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A Cultural History Of The Pit Bull Dog History Essay

One of the most tragic and horrifying cultural uses of other animals is the practice of pitting dogs against each other in fights to the death for human entertainment. While many dog breeds have been used in fighting contests since antiquity, the pit bull is most exploited breed in blood sports, and this popularity in is embedded in specific socio-cultural conditions. This paper traces the cultural history of the pit bull (and his ancestors the mastiff, or molossus, and the terrier) from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Using dogs to fight and maul other animals for sport and entertainment began as long ago as 510 BC and reached a peak in the Middle Ages with the popularity of using mastiff dogs for bear-baiting and bull dogs (the ancestor of the pit bull terrier) for bull-baiting. By the early modern period, using dogs to bait other animals, particularly bears because of their similarity to humans in upright stance and gait, evolved into an enormously popular sport spectacle in the early modern period. Animal baiting and displays of canine aggression have been linked to warfare training, emerging colonialism, social inequality, and even used as a metaphor for the abuse of women. We conclude with a discussion of the social stigma of canine aggression that is rooted in a history of the validation of specific human cultural characteristics, including masculinity, power, and sexual virility.

In the past 20 years throughout the US and Europe, Pit bull dogs, along with their association with poverty and crime, have been accused of extreme aggression towards humans and other animals. So fearful is the pit bull’s aggressive reputation that some US states and several European countries have legally banned the ownership of the breed with Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and the Dangerous Dog Act (DDA). Pit Bull dogs have not always been problem animals. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, Pit Bulls were extremely popular “good-natured” family pets. [1] And during World War I, Pit Bulls were widely considered the “all American dog” and a symbol of American courage and tenacity. [2] How did it happen that, with such a glorious history, the Pit Bull has now been totally transformed from a precious pet into a problem animal?

To begin to answer this question, we must trace the cultural history of the breed, and we begin with one of the pit bulls main ancestors, the Old English Bulldoggue. This dog was derived from ancient war dogs, the Mastiff or Molossus dogs (ancestors of today’s Mastiff group of breeds too). The bulldoggue was created in order to tenderize the bull’s meat through baiting exercises during the sixteenth century in England. As animal baiting gained popularity as entertainment, people tried to create the “best” pit-fighter. In the 1700’s old English terriers were crossed with dogs of the Mastiff family, the bulldoggues. The bulldoggue‘s appearance and the terrier’s courage were combined in order to create the ancestor of the modern pit bull. The anatomy of the fighting dog required an imposing outward form for strength, with the foundation breed naturally large, low-slung, heavy, powerfully built, with a strongly developed head and powerful biting apparatus. The primary goal was to breed a dog that will attack animals but is docile toward humans. During the late 1800s, immigrants from England brought their dogs with them to the US. The Bull and Terrier blends began to be selected for some new qualities, a high pain threshold, resilience, a willingness to fight to the end, and also increased affection for humans. Dogs that were not utterly human friendly could not be handled during fights, were euthanized. Because no dog’s aggressiveness towards humans made up the foundation of the breed, aggression should not be evident in properly bred members of the breed. [3] These qualities, lack of aggression towards humans and high pain threshold define those dogs that have become the modern American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT).

History of war, combat and fighting dogs

Wilcox and Walkowicz (1995) argue that “Although many beasts have served humanity throughout time, only one serves by choice; the dog” and they mention that despite the fact that dogs always were and are “man’s best friend, mankind occasionally only, is dog’s best friend”. Archeologists found evidence that this relationship might have started as early as the time of Homo sapiens, and the dog is almost certainly the first animal to have been domesticated. [4] The Dog is believed to be domesticated in East Asia 13,000 BC. [5] Tuan argues that by 3000 BC, certain distinct breeds made their first appearance; the Mastiff was already intentionally bred in order to maintain certain behavioral and phenotypic characteristics in order to be used for guarding purposes in the area of Mesopotamia. In near Eastern Antiquity, the use of selective breeding practices in order to modify the appearance and behavior of the dog and create canines that would be useful for different human purposes was very common. Thus dogs served the hunter, the shepherd and the warrior. Then the next step was to purposely keep and breed animals that displayed the desired traits and destroy the rest; thus pure bred animals were created and they were perpetuating through their blood lines the desired characteristics. Tuan argues that the direct way humans interfered with that process, did not only result in domestication of these animals, but also in complete domination of humans over them. [6] 

