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03 History


This article is from the American Pit Bull Terriers Breed FAQ, by Michael Bur with numerous contributions by others.

03 History

Among enthusiasts, the history of the APBT is as controversial as
the breed itself is among the misled public. The breed's history is
a recurrent subject of lively debate in the magazines devoted to
the breed. In fact, this FAQ was hotly debated among the
contributors before it reached its final form, and still everyone
isn't 100% happy!

Although the precise origin of the APBT is not known, we can
reliably trace its roots back at least one hundred and fifty years
or so [1] to England. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries
the sport of bull-baiting was very much alive and dogs were bred
to excel in this endeavor. The same type of dog was also used by
hunters to catch game and by butchers and farmers to bring down
unruly cattle. These dogs were called "bulldogs." Historically,
the word "Bulldog" did not mean a specific breed of dog per se,
but rather it was applied to descendants of the ancient Mastiff-
type dogs that excelled in the task of bull-baiting. The "bulldogs"
of yore were much different from, and should not be confused with,
the loveable clowns of the show ring today. The old, performance-bred,
working bulldog was closer in phenotype and spirit to the APBT and/or
the modern American Bulldog. The use of the word "bulldog" applied
to APBT's persists even today among APBT fanciers.

When bull-baiting was outlawed in England in 1835 the sport of
matching two dogs against one another in combat rose in popularity
to fill the void. One point of contention about the history of the
APBT is whether these pit fighting dogs were essentially a new breed
of dog specially created for this popular pastime. Some authors,
notably Richard Stratton, have theorized that the APBT is
essentially the same breed as the Renaissiance bull-baiting dogs,
largely unmixed with any other kind of dog, specifically terriers.
These authors consider the present name, American Pit Bull Terrier,
a double misnomer, since, in their view, the breed is not of
American origin and is not a terrier. They explain the popular
attribution of the breed's origin to a cross between bull-baiters
and terriers as a retrospective confusion with the breeding history
of the English Bull Terrier, which is a totally distinct breed
that was never successful at pit fighting but whose origin is
well-documented. Other authors who have researched the topic,
such as Dr. Carl Semencic, argue that the APBT is indeed the product
of a cross between bull-baiting dogs and terriers and that the breed
simply did not exist in its current form during the Renaissance.
They would argue that when we think of the terriers in the APBT's
ancestry, we should not envision modern-day show dogs like
Yorkshire Terriers, but instead working terriers (probably now
extinct) that were bred for great tenacity in hunting. The
problem of proof, which hangs over the discussion of any early
breed history, is compounded in this case by the extreme secrecy
of the breeders of pit dogs. In the 19th century pedigrees, if
committed to paper at all, were not divulged, since every breeder
feared letting his rivals in on the secrets of his success and
replicating it. In any case, by no later than the mid-19th century,
the breed had acquired all of the essential characteristics for
which it is still prized today: its awesome athletic abilities,
its peerless gameness, and its easy-going temperament.

The immediate ancestors of the APBT were Irish and English pit
fighting dogs imported to the States in the mid-19th century.
Once in the United States, the breed diverged slightly from what
was being produced back in England and Ireland. In America,
where these dogs were used not only as pit fighters, but also as
catch dogs (i.e., for forcibly retrieving stray hogs and cattle)
and as guardians of family, the breeders started producing
a slightly larger, leggier dog. However, this gain in size and
weight was small until very recently. The Old Family Dogs in
19th century Ireland were rarely above 25 lbs., and 15-lb. dogs
were not uncommon. In American books on the breed from the early
part of this century, it is rare to find a specimen over 50 lbs.
(with a few notable exceptions). From 1900 to 1975 or so, there
was probably a very small and gradual increment in the average
weight of APBTs over the years, without any corresponding loss in
performance abilities. But now that the vast majority of APBTs
are no longer performance-bred to the traditional pit standard
(understandably, since the traditional performance test, the pit
contest itself, is now a felony), the American axiom of "Bigger
is Better" has taken over in the breeding practices of the many
neophyte breeders who joined the bandwagon of the dog's popularity
in the 1980s. This has resulted in a ballooning of the average
size of APBTs in the last 15 years--a harmful phenomenon for the
breed, in our opinion. Another, less visible modification of
the breed since the 19th century was the selective intensification
of genetically programmed fighting styles (such as front-end
specialists, stifle specialists, etc.), as performance breeding
became more sophisticated under competitive pressures. In spite
of these changes, there has been a remarkable continuity in the
breed for more than a century. Photos from a century ago show
dogs indistinguishable from the dogs being bred today. Although,
as in any performance breed, you will find a certain lateral
(synchronic) variability in phenotype across different lines,
you will nevertheless find uncanny chronological continuity in
these types across decades. There are photos of pit dogs from
the 1860s that are phenotypically (and, to judge by contemporary
descriptions of pit matches, constitutionally) identical to the
APBTs of today.

