Where Did Pit Bulls Get Their Name?

The Pit Bull can refer to one of several dog breeds, including the American Pit Bull Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the American Bulldog. Have you ever wondered where the terms “pit” and “bull” in the dog’s name come from? I did some digging to bring you more information.

Where did Pit Bulls get their name? Pit Bulls got their name from the pits they used to be put in to fight and kill rats. The “bull” comes from the Pit Bull’s lineage to Bulldogs, although not all Pit Bulls are necessarily Bulldogs.

In this article, I’ll go through each of the four major Pit Bull breeds and discuss their respective name origins. I’ll also talk about how Pit Bulls can be confused not just in name, but in appearance as well, causing some people to misattribute vicious dog attacks to Pit Bulls.

The Origin of Pit Bull Breed Names

American Pit Bull Terrier

If you recall from this blog the history of the Pit Bull breed in general, these dogs were originally bred in Britain before later being sent to North America via importation. That was sometime in the 1870s. The American Pit Bull Terrier is the result of the dogs bred around this time, which were typically Old English Bulldogs and Old English Terriers. Both breeds are since extinct.

The United Kennel Club, a for-profit organization, classified this resulting breed as the American Pit Bull Terrier in 1898. Before then, the American Pit Bull Terrier had been referred to as the American Bull Terrier, with the word Pit either parenthesized or omitted altogether.

So that’s where the “American” part of this Pit Bull breed’s name comes from. What about “pit?”

As I touched on in the intro, American Pit Bull Terriers and other Pit Bull breeds were used in events where they would be locked into a pit with another dog and several rats. The dogs would compete to see who could decimate more rats. It’s a bloody chapter in what is overall a gruesome saga of dog fighting and other violence for Pit Bull breeds.

To explain the rest of the American Pit Bull Terrier’s name, just look at its extinct ancestors, the Old English Bulldog and the Old English Terrier. That explains where “bull” and “terrier” come from respectively.

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

Next, there’s the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Like most Pit Bulls, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier comes from England, specifically the Black Country of Staffordshire and Birmingham. Staffordshire in England’s West Midlands is a large British county that still exists today.

The bloodiest reputation of Pit Bulls is attributed to the Staffordshire Bull Terrier specifically, as this was the breed that was used for rat-baiting and dog fighting. Rat-baiting is the abovementioned activity where dogs were placed in pits with rats.

I’m not quite sure why the Staffordshire Bull Terrier is called that and not the Staffordshire Pit Bull Terrier. Perhaps it’s a situation similar to the American Pit Bull Terrier where they tried to phase the “pit” part out. This time, perhaps it happened successfully.

Staffordshire-bred dogs are sometimes called a Stafford. As for where the “bull” and “terrier” parts are from in the name Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the answer is not all that dissimilar from the background of the American Pit Bull Terrier. Staffordshire Bull Terriers in the 1800s were bred from Terriers and Bulldogs, also known as a bull and terrier crossbreed.

The Staffordshire Bull Terrier came out of the desire at the time for a less aggressive (but still somewhat aggressive) dog with a more refined taste. Such outcrossed breeding later gave us the Collie and the Dalmatian as well.

American Staffordshire Terrier

That’s the history of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but what about the American Staffordshire Terrier? How can a dog be from the United States and England at the same time? Allow me to explain.

By the time the American Staffordshire Terrier or AmStaff came into existence, the American Pit Bull Terrier was already its own distinct breed, like I talked about before.

Decades and decades later, in 1936, a new Pit Bull breed had arrived on the block. They appeared in the American Kennel Club Stud Book. These dogs had a similar lineage to the American Pit Bull Terrier, but they weren’t exactly the same breed, so they needed a different name.

Originally, AmStaffs were simply called Staffordshire Terriers, as people at the time believed the AmStaff’s closest ancestors were Staffordshire Bull Terriers or other dog breeds from Staffordshire, England. However, the American Kennel Club worried that the name Staffordshire Terrier was too close to another breed called the British Staffordshire Terrier. Hence, the name American Staffordshire Terrier was chosen.

