October is National Pit Bull Awareness month, aiming to educate and celebrate this often-misunderstood group of dogs. Most would be surprised to know pit bulls score second behind golden retrievers as the most tolerant breed in temperament tests.
Where do they come from? One story posits the origin in England around the Normal Conquest, crossbred to combine the bulldog’s strength with the terrier’s agility. Butchers used large dogs to bite agitated bulls on the nose, not letting go until it was subdued. This then morphed into a sport, putting the dogs into a pit with a riled-up bull. Gamblers bet on which dog would hold on longest or bring the bull down, hence the name “pit bull” dog.
This dog breed, contrary to common belief, is not a breed in itself, but an umbrella term which includes five types: the American bully, not yet recognized by the American Kennel Club; the American pit bull terrier, also not recognized by the AKC; the American Staffordshire terrier; the Staffordshire bull terrier; and the American bulldog.
Common physical characteristics include muscular, stocky bodies with deep chests and large, square heads. Their intense level of determination means they will not give up on learning a new task or trick. Temperament-wise, they typically love all people and crave attention.
If not trained or socialized properly when young, their size and strength could mean pulling on leashes or jumping on people, making them difficult to handle. They’ll need plenty of exercise to keep them happy and healthy and to give an outlet to their athletic nature. Loyal, playful, and generally good-natured, most of the breed variations still have a high prey drive and might not get along with other dogs.
During World War I, the breed was used to personify the country on Army recruitment posters, and athletes who were referred to as pit bulls considered it a high compliment. Between the turn of the twentieth century and the early 1980s, only one dog attack story mentioned pit bulls, making the national papers. By 1986, more than 30 communities were in the process of banning pit bulls, due to dogfighting, which transformed their reputation. They went from America’s preferred dog breed to the fear-based perspective which has led many communities to ban them.
Recent education has begun to change public perception again, emphasizing owner responsibility with proper training. Many locations have reversed their breed-specific bans, based on understanding dogs have done what humans have taught them to do.