What comes to mind when you think of the word “pit bull”. Is it loathing, fear, terror?  Or is it with a smile of a childhood pal you remember and a loving, comical companion.

What is a pit bull anyway?  What does the term mean?  “Pit bull” is a general term, it does not specify a specific breed.  It USED to be the nickname or slang term for the American Pit Bull Terrier. In the late 1800 early 1900 there was no American Staffordshire Terrier.  It was the shortened name of the American Pit Bull Terrier which was recognized by the UKC in 1898 The AKC didn’t create their version until the 1930s. We’ll get to that later.

There was a time in this breed’s past when they were considered the ultimate family dog. There are hundreds of family photos from circa 1920-30 with a pit bull at the side or sitting on a blanket with a baby.  The most decorated war dog of all time was a pit bull mix named Stubby. He has been celebrated on the pages of Parade Magazine.  Individuals born in the earlier part of the 20th century typically remember this breed fondly. They remember the original Petie of the Little Rascals (whose name was Pal, and one of his offspring Lucenay’s Peter, both registered APBT, took over after his death) and Buster Brown’s dog Tige (who was also played by Pal).  They remember the RCA dog, Nipper (a pit mix) and they remember when Stubby saved his men from a poison gas attack and held a German spy at bay. They remember the war posters that chose the American Pit Bull Terrier as the symbol for this country.  A strong loyal canine capable of protecting the innocent if provoked.  A dog breed noted for it’s courage, confidence and fearlessness.  Sadly, that seems to have been forgotten by some and this same breed is looked upon sourly with distaste and with an undercurrent of fear.  Those “devil dogs” that aren’t really dogs.  Chris Rock (shame on him) was quoted on the Jay Leno show as saying “Pit Bulls ain’t even real dogs” in reference to Michael Vick having paid his dues (there aren’t enough dues for being devoid of kindness for living things).


Current Times: So, What happened?

How did they fall from grace?  It was a combination of events such as the rise of dogfighting popularity (the virtual mainstreaming of it) as well as the discovery by the media and ensuing public outcry. The villain -ization of the breed to sell papers/stories equating animal fighting and aggression with aggression towards people.  Then, those who enjoyed that aggressive reputation began to gravitate towards the breed.  Those who wanted to affiliate themselves with aggressiveness and danger, as well as capitalize on the greed and money involved with dog fighting.  There began the cultivating of the “bad dog” image and using it for their own gain.  Breeding and selling substandard and aggressive specimens to continue this cycle.  It’s called a self fulfilling prophecy.

Before the Pit Bull was demonized by the media, past eras has it’s “bad dog” du jour. The German Shepherd Dog, the Doberman as well as the Rottweiler have all been portrayed in a negative light. Most pit bulls are wonderful, friendly and gregarious.  Intelligent people realize that bad behavior is not specific to one kind of dog.

So, what is a Pit Bull?  What do these terms mean? It really depends on who you ask and it is confusing as hell.

Pit Bull - the slang term for the APBT, the breed recognized by the UKC in 1898. This is how the majority of American Pit Bull Terrier owners/breeders/rescuers in the know, the ones who have done their research and read their history refer to their chosen breed. When we refer to pit bull, we are referring to non pedigreed dogs that embody the temperament and characteristics of the American Pit Bull Terrier.

Pit Bull - the “group” of related bully breeds. They name three “related breeds” of the American Staffordshire Terrier, the American Pit Bull Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier (see below).  And it is used more specifically as the nickname for the American Pit Bull Terrier.   It is important to note that a Pit Bull is a “TERRIER”, not a guardian breed or a mastiff type.  Some people include the American Bully in this category (we do not, this is a completely different dog and a bastardization of type. In short we feel this dog is an unhealthy mutant)

The AKC says a “pit bull” is a mixed breed and some breed experts say that there is no such thing as a pit bull and that it was concocted for the purpose of outlawing dogs.  They are almost correct.  The term “pit bull” is NOT the name of any recognized breed but it has been used as a nickname for those dogs in the bully breed class of dogs.

Pit Bull (as it relates to Breed specific Legislation) takes on a whole different meaning which I believe confuses the rest of the bunch.  If you ask those responsible for breed specific legislation, they will tell you it is a medium sized dog with a short coat, muscular build, broad head, thick nose and powerful jaws....However that is the breed standard for the Labrador Retriever.  If it looks like a pit bull, then it IS a pit bull as far as breed banning is concerned whether the person in charge knows what a pit bull looks like or not.  It is based on perception.  It is a generic term for dogs of similar back ground and physical characteristics.

