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Culture

Pit stop

Rewriting the rep of Detroit's unofficial city dog

Photo: Photo: Detroitblogger John, License: N/A

Photo: Detroitblogger John

Michael Hodges with his champion pit bull Pow.


To prove this, Smith walks up to Pow, who's vigorously chewing a slab of salted rawhide hanging from a chain. He grabs the dog's jowls, pats his face, smothers his snout. But the dog's whole being remains focused on that rawhide. "It's not even my dog, and he's not aggressive, as you can see," he says, still tugging at the dog's ears.

Smith, like everyone here, has a ready defense of the breed, their counterargument to the complaints they've all heard. It's obvious they've given these speeches many times before.

"It's just like guns don't kill people, people kill people," Smith says. "Look at the dog as a gun. His loyalty lies to his master, so he's gonna do whatever his master wants him to do. If his master wants him to fight, he'll fight. It's just a matter if he'll continue to fight. But he will fight."

In walks Angela Maddox with her pit bull. "China, come with your momma," the diminutive 43-year-old says in a baby-talk voice. She found her dog four years ago when a woman pulled up to a nearby abandoned house, got out and threw a wriggling trash bag inside the open door. "I thought it was a child," Maddox says, "so I ran over there to try to retrieve the trash bag, and she backed up on me and tried to run me over." She raised the puppy she found in that bag.

Maddox has gotten two more pit bulls since. They complement the cameras she's got set up to watch her house's perimeter. She lives alone, and a dog with a scary reputation makes for great security in the inner city.

"They're very protective," Maddox says. "They guard the house. If you treat them with respect and take care of them and don't train them to fight they'll be good dogs."

Maddox is the other side of the coin. Her dogs don't compete. They're not famous in the pit bull contest circuit. She's just someone vulnerable who feels safe with them around, a doting owner who treats her dogs like they're her protective children.

"I never had kids and I feel I have a lot of love to give," she says. "I just love them."


When Hodges
was growing up, the popular guys in the neighborhood fought their pit bulls.

"I first seen it when I was young," he says. "I was like, 'Oh, this is cool' because I grew up in an area where all the older guys doing it had the fancy cars, had all the money, so I'm like, 'I want to do it! I want to do it!'"

Dog fighting is the ever-present undertone to their hobby, the unvoiced accusation they see in people's stares. But every one of them here is adamant that the illegal sport is wrong.

"I do know a few who do it," Hodges says, "but that's what they do. Like you might know somebody that sells drugs."

Tilford says he can spot the dog fighters as soon as they walk in his store. "They come in here and ask certain questions," he says. He refuses to serve them. "And certain bloodlines are known as fighting bloodlines." The fighting dogs are covered in scars. That's the giveaway.

"If I find out somebody fights dogs I instantly distance myself from them," Smith shouts. "We want nothing to do with them. Somebody comes in here and we got any suspicions of any kind of illegal activity, if they walk in here with a dog with scars, he's gettin' up out of here."

Once Hodges grew older and got his own pit bull, any allure dog fighting might have held for him vanished. You can see it in the way he gently scolds Pow for pissing on the store's floor, how he scoops him up off the ground and holds him like a baby, the way he breaks into a boyish smile as the dog in his arms blissfully kicks its paws and licks his owner's face.

There are no scars on his dog. There aren't any on the other dogs milling around here. Most, in fact, have the lustrous sheen of a pampered pet. Even Pow the champion, who can pull a car's worth of weight.

Pow embodies the paradox of the breed, the contradiction between whether these dogs are pets or protectors, dangerous or misunderstood. It's the contrast between these guys' pride in their dog's toughness and the way someone like Hodges snuggles his like they're fuzzy babies.

For these men here training them to be champions, for the woman raising a dog left to die in a bag, pit bulls combine all those opposites. That's the allure of these dogs, they say, the thing that's unique about them. It's why they'll defend them to anyone who speaks badly of them. This is their chosen breed.

"There's a whole movement against them," Tilford says, as a video of a weight pull plays on the TV while his pit bull Sledgehammer sits quietly at his feet. "But there's a whole movement with them, too."

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