A Fall From Grace: The Story of the Pit Bull
Contributed by: Gerard Spicer on 1/25/2006
I felt obligated to write this article because I live in a city that is currently addressing the Pit Bull issue. As an owner of Pit Bulls since 1990, I feel that it is important to shed some positive light on the history of the breed. The average person’s knowledge of the dog is usually biased, based on urban myths aimed at damaging the breed’s reputation. Contrary to what is portrayed in the media, we are not being overrun with vicious Pit Bulls. Since the 1980’s, Pit Bulls have been responsible for about three human fatalities a year in the United States. We live in a society were 2,000 parents kill their children each year through domestic violence, and drunk drivers kill another 25,000 people. We have to ask ourselves if the Pit Bull issue is truly a safety issue or just hype.
I have chronicled in this article the strange and sad saga of the American Pit Bull Terrier. At one time in our history the Pit Bull was the most popular and respected dog in America, but it has since received a black eye. Criminals are trying to pervert its character, backyard breeding dens are trying to change its genetics, the media is trying to sell stories hyped with sensationalism, entire communities are trying to ban the breed, and yet the Pit Bull remains the same dog today as it was a hundred years ago, a faithful and loyal friend to the end. This is a story of how we as a society have betrayed man’s best friend.
The year was 1914 and Europe became the battleground for nations pitted against each other in a massive war that was unparalleled in history. The United States declared its neutrality, but realizing its neutral status might be challenged, the U.S. began to prepare itself for the unimaginable, the possibility of being drawn into an all out world war. The American military began prepping the nation for the possibility of war by printing patriotic posters that were in part meant to rally the nation, and at the same time serve as a warning to unfriendly adversaries - to leave a sleeping giant alone. The various posters featured the image of an American Pit Bull Terrier draped in the American flag with words such as “Watchful-Waiting” and “The American Watch-Dog”. The military chose the Pit Bull as a representative of the country not only because the dog was the most respected of all the breeds, but because the feisty canine symbolized everything the country stood for: bravery, loyalty, patience, and a willingness to defend itself if provoked.
Originally bred as a bull-and-terrier fighting dog in Great Britain in the 1830’s, the breed found a new lease on life in the U.S. as a working dog. As settlers moved westward in the late 19th Century, English immigrants who had brought their dogs over with them, found them to be exceptional in herding cattle and sheep, protecting livestock, and guarding the family home. It was not long before the breed, called the “Yankee Terrier”, became the dog of choice for a young and expanding Nation. The breed’s hard work ethic, combined with its solid reputation as a family dog, made them much revered and in demand. Its special devotion and love for children earned it the nickname “the nanny dog”. In 1898 the United Kennel Club was founded and the bull-and-terrier became its first registered breed under the name of the American Pit Bull Terrier.
The military’s choice of selecting the Pit Bull proved to be ultimately prophetic, as a dog of the breed named Stubby, was to become a hero of the war. An Army private had originally found him as a stray pup on the campus of Yale University and the two soon developed a strong bond. A few months later the private received his orders to depart for the war in Europe. He couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye to his new friend, so he smuggled him under his coat as he boarded a U.S. troop ship for France. The 102nd Infantry, along with their new mascot Stubby, reached the trenches of the French war front in February of 1918. The first thirty days were a constant bombardment of shelling that continued day and night. The soldiers in the unit were amazed by the coolness that Stubby demonstrated under such nightmarish conditions. They were further surprised when he took it upon himself to leave the relative safety of the trenches and boldly wander out into “no-man’s-land”. Undaunted by exploding mortar rounds and machine gun crossfire, he braved danger to located injured American soldiers. On Stubby’s first exposure to mustard gas he became sick and was taken to the field hospital. After this he became very sensitive to the gas and would bark excitedly when he sensed its presence in the air. Several times he saved the entire platoon by warning them of incoming gas attacks.
