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AMERICAN PIT BULL TERRIER HISTORY

Pit Bull is a term that describes several types of dogs with similar physical characteristics. The American Pit Bull Terrier, the AM STAFF and to a lesser extent, the Stafforshire bull terrier commonly fall under the category of “pit bull.” There are several physically similar breeds that are mistakenly termed “pit bull”, including the family of dog breeds.

American Pit Bull Terrier

American Pit Bull Terrier

Much of dog history is speculation, and quite akin to the piecing together of puzzles. Because of this, opinions vary about exact details of breed origin. We are fortunate in that the , and its chief ancestor the bulldog, have a fairly well-documented history. Even so, debate occurs when trying to establish something as simple as whether or not the Pit Bull is the original bulldog, or whether it is, as popular short-histories insist, a 50/50 cross between the brachycephalic bulldog of England (the ancestor of the modern day AKC Bulldog) and now-extinct hunting terriers. Part of the reason for the confusion lies in the fact that until very recently, many dogs were classified and named according to general appearance and job function, not so much by “breed”. Historically, the words “terrier” and “bulldog” were used quite frequently, but had ambiguous meanings. This makes it especially difficult to trace the Pit Bull’s exact ancestry. Bulldogs and terriers are mentioned in the breed’s history, but WHICH bulldogs and terriers should we be considering?

Presented here is a well-researched document on the history of the breed, along with bibliography to enable easy research for the interested reader. The reader is encouraged to further study the history of this most fascinating breed, for in its history lies the essence of the animal–an understanding of its history will give one an understanding of the breed.

As far back as one cares to go in recorded history, one will find reference in both word and art of molossoid dogs that were used for fighting, hunting, and war. There were different “types” of molossi, spread about the world, used for similar functions and these dogs evolved into our modern day mastiff and bulldog breeds. It is unknown if these types sprang up individually, or from one main ancestor. Some believe that this type of dog originally came from an area close to China.

British Chief Caractacus was defeated by Emperor Claudius of the Roman Empire in 50 AD. The Romans were so impressed by the fierce fighting dogs they met when they landed in Britain that they began importing the dogs back to Rome for use in the great arena, along with the animals they already possessed for such uses. It seems reasonable to assume that the British dogs were at some points crossed into the Roman dogs. Ancestors of these dogs were exported to all parts of the continent, including France and to Spain where they became renowned fighting dogs. Later some of these dogs found their way back to Britain. A variety of breeds of mastiff/bulldog type were scattered about, and most likely contributed to the creation of the bulldog that was to be one of the main ingredients used in the development of the Pit Bull.

Circa 1406 Edmond de Langley, Duke of York, wrote a treatise entitled “The Mayster of the Game and of Hawks” in which he described the “Alaunt” or “Allen” dog (a descendant of the ancient molossoid dogs), which was the popular baiting dog of the time because of its tenaciousness and strength. In a 1585 painting, dogs described as Alaunts that look very similar to modern day Pit Bulls, only of a larger size, are shown hunting wild hogs.

The name “bulldog” was first mentioned in print in 1631. Later, dogs described as bulldogs were used to bait bull and bear. These bulldogs are most assuredly the descendants of the Alaunt. A letter written in Spain in 1632 by an Englishman named Prestwich Eaton to his friend George Wellingham who was in London, asked for a “good mastiff dog and two bulldogs.” This gives indication that a split had occurred and the bulldog had already formed into a distinct type by this time.

By viewing art, we can see two distinct types of bulldog-like dogs. Some are more low-slung, with undershot jaws, heavier-boned, and broader. It is to be assumed that this is the prototype from which the modern-day AKC English Bulldog was drawn upon, having been created by the crossing of the Alaunt with a Chinese brachycephalic breed Pai Dog. However, also to be noted are bulldogs in art that are strikingly similar to modern day Pit Bulls, with less-exaggerated features, normal bites, and longer legs. Might these be the main ancestors of the current day Pit Bull? It would seem likely. It must be noted that “bulldogs” at this time were not dogs of any particular strain or breed, but rather a type of dog with certain traits that was used for certain things. Dogs which possessed more Pit Bull-like features went on to become the Pit Bull breed, while the more “bulldoggy” bulldogs were used in creation of the brachycephalic breeds (English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, etc).

