Pit Bulls: A History

The American Pit Bull Terrier - once an American symbol of strength and devotion - is now the most feared, misunderstood and maligned breed of dog.

The Humble Beginnings

The earliest ancestors of the modern American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT, or more casually, "Pit Bull") can be traced back to the British Isles, circa early 1800s. These were not a pure breed of dog, rather, mixes of bulldogs and terriers, commonly known as "Bull and Terriers". The tenacity and drive of terriers, combined with the athletic build and strength of the bulldog, created the ultimate champion in the world of "bull baiting". Bull baiting was an ancient bloodsport, dating back to the Romans, where a bull was tethered down and allowed to be attacked by dogs - the ultimate goal was the immobilization of the bull. It is also said that bull baiting had a practical value as well; butchers commonly used Bull and Terriers to subdue the bulls before slaughter. And when they weren't being used to take down bulls, Bull and Terriers were used in "rat pits" as well. These were popular "sports" amongst all walks of life - a form of "entertainment" for the upper- and middle-class alike.

It is important to note that these dogs were bred for performance and working ability, rather than towards a physical standard.

When bull-baiting became illegal in 1835, the focus began pitting the dogs against each other. Despite the bloody nature of the sport, the commoners inadvertently began breeding in the traits that Pit Bull owners appreciate today. Though tenacious and determined in battle, the dogs developed an undying love and devotion towards humans, along with a very high bite inhibition. This was done through selective breeding and culling practices. Handlers had to be sure that while in the midst of fighting another dog, that they could be able to enter a pit and pull the dogs apart if need be, without being bitten themselves. If a dog redirected on a handler during a match, that dog was usually culled.

Crossing the Ocean

Shortly before the Civil War, when citizens of the British Isles immigrated to the United States, they weren't about to leave their beloved Pit Bulls behind. It was in America where the American Pit Bull Terrier breed was solidified and named - hence, the "American". These dogs were bred specifically for the "sport" of dog fighting, yet although the APBT was created to be a fighting breed, life in America brought about a new beginning for these dog. Pit Bulls began being utilized for many other purposes. Because of their undying love and tolerance for children, many large pioneer families owned a Pit Bull. These dogs were often used to protect the homes of settlers - not against humans, but against wild animals. They could be used to terminate vermin treatening the food supply of families, or to fend off a coyote intruding upon the family's territory. Pit Bulls were also used as "catch dogs" - to catch wild hogs and hold onto them until the hunters arrived. And when they weren't working, they were trusted and cherished companions.

The Urban Pit Bull

As society progressed, so did the Pit Bull. With the emergence of urban America, a new "breed" of Pit Bull emerged. Unlike their rural grandfathers, these Pit Bulls were often used as solely companions. Pit Bulls became a more prominent part of the culture. With characteristics such as tenacity, courage, and loyalty, these dogs quickly became a proud symbol of the American people. Pit Bulls began popping up in the media. They could often be seen in advertisements and in company logos. And not only did they endorse products, but the Pit Bull, with it's strong and noble demeanor, was frequently found in World War 1 propaganda. Many soldiers and military platoons had Pit Bulls as well.

Not only were they touted in advertisements and posters, but the Pit Bull was owned by several prominent names. Helen Keller, Humphrey Bogart, Woodrow Wilson and Fred Astaire all had a Pit Bull, and a Pit Bull named Petey was the trusty sidekick of the Little Rascal's gang.

One thing is for certain - during this time, America was sure proud of it's Pit Bull.

