Pit Bull Breed History and Temperament
A high school classmate of mine now volunteers in animal rescue and posted to Facebook a picture of a three-legged pit bull (resulting from a car accident) as well as a note on how sweet the dog is. Another classmate posted, in response, “That is … until he rips the head off a child.” And later posted, “…for thousands of years dogs have been bred to do certain things. Best to take this into consideration and avoid the ‘cute puppy’ syndrome when evaluating any dog breed. In a pinch, they will go to their inbred nature.”
I disagree. I know, you’re stunned.
What’s written below has been posted in bits and pieces to smaller reading audiences in various places. This longer, more complete posting represents an attempt to put my entire screed in one place and make it accessible to a larger audience. In the future, when people make what I feel are erroneous observations about pit bulls, I’m just going to send them here. Time saver, really.
PIT BULLS: Breed History and Background
The term “pit bull” originated in the late 18th century and refers to dogs used in a form of recreation at British livestock markets called “bull baiting”. In this sport, a bull would be released into a ring with a varying number dogs (often starving). Bets were then placed on different aspects of the ensuing fight between bull and dogs. The dogs used in this activity were English Bulldogs (very different from the Olde English Bulldogs associated with Winston Churchill). Bull baiting was eventually outlawed due to cruelty (see Note 1). As a result, the popularity of English Bulldogs plummeted. The breed almost went extinct, except for several that crossed the Atlantic to America where they became popular again. The breed exists today but is now called the American Bulldog.
With bull baiting illegal, breeders now turned to dog fighting as entertainment. The interbred several small/medium terrier breeds including the Bull Terrier (the “Spuds MacKenzie” dog; see Note 2) and now-extinct White Terrier. This produced a breed now referred to as the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a sub 40-pound bully breed dog sometimes referred to as a “pocket pit” or “mini pit”.
The Staffordshire Bull Terrier also crossed the Atlantic to America, but was not as popular or useful due to its small size. The “Staffie Bull” was then bred with some other larger terrier breeds, as well as the American Bulldog, to produce in the early 1800s a larger dog eventually referred to by the UKC as the “American Pit Bull Terrier” (APBT) and the AKC (much later) as the “Staffordshire Terrier” or “American Staffordshire Terrier”.
Starting with the creation of Staffie Bulls in England and continuing with the breeding of APBTs in America, the common practice among breeders was to remove any dog that showed a scintilla of human aggression from the breeding lines (Note 3). This is because these breeds often had to be handled by humans while they were aroused (no … not that kind of arousal) or injured, which is when dogs are most likely to bite. This selective breeding did not just factor into their use as fighting dogs, but for the many other jobs they had at the time. Actually, dog fighting APBTs were the minority in the population.
They were more extensively used as hunting dogs, generally for boar, bear, and mountain lion, and anything else that might turn around and hunt the hunter. APBTs were a breed that could be counted on to stand its ground even against a much larger foe.
Because they were so naturally human friendly, they also became popular as trick dogs in circuses, stage shows, burlesque theater, and other forms of entertainment. As a matter of fact, in 1922 when Hal Roach was putting together a series of American comedy short films about a group of poor neighborhood children and their adventures (“Our Gang” a.k.a. “The Little Rascals”), he needed a canine companion that would be essentially bullet-proof on set while being handled by children all day. At that time, the natural pick was a pit bull; specifically, an APBT named Pal (aka Pete the Pup in the show) (Note 4).
Starting in the late 19th century, canine literature referred to APBTs as “nanny dogs” or a “child’s nursemaid”. This was specifically because of their wide use as ranching dogs during westward expansion. Though they were sometimes used as beasts of burden (hence the weight pulling contests that are still around today), they were more widely and specifically used to protect children from predation.
Aside from childhood diseases, a top cause of child deaths in the 19th century frontier was predation by wolves, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, etc. Because working ranchers simply could not keep their kids at their side all day long, many ranches kept a couple of pit bulls solely to guard the children. Pit bulls were the top choice as a breed that would (1) be loyal and stay with children all day, (2) square off against any predator, regardless of size, and (3) never hurt the children themselves.
During World War I, APBTs were also used extensively as military service dogs (Google “Sergeant Stubby”). Mostly, this was (again) due to their loyalty as well as the breed’s low chance of becoming human aggressive during highly stressful situations. Also, Americans became distrustful of Dobermans, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds, fearing that their German heritage may make them turn on American handlers (Note 5).
Pit bulls remained not just a highly trusted, but a highly esteemed breed up until 1987, when Sports Illustrated (SI) published a cover article titled “Beware of this Dog”, which kicked off a media-inspired panic regarding the breed (Note 6). The article, written by E.M. Swift, did put some blame for pit bull attacks on a new generation of urban and often gang-affiliated owners, but also blamed the breed for its “will to kill”. The article cites several discredited notions about pit bulls including “locking jaws.” Also, the article and the cover image made pit bulls attractive and trendy to a multitude of abusive and criminal dog owners.
Unlike the previous generation of pit bull owners, these owners routinely abused, neglected, and subjected their dogs to constant horrific treatment. And while pit bulls had been bred for generations to be highly tolerant under stress, the fact is that if you kick any good dog often and hard enough, it will eventually turn on you (hence, the rising bite statistics involving pit bulls).
The media panic continued even though numerous normal pit bull owners tried to get the word out that their dogs were not, by nature, vicious killers (Note 7). And, that a pit bull raised in a normal home as a normal dog, remained one of the most temperamentally stable, affectionate, and loyal breeds available.
