How America’s Dog Became Public Enemy #1 – And Why They’re Making Such A Comeback

Love them or hate them — there’s rarely an in-between when it comes to the neverending debate of Pit Bull type breeds and their place in society. But how exactly did Pit Bulls go from being “America’s Dog” at the turn of the 20th century to the most vilified breed of the past few decades? BarkPost did some digging to find the history of where and how it all went wrong.


First, a little backstory and clarification for those who aren’t completely familiar with what “Pit Bulls” actually are. Pit Bulls are not one specific breed, but rather a classification of several breeds (Staffordshire Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, American Bullies, American Staffordshire Terriers, and sometimes American Bulldogs and Bull Terriers).

These were originally bred from Old English Bulldogs, who gained popularity in the 1800s on the British Isles in a blood sport known as “bull baiting” (tying a bull to an iron stake that gave him approximately 30 feet to move, and then setting dogs on it in an attempt to immobilize the bull for public entertainment). Bloodsports were outlawed in 1835 in the UK, so “rat-baiting” and dogfighting – which were easier to hide from police – became the new sports of popularity. Bulldogs were crossed with Terriers and then released into a “pit” to chase and kill rats or fight one another, thus beginning the “Pit Bull” type of dog.


Vintage depictions of “bull baiting” (top) and dogfighting (bottom)

In the early stages of America, many immigrants brought their treasured Pit Bull dogs over as part of their families. Though the dogs were bred for fighting sports, the were also incredibly intelligent and friendly. They were used for a variety of jobs that included farming, protecting the family from predators, watching the children, and providing companionship. As the popularity of newspapers and media grew throughout the years, many of these dogs were brought to attention for the number of exemplary deeds they performed.

How, you might ask, could a dog that was bred to fight aggressively also be kind to humans? The answer is actually in their breeding. Pit Bulls that bit handlers were put down and of no use to the owners, so they were bred and trained to be gentle with humans — a trait that most are still well-known for to this day.

You may have heard that Pit Bulls were known as “Nanny Dogs,” watching children while the families were out working in the fields or otherwise not present. Many groups and media outlets have reported on this phenomenan, while others have tried to dispel it as a myth.

Truthfully, there is no credible source to support either of those statements (and you should never leave small children unsupervised with any breed of dog), but one thing is for certain — there are a ton of vintage photographs that show Pit Bulls with children that prove they were popular family pets and trusted around their kids (at least for as long as one of those old–timey photographs took to make!).

What is documented, however, is that there have been a number of notable figures throughout history that were avid Pit Bull owners and supporters. Some of these people include: Theodore Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Fred Astaire, and Humphrey Bogart, to name a few.

Though some believe that Helen Keller’s dog was actually a large Boston Terrier, Bostons were also bred to fight in the ring and considered to be “Pit Bulls” at that time. She was a dog lover and had several breeds in her life, including Mastiffs and Spaniels, but wrote in her autobiography The Story of My Life:
“Whenever it is possible, my dog accompanies me on a walk or ride or sail. I have had many dog friends–huge mastiffs, soft-eyed spaniels, wood-wise setters and honest, homely bull terriers. At present the lord of my affections is one of these bull terriers. He has a long pedigree, a crooked tail and the drollest ‘phiz’ in dogdom. My dog friends seem to understand my limitations, and always keep close beside me when I am alone. I love their affectionate ways and the eloquent wag of their tails.”

Helen Keller had many dogs in her lifetime, including a large Boston/Bull Terrier on the left and what can only be identified as a “Pit Bull” on the right

There have been a number of Pit Bulls that were famous throughout the 20th Century when they were still lauded as American Heroes. One of the earliest of these was Bud, a dog who accompanied his owner Horatio Nelson Jackson on the first cross–country road trip in 1903. Jackson and his traveling companion found Bud about halfway through their trip, and he gained almost as much attention as his new owner. Bud’s goggles are still on display at the National Smithsonian today, and he became the face of The Auto Era in advertising.

