The modern pit bull has a long and checkered history. It is one of many breeds that trace back to the ancient molossus of Greek and Roman times, raised by the latter for entertaining the masses in the arena. The molossus subsequently gave rise to the old-fashioned bulldog. This was not the the short-legged, short-nosed dog we think of today, but a formidable animal kept by butchers to seize a bull by the nose and pin him down. This practice, known as bull-baiting, prevailed for hundreds of years in Britain, where it was unfortunately regarded as cheap entertainment.
However, the British government passed a law in 1835 to put an end to cruel blood sports. Dog fighting replaced bull-baiting because it was easier to conceal. Accordingly, the bulldog was crossed with smooth-coated terriers to create the feistier, more athletic “Bull and Terrier.” As terrible as the “sport” of dog fighting was, it had an important role in shaping the temperament of the Bull and Terriers. While they had to be willing and eager to fight other dogs to the death, the Bull and Terriers had to be easy for people to handle, even in the heat of a dogfight.
Bull and Terriers arrived in the United States with immigrants in the early 1800s. At first, the social elite kept them primarily for dog fighting. However, most states had banned the practice by the 1860s at the very latest. While dog fighting continued in secret, many Americans decided to give their dogs nobler purposes. During the Civil War, the dogs were immensely popular watchdogs and mascots for soldiers on both sides, earning the name of Yankee Terrier in the North and Rebel Terrier in the South. After the war, Americans took their favorite dogs with them to the West. Here the Yankee Terrier proved its worth. It could guard the farm, watch over the children, hold feral livestock at bay, ferret rats out of the barn, and even sniff out the homesteader’s dinner while hunting.
Formal breeding and standardization of the Yankee Terrier began in 1898 with the creation of the United Kennel Club (UKC). This organization originated to foster the development of working dogs, including fighting dogs (a practice they have long since relinquished and condemned). The UKC gave the breed the name American Pit Bull Terrier.
When the American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1936, breeders made every effort to distance themselves from the stigma of the breed’s fighting past. They gave it the new name of Staffordshire Terrier. This, however, was also the name of a smaller English version of the dog. The name changed again in 1972 to American Staffordshire Terrier. Although American Staffordshire Terriers and American Pit Bull Terriers originate from the same stock, the AKC still treats them as two different breeds and refuses to recognize the latter. The UKC, on the other hand, registers some AKC American Staffordshire Terriers as American Pit Bull Terriers, maintaining an element of overlap.
The adoption of the pit bull by drug runners and other organized criminals in the late 1900s created an extremely unfortunate situation for the breed. Gangs began breeding the pit bull for extreme aggression, necessary for guarding contraband of all sorts. At the same time, irresponsible breeders, always a problem in popular breeds, bred and marketed the pit bull particularly for those who wanted a dog exuding a tough image. Fatal dog attacks were the result in both cases, and the media made the most of the situation. Public panic ensued. Towns across the nation began to ban the breed. Insurance companies also targeted owners of pit bulls.
Pit bull lovers are going to great pains to revive the image of their favorite breed. They emphasize that the real problems are not the dogs themselves, but irresponsible breeders and abusive owners. Evidently their educational campaign is working, as the pit bull is once again increasing in popularity across America.
The primary use of most American Pit Bull Terriers is companionship, whether that means sharing the couch or a day of jogging or bicycling. Some offer therapy services or participate in canine sports ranging from agility to tracking to weight pulls.
But pit bulls can still work. They make good watchdogs, and many will offer physical protection to home and property, as well. This instinct can be channeled into police and military work.
Guard duties are not all that pit bulls regularly offer the police and military. These dogs have good noses and are regularly used to sniff out contraband and explosives. They can also work the scene of a disaster, finding and rescuing missing survivors.
Pit bulls can still hunt. While they have been used for some basic retrieving, they tend to be unreliable around fallen game. They perform much more effectively in the traditional role of catch dog for hunting feral hogs. A catch dog seizes and maintains control of the hog until the human hunters can kill or capture the prey.
A myth persists that pit bulls make good herding dogs. As a general rule, they are much too rough for working stock. Again, their traditional role is that of the catch dog. They can be depended on to seize feral livestock, but not to quietly direct tame sheep or cattle.
Pit bulls are known for their broad smiles and zest for life. They are cheerful, laid-back dogs that love nothing better than to goof off. They need plenty of stimulation to help them burn off their abundant energy. If these needs are not met, their natural inclination is to resort to extensive digging and chewing projects. They will also wander, and can be quite adept at escaping even fenced yards. Although they love children, they are far too rowdy for very small children or seniors. Once a pit bull has run off his extra energy, however, he is quite ready to settle down in a cooperating individual’s lap. He will probably reward affection with a sloppy kiss, usually directed toward someone’s face.
The pit bull is an interesting mix of stubborn tenacity and almost babyish sensitivity. He is quite equal to the task of leading his human pack, but he is generally happier when directed by a firm but positive individual. He responds resoundingly well to consistent and positive training.
Most pit bulls are friendly toward all people, familiar or otherwise. However, they are also loyal defenders of home and family, able to distinguish between real and imaginary threats if raised properly. They are extremely aggressive toward other dogs and are always ready to fight on the slightest provocation. For this reason, they should never be left unsupervised with another dog, even if they seem to get along just fine. Other pets and livestock are out of the question, as well, although some pit bulls can peacefully coexist with the family cat with proper training.
At work as a catch dog, the pit bull is among the most fearless, stoic, and relentless of dogs. Often, the hunter’s life depends on his dog’s ability to hold onto a hog and refuse to let go, no matter what. The pit bull fits the bill exactly.
As most Americans know by this time, there are plenty of poorly bred pit bulls out there. These dogs are extremely dangerous due to their powerful, crushing bite and refusal to let go. Any potential owner looking for a pit bull puppy should go to a responsible breeder who makes sound temperament a top priority.
Pit bulls are structurally robust, although their active natures can lead to injuries such as ruptured ligaments. Although many show signs of hip dysplasia when X-rayed, few pit bulls ever display other symptoms of this defect.
However, for peak condition and a healthy immune system, pit bulls seem to benefit from careful attention to a high-quality diet. On many standard commercial foods, they seem to be prone to mange and a wide range of allergies, particularly grass allergies. Tumors are also a problem in this breed, as is susceptibility to parvovirus.
Other problems seen in the pit bull include:
- Progressive retinal atrophy.
- Elbow dysplasia.
- Kneecap problems.
- Heart murmurs.
- Cerebellar ataxia.
- Minimal grooming needs.
- Irresponsible breeders.
- Local laws against pit bulls.
- Social stigma (some owners report lawsuits, threats, and even attempts to kill their dog).
- Difficulty of getting homeowners insurance when a pit bull is present.
- Need for experienced training and handling.
- Need for human companionship.
- Aggression toward other animals.
- High exercise requirements.
- Destructive tendencies.
- Ability as escape artists.
- Unsuitability for cold climates.