During his time in France with the 102nd Infantry Stubby took on the duties of night sentry, carrier of intelligence between the trenches, and search and rescue. A further heroic deed of Stubby was when he single-handily captured a German spy who was gathering intelligence on the Allied position. Stubby rooted him out of his hiding place and chomped onto the seat of his pants and refused to let go, much to the delight and cheering of the platoon. The Commander of the 102nd was so impressed by the brave dog that he put in a request for his promotion. The request was granted and Stubby was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. Towards the end of the war the loyal Pit Bull was severely injured in a German attack on the American position. The enemy rushed the Allied trenches and a grenade exploded next to Stubby. The soldiers of the 102nd rushed to the aid of Stubby who appeared lifeless after the blast. The men were almost certain he was dead, as he had taken a near direct hit, which imbedded a large amount of the metal shrapnel in his chest and right leg. Although bleeding and broken, he was still alive and was rushed to the field hospital. As his situation was deemed critical, he was transported from the field hospital to the American Red Cross where doctors performed emergency surgery to save his life. Once fully recovered he was returned to the front where he continued to serve and protect the men of the 102nd.
After having served in seventeen battles in WW I, Stubby returned home to the U.S. in April of 1919 to a hero’s welcome. The French government in recognition of Stubby’s service presented him with four medals for bravery, including the Republic of France Grande War Medal. The United States Military also presented Stubby with several medals, the most prestigious being the Purple Heart, for being injured in combat while serving his country. On his victory tour Stubby meet President Wilson at the White House, and saluted the Commander in Chief, by raising his paw up to his eye. Stubby became the mascot for the University of Georgetown football team and he also split his time between charity events and various parades. Later he settled down with his owner to spend the last couple years of his life in Littleton, Colorado. After his death the Smithsonian Institute erected a permanent display to honor the most decorated dog soldier in U.S. Military history – a distinction that he still holds to this day.
Shortly after the end of the war a group of rambunctious kids, along with their four legged friend Petey, captivated the nation in a series of short films called Our Gang and later titled The Little Rascals. The dog had the beginning of a natural ring around its left eye and the rest was filled in with ink by make up artist Max Factor. Petey the pup was to go down in history as the most famous Pit Bull of its breed. Petey’s popularity, then and now, has made him easily one of the most recognizable dogs to date. He is able to take his place in the celebrity dog world next to the likes of Lassie; however, unlike Lassie, who bit her trainer several times, Petey the Pit Bull displayed nothing but a loving nature while working on a movie set involving many children.
The popularity of the American Pit Bull Terrier exploded during the period prior to WW II. The Little Rascals put the Pit Bull in demand just as 101 Dalmatians later made the Dalmatian the dog every child desired. Advertisers joined in on the popularity of the Pit Bull by placing the dog in their ads. Buster Brown Shoes chose Tige, a Pit Bull for their mascot, as did RCA, whose white Pit Bull mascot, Nipper, sat next to a phonograph machine in their ads. It was during this time the breed became known as the “All-American Dog” and became the choice pet. America had fallen in love with the Pit Bull and the breed became the darling of the nation. The Pit Bull represented everything that was good and desirable in “man’s best friend”. The breed became the icon of the nation and the essence of everything that was Americana.
When the United States found itself involved in another world war it turned once again to an old friend for support, the American Pit Bull Terrier. The military printed up patriotic posters featuring a Marine and a Pit Bull next to the American flag with the inscribed words, “We Defend Old Glory”. For the next forty years the image of the Pit Bull was to remain untarnished. Owners of the breed have included: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Thomas Edison, President Theodore Roosevelt, President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, General George Patton, Fred Astaire, John Steinbeck, and Humphrey Bogart.
Beginning in the 1980’s, the one hundred plus years of respectability for the Pit Bull began to come to an end. Just as the Rottweiler and Doberman had once been a negative status symbol, the Pit Bull became the macho dog for every criminal, gang member, and rebel who needed to bolster his self perceived bad image. As a result, the breed became once again in great demand, but this time negative connotations were attached. Backyard breeders churned out as many $50 Pit Bull pups as possible, while gang members reinvented the old sport of dog fighting to subsidies their drug business. To give an analogy, a gun in the hands of a responsible person is a good thing, a device for recreation and protection. Likewise, any large breed of dog in the hands of an irresponsible owner has the potential, although not always the probability, of being a dangerous pet. Dogs are animals, and there is always the factor of unpredictability in them, however, dogs that are properly trained and nurtured are much more likely to develop a stable temperament. It is only when a dog has been pushed to extremes, abused and neglected, will it turn on a human.
