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The American Pitbull Terrier, a Realistic View

The American Pitbull Terrier has been known as the Staffordshire Terrier, The American Staffordshire Terrier and The American Terrier depending on whatever the differing kennel clubs decided they would accept at the time. Throughout the 19th century they were known by many names, such as; 'Pitbulls', ‘Pit Terriers’, ‘Half and Half’s’,’ Old Family Dogs’ (Irish Name), ‘Yankee Terriers’ (Northern name) and Rebel Terriers (Southern name).  Whatever the name, they all applied to the same dog. Up to and around the periods of the World Wars the American Pitbull Terrier was considered an ideal family pet. Due to it’s fun-loving, forgiving temperament the breed was an excellent dog for families with small children.


The exact history of the Pitbull is the subject of some debate but there is a general consensus, among those knowledgeable of canine development alongside humans, the Pitbull appears to be very similar to the utility dog of the original bulldog type. The original ‘bulldog’ is depicted in paintings and drawings dating back into the 1500s where it was a popular choice for boar hunting and guarding and protection.  The ‘Bulldog’ name stuck much later when the barbaric sport of bull baiting became popular and this dog type was best suited for such a ‘sport’.



The painting (above) from 1817 shows the dog which by now the Bulldog name had become synonymous. It is a far cry from the Bulldogs we see today in the show rings.


The black and white photo (right) shows a Pitbull from the early 1900s.


These images show very similar dogs.

Specific breeds as we know today were born out of the dog shows and kennel clubs which began around 1860.  Until then dogs were simply classed by type, which was defined by their use; pointing, retrieving, setting, herding, droving, hounding, guarding/protection, bulldogs and toy/pet were all typical types of dogs.  The bulldog type was a multitasking dog, herding, droving and griping (controlling wayward cattle).  Importantly, these dogs would also have considered family pets.  Old depictions of such working dogs bear a very close resemblance to the Pitbull of today. Such a dog was very popular due to its varied abilities and trainability.  (The modern bulldog we know today were developed for the show ring is a genetic disaster rendering them physically useless as a working dog).  The old bulldog may well have been the basis of, or crossed to create, several modern bull breeds, yet the modern dog which resembles this impressive utility dog most closely is the modern Pitbull.  This would elude to the modern Pitbull being the same intelligent multitasking utility dog able to turn it’s skills to differing jobs including being in a home as a family pet.   
Modern Pitbulls are indeed still proving their multitasking heritage making successful; police sniffer dogs (bombs, drugs, weapons, money and tracking etc), search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs (often for children),  TV stars (‘Pete the pup’ from the show ‘Little Rascals’, 'Grunt' from 'Flash Dance' and the dog in the film ‘Snatch’), one was the official mascot of the US forces during the First World War!  They also make impressive sporting dogs with a great aptitude for agility, flyball, obedience competitions and the American sport of weight pulling and grip sports. (It is this versatility which is unfortunately exploited by dog fighters).  Of course the majority of modern Pitbulls, like so many other breeds, aren’t required to work anymore and instead simply full fill the role of a loved and trusted family pet, which they can do fantastically. For a dog to be successful in all these areas it must be predisposed to having an affinity with humans (especially children) and readily learn what is required of them in any given situation, the Pitbull has proven itself well capable time and time again.
The fighting element of the Pitbull’s history can’t be ignored but should be rationalised.  Dog fighting did become popular after bull baiting was banned in 1835 and does still continue to this day. But to consider that all of these vastly popular dogs and their owners were involved in organised or amateur pit fighting is ludicrous. The vast majority of these dogs were pets and to a lesser extent working dogs.  The fighting fraternity selectively bred their dogs for their 'sport' just as other dog fanciers selectively bred their dogs for aesthetics.  This fighting dog line of breeding is very unlikely to find it’s way into typical family homes meaning typical pet bred Pits have negligible fighting heritage (in line with other breeds). Champion fighting dogs are kept from prying eyes and can trade at several thousand pounds per dog, so it is very improbable a member of the general public will ever see a fighting dog (literally, they are often kept in darkened rooms as part of training) let alone find themselves owning one!  Yet the remaining vast majority of Pitbulls which aren’t used for fighting, are labelled dangerous fighting dogs by sensationalist press, ill-informed ‘advisors’ and the press influenced public.  Dog’s (all types of and breeds of) are extremely adaptable animals and making any individual (regardless of breeding, training and history) aggressive isn’t a difficult task, but it does entail abusive methods.  My behavioural work with dogs sees me rehabilitating aggression issues in all types of dogs including, Labradors, Collies, Pointers and toy breeds! 

