American Pitbull Terriers are often thought of as a dangerous breed. The name “Pitbull” often conjures images in our heads of dog fights and general mayhem. How much of that reputation is deserved, though? Well, to understand that, we need to take a look at the long history of the breed.
Many people think Pitbulls were bred to fight in dog fights. That’s not entirely accurate, though. Although the exact history of the breed we now know as the American Pitbull Terrier is not quite clear, we do know that bulldogs, in general, were bred for exactly that – bull baiting.
Bull baiting is believed to go way back to the time of the Romans. It started out as a way to worship Mithras, the warrior god. As the Romans traveled, pillaging and conquering various lands, they kept the sport going, but they started to breed different types of dog together in order to make the ultimate bull baiting breed.
Bull baiting eventually became a way for the lower classes to take out aggressions and frustrations. By the 1700’s, Bulldogs, such as the Scottish Blue Poll and the Irish Alunt, were commonly being forced to go in and bite the bulls, generally on the ears, since the ears were the sensitive part of the bull. Either the bull would eventually collapse or, in some cases, the bull would kill the dog.
The pretense was that being bitten by the dogs would actually tenderize the meat of the bull. The reality, though, is that that was just a rumor that was set to make sure the tradition continued so that people could profit from the industry through gambling.
Meanwhile, nobody seemed to have any second thoughts about what they were doing to the bulls or to the dogs. In fact, it was widely believed that Bulldogs had no feelings, but, as owners of American Pitbull Terriers can attest to today, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In 1835, the first attempt to recognize that fact was made.
The public became outraged by the bull baiting events and, in 1835, they took a stand on it. They caused the British Parliament to sit up and take notice. As a result, bull baiting was finally banned. That wasn’t the end of the trouble for bulldogs, though.
The Bull and Terrier:
Unfortunately, many bulldog breeders still saw the potential for the bulldogs to be profitable as fighters. They weren’t ready to give up their gambling profits. So, they decided to up the ante by breeding a new type of dog, which they called the Staffordshire Bull and Terrier. The breed was so agile and fine-tuned that it began to get quite a reputation in dog fights.
Producing the Pitbull Terrier:
Up until the events in 1835, there was no “pit” in “Pitbull”. It’s commonly thought that the “pit” came from fighting in dog pits, but that’s not the case. Although dog fights became popular in those days, it was the ratting that gave the Bull and Terrier its next name change.
Dog fights were popular, but people wanted to come up with other sports for their dogs. They came up with ratting, which was a process by which bulldogs were put in pits full of rats for a certain length of time and people speculated on how many rats would be killed in that time. It was the rat pit that turned the Bull and Terrier into the Pitbull Terrier.
The UKC Recognizes American Pitbull Terriers:
Pitbull history took another turn when colonies were beginning to form in the west. It was the early 1800s when Bull and Terriers were first transported to America and to Canada with the colonists. However, it wasn’t until 1898 that the breed was actually recognized as the American Pitbull Terrier. It all started with a man named Chauncy Bennett.
Chauncy Bennett founded the United Kennel Club, or UKC, in 1898. He used American Pitbull Terriers as the first breed to found the club. Unfortunately, though, Chauncy did little to help the breed’s reputation.
You see, Chauncy Bennett, like millions of people before him, believed in the fighting abilities of the breed. In fact, to begin with, dogs had to have won at least three fights for the UKC to register and recognize them. That was hardly good for the American Pitbull Terrier’s reputation. Luckily, that requirement was later lifted and the standards became more about the physical characteristics of the breed and less about their fighting skills.
Chauncy Bennett started the UKC in an effort to recognize Pitbulls for their abilities. He did so mainly because the American Kennel Club refused to register the breed. However, after Mr. Bennett’s efforts, the AKC sat up and took notice. They soon decided to register the breed, but there was a catch.
The catch in question was that the AKC only would register Pitbulls as Staffordshire Terriers. Staffordshire Terriers and Pitbull Terriers were, essentially, the same dog, until 1936. Staffordshire Terriers were bred only for show and conformation to breed standards after 1936, though. That meant that they were held to a higher standard of appearance and became a much flashier breed than their American Pitbull Terrier counterparts.
Meanwhile, the American Pitbull history wasn’t changing all that much. They were still being bred for fighting, as well as for show. That meant that their judgment standards were much more relaxed. Pits in competitions could be a number of different sizes and builds, but they usually weighed under sixty pounds.
The Three Breeds:
One of the biggest reasons the American Staffordshire Terrier got the word “American” in its name was because of the confusion surrounding a similar breed. Staffordshire Bull Terriers already existed in England, you see. So, at that point, there were three breeds that were very similar, those two and the UKC’s American Pitbull Terriers.
Today, there’s still a lot of confusion about which is which. However, there are some differences. For example, the British Staffordshire is generally under forty-five pounds and stands about fifteen inches tall. The American Staffordshire, on the other hand, can be up to nineteen inches tall and weigh as much as eighty pounds. Furthermore, the American Pitbull Terrier is usually anywhere from thirty to sixty pounds.
