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Breed Info About the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT)

Just walking down the street with a Pit Bull on the leash is an interesting way to find out how many different types of pit bulls exist -- in people's minds. Some folks rush over to coo and praise; others hurry to the other side of the street to avoid close contact. Many just study the dog as it walks past - while drinking in a good long (often confused!) look at the person on the other end of the leash. This is one breed that evokes strong emotion and bigger controversy wherever it wags its tail. The range of opinion in the Pit Bull Drama varies so dramatically that the average person is often left with nothing more than confused ideas gleaned from the warnings of television news reporters.

Understanding the breed starts with learning about their beginnings on up to the roles they play in our society today. They've traveled a long road with Americans since early colonists went to the trouble of importing them along with their other family treasures. With the same courageous spirit, tenacious loyalty and die-hard devotion they provided to their owners generations ago, they continue to dutifully hold up a mirror to this American society and reflect back to us who we are as a culture of dog owners.

Created in the UK

The dog that we now recognize as the pit bull was originally bred in the British Isles early 100's to 'bait' bulls. These matches were held for the entertainment of the struggling classes; a source of relief from the tedius and brutal way of life suffered by many commoners during that time. In 1835 bull baiting was deemed inhumane and became illegal, and dogfighting became a popular replacement. The best fighters were celebrated and held up as heroes for their courage and fortitude during battle. At the same time, a very strong bite inhibition towards humans was encouraged through selective breeding so handlers could lean over into the fighting pits and pull their battling dogs apart without worrying about receiving a redirected bite. Partially because of these breeding efforts to which culled out "man biters", Pit Bulls became well known for their loving devotion and trustworthy nature with humans.

History in America
Immigrants brought their dogs across the ocean along with their families and prized possessions. They soon became a fixture in a developing nation. In early America, the dogs were valued for much more than their fighting abilities. They were entrusted to protect homesteads from predators and worked as vital helpers on family farms. Homesteaders depended on their abilities to help in hunts and as hog catchers (hence, the common title "catch dogs"). They were constant companions to the young children who were entrusted in their care. Pit Bulls earned their place as an important part of the fabric of a developing nation.

As cities sprung up, Pit Bulls remained a prominent part of the American culture. The USA admired this breed for qualities that it likened in itself; friendly, brave, hardworking, worthy of respect. Pit Bulls were thought of less as pit fighters and more as 'regular dogs'. They show up in hundreds of turn of the century photos, flanked by loving family members. Early advertisements, posters, and magazines began to use the image of the All American Dog, including Buster Brown, whose companion was a Pit Bull.

World War I posters displayed illustrations of APBTs as proud mascots of neutrality and bravery. Not to disappoint, the most decorated war dog of that time was none other than 'Stubby' -- a loyal and brave defender of America's freedom.

The Pit Bull was also a favorite dog among politicians, scholars, celebrities. Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, and the "Our Gang" Little Rascals all had APBTS. Many reading this website may have grandparents and great grandparents who kept a favorite Pit Bull as a pet. Today, this tradition continues with tens of thousands of Amercians who love and cherish their family Pit Bulls.

Breed Characteristics
Because the early breeders of APBT were going for speed, stamina and attitude rather than looks, the general appearance of this breed can vary greatly. They can range between 25 and 85 pounds. The earlier 'classic' Pit Bulls were on the small side - an advantage which afforded them speed and agility in the fighting pits. As the pitdogs made their way to the working farms of America, larger characteristics were bred into the lines.

The Pit Bull has typically been a well muscled dog, with a deep rib cage, powerful back end, broad hips, heavy jaw, heavy front legs and delicate, athletic back legs. They can also be found slimmer and rangier in build with longer legs (a look that all too often earns them the mislabel of "pit mix" in animal shelters). The head shape has changed over the years, and only very recently have the "huge heads" become popular with certain crowds. These large, out of proportion heads would not have been desirable with the working/fighting dogs of yester-year. Any color is acceptable with this breed. The hair is typically short, bristly and glossy. Ears can be cropped or uncropped. Tail is pencil thin and always left natural.
(The photo shows 'Stella', a beautiful APBT rescued from the Oakland Shelter and placed into a loving and responsible home. She represents the athletic, people-loving, courageous character that is treasured in pit bulls. Her story is listed on the Happy Endings Page)

Why Would Anyone Want a Pit Bull?
The fun loving, spunky and affectionate attitude of the APBT is what most admirers come to love best about these dogs. We like to say "To know them is to love them". Pit bulls are impressively loyal, bold and courageous animals. They are natually clownish, alert and intelligent .. in other words, a whole lot of fun to have around! Many participate and excel in various dog sports and activities, including Obedience Trials, Search and Rescue work, Agility Trials, Flyball and Frisbee Competitions, and Weight Pulling events. With their tenacious work drive and strong desire to please their owners, they are natural competitors and win impressive titles wherever they're worked. (The photo on the left is Deputy Sheriff Alan Benninga and his trusty K9 pal who was trained for patrol and narcotics work in Clay Co KS. - Thanks to Alan for letting us show off his pride and joy!)

The soft side of the breed shows up in their gushing affection for humans - a desirable trait that was very important to the original breeders of this animal and remains so today. For this reason, many pit bulls work as Certified Therapy Dogs in hospitals and nursing homes. Homes with children that know the breed continue to seek them out as their dog of choice. A favorite place of just about any well loved pit bull is in the lap of his adoring human or close by his side. (The photo above shows Brian surrounded by his three rescued BAD RAP pit bull buddies: Bear, Reggie and Lucy. Could Puppy Love be any sweeter?)

AmStaff or APBT ?
Many laypeople have come to believe that "American Staffordshire Terrier" is a polite new name for pit bull, and many shelters incorrectly label pit bulls as AmStaffs (presumably to get adoption numbers up). Understanding the jumbled history of the breed names helps to clear up some of this confusion and mislabeling.

