Types Of Pitbulls

A History of the Types of Pitbulls and Our Associations with Them

There are two main types of pitbulls if you don’t consider their English counterparts as true “pitbulls”. 

One is the American Pit Bull Terrier

The other is the American Staffordshire Terrier

No dog breed has had more bad press recently than pitbulls have.  There is evidence to suggest some merit to this reputation.  Those who cite the danger of pitbulls point out that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, of all dog-related deaths in the United States pitbulls have, from 2005 on, been involved in a third of all fatalities.  They are less likely to mention that this only accounts for 10 deaths per year.

In addition, certain cities have had high profile cases of pitbull mauling events that have contributed to the pitbull’s bad reputation.  One of the less mentioned factors in the pitbull’s reputation is its history as a fighting dog.  Understanding this history can give us a better understanding of these dogs and our associations with them.

The Origins of the “Pitbull”

The English first developed the pitbull breed in the 19th century.  Even as a certain awareness about the cruelty involved in such practices as bearbaiting and bull baiting started to surface, some English breeders looked to develop a type of fighting dog that would combine the energy and aggressiveness of a terrier with the sturdiness of a bulldog.  Breeders developed both types of pitbulls with this purpose in mind.

Bearbaiting and its spin-off, bull baiting, have a long tradition in England.  This cruel practice involves tying a bear to pole on one side of an arena (commonly called a “pit”) and setting trained hunting dogs on it in shifts. 

At first, the dogs get the worst of the activity and the bear may manage to wound or even kill some of his smaller opponents.  However, as the bear becomes exhausted by the constant harassment, the dogs start to gain the upper hand.  Eventually, the inevitable happens as the dogs take down the exhausted bear and kill it. 

Although bearbaiting did appeal to the masses, it also had its supporters among the English monarchs as well.  Both Henry VIII and his daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, were avid fans of this blood sport.  In fact, Elizabeth I vetoed an attempt by Parliament to ban the practice on Sundays.

In 1835, at the opening of the more conservative Victorian period, the sport was banned altogether, which, of course, had the effect of driving such activities underground. 

In place of bears and bulls, dogs were put into pits and forced to fight each other.  Thus, the origins of dog fighting.  The term, "pitbull" comes from these arenas and the use of the word pit as a verb (as in to “pit” two individuals against one another) comes from this source as well.  This is the association that both types of pitbulls had at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Twentieth Century Respectability

In the early 20th century, however, this negative view of both types of pitbulls began to change, as more and more families started to adopt pitbulls as family pets.  This view became so prevalent by 1930’s that both breeds were considered iconic American dogs.  Thus, in the classic 1930’s series, The Little Rascals, the featured dog is an American Pit Bull Terrier. 


Similarly, in England, the Staffordshire terrier derived its nickname of the “Nanny Dog” because it was so often raised with small children that it became very protective of.  Reflecting this new found respect, the American Kennel Club recognized both types of pitbulls as breeds onto themselves during this period, instead of just seeing them as either terriers or bulldogs.   

This view, however, waned in the late twentieth century as stories of pitbull attacks increased in urban areas.  Usually, however, these attacks had as much to do with human neglect or premeditated training than with a natural tendency towards aggression.