Part One: The Truth Behind Harlow

It’s 6 a.m. and the licking won’t stop.

With the buzz of my alarm, Harlow is on me. My dog, who laid in wait beside my side all night, springs into action at the sound without a moment to waste. It’s a get-up-or-be-licked-into-submission morning, every morning at my house.

Coming up on four years old, Harlow is still every bit as energetic (and often naughty) as an eight-month-old puppy. Her body is completed spotted from nose to tail. Short, white fur covers up most of them, except on her ears where the spots poked through at an early age.

Those ears sealed our fate together.

The spring before my final year in college, I decided to adopt a dog. I drove 30 minutes to visit Harlow after seeing her picture online. A couple in Minneapolis fostered her through the Twin Cities rescue group, Secondhand Hounds. What I found when I arrived was a four-month-old puppy that wouldn’t stop biting my hands or shoes. And a head framed by two spotted ears that were too cute to pass up. She came home with me two weeks later.

Harlow is a rescue dog.

Her story started along a highway in Missouri. Harlow and her seven brothers and sisters were found at a week old alongside the road. Their mom was with them, but dead. Someone brought the litter to a shelter where volunteers found a surrogate mother to raise them. But with no adopters in sight, the shelter set a date to euthanize the group.

With crowded space, the kill rate for dogs in shelters tends to be high in Missouri. Especially for dogs like Harlow. Why?

Harlow is a pit bull.

I knew when I started looking for a dog that I wanted two things: to adopt a dog from a local rescue group, and to adopt a pit bull. Luckily a couple days before the Missouri shelter euthanized Harlow’s litter, Secondhand Hounds sent volunteers down to Missouri to pull dogs from the packed shelters and transport them back to Minnesota with the hopes of finding adopters.

That’s how Harlow and I found each other.

I didn’t know much about pit bulls before college. I studied journalism and took a class where I needed a story idea for a photo slideshow project. After connecting with a local rescue group, I decided to write my piece on a Minneapolis woman who fostered dogs for the organization, Minnesota Pit Bull Rescue.

Dogs were a big part of my life growing up: from our family dog, a sheltie named Katie; to the nine service dogs my family raised. Being at college without a furry companion was tough, and I picked my story topic mostly as an excuse to hang out with a couple dogs for the evening.

At the time of the story, the women I profiled had two foster dogs at her house, a gorgeous older pit bull, and a little rambunctious pittie puppy named Zeus. My plan was to spend an evening interview the foster mom and taking photos of the group. I remember how nervous my mom felt about me working on this story. Didn’t I know the kind of dogs pit bulls were made out to be?

But I’ve always loved an underdog.

That night I fell in love with the breed. Their energetic spirit. Soulful eyes. Big blocky heads. I couldn’t believe these two dogs in front of me — that sat so patiently for photos and were so full of affection — were the dogs that elicited a nervous warning from my mom. During the interview I talked with the foster mom about the misconceptions she faced everyday raising two pit bulls. Other dog owners crossing the street when she was out walking her dogs. The speed with which people would point the finger at her dogs, assuming they were aggressive or unsafe. They citywide bans on pit bulls. The high insurance rates. The struggles to find apartments that allow pit bulls. The hurtful things others said to fuel the general fear toward the breed. Ridiculous doesn’t begin to describe how it all sounded to me. I was shocked — especially as a journalist who likes to double check facts — to learn how often people fell into believing false stereotypes and untrue facts about the breed.

Writing that story not only solidified my resolve to only adopt dogs from shelters or rescue groups, but it also marked the beginning of a journey to dig beneath the labels society puts on pit bulls to discover the truth behind their story.