The history of the American Pit Bull Terrier

The history of the American Pit Bull Terrier is controversial and even when dog men agree on certain aspects of this history they never agree on all the details. No doubt that my philosophy and research on the breeds history will not be approved by all, but at least it will be a functional interpretation that will help with your understanding of the breeds general temperament. Primarily, we must paint the APBT history with broad strokes but still provide the essence of where, how, and why the breed derived its working type. It is the history that defines the working type and the working type that ultimately defines characteristics of temperament such as trainability, intelligence, drive, focus, stress response, prey drive, social instincts, and even dog aggression. We must understand these breed specific traits so that we can develop better communication with our own members of the breed. In the history of our breed lie the essence of functional type and an understanding of the breed’s history, which will hopefully give us a better understanding of the individual that we are training. The evolutionary chain that eventually led to dogs was provided in a succinct format in David Mech's The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. This chain started furthest back with ancient Creodonts, which became Miacis, which begat Cynodictus, which gave rise to Cynodesmus, which evolved into the Tomarctus. OK, these are really just fun names. I suggest that you memorize them and find a way to use them in conversation at dog shows to show off your extreme level of canine induced psychoses. Our history lesson will really start with the Tomarctus which gave rise to the wolf which was selectively evolved into the familiar dog. CynodictisNext in evolutionary line from Miacis was an Oligocene animal called Cynodictis, which somewhat resembled the modern dog. Cynodictis lived about 20 million years ago. Its fifth toe, which would eventually become the dewclaw. Cynodictis also had 42 teeth. TomarctusAfter a few more intermediate stages the evolution of the dog moved on to the extremely doglike animal called Tomarctus, which lived 10 million years ago during the late Miocene epoch. Tomarctus probably developed the strong social instincts that still prevail in the dog.

artist representation of Tomarctus

What is the importance of the Tomarctus?It is really a behavioral trait, which I feel starts our historical journey logically with Tomarctus. As we saw the Tomarctus existed a long long time ago. Tomarctus apparently lived much like the wild dogs and wolves of today. It was a predator that probably looked like a cross between a wolf and a jackal, with short prick ears and a long tail that it used to maintain balance while hunting. What makes the Tomarctus of greatest interest is that is was most likely the creature that first developed those strong social instincts that still prevail in the dog today. It is this social behavior evolved over millions of years that makes the dog a companion animal and one that relates best to hierarchical orders of dominance in its family. What this means is that your dog has a deeply ingrained need to be a part of a pack or family. It needs either to have a strong leader (alpha) or to be the leader. The American Pit Bull Terrier some have argued falsely has lost much of this instinct but I would argue that this is extremely naïve. Every APBT I have ever known, that was raised correctly responds to pack order even within its human family. In Chapter X we will learn more about pack order and how to develop it appropriately with your dog. It is vital to understand because if you as the trainer or owner of the APBT are not the alpha in the relationship there is really no incentive for the dog to respond to your commands. In the Bronze Age, it is believed that the Tomarctus evolved into a small strain of gray wolf that probably inhabited what is now India. Thereafter, this Asiatic wolf due to migration and environmental events became widely distributed throughout Europe, Asia, and North America further evolving into various wolf subtypes. Most of this evolution was due to selective environmental influence but it is thought that man may have also had some selective influence on the evolution of various wolf strains at this time. Dogs descended both from this ancestral wolf and its various strains, it is also possible that some of the dogs of today descended not only from the wolf but also or rather from the jackal. As we saw in chapter one, bulldogs and terriers have origins with the European wolves with bulldogs also having Asian wolf origins as well. Thus, the APBT, which is considered a bull and terrier type breed, has definite origins that can be traced to Western Europe. European wolves similar to the traits started in the Tomarctus live and hunt in packs, which are extended families that typically are ruled by an an alpha (the dominant male), his mate, and their offspring. They hunt and kill game larger than themselves such as wild reindeer, elk, and red deer. European wolves will also eat much smaller animals such as mice and frogs.
european wolves
As we saw in Chapter one, wolves became part of the human communities and humans began to speed their evolution with selective breeding, until they became a separate species. Those humans that inhabited Europe probably Greece, developed a particular need for a guardian and war dog. It is known that the ancient Molossian civilizations used large size dogs in warfare. These wardogs are believed to have descended from the now extinct Tibetan Mastiff. These dogs might be the link between the wolf and the bulldog. When the Roman Empire conquered Italy, they soon discovered the Molossoid dogs' power as war and fighting dogs. The Romans apparently had tremendous impact on the Mollosoids through their own selective breeding and developed what became Canis pugnax (the Roman Wardog), which they used in warfare as well as in dog fights in the colosseums.