Before the end of the 1800's, the dogs we think of as 'Pit Bulls' were typically called bulldogs (a name that is still used by many breed enthusiasts). In 1898, Chauncy Z. Bennet founded the United Kennel Club (UKC) and re-named the bulldogs 'American Pit Bull Terriers'. This move gave legitimacy to the breed and provided a framework for breed standardization. Then, in the 1930's a group petitioned the Amercian Kennel Club (AKC) to allow pit bulls to be shown in the conformation ring. To separate the dog from its reputation as a pit fighter, they were given the new title 'Staffordshire Terrier' which was later changed to 'Amercian Staffordshire Terrier' to avoid confusion with the English Staffordshire Terrier.

The AmStaffs have been selectively bred since that time for conformation, while the APBTs have been selectively bred for working drive, in addition to conformation. The two styles are basically mirror images of each other, with slight differences in build and character that have started to show over the past 65 years. To make matters even more confusing, some AmStaffs are dual registered as both UKC APBTs and AKC AmStaffs, while APBTs cannot be registered with both organizations. Depending on who you talk to, AmStaffs and APBTs can be the exact same breed, or completely separate breeds.
(This photo shows Gemini Kennel's duo registered champ, Neo. His 'show name' is "UKC Nat'l GR CH/AKC CH/INT CH Shadytown Gemini Neo D Shark CGC, TT" (the TT stands for passing the American Temperment Test and CGC stands for passing the AKC Canine Good Citizen Program).

In 1909, Guy McCord founded an organization titled ADBA (American Dog Breeders Association). This was created exclusively for APBTs and continues to be the lead registry for this breed. In 1976, the ADBA outlined its own breed standard, or, Basis of Conformation.

For the purpose of this website, all dogs will be called APBTs, or, the generic terms 'pit bull'. Those of us in BAD RAP would like to think that 'Pit Bull' is not a bad word, and are proud to label our dogs as such, even if we usually have no inkling about an individual dog's lines or history. Most of the pit dogs we see showing up in our bay area shelters are indeed APBTs. Some of the larger varieties may have had mastiff or other breeds mixed into their genetics, while some classic smaller sized Pit Bulls with "old world" gameness show up as well.

A Lonely Twist In the Road

Although we've changed enough as a culture to create laws which protect our admirable clown from organized dog fighting, ironically the darkest hour of this breed's story has only come about in the past 20 years. While huge numbers of Pit Bulls in this country are cherished family pets, many not so fortunate suffer the consequences of a nation with multi-layered social and economic problems. The historic fighting ability of this All American breed began to be exploited on a larger scale in the 1980's. Pit bulls were soon associated with poverty, crime, and newspaper headlines of back alley dog fighting rings. And, for the first time in the breed's history, we started hearing disturbing accounts of bites and attacks on humans by poorly socialized and badly bred APBTs, APBT mixes and other breed dogs that were mislabled as APBTs. The press went wild, the public panicked, and the reputation of the entire breed was dragged down with sensationalistic headlines and a few rotten examples of "Pit Bull Imposters" owned by shady and irresponsible owners.

To add to the sadness, a frenzy of backyard breeding of Pit Bulls in our urban cities began to add to the burgeoning population of unwanted dogs in the 80's -- A trend which continues today. The economic incentive of a 50 dollar price for unpapered pit bull puppies has filled our newpapers with ads for "Pit Pups for Sale". Those seeking a status symbol or controversial fashion statement are irresistably drawn to having a pit bull of their own. But just as fashions change, so do the minds of many 'casual pit bull owners' . The pattern of Pit Bulls purchased for breeding, later discarded and then duly euthanized by our overcrowded shelters has erupted into a disturbing 'business as usual' cycle with no discernable end in sight. With a negative reputation as "mean and vicious" animals, chances of salvation for most unwanted Pit Bulls are depressingly slim.
So, just as we struggle as a nation to understand how to deal with the social and economic ills that affect our cities, we are also left with the sticky puzzle of what to do about our once favorite breed of dog that is so feared and so loved at the same time . Once again, the APBT breed reflects back to us who we are: A culture of incredible contrasts and conflicting beliefs.

Still Heroes
Despite the difficult beginnings many of our urban pit bulls suffer, one thing rings true: The K9 hero that was admired by this country's earliest citizens continues to show itself in the faces of the overwhelming majority of Pit Bulls in our homes and even most of our bay area shelters. Even with the rocky starts that so many APBTs endure, an astounding number of dogs remain stable in temperament and great with people. Because of this, we can offer thanks to the earliest dogmen for their selective breeding efforts which produced a dog as hardy as the Pit Bulls. The animal that was once courageous enough to do battle with a bull or another dog in the pit, now utilizes that same bravado to stay alive and sane in conditions where other 'softer' breeds might go insane.
In loving and committed homes, the breed continues to dazzle us with charms only a bullydog can possess. It's not hard to see that the original Hero Dog is still alive and well in the show ring, in the various dog sport competitions and even in the saddest of places in our urban shelters. We'd like to think that BAD RAP's rescued pit bulls accurately reflect that original spirit of tail wagging resiliency. We hope to inspire others to take a second look at the breed that has so much to say to us about its strengths and qualities as well as who we are as a nation of doglovers.
(The photo above is 'Wasabi Sally' - a vivacious Pit Bull found in the Berkeley Animal Care Services Shelter)

LINKS to help you better understand the breed:

A FANTASTIC site for learning about the conformation style of the UKC, AKC and ADBA.

Great source for locating a pit bull rescue in your area. And all-important information new pit bull owners need to know.

For an extensive look at the history of the breed and more:
Real Pit Bull

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