Weird History
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Ways Pit Bulls Have Changed Over Time

Updated July 10, 2020 67.5k views14 items

Over the past few decades, the pit bull terrier has become a polarizing subject. Depending on who you ask, the thought of its wide smiling mouth, slobbery jowls, and beady little eyes may evoke feelings of love, rage, fear, or sadness.

The public response to this dog was not always so emotionally charged. For centuries, pit bulls enjoyed their role as a working dog, companion, and friend to children. Their strength, tenacity, and loyalty were always viewed as positive attributes - until they weren’t anymore.

How did pit bulls get a bad reputation? Poor media coverage and a variety of historical and biological factors have contributed to the controversy surrounding the modern-day pit bull. Yet the story of this silky, block-headed terrier is a microcosm of American history. 

  • Photo: Robert F. McGowan / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pit Bulls Were Comedic Actors

    Due to their tolerant and easygoing nature, pit bulls were a popular choice for acting dogs, often appearing in comedies and children’s programming. The pit bull's agility and strength was displayed in trick and stunt roles. Luke, a bull terrier, was a stunt dog and frequent sidekick alongside Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Fatty Arbuckle. 

    Possibly the most popular pit bull of the early Hollywood era was Pete the Pup, the ring-eyed pit bull who played a central role in Our Gang. 

  • They Were Known For Their Affectionate Relationship With Humans

    Pit bulls are renowned for their suitability as a companion dog. So long as they are socialized correctly, pit bulls are friendly, loyal, and eager to please and entertain. 

    The breed requires a great deal of attention and discipline to live happily and in good health, which can be demanding for an unsuitable owner, but they're ideal for someone looking for a close friend. A common predicament encountered by pit bull owners is that they are too loving and affectionate, resulting in excessive face licking and cuddling. 

  • Photo: James McCabe / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Its Ancestor Was Bred For Fighting

    While the Bull and Terrier’s strength was harnessed for more practical purposes, its descendant, the American pit bull terrier, was bred to be a fighting dog. While pit bull expert Bronwen Dickey emphasizes that it is very difficult to isolate "fighting abilities" in any individual dog, breeders recognized that the pit bull’s strength, focus, and physique made it well-suited for fighting. 

    It is believed that dog fights were relatively tamer in the 19th century than in the modern era, as the "fight to the finish" mentality did not become popular until nearly a century later. Dog fighting was viewed as a genteel spectator sport similar to modern day horse racing. At the Westminster Pit in London, odds would be determined and spectators would place wagers on the performance of specific dogs. 

  • During The Resurgence Of Dog Fighting In The 1980s, Pit Bulls Were Bred To Compete

    In 1835, England banned all sanctioned animal fights, including dog fights. This drove the fights underground, where there was no accountability and significantly less regard for the animals' wellbeing. 

    In the United States, dog fighting escalated in the 1970s and '80s. While the original version of the sport was by no means ethical, it was less brutal than modern day fights. The shorter fights of the 19th century became a knock-down, drag-out affair enhanced by steroids and amphetamines.

    Dogs were often starved and neglected to make them meaner and more desperate, while proponents of dog fighting claimed that it is in the pit bull's nature to fight. Should the dog die in the pit, they said, they would do so "with their tails up and wagging."