Bud The Cross Country Pit Bull

During WWI and WWII, Pit Bulls were used in advertising as a national mascot. These dogs were so loved that America made them their sign of fearlessness and protection (and in some early ads, neutrality) in many advertisements. A popular ad included the Pit Bull dressed as an American military symbol with breeds like German Mastiffs and French Bulldogs representing other countries.
In fact, Pit Bulls were some of the first dogs used in American war time. Sergeant Stubby is one of the most well–known war dogs. Originally a stray with a “stubbed” tail found near an Army training camp at Yale, Stubby was taken in and trained to respond to bugle calls, march with troops, and even salute fellow soldiers! His owner smuggled him overseas to fight in WWI, where he served 18 months on the frontlines in 17 battles and 4 different campaigns.

Among the countless stories of heroic acts he performed, Stubby was known for distinguishing between American soldiers and their enemies when getting his comrades help, carrying messages under fire, and detecting incoming attacks of mustard gas and alerting his humans. He even sniffed out a German spy, bit him on the butt, and held on until human help arrived. What a dog!!

Sergeant Stubby wearing his jacket decorated with medals

Stubby is just one example out of the many other Pit Bull types dating back to the Civil War and beyond who served their country, and Bud is only one of the prominent Pit Bull types in the history of advertising and entertainment during the early 20th century. After all, who could forget one of the most famous Pit Bulls of all time – Petey from the Little Rascals! Pete the Pup was originally played by a show biz dog named Pal (and later his offspring, not-so-ironically named Pete), who was also cast as the live version of cartoon Buster Brown’s dog Tige (yet another popular Pittie in the media).

Pal aka Pete the Pup from The Little Rascals

So with all of these stellar examples of beloved and well–mannered Pit Bulls in history, where did it all start to go wrong?
In the 1960s, ’70s, and particularly ’80s, dogfighting began to see a resurgence. As people saw more of these large dogs in spiked collars on street corners, a natural fear evolved. In conjunction with fighting, it was not uncommon for owners of these dogs to be abusive and encouraged aggressive behaviors to boost their intimidating image. They also took to breeding their own dogs outside of American Kennel Club and American Dog Breeding Association regulations, leading to an overpopulation of Pit Bull types. These things still take place today, despite the outlawing of all dog fighting in 1978, and continue to contribute to the negative image of the Pit Bull.

What many saw as the definitive turning point in the media protrayal and demonization of these breeds was the 1987 Time Magazine cover story entitled “The Pit Bull Friend and Killer.” The cover showed a Pit Bull-type with teeth bared, and the story itself has a lean toward statistics that portrayed the breeds in an unfavorable light. This is also around the same time that breed specific legislation began to take hold. (The first recorded city to pass a breed specific law was Hollywood, FL, in 1980.)

A “Tail” Of Two Covers: 1987 article (left) against Pit Bulls, and a 2008 article (right) with a brighter perspective

Pit Bulls are hardly the first dog to be feared. As evidenced above, they were long held as an American favorite, while breeds like Newfoundlands, Dobermans, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Northern breeds such as Huskies and Malamutes were stigmatized.

In fact, it was actually the Bloodhound that was one of the first to receive this treatment. In the late 19th to early 20th century, Bloodhounds were used to track down slaves and criminals. Many vaudeville productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrayed them as vicious, blood–thirsty beasts, and they showed up frequently in the media as newpapers gained more popularity after the Civil War. The media has long been sensationalizing such stories in an effort to gain readership, but it has been the dogs who have suffered far more than people have.

Bloodhounds “on the trail”

Unfortunately, there are a few reasons as to why the negative image of Pit Bull types has stuck around for longer than the rest. One is that they are still frequently associated with sordid individuals who overbreed them and use them in fighting rings, as proven in the high–profile case of football player Michael Vick. Another is that they are the most reported on of any breed involved in domestic disputes because of their notoriety, and the current target of most breed specific legislation laws. You don’t read too much about a Labrador biting anyone, but you can be sure that it happens because any dog has the capacity to do so under the wrong circumstances.

Those aforementioned statistics involving breeding and cruelty play a huge role in the public perception and reported incidents. While Pit Bull-type dogs get the most press about “attacks,” they consistently rank among the least aggressive breeds in temperament tests.

The Pacific Standard Magazine had some very interesting statistics and opinions about dog bites to report in their 2014 article “The Tragedy of America’s Dog.” The following excerpt highlights that compared to the number of estimated Pit Bull types vs. bites reported, Pit Bulls were actually on the low end of those to be considered dangerous.

