Intro to Dogs: The controversy behind bully breeds

apbt(photo courtesy of the American Dog Breeders Association)

If you do an Internet search for news articles containing the words “pit bull,” the result will most likely be headline after headline about pit bull attacks. However, many of the dogs these newspapers and websites write about are not actually pit bulls.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 4.5 million people suffer from dog bites in the U.S. every year. To try to curb the incidence of dog bites, many cities and counties around the country are enacting strict laws about the ownership of some breeds, some going so far as to ban them, a practice is known as breed-specific legislation. Even some insurance companies are refusing to cover customers’ homeowners insurance if they own a “dangerous dog breed.”

Far and away the breed most affected by these laws is the pit bull. Unfortunately for these dogs, due to misinformation from the media, it is not just the pit bull that suffers.

Often, websites, publications and online forums will claim that there is no breed called a “pit bull” and that it is actually a term used to classify different types of dogs. This is largely untrue. While there is no breed called a “pit bull” currently recognized by the American Kennel Club – arguably the most powerful source of breed recognition in the country – that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. The AKC may not recognize it, but the American Pit Bull Terrier, the only breed that can rightfully be identified as a “pit bull,” is very much alive and well.

The United Kennel Club – the second oldest all-breed dog registry in the United States – recognizes the American Pit Bull Terrier (also commonly referred to as the APBT) as a breed. According to the UKC, the APBT’s history can be traced back to the 1800s. Dog breeders in England, in an attempt to create a prize-winning baiting dog, experimented with crossbreeding bulldogs and terriers, combining the strength and athleticism of a bulldog with the gameness of a terrier. Gameness, as described by the popular blog Not A Pit Bull, a site that aims to right the wrongs done by the misidentification of the APBT, is a trait used to describe a dog eager to catch prey despite the threat of injury. Immigrants brought these bulldog-terrier mixes to the United States, where ranchers took notice of the dogs’ tenacity and began using them to catch wild cattle and hogs.

When the sports of bear and bull baiting were outlawed in England in 1835, the sport of dog fighting sprang up in its place. Because of their strength, athleticism and gameness, the APBT excelled. Today, although dog fighting is illegal, the APBT is still the dog of choice for those who choose to continue participating in this ruthless sport. Because these dogs have been bred since the 1800s to fight other animals, they are prone to be aggressive towards other dogs if not properly trained and socialized at an early age.

However, because people so frequently handled these dogs, it was important they not be aggressive toward humans. That is why often, when the owner of a dog that has attacked another dog is questioned, he or she will say something along the lines of, “He/she’s never displayed aggression to any person!” Readers roll their eyes, but that statement is most likely true. APBT’s were bred to fight other animals, not people. They are often very loving, affectionate pets to their families.

Although the APBT is the only breed that can truly be called a pit bull, there are several others who are also commonly referred to as pit bulls.

(photo courtesy of State Farm)

The American Staffordshire Terrier is probably the biggest victim of this. These dogs are recognized by the AKC, and have been bred for many years as show dogs. American Staffordshire Terriers were originally mixes of the same dogs used to create the APBT, but when brought to the United States, owners bred for a heavier-set dog to stand up to the demands of a working farm dog. Where APBTs were bred to keep their tenacity and gameness, it would not have made sense to keep these traits in a dog that worked so closely with animals, and these traits were phased out over time in favour of a gentler dog.

One reason the American Staffordshire Terrier is often mistakenly referred to as a pit bull – aside from the fact they share some characteristics – is that these dogs can be dual registered. In the United Kennel Club, American Staffordshire Terriers can also be registered as American Pit Bull Terriers, much to the chagrin of many dog fanciers. In order for a dog to be dual registered, it must be registered to the AKC as an American Staffordshire Terrier first, and then registered to the UKC as an American Pit Bull Terrier. This practice is controversial, because it makes distinguishing the two breeds more difficult.


The American Staffordshire Terrier is not the only dog that has faced a case of mistaken identity. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier is also often mistaken for a pitt bull.

These dogs can also be traced back to England in the 1800s. According to the AKC, when the sport of dog fighting gained popularity, a smaller, more agile fighting dog was developed. The resulting dog was originally called the Bulldog Terrier in homage to its ancestry – a bulldog (which back then would have been much larger than the bulldogs we know today, weighing in at around 60 pounds) and the Manchester terrier, a breed that is still popular today. It was the addition of the terrier that gave these dogs their small size.

When these dogs were brought to the states, they were largely used as familial companions. In 1974, the breed was welcomed into the AKC registry. Because of their terrier-heavy ancestry, these dogs are typically energetic and have a high prey drive, or desire to chase things.

am bulldog
photo courtesy of Jamie Lantzy)
Another breed commonly mislabeled is the American bulldog. These dogs, like the APBT, are not recognized by the AKC but are recognized in the United Kennel Club. According to the UKC, these dogs were originally bred to work cattle. When bull baiting became popular, they thrived due to their large size. When the sport was outlawed, breeders miniaturized the breed to be more compatible with cities, resulting in the infamous English bulldog. The original, larger bulldogs were taken to the United States, where they continued to be used as ranch dogs.

By the time World War II ended, the bulldog breed had almost disappeared completely. However, thanks to a WWII veteran named John D. Johnson, the breed was reinvigorated. American bulldogs are loving, people-oriented dogs. One famous American bulldog is Chance, a character in the 1993 film Homeward Bound.

Recently, a new breed has fallen victim to mislabeling, the American bully. American bullies, according to the United Kennel Club, were developed as an extension of the American pit bull terrier and became popular in the 1990s. This breed was heavily influenced by the English bulldog, giving the breed its short, bow-legged appearance. American bullies are relatively easy to distinguish from each of the other breeds due to their short legs, large heads and exaggerated musculature.

am bully(photo courtesy of Rock City Kennels)

The problem with misrepresenting any of these breeds as pit bulls – or misrepresenting pit bulls themselves – is complex. With breed specific legislation, it is a problem because dogs that wind up facing the strictest consequences might not even be pit bulls, but because they look similar, their owners are now told they have to muzzle their dogs whenever they leave the house, or they might have to get rid of their pet all together.

When people deny that pit bulls have been so deeply embedded in fighting, it surprisingly makes things worse for the poor dogs. American pit bull terriers can make wonderful pets, and a person wants to welcome one into their home should be able to do so. However, if they turn a blind eye to what these dogs have for so long been bred to do and then turn them loose with a bunch of strange dogs in a dog park, should we really be surprised if they attack another dog?

That is why it is so important for people to educate themselves before getting any dog, and imperative when it comes to a breed that is so stigmatized already. American pit bull terriers need special care and socialization to ensure that they don’t revert to their ancestral instincts, and the only way to make certain that new dog owners understand that is to educate them on what could happen if they don’t take proper precautions.

It was people who turned these dogs into what they are today. It was people who bred them with bull baiting or dog fighting in mind. It is up to people to change that, and the first step towards changing is learning.

(Featured image provided courtesy of sgrace)

Taylor Lima

New England native relocated to British Columbia. For the past 12 years, my hobbies have revolved around animals, from 4-H club to teaching horseback riding lessons, to apprenticing under a dog trainer with more than 20 years experience. When I realized veterinary school wasn't a good fit for me, I decided to write about the things I love, instead.

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