Throughout the 19th century, these dogs were known by a variety
of names. "Pit Terriers", "Pit Bull Terriers", "Half and Half's",
"Staffordshire Fighting Dogs", "Old Family Dogs"(the Irish name),
"Yankee Terriers"(the Northern name), and "Rebel Terriers"(the
Southern name) to name a few. In 1898, a man by the name of Chauncy
Bennet formed the United Kennel Club (UKC) for the sole purpose of
registering "Pit Bull Terriers" as the American Kennel Club wanted
nothing to do with them. Originally, he added the word "American"
to the name and dropped "Pit". This didn't please all of the
people so later the word "Pit" was added back to the name in
parentheses as a compromise. The parentheses were then removed from
the name about 15 years ago. All other breeds that are registered
with UKC were accepted into the UKC after the APBT. Another registry
of APBTs is the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA) which was
started in September, 1909 by Guy McCord, a close friend of John P.
Colby. Now under the stewardship of the Greenwood family, the ADBA
continues to register only APBTs and is more in tune with the APBT
as a breed than the UKC. The ADBA does sponsor conformations shows,
but more importantly, it sponsors weight pulling competitions which
test a dogs strength, stamina, and heart. It also publishes a
quarterly magazine dedicated to the APBT called the American Pit
Bull Terrier Gazette (see the "References" section). The authors
feel that the ADBA is now the flagship registry of APBT as it is
doing more to preserve the original characteristics of the breed.

In 1936, thanks to "Pete the Pup" in the "Lil Rascals", who familiarized
a wider audience with the APBT, the AKC jumped on the bandwagon and
registered the breed as the "Staffordshire Terrier". This name was
changed to "American Staffordshire Terrier" (AST) in 1972 to
distinguish it from its smaller, "froggier", English cousin the
Staffordshire Bull Terrier. In 1936, for all intents and purposes,
the AKC, UKC, and ADBA version of the "Pit Bull" were identical since
the original AKC stock came from pit fighting dogs, which were UKC
and ADBA registered. During this time period, and the years that
preceded it, the APBT was a well-liked dog in America. At this time
the APBT was considered an ideal family pet. Because of his fun-loving,
forgiving temperament, the breed was rightly considered an excellent
dog for families with small children. Even if most of them couldn't
identify the breed by name, kids of the Lil Rascals generation wanted
a companion just like "Pete the Pup". During the First World War,
there was an American propaganda poster that represented the rival
European nations with their national dogs dressed in military uniforms;
and in the center representing the United States was an APBT declaring
in a caption below: "I'm neutral, but not afraid of any of them."

