Part 4. Dog Fighting

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Comprehensive Pit Bull History (Pre-America) — PAGE 2.

Return to Britain

In an odd twist of fate, these dogs that had originated in Britannia during the Roman Empire’s conquest of the island eventually returned to Britain as we know it today. This time, the citizens of Britain revered the dogs for their physical characteristics and fearlessness as game dogs. The first mention of these dogs in Britain at this time came in 1406 when Edmond de Langley, Duke of York, mentioned them in a treatise.

The Duke of York was describing a dog known as an “Alaunt,” which was coveted as a baiting dog because of its tenacity and strength. By 1631, there was the first evidence of a split between mastiffs and bulldogs when a letter from an Englishmen in Spain written to a friend in London asked for one mastiff and two bulldogs, insinuating there was a separate breed by this time in the pit bull lineage.

Over the course of the next two-hundred years a specific breed that is considered the direct descendant of modern American Pit Bull Terriers would begin to emerge. At this point history, bulldogs and bait dogs weren’t used as terms to define dogs by a specific breed, but rather by the characteristics and traits valued by owners. While mastiffs had long served as excellent guards of livestock and property, bulldogs and bait dogs had an altogether different purpose.

While the mastiff added power and physical strength to the breed, it was the bulldog and bait dog that added tenacity and a sense of a ferocity to the breed. British noblemen would use these dogs to bait bears, bulls (an origin of the bulldog name), and wild hogs during hunts, allowing their dogs to chase the animals down and even take them down when need be.

In fact, British owners at this time used bulldogs and bait dogs for everything from baiting and stock work on the farm to fighting and use as a companion animal. The breed was uniquely capable of extreme ferocity toward other animals and dog breeds, but at the same time capable of extreme compassion and gentleness in the presence of humans.


Early Roots in Fighting

These bulldog forerunners to the modern pit bull were eventually bred in the 18th and 19th century in Britain to be fighting dogs. The ability of the dogs to ferociously attack one another, but easily separate when a human got in the way, made them a favorite of breeders looking to selectively breed for the fiercest game dogs possible.

bullbaiting illustration

Oddly enough, it was the criminalization of baiting in Britain in 1835 that turned more breeders toward the practice of selectively breeding these pit bull predecessors for fighting. Now that the larger, bulkier features of the mastiff were no longer a high priority on a breeder’s mind, the British introduced another breed line into what would become the American Pit Bull Terrier.

Because dog fighting pitted dogs of similar size against one another in a small pit, rather than against larger bears or bulls in an open field, the terrier was crossbred with these bulldogs for fighting purposes. The bulldog’s dog-directed aggression, smaller size, and agility in the pit was crossed with the scrappy speed of the terrier. These pit bull terriers were the first pit bulls as we know them today, but not all were bred for and used specifically in fighting pits.


A Flexible New Breed

While the British were selectively breeding these original bulldogs and terriers together for the purposes of creating the ultimate fighter of the dog world, the combined traits of the two separate breeds introduced a number of other benefits to the breed as a whole. The versatile bloodline of the bulldogs used in the breeding of these early pit bulls made them suitable dogs for use in a number of nonfighting roles within human society as well.

Pit bulls are often considered to possess gameness. As odd as this term may seem, its general definition is “a willingness to see a task through to completion, even when serious injury or death are a possibility.” While these traits served a purpose in the fighting world, in rural England at the time these were also valuable traits in dogs used on farms.

Farmers and landowners could trust in their pit bulls to show little fear in clashing with other wild animals, making them excellent property guards and protectors of valuable livestock. Believe it or not, the high pain tolerance of these animals made it much less likely that they would bite back out of fear and pain, making them the perfect early family pet in households with young children. These very features would contribute to the breed’s early popularity in the United States as well, setting the stage for the growth of the American Pit Bull Terrier.

Introduction to the United States

famous war pit bull jack
Most of the mascots and the incidental dogs of the Civil War are not remembered, but Jack’s photo and painting can be seen at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall Museum at Fifth and Bigelow in Pittsburgh, while Sallie is memorialized on a bronze and granite monument in Gettysburg National Military Park in south-central Pennsylvania.

The breed that would eventually become the American Pit Bull Terrier first arrived in the United States just ahead of the outbreak of the Civil War. Similar to England, the pit bull would experience an explosion in popularity once it arrived in the US, and a lot of that had to do with the conditions at the time.

In the mid-19th century, the US was still a heavily agricultural nation. Most of the nation’s space was devoted to farming, and hearty families were still moving westward when the pit bull landed on American shores for the first time. The dog’s fighting tenacity and its usefulness to families with land and countless natural threats from other creatures made for a perfect fit.

Rural farmers and landowners coveted the new arrival for its ability to protect the homestead and family while men were hunting or working in the field. Those families raising cattle and other livestock counted on the tenacity and power of the pit bull to keep wolves, cougars, and coyotes at bay.

Of course, the fighting nature of the dogs also made them an excellent fit in military units when the Civil War finally erupted in 1861. Regiments on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line used pit bulls during fighting in the Civil War. One particular dog named Sallie evened earned war-hero status serving with the Pennsylvania Infantry during the war.

Following the war, the pit bull would build an early status as a beloved dog in America, even going on to earn its own recognition separate from its British counterparts. The breed in the states would become known as the American Pit Bull Terrier, while those who remained behind in Britain to evolve differently were known as Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The foundation, growth, and evolution of the American Pit Bull Terrier is further explored in our next section.

Part 1. Exploring the History of the American Pit Bull Terrier

Exploring the History of the American Pit Bull Terrier

Americans love their pets; there’s little doubt about that. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), there are an estimated 70 to 80 million dogs in American homes. Approximately 37 to 47% of all American households have at least one dog. With pets such a prevalent part of American society, there are a number of views that have developed around various breeds.

