Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Harriet Ritvo on the Nonsense History of Pit Bulls

Bull Baiting by Francis Barlow (c. 1626 – 1704)

As I noted in an earlier post, the fighting bull dog and the fighting pit bull are older than Rome and have nothing to do with working terriers, which did not even exist when the fighting bull dog or pit bull were created.

Harriet Ritvo explores the the confusion in an article entitled Pride and Pedigree: The Evolution of the Victorian Dog Fancy:

In 1871, less than twenty years before bulldogs began to appear at shows in such large numbers, one admirer of the breed had feared that it was dying out. In 1864, the same fear had prompted a group of fanciers to start a Bulldog Club, in order to ensure perpetuation of the breed. Interest was so low that the attempt fizzled; the enduring Bulldog Club was not established until a decade later. The bulldog seemed endangered because, by the middle of the nineteenth century, a combination of rising public revulsion and rather belated legislative action had finally suppressed the ancient and ferocious British sport of bull-baiting. The close association between the bulldog and the bull ring was echoed in early nineteenth-century descriptions of the breed, which have little in common with those just cited. A manual of dog breeds for sportsmen, published in 1803, admired the courage of bulldogs, but acknowledged that they were seldom seen on the streets because "their natural ferocity, alarming appearance, and thirst for blood" made prudent owners lock them up. Several decades later, a zoologist dismissed the breed as "possessed of less sagacity and less attachment than any of the hound tribe"; he dismissed bulldog fanciers as "professed amateurs of sports and feelings little creditable to humanity."

The first task of the late nineteenth-century resuscitators of the bulldog was to repair - or conceal - the defects of its origin. From the point of view of late Victorian respectability, the bulldog's antecedents could not have been worse. In the first place, its traditional human associates were unsavory. One of the reasons the bulldog was said to be "at a discount" when the second Bulldog Club launched its rescue mission in 1874 was that, although it had occasionally kept distinguished company (Lady Castlereagh, the wife of the Regency foreign minister, was reputed to have taken her London airings with a bulldog on the seat beside her), its patrons were, as a rule, "not among the better class of fanciers." Some negative evidence of this is the fact that formal portraits of bulldogs are hard to come by, while those of hounds and gun dogs are plentiful. The places where specimens were generally to be found earned the bulldog the nickname of "the pot- house dog," and observers of the mid-century London scene identified people of the bulldog type by their heavy jaws, low foreheads, small eyes, and bandy legs. These vulgar associations survived the official suppression of bull-baiting. Indeed, the lamented "fondness of the lower orders in some districts for the fighting and baiting propensities" of bulldogs continued into the second half of the nineteenth century, when there were doubtless still opportunities for the dogs to show their stuff against each other, if not against bulls. Those dogs not kept for fighting were "principally bred by professional dog-fanciers," who were considered by affluent amateurs to constitute the lowest echelon of doggy society. 
The bulldog's other genealogical drawback was even more devastating: there was little basis on which to construct a family history. Although bull-baiting had been around for a long time, it was not at all clear what kind of dogs had baited the bulls - and bears and badgers and sometimes even lions and tigers. Caius did not mention the bulldog as one of his breeds or sub-breeds; he included the dogs that were taught, as he put it, "to baite the Beare, to baite the Bull and other such like cruell and bloudy beastes" in the category of mastives or bandogs. Even in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the term "bulldog" had gained general currency, it was not clear what they were supposed to look like. Any dog that fought bulls was a bulldog. What was important was not breed, but the dog's ability to meet the rather exacting requirements of bull-to-dog combat.
Enraged bulls charged with their heads down. In order to avoid the lethal horns, the dogs had to be low to the ground and relatively nimble. Because a bull was most vulnerable on its tender nose, the bulldog needed strong jaws as well as the dumb courage to jump at the bull's face and the perseverance to hang on. The quality of the animals was tested regularly under fire, and prowess was much more important than appearance in determining rank. It is clear from pictorial evidence that there was no distinctive bulldog strain - and that bulldogs could not be easily differentiated from, for example, mastiffs, the large, general-purpose working dogs that became much less common after early humane legislation forbade the use of dogs as beasts of burden or draft animals. Late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth century representations of renowned bulldogs showed animals that varied widely in size and shape, even making allowance for the unequal skill of the artists. Some even lacked the characteristic bulldog countenance, in which the "broad, projecting underjaw ensures the terrible tenacity of grip; the wide nostrils, placed far back, enable the dog to draw unimpeded breath while keeping his teeth fixed on the yielding cartilage of the bull's nose." 
At the same time that they addressed the bulldog's image problems, fanciers had to address similar ones of their own, typified by the fact that, as the chronicler of the Bulldog Club pointed out, the breed had no "bevy of titled admirers" ready to "rush on its committee." Although it was customary for breed associations of all kinds of animals to have at least a noble president, the founders of the Bulldog Club were unable to discover any aristocrat willing to serve. Their best bet, the Duke of Hamilton, resisted their importunity, and they had to be satisfied with plain Mr. Berry. Mr. Berry and his friends worked hard to make sure that they were not confused with those they termed the "ruffians" - the people from whose hands they were rescuing the bulldog. Some of this was accomplished by loud and frequent protestations of their own gentility and high motives. But they also blamed vulgar people for the unpleasant qualities that had been attributed to the dog. While in the 1830s the veterinarian William Youatt had characterized the bulldog as "scarcely capable of any education, and . . . fitted for nothing but ferocity and combat," later writers pointed to extenuating circumstances. According to a late Victorian fancier, the bulldog's courage - its major virtue - had exposed it to perverse exploitation: it was "the only dog with sufficient endurance to serve the cruel purposes of depraved owners." Having dispensed with the unsavory aspects of the bulldog's reputation, its new advocates could capitalize on its more appealing traditional qualities. The bulldog's courage, for example, was held to make it peculiarly English. Breed manual after breed manual proclaimed it incontestably the national dog - and after several decades of such propaganda Britons even began to conflate it with the national symbol, John Bull, who was originally bovine. Not only did the brave bulldog exemplify a prized quality of the English character, nurtured in a traditional English pastime (already the veil of euphemism was dropping over the bloody reality of bull-baiting), but the breed was though to be peculiarly - almost mystically - attached to English soil. Although Englishmen took their bulldogs along to the corners of the Empire, and although even foreigners were eager to import them, either to transplant the breed or to infuse some of its sturdy courage into their own strains, it was an insistently documented idea that good bulldogs could only be bred in the British Isles. Elsewhere, it was asserted, the breed inevitably degenerated. This claim to ancient and intrinsic Englishness gave bulldog fanciers an excuse to defend the racial purity of their animals with as much energy as if they had long and elegant pedigrees. A recurring threat was what was delicately called "the infusion of foreign blood." This was feared, as one defender of the breed put it, on the grounds that it "must be inferior because it is foreign. 
As bulldogs took their place in the show ring, appearance replaced performance as the basis for competitive judgment of individual dogs. This shift meant that bulldogs almost automatically diminished in ferocity, bulk, and strength. As Charles Darwin suggested, "We may feel almost sure that ... no man said to himself, I will now breed my dogs of smaller size, and thus create the present race." But most of the specific physical characteristics of the remodeled bulldogs of the late nineteenth century were determined by the Bulldog Club, which substituted a set of arbitrary specifications of quality for the old law of the survival of the fittest. Because they had no rational basis, these new standards at first caused a lot of confusion. In 1879, a correspondent who confessed that he had "only quite recently entered the Bulldog Fancy" implored the editors of The Sportsman's Journal and Fancier's Guide to favor "green fanciers" with a brief description of "the points, general make and shape . . . of the bulldog." His independent research, he complained, had only compounded his confusion: "At present . .. after trying to collect some information, we are worse off than when we commenced."

