Reflecting on Pit Bulls - Whatever they are!
For the purpose of this website, we've chosen to use the generic term 'pit bull' to describe our dogs, even though there is no proper definition for pit bull. Recent research utilizing canine DNA has demonstrated that dogs who are commonly identified as pit bulls based on their appearance are quite often a mix of multiple breeds, so we now know that relying on visual identification alone for breed identification is inaccurate and even misleading.
What a dilemma! 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. Welcome to our exploration of the enigmatic pit bull!
Above: Two different centuries, two celebrated 'pit bulls.' On the left, Sergeant Stubby is celebrated for saving human lives in WWI. In 2010, Jonny Justice is celebrated for surviving the cruelties of NFL Player Michael Vick and going on to help children learn to read.
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. While we puzzle over what a pit bull is, we should all take note that this blocky headed group of watzit dogs has been dutifully helping us learn what it means to be human. With unfailing optimism, the dogs that fill our shelters and homes seem to want to remind us that they are what we've made them to be, either victims of human cruelty, neglected sentries in lonely yards, or cherished family companions in our homes. The really good news is that society is starting to recognize these lessons and accept responsibility for their station in life.
Created in the UK
A dog (Olde English Bulldog) that looked much like today's American Bulldog was originally used in the 1800's in the British Isles to 'bait' bulls. These matches were held for the entertainment of the struggling classes; a source of relief from the tedium of hardship. In 1835 bull baiting was deemed inhumane and became illegal, and dog fighting became a popular replacement. Soon, a new bulldog was created by crossing the Olde English Bulldog with terriers to create smaller, more agile dogs. The best fighters were celebrated and held up as heroes for their courage and fortitude during battle. At the same time, bite inhibition towards humans was encouraged through selective breeding so gamblers could handle their dogs during staged fights. Partially because of these early breeding efforts which frowned on "man biters," pit bulls gained a reputation for their trustworthy nature with humans.
History in America
Immigrants brought their dogs across the ocean along with their families and prized possessions. They soon became a fixture in a developing nation. In early America, the dogs were valued for much more than their fighting abilities. They were entrusted to protect homesteads from predators and worked as vital helpers on family farms. Homesteaders relied on their abilities to help in hunts and as hog catchers (hence, the common title "catch dogs"). They were constant companions to the young children who are seen in untold numbers of vintage photos with their family dogs. Pit bulls earned their place as an important part of the fabric of a developing nation.
Like the vintage photos? See our Vintage Photo Gallery here.
As cities sprung up, Pit Bulls 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 Bulls 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.
World War I posters displayed illustrations of APBTs as proud mascots of neutrality and bravery. This was Sargeant Stubby's era!
The pit bull was also a favorite dog among politicians, scholars, and celebrities. Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, and the "Our Gang" Little Rascals all had pit bulls. Many reading this website may have grandparents and great grandparents who kept a favorite pit bull as a pet. Today, this tradition continues with countless numbers of Americans who love and cherish their family pit bulls.
Character over Form
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 pitdogs made their way to the working farms of America, larger characteristics were encouraged in breedings. 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 bulls 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.
What's in a Name?
AmStaff or APBT? AKC? UKC? ADBA or ABKC? So many registries, so many ways to label a "pit bull!"
"American Staffordshire Terrier" is not a polite new name for pit bull, although it's often misapplied by people who dislike the term 'pit bull.' Understanding the jumbled history of the breed names helps to clear up some of this confusion and mislabeling.
Before the end of the 1800's, the dogs we think of as 'Pit Bulls' were typically called bulldogs - a name that's still used by many breed enthusiasts. In 1898, Chauncy Z. Bennet founded the United Kennel Club (UKC) and re-named the bulldogs 'American Pit Bull Terriers'. This move gave legitimacy to the breed and provided a framework for breed standardization. Then, in the 1930's a group petitioned the American Kennel Club (AKC) to allow pit bulls to be shown in the conformation ring. To separate the dog from its reputation as a pit fighter, they were given the new title 'Staffordshire Terrier' which was later changed to 'Amercian Staffordshire Terrier' to avoid confusion with the English Staffordshire Terrier. Right: The original 'Pete the Pup' from Our Gang fame was one of the first to be duo-registerd as a UKC American Pit Bull Terrier and an AKC American Stafforshire Terrier.
The American Staffordshire Terriers have been developed since that time for conformation, while the APBTs have been developed for working drive, in addition to conformation. The two styles are basically mirror images of each other, with slight differences in build and character that have started to show over the past 65 years. To make matters even more confusing, some AmStaffs are dual registered as both UKC APBTs and AKC AmStaffs, while APBTs cannot be registered with both organizations. Depending on who you talk to, AmStaffs and APBTs can be the exact same breed, or completely separate breeds.
In 1909, Guy McCord founded an organization titled ADBA (American Dog Breeders Association). This was created exclusively for APBTs and continues to be the lead registry for this breed. In 1976, the ADBA outlined its own breed standard, or, Basis of Conformation. In 1990, a new registry called ABKC was formed to promote 'American Bully' dogs - a new breeding style of thick, bulldoggy looking dogs that are said to have English Bulldog in their background as well as other breeds.
A Lonely Twist In the Road
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 (right), and the reputation of the entire breed was dragged down with yet more sensationalistic 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.
Dogfighting 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 bulls 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. It's 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. Once again, pit bulls reflect back to us who we are: A culture of incredible contrast and conflicting beliefs about our roles and responsibilities as stewards of our canine companions.
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 bulls 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 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.
Link to Sports Illustrated Article. Breed enthusiasts celebrated this historic issue and hailed it as a sign of a welcome change in the landscape.
In loving and committed homes they dazzle us with unmistakable charms. It's not hard to see that the original Hero Dog is still alive and well in the show ring, in the various dog sport competitions, in law enforcement work, in our homes, and even in the saddest of places in our urban shelters.
We'd like to think that BAD RAP's rescued pit bulls accurately reflect that same original spirit of tail wagging resiliency. We hope to inspire others to take a second look at the breed that has so much to say to us about its strengths and qualities as well as who we are as a nation of doglovers. Thank you for stopping by!