roman dogs of war

The link between the mollossoid and bulldog type is assumed to be the Alaunt or Alan Dog (also defined as a wolfhound) which can be seen in painting and old pictures to look very similar to modern day Pit Bulls, except they were much larger closer to the size of a Great Dane. Alaunts were probably developed in Western Europe and have been described as being bred as catch dogs for hunting and holding wild boar, running down dear, catching and holding rank bulls and acting as herd guardians that could easily kill wolves. At the same time they were very social with humans. Thus their primary role was as a family member, guardians of children, herding flocks of cattle and sheep and hunting. These descriptions fit nicely with what we see in modern day, properly bred, American Pit Bull Terriers. The Alaunt however, did not directly give rise to the Pit Bull but instead gave rise to what I call the original Bulldog.

rep of alaunt

Similar to the Alaunt, except that they are considerably smaller, quicker and more agile, the Western European ancestral Bulldogs were also bred as family members. At this time, and up until the mid 20th century being a part of the family meant being useful. Thus they became one of the most versatile of breeds. Very capable of almost any task they were especially important on Western European farms performing all tasks including baiting, fighting, stock work, hunting, and guarding. They were also one of the more human friendly animals, but were capable of extreme ferociousness toward wild game. This was the origin of true and properly bred Pit Bulls unwavering loyalty and gentleness towards humans as well as their working ability. The original Bulldogs were not an animal-aggressive breed either and typically worked with small packs of dogs including hounds and curs when hunting so overt aggression towards others of their same species and breed was not a typical trait. To put a valid timeframe on this point in history the designation "Bulldog" was first mentioned in print in 1631. A letter written in Spain in 1632 by an Englishman named Prestwich Eaton asked his friend George Wellingham in London for a "good mastiff dog and two bulldogs." This means that both the mollossoid descendents and the Bulldogs were popular in Britain at this time.

Old Style Bulldogs

Back in the time of the first Bulldogs, it should be understood that breed designations were not the same as we know them today. Designations were based more upon working characteristics. It is unlikely that dogs of this time were developed and maintained as strict pure breeds. Pedigrees were not specifically maintained except in the most elite kennels. Thus, for the most part dogs used for breeding were selected, not because of bloodlines and pedigree, but based upon both convenience and functionality. The bulldog was the all around working breed and not typically used as a guardian. Guardian breeds were the Mastiff which were bred to be ferocious, huge and to respond to one master. Bulldogs were bred so that they could be taken anywhere and be safe. They were able to protect when the need arose so a selectively protective instinct did exist but for the most part Bulldogs were family members. It was at this point that selection for high human bite threshold began to develop. This has transferred to modern Pit Bulls who if bred properly will not except under extreme duress bite a human. The Bulldog was known at this time as the nanny dog because children could hang on their tails, ears, poke them with sticks or any other form of childlike torture and the Bulldogs would merely wag their tails harder. This trait has passed to well-bred APBTs as well.

painting of bullbaiting

Much consideration is also given to the Bulldog past based upon blood sport. Again the misconception is that these sports greatly defined the development of the Bulldog. In actuality the bloodsports such as bullbaiting are given such heightened credit for breed development because they were highly propagandized by the media and subsequent legislation surrounding them. This essentially means that much of the available literature about the history at this time is related to media and legislation around the sport. The truth is probably much less sensational and Bulldogs were probably still maintained and selected for the most part by farmers as an actual all around working and family dog. A subset of the population were utilized for sport and possibly a few breeders of the time did selective breeding to enhance those traits that made Bulldogs more successful at bull baiting. Like dog fighting and ratting, bull baiting was more a gambling tourney rather than a sport. It was primarily used for gambling similar to modern day dog racing. In bull baiting a tethered bull would be attacked by Bulldogs. The dogs were trained to grab on to a nose or ear, and maintain a hold. A successful dog was one that avoided bull's hooves and horns and held on the longest. The best dogs would hold on until the bull actually collapsed from exhaustion. Dogs were usually tossed through the air causing broken legs, backs, and skulls when they hit the ground. There are stories of disemboweled dogs or dogs with broken limbs dragging and pulling themselves back toward the victorious bull. On the whole, both the dogs and the bulls suffered greatly. Though started by the commoner eventually the upper class and even royalty participated in Bull baiting. It was about the time that the royalty took notice of the sport that there began to be a political and legislative outcry. When the public outcry started about the cruelty supposed purpose of the bull baiting was to help tenderize the meet of the bull prior to slaughter. This held off the legislation for a few years but eventually Parliament was forced to ban the sport in 1835. Another gambling activity that was popular with the people of the time but never gained the attention of the upper class, partially because it was not done out in full public view, and involved a creature not considered as noble as a bull, and thus its true significance to the development of the breed is not recognized was pit ratting. "The rat pit consisted of an enclosure about six feet in diameter, with wooden sides at elbow height and a rim for the clients to lean on. Into this pit they tipped rats. They then put the dog into the pit to despatch a given number of rats in a set time. Enthusiasts would take bets on the proceedings. Various terrier type dogs, including the black and tan competed in the rat pits. Rat pits were found in most cities and large towns. Jimmy Shaw, who owned one of the largest sporting public houses in London, would buy over 500 rats a week from the local rat catcher for his rat pit." In ratting as in dog fighting various sizes and types of terriers were matched in contests based upon weight, the smaller sized dogs were mainly terriers the larger dogs had considerable bulldog influence and the medium size dogs 30-45 lbs were the famous bull and terrier dogs. Thus the ratting sport may have helped produce some of the half and half breeds (half bulldog half terrier) that soon became very popular. The breeds most often referred to as the Terrier part of the "Bull and Terrier" breeds is the now extinct White English Terrier, as well as its descendant the "Black and tan terrier", now known as Manchester Terrier, and the fox terrier.