Pit Bull Type Dogs - Oh for the love of Pete!  Could we make it more confusing?  Pit bull type dogs (and we hate this term), refer to mixed breed dogs of unknown parentage that may or may not include one of the three breeds included in the pit bull category as well as any number of unrelated bully types ranging from boxers to american bulldogs to just about anything in between.  Dogs that are not purebred  but are are targeted because of their appearance and what they may contain in their genes.

Back to the “Three” breeds that are included in the “Pit Bull” category. These three breeds are related and can be traced back to England where the breed originated.  They are all three legitimate dog breeds.

The American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) can be traced back to the 1600-1800s and was known by many different names including the Yankee Terrier, Pit Terrier and the Half-and-Half, prior to the United Kennel Club recognition and designation in 1898.  Chauncey Bennett began the UKC with the purpose of registering and tracking fighting dogs. The dogs that he named the American Pit Bull Terrier.  The American Pit Bull Terrier is also registered with the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA) and has stayed fairly true to form since it’s inception.  No two history books truly agree on the development of the APBT or Staffy Bull (described later) or even the history of the American Bulldog (not a pit bull but a guardian breed from a mollossor background).  These breeds were all related in early development and went their separate ways as they became specialized in form, function and registry.

The American Staffordshire Terrier (AST or Am Staff) is an American Kennel Club (AKC) creation and recognized breed.  The AKC recognized a breed in 1936 after much lobbying by the APBT community in the United States who wanted to participate and compete in conformation shows.  It recognized a dog breed it called the Staffordshire Terrier and created a breed standard based on the best APBT specimens of the day. The standard written for the AST was based on a UKC/ADBA registered APBT by the name of Colby’s Primo. It opened it’s registry and studbooks to dogs that were registered as American Pit Bull Terriers in other clubs and non registered Bull and Terrier dogs that fit the conformation standard.   The first AST registered was a dog named Wheeler’s Black Dinah a UKC registered bitch.  The name was later changed to the American Staffordshire Terrier in the 1950s to avoid confusion with the newly recognized Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The breeds then went their separate ways and were considered to different breeds.  One considered the “show” version and one considered the “working” version and they continued to diversify as the years passed.   To make matters more confusing, some ASTs are dual-registered as American Pit Bull Terriers with the UKC.  The Am Staff is a relatively  “young” breed in it’s divergence from the original American Pit Bull Terrier but still considered “kissing cousins”.

The Staffordshire Bull Terrier (SBT or Staffy Bull) is a very old breed from the United Kingdom and is said to be the foundation for both the APBT and the AST even though it was not recognized by the AKC until the 1950s. The SBT is also recognized and registered with the UKC. All three of these breeds are related, originating from the same stock and have diverged into different forms over time. It’s interesting to note that in the UK where the pit bull is banned, the SBT is not considered a “pit bull”.

The Pit bull (and when I refer to pit bull, I mean the American Pit Bull Terrier) to me is a rough and tumble dog with a sleek coat, an athletic physique and gregarious disposition.  A good pit bull is a people pit bull, very people oriented and responsive to training. They inquisitive and have exceptional personalities.  They are generally biddable with people as one of the terrier group but may be quarrelsome with other animals. They are easy to groom and naturally accept manipulation, examination and adore love and attention.  They put 110% effort into everything they do, from chasing the neighborhood cats to sleeping until noon.  They are eager to please, easy to train and excel at almost anything you would like to do. Their determination is one of their positive traits (and may be a frustrating one for the unprepared owner).  Pit Bulls are currently employed as Search and Rescue Dogs, Obedience Champions, Narcotic and Bomb Detection Dogs, Therapy, Agility, Weight Pull, Flyball, French Ring, and Shutzhund.  Like most terriers, they require a lot of physical and mental stimulation.

Pit Bulls also make very reliable companions with a steady and stable temperament.  The American Temperament Test Society (www.atts.org) consistently rates these three breeds higher than the more popular “family friendly” breeds such as the Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Cocker Spaniel and Shi Tzu. They adapt easily to most environments provided exercise and positive stimulation are provided.  ATTS separates the three breeds into their appropriate categories.  Recognizing that they are SEPARATE breeds and not different sizes of the same dog. I do not know how they categorize mixes.

The Early Years

The early ancestors of the pit bull were bulldog in origin, the molloser category and were specialized as bull baiting and other blood sports.  They were simply known as Bulldogs. Bull Baiting was used by butchers at first because the belief was that it made the meat more tender.  Later it became a sport for betting.  There was also bear baiting and boar baiting.  These were performed by bulldogs and bulldog types and the baited animal was tethered in an arena or open area. They also pitted dogs against Monkeys, Ducks and Men, even lions in the early days (the Complete History of Fighting Dogs).

