Pit Bulls For Dummies
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Perhaps no other dog breed has endured as many public misconceptions as has the Pit Bull. These misconceptions truly run the gamut: Although some people consider Pit Bulls to be the safest and gentlest companions, others regard them as evil enough to be Satan’s understudies. Neither viewpoint is correct, but both have some basis in fact — and in the breed’s controversial roots.

The creation of canine gladiators

Dogs and humans around the world have long shared a special relationship — a relationship originally based on function. Early dogs who proved least useful — or who were too wild, skittish, or dumb — probably ended up in the cave man’s pot, but the most helpful dogs (who were good at sounding alarms at intruders or at chasing down game) lived to produce others like them. Eventually, breed forerunners were created by breeding the best guards to the best guards and the best hunters to the best hunters. Of these, some strains proved to be especially brave and tough — valuable traits in a rough world.

Of course, these strains weren’t really breeds. Few cave men had American Kennel Club (AKC) or United Kennel Club papers for their dogs, so pure breeding wasn’t terribly important to them. Still, with time the strains of dogs became more and more specialized. By classical Greek times, large fierce dogs called Molossians were so valued that Phoenician traders used them as bartering items. Because of this practice, the Molossian type was distributed along Phoenician shipping routes, some of which included stops in ancient Britain. The Molossians who ended up in Britain became further specialized and gave rise to the Mastiff family of dogs.

In Britain, Mastiffs were perfected as war dogs. When the Romans invaded Britain, they were so impressed by the Mastiff’s warring ability that they brought some back to Rome. Romans valued entertainment, and the courageous dogs became infamous as gladiators who fought humans, bears, lions, bulls, and even each other in Rome’s great Coliseum.

Rome was not, however, the only civilization to revel in blood sports. The British, too, placed high value on contests that featured animals fighting to the death. The spectacle of a dog killing a bull was the highest entertainment that most small villages could offer its poor inhabitants. But this kind of entertainment spanned all classes: By the 16th century, bull-, bear-, and even horse-baiting provided the finale for a royal evening of entertainment. In the 17th century, the King even appointed a Master of the King’s Games of Bears, Bulls, and Dogs.

The dogs’ owners won prizes for their animals’ spectacular performances, and the progeny of famous or particularly game dogs (meaning those dogs who refuse to quit the task at hand despite overwhelming adversity) were sought after and capable of bringing high prices. As distasteful as it sounds, these dogs produced the never-say-die stock from which today’s Pit Bull claims her heritage.

An end to legal blood sports in England finally came about in 1835, but that only pushed the fans and gamblers to conduct covert matches. Staging a clandestine bull-baiting would have been difficult, but scheduling a dogfight in a barn, cellar, or back room without being discovered was quite simple.

Dog fighting favored a slightly smaller, more agile gladiator than the dogs who were adept at baiting larger animals. Most historians believe that the stocky bull-baiting dogs were crossed with the swift and agile terriers of the time to produce the aptly named Bull and Terrier, a relatively small, smart, agile, tough, and strong game dog the likes of which had never been seen before. Other breed historians contend that no such cross was made and point out that the Bulldog of the time, the Bullenbeisser, was, in fact, so similar to the modern Pit Bull that it was simply a matter of selecting the most successful fighters. Whatever the recipe, it worked.

As the Bulldogs or Bull and Terriers became known less for their bull-baiting skills and more for their fighting skills in the pits, they came to be known as Pit Bulldogs, or more simply, Pit Bulls.

The breed known today as the Bulldog or English Bulldog is not the same as the Bulldog of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The earlier Bulldog strain is the ancestor of both the modern Pit Bull breeds and the modern Bulldog, but it was more similar to today’s Pit Bull than to today’s Bulldog. Many people still incorrectly refer to Pit Bulls as “Bulldogs,” though.

When English immigrants came to America, they brought with them their sport and their dogs. By the mid-1800s, dog fighting had a solid following in America. With the migration west, Bulldogs once again found themselves called upon to do the toughest jobs. They served as all-purpose farm and guard dogs, protecting families and stock from fierce wildlife, rampaging cattle, and marauding vermin. Many also served as hunting dogs, holding their own against bears, wolves, and on occasion, buffalo. Once again, the Bulldog underwent a metamorphosis — this time into a larger dog that could best serve these vital functions.