“…Between 1965 and 2001, there have been 60 lethal dog-attacks in the United States involving a Pit Bull. Compared to most breeds, that figure is indeed quite high. There were only 14 lethal attacks involving Dobermans, for instance. But taking into account the overall populations of each breed measured, the rate of aggression among Pit Bulls is comparatively quite normal. Even low. During that 36-year period, only 0.0012 percent of the estimated Pit Bull population was involved in a fatal attack. Compare that to the purebred Chow Chow, which has a fatal-attack rate of 0.005 percent, and consistently ranks as the least child-friendly dog breed on the market. Why don’t media reports of attacks involving Chows eclipse those involving Pit Bulls? Because there are only 240,000 registered Chow Chows currently residing in the United States. And frankly, the broad-skulled, wide-mouthed Pit Bull makes for a more convincing monster than the comically puffy Chow.”

Thankfully, more and more people are getting on board with the fight for Pit Bulls’ rights. Though a horrible atrocity, the Michael Vick case in 2007 did wonders in terms of how dogs rescued from fighting rings are treated. Previously deemed as unable to be rehabilitated, several groups like Best Friends Animal Society and Bad Rap lobbied to take a chance at working with them and most went on to live peacefully in homes with other pets and children. (If you haven’t seen The Champions, it’s a must–watch!)

Since then, Pit Bulls have gotten more positive attention, because if dogs who had been abused and trained to fight could be rehabilitated, imagine the possibilities for the hundreds of thousands more who are simply born to irresponsible breeding or given up because people don’t understand the responsibilities that come with having a dog. Even Sports Illustrated, whose 1987 article had stoked the pandemic fear against Pit Bulls, reported on the rehabilitation of the Vick dogs in 2008 and painted them in a far more positive light (see their apology cover above).

Six of the “Vicktory” dogs that were rescued and rehabilitated from Michael Vick’s fighting compound

Things are looking up in terms of BSL (breed specific legislation) too! Last month, Arizona became the 20th state to ban BSL. There have been recent setbacks with major Canadian cities starting the trend of BSL, but at least America is on the right track!

And many Pit Bulls are still heroes in the present day, with more being trained to be service animals all the time. Search and Rescue Pitties Cheyanne, Dakota, and Tahoe were involved in missions for 9/11 at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the 2003 shuttle disaster for NASA, the Laci Peterson investigation, and many other high profile cases, in addition to being certified therapy dogs and working in educational groups to teach people about dogs. There’s an increasing number of Pit Bull types being rescued and trained to work on police forces.

So many Pittie pets are becoming certified to visit hospitals and provide comfort. They’re highly trainable, sensitive, loving animals and there really is no end to the things they can accomplish. They just need to be given the chance.

Kris Crawford and search–and–rescue hero Pit Bulls Cheyanne, Tahoe, and Dakota
So before you buy into the media and hype, before you let a few mistreated and misunderstood animals who have have unfortunately hurt another due to lack of training and socialization (or worse, due to abuse) skew your view, please ask yourself: “Do I know what I’m talking about, have I actually even met a Pit Bull-type and given them a chance, or am I just believing what the media wants me to?” We all know the agenda, and we all know that many outlets report on what will get them the highest ratings or viewers.

Pit Bulls are not a statistic. They are not monsters. They aren’t born into this world wanting to kill. They are an unfortunate victim of a lot of difficult circumstances. And they forgive you. They forgive those that have hurt them, they forgive you for being afraid, and they forgive you for not understanding. Because all they really want is a chance to prove to you what sweet, charming, intelligent, goofy, LOVING animals they are.

**If you haven’t read Bronwen Dickey’s new book ‘Pit Bull: The Battle Over An American Icon,’ you should definitely do so immediately – it’s a must-read. **

10 thoughts on “How America’s Dog Became Public Enemy #1 – And Why They’re Making Such A Comeback

  1. Great article. Whem reporting the media always identifies the dog breed if it is a Pittie but not any other breeds. This is the cause of so many being afraid of this breed. I have a picture of my grandfather in the late 1920s sitting on his porch with a pittie next to him. There are 2 in my family now and they are very sweet and all they want is loving attention. Happy to see more are being rescued. It is all in their upbringing.

