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Inspired by Emma: Adopting a Pit Bull
After losing my purebred boxer, I knew I wanted to adopt a dog. I never planned to bring home a pit-bull mix that would turn me into an advocate for her breed. By Douglas Sonders
The author, with Emma, hopes his portraits of pit bulls will help change the dogs’ reputation. Photograph by Bobby Bruderle.
Comments () | Published November 28, 2012

I woke in the middle of that anguishing night to find my best pal, Winston—a boxer—looking up at me from his usual place, nuzzled between my arm and chest. We stared at each other for an hour as I stroked his fur and told him he was a good boy. The next day, Halloween 2011, I had to put him to sleep.

Winston had been fighting an aggressive growth on his spine that shut down his organs and took away his ability to walk. For months after he died, my heart felt wrecked.

It took nearly a year before I was ready for another dog. I’d acquired Winston, a purebred, through family friends whose dog had had a litter, but this time I wanted to adopt. I knew that lots of good dogs in need of homes were euthanized every day.

I attended an adoption event at a PetSmart hosted by K-9 Lifesavers, a local organization that rescues dogs from high-kill shelters. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but I had planned to avoid pit bulls.

Because some irresponsible owners have trained their pit bulls to be dangerous, some municipalities have banned the breed; a Maryland court recently declared them “inherently dangerous.” If I got one, I knew the stigma could cause a problem when the time came to tell my apartment manager about my new companion.

But then I saw her standing toward the back of the crowd in the shade of a tree. With her jet-black fur and yellow eyes, she looked more like a panther than a pit-bull/black-Lab mix. Emma was unlike any of the other dogs there. She was very sweet, and although she wasn’t even two years old, I could tell she was wise.

Emma had been saved from a Georgia shelter that would have put her down. She’d been circulating through the foster-care system for nine months, unable to find a permanent home. Potential adopters had been turned off by her “scary” appearance and pit-bull background. But we connected instantly. Emma was meant to be my dog.

My apartment manager agreed to let her move in after I heavily emphasized the Labrador part of her genetics. I’ve learned that “pit bull” is a bad word in society—which is a real tragedy.

I immediately noticed how my neighbors recoiled as Emma and I jogged together or played in the park. It hurt to see how people reacted to her appearance despite the fact that Emma, one of the most intelligent and mindful dogs I’ve ever known, would never hurt anyone. When I had Winston, people always wanted to meet him and told me how cute he was.

I spoke to friends who also have pit bulls. They told me how loving and loyal their dogs are. I wished more people were familiar with those characteristics rather than the portrayals of pit bulls as violent.

I had an idea. I’ve been a commercial photographer for years, shooting ad campaigns for major companies and contributing photos to publications such as The Washingtonian, Time, and Rolling Stone. But I get the most joy out of personal projects. I love the chance to capture the true nature of my portrait subjects. I realized photography was the perfect tool to show people what Emma and other pit bulls are really like.

I’ve started a series capturing pit bulls with their families. Once I publish the photos, I hope viewers will connect with the dogs and sense their gentle demeanors. Maybe then they won’t automatically judge the next pit bull they see playing in the park.

After all, it could be Emma.


Pit-bull owners who want to get involved with the author’s project can contact him through his website, SondersPhotography.com. Emma was adopted from K-9 Lifesavers, an all-volunteer nonprofit that has saved over 4,500 dogs from euthanasia.

This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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  • ldrboyle

    Thank you Doug for bringing attention to the Pit Bull breed! They are truely a loyal friend. My heart breaks for the abuse that is done to them.

  • Thank You from our ENTIRE family <3 we very much look forward to your project and the joy and information it will surely bring with it.

  • Hey I follow you on Facebook. Great article, keep up the awesome work!

  • Christina Wojcik

    I was adopted by my first pit-bull mix 3 years ago. I walked into the Humane Society knowing 2 things: 1) I didn't want a dog with a long medical history and 2) I didn't want a pit-bull. Bingo, now known as Mr. Riley Pooper, was the only dog in the kennel that wasn't barking when I walked in. He was found in a box in by the side of the road dying. He was starving, had no hair (because of mange), had been stabbed in the eye and had a severely broken leg. The Austin Humane Society decided to save his life because they discovered that he was actually adopted out of their location 1 year earlier (he is microchipped). He chose me and has become the most gentle, wonderful dog and everyone who meets him falls in love with him. He received his Canine Good Citizen Certificate and if I find the time I will take him to get his therapy dog certification. I have fostered several other dogs over the years, all of them with similar stories to Mr. Pooper. I now have a new love in my life, Ella. I first noticed her hiding underneath my neighbors grill. To make a very long and sad story short, I was finally able to acquire ownership of her after someone had 'stolen' her from her owner, held her down while another dog attacked her face and neck. After many trips to the vet (the wonderful Dupont Vet Hospital) and lots of love she is well on her way to recovery. Even after being attacked by other dogs, she has no aggression toward other dogs and loves nothing more than to play fetch, with people and by herself all day (when's she's not snoring on the pillow next to my desk). It breaks my heart to hear/see what people do to these wonderfully forgiving and resilient dogs and I'm so happy to hear that there is a growing movement to help them find their happy ending.

  • Chaetoons

    Dear Doug - thanks for the article. Years ago, my sons inherited a Pit Bull. Macky. Suffering under the same delusion as most of the public, i was totally 'against' this dog. One night, arriving late to one of their parties, i ended up taking a seat on the floor. Macky choose to sit right in front of me. He sat there for a while, at attention, looking me straight in the eye. Then, very gently, he leaned forward and gave me a big slurping kiss. Sitting back at attention, he cocked his head in question mark fashion as if asking -- Did that work? Do you like me now? (Of course, he won my heart from that moment on!)
    Macky never failed to bring me one of his toys as a gift and every morning, he would sit at my door, waiting for me to come outside and walk with him. Macky was an amazing dog, full of gentleness and love.

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Posted at 11:20 AM/ET, 11/28/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles