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  • Dogs of CharacterPride, prejudice, and the American pit bull terrier
  • Bronwen Dickey (bio) and
    Photographs by Erika Schultz

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 [End Page 96]

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Diane Jessup’s beloved pit bull Dread.

[End Page 97]

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 yester-year successful in the pit...


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pp. 96-113
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