So began the fall from grace of perhaps the most beloved and respected breed in the history of our nation. To add to the problem, the media has jumped on the issue and projected the breed in the worst possible light. Unscrupulous and biased reporting has unfortunately driven various media outlets to unjustly portray the Pit Bull as a monster ready to devour anything in its path. It is not in the genetic make up of the breed to attack a human. Something has gone terribly wrong when one of the breed attacks a person as the Pit Bull had been bred specifically for non-human aggression. The original Bull-and-Terriers were not allowed to show any signs of human aggression in the dog-fighting ring. The once legal sport of dog fighting required the owners to be in the pit during the fight and any dog showing human aggression was usually killed.
As a Pit Bull owner I face the realization that society wants to put a bandage on the vicious dog issue by severely restricting or banning various breeds. We must come to our senses and realize that it is the irresponsible owner who is truly at fault. It has been proven by numerous studies that the Pit Bull is no more inheritably aggressive then any other breed. In August 2002, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld a decision that pit bulls were no more inherently dangerous than any other breed in WAF/Sheila Tack v. Huntsville Alabama. In 2000, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), joined together to investigate whether or not breed specific legislation (banning individual breeds, such as pit bulls) is effective.
Dr. Julie Gilchrist of the CDC Injury Center in Atlanta concluded that, "We learned breed specific legislation is not the way to tackle the issue of dog bites. Instead, we should look at the people with the dogs responsible for the bites." Organizations against breed specific regulations include: American Veterinary Medical Association, The American Kennel Club, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, National Animal Control Association, and the Humane Society of the United States. According to a recent aggression test of 122 dog breeds by the American Temperament Testing Society, Pit Bulls achieved an above average passing rate of 83.9 percent based on their temperament. Golden Retrievers received an 83.2 percent score, Beagles 78.2 percent, and Standard Schnauzers scored only 63.5 percent.
Here a few stories from various media sources that chose to highlight positive news about Pit Bull Terriers:
Three family pit bulls are credited with saving the lives of a Weld County couple who woke to find their mobile home on fire (The DenverChannel.com 9/8/2005)
Pit Bull’s Courage Saves City Couple: The dog is shot and killed while protecting his family from three mask intruders (Richmond Times-Dispatch 4/2/2005)
A Pit Bull for a Hero: Raised the alarm when the owner collapsed at home (Toronto Sun 2/27/2005)
Pit Bull Leaps to the Rescue -saves the life of a child attacked by two Akitas (Miami Herald 11/30/2003)
Breed Specific Laws Even Target Heroic Pit Bulls (Post-Gazette 11/11/99)
The Pit Bull Who Fights Drugs 1997 Dog Fancy Magazine
Pit Bull Saves other Dogs with its Blood (Inland Valley Daily Bulletin 10/18/99)
Dog Helps Youngster to Safety.... A three year old black and white Pit Bull, resembling Petey the Pup from the ‘Little Rascals’ shows, grabbed the back of a girl’s jacket and helped her out of a burning home (Fairbanks Daily News 12/6/03)
Hero Pit Bull Finds Newborn (New York Post 10/14/2004)
Million of people across the U.S. have Pit Bull Terriers who they consider part of their families. They love the Pit Bull for the same reason that the late 19th Century immigrants loved the bull-and-terrier: loyalty to its owner, bravery under fire, gentleness with children, and a clown-like personality that makes us laugh. The Pit Bull hasn’t changed, society has changed with an over abundance of irresponsible owners. Let’s give man’s best friend the due he deserves, and do the right thing, by punishing irresponsible owners and not the breed.