For the purpose of this website, we’ve used the generic term ‘pit bull’ to describe our dogs, even though there is no proper definition for pit bull. Recent research including DNA analysis by Dr. Victoria Voith and others has proven that dogs commonly identified as pit bulls are quite often a mix of multiple breeds, so breed identification by appearance alone is now considered to be inaccurate and misleading. 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!
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 the dogs have 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. Slowly, society is starting to recognize these lessons and accept responsibility for their station in life.
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.
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 depended 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 were entrusted in their care. 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.
For the rest of this breed history go to badrap.org