Ritvo gets it exactly right: the pit bull community has little or no knowledge of their breed before the era of dog shows, and even here they tend to fall down.

For example, a reader writes to let me know that "the original American Pit Bull Terrier was 25-35 pounds."

Really? No. Complete nonsense.  Maybe some were, but John Colby's Primo was the first picture put up as the "ideal" cross-registered UKC Pit Bull and AKC American Staffordshire Terrier, and he was 45 pounds. Colby's Pincher was 75 pounds, and Tige was 35 pounds. The current UKC standard puts the dog at 30 to 60 pounds -- a wide weight variation as befits a dog so often fought by weight classes, as it has always been.

And now we are coming to an essential truth
that escapes the modern pit bull aficionado: the fighting bull dogs and fighting pit bulls were performance dogs with cash wagers made on fight outcomes.

Those fights were between bulls, bears, dogs of different weights, monkeys, badgers, lions, and even a few humans.

No one gave a shit about pedigree prior to the era of dog dealers and dog shows because the money was in the fight, not in the dog dealing.

After the start of dog shows, however, that changed.

Now every breed had to have a mysterious or romantic history. If you were a dog dealer, you trumpeted that "Nitro" was bred out of "Hammerlock," who was line-bred from the "old Diablo line" and never mind if that was all just typing. Who cares? This puppy has provenance! Young wanna-be tough guys could now tell their friends the story told to them by the dog dealer.  Nitro! Hammerlock! The Old Diablo line!  Imagine.

What's hysterical to those with TRUE working terriers is the notion that the way you make a 40- or 60- or 80-pound fighting dog is by mixing in a working terrier.


What breed would that be? A Cairn terrier? A Scottie? A Jack Russell? A Yorkie?

