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Invention of the Pit Bull Terrier

Discussion in 'Pit Bull Roots & Heritage' started by Vicki, Jun 23, 2014.

  1. Vicki

    Vicki Administrator Administrator

    Invention of the Pit Bull Terrier

    To understand the origin of the pit bull, one must go back two hundred years to a time when two dogs fighting to the death in an arena was as acceptable as two prize fighters punching each other in Las Vegas is today. It was considered an advancement when dogs were no longer allowed to bait bears and bulls, though enforcement of the laws criminalizing these contests was probably lax even at the beginning of the 19th century.

    Phil Drabble, writing a history of Staffordshire Terriers and baiting sports in 1948, says that when bull baiting was outlawed, fighting between bulldogs was used to replace it. While bulldogs had the necessary aggressiveness, they lacked an appropriate level of agility, so various crosses were tried, the most successful being with terriers, eventually producing a group of bull terriers.

    Lt. Col. Clyn (1948), in his brief description of the Bull Terrier, elaborates:

    “Bulldogs, though more active than the modern type, proved too slow in the fighting pit and breeders were concerned with increasing the Bulldog’s speed and agility without sacrificing his power to bite. To achieve this end Terrier blood was introduced and the resulting cross-breeds were called Bull-and-Terriers or Bulldog Terriers. These when bred together eventually produced a distinctive type which, early in the 19th Century, became known as Bull Terriers.â€

    John Henry Walsh, writing as "Stonehenge," says in The Dogs of the British Islands:

    "The Bull Terrier, like his chief progenitor, the bulldog, is now without a vocation, dog fights being prohibited by law, and rat pits being equally out of the question. But, unlike the bulldog, he is an excellent companion for the male sex, being a little too violent in his quarrels to make him desirable as a ladies' pet. Careful crossing—said to be with the terrier, but also alleged to be with the greyhound or foxhound, or both-has produced a handsome, symmetrical animal, without a vestige of the repugnant and brutal expression of the bulldog, and with the elegant lines of the greyhound, though considerably thickened in their proportions."


    The first plate depicts two show dogs that Walsh saw as excellent examples of the breed. As to the dog's behavior, Walsh states:

    "The bull terrier is still judged by the fighting standard—that is to say, he must have all the points, mental as well as bodily, which are necessary to the fighting dog. If of pure bull parentage or nearly so, he is unfitted for the office; for, instead of laying hold and shaking his adversary for a time with great force, and then changing to a fresh place of attack, as the fighting dog should do, he keeps his hold tenaciously, and never changes it but on compulsion. The infusion of terrier, greyhound, or foxhound, or whatever may be the cross, gives activity of body in addition to the above mental peculiarity, and thus is created an animal calculated to take his own part in any combat, whether with one of his own kind or with any of our native larger vermin, or even with the smaller felidae of other lands. His temper is sufficiently under control to prevent his intentionally injuring his master, under the severest provocation, and he is admitted to be, of all dogs, the most efficient protector against attack in proportion to his size and muscular powers. He is a very cleanly animal in the house, and many years ago I had one which, being by accident confined in my bedroom surreptitiously for four days, under the care of a person who fed him, but neglected to let him out as directed, for fear of discovery, never once relieved himself of any of his secretions, by which he very nearly lost his life."

    Genome research has put the Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Miniature Bull Terrier in the same group as the Bulldog. See vonHoldt et al. (2010). A recent study (Larson et al., 2012), in a supplemental table S1, stated that the Bull Terrier was created "by crossing English Bulldogs with several breeds including Black and Tan Terriers, Spanish Pointers, English White Terriers, Dalmations, Greyhounds and Whippets in order to create a dog breed that would fight other dogs."


    A Show Dog Has to Fight

    Pit Bull Terriers were of various colors but a show dog, Puss, entered in a show at Cremorne Gardens near Chelsea was all white and was a big hit. Part of Puss’s history is given by Clyn:

    “On the day of the show there could be no question that Puss was much smarter and more graceful than her old fashioned rivals, but the old breeders were convinced she could never hold her own in the pit; tempers frayed, and heavy wagers were offered at odds against Puss till Mr. Hinks could bear it no longer. Refusing to profit by his rivals’ ignorance, Mr. Hinks backed Puss at even for £5 and a case of champagne against the best known fighting dog present in the show. The challenge was accepted and the contest took place immediately in an improvised pit just outside the show. Tradition says that within 30 minutes the old fashioned champion was being laid to rest while Puss, almost unmarked, was back in the show, where she received First Prize.â€

    Dog shows have apparently changed somewhat in the last century.

