By Jon Bastian
Would it surprise you to learn that pit bulls used to be America’s darlings? Before the mid-80s, stories of pit bull attacks are practically non-existent. There is even some confusion over exactly which breed of dog is a pit bull—the definition includes the American pit bull terrier, the Staffordshire terrier and, at times, the bulldog. This confusion seems to have dogged the breed from the beginning, as there is some disagreement over the origin of pit bulls.
Where do pit bulls come from and how did they get such a bad rap?
Two Possible Histories of Pit Bulls
In one theory, pit bulls began during antiquity as the so-called Molossus, a now-extinct breed that was used by the Greeks as shepherds and guard dogs. In times of war, they marched off to battle with their humans. Eventually, so the theory goes, the Molossus made it to early Britain, where it became known as the Mastiff. In the first century CE, Rome discovered the breed after defeating the Britons, and the dogs spread all over the empire. For the next four hundred years, they were used as war dogs, and intermixed with various local breeds all over the European continent, becoming the forerunners of the modern pit bull.
A competing theory places the origin of the pit bull in England at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, when butchers would use large, Mastiff-type dogs as “bullenbeissers,” which translates as “bull biter.” Trained to latch onto a bull’s nose and not let go until the animal was subdued, these dogs were the only way that humans could regain control when a bull became agitated. Unfortunately, this practical if dubious use eventually led to the “sport” of bull-baiting, where dogs were put in a pit with an intentionally riled-up bull and spectators placed bets on which dog would hold on the longest, or bring the bull down. You’ve probably guessed it by now, but this is also the origin of the terms “pit bull dog” and “bulldog.”
Still not a specific breed, the bullenbeissers were bred with Terriers, combining their intelligence with the strength of the Mastiffs. As bull-baiting came to be banned in the 19th century, dog fighting became popular as an underground and quasi-illegal activity in the UK. British immigrants to the U.S. at that time brought dog fighting, as well as their dogs, to the New World. However, as the breed spread to Americans and Americans spread across the continent, pit bulls began to be put to their original use, as general purpose herding and working dogs. Because of their fighting history, though, the American Kennel Club would not recognize the breed until 1936, although they defined it as a Staffordshire terrier, distinct from the American pit bull terrier.
Early Perceptions of Pit Bulls
Far from being considered a killing machine on legs, pit bulls seem to be an American favorite in the early half of the century—indeed, during World War I, the country itself is personified as a pit bull on army recruitment posters, and several pit bulls go on to become famous in the American military. Referring to an athlete as a pit bull is a very common sports metaphor through the 1930s, and it is meant as the highest compliment. There is also a famous racehorse in the late 1930s named pit bull, as well as a number of pit bull stars of early motion pictures. Frequently, pit bulls are associated with children, as in the Our Gang comedies, as well as with Buster Brown, both in short films and as the corporate mascot for a shoe company. The famous RCA Victor image of a dog and a gramophone also featured a pit bull terrier.
From the turn of the century until the early 1980s, there is exactly one dog attack story to make the national papers and mention pit bulls, but that’s probably because it involved a man intentionally siccing a pack of 26 dogs on a young woman. According to a 1947 article in The Independent (St. Petersburg, Florida), “Attorneys said they believed it was the first time the state had invoked a statute which would find the owner guilty of manslaughter if it were proven that he permitted vicious animals to run free and they attacked and killed a human being.” There’s no mention of pit bulls as vicious and no call for a ban of the breed, just a human being held responsible for inducing the dogs to attack. Ironically, though, it is in Florida forty years after this incident that the first breed-specific ban is enacted. In the intervening decades, “pit bull” continues to be a popular description for athletes and when the breed does turn up in newspapers, it’s more often than not in a classified ad for puppies.
The only mention during the 1960s that isn’t an ad is a rather amusing bit from gossip columnist Earl Wilson, who reported in his August 22, 1969 column, “Sonny and Cher, who used to scare people, have now been scared by people. ‘Totally horrified’ by the Sharon Tate murder case, they bought a big dog—‘a pit bull terrier’—to protect them and their little daughter Chaste [sic] at their Hollywood Home...” It is at about this time that using large dogs for personal protection becomes popular, but pit bulls are still not singled out as particularly dangerous. In 1971, a new law allows the U.S. Postal Service to bill people for injuries caused to letter carriers by their dogs, but it applies to all dogs, and the general attitude is still one of human responsibility. In a syndicated New York Times story from 1977 on dog bites, opening with the story of a seven year-old boy receiving a very minor injury from a Great Dane, author Jane E. Brody advises, “(S)imple precautions on the part of the dog owners and potential victims could prevent most of these attacks.”
A Change in Pit Bull Perception
Less than a decade later, that had all changed and by New Year’s Day 1986, over thirty communities are considering breed-specific bans on pit bulls. What changed? For one thing, despite being illegal in all fifty states, dog fighting made a comeback in the 80s, and the pit bull is the dog of choice. It is also the preferred guard dog for drug dealers and gangs, with a hugely publicized attack in 1987 in which a pit bull guarding a marijuana crop in California mauls and kills a two-and-a-half year-old boy. By the summer of that year, every single proposed ban has become law, but not necessarily with the support of animal professionals. Kent Salazar, head of Albuquerque’s animal control division, commented at the time of their proposed ban that he didn’t think breed-specific legislation was necessary, saying, “We have all the means to protect people with clauses about vicious dogs.” He also noted that, a few years previously, Doberman pinschers were the target of such bans. His words went unheeded, and Tijeras, New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque, passes the toughest pit bull ban of the time, allowing animal control officers to seize and destroy them on sight without compensation to the owner.
The various pit bull bans are decried by animal control officials as “the most concentrated legal assault on a specific breed they can recall,” as well as “canine racism.” The Houston Chronicle quotes unnamed officials as placing the blame for the problem squarely on humans. “(M)any of the pit bull attacks are due to a skyrocketing number of poorly bred and badly trained dogs raised by backyard breeders, who are trying to cash in on the pit bull’s growing reputation as a cheap, but deadly effective guard dog, particularly in urban areas.”
Nearly thirty years after the beginning of this anti-pit bull hysteria, the tide seems to be turning a little bit, but every step forward is followed by a step back. Even as Florida is attempting to overturn all breed-specific legislation, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin is considering imposing a new ban. Yet it only takes a brief look at the history of pit bulls to realize that the dogs are not the problem; the humans who misuse them are. For over a hundred years, holding the owners personally responsible was enough to prevent attacks, and the breed was perceived as very child-friendly. With outreach and education, it may be possible to restore that image and rehabilitate the pit bull’s reputation, restoring an iconic American dog to its rightful place among mankind’s best friends.