The Pit Bull Gets a Rebrand

Gaby Savransky was walking his new puppy in Coffey Park, in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. She was a silvery gray shade that dog breeders call “blue fawn.” Mr. Savransky announced to the onlookers cooing over his pet that her name was Esme, she was 11 weeks old, and the breed? Pit bull.

Was he aware that there was a rebranding effort with the sometimes maligned dog type to get them to be called “pibbles”?

“Pibble?” asked Mr. Savransky, 49, who is a musician. “Is that like renaming Hell’s Kitchen?”

In a word: yes. “‘Pibble’ sounds like ‘pit bull’ but also sounds like ‘nibble,’” said Katy Brink, who is the executive editor of The Dodo, a website about animals, as well as the owner of a 7-year-old pit bull named Sasha and a foster parent to a 1-year-old pit bull named Lily. “You also see them called ‘pittie,’ ‘pittopotamous,’ ‘hippo,’ or ‘potato.’ It’s part of a bigger effort to show them as silly and sweet and gentle. They just want to give you kisses and lounge around. It shows you there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

The Dodo has a series called “Pittie Nation” that has more than one billion views on Facebook Watch, with episodes with titles like “Pablo, who was scared of men, falls in love with his new dad” (73 million views) or “Shortcake with the world’s best smile” (66 million views).

And yet even though rescue groups and advocates have been portraying the dogs as gentle on social media (sometimes referring them as “good boys”), and they have become popular family dogs, pit bull owners still report people being afraid of their dogs. “I live in Crown Heights and people will grab their kids and pull them closer when they see my dogs,” Ms. Brink.

Pit bull is actually an umbrella term rather than a specific breed, said Dr. Pamela Reid, the vice president of the ASPCA anti-cruelty behavior team. “With the pit bull we have this pervasive label that encompasses a variety of purebred dogs as well as mixes that share characteristics but not DNA, like American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American bulldogs. ‘Pit bull’ is now a label for any medium to large, muscular, short-coated dog with a blocky, disproportionately large head.”

The Staffordshire bull terrier was used for fighting and a betting sport called bull-baiting in England and, later, the United States. As fighting and bull-baiting were outlawed, the dogs became tools for illegal activity and known for being aggressive and dangerous.

They were often bred indiscriminately, without regard to the behavioral traits being passed on to their offspring. “The result is a population of dogs with a wide range of behavioral predispositions,” Dr. Reid said. “We know that there’s so much individual variability within a breed it makes sense scientifically to treat them as individuals.”

According to ASPCA surveys in 2015 and 2016, pit bulls have the greatest intake and euthanasia rate at shelters.

The comedian Rebecca Corry has been a vocal advocate for pit bulls. In 2015 she organized the “One Million Pibble March” in Washington, D.C., one of the earliest known uses of the term, to raise awareness about abuse and dogfighting. In late 2018 her organization, the Stand Up for Pits Foundation, released a comedy special featuring Fortune Feimster, Bob Saget and Kaley Cuoco.

Ms. Corry has two pit bull mixes: Sally, 4, and Todd, 3. She calls them pibbles, baked potatoes, velvet hippos, and does it even matter when you’re loved?

“I did their dog DNA recently,” she said, “and they’re not even pit bulls.”

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