    The older type of dog was re-crossed with the newer type in the earlier 20th century because the white variety was prone to deafness. The second plate shows a father and son, which Ash (1927) describes as “of the famous Paddington strain, never beaten.†The caption says that the father had killed two dogs. Ash relates an account that when a famous fighting dog gave birth to a litter, church bells were rung in Wednesbury.

    Dog Fighting in the 19th Century


    By 1860, according to Drabble, there were two preferred types of fighting dogs, the English Bull Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but the former was developed more for show than courage. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier continued to be bred for the pit. At the Westminster Pit, fights were held between dogs, cocks, dogs and monkeys, dogs and lions, and dogs that were required to kill large masses of rats.

    Drabble goes into detail:

    “The pit itself was roughly 12-18 feet across, with a boarded surround about three feet high, over which the spectators could watch. Each dog was handled by his second and, after the preliminary formalities concerning the stakes had been completed, each dog was weighed in the pit. It is common for owners of bull terriers which develop a taste for fighting, to boast that their dogs will 'kill anything' and that this dog or that ‘killed an Alsatian’ (or something equally big) ‘in ten minutes.’â€

    Watching a dog being torn to pieces for ten minutes was apparently something some dog fanciers were then excited by watching and, unfortunately, some still are. Drabble says that in fights before spectators, dogs were usually required to be within a pound of each other. As to timing. Drabble says that “two dogs would sometimes take as much as two hours to decide which was the better and rarely less than 25 or 30 minutes.â€

    Trickery practiced by dog owners included rubbing a dog “with acid or pickle or pepper or anything to discourage his opponent from biting him.†To prevent this, both dogs were often washed before the fight began, sometimes with milk, which was supposed to neutralize acid. Also, “each setter was allowed to ‘taste’ (or lick) his opponent’s dog both before and after fighting.†Clyn says that the taster was sometimes a third party who was given a shilling to assure that “no corrosive chemical or other poison had been rubbed into the coats of the contestants.â€

    The beginning of the fight was rather formal:

    “When the preliminaries had been completed a coin was tossed to decide which dog should ‘scratch’ first. They were taken to opposite corners of the pit where each second held his dog between his knees so that the other dog got a fair unobstructed view of his opponent’s head. On a word from the referee, the dog wich had to ‘scratch’ first was liberated and had to go across the pit to attack his opponent. A line was drawn cross the centre of the pit, which was known as the Scratch, and the opposing dog could not be loosed until the attacker had crossed this line. When he crossed the scratch the other setter could loose his dog when ever he liked and it was judgment here that won or lost many battles.â€

    Being held put a dog at a disadvantage, but Drabble says that if the setter kept holding and the dog that had been released did not attack the dog being held, the match was forfeited to the dog being held.

    Once the dogs began to fight, the setters could leave the pit. They could encourage their own dogs but could not speak to the opponent’s dog. Neither dog could be touched again until both stopped fighting. If the dogs stopped fighting, a setter could pick up his dog and the round was counted as expired. “One minute was allowed for sponging down and making ready for the next round, and the referee gave warning after 50 seconds so that both should be ready when the minute was up.â€

    Rounds were not set times but were ended when both dogs ‘faulted,’ i.e., ceased to be engaged in fighting, so a round might go for 20 minutes or more. “A battle of an hour or more might have twenty scratches, or one dog might be killed in the first scratch.†Drabble notes that in old prize ring rules, fighters fought until one fell.

    A dog that failed to scratch in his turn lost. “If a dog was killed in the pit the other had to stay at him for ten minutes at least and he could still not be handled by his setter till he faulted.†Thus, dogs were encouraged to continue to maul a dead opponent for the entertainment of the watchers. Once the mauling dog finally faulted, he was taken to his corner. The scratch rules had a curious result at this point:

    “If it was the dead dog’s turn to scratch the battle was automatically lost. If it was the live dog’s turn and he did not scratch, he lost the battle although he had killed his opponent.â€

    Since the live dog would know by smell that his opponent was dead, it must have been a matter of training to get the dog to fake an attack at that point.

    Writing in 1948, Drabble says that the sport was rare in Britain after the turn of the century, “but game terriers are still bred and exported to America where the sport is still perfectly legal in some States.†This, of course, was true even at the time Michael Vick was arrested. We have the British to blame for the preferred dog fighting breed in America.

