Adapted with permission from BADRAP
… starts with learning about their beginnings and the roles they play in our society today. They’ve traveled a long road with Americans since early colonists imported them along with their other family treasures. With the same courageous spirit, tenacious loyalty and die-hard devotion they provided to their owners generations ago, they continue to dutifully hold up a mirror to American society and reflect back to us who we are as a culture of dog owners.
The dog that we now recognize as the APBT was originally bred in the British Isles in the early 1800′s to ‘bait’ bulls. These matches were held for the entertainment of the struggling classes as a source of relief from the tedious and brutal way of life suffered by many commoners during that time. In 1835, bull baiting was deemed inhumane and became illegal and as a result, dogfighting became a popular replacement. The best fighters were heroicized and the trait for aggression towards other dogs began to be selectively bred into their genetic makeup. At the same time, a very strong bite inhibition towards humans was also bred into the APBT lines so handlers could lean over into the fighting pit and pull their battling dogs apart without worrying about receiving a redirected bite. Because of this selective breeding which culled out “man biters”, this breed became well known for its loving devotion and trustworthy nature with humans.
As immigrants brought their dogs across the ocean along with their families and prized possessions, they soon became a fixture in a developing nation. In early America, the dogs were valued for much more than their fighting abilities. They were entrusted to protect homesteads from predators and worked as vital helpers on family farms. Homesteaders depended on their abilities to aid in hunts and as hog catchers (hence, the common title “catch dogs”). They were constant companions to the young children who were entrusted in their care. The APBT earned its place as an important part of the fabric of a developing nation.
As cities evolved, the APBT remained a prominent part of the American culture. The U.S. admired this breed for the qualities that it likened in itself; friendly, brave, hardworking and worthy of respect. The APBT was being thought of less as a pit fighter and more as a ’regular dog’. They appear in hundreds of turn-of-the-century photos:
World War I posters displayed illustrations of APBT’s as proud mascots of neutrality and bravery. Not to disappoint, the most decorated war dog of that time was none other than ‘Stubby’, a loyal and brave APBT.
The APBT was also a favorite dog among politicians, scholars and celebrities. Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt and the Little Rascals “Our Gang” had APBT’s.
Many reading this website may have grandparents and great grandparents who kept a favorite APBT as a pet. Today, this tradition continues with tens of thousands of Americans who love and cherish their family pit bulls.
Because the early breeders of APBT’s were going for speed, stamina and attitude rather than looks, the general appearance of this breed can vary greatly. They can range between 25 and 85 pounds. The earlier “classic” APBT’s were on the small side - an advantage which afforded them speed and agility in the fighting pit. As the pit dogs made their way to the working farms of America, larger characteristics were bred into the lines.
The Pit Bull has typically been a well muscled dog with a deep rib cage, powerful back end, broad hips, heavy jaw, heavy front legs and delicate, athletic back legs. They can also be found slimmer and rangier in build with longer legs (a look that all too often earns them the mislabel of “pit mix” in animal shelters). The head shape has changed over the years and only very recently has the “huge head” become popular with certain crowds. These large, out-of-proportion heads would not have been desirable with the working/fighting dogs of yesteryear. Any color is acceptable with this breed. The hair is typically short, bristly and glossy. Ears can be cropped or uncropped. The tail is pencil thin and always left natural.
Why would anyone want a pit bull?
The fun loving, spunky and affectionate attitude of the APBT is what most admirers come to love best about these dogs. We like to say “to know them is to love them”. Pit bulls are impressively loyal, bold and courageous. They are naturally clownish, alert and intelligent … in other words, a whole lot of fun to have around! Many excel in various dog sports and activities, including Obedience Trials, Search and Rescue work, Agility Trials, Flyball and Frisbee Competitions and Weight Pulling events. With their tenacious drive and strong desire to please their owners, they are natural competitors and win impressive titles wherever they’re worked.
The soft side of the breed shows up in their gushing affection for humans – a desirable trait that was very important to the original breeders of this animal and remains so today. For this reason, many pit bulls work as Certified Therapy Dogs in hospitals and nursing homes. Homes with children that know the breed continue to seek them out as their dog of choice. A favorite place of just about any well loved pit bull is in the lap of his adoring human or close by his side.
A Lonely Twist In the Road
Although we’ve changed as a culture to create laws which protect our admirable clown from organized dog fighting, ironically the darkest hour of this breed’s story has only come about in the past 20 years. While huge numbers of pit bulls in this country are cherished family pets, there are many that suffer the consequences of a nation with multi-layered social and economic problems. The historic fighting ability of this all-American breed began to be exploited on a larger scale in the 1980′s. Pit bulls were soon associated with poverty, crime and newspaper headlines of back alley dog fighting rings. And for the first time in the breed’s history, we started hearing disturbing accounts of aggressive attacks on humans by poorly socialized and badly bred APBT’s, APBT mixes and other dogs that were mislabeled as APBT’s. The press went wild, the public panicked and the reputation of the entire breed was dragged down with sensationalistic headlines and a few rotten examples of “pit bull imposters” owned by shady and irresponsible owners. To add to the sadness, a frenzy of backyard breeding of APBT’s in our urban cities began to add to the burgeoning population of unwanted dogs in the 80′s – a trend which continues today. The economic incentive of a $50 price tag for unpapered pit bull puppies has filled our newspapers with ads for “Pit Pups for Sale”. Those seeking a status symbol or controversial fashion statement are irresistibly drawn to having a pit bull of their own. But just as fashions change, so do the minds of many casual pit bull owners. The pattern of pit bulls purchased for breeding, later discarded and then euthanized in our overcrowded shelters, has erupted into a disturbing “business as usual” cycle with no discernable end in sight. With a negative reputation as “mean and vicious” animals, chances of salvation for most unwanted pit bulls are depressingly slim.
So just as we struggle as a nation to understand how to deal with the social and economic ills that affect our cities, we are also left with the sticky puzzle of what to do about our once favorite breed of dog that is so feared and so loved at the same time . Once again, the APBT breed reflects back to us who we are: a culture of incredible contrasts and conflicting beliefs.
Paja and her lil “brother”
Despite the difficult beginnings many of our urban pit bulls suffer, one thing rings true: the K9 hero that was admired by this country’s earliest citizens continues to show itself in the faces of the majority of APBT’s in our homes and even most of our area shelters. Even with the rocky start that so many APBT’s endure, an astounding number of dogs remain stable in temperament and great with people. Because of this, we can offer thanks to the earliest dogmen for their selective breeding efforts which produced a dog as hardy as the APBT. The animal that was once courageous enough to do battle with a bull or another APBT in the pit now utilizes that same bravado to stay alive in conditions where other ‘softer’ breeds might fail.
In loving and committed homes, the breed continues to dazzle us with the charm only a bully dog can possess. It’s not hard to see that the original Hero Dog is still alive and well in the show ring, in the various dog sport competitions and even in the saddest of places in our shelters.