The Misunderstood Pit Bull
Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen Pittie supports get excited over the buzz that the Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) banning pits from Denver was going to dissolve, only to then again be saddened by the lack of education when Denver’s Mayor stated that he would veto the dissolution of the ruling.
As trainers, we see many pit mixes some through for training, and excel. But we also see a lot of people who have either had bad experiences with them or are just uneducated and lacking exposure to what awesome dogs they can be. In that vein, we wanted to share some history of the breed.
The expression “pit bull” is a nonspecific term used to describe dogs as medium-sized, solid in build, short and smooth coat, very muscular and athletic, almost a square looking body. Their head is usually block-shaped, broad and somewhat flat with a wide, deep muzzle. Their ears are smaller and high set and are often cropped (although less now than historically), and their tail is low, thick, and pointy. Pit bulls come in several colors and color patterns. The breed has cursedly been thought to be dangerous fighting dogs that are prone to turn on their owner and will fight to kill anyone or anything in its way. For the majority of pits that have been trained and in responsible households, this couldn’t be farther from the truth!
There are numerous stories that go back as far as the Romans that attempt to debunk the debate concerning the ferocity and tenacity of the pit bull. The most common story dates as far back as the 1100s with the town’s butcher. It began when the bulls were being herded to the market for slaughter. If a bull stepped out of line or became unruly, the bulldog was trained to clamp down on its nose and hang on until the handler could regain control of the boisterous animal. It is also thought that this act of bravery of the dog and its ability to bring down a bull that is much larger and stronger than the dog led to public displays of the dog’s dexterity and to arguments of who had the most powerful dog. These public displays fed the entertainment desires of the crowds and thus became more and more popular. Eventually, almost every town had its own bull-baiting ring, drawing spectators from every walk of life. This baiting was perpetrated by a myth that prolonged torture of a bull would increase the tenderness of the bull’s meat. Ultimately, around 1835, baiting was made illegal and the spectators grew restless for entertainment that would stand up to the excitement of bull baiting. Though many other ideas were indulged, the one that caught on next was called ratting. The dogs were placed into an actual pit with varying numbers of rats. The dogs raced against the clock and each other to determine which one could kill the most rats in the shortest period. The “pit” in pit bulls comes from the fact that ratting occurred in a pit that kept the rats from escaping. Finally, the act of fighting dogs against one another took hold. It was easier to hide and did not involve other animals, and varying sizes of dogs could be used. Despite the fierce intensity hardwired into the original pit bulls, they have always made excellent companions for humans. Ironically, this came out of their fighting ancestry. Handlers had to be able to jump in the ring and separate the fighters, and then treat the wounded dogs after the fights were over. Dogs that showed aggression toward humans, even in the middle of a fight, were usually killed and never bred.
Pit bulls have since become one of America’s sweethearts. The breed has been made the mascot for many schools and universities, products such as Buster Brown shoes, as well as being featured in propaganda posters for wars. Pit bulls have been the family pet for such famous people as Helen Keller, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and President Theodore Roosevelt. But unfortunately, this loving companion history has been long forgotten. By the 1980s, the pit bull breed was most remembered for being the dangerous fighting dog. The public viewed the breed as being only good for immoral and inhumane purposes.
As the new century begins, the Pit Bull is still a common participant in canine sporting activities, but now their wonderful drive and athleticism are exercised in more joyful activities than in centuries past.
Pit bulls routinely defeat all comers in weight pulling competitions, where they hold many world records in their own weight categories. They consistently distinguish themselves in agility and fly ball, where their stunning speed and coordination make them a joy to watch. And perhaps surprisingly to many, they also excel in obedience trials because they love to work for and with their owners.
And yes, they are still a working dog, but in a variety of new roles. Pit bulls make great therapy dogs and are commonly used in search and rescue. They have also distinguished themselves in the role of drug and bomb-sniffing dogs. A pit bull named Popsicle holds the Texas record for the biggest drug bust, having sniffed out 3000 lbs. of cocaine.
Most of all, the misunderstood Pit Bull continues to be, as it has always been, a great family dog and beloved companion. We hope that Denver and all the other municipalities that have been short-sighted in the past will learn how to encourage owners’ proper treatment, training and well-being of these animals rather than continuing to allow the “racism” and “profiling” of what can be such a wonderful breed of dog.