The rare occurrence of gigantism and acromegaly is true for both dogs and humans. About seventy centuries ago, somewhere on Tibet or Central Asia, a giant dog was born. This was most possibly the mastiff prototype and ancestor. The rare giant pups were selected by the early breeders and the mastiff type was created by inducing fixation of mutant genes. [7] Gigantism is a condition caused by an abnormal increase in growth hormone (GH) secretion during childhood and as a result it induces an unusually great height. [8] Acromegaly is caused by an abnormal increase of GH during adulthood; this induces the bones of the face and feet to be abnormally thicker. [9] It is not sure whether these first prototype mastiff ancestors were giants or acromegalic, but the unique extent of variation in height, weight and shape in the domestic dog is unique among all species and proof that most possibly the propagation of mutated genes were responsible for that. [10] , [11] Acromegalic traits in dogs are distinct due to the effect of growth hormone; increased bone growth (thus these dogs are massive), they have huge paws, bulky skull, heavy jaw and brows, wrinkled and scowling expression, large drop ears and abundance of skin on the body, a muzzle that is strong but proportionally shorter than the capacious back skull, and they are (most of them) smooth coated. [12] 

Originally these frightening dogs were used to guard flocks, home and property and later they were used as war or combat dogs. From this prototype dog originated all the European mastiff types of today, the fighting dogs and all the modern giant breeds. One theory is that from Tibet the giant dog traveled with tribes as they migrated through two major routes; one west through Middle East and Mediterranean and the other northwest via China and Russia. The most distinct trait of the northern mastiff was the first appearance of the brachycepahlic trait. As nomads (Alans) migrated back to west the first brachycepahlic eastern mastiffs (Alaunts) appeared in Europe around 400 AD. These dogs were welcomed from the German tribes, the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Persians. [13] The fiercest of the mastiff dogs were considered to be the molossus dogs. The molossians were said to have come from Epirus, a place in Northwest Greece. They took their name from the molossians (Greeks) by which this breed (the molossus dog) was created. The molossians used these dogs for the purposes of guarding and warfare. The courage and ferocity of the molossus dogs became legendary. [14] , [15] Even Aristotle praises their bravery and physical superiority in the history of animals. [16] Virgil mentions that they were used as guardians of the herds, for hunting [17] and some scholars mention that they were used also for as war and combat dogs. [18] 

The Molossus breed was most certainly a very large dog similar to the Mastiff we know today; Thus Mastiff-type dogs today are often referred to as Molossus dogs or Molossers. [19] The mastiffs or Mollosi group of dogs were heavily utilized-as tools in warfare (war and combat dogs) and they are considered to be the most outstanding yet the most unsung working dogs that paid a high tribute to humanity. [20] These dogs wore broad collars, fitted with huge curved blades, fiery torches and spikes and they carried dispatches attached to their collars. As they dashed into the ranks of enemy cavalry the blades and spikes spooked the horses, cut their legs and put whole quadroons to rout. [21] , [22] They even wore a kind of a protective armor made out of metal and light chain and during the middle ages they were armored as completely as the knights and their horses. [23] 

The war dogs were greatly appreciated and used not only in antiquity, but throughout human history from crusades, to new world by Cortez, and from Napoleon to World War II. The English mastiffs were greatly appreciated as war dogs and even Charles V of Spain was so satisfied by their splendid service that he used them as examples of bravery and zeal to his troops. [24] The Mastiffs or molossian dogs not only defended their masters to death, but they also made examples of devotion and faithfulness. A famous example of that is Hyrcanus, the dog of Lycimachus. When Lycimachus was killed in battle while fighting as one of Alexander the Greats general’s, the dog sorrowfully followed his master’s body as it was carried to the pyre, then with a mournful howl, it sprang into the flames and perished. [25] Alexander the Great's dog-named Peritas was considered to be a Molossus dog. Peritas followed Alexander throughout his epic conquest. He saved Alexander’s life twice and he died trying to save his master. [26] At least one town in Asia was named after Peritas. [27] 

