In 1935 the American Kennel Club finally decided to recognize the American pit bull terrier as a breed. The club, however, could not bring itself to call the animal by that name. The AKC wanted its own name for this courageous, personable dog, and it wanted a name that did not include the word pit. The AKC settled upon the Staffordshire terrier because so many of the dogs had come from that area of England. In the summer of 1936 the first Staffordshire terrier was registered by the AKC. Pit bull lore has it that Pete was the first Staffordshire. It's a swell story, but not true. Pete was among the first, but the honor actually goes to a dog named Wheeler's Black Dinah.
"It was exactly the same dog as our American pit bull terrier," says Andy Johnson of the rival UKC, which currently registers between 25,000 and 30,000 American pit bull terriers annually. "They even opened their registry to our dogs. The AKC just didn't want anything in their name that would remind people of the fighting history of the pit bull. It was like a family denying that it had horse thieves in its past."
Perhaps. But most pit bull fanciers believe that in the 52 years since the Staffordshire terrier—renamed the American Staffordshire terrier in 1972—was recognized by the AKC, it has become a dog significantly different from the UKC's American pit bull terrier. Not in looks—which are nearly identical—but in temperament. Why? Because over the years the Staffordshire has been bred to show, rather than to fight. In one of his books, pit bull expert and breeder Richard Stratton addressed this subject in his glossary of pit bull terms: "American Staffordshire terrier.... The show counterpart of the APBT. Except for some game strains that are dual-registered, these dogs could not be expected to be as game as the APBT or to have the same ability."
The ability Stratton is talking about is the ability to fight. The gameness he describes is the willingness of the animal to fight to its own death. American Staffordshire terriers have not been valued as fighting dogs for at least half a century. "A true Staffordshire terrier is not a fighting dog, even though it came from a fighting dog," says the Humane Society's Lapham.
Is it just coincidence, then, that none of the killings of people in the past two years have been attributed to registered American Staffordshire terriers? Probably not.
"The American Staffordshire terrier's chief requisites should be strength unusual for its size, soundness, balance, a strong, powerful head, a well-muscled body, and courage that is proverbial," reads The Complete Dog Book. "As to character, they exceed being dead game; nevertheless, they should not be held in ill repute merely because man has been taking advantage of this rare courage to use them in the pit as gambling tools. These dogs are docile, and with a little training are even tractable around other dogs."
Ginny Bazelak of Chepachet, R.I., president of the American Pit Bull Terrier Club of New England, feels the same way about the dogs that she has bred. "They say pit bulls have natural aggressiveness," she says. "I don't believe it. People who are breeding for aggressiveness will get it. For the last 12 years I haven't been, and these dogs aren't. My dogs are babies. They'll lick you to death. The people who fight dogs tell me I'm ruining the breed. They say my dogs are wimps."
Sadly it is the responsible owners and breeders who are suffering the most from the recent wave of pit bull hysteria. "You feel like a criminal walking your dog," says Bazelak. "You're constantly approached by someone who says, 'That's a vicious dog,' as if it's a wild animal. I've stopped breeding mine. I don't want to add to the population right now. I'm disgusted with the American people who believe the problem's with the dog and not with the people raising the dog."
But the hysteria, or concern, is understandable. To the untrained eye—or even to the trained one, in many instances—it is virtually impossible to tell a docile pit bull from a mean one. None of them looks like a wimp, and a friendly pit bull jumping up to lick you to death has an eerie resemblance to a pit bull jumping up to rip out your throat. Your best bet is to pass a fast judgment on its owner.
Pit bulls do not usually growl before attacking; they seldom bark. The hair on their backs does not stand on end when they are enraged. These are not dogs given to threatening displays. The pit bull, when so trained, is all business, which has made it the dog of choice for drug dealers and street punks around the country. "People whose insecurities are such that they need macho reinforcement feel a need for this type of animal," says Loew of Tufts, "and they are available because of the overflow from illegal dogfights."