In defense of the pit dog crowd, the nonsense they parrot is old and comes from one of the original bullshit artists in the world of dogs: John Henry Walsh.

Walsh wrote under the name "Stonehenge," and he was a judge at the first dedicated dog show held in 1859. As I noted some years back:

Walsh put himself out as an expert on nearly everything from home economics to cooking recipes, from brewing beer and playing croquet to shoeing horses, and from building and firing guns, to breeding and judging dogs.

Often writing under the pen name "Stonehenge," Walsh took charge of The Field as the first Information Age was exploding under the advent of low-cost paper made from wood pulp and movable metal type.

By diving into older texts, and compiling, rewording, and adding a little bit of new information, Walsh was able to liberate a great deal of basic knowledge and disseminate it out to an eager public....

As a result of copying from so many older texts, Walsh's 1859 publication contains solid fact which nests cheek-to-jowl with vague descriptions, absurd assertions, obvious truths, glaring omissions, and confusing verbiage.

John Henry Walsh was a gun dog man. He never worked a terrier or owned a bulldog in his life. And yet he figured he was just the guy to write up a "standard" for every breed under the sun!

The very year he organized the first formal dog show, Walsh wrote The Dog, in Health and Disease which stated that:

The terrier as used for hunting is a strong useful little dog, with great endurance and courage, and with nearly as good a nose as the Beagle or Harrier. From his superior courage when crossed with the Bulldog, as most vermin-terriers are, he has generally been kept for killing vermin whose bite would deter the Spaniel or the Beagle, but would only render the terrier more determined in his pursuit of them.... The field fox-terrier, used for bolting the fox when gone to ground, was of this breed [bull and terrier]."

It was?

No it wasn't.  You can't get a fighting dog down a narrow fox den pipe. As I observed earlier this week, "Fourteen inches is 14 inches" and the bullshit (as well as the pit bull) stops at the hole.

We know exactly when mounted fox hunting showed up in England (it came from France), and we know exactly what the the first fox terriers looked like because there are pictures of these dogs, and those pictures bear no relation to the fighting pit bulls of that very same era.

Getting your dog breed information from John Henry Walsh is to rely on a very perilous and suspect source!

"A Dogfight," by Paul Sandby c. 1785

Bull Baiting by James Ward (1769-1859) 

So where does the "bull and terrier" confusion come from, and why has it been so resistant to correction?

The confusion comes from two sources.

The first confusion is the word "terrier".

In the era of early anti-poaching laws, this description was less about taxonomy than about taxes and the law.

While large dogs that could take down a deer were regulated (and often banned from common ownership), small terriers and certain types of non-big game hunting dogs were not taxed. 

As with any regulatory scheme, however, folks found a work around -- calling their non-deer or non-hare hunting dogs a "terrier" in much the same way that a modern pit bull owner might tell their landlord their dog is "actually a Viszla".

From the Kentish Gazette of March 8, 1791

What's the other confusion? 

Just this:  there were two completely unrelated dogs called the "English White Terrier."

The one that the pit bull afficionadoes generally point to is the prick-eared lap dog breed invented in the early 1860s by a handful of breeders anxious to make a quick profit from the gullible.

In 1894, Rawdon Briggs Lee observed in his book Modern Dogs that this breed was of relatively recent origin and noted that, "It has been surmised that the original English White Terrier had been a fox terrier crossed with a white Italian greyhound" (i.e. a toy breed).

He noted that the English White Terrier of his day first appeared at London dog shows in 1863–1864, and that the dogs were presented in two classes: "one being for dogs and bitches under six or seven pounds weight, as the case may be; the other for dogs and bitches over that standard."


So the the fighting pit bull  was created from a toy breed that first appeared in 1863 and which weighed less than 10 pounds?


Which brings us to the second dog: the English White Terrier that existed prior to the bans on bull and dog fighting in 1822 and 1835, and which was identical to the modern Pit Bull.

This dog was not a true terrier in any way, shape, or form but was an untaxed "butcher's dog" (see text of Kentish Gazette editorial above) which did not hunt deer or hare, and which also did not herd sheep.

During the long controversy surrounding the dog tax proposals of 1758 to 1796, an untaxed farm dog of this type was often called a "terrier" to signify its (non) tax status.

Bull baiting with dogs was banned in the UK in 1822 (the Martins Act) and animal fighting of all kinds was banned in 1835 after over 40 years of political and legislative controversy

With passage of new laws, big spectacle fights with bulls, bears, and lions disappeared.

What persisted was a much-reduced form of animal fighting that could be hidden away in tap house basements and back alleys, i.e., rat pits and dog fighting.  

The physical set up in these locations was interchangeable -- the location that was used as a rat pit for five days a week would be set up as a dog pit on the sixth.  Same pit, but a slightly different game.

