There are numerous dogs referred to as "pit bulls"; however, the name most commonly refers to the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) and the American Staffordshire Terrier (AmStaff). The APBT's name is a misnomer on three counts. Its origins date back to England, Ireland, and Scotland, not America. Contrary to popular misconception, it was not originally bred for pit fighting, although in later times the pit did become its milieu. And although it does have some terrier blood in its veins, it is not a true "bull-and-terrier" cross like the shorter, Roman-nosed Bull Terrier. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes only the American Staffordshire Terrier; theUnited Kennel Club (UKC) recognizes the American Pit Bull Terrier. While some consider these breeds one and the same, others steadfastly maintain that they are separate. This may be partly due to a difference in the motivations of the major kennel clubs: the AKC is more concerned with conformation to a standard of appearance and structure, while the UKC--as well the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA), an organization dedicated solely to the American Pit Bull Terrier--places more emphasis on performance (such as agility and weight pull competitions). Some say that as the different clubs continue to breed for different qualities, the characteristics of the APBT and AmStaff are diverging.
Regardless of which name you choose to attach to him, the pit bull's origins lie with the fighting and hunting mastiffs of ancient Britain, Asia and the Roman Empire. British farmers admired the strength of such dogs and desired a companion that could exhibit their courage and might combined with the gameness and agility of terriers. Thus, they developed a powerfully muscular, versatile working dog which was nevertheless a loyal and friendly family pet. The resulting animal--far more deserving of the name "bulldog" than the squat show dog which later bore that name--was equally at home holding cattle and hogs for slaughter, driving livestock, hunting, and guarding the family homestead. When the New World was discovered, colonists brought the dogs to America, and they were frequently seen accompanying pioneers on the western frontier.
In the hardworking field of agriculture, there was much competition: farmers were eager to see how their best bulls and hogs compared to those of their neighbors, or who had the best-trained sheepdog. It naturally followed that contests were developed to prove who had the strongest and most fearless bulldog. Dogs were pitted against bulls and even bears in rowdy competitions that often resulted in injury to the dogs or their opponents. As time marched on and society became more concerned about animal cruelty, bull- and bear-baiting were outlawed, forcing fans of these "sports" to go underground. Bulls and bears are large creatures; competitions involving such animals were not easy to conceal. Thus, gamblers began to pit the dogs against each other, and the bloody "sport" of dogfighting began. The British bred their fighting dogs a bit shorter, developing them into the Staffordshire Bull Terrier; true to the pioneer spirit, the Americans tended to prefer their dogs larger and more robust, resulting in the Pit Bull we know today.
Why The Stigma?
As the Pit Bull gained notoriety in the pits, he became desirable to thugs and gangsters who sought a "tough" dog to enhance their intimidating image. Although the Pit Bull's massive musculature does give him an imposing presence, he was not originally bred for viciousness toward humans. In the course of a dogfight, a handler must be able to enter the ring and separate the dogs without fear of harm to himself; it is the dog's gameness--his willingness to try anything to please his owner--that drives him to fight, not an innate aggressiveness. In fact, the Pit Bull's overt friendliness can hinder his effectiveness as a guard dog; he is frequently the victim of backyard thefts. Thus, those seeking a dog that lives up to its reputation often abuse the animals or train them to attack, thereby teaching them to act against their nature and thus become unpredictable. Furthermore, the Pit Bull is an active and agile dog, and also a people-oriented animal; he enjoys vigorous exercise, as well as plenty of human interaction. When kept in a tiny yard with little or no physical activity and insufficient exposure to people, he may become bored and irritable and seek outlets for his frustration. A gifted climber, he should be kept in a yard with a high fence, or taught the boundaries of his territory at an early age. Obedience training is a must; fortunately, the gung-ho Pit Bull thoroughly enjoys his lessons! Incidents and accidents occur when a dog with such strength and tenacity is placed in the hands of an owner who fails to give the dog the exercise, discipline and socialization he craves, or confuses him by training him to act against his amiable nature.
Sources: The American Kennel Club, The United Kennel Club, The Working Pit Bull by Diane Jessup