Over the past few decades, the pit bull terrier has become a polarizing subject. Depending on who you ask, the thought of its wide smiling mouth, slobbery jowls, and beady little eyes may evoke feelings of love, rage, fear, or sadness.
The public response to this dog was not always so emotionally charged. For centuries, pit bulls enjoyed their role as a working dog, companion, and friend to children. Their strength, tenacity, and loyalty were always viewed as positive attributes - until they weren’t anymore.
How did pit bulls get a bad reputation? Poor media coverage and a variety of historical and biological factors have contributed to the controversy surrounding the modern-day pit bull. Yet the story of this silky, block-headed terrier is a microcosm of American history.
They Were Bred From Bulldogs And Terriers In The 1800s
While "pit bull" encompasses several different breeds of chunky terriers, they all share ancestry with bulldogs and other varieties of terrier. The proto-pit bull was the "Bull and Terrier," a mix of the Old English Bulldog and several Old English Terriers.
Developed in the early 19th century, the Bull and Terrier was known for its adversarial relationship with cattle. The dog was often used for bull-baiting, a blood sport in which tethered, agitated bulls were pitted against dogs. The Bull and Terrier was also known as a "butcher’s dog," as it would incapacitate the bulls that butchers prepared for slaughter.
While bull-baiting has long since been banned and the Bull and Terrier is now extinct, its memory lives on through the modern-day pit bull.
'Pit Bull' Is A General Term For Several Breeds Of Dog
To the untrained eye, any block-headed dog with a big mouth, smooth coat, and muscular frame is considered a pit bull. In actuality, there are four pedigreed breeds of dogs descended from the original Bull and Terrier ancestor: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the American Bully.
The differentiation between these dogs can be determined by minute differences in size, frame, and temperament. The larger difference is in semantics. The American Kennel Club did not want to recognize a dog with the name “pit” in it, as the word evokes the breed's gruesome fighting past.
Though the thoroughbred "pit bull" umbrella is very wide, there are still dozens of other types of dogs that get classified as pit bulls based on their shared attributes.
The Breed May Date Back To The American Frontier
The exact date of the pit bull’s introduction to the New World is hotly contested. Many pit bull fans agree that the first pit bull was brought to the US from England around 1870. However, some breeders and pit bull historians claim that an archaic ancestor of the pit bull was aboard the Mayflower.
Byron Fortenberry, a canine expert, states that there were two dogs on the Mayflower: one spaniel and one "small mastiff." He maintains that the bulldog was often referred to as a small mastiff in 1620.
Pit Bulls Were American Mascots During WWI And WWII
During the first half of the 20th century, the pit bull became a proxy for American identity and individualism. During WWI and the Great Depression, the pit bull symbolized the "average blue collar working Joe," an all-American dog. It was strong, simple, and resilient.
There were many famous pit bulls during this era. A hardy dog named Stubby was used as a messenger between battalions during the conflict, and was decorated for bravery following his successful capture of a German spy. Back on the home front, Theodore Roosevelt’s beloved pit bull lived with him in the White House.
Pit bulls enjoyed this reputation until the post-WWII consumer boom, when Americans began favoring fancier purebred dogs, such as the Golden Retriever.