Bulldogs were used for all manner of work, including baiting, fighting, stock work, hunting, and farm dog. They were an agreeable animal, capable of extreme ferociousness but unwavering loyalty and gentleness towards humans. They were an animal-aggressive breed, but were routinely used in pairs to bait animals and hunt, so overt aggression towards others of their same species was not an extreme trait.

In 1835, a law was set in motion that would make the sport of baiting illegal, and over the next few years, the activity eventually died down upon enforcement of the law. The people turned to another blood sport–that of dog fighting, and of course people looked to the bulldog as the likely choice for use in the fights. Selective breeding produced a bulldog with heightened dog-aggression, smaller size, and greater agility for performance in a pit that was decidedly smaller than the large areas that baits were typically held in. Hardy, scrappy sporting terriers were crossed into some of the fighting bulldogs to further enhance these traits. The crosses were called bull-and-terriers, half-and-halfs, and pit terriers. It is considered general knowledge that these crosses were the first Pit Bulls, however there is some speculation as to whether or not the history of these crosses is that of our Pit Bulls, or rather a history “borrowed” from the Bull Terrier, which is a documented bulldog/terrier fighting dog cross. Some students of Pit Bull history believe that the Pit Bull is practically a living replica of the old-time bulldog, and that during this time the bulldog was refined as a fighting dog ‘as is’, without any crossbreeding. The question presented is this: why would the devotees of the already extremely game bulldog dilute the blood of the perfect fighting dog with non-game terriers? The typical argument is that the terrier blood increased agility and decreased size. However, the jobs the bulldog was typically required to perform would have demanded agility and the ability to avoid the antics of an enraged bull. As already pointed out, bulldogs came in a variety of sizes and shapes, so breeding down the size to be more compatible with the pit would not have been a difficult task, even without looking outside the gene pool. Examining works of art from all points in history, one will discover dogs that look remarkably similar to today’s Pit Bull. It is the opinion of the author, however, that, while the APBT is probably made up mostly of old bulldog blood, at least some terrier blood *was* indeed introduced, if only by virtue of the fact that quite a bit of cross-breeding went on among the gamedog fanciers of the time who were not so much interested in purebred dogs as they were in dogs with fighting ability, and would therefore breed accordingly to dogs that were game, regardless of pedigree.

The breed known as the American Pit Bull Terrier was selectively bred specifically with the idea of it becoming the ultimate canine gladiator. But by virtue of the fact that so much of the breed was made up of versatile bulldog blood, the breed also proved adept at a number of non-fighting activities, including those which the bulldog had been used for. Also, the traits (specifically gameness) bred for in pit dogs were surprisingly relevent in other arenas. Gameness is defined as the willingness to see a task through to its end, even under penalty of serious injury or death. Gameness was the trait most cherished in a fighting dog for obvious reasons, however this same trait proved useful in other areas–a dog who had the tenacity to hold a wild bull or boar, steadfastness to protect his master’s home and property, and extreme tolerance for pain which made for a very stable dog less likely to bite out of fear or pain was terribly useful in rural old England. So while a core group of fanciers focused on the fighting uses of the breed, and bred with the pit in mind, still others kept dogs for bulldoggy tasks.

Pit Bulls were imported to America shortly before the Civil War, and used in much the same manner as they were back in England. But in the USA the breed solidified and was named–the American Pit Bull Terrier. Strains of the fighting dog that remained in England later came to be known as Staffordshire Bull Terriers. There is speculation as to how closely related the Stafford and Pit Bull are as a breed, but the most convincing case is made up of claims that they are a similar breed, developed during the same time, made up of similar but seperate strains of bulldog and terrier blood. Cousins, but not brothers. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier became recognized as a breed by the English dog registry, the Kennel Club, in 1935.

