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— October 15, 2013 —

Pit Bulls Then and Now
by Tim Wienckowski

A hundred years ago Pit Bull type dogs were as much of an American classic as baseball and were used to represent the bravery and reliability of Americans in WWI posters. They were in old family photographs with children hugging their block-headed pup, they were referred to as “nanny dogs” before Nana the Newfoundland was in Peter Pan and Petey from Little Rascals was famous on television. At this time, no one worried about Pit Bulls being aggressive killers with locking jaws. Before Pit Bulls were the bad dogs it was Rottweilers, before them it was Dobermans, before them it was German Shepherds. How did our perception of these dogs go from a popular American breed to unpredictable killers?

There is no doubt that Pit Bull type dogs can be considered intimidating in appearance. They are big- headed, muscular dogs and most have lots of energy. Everyone has heard that these dogs were bred for fighting which adds to the intimidation factor. The ancestors of modern day Pit Bulls came to America from England. The English immigrants used these dogs for a “sport” called baiting which involved pitting one or more dogs against wild animals such as bulls, bears or other large animals. When this was outlawed in the 1800s, people turned to dog fighting. What some people may not realize is that at this time dog fighting dogs were bred to be trustworthy and friendly to people. Any fighting dog that turned on a handler during a dog fight was put down in order to breed out human aggression or reactivity. Most of these dogs lived in the home of their owners with their children and were trustworthy and loyal members of their families.

By the 1860s most states made dog fighting illegal. At this time, Pit Bulls took on a broader purpose. Their size, strength, intelligence and loyalty made them the perfect dog for any task. They herded cattle and sheep, protected farms from thieves and predators, and were faithful guardians of their families. This is where the reputation grew as the iconic American dog of the late 19th and early 20th century. While most Pit Bulls were just family dogs at this time, underground dog fights were still popular in some circles and had a resurgence in the 1980s even though in 1976 dog fighting was outlawed federally.

Pit Bull type dogs’ intimidating appearance and history of dog fighting became a macho status symbol and dogs were often encouraged to act out aggressively. Pit Bulls’ popularity grew in low income urban communities where many were not trained properly, were not spayed or neutered and were hastily bred to make money on this new popularity. In the early 2000s law enforcement began to link dog fighting with criminal activity such as gambling, drugs and gangs. While serving an unrelated search warrant, Michael Vick was arrested for owning a dog fighting operation in 2007 and the media fallout seemed to blow the roof off the dog fighting and animal abuse problems in this country.

Sadly, this media attention also increased the buzz around Pit Bulls and the bad rap they had as being terribly aggressive dogs. The truth is some Pit Bulls are dangerous. Some Labradors are dangerous. Some mixed breed dogs are dangerous. This can be from a poor upbringing and no training or due to inherited traits from their parents. Some dogs with great heritage and all the training in the world end up being aggressive to the dismay of their owners. Two major factors involved in dog bites/attacks are whether children are supervised with dogs (88% of bites to children are unsupervised) and whether the dog has not been spayed or neutered (97% of fatal attacks in 2006). The breed alone is not the only factor that determines an animal’s level of aggression nor is it the best gauge of the likely hood of aggression. Each dog should be assessed as an individual because as most dog lovers know, each has its own goofy / happy-go-lucky / grouchy / aggressive personality. And within each breed this is also true.

Some of the same traits in Pit Bulls that were exploited for dog fighting are traits that make them terrific family dogs. In addition to being pure athletes, Pit Bulls inner qualities of confidence, strength, loyalty, intelligence and determination have saved numerous lives through the police work, military service, and search and rescue. These same qualities also make them great therapy dogs, service dogs, running partners or stand-outs in dog sports like agility or flyball.

Pit Bulls are a powerful breed of dog and respect for that powerful breed should not be lost. I do not recommend anyone run up to random Pit Bulls on the street and give them kisses or hugs. For that matter, I don’t recommend doing this to any dog as it’s inappropriate to do to a dog you don’t know. Because of the popularity discussed above, the breed is quite overpopulated. Many Pit Bulls were poorly bred for profit. Of nearly 11,000 cases of animal abuse through July 2012, 77.5% of cases involved Pit Bulls. Due to this there are dogs out there with behavioral issues (yet another reason to spay and neuter). This doesn’t inherently make them dangerous. There are also millions of adorable, cuddly, face lickers.

Most of the Pit Bulls I have been around want nothing more than to lean in for pets and kisses. There have also been several that came with some baggage. These dogs became very loving and loyal once you gained their trust, but they took a little longer to warm up. My own Pit mix, Sally, had a couple rough stops in her life before she got to me. She is now a certified therapy dog, one of the most social dogs at daycare and excels at snacks and nap time.

The important take away should be that Pit Bulls, above all else, are dogs. Their owners have some additional responsibility in understanding what they are capable of as a powerful breed (the same goes for owners of Dobermans, Mastiffs, Rotties, Huskies, and any other large or strong breed or mix). Obviously, a Cocker Spaniel or Chihuahua can be a dangerous dog, but aren’t physically capable of the same damage as a powerful breed. I think anyone owning a Pit Bull should be willing to put in a little extra work in socializing and training their dog to be sure they become the best they can be. I also think that saving a Pit results in more smiles and kisses, but I might be a little biased on that one.

1. Aspca.org “The Truth About Pit Bulls”
2. Badrap.org “Breed History”
3. “Pit Bull Myths and Facts”
4. Cesarsway.com “How Did Pit Bulls Get Such A Bad Rap”


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