The term “pit bull” can be confusing, as it doesn’t refer to a specific breed. Rather, depending on whom you ask, it refers to any number between two and five. The most common usage of the term refers typically to two breeds; the American pit bull terrier and the American Staffordshire terrier. The confusion arises from the similarity and shared ancestry of these two breeds.
Although pit bull breeds are most frequently cited as being bred originally in England, the defining characteristics of this breed type - strength, large head and wide jaw - is linked to a now extinct breed called the molosser. This ancient breed was established in Greece by the Molossi tribe, who used him for guarding and as a war dog. Many large, powerful breeds share common ancestry with the molosser, including mastiffs and bulldogs.
The pit bull type as we know it today was established in England. Breeders mixed bulldogs, which were larger and leaner than they are today, with a variety of terrier types, including Staffordshire bull terriers. This created a strong, athletic and tenacious dog that was used for blood sports, such as bull baiting. It is this combination of power and tenacity that have caused the modern pit bull to appeal to the very sort of irresponsible owners who continue to perpetuate the bad reputation of the breed. Thankfully, baiting was banned in the early 1800s and the early proponents of the breed found other work for their dogs.
The original pit bulls were brought to America by British immigrants around 1870. Their qualities of tenacity and athleticism appealed to farmers, who put them to work as hunting dogs. Since bull baiting was no longer acceptable by this time, smaller specimens were in favor as speed was valued over raw power. In the 1930s, a divergence between the pit bulls happened as breeders began to use the dogs for different purposes. The American Staffordshire terrier was removed from the pit fighting circuit and was bred for conformation, while the pit bull was bred for farm work, so two distinct types developed. These two types are what are known today as the American pit bull terrier and the American Staffordshire terrier.
Modern Pit Bulls
Todays pit bull types - the American pit bull terrier and the American Staffordshire terrier - are two distinct breeds. The American Staffordshire terrier is recognized by the the American Dog Breeder's Association and the United Kennel Club, the American Kennel Club. They are similar in appearance, size and temperament with only subtle differences. For example, American Staffordshire terriers have stronger front legs than the pit bull, but the pit bull's hind legs are stronger than the Am Staff. Although these dogs were once bred for baiting, many of today’s modern pit bulls are genetically far-removed from their fighting ancestors and both breeds have been bred not to show aggression to humans.
Simon Foden has been a freelance writer and editor since 1999. He began his writing career after graduating with a Bachelors of Arts degree in music from Salford University. He has contributed to and written for various magazines including "K9 Magazine" and "Pet Friendly Magazine." He has also written for Dogmagazine.net.