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

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.