The American Pit Bull -- also known as the American Staffordshire Terrier -- is a descendent of the muscular fighting dogs bred by the Molossi tribe of ancient Greece. Physically powerful and possessed of an intelligence that rendered them trainable, these ancient fighting dogs fought alongside their masters in territorial warfare over tribal lands. Between the years of 50 AD and 410 AD, it is believed that the Molossi dogs were sold and traded throughout Greece and crossbred to create the first breed of bulldog -- the American Pit Bull's immediate ancestor. While the Romans essentially used the dogs as canine gladiators in arena blood-sports, early Norman butchers used them to control unruly cattle. Later evolving into the horribly inhuman sport of "baiting," the dogs were trained to nip, herd, and essentially harass a bull for hours in a spectacle for the crowd.
After baiting was made illegal by the British Parliament in 1835, spectacle-hungry dog owners turned the dogs on each other, as well as on smaller animals such as rats, in a sport known as "ratting." As the dogs were now fighting smaller animals, dog owners began to crossbreed the bulldogs with terrier dogs, resulting in the smaller and more compact Pit Bull Terrier. While the "bull" in the name comes from their baiting days, the "pit" comes from the literal pits in which ratting took place.
With such a violent past, it is little surprise that the Pit Bull has a reputation of being violent and severely aggressive by nature. However, it is important to understand that these dogs were trained to behave violently, and were typically deprived any human contact aside from their training and fighting hours. Dogs were often fed a diet solely consisting of raw meat, kept in complete darkness during the hours they were not training or fighting, and relentlessly run on treadmills with a weaker prey animal in front of them. At the end of the session, the dogs were encouraged and rewarded for killing the prey animal, while a dog that shied away from another animal -- particularly another dog -- was often itself killed. Just as the gladiator-slave in the ancient arenas of Rome was forced to kill or be killed, so the American Pit Bull was faced with the same scenario.
Fortunately, there were some who recognized the potential use for Pit Bulls in other areas. Though dog fighting continued to be a popular sport in 19th century America, many frontiersmen used Pit Bulls to herd livestock and guard women and children in their absence. Though originally bred for his tenacity as a fighting dog, it began to become apparent that the American Pit Bull was a highly adaptable breed that could be as gentle as he could fierce, if only trained accordingly. As a result, the American Pit Bull began to be seen as something more than a canine gladiator; for the first time in history, he began to be seen as a family and faithful companion dog.
In 1898, the United Kennel Club (UKC) recognized the American Pit Bull Terrier as his own breed and adopted him as its mascot, though it took another 30 years for the American Kennel Club (AKC) to grant purebred status to the Pit Bull under the heading of Staffordshire Terrier. Just as his Molossi ancestors fought alongside their masters in tribal warfare, an American Pit Bull affectionately referred to as "Stubby" served in the first World War and was credited with saving several human lives, prior to becoming the mascot for Georgetown University. Notable owners of Pit Bull Terriers include Eleanor and Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson, and Alfalfa of the popular television show The Little Rascals. Pit Bulls continue to be used in a variety of capacities, to include, herding, guarding, hunting, and military and police operations; however, they are also heralded as affectionate family dogs and faithful companions to responsible owners.
The modern American Pit Bull ranges in size from 16 to 19 inches in height, and 57 to 67 pounds in weight. Regarding the temperament of the American Pit Bull, the Dog Breed Information Center has this to say:
The American Staffordshire Terrier is an intelligent, happy, outgoing, stable, and confident dog. Gentle and loving towards people. Good-natured, amusing, extremely loyal and affectionate family pet. It is good with children and adults. Almost always obedient, this dog wants nothing more than to please its master. It is an extremely courageous and intelligent guard dog that is very full of life. Over the past 50 years, careful breeding has produced this friendly, trustworthy, dog who is an especially good dog for children. Courageous and a persistent fighter if provoked. Highly protective of his owners and the owner's property, it will fight an enemy to the death if the enemy traps the dog in a corner and threatens its loved ones. This breed has a very high tolerance for pain. Some un-socialized Staffs may be dog aggressive. Socialize very thoroughly when young to curve any dog aggressive tendencies. This breed can be difficult to housebreak. It has given outstanding results as a guardian of property, but is at the same time esteemed as a companion dog. When properly trained and socialized, the Staff makes a great family companion. This breed is not for the passive owner who does not understand that all dogs have an instinct to have a pack order. They need a firm, confident, consistent owner who understands how to display the proper leadership. The objective in training this dog is to achieve a pack leader status. It is a natural instinct for a dog to have an order in their pack. When we humans live with dogs, we become their pack. The entire pack cooperates under a single leader. Lines are clearly defined. You and all other humans MUST be higher up in the order than the dog. That is the only way your relationship can be a success. (Dog Breed Information Center, 2011)
Unfortunately, there are those who continue to perpetuate the bad reputation of Pit Bulls by purposely training them to be aggressive and forcing them to fight. The most recently publicized incident of illegal dog fighting involved Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in 2008.
Vick was charged with illegal competitive dogfighting, which involves training pit bulls to fight against other dogs. When authorities searched Vick's property this month, they found 54 pit bulls and a host of brutal items including a "rape stand," used to hold dogs in place for mating; an electric treadmill modified for dogs and a bloodied piece of carpeting. Graves of seven pit bulls were found inside "Bad Newz Kennels," a Virginia property owned by Vick. The dogs were allegedly killed after testing whether they would be good fighters. According to documents, dogfights would end when one dog died or backed down, and dogs were sometimes put to death by drowning, strangulation, hanging, gunshot, electrocution or some other method. (Thirty Mile Zone, 2011)
Such treatment is indeed reprehensible and could make even the tamest animal severely aggressive. Of the 54 dogs found on the Virginia kennel compound, only 22 -- known as the Vicktory Dogs -- survived and are currently being rehabilitated. Now in the care of Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, many of the Vicktory Dogs suffer from severe psychological and emotional impairments similar to those of young children who come from abusive homes. Upon arrival at Best Friends, many of the dogs were understandably dog-aggressive, food-aggressive, and untrusting of people; however great strides have been made in the physical recover and psychological rehabilitation of all dogs.
For example, consider the Pit Bull Georgia. When Georgia came to Best Friends, her ears had been cropped, her tail broken, and all her teeth removed. Georgia had also nursed several litters and carried heavy scars from fighting. Needless to say, she was highly dog aggressive and fearful of humans; however, she has since formed a deeply loving bond with trainer John Garcia. Though Georgia's dog aggression persists to a degree, she has become a great lover of people playmates -- children in particular -- and enjoys belly rubs, naps with her trainer, games of fetch and runs in the canyons. Georgia has appeared on the Ellen [Degeneres] Show and ESPN. While she has yet to find a permanent home, she is more than happy to remain with Garcia.
Meanwhile, Lucas -- though one of the most-fought of all the Vicktory Dogs -- showed surprisingly few signs of emotional or psychological turmoil. "He was probably one of the happiest of all of them," says Michelle Logan, a team leader at Dogtown. "He's just always been happy-go-lucky" (Best Friends, 2011). Logan and the other trainers cite Lucas's overwhelming desire to please -- a trait typical of Pit Bulls -- along with the likeliness of his forming a stronger bond with his previous owner as the reason he was less traumatized by his fighting…