A fair assessment of a growing problem? Or a bad rap against an animal which has suffered far more at the hands of man than it can possibly repay? It has been estimated that there are half a million pit bull terriers alive in the United States today. What about the 99% who have never bitten a human being? Are these dogs "loaded handguns," as many have called them? "There's something a little scary about wondering, Is there a time bomb ticking in my dog?" says Dr. Franklin Loew, dean of Tufts Veterinary School, who opposes efforts to legislate against pit bull terriers and believes the breed is the victim of "canine racism." Loew adds, "The pit bull does seem to respond more than other dogs to people trying to bring out aggressiveness. But everything I know professionally tells me that this is not a dog problem, but a problem of dog ownership."
What exactly is a pit bull? Defining it has proved to be a formidable legal hurdle because the pit bull is not a specific breed. Rather, it is a kind of dog, a generic catchall like hound or retriever. The breeds most commonly referred to as pit bulls are the American Staffordshire terrier, which is the term used by the American Kennel Club, and the American pit bull terrier, the term used by the United Kennel Club. The men who match pit bulls in fights today do not bother with such formalities; they refer to their animals as bulldogs—a nickname which should not confuse pit bulls with the pug-faced and bowlegged English bulldog, a distant relative, or the bullterrier, another relation whose bloodline was softened long ago by crossbreeding with the English Terrier. Pit bulls come in almost any color; their ears may be cropped or uncropped; their noses either red or black; and their height and weight merely proportionate—with the weight parameters ranging from under 20 pounds to upwards of 100. Their muzzles are wedgelike, their jaws powerful and their heads blocky. A pit bull's coat will be short and glossy, shimmering over a compact frame tightly bound in muscle.
All the dogs referred to as pit bulls are thought to trace their ancestry back to the bull-and-terrier, which was developed in England in the early 19th century. The bull-and-terrier was a cross between the early bull-dog—the name comes from the fact that it was used in bull-baiting—and a game terrier of some kind, either English, or fox, or black-and-tan. The bull-and-terrier dog was also used for bull-baiting, and was sometimes referred to as a butcher's dog. When a butcher wanted to slaughter one of his cattle, he would sic his bull-and-terrier on the unlucky bovine, and the game little dog would latch onto the bigger animal's nose, and the butcher, hammer in hand, would move in swiftly and bludgeon the cow on the head.
At some point, no one is sure exactly when, gentlemen sportsmen began matching bull-and-terrier dogs against each other. One of the more popular establishments in London used for such purposes was the Westminster Pit, an enclosure that could hold about 300 spectators. Admission was charged at the door (two shillings in 1816), odds would be established, wagers were made and purses put up. It was all very civilized. Sometimes, after the dogs had finished chewing up one another, a fight between bears would follow.
In 1835, the English parliament outlawed the whole bloody business—bear-baiting, bull-baiting and dogfighting. All the law served to do was to drive dogfighting underground. The coal miners in Staffordshire were said to be particularly avid followers of the clandestine "sport." Now, more than 150 years later, in an age of computers and biogenetics, the blood of those miners courses through the veins of citizens in these 50 states, and the blood of the bull-and-terrier dog's descendants continues to be splattered against the sides of pits.
According to The Complete Dog Book, the official AKC publication, the pit bull first came to America around 1870. Some pit bull breeders date their arrival much earlier. Byron Fortenberry of Akron, Ohio, a breeder and author on canine subjects, claims that of the two dogs that came over on the Mayflower, one was a spaniel and one was "a small mastiff." Says Fortenberry, "A bulldog was called a small mastiff in 1620. No way you can prove it was or it wasn't a pit bull, but more than likely that's what became our breed."
Fortenberry does not explain how this particular small mastiff was able to reproduce itself—perish the thought that it was bred to the lowly spaniel—but one of the traits one discovers in talking with breeders of American pit bull terriers is that they consider the dog capable of almost anything, including virgin birth. At any rate, the breed was well established in America by the 20th century. In 1898 the United Kennel Club began registering American pit bull terriers under the auspices of C.Z. Bennett, who drew up breed standards and wrote a set of rules governing dogfighting. In 1909 the American Dog Breeders Association, which at that time was determined to distance itself from dogfighting, set up its own registry.
These were the salad days of the pit bull terrier. The dog was the envy of the canine world. Buster Brown's floppy-eared pal in the popular comic strip of that era was his pit bull, Tige. Theodore Roosevelt had a pit bull in the White House. And a pit bull named Stubby, used in World War I to deliver messages between battalions, assisted in the capture of a German spy and was decorated for bravery by General John (Black Jack) Pershing.
The pit bull was America's dog and was depicted as such in 1914 by artist Wallace Robinson, who created a poster in which an English bulldog, a German dachshund, an American bull terrier, a French bulldog and a Russian wolfhound were dressed in the military uniforms of each dog's country. The caption on the poster was a remark by the pit bull, who appeared in the middle, slightly larger than the rest: "I'm neutral, BUT—Not Afraid of any of them."
Later, the most famous pit bull of them all burst on the American scene, a star who was, ironically it now seems, surrounded by a cast of children. That was the Our Gang canine pal, Pete, a predominately white pit bull with a distinctive black circle—almost certainly the work of a make-up artist—around its left eye. Pete is celluloid proof that there was a time when the pit bull terrier had "a ridiculously amiable disposition."