Pit bull owners recognize how much ignorance surrounds their dog’s breed. “Pibble” lovers are well acquainted with the myths about their beloved pets – which don’t really have locking jaws, terrible temperaments, or some mystical killer instinct that drives them to blood frenzies.
They know that most people cannot accurately distinguish between an American Pit Bull Terrier, a Cane Corso, and an English Bulldog (or any of the twenty-three additional dogs with similarly strong chests, stocky legs, and short snouts!)
The confusion isn’t surprising. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the very definition of a pit bull is challenging. The ASPCA reports that as many as five distinct breeds may be classified as pit bulls, but adds, “Some people include (other breeds that) share similar head shapes and body types. However, they are distinct from the APBT and the AmStaff.” (APBT stands for American Pit Bull Terrier and AmStaff refers to the American Staffordshire Terrier.)
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Pit bull history is confusing and a bit murky, partly because some breed names originated because of their function while others emerged due to their lineage. It’s likely that pit bulls’ earliest ancestors were found in Greece, among the Molossian tribe. Canus molossi gave rise to the mastiffs. Both were bred for warrior-like qualities of strength and tenacity. Britons adopted this practice for war. Around 50 A.D., Romans defeated the Britons and embraced the idea of using dogs for fighting –for entertainment. Mastiffs are believed to have faced lions in Roman arenas and coliseums.
For over 1,000 years, the Molossi and mastiff strains were bred for grisly sports. One of them stemmed from a legitimate purpose: driving bulls to slaughter. British butchers employed the dogs to keep the large animals in line. “Bull dogs” would grasp an unruly bull’s nose and hang on, even force it to the ground, until the human regained control of the difficult, dangerous bull.
Watching a small pup subdue an angry animal that outweighed it by a couple thousand pounds was a spectacle, and people flocked to watch the cattle being driven to the slaughterhouse. Soon, bull baiting was born. Audiences cheered as dogs were set against bulls and other large animals to test their gameness and fighting abilities, and under the guise of tenderizing the meat that would find its way to market.
Breeders sought to maximize a dog’s ferocity and looked for ways to introduce quickness: Terriers were a natural choice for such crossbreeding.
Canines used for bull baiting and other blood games were typically not companion animals. They were too vicious and dangerous to let them roam freely. They did not fit into a family structure well. However, not every dog in a litter was suited for fighting. Some became family pets.
By the 1700s, bulldog breeds found their way to America from England, Ireland, and Spain with immigrant owners. Some were put to work fighting in pits to earn money, while others were used as work dogs on farms to drive livestock or provide protection.
The Original American Pit Bull Terrier
England outlawed blood sports in 1835, but dog fights and “ratting,” a sport where dogs were besieged by rats released in a pit and won by killing the most rats, remained popular in the U.S. Breeders sought to make their pit bulldogs bigger, but also more companionable as Americans sought them to be hunting dogs and companions, resulting in what we now call the APBTs and AmStaffs.
The United Kennel Club (UKC) was created in 1898 because the American Kennel Club refused to recognize pit bulls as a breed. The American Pit Bull Terrier was its first listed breed. The AKC later agreed to recognize the Staffordshire Terriers in 1937, basing its name on its region of origin rather than the function for which it was originally bred (later the AKC renamed the breed American Staffordshire Terrier.) The APBT and AmStaff were believed by many to be the same breed, though it’s now known they come from different bloodlines.
Despite recent legislation restricting bully breeds, pit bulls have enjoyed popularity as loyalty, strength, and durability throughout American history. It’s the only breed that has been featured on the cover of Life three times. It has stood the test of time in many roles in popular media:
- As a companion dog on the long-running television show The Little Rascals
- As the curious and loyal canine listening to his master’s voice in RCA-Victor logo
- As a patriotic symbol on U.S. war posters during World War I
- As a caretaker in the long-running Buster Brown shoe advertisements
Americans have long admired happy, healthy pibbles, and their owners know that there is good reason to. Despite the breed’s torturous history, pits embody the characteristics we’d all like for ourselves.
An original article by: By Kathy Batesel. Copyright Bully Max Dog Supplements llc 2013