Unfortunately, the American Pit Bull Terrier’s history has a lot to do with fighting. Pit Bull history also begins, not in America, but in the British Isles where, for hundreds of years, people flocked to watch dogs fight bulls, bears, lions, monkeys and other dogs. The crowds couldn’t get enough of those bloody battles. Gambling and liquor sales boosted profits from the events, and the better the dogs were at fighting, the more highly they were prized.
“A Bulldog was just a dog that could effectively fight a bull,” explains Darlene Stuedemann of Clinton, Iowa, national historian for the Bulldog Club of America. She explains that early in his history, the Bulldog wasn’t a breed, but a dog named for the function he performed. “A large percentage of the population followed these sports for more than 600 years,” Stuedemann adds.
During this time, Bulldogs developed a reputation similar to the reputation of the American Pit Bull Terrier today. Many people believed Bulldogs were brutal, fierce, untrainable dogs who wanted nothing but to kill. (Sound familiar?) Others fiercely supported the Bulldog as a loyal and majestic dog breed.
In 1818, the magazine British Field Sports published this comment: “The Bulldog, devoted solely to the most barbarous and infamous purposes, the real blackguard of his species, has no claim upon utility, humanity, or common sense, and the total extinction of the breed is a desirable consummation.” An article from 1825 called “Bulldogs and All About Them” says, “The Bulldog is scarcely capable of any education and is fitted for nothing but combat and ferocity.”
Many Bulldogs at this time weren’t suitable pets. These dogs were fierce, unrestrained fighters, and hard to control. They often had to be kept in cages and muzzled. Yet, just like the American Pit Bull Terrier today, the breed was largely mishandled and misunderstood. In 1859, Stonehenge, a noted dog writer of the time and one of the first to write descriptions of different breeds, wrote of the Bulldog: “His mental qualities may be highly cultivated, and in brute courage and unyielding tenacity of purpose he stands unrivaled amongst quadrupeds. The brutal nature is not natural to him any more than is stupidity or want of affection, as may readily be proved by anyone who will take the trouble to treat him in a proper manner.” The quote could easily be applied to the American Pit Bull Terrier in the 21st century.
But in 1835, things began to change. Largely due to public outcry against animal cruelty, England outlawed bull-baiting, dogfighting and all other blood sports involving dogs. Suddenly, the fierce and formidable dog had nothing to do. Those who didn’t want to see the Bulldog fade into obscurity cast about for other options. What legal, useful, entertaining job could Bulldogs do? Why not cross Bulldogs with terriers and see how they might do at killing rats? Although nobody knows for sure, likely crosses included the now-extinct Old English Terrier and the Black and Tan Terrier (similar to the Manchester Terrier today).
The Bulldog-terrier cross made sense. Terriers added quickness, agility, fire and a high prey drive to the Bulldog’s strength, tenacity and extreme courage. Often called the Bull-and-Terrier or the Half-and-Half, these Bulldog-terrier crosses not only excelled at ratting but also continued to do well in illegal dog fights. In England, these crosses eventually became the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the Bull Terrier and the Miniature Bull Terrier.
Pit Bulls In the United States
Blood sports weren’t just popular in Britain. As early as the late 1700s, Americans were fighting dogs, too. People flocked to bull-baiting, rat-killing and dogfighting events, so people sought out good fighting dogs from the British Isles, and many dogs came to America to help make money for their owners by fighting in the pits. But the Bull-and-Terriers could do much more than fight, and soon found more peaceful and generalized employment in American homes and farms (although many people fought their dogs casually on the weekends, strange as that seems now).
During World War I, the American Pit Bull Terrier appeared on a poster as a symbol of patriotism. Pit Bulls often appeared in Life magazine, and a Pit Bull named Stubby earned two medals during World War I for bravery and heroism. He was given the rank of sergeant.
Sometimes called the Yankee Terrier, the American Bull Terrier, or just “Bulldog,” the APBT was one of the most popular breeds. One of the first registered American Pit Bull Terriers was Petey, the Little Rascals’ mascot of the popular Our Gang movies and television shows. Other Pit Bulls worked on farms as hog-catching dogs, vermin eliminators and livestock guardians. Although not natural guard dogs because of their friendly nature toward humans, the Pit Bull terriers had a natural aptitude for protecting homes and families from dangerous animals, large and small.
As the Pit Bull gained popularity, some people wanted to see the breed more organized. The American Kennel Club wouldn’t recognize the Pit Bull, largely due to the Pit Bull’s reputation as a fighting dog. In 1898, a man named Chauncey Zachariah Bennett founded the United Kennel Club as an alternative to the AKC, because he perceived the AKC to be too focused on dog shows and wealthy hobbyists. Bennett wanted to provide registration services for breeds the AKC wouldn’t recognize, including the Pit Bull, the Toy Fox Terrier and the American Eskimo Dog. Bennett’s own Pit Bull was the first dog registered with the UKC, as an American Pit Bull Terrier.
In 1936, the AKC recognized the American Pit Bull Terrier, too, but only under the condition that the name be changed to Staffordshire Terrier (the name was later changed to American Staffordshire Terrier, to distinguish the breed from the Staffordshire Bull Terrier). This name change eliminated any reference to pit fighting in the name.
“These were the same dogs far back,” says Janie Collins, a UKC-dog show judge. “In the 1960s, the AKC opened the stud book for one year, allowing UKC-registered American Pit Bull Terriers to be registered as American Staffordshire Terriers.” After that point, however, the AKC closed the studbook, and only those dogs currently recognized as American Staffordshire Terriers could produce puppies that could be registered as American Staffordshire Terriers. The UKC, on the other hand, continues to allow AKC-registered American Staffordshire Terriers to register with the UKC as American Pit Bull Terriers.