This variety of purpose is directly responsible for the great range in size of today’s Pit Bulls. An example of one possible size is shown here.

Pit Bulls have rough history Pit Bulls, because of their toughness, have been asked throughout history to do the tough jobs.

Dog shows

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, purebred dog mania was sweeping Europe and America. Anything that looked like a pure breed — and could be paraded around a show ring — was fair game. The fighting dogs (now dubbed Pit Bulls) seemed unlikely show dogs, however, for they lacked the desired association with the upper echelons of society (any association the upper class would admit to, that is).

The American Kennel Club (AKC) was formed in 1884 to promote the interests of purebred dogs. It did so by maintaining a pedigree registry and by sponsoring performance and conformation competitions. Performance competitions were designed to test dogs at the function for which they were bred; for example, pointing breeds competed at pointing field trials. Conformation competitions were designed to compare dogs to the breed’s standard of excellence, which in turn was written to describe a dog who was built to perform the job for which he was bred.

That the AKC was interested in promoting both the performance and the conformation of breeds was a problem because the job that the Pit Bull had been bred to perform was illegal. The AKC refused to endorse any aspect of dog fighting. And the old-time Pit Bull fighting men weren’t too interested in exchanging the excitement of the dog pit for a trot around the show ring.

Thus, an alternative registration body, called the United Kennel Club (UKC), was formed in 1898 to register Pit Bulls (and later, other breeds). The UKC, founded by Pit Bull owner Chauncey Bennett, emphasized function and included dog fighting as a legitimate function of Pit Bulls. To this day, the UKC remains a strong registry for many breeds — especially its banner breed, the American Pit Bull Terrier — but it no longer endorses dog fighting in any manner.

The UKC fancied up the breed’s name by calling it the American (Pit) Bull Terrier, later changing the name to the now accepted American Pit Bull Terrier. Because the breed’s roots are mostly European, and the Pit Bull may or may not have terrier influences, the name is somewhat of a misnomer.

The first American (Pit) Bull Terrier to be registered with the UKC was Bennett’s Ring, owned by UKC founder Chauncey Bennett.

In 1909, Pit Bull proponents organized yet another registry, the American Dog Breeder’s Association (ADBA). The ADBA registers only one breed: the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT). The ADBA was traditionally the registry of fighting Pit Bulls. Although it no longer endorses dog fighting, it maintains that reputation. The ADBA instead now sponsors conformation shows and popular weight pulling contests.

Until the 1970s, neither the UKC nor the ADBA sponsored conformation shows. Yet, some Pit Bull fans wanted to try their dogs in the show ring. In 1936, Pit Bull fans who wanted to try their dogs in the show ring sacrificed the breed’s name (which was unacceptable to the AKC because of its fighting connotation) and replaced it with another name: the Staffordshire Terrier. The AKC welcomed Staffordshire Terriers into its registry and show rings. This turn of events set up an unusual situation in the world of dogs. The same dog can be registered as an American Pit Bull Terrier with the UKC and the ADBA, and as an American Staffordshire Terrier (the American was added in 1972 to distinguish the breed from the Staffordshire Bull Terrier) with the AKC. Over the years, Pit Bull fanciers have tended to stick with one registry (and breed name) over the other.

Today, the APBT and the American Staffordshire Terrier (or AmStaff) have diverged somewhat. AmStaffs tend to be larger and more muscular than APBTs. ABPTs have a greater range in looks because APBT breeders traditionally breed for function in the fighting pit rather than for looks in the show ring. Although there is considerable overlap, in general, AmStaffs look tougher, but APBTs are tougher.

Becoming America’s sweetheart

In the early 20th century, Pit Bulls moved graciously from fame as pit fighters to fame as national symbols. The Pit Bull’s reputation for courage and tenacity, combined with his good nature, made him a natural as the dog synonymous with the United States during World War I. A popular war poster of the period aptly captures the true Pit Bull outlook by showing a picture of a Pit Bull wearing an American flag bandana above the phrase “I’m neutral, but not afraid of any of them.” Another poster featured a Pit Bull named Tige, who was the companion of the then-popular cartoon character Buster Brown. (Buster Brown and Tige also represented Buster Brown shoes in advertisements.)

