Once upon a time the American Pitbull Terrier was known as a breed that was good with children, a brave, all American dog that represented a strong, brave nation that wasn’t looking for a fight but would stand up for itself if a fight was brought to it.
In this poster, circa 1915, nations are represented by dog breeds that originated in the nation. Note that it is the APBT that represents the U.S. with the slogan,
BUT – Not Afraid of any of them.”
WW I had started at this point but the U.S. had not yet entered the war – and managed to remain “neutral” until April 1917 when Congress declared war on Germany.
The U.S. Navy also used the breed as a representative about this same time.
The APBT represented a watch dog:
“We’re not looking for trouble.
But we’re ready for it.”
This was not the first positive representation of APBT. The turn of the century comic strip Buster Brown — a character who would go on to become associated with selling shoes, as well as television and movies — revolved around a boy and his brown APBT Tige.
Due to the ongoing popularity of Buster Brown and Tige for decades – into at least the WWII era – they were also heavily used for advertising.
In some of the early drawings it may seem hard to identify Tige’s breed (although he was known to be APBT.) It is much easier for us now to identify the breed from photos from the later movies.
There was another, equally famous and popular APBT.
Co-star of movie features and then television was Petey from Our Gang/ Little Rascals. The gang changed over the years and two different APBTs played the part.
Petey was as much a part of the gang as Alfalfa and Spanky.
There was no question that this was a breed that not only was trustworthy around children — this was a child’s guardian who would put himself in danger to protect the kids.
So what happened?
How between the 1940s and now did the breed become so defamed?
First a little more breed history.
Originally there was one breed, the above picture from 1940 is an example of that breed. When I was a little kid the APBT and Staffordshire Terrier were considered the same breed. Then they weren’t
In the U.S. some breeders were breeding American Kennel Club Staffordshire Terriers (recognized by the AKC in 1936) that were heavier and stouter than breeders in places like Staffordshire England. In 1972 the AKC recognized that they were in fact becoming two separate breeds — and the “American” Staffordshire Terrier joined the ranks of the AKC — at that time the name changed, the dogs who up until then had been U.S. bred Staffordishre Terriers were now American Staffordshire Terriers.
This is the point it is easiest to identify were gradual changes in breeding purposes and goals were starting to be named.
People who are on the outside of the dog breeding world don’t realize what a really political and fractured group breeders of any breed can be. Having been on the inside of some changes with another breed I can tell you…you wouldn’t believe how passionate and even mean people get about this stuff.
Not everyone agreed with changing the breed name or standard. So we have a number of groups appearing and fracturing around this time. There are the traditionalist APBT people who didn’t want to change the breed they loved.
Then there are the people who loved the breed and didn’t like the reputation it was just starting to gain because of some of the less pleasant associations that were starting to appear, i.e. “toughs” and “criminals” were starting to be attracted to this breed, just as they were attracted to Rottweilers, German Shepherds, and Dobermans.
Over the years the AKC registered American Staffordshire Terrier has become a smaller, squatter dog than the traditional APBT. And of course some breeders are breeding for exaggerated squaty appearance.
American Staffordshire Terrier
AKC Staffy Puppy
Despite the difference in physical type one thing remains consistent between the two types. Both want nothing more than to be with people and to please people. Unfortunately, some people have used this eagerness to please humans to the breed’s detriment.
Originally used for bull baiting and in some cases dog fighting, a Staffy can be turned into a dog fighter particularly given inhumane training. And some people do work hard to train these dogs to attack other dogs. Cruelty and starvation and isolation all play a role in this training.
Other handlers are just plain irresponsible and neither train nor handle their dogs. Any breed that is allowed to run wild without handling and training has the possibility to be a fear biter. Bad blood lines can lead to aggressive behavior. And popular media associations between gangsters and pit bulls have really hurt the breed.
Yet these remain dogs that as breeds, want to be with people and please people. They are smart, trainable, love children and if properly trained can be very lovely family dogs. I would recommend either obtaining one through rescue where they have been temperament tested or through a reliable breeder who keeps temperament paramount in their breeding program.
I have known a number of APBT and some AKC Staffies. All have been nice dogs. All have been family dogs that did well with children and other pets. All lived with other animals. I knew one who would get so excited – like many terriers – when playing tug of war that she would eventually reach a point where her handler would give her a five minute cool down period. Some trainers in fact suggest that tug of war is not a good game to play with any bull terrier type breed.
In my lifetime a handful of breeds have been over bred and for spurts of time were known as either the most aggressive breed or responsible for the most unprovoked attacks. I can remember this happening not only to all breeds now known as “aggressive” but also to the Chow Chow which many people don’t realise was number one for about five years for unprovoked attacks on people. The breed was being over bred as well as ending up in the hands of some very irresponsible people. That breed however, wasn’t stigmatized permanently the way the Staffy has been. There is more than one factor responsible for this but I can’t help but note the difference when a breed ends up being owned by people like Martha Stewart versus, for example, member of the Bad Boys record label rapper Pitbull aka Armando Christian Pérez. Rap doesn’t provide the same cache as Martha’s Vineyard. Just saying, sometimes the company a dog ends up keeping affects a dog’s reputation.