Since 1936, due to different breeding goals, the American Staffordshire
Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier have diverged in both
phenotype and spirit/temperament, although both, ideally, continue
to have in common an easy-going, friendly disposition. [2] Some
folks in the fancy feel that after 60 years of breeding for different
goals, these two dogs are now entirely different breeds. Other people
choose to view them as two different strains of the same breed (working
and show). Either way, the gap continues to widen as breeders from both
sides of the fence consider it undesirable to interbreed the two. To
the untrained eye, ASTs may look more impressive and fearsome, with a
larger and more blocky head, with bulging jaw muscles, a wider chest
and thicker neck. In general, however, they aren't nearly as "game" or
athletic as game-bred APBTs. Because of the standardization of their
conformation for show purposes, ASTs tend to look alike, to a much
greater degree than APBTs do. APBTs have a much wider phenotypical
range, since the primary breeding goal, until fairly recently, has been
not to produce a dog with a certain "look" but to produce one capable
of winning pit contests, in which the looks of a dog counted for nothing.
There are some game-bred APBTs that are practically indistinguishable
from typical ASTs, but in general they are leaner, leggier, and lighter
on their toes and have more stamina, agility, speed, and explosive power.

Following the second World War, until the early 1980s, the APBT lapsed
into relative obscurity. But those devoted few who knew the breed knew
it in intimate detail. These devotees typically knew much more about
their dogs' ancestry than about their own--they were often able to
recite pedigrees back six or eight generations. When APBTs became
popular with the public around 1980, nefarious individuals with little
or no knowledge of the breed started to own and breed them and
predictably, problems started to crop up. Many of these newcomers did
not adhere to the traditional breeding goals of the old-time APBT
breeders. In typical backyard fashion they began randomly breeding
dogs in order to mass produce puppies as profitable commodities.
Worse, some unscrupulous neophytes started selecting dogs for exactly
the opposite criteria that had prevailed up to then: they began
selectively breeding dogs for the trait of human aggressiveness.
Before long, individuals who shouldn't have been allowed near a
gold fish were owning and producing poorly bred, human-aggressive
"Pit Bulls" for a mass market. This, coupled with the media's
propensity for over-simplification and sensationalization, gave rise
to the anti-"Pit Bull" hysteria that continues to this day. It
should go without saying that, especially with this breed, you should
avoid backyard breeders. Find a breeder with a national reputation;
investigate, for example, the breeders who advertise in the breed's
flagship magazine, The American Pit Bull Terrier Gazette. In spite
of the introduction of some bad breeding practices in the last 15 years
or so, the vast majority of APBTs remain very human-friendly. The
American Canine Temperament Testing Association, which sponsors tests
for temperament titles for dogs, reported that 95% of all APBTs that
take the test pass, compared with a 77% passing rate for all breeds
on average. The APBT's passing rate was the fourth highest of all
the breeds tested.

Today, the APBT is still used (underground and illegally) as a fighting
dog in the United States; pit matches also take place in other countries
where there are no laws or where the existing laws are not enforced.
However, the vast majority of APBT's--even within the kennels of
breeders who breed for fighting ability--never see any action in the
pit. Instead they are loyal, loving, companion dogs and family pets.
One activity that has really grown in popularity among APBT fanciers
is weight pulling contests. Weight-pulls retain something of the
spirit of competition of the pit fighting world, but without the blood
or sorrow. The APBT is ideally suited for these contests, in which the
refusal to quit counts for as much as brute strength. Currently, APBTs
hold world records in several weight classes. I have seen one 70-lb.
APBT pull a mini-van! Another activity that the APBT is ideally suited
for is agility competition, where its athleticism and determination
can be widely appreciated. Some APBTs have been trained
and done well in Schutzhund sport; these dogs, however, are more
the exception than the rule (see the section on APBT's and
protection/guard work).

[1]- Actually one can trace the "Bulldog" history back further than
that, but for this document that's far enough. Readers who are
interested in more information on the history of the breed are
encouraged to refer to Dr. Carl Semencic's book "The World of
Fighting Dogs".

[2]- Through out this document, unless otherwise noted, when we refer
to the American Pit Bull Terrier(APBT), we are referring to the
ADBA version which is more likely to be bred to the traditional
APBT breeding standards. In general, the UKC version of the APBT
is now being bred mostly for looks alone, and thus has much in
common with the AKC AST.


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