Pitbull History in Wars:
Leading up to WWI, there were some positive changes for Pitbulls. They were becoming known for their strength, courage and loyalty. In fact, they were even used in wartime morale-building posters.
During both WWI and WWII, American Pitbull Terriers served the country countless times. They were extremely valuable on the battle fields. They carried messages back and forth among soldiers, among other things.
The most famous wartime Pitbull was Sgt. Stubby. Sgt. Stubby was with the 26th Yankee division in France when he helped to apprehend a German spy. Sgt. Stubby is also credited with saving the lives of several soldiers in the field in 1917.
Pitbull History in Media:
Over the years, another aspect of Pitbull history has been the media coverage of the breed. It all started with Bud, the first dog to travel across America riding in a car. His owner, Horatio Jackson, was traveling with Bud and a man named Sewall Crocker.
Later, Bud’s goggles were donated to the Smithsonian by Horatio. Bud was an excellent watchdog and greatly loved and respected. The media were especially fond of him during his cross-country trip and often focused on Bud more so than on Horatio.
Pitbulls have also been written about in many famous books. Most of you have, of course, heard of Samuel Clemens, or, as he’s better known, Mark Twain. Mr. Twain featured a Pitbull in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, one of his short books.
American Pitbull Terriers have also been used in advertisements and on popular television shows for years. Tige the Pitbull, for example, was a great mascot for Buster Brown shoes. Also, a Pitbull named Nipper was featured in popular advertisements for the RCA company. On top of that, the Pitbull has been featured in such places as on the popular TV show, The Little Rascals, and in ad campaigns for Levi Strauss jeans.
The Fall of the Breed:
Unfortunately, after WWII the popularity of the American Pitbull Terrier started to drop off. It slowly started gaining a reputation for aggression, instability and unpredictability. There were a couple of reasons for that, but the biggest one was irresponsible breeding.
Pitbulls had almost always been bred for fighting until then, but they’d been bred carefully, too. They were bred not to be aggressive towards humans. Human aggression would have been a major problem, after all. People needed to be able to control their fighting dogs.
Unfortunately, in the 20th century things were different. Crime and drugs began to take bigger hold of the country. Now, in addition to the dog fighting, which still goes on to this day in some areas, Pitbulls were also being used to guard places of ill repute where drug deals and the like were going on.
Drug dealers and crime bosses, as well as dog fighters, are not exactly the most stable of people. So, they began to breed and sell the dogs irresponsibly, not caring about their aggression towards humans. The result was a number of unfortunate incidents that started to make the name “Pitbull” almost as scary as such things as bears, wolves or sharks. Pitbulls were now a thing to be feared by people, not just feared by other animals.
Laws, Ordinances and Confusion:
As a result of the trouble with some Pitbulls, many places passed laws restricting or totally banning the breed. Unfortunately, there was some doubt as to what the breed was. So, anything that even looked a bit like a Pitbull Terrier became suspect. That resulted in two major problems.
Problem one is that, in many areas, people could be fined or arrested for owning Pitbulls, even responsibly. They could also lose their home owner’s insurance or have a number of other problems, such as suspicious neighbors. Even people who had non-Pitbull breeds sometimes ran into trouble because their dogs looked slightly like Pitbulls. Also, many shelters began killing anything they suspected was a Pitbull or a Pitbull mix, regardless of the dog’s temperament.
Problem two is that, due to the fear of Pitbulls and the owners’ fears of repercussions for owning them, Pitbull registries experienced a major drop. People were just too afraid to register their dogs, which has made it almost impossible to trace the bloodlines of many dogs. In fact, of all the breeds that are accepted by kennel clubs, the American Pitbull Terrier is the one that is least registered.
A Celebrity Lift:
Luckily, serious Pitbull lovers won’t give up on the breed. Even more lucky is that many of the responsible owners are celebrities that advocate for the breed. For example, Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt each had loyal American Pitbull Terriers.
Many famous actors have also owned Pitbulls. Humphrey Bogart, Michael J. Fox, Malcolm Jamal Warner and Frankie Muniz are just some of them. In fact, one actor, Ken Howard, had a Pitbull named Shadow who actually saved his life once. Ken Howard is possibly best known as the father on the show Crossing Jordan, and has also guest starred in such shows as Murder She Wrote.
Famous actresses aren’t to be left out, either. Another Pitbull myth is that they are a man’s breed. The reality is that they can be just as devoted to and just as loved by women. Some actresses who have been lucky enough to own Pits include Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Eden and Alicia Silverstone.
Pitbull history has been full of blood and gore. Do they deserve their bad reputation, though? Certainly not! A whole breed should not be blamed for the irresponsibility of a few owners over the years. We, as humans, need to remember that dogs are man’s best friend and start treating the breed with the love and respect it deserves. Then, perhaps, future generations can look back fondly on a very different type of Pitbull history.