Like all of us, today's American Pit Bull Terrier is a product of its past. A great companion animal for humans, the pit bull wasn't always viewed through the media-created bogeyman lenses of today. Indeed, it was once America's sweetheart breed.
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While the precise origins of the current American Pit Bull Terrier remain in dispute, with different historians favoring similar but not identical accounts of the past, a few elements seem beyond doubt.
The original "bulldog," used primarily for boar hunting as well as companion and guarding purposes, appears in paintings dating back as far as the 1500s. These dogs look remarkably similar to today's pit bull. They were given the name "bull dogs" because when the horrible sport of bull baiting became popular, they were by far the dog best suited to this purpose.
Once bull baiting was outlawed in England in 1835, its promoters began looking for new means of profit. They turned to ratting and dog fighting. At this point, it seems likely that at least one and probably more strains of terrier were introduced into the breed to make it more "game" (that is, having a higher level of prey drive and aggression) as well as smaller and more agile.
Pit Bulls and People
Despite the fierce prey drive hardwired into the original pit bulls, they always made excellent companions for humans. In part, this came out of their fighting ancestry. Handlers had to be able to jump in the ring and separate the fighters, and then treat the wounded dogs after the fights were over. Dogs that showed aggression toward humans, even in the middle of a fight, were usually killed and never bred.
From this selective breeding came a dog that possessed a fierce prey drive, but was exceptionally people friendly. The Irish version of the pit was actually known as the "Old Family Dog," because it was considered the perfect family pet, known to be especially good with children.
Coming to 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 bulls excelled as cattle dogs and "catch dogs" for pigs. And unfortunately, they were still used as fighting dogs.
However, the majority of pit bulls were NOT fought, instead earning their keep as hunters, herders, guardians and friends. Yes, 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, the American Pit Bull Terrier gained its greatest renown as a courageous and loyal companion to both adults and children, even acquiring the nickname "nanny dogs" in some locations.
Humans Squabble More than Dogs--Breed Organizations and Labeling
Because of the fighting stigma, when the American Kennel Club was formed, they refused to recognize pit bulls. Thus, in 1898 a man named Chauncy Bennet formed the United Kennel Club specifically for the purpose of registering the American Pit Bull Terrier, though it later expanded to include other breeds. In 1909, the American Dog Breeding Association was formed by breeders who felt the UKC failed to adequately focus on the breed's working traits.
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 bulls. 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.
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The Pit Bull--American'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 bulls 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 bulls were chosen as mascots by the Buster Brown shoe company and by the United States itself, which featured pit bulls 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.
The Killer Dog Myth
By the 1980s, the companion history of the pit bull was forgotten, and the myth of the dangerous fighting dog took hold. It is uncertain exactly why this decade saw the pit bull suddenly rise to a new, less pleasant sort of fame, but many trace the entire trend to a single, ultra-sensationalistic Sports Illustrated cover article.
Whatever the reasons for the sudden infamy, the unwanted publicity not only caused problems for the vast majority of well-behaved pits, but actually encouraged unscrupulous individuals to deliberately purchase and breed pit bulls and similar looking dogs for nefarious purposes.
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Pit Bulls Today
Fortunately, despite a few bad apples, most of the humans lucky enough to own pit bulls are responsible caretakers. With responsible owners and numerous groups devoted to promoting an accurate image of the breed, pit bulls are beginning to make a comeback in the popular imagination.
Even Sports Illustrated's most recent article on the breed was entirely positive, devoted to showing how nearly all of the supposedly "beyond rehabilitation" dogs from the Michael Vick case were now happy, friendly members of loving homes.
As the new century begins, the American Pit Bull Terrier is still a common participant in canine sporting activities, but now their wonderful drive and athleticism is exercised in more joyful activities than in centuries past.
Pit bulls routinely defeat all comers in weight pulling competitions, where they hold every world record in their own weight categories. They consistently distinguish themselves in agility and flyball, where their marvelous speed and coordination make them a joy to watch. And perhaps surprisingly to the uninitiated, they also excel in obedience trials.
And yes, they are still a working dog, but in a variety of new roles. Pit bulls make great therapy dogs and are commonly used in search and rescue. Following in the footsteps of Sgt. Stubby, they have also distinguished themselves in the role of drug and bomb sniffing dogs. A pit bull named Popsicle holds the Texas record for biggest drug bust, having sniffed out 3000 lbs of cocaine.
Most of all, the American Pit bull Terrier continues to be, as it has always been, a great family dog and beloved companion.