The fox terrier was used for hunting fox´s and badgers underground. If you know badgers you know that it must take an incredible amount of courage, strength and prey drive to approach such a beast in its very den. The terrier similar to the mollissoid was brought to Europe by the Romans. In letters Romans told of subterranean hunting dogs. The earliest known illustration of a black and tan terrier type dog appears in the illustrated 16th century manuscript 'The Hours of the Virgin'.The black and tan terrier black & tan terriers recorded in the 18th century were very much in demand as ratters due to the increasing rat population brought about by the advancement of the industrial revolution. Other types of terriers carried by gentlemen in their pockets on hunts and sent to ground as necessary to flush out foxes etc.

ratting tourney

At the about the time bull baiting became illegal, the sport of ratting became even more popular. Even more so than ratting there was a variety of different sizes of dogs from terriers to the larger bulldog and in between. Without the bull baiting those who fancied the Bulldog became even more interested in dog fighting. Gameness was the trait most cherished in a fighting dog for obvious reasons. The Bulldog was known for its gameness and wiliness to succeed at any task because a dog that had the tenacity to hold a bull or wild combined with an extreme tolerance for pain was an excellent foundation for a pit dog. However, after the demise of bull baiting as a legal sport, there was no longer the need for the size of dog required for bull baiting the expense required to maintain an animal would have been an obvious factor. Thus there was a trend toward a slightly smaller animal with the same traits of gameness that the bull dog possessed. The quickest way to bring down the size in a very few generations would be the input of the small terrier breeds. These small terriers were also known for their tenacity, agility, and ability to fight. Thus the natural combination of the bull dog and terriers probably started at this point in rural old England. So while a core group of fanciers focused on the fighting uses of the breed, and bred with the pit in mind however still others especially in urban settings such as farms kept dogs for bulldoggy tasks. As a pit-dog only the Bulldogs possessed the requisite courage but they lacked the necessary agility. Various Bulldog crosses were tried, mainly with terriers, until eventually a specific breed of bull terriers was produced which was fast, strong and utterly game. Still no actual breedThe combination of these three sports produced a variety of terrier and bulldog crossing with no real selection for a particular “look”. Dogs were probably selectively bred for tourneys in the larger cities, if they were successful at the sports. On farms the original bulldog breeds were still the most popular and was where these dogs were still being selected for working ability and functionality. Still there was no real breed maintained except for broad classifications and selective breeding that was based upon that task for which a dog was being used. Bulldogs, pit dogs, half and half, ratters, fighting dogs. The message to take home from this is that there was no single breed that defined the origins of the American Pit Bull Terrier. It will forever remain a mixture of working breeds selected for functional and convenient traits. The Bulldog, terriers and bull and terrier crosses come to America. Bull dogs, bull terriers, Pit dogs, terriers, old family dogs, and various fighting terriers began arriving in America in the late 1800s along with immigrants. America made a wonderful new setting for the development of the bull dog and the pit dog. The Bull and Terrier blends began to be selected for fighting ability, unrelenting bravery, a high pain threshold, resilience, a willingness to fight to the end, and also an unmatched affection for people.