Meanwhile, most owners of Dobermans, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds kept their mouths shut. They were thrilled that there was finally a breed that was more reviled than their own dogs.
Which brings us essentially to current times where this struggle continues, both with media hype regarding pit bulls (Note 8) as well as the fact that pit bulls remain popular with many neglectful/abusive owners who are posturing assholes. As a counterpoint, most people who work with pit bulls or have owned pit bulls in normal households have extremely positive experiences.
Ultimately, many (including myself) hold that pit bulls are not viscous or broken by default. Raised in a normal household with good owners, they are generally brilliant family dogs.
A good statistical resource to examine aggression issues by dog breed is the American Temperament Testing Institute (http://atts.org/). You’ll note that pit bulls rank very high for passing these tests versus breeds with a similar statistical sampling size.
PIT BULLS: Personal Experience and Temperament
Around 2002, I started volunteering in a city animal rescue (in 2008 I would become executive director for about a year) where the canine population was roughly 2/3 to 3/4 pit bulls and pit mixes. Though my hands-on experiences were fantastic, I felt strongly that I should extensively research this controversial breed before I started telling people to insert them into their homes. Hence, what you’ve read above is really the Cliff Notes version of all that I consumed in total.
From 2002 to 2008, I worked with and participated in the rescue of roughly 350 to 400 pit bulls (pit mixes? … geez, I just don’t know). I would estimate that perhaps 50% went to homes with small children (defined as kids 10 years old and younger). Not one of those dogs was brought back to us because it became aggressive or bit a child or owner (Note 9).
In addition, during those five years and those hundreds of pit bulls, I never personally experienced an aggression incident with a pit bull. Meanwhile, if you were to combine all the tiny little bits of me that have disappeared into various Chihuahuas, then you would have a whole other me (Note 10) … and I’m not a small man.
Finally, over the years I’ve had about a dozen acquaintances, friends, and family members go out and adopt pit bulls based on my constant blathering on about the breed (Note 11). Not one of those people have come back to me to say that I steered them wrong. Actually, they’ve all been success stories (thank God…).
So … overall I would say that I feel pretty good about the breed.
NOTE 1: Cruelty to the bull, that is. No one had a problem with the dogs getting gored. It was also believed back then that the bull’s violent death made the butchered meat spoil faster.
NOTE 2: Spuds MacKenzie was actually a female. Oh the controversy!
NOTE 3: These early breeders, though crude in their practices, recognized what is a generally accepted belief among many contemporary animal behaviorists, which is that human aggression and animal aggression in domestic dogs are separate traits. Thus, an individual dog can be extremely animal aggressive, but be completely non-reactive and gentle to humans.
NOTE 4: The original Petey was actually the subject of one of the first “celebrity” murder trials. A rival dog trainer kept losing work to Petey’s owner, so he poisoned Petey’s food. The man was eventually caught and put on trial. People at the time were so outraged over the death of a much-loved canine TV personality, that he was sentenced as if he’d murdered a human.
NOTE 5: This is twaddle. By WW II, the U.S. military got some sense on this issue.
NOTE 6: SI later made up for that 1982 article by publishing a 2008 cover article titled “Vick’s Dogs: The Good News Out of the Bad Newz Kennels”. Among other things, this article covered how most of the rescued Vick dogs had gone on to become stable house pets, and in more than few cases, pet therapy dogs.
NOTE 7: This note is specifically for my Watertown High School classmates. I found out years later that our uber-frumpy English teacher, Mr. Neylon, owned several pit bulls and appeared on local TV and radio programs defending the breed at the height of the media frenzy against them.
NOTE 8: In the late 1990s, I had a PR job in the manufacturing industry. One night, I sat down with a local TV reporter in Providence to discuss a potential story. On an aside, I asked him about “dog bite” stories. After some prodding (and a few drinks), he revealed that when he had worked at dog-bite-story level, his assignment editor had explicitly instructed him that (1) if the dog involved looked even remotely like a pit bull, just call it a pit bull (even if the dog was actually a Boxer), and (2) if the dog involved was not a pit bull, then the story would only air on a slow news cycle. Meaning, they would always seek to find a slot for a pit bull bite story regardless of what else was going on. This was because pit bull bite stories produced a ratings bump; bite stories involving any other breed did not.
NOTE 9: The breed where we had more child aggression issues were Beagles and Beagle mixes. Beagles (and other varmint hunting dogs) are bred to have their prey drives activated by small, erratic, and rapidly moving small animals including rabbits, squirrels, and fox, etc. Unfortunately, this set of characteristics also describes small children. Hence, our problems with some Beagles in homes with kids. No, this doesn’t mean that Beagles are bad dogs to have around kids. It just means that potential adopters need to be aware of this and work with both the dog (and the kids) to make sure that the dog knows that kids are for play, and rabbits are prey.
NOTE 10: No … this doesn’t mean that I dislike or distrust Chihuahuas. I’ve met many Chihuahuas that I’ve liked a lot. Chihuahuas (and other small breeds) lack the ability to intimidate via physical stature compared to larger breeds. Also, they are a more delicate breed compared to larger breeds, and suffer more physically and temperamentally under abusive situations. So, stressed, abused, or neglected Chihuahuas tend to abbreviate or skip the step where they give “warning signals” via physical size/body language and either nip or bite more quickly as a result. Again, if you’re not an asshole to your dog, then chances are your dog won’t be an asshole to you.
NOTE 11: Perhaps you hoped that I’d shut up about it as a result. Not bloody likely.