Pit stop

Rewriting the rep of Detroit's unofficial city dog

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Michael Hodges with his champion pit bull Pow. - Photo: Detroitblogger John
Photo: Detroitblogger John
Michael Hodges with his champion pit bull Pow.

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.

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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