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October is Pit Bull Awareness month.

© Gila Todd
Backup in a spray of water | Southeast Missouri Animal Welfare | © Gila Todd

Although good Pit Bull owners practice awareness and education about the Pit Bull Breed all year long, it is the hope that during this month, all non Pit Bull owners will pay closer attention to the truths about one of the most misunderstood dog breeds in American history.

Listen, learn, and grow your knowledge, so that you will be better informed and spread the truth instead of rumors that are so detrimental to the Pit Bull breed in society today.

Are Pit Bulls a true breed of their own?

Many dog fanciers argue the question of Pit Bulls being a breed all their own or whether the term Pit Bull encompasses several breeds that have characteristics of a square head and bulky body.

According to Wikipedia, “The term Pit Bull is often used as a generic term used to describe dogs with similar physical characteristics.” And they go on to name a dozen or so breeds that can be considered a Pit Bull including and mix thereof.

But is this true, or does the Pit Bull have a history and breed status of its very own?

Where do Pit Bulls come from?

Historical information indicates that the Pit Bull began its original development in Roman times.

The muscular dogs of the Greek Molossi tribes were used in warfare, guarding villages, and subduing large prey. These Molossian dogs, called Molossus, were fierce and known for their ability to intimidate enemies in neighboring tribes. This breed is believed to be the ancestors of modern day Mastiffs and is now extinct.

During war times the Romans discovered the Molossus noting their strong build and extreme drive. They began exporting the breed back to the Roman Empire to use as war dogs, guard dogs, and to satisfy their countryman’s appetite for entertainment in the Roman colosseum.

While in Rome the prized Molossus was bred with indigenous dogs and over time a distinctive breed began to form. As the Romans traveled and fought wars the breed was spread throughout Europe.

By the 1700’s two breeds had emerged and those became known as the Blue Poll from Scotland and the Alunt from Ireland. Both breeds were commonly referred to as Bulldogs. These dogs were used for a variety of purposes, including bull baiting, as they had been used by the Romans in earlier times.

Later, Bulldogs were bred with New England Terriers to develop attributes in the breed most desired by their owners. Two Terrier types most common for this breeding were the Black and Tan Terrier and the White Terrier of England. The White Terrier is now extinct.

The common belief that this sort of breeding between Bulldogs and Terriers began in Staffordshire England and the origins of the Bulldog gives way to the name Staffordshire Bull Terrier. These dogs were bred for herding and working, with the intelligence of a terrier, the tenacity of a Bulldog, and the strength of the Molossus.

By the early 1800’s a breed had been developed that resembles the American Pit Bull of modern times. It was during this time that the bull baiting began to die down and in 1835 the sport was officially banned. Pit Bulls were put to their original and more useful purpose as herding and working dogs.

The Pit Bull made its entrance into the US as their European immigrant owners crossed the oceans and onto US soil. Once in the country the Pit Bull was bred to become larger and was known as the American Pit Bull Terrier and was the all around farm dog. Not only was it intelligent and strong it was gentle and loving and a favorite companion for children. Additionally, the size of the new American bred Pit Bull made it useful for keeping predators off the farm.

In 1898, Chauncy Bennett founded the UKC with the American Pit Bull Terrier as an official breed.

By the early 1900’s the American Pit Bull was the symbol of strength, loyalty, and dependability.

Big businesses like RCA Records and Buster Brown Shoes used logos containing the images of a Pit Bull.

In 1903, Bud the Pit Bull was the canine companion for the the first car ride across America. Bud travelled from San Francisco to New York City, in the company of Horatio Nelson Jackson, and Bud’s owner, Sewall K. Crocker, Jackson’s assistant. Bud became famous for his journey and his riding goggles were later donated to the Smithsonian Institute.

Sgt. Stubby, a Pit Bull that fought alongside American soldiers in the WWI war trenches of France, saved the lives of many soldiers and even captured a German spy during his tour of duty. He was the most decorated dog of WWI serving as the mascot for the 102nd Infantry, Yankee Division.

One of the biggest animal stars of all times was Petey, the ever faithful and fun loving Pit Bull which starred alongside the Little Rascals in the hit series “Our Gang”, in the 1920’s.

During the early 1900’s the Pit Bull was favored as America’s choice dog breed and considered a devoted and loyal companion.

It wasn’t until 1936 that the American Kennel Club finally recognized the Pit Bull as a true breed and even then called it a Staffordshire Terrier, setting it apart from the American Pit Bull Terrier.

So if Pit Bulls were once America’s favorite Dog, why now are they so feared?

Despite the fact that dog fighting was made illegal in all fifty states, the sport made a heavy comeback in the early 1980’s. And during that time the American Pit Bull became the favorite breed used not only for dog fighting but to guard drugs and other illegal contraband for criminals and thugs across the country.

Pit Bull appearance, intelligence, strength, and tenacity, made the breed the perfect watch dogs of the time and the favorite status symbol for the criminal element. Stereo typing turned the once revered family dog into the devil dog of the modern age.

For the next decade and a half it was an all out war on the American Pit Bull with legislators, media, and even some large canine organizations citing the breed as killers on four legs. Dog bite reports, by “Pit Bull type” dogs, became common in almost every media outlet. Myths and rumors concerning the breed cropped up out of fear and lack of knowledge about the breed itself. Even today, when most people hear of a major dog bite incident or mauling, they almost always assume the dog must be a Pit Bull.

While it is true that The American Pit Bull is certainly an intelligent, determined, and powerful breed, the demonization has come strictly from criminals using the breed as a status symbol, media looking for powerful headlines, and law makers fearful of what they fail to understand. Any dog can bite, but after all is said and done; the attack of a Yorkshire Terrier rarely results in serious damage and simply does not make sensational news.

Pit Bulls are on the receiving end of what has become known as the biggest breed discrimination in canine history.

Their ever present popularity, despite the bad press they receive, makes Pit Bulls one of the most over produced breeds in America, and one of the highest euthanized breeds in shelters today. Documented statistics, from shelter euthanasia reports alone, indicate that almost 3,000 Pit Bulls are put to sleep every day in the US. These numbers are not inclusive of the ones that die each day due to illness, starvation, and at the hands of abusive and neglectful owners.

And yet there are still hundreds of thousands of Pit Bulls thriving in family settings across the US, with no incident. They are family dogs that get along wonderfully with other animals and humans alike. Healthy, well cared for, and properly supervised Pit Bulls do make great canine companions. Like any other companion animal they are only as good or bad as they are allowed or trained to be.

In recent years fanciers of the breed have fought back against breed bans (BSL or Breed Specific Legislation) and the demonization of this fabulous breed. It’s a slow but grueling process but there does appear to be improvement in the general perception of the breed, today.

As sad as the circumstances were, cases of dog fighting and animal abuse like that of the Michael Vick dogs, brought more positive attention to the breed than ever before. It showed that even though the Vick dogs had been trained to fight and become extremely aggressive with other dogs, rehabilitation is possible in this resilient breed. The vast majority of the Vick dogs were rehabbed and later placed in home environment and many became service and therapy dogs, thriving in their new lives.

For Pit Bull lovers everywhere there seems to be hope, now more than ever, that someday in the future the discrimination of an entire breed will end, and that each dog will be judged not by its appearance or breed, but by its behavior as an individual.


Originally published on Examiner.com | October 2014

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