Adrovandus, (1952) mentioned that “the mastiff or war dog differs from the farm and sheep dog in the matters of training and teaching; This dog ought to be trained to fight from his earliest years. The war dog”, continues, “should have a terrifying aspect and looks as it is ready to fight and trained to be an enemy to everybody except his master”. [28] The mastiff was also used in the Roman Arena (circus) to fight against bears, lions, and even men as entertainment. [29] But there is historic evidence of dogfighting and baiting as depicted in the Etruscan and Greek art starting at least the fifth century BC. [30] Thus the dogfighting today is just evidence of the fact that history repeats itself or continuation of a longtime “tradition”. By the Middle Ages the molossus was mostly used as an estate guardian in England and the term “bandogge” and “acathena” referred to the fact that they were tied during the day and allowed loose at night to roust poachers and intruders. [31] , [32] The mastiff dogs were also used as the butcher’s dog in order to control the bull and later for bull baiting in order to tenderize the meat during the sixteenth century. [33] , [34] Due to the Mastiff’s size the feeding requirements were and are almost the same as that for a human, thus another reason that they were sometimes called “the Butcher’s dog” was because only them could provide enough meat scraps for these “giants”, and could therefore afford to keep one, even though they were not wealthy. This fact almost caused the breed’s extinction During World War I and II because it was considered unpatriotic to keep dogs alive that ate as much in a day as a soldier and thus entire huge kennels were killed as a result. [35] The mastiff during the medieval times was also trained to be aggressive, kill in order to defend his master and even fight to death for him. During the training process bears, boars, chimpanzees, bulls and even horses were used. [36] 

Eventually in the 15th century the bull –baiting breed was developed. Possibly through mixes of mastiff, Alaunt (racier, undershot mastiffs of either Alants or Allemani/Germans) and other brachycephalic dogs the first bulldog (old English Bulldogge) was created, and even today it is considered to be a member of the Molosser breeds. [37] The bulldog had an undershot jaw that allowed it to grab and hang the bull from the nose, without the upper jaw being in his way. The dog should never let go or fail to grab the bulls’ nose, because it would be either gored or thrown. In order for the dog to survive it had to gain hold of the bull’s nose, never let go the grip and lower the bulls head to pin it. This trait was highly prized and mutilation of one or more of dog’s feet when he had a grip on the bull’s nose, in order to prove tenacity despite pain was one of the major reasons that would increase the value of this dog’s puppies. Bratten’s “Peter “was a famous dog who pinned the bull on his raw stamps after his owner cut of the dog’s feet one by one for a wager. [38] And as Kalof and Taylor (2007) mentioned “what began in the Middle Ages as strategies to protect property and produce tender meat, setting dogs on other animals evolved into a full scale blood sport”, [39] and the list of tortured animals extended to rats, badger, other dogs and essentially animal baiting became a very popular type of entertainment for both noble and non-noble people particularly during the Renaissance [40] . Particularly rat killing took the form of competition between dogs; For example, in 1825 at the Westminster Pit, the dog Billy was matched against The Kentish Bitch in the number of rats killed in a simultaneous competition. During that event, Billy had killed 90 rats, within 7.5 minutes and The Kentish Bitch had killed 65 rats in just less than 9 minutes. [41] 

Since dogfighting reached its peak during the 18-19th century in England, special breeds were developed for this purpose. The mastiff and the bulldog types were crossed with game English terrier types, (predominately the White English Terrier-currently extinct or the English Black and Tan Terrier) in order to increase quickness and agility and courage. [42] Another possible factor was that these new dogs still had all the qualities of the mastiff, but decreased feeding requirements, thus they were more accessible and keeping a dog like that became less difficult and expensive. The other component of the breed, the Terriers is described as small warriors, tough, hard-bitten, intrepid, audacious, bold, fearless, confident and pugnacious. They were developed mainly for vermin hunting and were often required to make the actual kill. They also made excellent watch dog for the home and guardians for the children. Dogs of the terrier type have been known in the British islands since very ancient times. They probably originated from the Spitz/Nordic dog and as in most dog breeds, selective breeding of dogs carrying desired traits resulted in the types of terriers that we know today. The Bull and Terrier was then created. [43] Eventually in 1835 animal baiting was banned in England, but unfortunately that prohibition lead to an increase in popularity and incidence of dog fighting. [44] 

