found the squirrels by scent and sight. Buster was the one who “treed,” because Suzie and her progeny didn’t bark. They yipped. Often it was hard to hear them in thick woods and brush, or when they had found a squirrel over a ridge.
Buster’s bark was deep and loud. It carried a long way. He’d stay at the base of the tree until my grandfather or I arrived to “turn the squirrel” and shoot it out. Suzie already would be hunting new quarry.
Hunters not blessed to have ever followed a pair of good squirrel dogs in leafless autumn timber can’t appreciate how effective and fun this sport can be. Suzie and Buster made it seem easy.
This is how I sharpened my marksmanship with Daddy’s pump-action .22 Winchester rifle, how I learned dog handling and the lessons of working with another hunter safely and effectively. You never, ever shoot at a squirrel running on the ground, for example.
Buster was a good dog. Back then, breed didn’t matter. Heart did. Buster had a great heart, and he loved Suzie, even as she aged and finally died on the front porch one summer night.
Among the images of my youth that always will be distinct – photographic, in fact – is the one of Suzie and Buster sitting beside a pile of squirrels. She has one paw up, as if she can’t wait to rush off on another scent trail. Buster’s wide mouth is open and his tongue is lolling.
They were both good dogs, maybe among the best.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.