In early pictures you see, some dogs look like APBTs, some look like American Bulldogs and some look like Mastiff types.  There were no specific breeds at that time, only dogs that were used for purpose and bred accordingly. Fans of the Staffy say those are their breed, same with fans of the American Bulldog and American Pit Bull Terrier and it’s likely that they are all correct. That these early pictures and drawings are the ancestors of all of these breeds.

When bull baiting became illegal is when fanciers started turning the dogs towards each other in fighting matches. They began specializing a breed that later became known as the American Pit Bull Terrier by breeding smaller quicker terriers with the larger bulldog.  These dogs were called “pit” bulldogs because the dogs fought in a pit with spectators.  Of course there was also the staffy bull that was used in dogfighting. It was during this time that the APBT became the APBT.

In the beginning of the period where dog fighting arose, the dogs also had no name and had a variety of looks. They were called names such as the half-and-half, pit terriers, bull and terriers.  As the sport seemed to grow and become more organized in the late 1600s-1700s, the drawings of the dogs begin to look more standard like the APBT and Staffy Bull but you don’t see dogs named by breed until the 1800s-1900s. In those early pictures you see dogs named as Staffordshire Pit Terriers, Pit Terriers or Pit Bulldogs.  They were also known as Yankee Terriers.

If They are so Great shouldn’t everyone have one? 

Pit bulls are great dogs but they aren’t the perfect pet for everyone. They are probably not a good choice for someone who has never owned a dog before or never owned a terrier.  Pit bulls require intelligent, dedicated and responsible ownership to protect them from our world.  Too many people obtain these dogs for the wrong reasons, for a fad, or have little understanding of the inherent traits this breed possesses and then there are those who would like to destroy the breed completely.

It’s very important that today’s pit bull owners understand the characteristics that have been ingrained in this breed by selective breeding. Contrary to popular belief, the pit bull’s original purpose was not to be aggressive towards humans or to be a guard dog of any kind.  The ancestors of these dogs were brought to this country with immigrants for the SOLE purpose of continuing the blood sport traditions from England.  Pit Bulls are descended from bull baiting dogs that were developed into fighting dogs.  As they spread through the US, they became farm dogs, family dogs and all around companions.  Early fighting dogs were desired to be steady and reliable around people to ensure they were easy to handle before, during and after a dog fight.  Aggression towards other dogs should not be confused with aggression towards humans.  Human aggression, severe shyness and instability are not traits typically found nor should be accepted in this breed.

A certain amount of intolerance towards other dogs (especially same gender dogs) is to be expected with this breed. As a terrier, they can be generally scrappy and quick to respond to a threat by another dog.  Dog aggression can not be easily trained or loved out of these dogs nor does early socialization guarantee the dog will always get along with other animals. Diligent training, monitoring and responsibility can control dog aggression while the handler is present.  Dog fighting is a very unpleasant topic but it is important to understanding this breed and the special traits that have been included and why it requires responsible, vigilant ownership. Pit Bulls have been selectively bred for hundreds of years to fight other dogs and test their mettle against livestock, to ignore this is to be negligent.

There are certain precautions you must take when owning pit bulls, especially in a multi dog/ pet environment such as separating dogs when no-one is around to supervise and ALWAYS keeping your pit bull on a leash and not frequenting dog parks.  It is very important for current and potential owners to know how to avoid a fight, and to break up one if despite all prevention - one occurs.  Remember that all canines will fight if the situation is right and it is better to be safe than sorry later. Some Pit bulls do get along great with other pets and may live happily with other dogs without any problems but some do not. Your pit bull may not be the dog that starts the fight with another dog but chances are if he feels challenged or cornered he will fight. It is important to keep in mind that the pit bull is almost ALWAYS blamed no matter who started it, and will often end up paying with his life.  As a pit bull owner, it is always better to err on the side of caution than to set your dogs up to fail.


  1. The American Pit Bull Terrier Handbook by Joe Stahlupphe

  2. Pit Bulls for Dummies by Caroline Coile

  3. Bully Breeds Magazine & Training Secrets for Bully Breeds by Dog Fancy

  4. The Book of the American Pit Bull Terrier by Louis Colby and Diane Jessup

  5. The Working Pit Bull & The Essential Pit Bull by Diane Jessup

  6. American Staffordshire Terriers by Anna Katherine Nicholas

  7. The History of Fighting Dogs by Mike Homan

  8. This is the American Pit Bull Terrier by Richard Stratton

  9. The American Pit Bull Terrier by JL Colby

  10. Thirty Years with Fighting dogs by George Armitage