Crosses of Bulldog and Terriers helped in the formation of other breeds as well. For instance after coming to American while pit dog fighting was becoming well established in the new world Robert C. Hooper, of Boston, Massachusetts, purchased a Pit Dog that was part English Bulldog, and part English Terrier (the English Terrier being an all white dog). This dog was rather tall in stature, possessed a square and blocky head, with a nearly even mouth. This original half and half a cross breeding ultimately became the Boston Terrier breed. As you can see however without selective breeding for a different type this dog was similar to the foundation of the APBT.

Old time Boston Terriers Decended from same foundations as the APBT

It should be noted that there are two schools of thought within the breed. The first which is probably fostered most by Richard Stratton, is that the APBT has origins with the original bull baiting dogs of England and very little has changed except for selective breeding to enhance the working type. The other school of thought most accepted and that which I will present is that the APBT is a blend made up mainly of a strong foundation of bull baiting dogs with some infusion of scrapping terriers such as the white English and the black-and-tan terriers. I 100% agree with Richard Stratton in that the Bulldog is definitely the primary fabric that went into the creation of modern day APBT but with many of the most popular Pit Bull dogs the terrier influence to me is quite apparent. I would also readily admit that what has resulted during the history of the APBT, is a dog more like the original ancestral Bull dogs than Bulldog breeds such as the Johnson American Bull Dog.

Johnson style American Bulldog

It will never be truly know what breeds contributed to the dogs that ended up in the Americas nor in the dogs in American that became the actual American Pit Bull Terrier. Here again, back in the day, there was little concern with maintaining a pedigree based breeding program because dog men were not so much interested in purebred dogs as they were in dogs with fighting ability. Dog men would therefore breed accordingly to dogs that were proven game (tenacity), had wind (stamina), had talent (fighting style), had intelligence (pit artists) and could be handled no matter how fired up they were (high degree of human friendliness). This was the core selection process for the modern true and purebred APBT. By extreme selection for the above mentioned athletic abilities and bite inhibition toward humans, the Pit Bull Terrier slowly evolved into a more definitive type. However, note that when I say definitive type it must still be understood that as mentioned above the Pit Bull Terrier was never at this time bred for how it looked. How it looked began to be affected by the extreme selection for working ability. The temperament of the breed was also forged into an extremely stable and human friendly form due to the selection of sires and dams that were intelligent, courageous, unwavering, dominant, and tenacious. Dogs that did not have these qualities were not successful as fighters and dogs that were not utterly human friendly could not be handled during fights and thus were culled (put to sleep). Thus, because no human aggressive dogs made up the foundation of the breed this trait should not be evident in properly bred members of the breed. These two qualities defined those dogs that became foundations for what has become the modern APBT.

APBT also excelled in their service to mankind on the frontier as all around working dogs and soon earned a reputation as one of the finest dogs a man could own. The APBT was adept at just about anything he was asked to do, which included: herding, livestock protection, vermin removal, weight pulling, guardianship, and just being a loyal and friendly companion. As America flourished, the APBT flourished. They were the most popular types of dogs, highly prized by a wide variety of people from all walks of life. These dogs were loved and respected as the true and total dog. Though known by other names such as Pit Dog, the Pit Bull Terrier, the American Bull Terrier, and even the Yankee Terrier they were evolving into a single breed finally. It should be noted that the more "Bulldoggy" varieties without the terrier influences also made their way to America. These larger Bulldogs diverged again into a more defined and separate type at this time and came to be called the American Bulldog. These Bulldogs are now closer representations of older Bulldog types than the Pit Bull. Modern Scott type American Bull Dogs of the true working variety tend to be closer to the Alaunt look and also tend to be more like the original all around working and baiting variety. We also find dogs of the type of the Johnson type heavier more brachycephalic (Bulldog). These heavier Bulldogs were bred more for the bull baiting type which was produced at about the time of bull baiting climax. Thus we have a split of the two Bulldog types and the smaller more agile Pit Bull type dogs. Up until the end of the 19th Century however there was still not a great deal of differentiation except that the Pit Bull was being heavily selected for fighting ability in the frontiers of the west.


  1. I find your review very accurate. Good work! Thanks!

  2. I'm sorry but I had to lol @ "we will never truly know what breed or breeds were brought to the Americas or what were in the American Pit Bull Terrier" that is totally known and recorded in some really old handwritten books ;) there's a family tree style picture of it as well. And BTW the American Pit Bull Terrier came before the American Bulldog. Johnson's yard was started with some dogs he got from the Colby's ;)


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