History in America
The American Pit Bull Terrier comes from a combination of English and Irish stock brought to the US in the 19th century. Once in the US, pit bull type dogs excelled as cattle dogs and “catch dogs” for pigs. And unfortunately, they were still used as fighting dogs. However, the majority of pit bull type dogs were NOT fought, instead earning their keep as hunters, herders, guardians and friends. Ease of training and a predisposition to interact well with humans was essential for all of their traditional jobs.
Thus, it is no surprise that by 1900, pit bull type dogs gained their greatest renown as a courageous and loyal companion to both adults and children, even acquiring the nickname “nanny dogs” in some locations.
As cities sprung up, pit bull type dogs remained a prominent part of the American culture. The USA admired this breed for qualities that it likened in itself; friendly, brave, hardworking, worthy of respect. Pit bull type dogs were thought of less as pit fighters and more as ‘regular dogs’. They show up in hundreds of turn of the century photos, flanked by loving family members. Early advertisements, posters, and magazines began to use the image of the All American Dog, including Buster Brown, whose companion was a Pit Bull.
The pit bull type was also a favorite dog among politicians, scholars, and celebrities. Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, and the “Our Gang” Little Rascals all had pit bull type dogs. Many reading this website may have grandparents and great grandparents who kept a favorite pit bull type dogs as a pet. Today, this tradition continues with countless numbers of Americans who love and cherish their family pit bull type dogs.
Recent research including DNA analysis by Dr. Victoria Voith and others has proven that dogs commonly identified as pit bulls are quite often a mix of multiple breeds, so breed identification by appearance alone is now considered to be inaccurate and misleading. The conundrum is a good one though, because it frees us up to look at these incredibly popular dogs as a fascinating American phenomena rather than an identifiable item with fixed genetics, behaviors and definable features.
The ‘pit bulls’ you meet may be shelter dogs of indeterminate origin or they may have pedigree as American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers (APBT) or more recently, American Bullies. Whichever definition or registry you prefer, fanciers and animal lovers alike can agree that the dogs that fall under this label are as well-loved as they are maligned in this society, with a history that’s as blended as their genetics.
In the 1930s, Pit Bulls were admitted to the AKC under the name Staffordshire Terrier. Despite the different name (chosen because Staffordshire, England is believed by many to be where the traditional English bulldog was first crossed with terriers to create the modern pit bull), the original Staffordshires were all UKC-registered pit bull terriers, and many dogs continue to be cross registered to this day.
The UKC accepts dogs with AKC pedigrees, though the AKC does not recognize the UKC breed registry. Meanwhile, the ADBA encourages working–i.e. weight pulling–bloodlines but registers all pit bull type dogs. And finally, in the 1970s, the AKC Staffordshire was split into the English and American Staffordshire, based primarily on size differential, with the larger AmStaff being closer to traditional pit bull conformation.
Because the earliest breeders were going for speed, stamina and attitude rather than looks, the general appearance of the purebreds can vary greatly. They can range between 25 and 75 pounds. The earlier ‘classic’ APBTs were on the small side – an advantage which afforded them speed and agility in the fighting pits. As the pit dogs made their way to the working farms of America, larger characteristics were encouraged in breeding. In recent years, appearance and conformations vary so widely that it’s hard to recognize the ‘old world’ Pit Bull anymore in the ‘new world’ creations. A good reminder why DNA analysis keeps coming back with mixed breed results for so many dogs considered to be ‘pit bulls.’ Pit bull type dogs are beautiful in their variety, but their most appealing features are their inner qualities. Strength, confidence, a sense of humor and a zest for life are all hallmarks of the breed. They also tend to be sensitive and get their feelings hurt easily. Properly socialized dogs are quite affectionate and friendly, even with strangers, and therefore do not make good guard dogs. They’re intelligent and eager to please and tend to remain playful throughout their lives. While some can be low key ‘couch potatoes,’ many others need a job to channel their enthusiasm and energy. They excel in dog sports, search and rescue work, drug and bomb detection work, and as therapy dogs. Severe shyness, fearfulness or human-directed aggression is not characteristic of the breed and highly undesirable in any dog.
The Pit Bull – America’s Sweetheart
During the first half of the 20th century, the American Pit Bull Terrier was the closest thing the United States had to a national dog. Pit bull type dogs were the dog of choice for famous personages such as Helen Keller, Laura Ingalls Wilder (of Little House on the Prairie fame), and President Theodore Roosevelt. Meanwhile, pit bull type dogs were chosen as mascots by the Buster Brown shoe company and by the United States itself, which featured pit bull type dogs on American propaganda posters for each of the first two world wars.