America's Sweetheart No More

It is an ironic twist that around the same time dogfighting became outlawed, the Pit Bull began showing up in the media in a negative light. In 1976, the Supreme Court passed the Animal Welfare Act of 1976. This groundbreaking act made dogfighting officially illegal in all 50 states, as well as set strict penalties for anyone found caught fighting dogs. Unfortunately, it is often said that when something is made criminal, that it will attract criminals. Massive misinformation began being spread about Pit Bulls during this time as well. In their efforts to get the Welfare Law passed, some of the major "animal advocacy" groups completely vilified the Pit Bull and spawned the myths that still haunt the breed today. These groups claimed that Pit Bulls had to be trained to fight using treadmills, flirt and spring poles, and other devices which were (and are still today) actually used by responsible owners to exercise their dogs. They made up the "bait dog" myth, which unfortunately is no longer a myth (read more about "bait dogs" here). They "helped" to blur the lines between Dog Aggression and Human Aggression by claiming that dogfighters made the fighting dogs "meaner" by abusing them and feeding them gunpowder or tabasco sauce.

Soon, Pit Bulls found themselves in the hands of people we'd like to keep them out of. The criminal set began trying to squeeze these dogs into a mold they were never designed to fit. The breed who was once bred to treat every stranger like a long-lost friend was now being used as guard and protection dogs. And they were being fought in underground fighting rings, by people who were basically given a "How to Fight Your Pit Bull" manual by the animal rights groups.

Commodities over Companions

To make matters worse, the owners of the poorly socialized and often aggressive Pit Bulls began to breed these dogs and sell them to anyone who had the cash. Whereas the Pit Bull breeders of yesteryear sold their pups to family members, friends, and proven (experienced) people only, the new faction of Pit Bull breeders didn't care where their puppies ended up. They were seen as money-making commodities, rather than trusted sidekicks. These human aggressive parents produced human-aggressive offspring, and things were only made worse when they fell into the hands of people who abused and neglected them.

The Pit Bull was now seen as a feared attacking machine, rather than the gentle yet tenacious family dog he once was. The media began vilifying these dogs. The infamous Sports Illustrated issue - "Beware this Dog" - with a lunging Pit Bull on the cover of it was just one example of the media's crusade against these dogs.

A Dying Breed

And while the media succesfully created an air of terror around our dogs, the Pit Bull began filling shelters at an alarming rate. These dogs were the product of unscrupulous breeding practices - bred in an attempt to make a buck, yet tossed out like trash when they were no longer wanted. And good-intentioned people who had Pit Bulls were abandoning or dumping them at shelters at the advice of so-called experts, who claimed the dogs would "turn on you" with their "locking jaws" at any time. The sea of Pit Bulls appeared - and still does appear - neverending.

Thus, the Pit Bull was failed by the country that once touted it as an American icon.

I Will Survive

It is a true testament to the Pit Bull breed that despite the massive amount of abuse that these dogs endure on a daily basis, that most Pit Bulls still retain the traits that made them the #1 family dog at the turn of the 18th century. True "ambassadogs" can be found in nearly every shelter across the country. The Pit Bull is truly more resilient than ever. Pit Bulls enjoy and excel in a variety of dog sports, are used as therapy dogs, and are often utilized in police K-9 units. Pit Bulls are also owned by several prominent figures - celebrities such as Jon Stewart, Alicia Sylverstone, and Michael J. Fox all have Pit Bulls as companions.

Now What?

If you feel pessimistic reading this article, we can understand why. It is extremely frustrating knowing that a breed once so loved and cherished is now languishing in shelters, still feared and making headlines, yet being abused by humans moreso than any other breed. What can we do to reclaim the reputation that the Pit Bull of yesteryear once held high?

Pit Bull owners and the general public alike need to be educated about the truth behind these dogs - and not the sugarcoated version. Pit Bulls are not born killers, but they're also not the breed for everyone. Read up on their temperament, their pros and cons (yes, Pit Bulls can have cons - but no breed is perfect for everyone!). Make a rational judgement BEFORE acquiring a Pit Bull. Adopt a breed ambassador Pit Bull - one who loves all humans alike, is gushingly affectionate, and greets all strangers like a long-lost friend. Enroll your Pit Bull in a dog sport - it strengthens the human/animal bond and shows the public that yes, these dogs are good for more than just fighting.

YOU have the power to change minds. The power to retain the Pit Bull as a cherished family member. To educate the general public about these misunderstood dogs. To save a dying breed.


Illinois // NW Indiana