How exactly did Pit Bulls go from being “America’s Dog” at the turn of the 20th century to the most vilified breed of the past few decades?
To clarify: Pit Bulls are not one specific breed, but rather a classification of several breeds (Staffordshire Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, American Bullies, American Staffordshire Terriers, and sometimes American Bulldogs and Bull Terriers). These were originally bred from Old English Bulldogs, who gained popularity in the 1800s on the British Isles in a blood sport known as “bull baiting”. Bloodsports were outlawed in 1835 in the UK, so “rat-baiting” and dogfighting – which were easier to hide from police – became the new sports of popularity. Bulldogs were crossed with Terriers and then released into a “pit” to chase and kill rats or fight one another, thus beginning the “Pit Bull” type of dog.
Pit Bulls as Babysitters
You may have heard that Pit Bulls were known as “Nanny Dogs,” and while there is no hard evidence to say they children were left unsupervised with the dogs (and you should never leave small children unsupervised with any breed of dog), one thing is for certain — there are a ton of vintage photographs that show Pit Bulls with children that prove they were popular family pets and trusted around their kids.
There have been a number of Pit Bulls that were famous throughout the 20th Century when they were still lauded as American Heroes. One of the earliest of these was Bud, a dog who accompanied his owner Horatio Nelson Jackson on the first cross–country road trip in 1903. Jackson and his traveling companion found Bud about halfway through their trip, and he gained almost as much attention as his new owner.Bud’s goggles are still on display at the National Smithsonian today, and he became the face of The Auto Era in advertising.
Sergeant Stubby is one of the most well–known war dogs. Originally a stray with a “stubbed” tail found near an Army training camp at Yale, Stubby was taken in and trained to respond to bugle calls, march with troops, and even salute fellow soldiers! His owner smuggled him overseas to fight in WWI, where he served 18 months on the frontlines in 17 battles and 4 different campaigns. Among the countless stories of heroic acts he performed, Stubby was known for distinguishing between American soldiers and their enemies when getting his comrades help, carrying messages under fire, and detecting incoming attacks of mustard gas and alerting his humans. He even sniffed out a German spy, bit him on the butt, and held on until human help arrived. What a dog!!
During WWI and WWII, Pit Bulls were used in advertising as a national mascot. These dogs were so loved that America made them their sign of fearlessness and protection (and in some early ads, neutrality) in many advertisements. A popular ad included the Pit Bull dressed as an American military symbol with breeds like German Mastiffs and French Bulldogs representing other countries.
Pit Bulls in America
When pitbulls first came to this country in the early 1800’s, they were used as farm dogs, not fighting dogs. They guarded the frontier homes of early pioneers and proved to make loyal and gentle companions for the entire family.
So what changed?
In 1976, the Supreme Court passed the Animal Welfare Act of 1976. This groundbreaking act made dogfighting officially illegal in all 50 states. Today, dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As dog fighting began to re-emerge in the 1980’s, animal advocates put an increased focus on the cruel, barbaric and illegal blood sport.
The media has been a driving factor in shaping America's perception of Pit Bulls, and their coverage has been widespread and overwhelmingly negative for the last 30 years. The sad truth is that a dog biting a person only becomes a story if there is reason to believe the dog might be a Pit Bull. Dog attacks involving a Pit Bull-type dog or Pit mix have the power to make national news, while attacks by other breeds go largely unnoticed. In fact, the ASPCA has reported that animal control officers have been told by media outlets across the country that they only have interest in reporting on Pit Bull attacks. Inaccurate reporting is also a problem, and the assumption is often made that muscular, short-haired dogs are Pit Bulls, while those that look different are simply referred to as “dogs.” To compound matters, most organizations that assess dog bite statistics do so based on media accounts, which is already distorted data. It’s a cycle.
If you’re not sure this is true, and you believe Pit Bulls are inherently dangerous, ask yourself how you’ve arrived at that decision. If you haven’t ever seen a Pit Bull be dangerous or aggressive, it’s very likely that the media has defined this perception for you. All dog breeds - including Pit Bulls - bite people. However, try to think of the last story you read where a dog attack involved something other than a Pit Bull.
FACTS (statistics from the Humane Society and BestFriends.org)
• In 2007, Pit Bulls were involved in 25 percent of reported dog-abuse cases.
• About half of the dogs killed in shelters today will be Pit Bulls or Pit Bull mixes.
• Nationwide, 75 percent of shelters euthanize all Pit Bulls, regardless of temperament, age, history, etc.
• No breed of dog is inherently aggressive or dangerous.
• The biggest risk factors for dog aggression are malicious or neglectful dog owners, and dogs that have not been spayed or neutered.
• Pit Bulls are commonly used in police work, rehabilitation therapy, search and rescue and in bomb and narcotic detection.
• Like any dog that’s raised responsibly, Pit bulls are gentle, loving and loyal, and they make great family pets.
Pit Bulls are not a statistic. They are not monsters. They are not born into this world wanting to kill. They are an unfortunate victim of a lot of difficult circumstances. And they forgive you. They forgive those that have hurt them, they forgive you for being afraid, and they forgive you for not understanding. Because all they really want is a chance to prove to you what sweet, charming, intelligent, goofy, LOVING animals they are.
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