Since a great part of animal welfare history in the nineteenth century, dealt with the question of how animals were seen to be treated and implicitly linked the issue of cruelty to the visual order, this issue constituted an important factor in increasing control exercised over all sorts of different domains of animal related practice-including bear and bull baiting, vivisection, slaughter or the cleaning of the city streets of strays… as with vivisection if cruelty was to take place, it was to be behind doors, and hidden. [45] Thus dogfighting was still happening and with few legal implications since it was easier to hide the fighting dogs and escape if needed. The fact that Dog fighting was illegal in England, did not stop fighting dog breeders to breed them and export them to United States, since the sport was still legal in several states. [46] 

It is really interesting to mention that mastiff type of dogs in different countries and cultures except the western civilization have also been used for fighting and developed breeds specifically for the same reason.Ref Dog fighting has been documented in the recorded history of many different cultures and is presumed to have started by the time of the initial domestication of the dog. [47] Many breeds have been bred specifically for strength, attitude, and physical features that are desirable for fighting. It is believed that the large-scale human migration, the development of trade, and gifts between royal courts of valuable fighting dogs facilitated the spread of fighting dog breeds. Thus, dog fighting was, and still is, a very popular activity in Japan. The brutality and violence associated with dog fighting were considered to be a way in order to ensure that Samurai remain aggressive even during peaceful times. Two breeds specifically used for dog fighting was the Akita and the Tosa Inu or Japanese Mastiff. In Latin America, especially in Argentina, Peru and many parts of Brazil dog fighting has been popular and the breed of Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro were and are used. The Dogo Cubano and dogo cordoba were used for fighting a century ago in this area, but have become extinct. The Shar Pei is a Chinese canine breed that has been initially bred in order to be used as a fighting dog. Today, dogfighting is still considered legal in several counties; Japan, Russia and Afghanistan. [48] , [49] 

The list of dog breeds that have been used for fighting includes at least 20 of the medium and large canine breeds. [50] But despite the fact that these dogs have been intentionally bred for different qualities than a toy type of breed, it has been reported that there are not any significant genetic differences between a Great Dane and a Chihuahua. More importantly the behavioral outcome of each individual dog regardless of the breed has mostly to do with training, and not with the genetics associated with breeding. Judging dogs based on their breed is very similar to judging people based on race; there is no scientific basis for either of them. [51] Dr. Houpt argued that very aggressive dogs could be found in any breed. But because Mastiff types of dogs were intentionally bred as guarding and warfare dogs, there is a possibility that these dogs might attack in order to defend their owners or property. [52] The family of Mastiff dogs includes many of the contemporary favorite breeds as the German Shepherds, Great Danes, Bernese mountain dogs and other canine breeds that do not share the same reputation as pit bulls; on the contrary they are well known for they love and devotion to humans. The so-called Mastiff or Molossus dogs of antiquity, the ancestors of today’s pit bull, and of all the contemporary breeds that belong to the Mastiff family of dogs, have been used for centuries in warfare and fighting. These dogs have also been used as entertainment in the roman arena [53] along with other animals as the elephant described by Pliny the elder. The pit bull today is still used as entertainment in multiple arenas. One of them is the fighting pit. In that case the pit bull, as the elephants mentioned by Pliny the Elder [54] and the bull in the corrida, [55] do not have a choice, there is no way of escaping, the slaughter of these animals is inevitable. Even though the elephants were able at some point to at least “implore the compassion of the multitude and make people to react and protest towards such cruelty the fighting dog and the bull do not share the same luck. [56] Maybe it is a matter of education and when Pliny the Elder talks about the “merciful disposition” of the elephant towards weaker than him animals, he is trying to educate people towards (instill) compassion. [57] In the case of the pit bull, the elephant, and the bull it can be argued that we have subjection of animal will to human will. This according to the Andalusian culture means domestication. Another common similarity is that animals in the Andalusian culture are not seen as individuals, they are not anthropomorphized and thus people do not feel compassion for them. Even though Marvin concludes that corrida may be interpreted as a statement in a dramatic form of what it means to be human male in the Andalusian culture, [58] by assessing the commonalities of bullfighting and other blood sports invented and favored by human males during centuries, maybe we can state that Bullfighting, cockfighting, dog fighting and all the fights that took place in the Roman arena and any other arena is a dramatic form of what it means to be “Accustomed to blood” [59] as discussed by Plutarch [60] and makes us wonder when one begins to kill-when and where does it end? Plutarch states that: “Even so in the beginning, some wild and mischievous beast was killed and eaten, and then some little bird or fish was entrapped. And the desire of slaughter, being first experimented and exercised in these, at last passed even to the ox[…] the sheep[…]the poor cock; until by little and little, insatiableness, being strengthen by use, men came to the slaughter of men, to bloodshed and wars[…]this thing should be sufficient to change and show men, that is a savage and intemperate habit,[…]that it inclines the mind the more brutishly to bloodshed and destruction, when we have once accustomed our selves neither to entertain a guest nor keep a wedding nor to treat our friends without blood and slaughter”. [61] 