In America, the Pit Bull flourished. It was one of the most popular breeds, highly prized by a wide variety of people. The Pit Bull was used to represent the US in WW1 artwork; popular companies like RCA and the Buster Brown Shoe Company used the breed as their mascots. A Pit Bull named Petie starred in the popular children’s television series, Our Gang; a Pit Bull mix named Stubby became a decorated WW1 hero. Pit Bulls accompanied pioneer familes on their explorations. Laura Ingalls Wilder of the popular Little House books owned a working Pit Bulldog named Jack. Famous individuals like Theodore Roosevelt and Helen Keller owned the breed. It was during this time that the Pit Bull truly became America’s sweetheart breed, admired, respected and loved. Whether or not modern breeders want to acknowledge it, the American pit bull terrier’s heritage is deeply rooted in the sport of dog fighting. As objectionable and barbaric as their history may be, to reject this historical truth, is to fail to understand the source of many of the qualities that have helped the breed flourish. To understand the positive things about the modern dogs, one must understand the negative things that led to their origination.

The Bulldog

The bulldog part of the APBT was not the bulldog of today.The bulldog of several centuries ago was an agile, muscular dog of medium size, quite capable of participating in the bull-baiting and bear-baiting events of the time. Bulldogs were admired for their tenacity, gameness and their tolerance of pain—all good attributes for dogs battling foes many times their size.

The Terrier

Terriers had long been used for hunting and then attacking many types of animals. Fox terriers accompanied foxhound packs to enter dens and kill or drive out the inhabitants.Terriers were also used against badgers, otters, and other creatures.

The Bull and Terrier

The bulldog, so ideally suited for bedeviling bulls and bears, was a bit too slow and too methodical for the dog fighters. More speed and flair were needed to bring gambling spectators to the fights. Hunting terriers of the time not only possessed an inbred desire to fight other animals, but they had grit and courage of their won to bring to the mixture. The crossing of the tenacious bulldog and the aggressive terrier became more and more commonplace as the demand for dogs to fight dogs increased.

A huge majority of APBT are no longer involved in the sport they were originally bred for. Perhaps the most ironic truth of all is that there are thousands upon thousands of normal, well-adjusted, non-dog-fighting people and families who wouldn’t own any dog other than an American pit bull terrier. I can say, from first-hand experiences, that I have never owned such a loyal and versatile animal. And I could never see myself with another breed.

References:

American Pit Bull Terriers and Staffordshire Terriers by Joe Stahlkuppe

You will see the term APBT used, it stands for American Pit Bull Terrier.

Among enthusiasts, the history of the APBT is as controversial as the breed itself is among the misled public. The breed’s history is a recurrent subject of lively debate in the magazines devoted to the breed. In fact, this FAQ was hotly debated among the contributors before it reached its final form, and still everyone isn’t 100% happy!

Although the precise origin of the APBT is not known, we can reliably trace its roots back at least one hundred and fifty years or so [1] to England. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries the sport of bull-baiting was very much alive and dogs were bred to excel in this endeavor. The same type of dog was also used by hunters to catch game and by butchers and farmers to bring down unruly cattle. These dogs were called “bulldogs.” Historically, the word “Bulldog” did not mean a specific breed of dog per se, but rather it was applied to descendants of the ancient Mastiff- type dogs that excelled in the task of bull-baiting. The “bulldogs” of yore were much different from, and should not be confused with, the loveable clowns of the show ring today. The old, performance-bred, working bulldog was closer in phenotype and spirit to the APBT and/or the modern American Bulldog. The use of the word “bulldog” applied to APBT’s persists even today among APBT fanciers.

When bull-baiting was outlawed in England in 1835 the sport of matching two dogs against one another in combat rose in popularity to fill the void. One point of contention about the history of the APBT is whether these pit fighting dogs were essentially a new breed of dog specially created for this popular pastime. Some authors, notably Richard Stratton, have theorized that the APBT is essentially the same breed as the Renaissiance bull-baiting dogs, largely unmixed with any other kind of dog, specifically terriers. These authors consider the present name, American Pit Bull Terrier, a double misnomer, since, in their view, the breed is not of American origin and is not a terrier. 