Chihuahuas, pugs, and miniature pinschers have are viewed as great pets for those living in apartments, with their small stature and relatively docile behavior offering the perfect fit. Golden retrievers are viewed as the quintessential family dog. For all the beliefs held by Americans, no dog’s history, behavior, and qualities are more misunderstood than the American Pit Bull Terrier. Referred to fondly as pit bulls and the bully by those who adore these dogs, the corrupt view of these beloved animals held by many other Americans needs correction.

The key to understanding any dog in the modern world is to delve deep into the history of the breed. For it is the history of any breed that has led to the development of the dogs you see today. For this section, we’re going to focus strictly on the history of the American Pit Bull Terrier.

Dogs in the Prehistoric World

Miacis oldest ancestor of pit bulls

The American Pit Bull Terrier, and every other dog breed on planet Earth, can trace its roots back to the Miacis (Pictured left). This creature inhabited the prehistoric world starting around 60 million years ago. A small mammal compared to many of today’s most popular dog breeds, the Miacis roamed the environments of what is today known as Asia. This creature formed the foundation for a genus upon which the gray wolf would emerge as early history’s dominant canine.


Early Diversion in the Bloodline

Although all dog breeds can trace their roots back to the Miacis, the dominant bloodline of modern dogs can be traced more accurately back to the Cynodictis. This latter creature evolved from the Miacis around 30 to 40 million years ago, and took on the first true characteristics that modern humans are accustomed to seeing in dogs. The Cynodictis was a medium-size mammal that was longer than it was tall, and was the first to feature a distinctive long tail and brushy coat.

From this bloodline, the first modern dogs would eventually evolve. The Cynodictis gave rise to its own split branch of species over the course of thousands of years, with one inhabiting Africa and the other dominant in Europe and Asia. It was the latter branch from which the Tomarctus would evolve, which is the animal directly related to wolves, dogs, and foxes.


Domestication of Wolves

The matter of canine domestication is still hotly debated by scholars and canine specialists alike. One theory suggests that gray wolves were first domesticated in China roughly 16,300 years ago in an effort to guard livestock. Another popular theory credits early European inhabitants with domesticating wolves as early as 32,100 years ago. Although the specific origin of canine domestication is up for debate, fossil records have proven that five distinct types of dogs existed by the start of the Bronze Age in 4500 BCE.

These included:

  • Wolf-type dogs
  • Sight hounds
  • Pointing dogs
  • Herding dogs
  • Mastiffs

For the purposes of this historical look at the American Pit Bull Terrier, it is that final grouping of mastiffs that is the most relevant. The pit bull split as a separate breed from the mastiff over the course of thousands of years of domestication and breeding in mainland Europe, and the differences between domestication efforts in Europe and elsewhere in the world at that time offers a fascinating look into the pit bull as we know it today.


Early Domestication Efforts

Early human civilizations viewed dogs in different lights and bred them in different ways, much as modern human societies do today. For example, nobleman in the Middle East bred dogs that were fleet-footed and had higher than average visual capabilities. In Europe, on the other hand, the mastiff breed rose to popularity because people were looking for dogs to protect homes and travelers on the road.

The development of the American Pit Bull Terrier is not a tale of successive breeding efforts that refined the traits of one specific dog from history, but rather, one that speaks to an evolution and combination of various breeds found on the European continent. In fact, when you look closely at the temperament, behavior, and physical characteristic of today’s pit bull, there are examples of each of its ancestors within its physical and emotional being.


The Pit Bull’s First Ancestor

mollosoid mastiff

Among the biggest contributors to the future rise of the pit bull was the molossoid dogs that were kept by Celtic tribes on the British Isles. In 50 AD the Roman Empire was looking to expand its borders across the English Channel to the island of Britannia, as it was then known to Roman society. When the forces of Emperor Claudius met British Chief Caractacus on the field of battle during the Roman invasion, the Roman soldiers were stunned by the ferocity and loyalty of the molossoid dogs fighting alongside the Celtic warriors.

After achieving their objective of defeating Chief Caractacus, Claudius and his men began exporting the fierce fighting dogs back to the heart of the Roman Empire. Here, the dogs were used in the Colosseum as fearsome fighting dogs, and eventually even bred with Roman dog breeds. These early crossbreeds led to the rise of the mastiff breed, which would later spread from the Roman Empire throughout Spain, France, and the rest of mainland Europe, along with bulldog-like breeds.

Introduction to the American Pit Bull Terrier Breed

The American Pit Bull Terrier is the most misunderstood dog breed in the United States, hands down. If you stopped 10 strangers on the street or asked 10 family members what dog breed was historically the most popular and beloved in American culture, you’d be lucky to have one in ten of those people answer the question correctly. Believe it or not, the American Pit Bull Terrier was once the nation’s most beloved dog. Trusted on ranches to guard property and babysit the kids. Kept in the home as a loyal and faithful companion. Even the first choice pet of some of America’s early 20th century presidents.

What happened to the American Pit Bull Terrier to make it go from a position of such prominence, to the status it suffers through today in American society? In order to better understand the history of the pit bull, from its earliest days to its status in 21st century America, you need a comprehensive collection of information that paints an accurate portrayal of the breed.

Listen to the media or read the daily news, and you’ll hear the narrative that cautious (even scared) members of society want you to know about this dog breed. Do a little digging on your own, a little reading on your own, and you’ll learn the truth behind the rise and fall of this dog breed. In brief, the sections on the history of the American Pit Bull Terrier breed contained within will provide you with an accurate depiction of this loyal, gentle, and fun-loving breed.