The modern American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) can trace its roots back to England and the early 19th century. Crosses between “bully” type dogs and terriers eventually produced the modern APBT. Although not recognized as a “breed” and much smaller than the modern APBT, the early “bulldogs” were used as working dogs, controlling unruly bulls for butchers as well as farmers.
These “bulldogs” resembled, phenotypically, the modern APBT but were considerably smaller, weighing in at 15-30lbs.
The courage and tenacity that made these dogs good at corralling dangerous bulls made them great at the blood sport of bull baiting.
The year 1835 saw the end of deadly bull baiting (countless thousands of dogs lost their lives to this “sport”) and the emergence of an even more sinister blood sport: dog fighting.
To understand the American Pit Bull Terrier, it is imperative to understand the breed’s fighting origins.
The lower class had used blood sports as an outlet for their frustration and aggression towards the monarchy - pit fighting was, in essence, an outcry and an outlet for that aggression. Dogs were bred to be courageous, utterly devoid of pain sensations (they, no doubt, felt pain but were bred and encouraged not to express that pain), tenacious and determined.
A quality that was never bred into them was human aggression. Human “aggressive” (aggression may not be the most appropriate term, it is more likely that these dogs simply had a lower bite threshold) dogs were undesirable as these dogs required extensive handling prior and during their fights.
Most of these dogs were also family pets so no human “aggression” was ever tolerated.
Dogs that exhibited human “aggression” were typically killed, meaning that only human-friendly lines were perpetuated and desired. It is highly unlikely, however, that these culled dogs were naturally more aggressive towards humans than their bred counterparts but their bite threshold may have been much lower meaning that it did not take much for them to turn around and bite their handler.
Animals were bred for an increased bite threshold, as far as humans and only humans were concerned, which decreased the likelihood of humans becoming victims of dog bites.
In 1898, Chauncy Bennet formed the UKC, a breed registry aimed solely at the registration and acceptance of pit bulls. The AKC had wanted nothing to do with pit bulls, so Bennet sought to create an organization that would represent the breed as performance dogs. Mr. Bennet added “American” and initially dropped “Pit” from the APBT’s name but public outcry led to “Pit” being added back to the name, thus the American Pit Bull Terrier.
For a pit bull to be accepted into the UKC the dog had to have won three fights - a requirement that was later dropped. Another registry that was started solely for APBT’s, the American Dog Breeders Association was born in 1909. The ADBA was started by Guy McCord who was a close friend of one of the founding fathers of the modern APBT, John P. Colby. The ADBA was created to test the performance quality of an APBT without actual pit fighting; the ADBA’s main focus was on weight pulling competitions with a spattering of conformation shows.
The AKC decided to register Pit Bulls but under a different name - the Staffordshire Terrier, which was later changed to the American Staffordshire Terrier in 1972, or AST.
Up until 1936, Pit Bulls and AST’s were physically identical. After 1936, AST’s were bred solely for conformation and their breed requirements became much more stringent. APBT’s were being bred for both performance (fighting) as well as conformation shows and the breed’s standard became much more lenient. The AST’s, phenotypically, became “flashier” with blockier heads, larger chests and a thicker jaw while the APBT’s varied phenotypically from lanky to stocky. Although the phenotypic expression varied in the APBT, relative weight, size and proportion remained constant and dogs over 60lbs were rarely seen. Both AST’s and APBT’s were bred to be exceptionally sturdy and extremely human-friendly, not to mention athletic, courageous, and tenacious.
Complete text copyright ©Marji Beach
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT
American Pit Bull Terrier Continued:
- APBT: Yesterday and Today
- Frequently Asked Questions About APBTs
- What About APBTs and Other Dogs?
- Pit Bits
- What is BSL?