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Origins: Pit bulls got their name from bull baiting
and fighting in England, but the dog's roots are Roman.

By D. Caroline Coile
Originally published May 27, 2001

THE PIT BULL'S roots lie in the days of Roman gladiator sports, where they fought lions, bears, bulls, and each other. Later, butchers in England came to depend on these dogs to help them control escaping or uncooperative bulls.

These fearless dogs would bite an unruly bull on the nose and hang on until the butcher could subdue it. The cruel sport of bull baiting arose as butchers held competitions to prove which of them had the toughest "bull dogs." Eventually, almost every town in England had a bull-baiting ring as a focal point of entertainment. One or two dogs were released to attack a bull, which was often chained. Bull baiting was also done out of the mistaken belief that torturing the bull before slaughtering it would make the meat tender. Sometimes the dogs tormented the bull for hours.

When bull baiting was outlawed, dog fighting, which could be done clandestinely, became the blood sport of choice, and the bull-baiting dogs gained fame in the dog-fight pits, earning the name pit bull. These dogs were bred to be vicious fighters and gentle with people.

Technically, the name, pit bull, does not refer to a specific breed. It is a generic designation for several breeds including the American pit bull terrier, which was the first breed registered by the United Kennel Club (UKC) in 1898; its counterpart, the American Staffordshire terrier, which was registered by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1936; and the ancestor of both breeds, the Staffordshire bull terrier.

Neither the AKC nor the UKC advocates dog fighting, and they refuse to register dogs bred or owned by people convicted of dog fighting. This, combined with the efforts of breeders to create a game but trustworthy companion, has resulted in dogs that are no longer bred to fight. Breeders test their gameness in weight-pulling contests. Other pit bulls compete in obedience and agility trials, and many have become gifted therapy dogs.

Several other breeds are often included in breed specific bans, such as the American bulldog (a newer breed created to look like the original bulldog); bull terrier (a breed that has not been fought for the past 150 years); Dogo Argentino (developed for hunting and guarding); Fila Brasileiro (developed to control semiwild cattle); Presa Canario, or Canary Island dog (developed for dog fighting); Japanese Tosa, or Tosa Inu (developed for dog fighting); Rottweiler (developed to control cattle); Akita (developed for fighting and hunting); and German shepherd (developed to herd sheep).

Louisiana proposed legislation recently that would ban its state dog: the Catahoula leopard dog, a breed developed to work stock. The list of proposed banned breeds can sometimes be extensive and contain breeds based only on their names. Some communities have banned the Russian and Irish wolfhounds under the mistaken belief that they were part wolf. In fact, these dogs were bred to help catch wolves

Dog bites cost society a billion dollars annually, and insurance companies pay out about $250 million each year. Some companies charge higher premiums for homeowners with breeds that their records indicate are high risk for biting: American Staffordshire terrier, boxer, American pit bull terrier, chow chow, Doberman pinscher, German shepherd, Great Dane, Rottweiler and Siberian husky.

Most targeted breeds are large dogs, many weighing over 100 pounds. Among the smallest are the pit bulls, which tend to weigh 40 to 70 pounds. Bull terriers weigh 45 to 65 pounds, and Staffordshire bull terriers weigh in at 30 to 40 pounds.

All dog owners have a responsibility to the public to raise and maintain their dog in such a way that it is not a threat to human or animal safety. Owning any dog requires a commitment to socializing, training, caring for, and exercising it every day; dogs lacking any of these requirements can develop behavior problems.

Breeds vary in appearance, but also in temperament, activity level and other behavioral factors.

Researching a breed's good and bad points is essential before you buy. Buying a dog from AKC or UKC lines bred by experienced breeders who emphasize good temperaments is the best bet for obtaining a trustworthy companion, but any dog can become as good or bad as its upbringing.

D. Caroline Coile is author of "Pit Bulls For Dummies," published this month by Hungry Minds Inc. She earned a doctorate in psychology and neuroscience from Florida State University and has done research on dog behavior and sensory systems.

Copyright 2001 The Baltimore Sun