Sometimes, in the name of ideology, families get torn asunder. During the Civil War, brothers faced each other across Union and Confederate lines. After World War II, the Berlin Wall separated families, and fates.
And in dogs more than a century ago, we had a similar philosophical divide between the fighting dog known as the American Pitbull Terrier and his pacifist sibling, later to be called the American Staffordshire Terrier.
No use sugarcoating it: Pit bulls were created to be dogfighters and very good ones at that. In England after 1835, when bull- and bear-baiting were officially outlawed, blood sports pivoted to illegal matches that could be less visible, but just as lucrative. Since fighting another dog rather than a chained bear or bull required greater agility, Bulldogs were crossed with terriers to produce fearsomely fleet dogs that would excel in the fighting pit.
(Though it seems counterintuitive, dogs bred for fighting their own kind were intrinsically human friendly. They had to be, in order for these high-stakes matches to run smoothly. According to the cold-blooded rules of the fighting pit, any dog that bit humans – whether the opponent’s handler, the referee, or anyone in the vicinity, even in the heat of battle – did not live to fight another day, and was dispatched on the spot.)
Within a few decades, these “bull and terriers” made their way across the Atlantic. While they were still used for fighting in the States, their rough-and-ready attitude and intense loyalty made them a logical choice for the frontier, where they herded livestock, caught hogs, and guarded home and hearth.
So Did the AKC Register Pit Bulls?
As pit bulls grew in popularity in the United States, so did their owners’ desire to have them registered as a bona-fide breed. But the American Kennel Club – founded as it was by well-heeled gentlemen who lunched in Manhattan and shot over their Pointers on sprawling Long Island estates – did not want to be associated with the cruelties of the fighting pit. And so in the late 1800s, pit-bull enthusiasts were refused registration of their dogs.
Back in the United Kingdom, the bull and terrier had diverged into two breeds – the Bull Terrier, which left its fighting heritage behind and never looked back – and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, whose fanciers continued their illegal contests, paralleling the trajectory of the pit bull in the United States. And like their American relatives, Staffordshire Bull Terriers could not gain official acceptance in their native land, for the same reason: No established registry wanted to be affiliated with a dog that drew the blood of its own kind for a living.
It wasn’t until 1935, decades after another round of anti-dog-fighting legislation, that the Kennel Club in Britain formally recognized and registered the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. That paved the way for the American Kennel Club to recognize a subset of the pit-bull population in the United States a year later, after being assured by breeders that they would not allow their dogs to be used for dogfighting.
After considering several names – including the American Bull Terrier (which promptly sent fanciers of the long-established Bull Terrier into a tizzy) and the Yankee Terrier – the AKC settled on Staffordshire Terrier, in a nod to the breed’s roots in Britain’s “black country,” known for its concentration of mines and foundries. That name stuck until 1972, when the AKC decided to recognize the Staffordshire Bull Terrier from across the pond; deciding that Staffordshire Terriers in the U.S. had evolved into a larger, distinctly different breed, the AKC added the word “American” to the name to clearly delineate the two related, but now separate breeds.
American Staffordshire Terrier vs. “American Pit Bull Terrier”
When the first 50 or so pit bulls entered the AKC registry in 1936, they became American Staffordshire Terriers, forever setting themselves apart from the related dogs that now called formally themselves “American Pit Bull Terriers.”
(The break isn’t entirely complete, however: Some non-AKC registries that register American Pit Bull Terriers still consider American Staffordshire Terriers to be part of the family, and will register them as pit bulls. But in the 1970s, the AKC permanently closed the studbook for the American Staffordshire Terrier, meaning that today only dogs whose parents are AmStaffs can be considered part of the breed. So while every American Staffordshire Terrier can technically be called an American Pit Bull Terrier, not every American Pit Bull Terrier is an American Staffordshire Terrier.)
The first newly minted American Staffordshire Terrier admitted into the AKC was Lucenay’s Peter, better known to old-movie buffs as Petey, the canine star of the “Our Gang” films, which was later syndicated on television as “The Little Rascals.” Lucenay’s Peter was the second dog to play Petey in the comedy shorts; the first was his father, a pit bull named Pal the Wonder Dog who had a circle around his right eye, thanks to the magic brush of Hollywood makeup artist Max Factor. After Pal was fatally poisoned in 1930, his son Lucenay’s Peter took over, making for an almost seamless substitute, except his ring was around his left eye.
Today, it’s almost a century since the AmStaff parted ways with its pit-bull brethren. Generally speaking, the two breeds look very different, which is not a coincidence: Because pit bulls were bred for one elusive quality – gameness, or the refusal to give up, even under the most excruciating pain – their breeders did not place a premium on appearance. Even today, pit bulls vary wildly in size and shape, from slight, Whippet-type dogs to burly Bulldog wannabes.
American Staffordshire Terriers, by contrast, did not have the demands of the fighting pit to steer their evolution. Instead, their breeders focused on uniform appearance and soundness of body and mind. And if there is one relic of its fighting days that the AmStaff has steadfastly refused to abandon, it is its unabashed love for humans – the species that introduced it to the fighting pit and then later plucked it from the same.