They explain the popular attribution of the breed’s origin to a cross between bull-baiters and terriers as a retrospective confusion with the breeding history of the English Bull Terrier, which is a totally distinct breed that was never successful at pit fighting but whose origin is well-documented. Other authors who have researched the topic, such as Dr. Carl Semencic, argue that the APBT is indeed the product of a cross between bull-baiting dogs and terriers and that the breed simply did not exist in its current form during the Renaissance. They would argue that when we think of the terriers in the APBT’s ancestry, we should not envision modern-day show dogs like Yorkshire Terriers, but instead working terriers (probably now extinct) that were bred for great tenacity in hunting. The problem of proof, which hangs over the discussion of any early breed history, is compounded in this case by the extreme secrecy of the breeders of pit dogs. In the 19th century pedigrees, if committed to paper at all, were not divulged, since every breeder feared letting his rivals in on the secrets of his success and replicating it. In any case, by no later than the mid-19th century, the breed had acquired all of the essential characteristics for which it is still prized today: its awesome athletic abilities, its peerless gameness, and its easy-going temperament.

The immediate ancestors of the APBT were Irish and English pit fighting dogs imported to the States in the mid-19th century. Once in the United States, the breed diverged slightly from what was being produced back in England and Ireland. In America, where these dogs were used not only as pit fighters, but also as catch dogs (i.e., for forcibly retrieving stray hogs and cattle) and as guardians of family, the breeders started producing a slightly larger, leggier dog. However, this gain in size and weight was small until very recently. The Old Family Dogs in 19th century Ireland were rarely above 25 lbs., and 15-lb. dogs were not uncommon. In American books on the breed from the early part of this century, it is rare to find a specimen over 50 lbs. (with a few notable exceptions). From 1900 to 1975 or so, there was probably a very small and gradual increment in the average weight of APBTs over the years, without any corresponding loss in performance abilities. But now that the vast majority of APBTs are no longer performance-bred to the traditional pit standard (understandably, since the traditional performance test, the pit contest itself, is now a felony), the American axiom of “Bigger is Better” has taken over in the breeding practices of the many neophyte breeders who joined the bandwagon of the dog’s popularity in the 1980s. This has resulted in a ballooning of the average size of APBTs in the last 15 years–a harmful phenomenon for the breed, in our opinion. Another, less visible modification of the breed since the 19th century was the selective intensification of genetically programmed fighting styles (such as front-end specialists, stifle specialists, etc.), as performance breeding became more sophisticated under competitive pressures. In spite of these changes, there has been a remarkable continuity in the breed for more than a century. Photos from a century ago show dogs indistinguishable from the dogs being bred today. Although, as in any performance breed, you will find a certain lateral (synchronic) variability in phenotype across different lines, you will nevertheless find uncanny chronological continuity in these types across decades. There are photos of pit dogs from the 1860s that are phenotypically (and, to judge by contemporary descriptions of pit matches, constitutionally) identical to the APBTs of today.

Throughout the 19th century, these dogs were known by a variety of names. “Pit Terriers”, “Pit Bull Terriers”, “Half and Half’s”, “Staffordshire Fighting Dogs”, “Old Family Dogs”( the Irish name), “Yankee Terriers” (the Northern name), and “Rebel Terriers” (the Southern name) to name a few. In 1898, a man by the name of Chauncy Bennet formed the United Kennel Club (UKC) for the sole purpose of registering “Pit Bull Terriers” as the American Kennel Club wanted nothing to do with them. Originally, he added the word “American” to the name and dropped “Pit”. This didn’t please all of the people so later the word “Pit” was added back to the name in parentheses as a compromise. The parentheses were then removed from the name about 15 years ago. All other breeds that are registered with UKC were accepted into the UKC after the APBT. Another registry of APBTs is the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA) which was started in September, 1909 by Guy McCord, a close friend of John P. Colby. Now under the stewardship of the Greenwood family, the ADBA continues to register only APBTs and is more in tune with the APBT as a breed than the UKC. The ADBA does sponsor conformations shows, but more importantly, it sponsors weight pulling competitions which test a dogs strength, stamina, and heart. It also publishes a quarterly magazine dedicated to the APBT called the American Pit Bull Terrier Gazette (see the “References” section). The authors feel that the ADBA is now the flagship registry of APBT as it is doing more to preserve the original characteristics of the breed.

