Breed History

Presented here is a thorough document on the history of the American Pit Bull Terrier (Pit Bull), along with bibliography to enable easy research for the interested reader. All Pit Bull parents and enthusiasts are encouraged to further study the history of this most fascinating breed, for in its history lies the essence of the animal – an understanding of its history will give one an understanding of the breed.

NOTE:  accurate history is extremely important to breed preservation and development. This page is continually updated to be sure the most accurate and detailed account of history can be provided. If you notice any errors, please be sure to let us know!

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As far back as one cares to go in recorded history, one will find reference in both word and art of molossoid dogs that were used for fighting, hunting, and war. There were different “types” of molossi, spread about the world, used for similar functions and these dogs evolved into our modern day mastiff and bulldog breeds. It is unknown if these types sprang up individually, or from one main ancestor. Some believe that this type of dog originally came from an area close to China.

British Chief Caractacus was defeated by Emperor Claudius of the Roman Empire in 50 AD. The Romans were so impressed by the fierce fighting dogs they met when they landed in Britain that they began importing the dogs back to Rome for use in the great arena, alongside the other dogs they already possessed for such uses. It seems reasonable to assume that the British dogs were at some points crossed into the Roman dogs. Ancestors of these dogs were exported to all parts of the continent, including France and to Spain where they became renowned fighting dogs. Later some of these dogs found their way back to Britain. A variety of breeds of mastiff and bulldog-type were scattered about, and most
likely contributed to the creation of the bulldog that was to be one of the main ingredients used in the development of the Pit Bull.

From Homan’s A of Fighting with a molossoid with a molossoid dog, an early mastiff.

Circa 1406 Edmond de Langley, Duke of York, wrote a treatise entitled “The Mayster of the Game and of Hawks” in which he described the “Alaunt” or “Allen” dog (a descendant of the ancient molossoid dogs), which was the popular baiting dog of the time because of its tenaciousness and strength. In a 1585 painting, dogs described as Alaunts that look very similar to modern day Pit Bulls, only of a larger size, are shown hunting wild hogs.

The name “bulldog” was first mentioned in print in 1631. Later, dogs
described as bulldogs were used to bait bull and bear. These bulldogs are most assuredly the descendants of the Alaunt. A letter written in Spain in 1632 by an Englishman named Prestwich Eaton to his friend George Wellingham who was in London, asked for a “good mastiff dog and two bulldogs.” This gives indication that a split had occurred and the bulldog had already formed into a distinct type by this time.

Here is a depiction of a bulldog doing what this type of dog was created to do – catch/bait bulls. Bulldogs were one of the breeds used to create the modern APBT. Bulldog history is often mistakenly applied to Pit Bulls.

By viewing art, we can see two distinct types of bulldog-like dogs. Some are more low-slung, with undershot jaws, heavier-boned, and broader. It is to be assumed that this is the prototype from which the modern-day AKC Bulldog was drawn upon, having been created by the crossing of the Alaunt with a Chinese brachycephalic breed Pai Dog. However, also to be noted are bulldogs in art that are strikingly similar to modern day Pit Bulls, with less-exaggerated features and longer legs. Might these be the main ancestors of the current day Pit Bull? It would seem likely. It must be noted that “bulldogs” at this time were not dogs of any particular strain or breed, but rather a type of dog with certain traits that was used for certain things. Dogs which possessed more Pit Bull-like features went on to become the Pit Bull breed after being mixed with terriers, while the
more “bulldoggy” bulldogs were used in creation of the brachycephalic breeds (Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, etc).

Bulldogs were used for all manner of work including baiting, fighting, stock work, and farm dog, as well as companion animal. They were an agreeable dog, capable of extreme ferociousness towards other animals but unwavering loyalty and gentleness towards humans. They were a breed which was required to demonstrate a certain level of aggression directed towards other animals, but were routinely used in pairs to bait
animals, so overt aggression towards others of their same species was not an extreme trait.

