“These are not normal dogs,” says Tyler Eison, gazing reverently at a litter of
seven-week-old pit bull puppies. “I like having very vicious, angry dogs. I’m going to teach them not to like other dogs. I’m going to agitate them, make them aggressive. That way when it’s about business, they are going to be serious.”
As a real estate investor and auto dealer, Eison, 41, values aggression in his dogs for protecting both himself and his property. “My dogs are my pistols,” he says, cracking a gold-tooth smile. “I have my dogs on my property, and I have faith in them. If they’re coming at you, you have to shoot them to kill them.”
Tough people want tough dogs, but if you want a truly vicious dog you have to create it yourself. With his latest litter of three girls and a boy, Eison is trying to re-create a bloodline of fighting dogs he owned 20 years ago (though he insists his fighting days are long over). He’s making a stud dog out of his prized companion Rock, an eerily silent pit bull with a golden brown coat and pink nose. Rock’s first litter was born in early May, and Eison watched its progress daily to see which of the puppies would develop more of their father’s traits.
Eison kennels the pups in a fenced-in corner of his backyard, in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes in St. Albans, Queens. When the dogs get older, he’ll move them to another house nearby, where his wife and stepchildren live, and where he keeps his adult dogs—a Cane Corso and three pit bulls—in large pens out back. He has three more dogs, two Cane Corsos and a Rottweiler, at friends’ houses.
Hoping to turn Rock’s offspring into deadly weapons, Eison started antagonizing them when they were around nine weeks old. One afternoon he held an all-brown puppy by its midsection and for several minutes forced it to lie across the neck of one its sisters, who Eison believes might be the pick of the litter. Eison didn’t think the brown pup was willing enough to play rough, so he decided to force it into a scrum. After a minute or so, its sister became angry and began to growl and bite the brown one’s ears. After the incident the brown puppy cowered under a metallic-blue racing motorcycle Eison keeps in the backyard and peed.
Eison’s love for pit bulls goes back to his childhood. At nine years old, he was spending the night at his grandparents’ house when a heater caught fire. Eison was asleep on the couch; the family’s pit bull mix nipped him on the leg until he woke up and roused his grandparents, saving their lives. The dog had been feral, Eison says, but people in the neighborhood paid top dollar for her puppies.
Ten years later, in the late ’80s, Eison’s car was rear-ended. An argument erupted as two men leapt out of the other car. One of them said he was going to get something out of his trunk. Eison guessed this something was a gun, so he wasted no time in loosing Conan on him. “I wasn’t going to let him kill me, so my dog took care of him,” he remembers. “I sicced my dog on that guy, man, and beat the other one up myself. I had no choice.”
Eison’s belief that his dogs offer essential protection in his sometimes rough neighborhood was only reinforced last month when his stepson Glen Moore, 22, was hit in the head with a baseball bat in Howard Beach, in what authorities are calling a bias crime. The attack, says Eison, never would have happened if Moore had had one of the dogs with him.
Basically purebred mutts, pit bulls were developed from the crossbreeding of bull- and bear-baiting dogs with terriers used in rat-baiting competitions. The result was a canine with the tremendous jaw pressure of a bulldog and the athleticism and ferocity of a terrier, which kills its prey by grabbing it in its mouth and whipping it from side to side. With his bloodline, Eison is trying to emphasize the violence of a terrier’s bite, while losing nothing of a pit bull’s agility and intelligence. He has mated Rock with an all-white English bull terrier named Lady. The result, he hopes, will be dogs of 45 to 50 pounds that can more than hold their own against dogs twice their size. He’ll mate the best female of this first litter with her father. This inbreeding—called linebreeding—will help Eison isolate the traits he seeks.
Studies have suggested that pit bulls are not inherently dangerous. In evaluations by the American Temperament Testing Society, the pit bull passed at a rate of 83.4 percent, just below the beloved golden retriever and 4.5 points higher than the collie. That said, the city’s shelters reported that almost 6,000 bull breeds (pit bulls and pit bull mixes) were admitted in the last fiscal year. Though they represent 37 percent of all dogs in city shelters, bull breeds accounted for almost half of the 7,136 dogs euthanized in shelters last year. Pit bulls are routinely adopted, but shelter officials say a disproportionate number can’t be because they haven’t been socialized properly. Some have spent their whole lives in cages.
Ed Boks, the director of New York City Animal Care & Control, says the blame for pit bulls’ negative image is shared equally by the press—which is fascinated by pit bull attacks—and breeders who take advantage of the dogs. “Pit bulls are actually a rather stable breed,” says Boks. “The thing about pit bulls is that they are stuck with this bad reputation. They are extraordinarily loyal and loving animals and they will fight to the death just to please you.”
At two months old, Eison’s puppies are more concerned with fighting their way out of the old paint bucket he is bathing them in. “All of these dogs have good tempers,” Eison says over the sound of splashing water and the din of the LIRR train speeding past his backyard on elevated tracks. “These dogs were born to fight, but they have the potential to be the sweetest dogs. This one is just like his dad—he’s one of the most playful dogs, but when it comes down to business, he’ll get down.”
Unlike his father, though, the puppy hates baths. When he’s freed from Eison’s soapy clutches he chases his sisters, wrestling with them in the muddy corners of the yard, swiftly undoing Eison’s efforts to keep them clean. He establishes a dominant position so his sisters can’t flee and bites on their ears, eliciting hoarse, juvenile yelps and showing signs of what he might one day be capable of.
