In Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon (Knopf; pub month, May; Reviews, Feb. 29), Dickey sets out to uncover how and why a particular breed of dog developed a bad reputation in Western culture.

It’s odd that pit bulls have such a bad reputation, when around the early 20th century they were really America’s dog. Petey, from the Little Rascals series, was a pit bull.

Absolutely! [Petey] is one of the dogs people are more familiar with, but celebrities like Gary Cooper and Fatty Arbuckle also had pit bulls. As I say in the book, Rin Tin Tin [a German shepherd] appeared in 37 movies, but there was a pit bull named Pal that appeared in 224 films. Both were very much the all-American mascot.

What caused public opinion of pit bulls to turn?

More than anything, the ball started rolling downhill as a result of a very well-intentioned effort by animal welfare groups and law enforcement to eradicate dog fighting—which was a necessary thing to do. But because the subject was so horrifying to so many people, and because the press seized on that aspect and sensationalized it, the dogs kind of got swept into that. There were all these wild speculations about behavior by people who weren’t qualified to talk about it. That triggered a kind of gonzo magazine reportage in the ’70s about hanging out with dog fighters and doing this taboo thing. Magazines like Esquire and Harper’s were running all these bad-boy types of features. It got more and more popular.

Can people really predict which breeds are more likely to bite or attack?

The science has been really clear that there’s a very predictable pattern around who gets bitten and why. You’re much more likely to be bitten if you’re on the dog’s home turf. And children ages five to nine have the highest rates of being bitten, [because] they are very mobile, they are very curious, and they don’t yet have an understanding of the importance of respecting the dog’s space. There are all kinds of reasons why they might not understand what the dog is signaling to them. Dogs are seen as a big, fun toy. And boys are twice as likely to be bitten as girls. That pattern’s been in the research for years. One would think that by now parental supervision would be preached from the mountaintop when anything like this happens. But we’re embroiled in this discussion about good traits and bad traits and good breeds and bad breeds. And that message gets lost.