In 1835, a law was set in motion in England that would make the sport of baiting illegal, and over the next few years, the activity eventually died down upon enforcement of the law. The people turned to another blood sport – dog fighting – and of course turned to the bulldog as the likely candidate for what was to the become the foundation of a new breed.

Bulldogs with a heightened tendency to exhibit dog-directed aggression, a smaller size, and greater agility for performance in a pit that was decidedly smaller than the large areas that baits were typically held in were the likely candidates. Hardy, scrappy sporting terriers were crossed into these fighting bulldogs to further enhance these traits. The crosses were called bull-and-terriers.

“Dustman” – a known
bulldog-terrier cross.

It is considered general knowledge that these crosses were the first Pit Bulls, however there is some speculation as to whether or not the history of these crosses is that of our Pit Bulls, or rather a history “borrowed” from the Bull Terrier, which is a very well documented bulldog/terrier fighting dog cross. Some students of Pit Bull history believe that the Pit Bull is practically a living replica of the old-time bulldog, and that during this time the bulldog was refined as a fighting dog ‘as is’, without any crossbreeding. The question presented is this: why would the devotees of
the already extremely game bulldog dilute the blood of the perfect fighting dog with non-game terriers? The typical argument is that the terrier blood increased agility and decreased size. However, the jobs the bulldog was typically required to perform would have demanded agility and the ability to avoid the antics of an enraged bull. As already pointed out, bulldogs came in a variety of sizes and shapes, so breeding down the size to be more compatible with the pit would not have been a difficult task, even without looking outside the gene pool. Examining works of art from all points in history, one will discover dogs that look similar to today’s Pit Bull.

“Crib & Rosa” –
this painting is
shown to depict
two dogs of
original bulldog
type.

As tempting as it may be to sucked in by the allure of such a notion, the odds of the APBT being the original, terrier-free bulldog is not likely. It is the opinion our opinion that, while the APBT is probably made up mostly of old bulldog blood, at least some terrier blood *was* indeed introduced. Please consider the fact that quite a bit of cross-breeding went on among the game dog fanciers of the time who were not so much interested in purebred dogs as they were in dogs with fighting ability, and would therefore breed accordingly to dogs that were game, regardless of pedigree. It is a known fact that bulldogs and terriers were mixed, and fought, and it is extremely unlikely, and in fact no evidence proves, that none of these bull-and-terrier mixes never made it into the APBT gene pool.

The breed eventually to be known as the American Pit Bull Terrier was selectively bred specifically with the idea of it becoming the ultimate canine gladiator. But by virtue of the fact that so much of the breed was made up of versatile bulldog blood, the breed also proved adept at a number of non-fighting activities, including those which the bulldog had been used for. Also, the traits (specifically gameness and a soft, gentle, amiable temperament with humans) bred for in pit dogs were surprisingly relevant in other arenas. Gameness is defined as the willingness to see a task through to its end, even under penalty of serious injury or death.
Gameness was the trait most cherished in a fighting dog for obvious
reasons, however this same trait proved useful in other areas – a dog
who had the tenacity to hold a wild bull or boar, braveness to keep wild and stray animals away from valuable livestock, and extreme tolerance for pain (which made for a very stable dog less likely to bite out of fear or pain) was useful in rural old England, and later on in America. So while a core group of fanciers focused on the fighting uses of the breed, and bred with the pit in mind, others kept dogs for a variety of tasks. And indeed, some family/working dogs were used in the pit and some pit dogs were also family/working dogs. There was never a clear line drawn between ‘fighting dogs’, and ‘non-fighting dogs’ in those early years of the breed.

Pit Bulls were imported to America shortly before the Civil War, and used in much the same manner as they were back in England. But in the USA the breed solidified and was named – the American Pit Bull Terrier. Strains of the fighting dog that remained in England later came to be known as Staffordshire Bull Terriers. There is speculation as to how closely related the Stafford and Pit Bull are as a breed, but the most convincing case is made up of claims that they are a similar breed, developed during the same time, made up of similar but separate strains of bulldog and terrier
blood. Cousins, but not brothers. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier became recognized as a breed by the English dog registry, the Kennel Club, in 1935.