  2. Absolutely one of the most well-written articles I have written on the subject of “Pit Bulls” and the history behind them! Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this interesting article. I own a pit bull and love him tremendously. I feel that given the millions of pit bulls euthanized each year, something drastic has to be done to put an end to the people who breed these dogs, fight them, sell them for drugs, abuse them, and kick them out onto the streets when they don’t want them anymore. Something big has to happen or it will never end and the abuse will continue.

  4. If you had to do a research paper about pit bull used to be considered nanny dogs, you would fail because you would not be able to cite a primary source. GET IT YET?!

    The pit bull nanny myth has been clearly debunked and it is getting children killed. Please stop spreading disinformation. There are no primary sources that support pit bulls were ever nanny dogs.

    Primary Source Definition: In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source (also called original source or evidence) is an artifact, a document, a recording, or other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic.

    There are still too many pit-bull advocates repeating the nanny myth. It was started by a pit bull breeder to soften the image of the breed and as an advertising gimmick in the 1970s to sell more pit bulls. Stop spreading disinformation: UPDATE 5/21/13: Four years after the Nanny Dog Myth Revealed was first published, BAD RAP, a major pit bull advocacy group publicly announced that it will no longer support the Nanny Dog myth because it endangers children. While it is too late for many children, hopefully many will be saved in the future. http://thetruthaboutpitbulls.blogspot.com/2010/08/nanny-dog-myth-revealed.html

    From Bad Rap: “Did you know that there was never such thing as a ‘Nanny’s Dog’? This term was a recent invention created to describe the myriad of vintage photos of children enjoying their family pit bulls. While the intention behind the term was innocent, using it may mislead parents into being careless with their children around their family dog – A recipe for dog bites!” https://www.facebook.com/BADRAP.org/posts/10151460774472399

    214 children killed by pit bull type dogs.http://www.fatalpitbullattacks.com/children-killed-by-pit-bulls.php

    In my opinion, the nanny dog myth ALONE should be enough to sink the entire pit bull advocacy.

    I hope you will read the entire breed bio for the American Pit Bull Terrier on our website to have a better understanding of why pit bulls disproportionately kill more humans and animals than all breeds combined.: http://www.daxtonsfriends.com/american-pit-bull-terrier/

    Sorry, I’ll take the medical peer-reviewed information over your misguided opinions of pit bull type-dogs.

    The medical community is saying it’s better to be safe than sorry and to keep pit bull type-dogs away from children.

    Common Sense: Pit bulls are selectively bred to recognize other dogs as prey to fight in a pit to the death. You never know when it will be triggered. Simple noises and movement can trigger the pit bull’s prey drive into a deadly attack. This is not a safe breed trait to have in a family pet.

    New Warning from Pediatricians about pit bull type-dogs that should be shared with all families: A University of Arkansas for Medical Science’s largest dog bite study to date at a Georgia hospital in July 2016 came to this conclusion: “The study corroborates the largely negative interactions between pit bulls and children of any age.”

    From the abstract: “Pit bull bites were implicated in half of all surgeries performed and over 2.5 times as likely to bite in multiple anatomic locations as compared to other breeds.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305270428_Characteristics_of_1616_Consecutive_Dog_Bite_Injuries_at_a_Single_Institution

    11 Medical peer-reviewed studies that prove pit bulls are dangerous dogs as pets: Level 1 trauma center dog bite studies from all geographical regions in the U.S. are reporting a higher prevalence of pit bull type dogs injuries than all other breeds of dogs. In many cases, the studies (2009 to 2016) also report that pit bull injuries have a higher severity of injury and require a greater number of operative interventions. http://blog.dogsbite.org/2016/10/report-level-1-trauma-dog-bite-studies-pitbull-highest-prevalence.html

    Correct there are nice pit bulls. The problem is that you can’t tell them apart from the pit bulls that decide to kill. Would you deliberately choose a crib, car, or helmet with the highest record of fatalities and the worst safety rating? Pit bull type-dogs are responsible for 95% of severe attacks (level 4-6 dog bites) on people, pets and livestock in breed neutral zones. Please follow for one month. You will be shocked at all the people and pets that are severely maimed or killed by pit bulls.