In 1936, thanks to “Pete the Pup” in the “Lil Rascals” and “Our Gang” who familiarized a wider audience with the APBT, the AKC jumped on the bandwagon and registered the breed as the “Staffordshire Terrier”. This name was changed to “American Staffordshire Terrier” (AST) in 1972 to distinguish it from its smaller, “froggier”, English cousin the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. In 1936, for all intents and purposes, the AKC, UKC, and ADBA version of the “Pit Bull” were identical since the original AKC stock came from pit fighting dogs, which were UKC and ADBA registered. During this time period, and the years that preceded it, the APBT was a well-liked dog in America. At this time the APBT was considered an ideal family pet. Because of his fun-loving, forgiving temperament, the breed was rightly considered an excellent dog for families with small children. Even if most of them couldn’t identify the breed by name, kids of the Lil Rascals generation wanted a companion just like “Pete the Pup”. During the First World War, there was an American propaganda poster that represented the rival European nations with their national dogs dressed in military uniforms; and in the center representing the United States was an APBT declaring in a caption below: “I’m neutral, but not afraid of any of them.”

Since 1936, due to different breeding goals, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier have diverged in both phenotype and spirit/temperament, although both, ideally, continue to have in common an easy-going, friendly disposition. [2] Some folks in the fancy feel that after 60 years of breeding for different goals, these two dogs are now entirely different breeds. Other people choose to view them as two different strains of the same breed (working and show). Either way, the gap continues to widen as breeders from both sides of the fence consider it undesirable to interbreed the two. To the untrained eye, ASTs may look more impressive and fearsome, with a larger and more blocky head, with bulging jaw muscles, a wider chest and thicker neck. In general, however, they aren’t nearly as “game” or athletic as game-bred APBTs. Because of the standardization of their conformation for show purposes, ASTs tend to look alike, to a much greater degree than APBTs do. APBTs have a much wider phenotypical range, since the primary breeding goal, until fairly recently, has been not to produce a dog with a certain “look” but to produce one capable of winning pit contests, in which the looks of a dog counted for nothing. There are some game-bred APBTs that are practically indistinguishable from typical ASTs, but in general they are leaner, leggier, and lighter on their toes and have more stamina, agility, speed, and explosive power. 

Following the second World War, until the early 1980s, the APBT lapsed into relative obscurity. But those devoted few who knew the breed knew it in intimate detail. These devotees typically knew much more about their dogs’ ancestry than about their own–they were often able to recite pedigrees back six or eight generations. When APBTs became popular with the public around 1980, nefarious individuals with little or no knowledge of the breed started to own and breed them and predictably, problems started to crop up. Many of these newcomers did not adhere to the traditional breeding goals of the old-time APBT breeders. In typical backyard fashion they began randomly breeding dogs in order to mass produce puppies as profitable commodities. Worse, some unscrupulous neophytes started selecting dogs for exactly the opposite criteria that had prevailed up to then: they began selectively breeding dogs for the trait of human aggressiveness. Before long, individuals who shouldn’t have been allowed near a gold fish were owning and producing poorly bred, human-aggressive “Pit Bulls” for a mass market. This, coupled with the media’s propensity for over-simplification and sensationalization, gave rise to the anti-”Pit Bull” hysteria that continues to this day. It should go without saying that, especially with this breed, you should avoid backyard breeders. Find a breeder with a national reputation; investigate, for example, the breeders who advertise in the breed’s flagship magazine, The American Pit Bull Terrier Gazette. In spite of the introduction of some bad breeding practices in the last 15 years or so, the vast majority of APBTs remain very human-friendly. The American Canine Temperament Testing Association, which sponsors tests for temperament titles for dogs, reported that 95% of all APBTs that take the test pass, compared with a 77% passing rate for all breeds on average. The APBT’s passing rate was the fourth highest of all the breeds tested. More History of Pitbulls or APBT’s can be found at www.kinnemankennels.com/HISTORY_OF_PITBULLS_APBT.html

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