Sally served with the
Pennsylvania
Infantry during the
Civil War, and is
regarded as a war
hero.

In America, the Pit Bull flourished. It was one of the most popular breeds, highly prized by a wide variety of people. The Pit Bull was used to represent the US in WW1 artwork; popular companies like RCA and the Buster Brown Shoe Company used the breed as their mascots. A Pit Bull named Pal the Wonder dog, sired by the famous fighting dog Tudor’s Black Jack  played “Petey” in the Our Gang/Little Rascals show; followed by another Pit Bull named Lucenay’s Peter after Pal was poisoned; Stubby, which many people call a “pit bull type dog” became a decorated WW1 hero. Pit Bulls accompanied pioneer families on their explorations.
Laura Ingalls Wilder of the popular Little House books owned a working Pit Bulldog named Jack. Famous individuals like Theodore Roosevelt and Helen Keller owned the breed. It was during this time that the Pit Bull truly became America’s sweetheart breed, admired, respected and loved.

“Pete the
Pup” from the Our
Gang series.

In 1898 the United Kennel Club was formed with the express intent of providing registration and fighting guidelines for the now officially- named American Pit Bull Terrier. Later, those who wished to distance themselves from the fighting aspect of the breed petitioned the American Kennel Club for recognition of the Pit Bull so that it would be eligible for dog shows and other performance events. The AKC conceded in 1936 but only under the stipulation that the dogs registered with them be called “Staffordshire Terriers”, the name of the province in England in which the breed supposedly originated. Upon acceptance of the breed, many people dual-registered their dogs with both the AKC and the UKC. Lucenay’s Peter (the dog that starred in the Our Gang series) was the first dual-registered Pit Bull/Staffordshire Terrier.

The UKC evolved, eventually beginning to register other working-type breeds, and later holding shows similar to those of the AKC. Currently, the UKC is the second largest purebred dog registry in the United States, complete with strict bylaws that ban anyone who is convicted of dog fighting. The American Dog Breeders Association was formed in 1909 because of certain fanciers’ opinions that the UKC was not doing its job protecting and preserving the Pit Bull breed as they felt it should be preserved. The ADBA’s goal is the same now is at was then: to register, promote and preserve the original American Pit Bull Terrier fighting-type dog, although like the other two registries, they officially frown upon the illegal act of dog fighting.

The AKC eventually closed its studbooks to American Pit Bull Terriers. For a short period in the 1960’s, the AKC reopened its studbooks to American Pit Bull Terriers. In 1973 the AKC added the prefix “American” to the Staffordshire Terrier’s name in an effort to
distinguish it from the newly recognized Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
Today, the AKC only allows registration of those dogs with parents
registered as American Staffordshire Terriers. UKC allows registration of AmStaffs as American Pit Bull Terriers.  The ADBA allows registration of AmStaffs, under the American Staffordshire Terrier name.

Today the Pit Bull has evolved into a marvelous working and
companion dog, used for purposes as varied as those it originally
performed. Pit Bulls are employed as police/armed services dogs,
search and rescuers, therapy animals, and livestock workers. They
compete in all manner of organized dog sports, from herding to agility to conformation to obedience and the bite sports like Schutzhund and French Ring. They make loving pets for children and seniors, and everyone in between. They are indeed one of the most versatile breeds on the planet. Much of this is owed to the activities it once performed. The harshness and physical demands of the activities molded a strong, healthy, stable animal, one anyone should be proud to own.

Bibliography:

  • The Working Pit Bull/Diane Jessup
  • History of Fighting Dogs & Fighting Dog Breeds/Dieter Fleig
  • This is the APBT/Richard Stratton
  • Evolution of the Bulldog/VH Ross
  • A New Look at the contribution of the eastern brachycephalic
    breeds to “bull breed” history/ Carl Semencic with Don Fiorino
    (“Dog World” magazine, March, 1984)
  • Bulldog History/John Kragenskjold