    To get a dog in fighting trim, Drabble has a number of recommendations:

    “The first considerations in getting a dog fighting fit are therefore his wind and the removal of all surplus fat. He must be given constant hard exercise to get him muscled up and in dead hard condition, this can be best achieved by giving small quantities of highly nutritious food with an absence of starchy food during training. The jelly from cows’ feet and an adequate supply of fresh green food forms a good basis. Plenty of hard walking on a lead with a wide collar so that he can lay himself down and pull helps to strengthen his back and loin muscles. An old motor tyre or other piece of rubber hung up so that he can jump up, catch hold and shake himself about on it is simply vital. The damage a fighting dog does is not so much by the sheer force of his bite as by shaking when he has got hold. And his neck and back muscles are essential for this. Plenty of running and jumping for a ball that bounces well strengthens all the muscles he uses in turning and twisting, and produces the required agility.â€

    The advice rings a little too true. One must wonder how Drabble came by it. He describes the proclivities of the breed:

    “Puppies will fight to kill at three months and bitches are as keen as dogs. Yet some strains are remarkably friendly to other dogs and will put up with unusual insults before being goaded into fighting. When once they get a taste for it, they would rather fight than do anything in the world.â€

    That untrained pit bulls will readily attack other dogs is demonstrated by a recent incident in Florida.

    As to those who participate in dog fighting, Drabble says they are general of “a low parentage†and “are usually as willing to fight each other as to watch their dogs.â€

    Drabble recounts that efforts to ban dog fighting at first met little success:

    “There was little initial interference from the law, since it was possible to fight two dogs in any hollow or shed without attracting much attention, for fighting dogs fight silently. They were easy to get away afterwards, as they could always be carried in a sack if their condition was likely to draw suspicion. And dog-fighting had the advantage over bull- or bear-baiting in that at least both animals wanted to fight instead of the victim having to be fastened with a rope or chain with no chance of escape.â€

    Bull Baiting


    Drabble says that Bulldogs “were developed for no other purpose†than baiting bulls. See also R. and W. Livingston (1885). This activity did not begin as a sport, but rather because of the belief that beef was more tender when cattle were excited by dogs before being killed. The dogs were thus, at first, the same dogs used for driving cattle. The sport—for it soon came to be one—was long popular in England and Drabble describes the devotion of Queen Elizabeth I to watching it as “anything but spinsterish.â€

    The tide began to change with James I, who in 1620 refused to license houses for bull-baiting and it was forbidden altogether on Sundays. Cromwell forbade the sport altogether, though this may have been because he saw the gatherings as having the risk of turning political in a way that would not favor his control. The Restoration brought it back.

    Bulldogs used in baiting weighed under 50 pounds, and Drabble discusses the importance of their jaws.

    “The object in bull-baiting was to grip the bull in a tender enough part of the face to hold him still or throw him. Tremendous power of jaw was necessary for this and nostrils set far enough back to allow normal breathing without letting go.â€

    As to the fight itself, Drabble states:

    “When all was ready the bull was tethered to the stake by a rope about 15 yards long attached to the base of his horns…. [The dog] would not rush madly at the quarry but creep on his belly, stealthily, as close as possible. If the bull was a ‘green’ bull, which had never been halted before, he would bellow and lower his head towards the dog but do little else, for he didn’t know what he’d got coming to him. If, on the other hand, he was a ‘game’ bull, which had been baited before and proved his mettle in the ring, he would not get at the extremity of his rope but would leave himself enough slack to charge when necessary. He would lower his head and keep his forelegs close to prevent the dog slipping between them and getting hold. The aim of the dog would be to creep along and wait for an opening, when he would dart in and ‘pin’ the bull by laying hold of his tongue, eyepiece, lip or nose. The bull would not try to impale him but slip his horn under his belly and toss him high enough into the air to suffer damage when he fell. The dog’s owner was well aware of this and he would be ready to try and break his fall by catching him in his apron or deftly slide a light pole under him, in mid-air, down which he could slide in comparative immunity. If the bull was successful and the dog not much hurt he was let go again since he was expected to be game enough to go back so long as he had still the strength to crawl.â€


    Some dogs were killed by the bull’s toss, and some dragged their entrails behind as they tried to find safety. If the dog got a good grip, the flesh of the bull might be torn away by the dog as the bull shook to free himself. If the bull gave up, the dog’s jaws might have to be pried apart with a tool to get him off the bull.

    Drabble says that the last bull-bait took place about 1838.

    Although bulldogs were still a popular breed when Drabble wrote in the mid-twentieth century, he cautions against imagining “that the monstrosities wheezing at modern dog shows in the classes for bulldogs are like the animals†that baited bulls. “Instead of being disproportionately squat and broad, like some great toad, the bulldogs which were used in the ring were finely proportioned dogs, little heavier in build than a modern Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and taller for their size.â€

    This is one case where breeding for show had the advantage of taking a dog away from its violent past.