    http://www.nationalpitbullvictimawareness.org/ BITE CHART:

    http://apdt.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/ian-dunbar-dog-bite-scale.pdf

    Please spend some time witnessing to the victims of pit bull attacks. Most attacking pit bulls are not due to bad owners but naïve owners who do not understand the dangerous pit bull breed traits. From 2005-2017, 270 people killed by pit bull type dogs. http://www.dogsbite.org/dog-bite-statistics-fatalities.php

    I agree all dogs can bite. The issue with pit bulls is the degree of damage they inflict, and their attacks being more likely to result in fatality. Appellate courts across the United States have recognized the dangers of the pit bull breed for over 25-years. We’ve listed excerpts from court decisions that demonstrate this.http://www.dogsbite.org/legislating-dangerous-dogs-appellate-court-decisions.php

    Pit bulls do not lock their jaw but with their ‘gameness’ trait they do not let go until their victims are dead.

    Pit-bulls are dangerous because they have the capability of inflicting life-threatening injuries in a split second. Pit bulls are zero-mistake dogs.

    Two words to prove pit bull type dogs are inherently dangerous: “BREAK STICK”.

    Does this sound like a normal and safe dog breed to have live in our neighborhoods? Pit Bull Rescue Central recommends ALL pit bull owners to have a “break stick”, a wedge-shaped piece of wood used to pry open a pit bull’s jaw during an attack. “Since pit bulls have a strong fighting background, we recommend that pet owners also have a breaking stick as a precaution, even if they don’t plan to use it in an illegal context. However, please be discreet. Breaking sticks are not something to brag about and the general public might have the wrong impression if you walk around with a stick in your hand. Breaking sticks are not illegal, but they are considered dog fighting paraphernalia in certain states and/or with certain law enforcement agents.”
    http://blog.dogsbite.org/2008/09/break-sticks-tool-used-to-pry-open-pit.html

    This person demonstrates how to use a break stick on a pit-bull: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfMVH4wY5Pg

  5. Fantastic amazing article complete with unbiased commentary and a strong advocate for fairness and equality among dog breeds I wish law makers would be forced to read this and take into consideration that if America is a free country and people can own guns and most anything else why should they single out and restrict any dog from a loving family and a good home Society has been so permissive with all the wrong things which has now led up to kneeling (by a certain ethnic group) to out honorable Country in disrespect for all it stands for in the public eye And they target a dog Wow how convoluted is that How have we even elected or put into power such uninformed biased legislators

  6. Love this article…all the stuff that needs to be said about these dear dogs is in here! I actually started becoming a staunch Pit Bull advocate because of the notoriety of the Vicktory Dogs case, so that horrible occurrence did do some good! Thanks so much for this!

  7. I volunteer at a shelter and have adopted 2 pits. They live with my 2 tiny Havanese. So yes I have 4 dogs. You have a better chance being bit by my 5lbs. dog then either of my pits. They are the sweetest most gentle dogs I have ever had. They know they were rescued and live a beautiful free life full of love! I will continue to rescue pits and will fight for them in every way I can. Dogs like children learn from the parents! Show them love and that is exactly what you get back. They are family in our house and I love them!

  8. Hi , my name is Leslie Stewart from Canada !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have tried for years to tell Dog owners that the temperment of their dog was solely on them !!! Personalluy I would kill for my Dog & many if not all my Father and I have owned~~~ I.E.) Great Danes , Massives and cross Pitbull / Massive ,. Resued a white German Shepherd tied by metal chain bolted into corner of small apartment ( very sad case ) had Kennel with black , yellow and chocolate labs. Golden Retriever who was being bred her 2nd heat to the Gorgeous Golden , named Arrow on the front of Purina Dog Chow Fd. Bag , my former husband had to brag rather them keep his you know what SHUT ~~~ Stolen 3 days later out of back yard ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ they took every think , big metal bowls , leashes , colours , Everything <3 I miss Casab lanka sdtill ETC Etca Love evberyomne of them }}}}}}]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]] xoxoxoxoxoxox

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