American Bulldog

That leaves us with the American Bulldog. The origins of this Pit Bull’s name are a lot clearer.

The American Bulldog’s ancestor was the Old English Bulldog, much like the American Pit Bull Terrier. The Old English Bulldog, like many other Pit Bull breeds, was transported to America, including the southern parts of the country where the dog was put to work by the country’s immigrants and farmers.

The dog breed that became the American Bulldog almost went extinct around World War II, but a man named John D. Johnson began breeding the dog again. This prevented the American Bulldog from meeting the same fate as the Old English Bulldog.

Through Johnson’s breeding efforts, attention caught back on to these Bulldogs. Another man named Alan Scott worked with Johnson to breed the dog, adding other breeds into the mix as these things often happen. This resulted in two Bulldog breeds, the Scott-type or standard-type American Bulldog and the Johnson-type or bully-type American Bulldog.

Which one is today’s American Bulldog? That would be the Scott-type or standard Bull.

A Caveat on the Ferociousness of Pit Bulls

Whether you want to call them Pitties, Pibbles, or bully breeds, the origin stories of Pit Bull breeds above show that bloodshed is an unavoidable part of the dog’s legacy. I always strive to provide the facts on This Pet That Pet, which is why I would be remiss to not include a section about the reputation of Pit Bulls.

Given how Pit Bull breeds–especially the Staffordshire Bull Terrier–were bred for fighting other animals, it’s easy to assume Pit Bulls are violent creatures. Yet UK dog organization The Kennel Club notes that “despite its early function, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier is known as a wonderful family pet.”

That’s the case with other Pit Bull breeds as well. In a recent article I wrote titled Why Do They Call Pit Bulls Nanny Dogs?, I discuss how American Pit Bull Terriers, as well as Staffordshire Bull Terriers, were once known as nanny dogs. The reason for this? These breeds were so beloved for their placid nature around children that parents at the time felt their dog could supervise the kids.

Ignoring the part that letting your dog babysit your children is a terrible idea, the practice of nanny dogs dates back to the 1900s. Around this time and in the decades past, the viciousness of Pit Bull breeds was the most flagrantly on display, as these dogs were used to fight until the practice was banned. Yet still, people trusted Pit Bulls around their children. Why?

Because although the people of the late 1800s and early 1900s maybe didn’t have the best grasp on childcare, they realized that Pit Bull breeds were only as ferocious as you made them.

That remains the case today too, it’s just that far fewer people will admit it. If you need further proof, I recommend you read this post that debunks the widely believed myth that Pit Bulls can lock their jaws when biting people or other dogs. Also, they don’t have nearly as strong of a bite force as is rumored.

Further compounding the problem is that dog shelters rarely know the exact breeds they’re dealing with. So says this Smithsonian piece from 2018. According to the article, shelters only correctly identify dogs in 67 percent of instances. That may sound like a high success rate, but it means 33 percent of dogs are misidentified.

The article also states this: “Breed identifications have a significant impact on an animal’s chances of getting adopted…Dogs labeled as pit bull mixes, for example, remain in shelters nearly twice as long as non-pit bulls. This trend is worrying in and of itself, as pit bulls are often wrongly condemned as inherently aggressive, but becomes even more concerning in conjunction with the widespread misidentification of pit bull mixes.”

Remember, the Pit Bull itself isn’t even a dog breed, but rather a blanket term referring to one of four different breeds. Identifying an AmStaff from an American Bulldog isn’t easy if you don’t know much about Pit Bull breeds.

This all creates room for a terrible scenario. Violent dogs that attack people could be mislabeled as a Pit Bull breed when it’s really a different type of dog, further worsening the Pit Bull’s already poor reputation, and quite unfairly at that.  

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