Arguably one of the most influential canine types in history was the molossus, the mastiff of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This dog was both versatile and useful, guarding property and herding livestock. Unfortunately, it also found a place in the Roman arena, satisfying the populace’s thirst for blood sports.
Many modern dog breeds trace back to the molossus, including the old-fashioned bulldog (not the the short-legged, short-nosed dog we think of today), heir to the tradition of blood sports. For several hundred years, bulldogs were used in England for bull-baiting. Bulldogs were the property of butchers. They would seize a bull by the nose and keep him pinned down until the butcher could intervene. Proponents of bull-baiting claimed that the practice improved the quality of the meat, but most townsfolk regarded it as cheap entertainment.
In the early 1800s, blood sport fans came up with the idea of crossing the bulldog with smooth-coated terriers to create the “Bull and Terrier” dog, a feistier, more athletic dog suited to the “sport” of dog fighting. This change was fostered by a law passed in Britain in 1835 to eliminate cruel blood sports. Bull-baiting was illegal; dog fighting was, too, but it was much easier to conceal. As terrible as the “sport” 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 were highly prized by their owners, so it is little wonder that they 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, as Americans began establishing farms in the West, they took their favorite dogs with them. 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. Throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s, many family farms had a Yankee Terrier, simply because the dogs were indispensable.
Formal breeding and standardization of the Yankee Terrier began in 1898 with the creation of the United Kennel Club (UKC). This organization was originally created 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 breed was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1936, breeders made every effort to distance themselves from the stigma of the breed’s fighting past. The breed was renamed Staffordshire Terrier. This, however, was the name of a smaller English version of the dog, so the name was 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 and its fanciers. 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, beginning with a controversial article in Sports Illustrated in 1987.
As the general public was educated to fear the pit bull, 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, particularly their own, they are far too rowdy to be kept around very small children, or around 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 craves attention, so plenty of family time is in order. 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, and 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 trusted, 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.