Rewriting the rep of Detroit's unofficial city dog
Published: March 9, 2011
The dog charges forward like he could do this for hours.
He's on a treadmill made just for pit bulls, a contraption of slat boards looped in an oval. Thick muscled and big jawed, this dog is a thoroughbred champion, a winner of awards, a celebrity of sorts.
He belongs to Michael Hodges, 31, who brought him one afternoon to hang out with the guys and dogs at the Bully Depot on Eight Mile near Wyoming, a store devoted almost entirely to pit bulls and the culture surrounding them.
These guys gathered here breed them, train them, buy and sell them. They travel around the country to enter them in competitions that reward winning animals with ribbons, plaques and money, but also the acclaim of an underground world.
The dogs are put on treadmills and other training equipment because these contests require endurance and stamina and strength. For instance, there's dock diving into a lake. There are challenging obstacle and agility courses. And there's the weight pull, in which a 40-pound dog is put in a harness and pulls 4,000 pounds of cinder blocks stacked on a sheet of plywood with wheels underneath down a narrow strip that passes through a gauntlet of cheering enthusiasts.
"I like pit bulls because they have a better high pain tolerance than most other dogs," Hodges says. "Meaning when stuff gets tight, they'll keep doing it. Also, they're willing to please. Other dogs pull, but when the weight gets heavy they stop."
His dog's name is Pow. Short for "prisoner of war." Because, he says, when you get deep into these competitions, it's a battle.
Some people might frown on these contests, but the dogs actually enjoy them, they insist here. "See, a pit bull is a working dog," says Earl Tilford, the store's 39-year-old owner. "If you don't give a dog something to do, all he's going to do is tear things up. The dogs need to have something to do, so you gotta put them into these little activities. It loves the sport. It loves to be active."
Though it might seem surprising, their thinking isn't that different from some animal rights advocates. "Weight pulling, if it's done right, can be an engaging tool for the dog," says Kevin Hatman, spokesman for the Michigan Humane Society. "It's almost an alternative to dog fighting, A lot of these dog owners view it as a competition-based activity, and weight pulling can function as a competitive alternative to dog fighting."
Pit bulls usually draw one of two reactions from people. Either they're inherently tough and dangerous, or they're naturally docile and make loving pets.
The guys at the Bully Depot are one side of that coin. They love the dog's fierceness and strength, and channel those traits into competitions.
"I wanna own a dog that can compete and do something," says 27-year-old Lance Smith. He's a dog breeder and Tilford's friend. "I don't want a dog to sit home and be bred to lick his own ass."
The pit bull might just be the unofficial dog of the city. They're everywhere here — walking down streets on the ends of leashes, peering out of shabby dog houses in neighborhood back yards, barking with a fury from behind iron-barred front doors. They're protection for some, pets for others, reputation builders for many.
"It's a look they're trying to portray," Smith says with contempt. "It's an image thing. They want to be a tough guy, want to be macho, but they make it hard for guys like us that's in it for the love of the dog, the love of the sport, the breed."
The Bully Depot opened two years ago in Taylor, but Tilford moved it to Eight Mile last year after realizing nearly all of his customers drove in from Detroit. "So I'm just like cut out the middleman and bring it into the city," he says.
His store carries T-shirts with slogans on them like "Punish the deed, not the breed." Spiked dog collars and thick leashes dangle from hooks on a wall. He sells chew treats like roasted cow kneecap and dried cow windpipe for the dogs to chomp on. And you can buy a pit bull puppy here too.
But Tilford knows people like him and a place like this are tainted by the reputation the dog carries. Lately, for example, there's a woman who's been posting nasty comments all over the Internet about his store, even though she admits she's never been inside. She just drove by and her imagination ran wild.
"Animal rights people are the worst people to get on the wrong side of," he says. "They're crazy. They throw paint on people with fur coats and shit, getting naked. Those people are literally crazy. You see what they did to Mike Vick."
Another problem hurting the pit bull's image, they say, is amateur breeding. You can get pit bull puppies for under $50 on some street corners, sold out of the back of a pickup truck. And most are inbred or misbred, leading to temperament issues.
"There's different breeds out there that people are coming up with, illegitimate breeds," Tilford says. "Everybody wants a dog you've never seen before. They want the biggest, baddest, craziest-looking dog possible. And a dog is like a person. They can have mental problems or be slow."
Years of stories about pit bulls mauling babies and attacking people have taken their toll. It's led in recent years to breed-specific legislation in many communities surrounding Detroit, either banning pit bulls entirely or else declaring them dangerous and subject to stiff regulations. Detroit still allows them. A resident can legally have three.
Smith thinks a lot of those laws in the suburbs have to do with who's moving there from Detroit and bringing their pets with them. "It seems to me that it wasn't a problem until people of color got these dogs," he says.
The motto at the Bully Depot is there are no bad dogs, only bad owners who make their dogs that way. Pit bulls may be tough, they say, but few are naturally inclined to attack people.
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