The Pitbull’s natural fighting ability put into context....

A common method of finding a dog who would become a successful fighting dog is by organising ‘scratch’ fights or a 'roll'. A scratch is when two dogs are made to fight to assess their ‘gameness’ or willingness to fight.

Officers of the law experienced in dog fighting investigations and cases in the USA estimate that 80% of Pitbulls fail at this stage as they refuse ‘scratch’. They simply refuse to fight even under coercion and in the hostile atmosphere scratch fights take place in! This even applies to dogs who were born and raised within a professional dog fighting operation where their whole existence is geared up towards dog fighting!

Even selective breeding struggled to overcome the Pitbull’s genuine nature and create bloodlines of consistent fighting dogs. This point was compounded by Louis Colby (a famous Pitbull breeder and reformed dog fighter), he claimed that if two champion (a champion has won 3 straight fights) fighting dogs mated and produced 12 pups 1 of those pups might go on to also become a champion.

Another disgusting aspect to this is the dog’s who show no inclination to fight are of no use to professional dog fighters so are simply killed.

So, even professional dog fighting organisations and trainers struggle to get the Pitbull breed to become reliable fighters even with a selective ‘fighting bloodline’ breeding program and raising the dogs in the hostile, aggression inducing fight training environment.

It can be concluded from this information that even in the face of severe adversity and put in potentially life threatening situations the vast amount of Pitbull Terriers refuse to fight. The sad fact is due to the vast amounts of money involved in dog fighting dog fighters will always strive to find those few dogs who will fight for their lives when forced into a life or death situation. These dogs will then have this aspect exploited for the owner’s financial gain, whilst all those dogs who don’t fight will be killed.

The cause of an antisocial dog on the street has much more to do with the humans who raised it than it does it's breed.
Negative press is this breeds worst enemy, it encourages the wrong type of owner (often owners who shouldn't have any type of pet!) and creates inaccurate negative stereotypes. There seems to be a trend where individual breeds are chosen by the press to be vilified; German Shepherds (1970s), then Dobermans (1980s), then Rottweilers (1990s) and also Akitas and American Bulldogs to some extent recently, but at the moment (2000 on) the Pitbull has been the breed of choice to sensationalise news stories.

Unfortunately, the many many positive Pitbull related stories never make it into the mainstream press as it wouldn't suite their negative agenda.  Luckily there are plenty of media who do promote the positive side of Pitbull ownership, like 'Project Stubby dog' visit their site and re-discover the Pitbull;  www.stubbydog.org

Sergeant Stubby the Pitbull died on March 16, 1926, as a hero, yet today remains relatively unknown. Sergeant Stubby is the most decorated dog in military history, and the only dog to have been promoted during battle. He fought for 18 months in the trenches of France during WW1 for 17 battles. Stubby warned his fellow soldiers of gas attacks (self taught, after being gassed in an attack himself), located wounded soldiers in No Man's Land and listened for distant incoming artillery rounds. He was solely responsible for the capture of a German spy at Argonne. There is also a legend that whilst in Paris with Corporal Conroy, Stubby saved a young girl from being hit by a car. At the end of the war Conroy smuggled Stubby back home. After the War Stubby met President Woodrow Wilson and was also made a life time member of the American Legion, the Red Cross and the YMCA.

A few famous Pitbull owners (past and present) include; Pink, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel (she has 3), Fred Astaire, Madonna, Michael J fox, Brad Pitt, Kaley Cuoco, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Bacon,  Adrian Grenier, Channing Tatum, Alica Silverstone, Usher, Big Boi (outkast rapper),  Steve Irwin, Shannon Elizabeth, Serena Williams, Roy Jones Jnr,  several US Presidents, Thomas Edison, Humphrey Bogart, Helen Keller (as her guide dog and companion), John Steinbeck, Bill Berloni (Broadway show dog trainer who claimed, “the Pit is the breed of choice for training”). 

Adrain Grenier and his Pit Honey

Kayley Cuoco has a few Pitbulls

Norman Reedus wanted his dog to be in Walking Dead!