Unfortunately the pit is not the only arena that pit bulls are entertaining people. As Chris (2006) [62] argues the press, the media constitute another arena where the public is fascinated by the violent natures of “fanged and clawed” species, “bloodbaths”,scenes of killing and mating, shows where the animals are barely containable threats to human safety. In Discovery’s Animal Face –Off, we have a virtual animal fighting between different species. In “wildboyz” we have a series of events, where the performers subject their body to pain and grotesque, in order to exhibit white masculine physical prowess and cultural mobility. As the author concludes, “these generic offshoots treated the animal variously as economic asset, as victim, as threat, as savior, as companion as a playmate”. Since blood and fight fascinate the public, pit bulls were no exception and thus were used by the media as one more show. If they were presented as “just dogs” there would be no interest by the public. Thus they are presented as barely containable threats to human safety. [63] 

Pit bulls are not only victims of media who are highly responsible for the negative stereotyping of this breed, but also victims of our society that allows the exploitation of these dogs in many different ways. Thus we have the pit bull, a dog that, as we did with all the other animals we oppressed, we stripped it of its bodily control, of its natural dignity in order to offer fame, a sign of success and power to the dogmen. [64] And even though “The famous animal is always singular, individual,” Deleuze and Guattari argue in A Thousand Plateaus, that “the real animal is always… part of a pack”. [65] Likewise when the pit bull became famous as a breed, it also became distinct than the other pack of canine breeds. But is that the truth? The farm animal foundation states that pit bulls are just dogs (two legs, two eyes, one heart) and that “we as society we do not have a pit bull problem…Pit Bulls are the ones with the problem; humans.” [66] It is important to add that there is evidence as Aristoteles mentioned that “psychologically a child hardly differs for the time being from an animal”. [67] Furthermore there is also evidence that a dog's relationship to humans is analogous to child-parent and chimpanzee-human attachment behavior. This is though no surprise since Dogs were selectively bred for "socio-cognitive abilities", for "attachment to humans" and for "infantile" features. [68] Thus taking a creature with toddler psychology and behavior and putting it through the experience of dog fighting training and experience, can only create a creature dominated by fear and as Lorenz argues;”The most vicious form of fighting behavior is based on fear (survival). [69] Chris concluded that what is projected onto nature reveals the most urgent struggles of human culture”. [70] And Spiegel continues that the”true battle against oppression will be waged within each of us, because it is within us where violence starts […] And this is the only place where violence […] can finally be brought to an end”. [71] 

Maybe the answer lies on the diachronic dreams of Philosophers from antiquity to today; Plutarch argued that even if he could not prove his point of a “promiscuous use of all animal bodies” during his time era, there would be a time in history that this extreme animal exploitation and use will be considered “irrational” and humans will “become tame” again[…]” [72] Bentham continues by hoping that “the day may come” when animals may have the rights that were withholden from them[...]as the French people had discovered that blackness of the skin is no reason to discriminate and allow cruelty to happen, the same might happen with “the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of os sacrum for animals[…]” Because the question is not if they can reason or talk,” but Can they suffer?” [73] And Haraway argues that despite the fact that there is no evidence of a fighting anatomy in human males, there is, though, enough evidence that they do have an aggressive brain. This fact, however, does not mean “that society is doomed to hierarchies and dominance relations “ [74] caught in a “hunting past” [75] because “the open future rests on a new past”. [76]


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