The Fighting Dogs That Were Actually Bred To Be Friendly

By Mike Devlin on Saturday, March 8, 2014
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“Histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends.” —Alexander Pope

In A Nutshell

Easily among the most polarizing of dog breeds, the pit bull terrier has been involved in many fatal human attacks and is banned as a dangerous animal in several areas. However, the nature of professional pit fights ensured that the dogs were bred to be very friendly to people. During the course of a match, several people were forced to touch the animal, and if it lashed out against a human, it would be culled.

The Whole Bushel

Sometimes it seems like hardly a week goes by without headlines blaring the news of a pit bull attack; a toddler mauled, a grandmother torn apart in her own backyard. But it wasn’t always this way. The American pit bull terrier is the undisputed gladiator of the canine world. Their fighting skill is such that professionals consider it a cruelty to match them up against other dogs, even much larger breeds. It would seem natural that this lethal aggression would spill over toward humans.

This could not be further from the truth. These days, the majority of dog fights are conducted by thugs in back alleys and the basements of abandoned houses. But there are other contests, professional and tightly regulated. Like boxers, the animals are matched up by weight class. Before the fight, the contestants actually exchange dogs and bathe them to make sure that no one has cheated and rubbed any kind of irritant into the fur. Allowing such intimate handling by a stranger indicates a dog of steady nerves.

During the fight itself, there are at least three people in the pit at any given time—the owners and a referee, sometimes others. Contrary to popular belief, the dogs do not just go at it until one surrenders or dies. They are frequently pulled apart by their owners and returned to “scratch” lines at opposite sides of the pit. Again, this requires very intimate contact with the dogs, often while they are in extreme pain. Anyone who has ever handled an injured dog, even a trusted family pet, can attest that they often lash out on blind instinct. The pit bull has been bred over generations to override that instinct, allowing handling even with torn ears and broken bones, even as it slips into hypovolemic shock.

To fulfill its role, the pit bull adopted a disposition that was once described as “ridiculously amiable.” They were excellent family pets, fantastic with children. Petey from the “Little Rascals” shorts was a pit bull. Any dog that can fight for hours will placidly tolerate a tug on the ear and other rough handling by children. Pit bulls were shown on military posters to drum up money for war bonds, a symbol of America. When subjected to the American Temperament Test, a standardized test to determine a dog’s disposition, the American pit bull has scored an overall record of 86.8 percent, making it more reliable than the golden retriever.

So what happened? Pretty much what you would expect. In the 1970s and ’80s, gangs began to realize how formidable the pit bull was. The once “ridiculously amiable” dog was viciously abused to make it mean. Poor specimens were bred and mixed with other breeds acknowledged for human aggression. In a few short years, the pit bull went from family pet to public enemy. One of the worst things to happen was an article published in Sports Illustrated entitled “The Pit Bull Friend and Killer.” Intended to be an expose on a growing problem, it actually served as an advertisement for the worst kind of people to rush out and acquire pit bulls. Today, the breed is banned in many locations throughout the world, and with the list of fatalities under its belt, it seems unlikely to ever recover its formerly wonderful reputation.

Show Me The Proof

Sports Illustrated: The Pit Bull Friend and Killer
American Temperament Test Society, Inc.
Pit Bulls Featured on War Posters, Advertising (photos)
The Daily Beast: Dangerous Dogs, Ranked by Breed