The Pit Bull Breed: Then and Now

Pit bull type dogs have long been a part of American history.

Bull and bear baiting were once popular (albeit cruel) sports that were popular in the 1800’s in the United Kingdom. Bulldogs and terriers were initially crossbred to participate in this practice, and according to some sources, are thought to have originated in Staffordshire, England. These dogs were nicknamed ‘pit’ bulls, based on the forum or ‘pit’ that the animals were placed in for fighting.

English and Irish immigrants brought their dogs with them when they immigrated to the United States in the mid to late 1800’s. Sadly, along with bringing their dogs to this country, the sport of dog fighting also became a popular pastime.

The late 1800’s brought the beginning of the idea of animal welfare organizations. The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was created in 1866, in part to combat the notion that blood sport was acceptable in our growing society. The American Kennel Club (AKC) was created in 1884, as a way to promote pure breed dogs, and the different categories of skills they exhibited, such as herding, working, or sporting activites. The AKC refused to recognize the pit bull terrier, because it did not want to be associated with the increasingly disfavored sport of dogfighting. In 1898 when the United Kennel Club (UKC) was formed however, they chose to support the breed regardless of reputation, and recognized the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) as a specific breed. Later, in 1936, the AKC did recognize the Staffordshire Terrier as a breed. Today, the APBT is still recognized by the UKC, the American Staffordshire Terrier is recognized by the AKC, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier is recognized by both the UKC and the AKC – all being distinct breeds, but all considered pit bull type dogs.

In spite of this connection to an ugly history, pit bull type dogs have enjoyed a long love affair with the American people. Beginning with being chosen as the face of patriotic World War I posters, honored as a WWI war hero as Sgt. Stubby was, to being beloved iconic television and advertising stars like Petey from Little Rascals, Buster Brown, and the RCA dog, pit bull type dogs have been an ever present part of Americana.

The 1980’s brought a lot of change in our country, negatively impacting pit bull type dogs and their reputation. The 1980’s saw an increase in drug use and the decay of inner cities. Dog fighting became illegal nationwide, and began to transition from rural areas into more urban areas, in association with the drug crimes. Pit bull type dogs became the face of inner city crime in many ways, associated with the street culture and a reputation for toughness. This is the period of time in our country where breed specific and discriminatory laws (BSL/BDL) began to be passed more frequently, in an effort to curb the illegal activity associated with inner city crime and the demographic of people seen as committing those crimes.

Michael Vick’s arrest in 2007 on dog fighting related charges, and the subsequent treatment of the dogs rescued from his clutches, was ironically the beginning of some good things happening for pit bull type dogs. Of the 51 dogs rescued from the Bad Newz Kennels, 49 of them went on to become family members in homes, sometimes living with other dogs, earning their Canine Good Citizen certifications, and a handful went even further – and became certified therapy dogs. Because of the efforts of many advocates and animal welfare professionals, for the first time in history – the dogs were correctly seen as victims of human enterprise, rather than as villains themselves. The ‘Vicktory’ dogs that are still alive today (they are aging, and some suffered health issues as result of their treatment by Vick and have since passed on peacefully), are a testament to the resilience and unconditional love these dogs possess – and how powerful and important a dog’s environment is in relation to behavior.  If a dog that was bred to fight, and was actually fought – can overcome that treatment and life to become a therapy dog, and help other humans and dogs to feel comfortable – all things are possible with love, patience and kindness.

If a dog that was bred to fight, and was actually fought – can overcome that treatment and life to become a therapy dog, and help other humans and dogs to feel comfortable – all things are possible with love, patience and kindness.

Pit bull type dogs have been victims of many negative stereotypes and myths over the years – that have no basis in fact. The three most commonly heard myths are: 1) they have locking jaws, 2) they have stronger bites than any other dog, and 3) that they are inherently aggressive. First, there is no scientific evidence that any type of canine has a locking jaw, and it is illogical that a dog would survive very long if this were true. Think about it. Second, pit bull type dogs do not have a stronger bite than other dogs; in fact, National Geographic did a study of three breeds of dogs, the APBT, Rottweiler, and German Shepherd dogs – testing the pounds of force per bite. The APBT came in third. The fact is, that any dog that weighs over 40 pounds, regardless of breed, can inflict severe damage to another being, including a human being. Third, the widely repeated myth that pit bull type dogs are “inherently aggressive” is inherently flawed; aggression is a behavior, not a genetic trait. Some terrier dogs do in fact have issues with being social with other dogs – but even amongst the dogmen of old, who were breeding fighting dogs – any dog that exhibited any aggression towards humans was immediately (and sometimes brutally) destroyed as being an undesirable behavior. In the breed standard of the UKC today, it states, “The APBT is not the best choice for a guard dog since they are extremely friendly, even with strangers. Aggressive behavior toward humans is uncharacteristic of the breed and highly undesirable.”

Where we find pit bull type dogs today is that they are consistently in the top three most popular dogs in America, along with Chihuahua type and Labrador retriever type dogs. Sadly, in spite of this popularity, pit bull type dogs are consistently the most euthanized type of dog in our nations shelters for many co-occurring and preventable factors. First, lingering fear based BSL/BDL policies restrict many shelters nationwide from being able to adopt out pit bull type dogs to the general public. Even when shelters are allowed to adopt out pit bull type dogs to the general public, these irrational policies prevent many people from being able to find housing where they can have their dog of choice and potential new family member come to live with them. In today’s economy, many people are being uprooted and losing jobs as well as housing, and as a result their pit bull type dogs end up being relinquished to shelters because they cannot find another place to live that will allow their dog, simply based on their appearance and nothing more.

Another extremely important factor in the high euthanization rate in our nations’ open admission shelters, is a lack of resources and education about spaying and neutering our pets. Promoting spay/neuter and regular veterinary care is important for all our companion animals, not just pit bull type dogs, and encourages people to be more invested in the health and welfare of their pet as a valued family member.

Smiling Dog Rescue is committed to being a part of the solution – by providing resources and education about pit bull type dogs, while continuing to help save lives, finding homes for pets needing families, and helping provide support for responsible dog owners everywhere.

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