A brief overview of the history of bull-and-terrier breeds will help explain the origins of the term pit bull. However, the historical meaning should not be confused with the modern meanings.
A large, mastiff-like dog is the ancient ancestor of a number of large breeds. This mastiff-type dog can be seen in very early art. These large dogs were used for hunting, guarding, and war. They could be found across Europe and Asia, and by the time of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, they were popular multipurpose dogs. They are sometimes called molossers.
From this large early dog descended a variety of dogs, including mastiffs, bandogs, and bulldogs.
At this early time in history, there were no breeds as we know them today. Dogs were more likely to be described by their type than an actual breed. A mastiff guarded property and flocks. Bandog often described a chained guard dog. These dogs varied in appearance but were generally large dogs.
The term bulldog first began to appear in texts around 1500 C.E. Prior to this, they were lumped in with mastiffs. Bulldogs were commonly used by butchers and farmers to catch and hold cattle. As with all other types of dogs, bulldogs varied in size and appearance.
People of these early centuries entertained themselves with blood sports, competitions in which animals were pitted against each other. They gambled on these events as well. These blood sports included baiting (dogs set upon a bull, bear, wolf, lion, monkey, and so forth), ratting, cockfighting, coursing, dog fighting, and much more. Bull baiting, one of the most popular blood sports, is believed to have began in England around 1210.
Blood sports gained in popularity over the centuries. By the 17th and 18th centuries, blood sports were routine affairs. Bulldogs, bandogs, and mastiffs were common canine victims in these sports, especially against larger animals like bulls and bears. Terriers and hounds were used to hunt and kill smaller animals like rats and badgers.
By the 1800s, dog fighting, ratting, and baiting of smaller animals had become increasingly popular. Large dogs, like bulldogs and mastiffs, weren’t suitable for this kind of fight. A new type of dog was created by crossing the bulky bulldog with the fast terrier. Called a bull-and-terrier, this dog was thought to excel at dog fighting, ratting, and hunting because it possessed the strength and tenacity of a bulldog with the speed and determination of a terrier.
In the United Kingdom, the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 finally made most blood sports illegal. With the end of bull-baiting, the original bulldog waned in popularity. The bulldog eventually went extinct, but not before it was crossed with myriad other types of dogs, particularly hunting dogs.
[The bulldog] was originally kept for bull-baiting, but as that amusement of the people is now quite exploded, even in Staffordshire, there are few of pure breed anywhere to be had. Occasionally one or two are kept up for the express purpose of improving the bull-terrier and mastiff by the infusion of fresh blood; but they are very rare indeed. — “Gamekeeper’s Assistants: The Bulldog,” Manual of British Rural Sports, by Stonehenge, John Henry Walsh, 1859
[The bulldog's] chief value at present is for crossing with other breeds. The greyhound, the terrier, and the pointer each have their courage and persistency much improved by this cross if judiciously made. — Entry “bulldog,” Johnson’s New Universal Cyclopaedia, 1881
This old style of bulldog should not be confused with the modern breed called (English) Bulldog. The modern Bulldog is thought to be the result of crossing old-style bulldogs with Pug-like dogs. Its extreme physical features, such as large head, flat face, barrel-shaped body, and stubby legs, make it physically incapable of engaging in heavy physical activity, as would have been expected of an old-style bulldog.
The Act of 1835 made dogfighting illegal, but enforcement of this prohibition was problematic. Dog fighting was relatively easier to conceal than, for instance, bull- and bear-baiting, especially in the city. Compared to bulls, dogs were less noticeable, less expensive, and required less space for fighting. Consequently, dog fighting continued. Bull-and-terrier crosses were the most common victims of dog fighters.
Bull-and-terrier types were also extremely popular. Through the mid and late 1800s, bull-and-terrier types became more defined, and were often referred to as bull terrier, although, to be clear, the term referred to a bulldog-terrier cross, not a carefully defined and standardized breed such as the modern Bull Terrier.