After Eison bathes them, he force-feeds his dogs a deworming solution. The puppies stagger around coughing and trying to spit up, as Eison tries to keep track of which ones he has given the medicine to. Next he cleans their pen, refills their water buckets, and gives them fresh food. As he works, the puppies try to enter the house through a screen door with a broken latch and force their way into Eison’s recently scrubbed back porch, from there into his meticulously kept two-story house. When he opens the door to expel one puppy, two more charge in. They will never be allowed to stay inside, just as they will never be taught to roll over or give him a high five or fetch his slippers.
People have always selectively bred and trained dogs to emphasize certain traits, says ASPCA animal behaviorist Steve Zawistowski. Aggression, he says, can be bred out just as it can be bred in. “We’ve selected dogs that represent human aspects of caring and friendliness and compassion,” said Zawistowski. “With pit bulls, we’ve created a dog that combines loyalty with instances of intense aggression. The dog now represents an edgy part of our society.” Which is evidenced, he says, by the names people give them.
Dogs like Rock and Conan (now deceased) are so accurate a reflection of Eison’s mentality that he wants all the others to aspire to their temperament. He considers them members of his family. “If you don’t have any children, you don’t stay on this earth. But if you have children you’re always here. So I’m going to make Rock live forever,” he says.
At 12 weeks, the brown puppy was still unwilling to play rough. Eison initially liked him because he looked like his father, Rock, but he remained smaller and more timid than his littermates. Eison says Lady, the puppy’s mother, would have killed the runt herself if he hadn’t intervened. Eison says he sold him for $2,000 to a friend. About a month later he sold a second puppy for another $2,000, keeping only the most aggressive boy and girl for himself.
“They will fight to the death
While backyard breeders aren’t necessarily doing anything illegal, shelter officials blame them for the abundance of homeless bull breeds, many of them unstable. On a recent visit to shelters in Brooklyn and Manhattan about half of the dogs in custody were pits or pit mixes. The dogs escape from yards, slip away when their masters aren’t watching them, or end up in shelters when their owners are arrested or evicted, according to Brooklyn Animal Care supervisor Joyce Clemmons. When the owners come to retrieve their animals they usually don’t mention that they’re breeders until she brings up the city policy of mandatory fixing of all dogs in city shelters before they’re released. The potential financial loss is not the only reason some owners object. “The men always say, ‘You’re taking my manhood away.’ We get that every week. They say that they can’t walk the dog in their neighborhood anymore because people will see that his testicles are gone. They are adamant about it,” Clemmons says.
As he sits at the conference table in his storefront real estate office, Eison agrees it would be embarrassing to be seen with a neutered dog. On this early summer afternoon, his wife, Chandra, is in the office using the phone and fax machine to wrangle with the Crime Victims Board over her son Glen’s case. The walls are covered with portraits of black leaders. A placard on Eison’s desk reads, “Relax, God’s in charge.” Eison takes a Popsicle break and attempts to debunk the logic of mandatory neutering and spaying at city shelters. “Their opinion is that we shouldn’t breed, but at the same time they shouldn’t be so quick to spay dogs, to take away what God gave them.” Dogs are like cars or clothes, he says; people want name brands, not the kind of generic dog you can get at a shelter. With his dogs, people will know they’re getting a high-caliber product. He says his bloodline is the Mercedes-Benz of dog breeds.
Because he is the only one who can handle his dogs and because his family is spread all over Queens, Eison is in perpetual motion between his office and two houses, and his multiple responsibilities generally have him running late for appointments. In early August, when the puppies were three and a half months old, Eison moved them to his main kennel, adjacent to the older dogs, eliminating some of the runaround. Now he can tend to all of them during breaks from work. When the kennels have been scrubbed, the feces removed, and water bowls cleaned, Eison, drenched in sweat, removes his T-shirt—revealing a heart-shaped tattoo on his chest with the name “Chandra” in the middle.
After letting the puppies cool off in the spray from the garden hose, he decides to separate them rather than return them to the same pen. A veterinarian friend has cropped both puppies’ ears, and the girl’s left ear is healing slowly from too much rough play. Meanwhile, she has left the less aggressive boy with nicks and bite marks on his neck. The older dogs won’t make good kennelmates either, as the girl puppy spends her time pacing back and forth, mirroring the movements of the pit bulls in the pen next to her, trying to bite them but coming up with a mouthful of chain-link fencing. “That girl’s real crazy; she likes to play games with the big dogs. She wants to fight everything,” says Eison. She’ll be the one he’ll breed with her father, Rock.
“Rock is real good off the leash,” says Eison. “He only kills when I tell him to kill.” To demonstrate this Eison has to put King, the Cane Corso, into a cage, because he doesn’t get along with Rock. Before doing so, Eison points out two large scars—one behind the left ear and another on the left foreleg—on the 160-pound King where Rock got hold of him.
Indeed Rock is good off the leash, wagging his tail and letting people he doesn’t know pet him. He’s good off the leash, that is, until Eison shows him a stuffed toy. When Rock sees the toy—a plush Sylvester the cat doll, dressed in a nightshirt and cap—his muscles stiffen, his tail stops wagging, and he assumes the posture of a pointer. Eison holds Rock by a short leash and hands the toy to a third party.
“Watch him now, watch him now,” says Eison to Rock in a gruff, deliberate voice, periodically jerking the leash. He lets him charge a foot or two toward the doll before yanking him back. It only takes a couple of passes of the toy before Rock is able to grab it. But it is not the toy he’s after. He immediately drops it and stares with terrifying intensity at the person who had been holding it. “Rock’s bloodline is one of the best. He doesn’t want to stop, he’ll fight to the death,” says Eison. “You’ll never be able to come in this backyard again.”