Channing Tatum with his Pit mix Lulu

The only reason a Pitbull would make a poor family pet is if it isn’t correctly raised and owned, and yes, this applies to all dogs! Raised and owned correctly, a Pitbull can make a fantastic family pet, and yes, this also applies to all dogs!

The Michael Vick Story

One example which truly  demonstrates this breed’s adaptability, resolve and quality of temperament when oppressed by the worst of Humans is the story of the NFL American Football star Michael Vick’s fighting dogs.

In July 2007, Vick and three other men were charged by federal authorities with felony charges of operating an unlawful interstate dog fighting venture known as "Bad Newz Kennels". Vick was accused of financing the operation, directly participating in dog fights, executions and personally handling thousands of dollars in related gambling activities. In August 2007, he pleaded guilty to federal felony charges and served 21 months in prison, followed by two months in home confinement. With the loss of his NFL salary and product endorsement deals, combined with previous financial mismanagement, Vick filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July 2008.

51 Pitbull dogs were rescued from the Bad Newz Kennels.


Many of the dogs were taken in by rescue groups – Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah and BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About PitBulls) in San Francisco. Other dog rescue groups that took in some of Vick’s 51 pit bulls include the Georgia SPCA, All or Nothing Rescue, Our Pack, Richmond Animal League, Recycled Love, the Animal Farm Foundation, the SPCA for Monterey, Out of the Pits, and Animal Rescue of Tidewater.


Of the 51 dogs rescued from Bad Newz kennels, many of them now reside in families with children and other dogs. Only one of these fighting dogs had to be put down for aggressive behaviour.  

One out of 51.  One!

(this multi-scarred former champion dog had been so forcibly overbred she was in shocking physical condition and showed violence towards anything that approached her).


This incredible tale is the subject of the book, "The Lost Dogs" by Jim Gorant. An extremely emotional read but ultimately a testament to both the hard work of the rescue workers and the eternal optimism man's best friend possesses even when only knowing abuse at the hands of men.


Here is what became of some of those former fighting dogs, many still bear the physical scars of their horrific past........

Leo - Leo has found a new purpose in life, he now happily frolics in a clown collar as he makes the rounds at the Camino Infusion Center, where he brings comfort to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Despite his training as a killer, Leo is a sweetheart as he visits his friends on the ward. “He is wonderful, and all the patients love Leo,” said Paula Reed, the facility’s oncology director. “They really love his eyes and gentleness.” Nor is that Leo’s only job, Leo also touches young people on probation at the Alternative Placement Academy in San Jose, where the young men seem to identify with the former tough guy. “I think they saw this dog’s awful background, and it communicates to the kids that you can end up being what you want to be,”  It’s the age-old story of second chances. By living his, Leo helps tear down entrenched stereotypes that pit bulls are irredeemable killers. “Leo is definitely an ambassador to the breed,” 

Handsome Dan - After Handsome Dan was able to bond with people as well as with dogs, he found a forever home with Heather and Mark, along with their two pups, Ocean and Story, and their 13-year old son. Dan bonded with the son immediately. The two dogs get along extremely well with Handsome Dan, who loves to snuggle with his other furry friends. Cherry (another ex Bad Newz resident) is even still in Handsome Dan’s life, and has been over for a couple of play dates. Handsome Dan’s family recently welcomed a new addition: a human baby. He was nervous at first but Handsome Dan now loves the baby. 

Lucas - One of Michael Vick’s champions, Lucas is under court order to spend the rest of his life in a sanctuary. Lucas is often sick with babesia, a blood-borne parasite common in fighting dogs, Lucas is in Canine Good Citizen training and has even had a girlfriend, a female pit bull who would lick his face through the fence.