The bull-terrier is one of our best known and most popular breeds of dogs, and deservedly so; for in whatever station you find him, from the easy luxurious life of the crack show-dog of the day, tired of repeated honours, down to the sturdy shortfaced cheny nosed half-bred, you will still find him the same,— always faithful, always ready; a perfect mitrailleuse among rats, the terror of cats. — Dogs: their points, whims, instincts, and peculiarities, ed. by Henry Webb, 1872
The bull terrier unites in itself the best qualifications of the sporting Dogs, being very intelligent, apt at learning, delicate of nose, quick of eye, and of indomitable courage. ln size it is extremely variable, some specimens being among the smallest of the canine tribes, while others measure as much as twenty inches in height. In this Dog it is quite unnecessary to have equal parts of the bull-dog and the Terrier, for in that case the progeny is sure to be too heavily made about the head and jaws, and not sufficiently docile to pay instant and implicit obedience to the command of its master. Until these points are removed, the Terrier cross should be continued, so as to restore the light active form of the Terrier, together with its habit of ready obedience, while the courageous disposition remains. Indeed the most ferocious Dogs, and the hardest fighters, are generally the immediate offspring of the bull-dog and Terrier and are often erroneously described under the name of the former animal. —Rev. J. G. Wood, Wood’s Animal Kingdom, 1870
Bull-and-terrier type dogs were common ancestors in the refinement of many modern breeds of dogs, particularly terrier types, including the Airedale Terrier, Fox Terrier, Bull Terrier, Jack Russell / Parson Russell Terrier, Rat Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Boston Terrier, and many more.
Just one of the many English breeds that came from the bull-and-terrier was the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier was derived from bulldogs used for bull-baiting in the Staffordshire region of England. In literature of the mid-1800s, several authors wrote that bull-baiting persisted in Staffordshire for some years after it was outlawed. In 1880, author Frederick J. Stephens described the early Staffordshire Bull Terrier as “that ill-conditioned [surly] race, the bull-dog breed—the so-called ‘bull-poop’ [local dialect, from bull pup]—much loved by Staffordshire colliers [coal-miners].” The bulldog of Staffordshire was crossed with terrier, over time producing a dog that is now called the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
The all-white (English) Bull Terrier was another type of dog that arose from the British crosses of early bulldogs and terriers. At the time, Bull Terriers did not have the egg-shaped head and the small triangular eyes that we associate with the modern Bull Terrier. They were synonymous with a fighting bull-and-terrier type.
Throughout the 1800s, immigrants to the United States brought their dogs along, including early versions of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the Bull Terrier, and other bull-and-terrier types. Old-style bulldogs likely came across the ocean as well. Just as in Europe, these types of dogs were crossed with each other, and were used for dog fighting, ratting, and hunting.
In the United States, bulldogs and bull-and-terrier crosses significantly produced the Boston Terrier and the American bull terrier (which gradually became the American Pit Bull Terrier and American Staffordshire Terrier), and also contributed to the American Rat Terrier. Modern American bulldog breeds such as the American Bulldog, Olde English Bulldogge, and Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog also attribute much of their makeup to the American bulldog types of the late 19th and early 20th century.
The concept of purebred dogs was a very old one, but formal breeding for appearance did not occur until the 1850s, when large kennel clubs began to form. By 1880, the world’s largest all-breed kennel clubs, including the Kennel Club (U.K.) and the American Kennel Club (U.S.), were up and running. Kennel clubs popularized the idea that each dog breed should have a distinct name and a distinct look, formalized by a breed standard. When these kennel clubs began, they accepted only a small list of popular and distinct breeds of the 1880s; breeds were gradually added to kennel club registers throughout the years, and new breeds continue to be added today. The American Kennel Club stud book of 1889, for example, listed only 40 separate breeds; compared to over 150 different breeds recognized by the AKC today.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized a variety of bull-and-terrier breeds very early on, including the Bull Terrier (1885), the Fox Terrier (1885), the (English) Bulldog (1886), the Airedale Terrier (1888), the Boston Terrier (1893), and the French Bulldog (1898).
The formation of the kennel clubs and the rise of technology and urban life during this era marks a significant turning point in the way society viewed dogs. Prior to this time, dogs were primarily considered workers that performed particular functions. Dogs were used to hunt, chase, fight and kill game and vermin; to protect property and livestock; to pull carts; and even to turn spits. These working dogs might also be companions and pets. Very few dogs were solely kept as coddled pets, and these usually lived with the upper class.
In the late 1800s, significant technological advances—electricity, new weapons, new machinery—arose in Europe and the Americas. Working dogs were replaced by new technologies. At the same time, the new kennel clubs created breed standards, which described the proper appearance of each breed. They held conformation events that judged dogs against the standards and deemed them worthy or unworthy representatives of that breed. The kennel clubs generally emphasized appearance over working ability.
People began to think of dogs primarily as pets and companions, and only secondarily as workers.