Fittingly, the first dog decorated with medals by the armed forces was one Sgt. Stubby. In the first world war, Sgt. Stubby not only survived being twice wounded in combat, but captured a German spy and saved his entire platoon from a poison gas attack. In 1903, an American Pit Bull Terrier named Bud became the first dog to travel across the entire US via car. He accompanied the first humans to make a non-stop journey cross country by automobile, but his fame eclipsed theirs, as newspapers in cities across America featured a goggle-wearing Bud. After WW II, pit bulls retreated to relative obscurity, accorded neither more nor less notoriety than other breeds. Surely, underground fighting took place, but this was only a small percentage of pits. Others were used for herding, hunting or guardian purposes, but most were bred and kept primarily as companions.
While large numbers of pit bull type dogs in this country live out their lives as cherished family companions, many not so fortunate suffer from man-made shortcomings, including unspeakable cruelties, the socio-economic pressures of under-resourced owners, and the relentless biases and discrimination of an ill-informed public. The All American dog began to be exploited through dog fighting in greater numbers in the eighties and were soon associated with poverty, ‘urban thugs’ and crime. The media, including Sports Illustrated, shamefully capitalized on fears of a modern day werewolf by promoting stereotypical images like the one on this now infamous cover shot, and the reputation of the entire breed was dragged down with yet more sensationalist headlines and damaging myths and untruths. This set the stage for breed specific laws (BSL), which cropped up in select places as the dogs began to be used as a political platform by opportunistic politicians.
Dog fighting is now a felony in all 50 states and arrests have increased, and many now work to restore the dogs’ image to its rightful place as an American tradition. But even the most responsible owners still struggle to keep their dogs safe from discrimination and harm. The larger threats to the dogs are much more insidious and mainstream than even the threat of dog fighting, and result in an unforgivable prejudice that condemns countless pit bull type dogs to homelessness and an early death. It is the housing market that routinely forces families to surrender their dogs to crowded shelters because no property owner will rent to them – even to a hero dog. Its ill-informed professionals, like a librarian in an affluent San Francisco suburb, who promotes profiling dogs based on appearance.
It’s become public policy when law-makers misuse their positions to remove and destroy innocent pets from their responsible families in places like Denver, rather than adopt progressive policies that work to create safe, humane communities.
Despite the societal pressures many of the dogs and their owners endure, one thing rings true: The canine hero who was admired by this country’s earliest citizens continues to show itself in the faces of the overwhelming majority of pit bull type dogs in our homes and even most of our shelters. The animal that was once courageous enough to grab a bull by the nose or save human lives on a WWI battlefield, now utilizes that same bravado to accomplish modern day feats — including surviving conditions that would drive most humans to madness. There are no greater contemporary examples of this resiliency and ability to bounce back from darkness than the dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels. So many (30 and counting) have found success in new homes since the rescue that the media couldn’t help but take a new look at pit bull type dogs when they emerged, and the public happily embraced their stories of recovery. Twenty years after the breed took its first major PR hit in the media, Sports Illustrated returned to show us a different face of the dog, one that invokes sympathy and even surprise from a re-educated public.
Pit bull type dogs used to Be Considered the Perfect “Nanny Dogs” for Children — Until the Media Turned Them into Monsters
Despite their reputation, the United Kennel Club doesn’t recommended using pit bull type dogs as guard dogs because they’re too friendly with strangers
For most of the 114 years since the American Pit Bull Terrier was first recognized by the United Kennel Club, the breed was rightly seen as the perfect “nanny dog” for children because of its friendly nature, loyalty and stability. As the ASPCA notes, the pit bulls type dogs were “once considered especially non-aggressive to people.”
Since the 1980s, the media have falsely portrayed the pit bull type dog as a bloodthirsty monster, inherently more dangerous than other strong breeds of dog. There is absolutely no factual basis for that narrative, but it’s led to a vicious cycle in which people who want a dog to fight, or to guard property, or to intimidate rival gangs tend to choose pit bull type dogs (or Rottweilers, another much-maligned breed). Pit bull type dogs are the dog of choice for irresponsible breeders, dog-fighters, people who want a tough-looking dog to tie up in their yard and those who refuse to have their male dogs fixed because they think those big, swinging balls makes them look tough by proxy (86 percent of fatal canine attacks involve an unneutered male, according to the American Humane Society).
All of those human failings lead to poorly socialized and potentially aggressive dogs. It is because pit bull type dogs are disproportionately favored by these kinds of owners that they’re responsible for a statistically out-sized share of serious attacks on humans. These incidents are then reported – and very often misreported – with breathless sensationalism by the media, and the cycle continues.
Meanwhile, advocates say that pit bull type dogs are the most frequently abused, tortured, abandoned and euthanized type of dog in the United States. Shelters across the country are overflowing with pit bull types. Because of their stigma, they’re often difficult to adopt out; a ride to the shelter is almost always a one-way trip for pitties.
We have tragically betrayed our children’s beloved nanny-dogs, raising them irresponsibly, training them to be aggressive and then turning them into pariahs when they behave as any dog would in similar circumstances.