In fact, a possible Pit Bull (or Pit Bull mix or Boston Terrier mix — nobody knows for sure) named Stubby emerged from World War I as a national hero. Stubby was the unofficial mascot of the 102nd infantry, and when it came time to go overseas, the men smuggled him on board. Despite no training or experience in battle conditions, Stubby braved intense shelling to comfort wounded soldiers lying in the crossfire. He eventually served for 18 months and participated in 17 battles. Stubby repeatedly warned his regiment of incoming mortar shells and mustard gas attacks, and once he even prevented a spy from escaping. When Stubby was wounded, he played the role of therapy dog, cheering hospitalized soldiers. Even while recuperating in Paris, he was credited with saving a child from being run over.

Stubby was decorated by General Pershing, awarded the rank of honorary sergeant, and received by three presidents. He led more parades than any dog in history. Upon Stubby’s death in 1926, his hide was mounted over a plaster form of his body, with an urn containing his ashes inside. He was displayed wearing a medal-covered coat, first at the Red Cross Museum and then at the Smithsonian Institute. Until recently, Stubby was largely forgotten, packed away in a crate in a back room of the Smithsonian. But in 2018, an animated movie about him renewed interest and Stubby is back on exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The next Pit Bull to capture America’s heart was Petey of The Little Rascals and Our Gang movie fame. Actually, Petey had already starred in several Buster Brown movies (as Tige) before becoming one of the most popular Rascals of all time. When the original Petey died, he was replaced with another Petey, an American Staffordshire Terrier registered as Lucenay’s Peter. Whatever his role, Pete the Pup exemplified the Pit Bull in his role as a roguish buddy, furthering the breed’s appeal.

Popular with families and welcomed throughout neighborhoods, the Pit Bull basked in his reputation as a fun-loving and patient member of the family.

This is not to say that things were always rosy, however. As far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s, breed bans were put in place against “bulldogs,” as they were called in several cities, including Washington, D.C. Although people tend to think of Pit Bull attacks as a more recent trend, around the turn of the twentieth century, they had already been in the news for killing people, with many reporters calling for their banishment.

Overcoming pride and prejudice

Dog breeds often wax and wane in popularity, and so it has been with the Pit Bull. After World War II, the Pit Bull gradually faded from the public eye and the family home. True devotees, however, remained as loyal to their dogs as their dogs were to them. Some of the breed remained as steadfast pets, others continued as game pit dogs — and many performed both roles admirably.

Dog fighting, although illegal, continued to be carried out with minimal interference from law enforcement until the 1970s, when the American Dog Owner’s Association (ADOA) formed to lobby against dogfights. The ADOA was successful in bringing public attention to the pit — helping to push dog fighting into the shadows and propelling pit dogs into an unflattering limelight.

As with many well-intentioned laws, some unforeseen problems accompanied the crackdown on dog fighting. Dog fighting continued; it just went underground. Its illegal nature attracted patrons whose major area of knowledge was in pay-offs and threats, not Pit Bulls. Knowledgeable dogmen (the term for serious breeders of fighting Pit Bulls) could no longer distribute information about training methods, leaving newcomers to dog fighting — who often believed scare tactic propaganda — to experiment using cruel practices. They trained the dogs using stolen puppies and dogs as “bait dogs” in an attempt to encourage them to kill, fed them gunpowder in an attempt to make them mean, and hired strangers to beat the dogs with clubs in an attempt to make them aggressive to strangers. Not surprisingly, their dogs seldom succeeded at matches, and they were often discarded. The harm done to these dogs made them difficult to place as pets, and the harm done to the breed’s reputation was immeasurable.

A certain segment of the population has always wanted to have the toughest dog on the block. Various breeds have filled these shoes throughout the years, and beginning in the early 1980s the Pit Bull was on its way to becoming the “tough guy” poster dog.

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