    Bear Baiting


    Next to bull baiting in popularity was bear baiting, but Drabble says that “bears did not provide such good sport as the bulls. For one thing too much manipulation was necessary to prevent the dog from being killed.†The bears were “usually a mass of festering fly-blown sores which had resulted from the lacerations of earlier ‘baits’. They were led by a chain and ring in the nose and their muzzles were scarred or raw from the chafing of their chains.â€

    By about 1750, the sport had largely disappeared. Nevertheless it seems not to have gone away completely because, a depiction in Real Life in London from about 1821 shows men in the audience dressed in nineteenth century coats and leggings.

    There is no end to the ingenuity of cruelty and we have only touched the surface. Drabble describes fights between groups of bulldogs and lions, dogs and monkeys, and many other horrors. When the contest was between a dog and rats, the sport was how many rats the dog could kill in a specified time.


    Guarding Function

    Clyn relates a story that perhaps demonstrates there are occasions when a dog with the skills of a bull terrier might provide a legitimate defense function:

    “The breed has a reputation for fighting which it does not really deserve; I think this is founded partly on the breed’s history as a fighting dog and also partly on the shocking efficiency of the few savage Bull Terriers about; the modern dog is but little less powerful than his ancestors, and a nice tempered White Bull Terrier bitch, well known on the bench, created something of a sensation in Burma some years before the War while defending her master who was attacked by an armed dacoit [bandit]. Within a few moments the dacoit was dead and the dog’s owner was paid a substantial reward that had been offered for the dacoit dead or alive.â€


    Bulldogs were able to escape their history as dogs used to bait bulls because the practice came to an end and no netherworld of gambling on fights between dogs and cattle lasted very long after the official ban. Bears became too rare, and too protected, and, as described above, fights between bears and dogs were too difficult to manage in any case. Unfortunately, dog fighting was only gradually outlawed in England and the United States and often not enforced when it was outlawed. The sport had time to move underground, to develop a culture and venues where the morons that engage in it could meet with fellow enthusiasts.

    Many of the potentially more dangerous breeds descend from war dogs, which probably means they descended from types of dogs that guarded the flocks. Outlawing a breed only means that other breeds including large dogs with powerful jaws will soon be preferred by those sick strains of humanity who feel that the suffering of animals is amusing.

    The Michael Vick case brought public attention to the amount of dog fighting that occurs in the United States, and demonstrated that those who participate are often not gang members. It also brought to everyone’s attention the frequent lack of enforcement of laws prohibiting dog fighting, and significantly changed enforcement patterns in most of the country.

    Despite the specific and violent purpose that explains pit bull origins, this is human history more than canine history, and I continue to believe that breed specific legislation will do little to diminish dog fighting or pit bull attacks. It is serious enforcement of anti-dog fighting and dog bite laws that will accomplish that. And despite the fact that this is already a trend, more effort is needed both in arresting and punishing those responsible for such inhumanity and stupidity.


    Alken, H. (1903). The National Sports of Great Britain. D. Appleton & Co., New York.
    Ash, E.C. (1927). Dogs: Their History and Development. Ernest Benn Ltd., London.
    Clyn, S.H. (1948). Bull Terrier. In The Book of the Dog (Vesey-Fitzgerald, B., ed.). Nicholson & Watson, London.
    Drabble, P. (1948). Staffords and Baiting Sports. In The Book of the Dog (Vesey-Fitzgerald, B., ed.). Nicholson & Watson, London.
    Egan, P. [writing as Anonymous] (1821). Real Life in London. Methuen & Co., London.
    Jesse, G.R. (1866). Researches into the History of the British Dog. Robert Hardwicke, London (in the final chapter of Volume II, discussing the rise of the pit bull terrier in the early 19th century).
    Larson, G., Karlsson, E.K., Perri, A., et al. (2012). Rethinking Dog Domestication by Integrating Genetics, Archeology, and Biogeography. PNAS (doi/10.1073/pnas.1203005109).
    Livingston, R., and Livingston, W. (1885). The Bull-Dog. In The Century Magazine, May 1885, 3.
    Walsh, J.H. ("Stonehenge") (1859). The Dog in Health and Disease. Longman, Green, Longman, & Roberts, London.
    vonHoldt et al. (2010). Genome-Wide SNP and Haplotype Analyses Reval a Rich History Underlying Dog Domestication. Nature, 464, 898.
    Walsh, J.H. (1882). The Dogs of the British Islands (4th ed.). Horace Cox, London.

    Thanks to L.E. Papet for comments and corrections.

    Dog Law Reporter: The Sordid History of Pit Bull Fighting in 19th Century England

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