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Get to Know the Pit Bull: Dog of Satin and Steel

To some he's a lover, but to others, a fighter. What's the story behind this controversial breed?

 |  Oct 7th 2013  |   3 Contributions


A dog of satin and steel, the American Pit Bull Terrier evokes passionate emotions, both pro and con, from his admirers and detractors. To those who love him, he's cuddly, comical and most of all, misjudged. To those who don't, he's a loaded gun. He's the most controversial, feared and defended dog in the world, the subject of breed specific legislation and public outcry. It hasn't always been that way.

At one time the Pit Bull was America's sweetheart, a symbol of courage, and a trusted child's companion. What's the truth about Pit Bulls?

The Pit Bull does come from a rough and barbaric background, with roots tracing as far back as ancient Roman times. In those days dogs baited bulls and bears in gladiator sports. These dogs' descendents used the same skills and courage to control cattle for butchers. Baiting was thought to increase the flavor of the meat. Butchers held contests to see who had the best bull dogs, and the contests evolved into cruel bull-baiting events that often lasted for hours.

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Pit Bull in truck by Shutterstock.

Bull baiting was outlawed in England around 1835, but people still wanted their blood sports. So dog fighting, which could take place in clandestine locations, took over as a favored sport. Dog fighting favored a smaller, more agile dog, and the bull dogs were crossed with terriers to create the Bull and Terrier. Because they fought in pits, they eventually became known as Pit Bulldogs, then Pit Bulls.

They came to America in the mid-1800s, where they were used for fighting as well as all-purpose farm dogs.

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Happy dancing pitties photo copyright Karen Morgan Photography

AKC would not register Pit Bulls because they felt to do so would be to endorse dog fighting. The United Kennel Club was formed in 1898 to register Pit Bulls, which it continues to register now as American Pit Bull Terriers. The AKC finally recognized the dogs in 1936 under the name Staffordshire Terrier, later changed to American Staffordshire Terrier. Some dogs are dual registered as American Pit Bull Terriers with the UKC and American Staffordshire Terriers with the AKC.

In 1909, the American Dog Breeder's Association was formed to register fighting Pit Bulls. It no longer endorses fighting, but remains as a Pit Bull-only registry.

Other names for Pit Bulls throughout the years included Brindle Bulldogs, Half and Halfs, Rebel Terriers and Yankee Terriers.

In the early 1900s, Pit Bulls became a symbol of the American spirit.

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PIt mixes are disproportionately represented in shelters. Pit bull behind bars by Shutterstock

A Pit Bull (or Pit Bull mix) named Stubby became a national war hero after being smuggled overseas during World War I. He participated in 18 battles, and repeatedly warned his regiment of incoming shells or mustard gas. He even caught a spy! Stubby was decorated by General Patton, met three presidents and led more parades than any dog in history.

A Pit Bull named Lucenay's Pete was the first Pit Bull registered with both the UKC and AKC. But he is slightly better known for starring as Tige in Buster Brown movies, and much better known for starring as Pete in Our Gang and Little Rascals movies. Pete was poisoned and had to be replaced midway through the movie series by another dog.

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Tino of Peace Love and Pitbulls with some of the happy dogs he has saved.

Because Pit Bulls have been involved in several highly visible fatal attacks against people and dogs, several cities have enacted breed-specific legislation banning them. Most dog authorities believe breed specific legislation is unenforceable and unfair, and many communities have fought it. Pit Bull owners have an obligation to make sure their dogs are model citizens to combat such legislation.

Pit Bulls can be aggressive toward other dogs, but tend to be trustworthy with people. Even with dogs, they seldom start a fight; however, once provoked, they seldom quit. Care should be taken to know your dog, avoid dog parks if there is any inclination for your dog to be reactive, keep your dog safely confined to a yard or on leash, and not leave your dog unsupervised around small children. These are rules all dogs should follow, but because Pit Bulls have the strength to cause damage, Pit Bull (and other large dog) owners should be especially vigilant.

Pit Bulls were bred for "gameness," meaning the ability to keep trying no matter what. You can see that attitude when Pit Bulls face a challenge even today.

Because of their gameness, Pit Bulls excel in the sport of weight pulling.

Illegal dog fighting still continues. The most infamous case was that of football player Michael Vick

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Illustration by Nigel Sussman.

Pit Bull owners have included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, Jack Dempsey, Cesar Milan, Humphrey Bogart, Usher, Jon Stewart, Alicia Silverstone, Adam Brody, Jamie Foxx, Jessica Biel, Pink, Madonna, and Kevin Federline.

The American Pit Bull Terrier is the most popular UKC breed. The AKC version, the American Staffordshire Terrier, is the 71st most popular AKC breed.

Do you own a American Pit Bull Terrier? Have you spent time with one? Let's hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you'd like us to write about, let us know that, too!

Read more on Pit Bulls:

About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron's Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier. 

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