The Controversial Dog: History of Pit Bulls

Handsome man with loving and beautiful dog paw tattoo on man's arm pit bull

Pit bulls may conjure up a variety of images. These may be images of love and compassion or of fear and aggression. These dogs have a far-reaching past that stretches across the Atlantic Ocean. Dogs commonly referred to as pit bulls are characteristically playful, friendly, athletic and have a strong desire to please people. Although, pictures in the media often suggest otherwise. Despite this, pit bull advocates and pawrents alike fiercely defend these loving dogs.

Pit Bull Puppy
The Pit Bull Terrier

While their origin is not entirely known, the dogs commonly referred to as pit bulls have a long history that extends as far back as the 11th century in the United Kingdom. Initially bred from Old English Bulldogs, pit bulls were used for cruel entertainment in bull baiting. The object of the blood sport required dogs to exhaust and injure the bull until it became immobilized.

By 1835, the British Parliament authorized the Cruelty to Animals Act and this restricted using certain animals for baiting, including bulls and bears. The public, now denied their previous entertainment, turned to “ratting,” which consisted of pitting dogs against rats. The dogs and rats were commonly placed in pits to ensure the rats could not escape. This is where the term “pit” in “pit bull” originated.

Because participants were less likely to be apprehended by the law, ratting and dog fighting became a popular sport. During this time, ratting and dog fighting both required more agile dogs, and so bulldogs were crossbred with terriers to create the first “Pit Bull Terrier.” Despite breeding the dogs to have a high prey drive, breeders were strict to instill bite-inhibition in order to maintain control of their dogs without the fear of being bitten themselves.

The American Pit Bull Terrier

Prior to the Civil War, immigrants from Britain arrived to America bringing with them their Pit Bull Terriers. The breed was suddenly viewed as loyal companions and hard workers. Their purposes ranged from herding and guarding livestock, protecting their families, and providing aid in hunting trips. In 1898, the United Kennel Club recognized the dogs officially as “American Pit Terriers” in an attempt to create breed specific standards and recognize the breed for their popular reputation. They were working dogs, but also became loyal members of the family and were a playmate to the children, earning the nickname “Nanny Dog.”

During the early 20th century, the American Pit Bull was a respected figure in society. The dogs were viewed as “The All-American Dog” due to having admirable traits such as obedience, courage, and tenacity. Pit bulls were used as America’s mascot during the First and Second World Wars. Following WWII, pit bulls did not receive any particular attention and were primarily used as companions, or for hunting or herding.

Black and White Pit Bull
Dog Fighting

The Animal Welfare Act of 1976 made dog fighting illegal in America. Despite this, dog fighting began to gain momentum in the 1980s. Animal advocates focused on ending this greedy and inhumane sport, although, pit bulls “were viewed as money-making commodities instead of family members and companions” and still found themselves vulnerable at the hands of criminals.

In 1987, Time Magazine featured a cover story titled, “The Pit Bull Friend and Killer.” Later, a Sports Illustrated issue portrayed a Pit Bull Terrier and declared, “Beware of This Dog.” The public feared these dogs, and criminals viewed them solely as a means to an end; numerous dogs ended up in shelters. With the rise of publicity, politicians began to use breed specific legislation in their favor to gain followers.

“Vicktory Dogs”

Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels was raided in 2007, and through the help of rescues, 48 out of the 51 dogs seized were fostered or re-homed. The “Vicktory Dogs” impacted society’s view that pit bulls, in particular pit bulls trained to fight, could be rehabilitated. Rather than looking at pit bulls as a problematic group–an incurable disease–society began to look at pit bulls as individuals who were capable of redemption.

An Unrecognized Breed

A pit bull is not an actual breed. “Pit bull” is used to describe a group of dogs with similar appearances and characteristics. This is often applied to purebred dogs, including American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, and American Bullies.

Dogs who resemble pit bulls, along with a variety of breeds, often face discrimination and are frequently seen in large groups in shelters. Despite this, many pawrents and organizations advocate for the dogs. The stereotype may be waning, and sayings such as “Educate, don’t discriminate” and “Judge the deed, not the breed” are often seen and heard regarding pit bulls and other breeds faced with similar, often unwarranted charges.

Learn more about pit bulls and how you can help here.

Grey and White Pit Bull with Leaves

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