Oscar - Oscar came in with medical issues but once he recovered and after intense one-on-one training (he was terrified of people), he became one of the first Vick dog at Best Friends to pass his Canine Good Citizen test. As he increased in confidence, he came out of his shell around people with the help of  Squeaker (another Pitbull). Oscar also gained dog skills they currently share a run as their friendship blossomed. Squeaker was also scared of people but this Pitbull now laps up human attention and they both greet the rescue staff with waggie tails.
Gracie - Sharon Cornett of the Richmond Animal League adopted Gracie who now attends conferences and meetings about animal welfare, goes into schools to help educate kids about dogs, and does anything she can to show people that they have nothing to fear from pit bulls. She’s happiest around other dogs but has always been comfortable around people.
Teddles - Cindy Houser, a nurse who works with special-needs children, adopted Teddles as a companion for her rescued pit bull, a female named Izzy. It took about two months for him to come out of his shell, but once he did, the two dogs became fast friends. In late 2009, Teddles became yet another of the Vick dogs to earn his Canine Good Citizen certificate.
Willie - Willie was initially mellow but has had  some incidents of aggression. He’s is afraid of other dogs and cannot live with them. A veterinarian at Best Friends thinks Willie might be suffering from PTSD but some think Willie might be suffering from some undetected physical pain that is making him lash out. Willie is still a fun-loving sometimes and enjoys car rides.
Frodo - Frodo was one of the shyest of Vick’s dogs but has made some slow progress. He’s becoming more confident and emerging from his shell. He gets along well with other dogs, and Kim Ramirez of BAD RAP, who adopted him, says that in 2009 he wasn’t even afraid of the Christmas tree, a sight that terrified him in 2008.

Bonita - Bonita liked to sit in a warm lap and her sideways grin was probably from nerve damage. She suffered from babesia, a blood-borne parasite common in fighting dogs. She had scars and broken, worn-down teeth and ran away from other dogs. Her handlers thought she might have been a bait dog. In 2008, she went for dental surgery and never woke up from the anaesthesia. She’s buried at the Best Friends cemetery.

Meryl - Meryl arrived with a history of being aggressive with people and by a court order, she must remain at Best Friends for life. At first, the staff limited her contact to only a few people and she was always friendly with other dogs. So far she can deal with strangers as long as someone she trusts is closeby.

Ernie - Ernie started out stable and calm but once he got into the real world he struggled, reacting negatively to other dogs if he was on his leash. With time, he grew more comfortable and the problem worked itself out. He’s been adopted into a home where he lives with another dog and two cats and he earned his Canine Good Citizen certification in the Autumn of 2009. 
Ginger - At first, Ginger was very shy and needed compassion, patience, love, and understanding. Stacy Dubuc fostered then adopted her. She is now a happy, loving dog who likes exploring, car rides, and taking up more than her share of the bed.
Iggy - Iggy, once very shy, lives with former BAD RAP volunteer Nicole Rattay and her husband in Southern California. Within his own house and yard and his regular circle of friends, he’s very happy. But the world outside is too much for him, and he turns shy and fearful when he ventures out. 
Halle - Halle had no scars and no fear of other dogs but was afraid of people. As she adapted to being around people, she has become very relaxed and loves attention. Eventually a Best Friends caregiver who has six other dogs and a few cats took her home as a foster, and she fit right in. In July 2009 she became the first Vick dog at Best Friends to be adopted. Her new family has another pit bull and both dogs get along great.

Mel - Mel loved being with other dogs so his handlers used that to warm him up to people. Once his people fears subsided, there was another problem. Mel liked to chew. At his foster home, he loved playing with the three other dogs, but he did destroy a brand-new couch among other things. In time, Mel became so people-friendly that he was adopted and now lives happily in a full-time home.

Ray - A smaller dog of about 40 pounds, Ray has earned his Canine Good Citizen certificate. He probably would have been adopted already, but he doesn’t get along with other dogs yet, so isn't ready for adoption.
Audie – Vick’s settlement with the federal court paid for knee surgery for Audie who now lives in a home in Northern California and is training to enter his first canine agility competition.

HarrietBelieved to be Vick’s personal dog, Harriet was probably never fought. Taken in by a Baltimore lawyer who had two other pit bulls, Harriet lives on a farm in rural Maryland.

Hector - Hector is now a certified therapy dog and as his picture shows he is loved by the children he helps and he loves them.

So next time you see a Pitbull, a German Shepherd, a Doberman, a Rottweilier, a Labrador, a Jack Russel, a Collie, a Staffie or any breed of dog, judge it on it's own merits and don't judge it by presumptions and what you think you know.  In human terms, this is simply classed as racism.  Any dog can behave any way if they are shown how to do it. The Vicks ex fighting dogs have proved this by being able to behave at either ends of the spectrum, treated horrifically they became aggressive dog fighters, treated with love and respect they have become great pets and can even go on to help troubled or sick children!