In 1898, the United Kennel Club (UKC) was formed in the United States in order to register a breed called the American Pit Bull Terrier. The slang terms pit bull terrier and pit bull began to be used around the turn of the century, almost exclusively in American writings about dogs.
Pit bull was sometimes meant as shorthand for the American Pit Bull Terrier, and sometimes meant to refer to a bull terrier or a bulldog-terrier cross, but referred specifically to the type of bull terrier used for dog fighting. If the bulldog-terrier cross was meant as a companion, it was called an American bull terrier.
There followed a great deal of confusion about “correct” breed names, frustrated by the fact that the AKC had not recognized a breed called the “pit bull terrier.” In 1916, in the magazine Country Life, author Walter A. Dyer wrote that, as far as the AKC was concerned,
Bull terrier is the proper name for both the white and the brindle varieties, as well as the spotted nondescripts, which are often good dogs in their way. The name pit bull terrier has been given to the heavier variety, and the effort is now being made to make a distinct breed of this and classify it as the American bull terrier. (Volume 30)
Pit bull terrier was often equated with bull terrier in popular culture; by the early 1900s, Bull Terrier breeders and fanciers could be seen working diligently to distance their breed from the fighting version.
The Bull terrier is now a gentlemanly and respectably owned dog wearing an immaculate white coat and a burnished silver collar; he has dealings with aristocracy and is no longer contemned for keeping bad company. — Dogs and all about them, Robert Leighton, 1910
These pit dogs, or American bull terriers, or brindle bull terriers, or whatever name you choose, are miles away from the pure-bred English bull terrier in both looks and disposition. Their heads are square and blocky; their make up is cloddy; their shoulders are heavy, and their front legs apt to be slightly bowed. They are always more or less heavily marked with brindle, smut, or even tan on black. . . . How this dog could ever become confused the real bull terrier is a strange mystery, but with most Americans the two are jumbled up into one, and the bull terrier’s bad name has been tied to him the more securely. — The Outing magazine, Volume 60, 1912
There is sometimes a public prejudice against them because some people link their ideas of bull terriers with visions of “pit fighting”; but the well-bred bull terrier of today is fit to take his place beside the aristocratic Russian wolfhounds in refinement and beauty, and can hold his own with a collie or Airedale for all-round usefulness, sagacity and loyalty. —The Field illustrated, Volume 25, 1915
The current type of pitbull or fighting terrier would seem to bear a closer resemblance to the Victorian era bull terrier than does the modern bull terrier. . . . It is unfortunate that the terrier used for fighting has been so frequently confused in the popular mind with the bull terrier. This misconception is so general that almost any short haired white strongly built dog which resembles the breed will be called a bull terrier, however mixed its ancestry may have been and however bad its disposition. — “Bull Terrier Breeding,” The Journal of Heredity, Volume 8, American Genetic Association, 1917
In 1936, the American Kennel Club (AKC) at last accepted a breed that the AKC decided to call the Staffordshire Terrier. The standard for the Staffordshire Terrier was strikingly similar to the UKC’s American Pit Bull Terrier, though not exact. Before the AKC closed their stud books to new registrations of the Staffordshire Terrier, many UKC-registered American Pit Bull Terriers dual-registered in the AKC books as Staffordshire Terriers. In 1972, the AKC changed the breed’s name to American Staffordshire Terrier to prevent confusion with the smaller Staffordshire Bull Terrier from England.
The American Staffordshire Terrier is basically the AKC version of the American Pit Bull Terrier. Since 1936, breeders of ASTs and APBTs have followed slightly different breed standards, resulting in slightly different appearances. Today, both AST and APBT breeders do not feel that the breeds are identical. However, they do share a similar history prior to 1936.
Through the 1980s, the phrases pit bull and pit bull terrier were typically used by Americans to refer to any or all of the following: fighting dogs of the bull-terrier type; purebred American Pit Bull Terriers; and purebred (American) Staffordshire Terriers. More rarely, the term might have referred to Staffordshire Bull Terriers and/or (English) Bull Terriers.
Outside the United States, pit bull refers almost exclusively to American Pit Bull Terriers. In fact, some countries have issued legal decisions that specifically pardon American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and Bull Terriers from the group of undesirable dogs called pit bulls.
In recent decades, however, the definition and use of pit bull has expanded and changed significantly, and we will discuss these new incarnations on the next page: What is a “Pit Bull”?