The size of these clandestine pits was restricted by the size of the room and the need to squeeze in betting patrons, as well as the desire to keep things low-key enough to avoid the prying eyes of law enforcement.

The 80-pound open-ring bull fighting dogs that had dominated the dog-fight betting world prior to 1822, now made way for the smaller 40-pounds pit fighters more appropriate to these smaller venues.

A Dog Fight by Thomas Rowlandson, 1811

In 1851, Henry Mayhew wrote of the poor
and the invisible in his massive tome, London Labour and the London Poor.

Among those he catalogued in some detail were dog collar sellers, dog thieves, and dog dealers including those who sold the old open-field bull dogs of the previous era and the smaller pit-fighting dogs now being called the "bull terrier":

The way in which the sale of sporting dogs is connected with street-traffic is in this wise: Occasionally a sporting-dog is offered for sale in the streets, and then, of course, the trade is direct. At other times, gentlemen buying or pricing the smaller dogs, ask the cost of a bull-dog, or a bull-terrier or rat-killer, and the street-seller at once offers to supply them, and either conducts them to a dog-dealer's, with whom he may be commercially connected, and where they can purchase those dogs, or he waits upon them at their residences with some 'likely animals.'

A dog-dealer told me that he hardly knew what made many gentlemen so fond of bull-dogs, and they were 'the fonder on 'em the more blackguarder and varmint-looking the creatures was,' although now they were useless for sport, and the great praise of a bull-dog, 'never flew but at head in his life,' was no longer to be given to him, as there were no bulls at whose heads he could now fly.

Another dog-dealer informed me — with what truth as to the judgment concerning horses I do not know, but no doubt with accuracy as to the purchase of the dogs — that Ibrahim Pacha, when in London, thought little of the horses which he saw, but was delighted with the bull-dogs, 'and he weren't so werry unlike one in the face hisself,' was said at the time by some of the fancy. Ibrahim, it seems, bought two of the finest and largest bull-dogs in London, off Bill George, giving no less than 101 pounds for the twain. The bull-dogs now sold by the street-folk, or through their agency in the way I have described, are from 5 pounds to 25 pounds each. The bull-terriers, of the best blood, are about the same price, or perhaps 10 to 15 per cent lower, and rarely attaining the tip-top price.

The bull-terriers, as I have stated, are now the chief fighting-dogs, but the patrons of those combats -- of those small imitations of the savage tastes of the Roman Colosseum, may deplore the decay of the amusement. From the beginning, until well on to the termination of the last century, it was not uncommon to see announcements of 'twenty dogs to fight for a collar,' though such advertisements were far more common at the commencement than towards the close of the century. Until within these twelve years, indeed, dog-matches were not infrequent in London, and the favorite time for the regalement was on Sunday mornings. There were dog-pits in Westminster, and elsewhere, to which the admission was not very easy, for only known persons were allowed to enter. The expense was considerable, the risk of punishment was not a trifle, and it is evident that this Sunday game was not supported by the poor or working classes. Now dog-fights are rare. 'There's not any public dog-fights,' I was told, 'and very seldom any in a pit at a public-house, but there's a good deal of it, I know, at the private houses of the nobs.' I may observe that 'the nobs' is a common designation for the rich among these sporting people.

There are, however, occasionally dog-fights in a sporting-house, and the order of the combat is thus described to me: 'We'll say now that it's a scratch fight; two dogs each have their corner of a pit, and they're set to fight. They'll fight on till they go down together, and then if one leave hold, he's sponged. Then they fight again. If a dog has the worst of it he mustn't be picked up, but if he gets into his corner, then he can stay for as long as may be agreed upon, minute or half-minute time, or more than a minute. If a dog won't go to the scratch out of his corner, he loses the fight. If they fight on, why to settle it, one must be killed — though that very seldom happens, for if a dog's very much punished, he creeps to his corner and don't come out to time, and so the fight's settled. Sometimes it's agreed beforehand, that the master of a dog may give in for him; sometimes that isn't to be allowed; but there's next to nothing of this now, unless it's in private among the nobs.'

As Mayhew notes, by 1850 dog fighting was quickly disappearing but, as Harriet Ritvo notes, the rise of dog shows after 1870 reinvigorated the breeding of putative fighting dogs by those eager to make a quick buck.

There was no shortage of Americans who fit into this mold, and in 1899 the United Kennel Club was created by Chauncey Z. Bennett to be the first registry of what was now being calling the "American Pit Bull Terrier".

"Fighting Dogs Getting Wind" by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1818

And so we come back to it: Is there any evidence at all that there is any working terrier at all in an American Pit Bull?

Zero to none.

The fighting bull dogs we see in 1700 and 1800 are interchangeable with the Pit Bulls we see today, whether they are fighting bulls or fighting other dogs. 

Those earlier bull dogs and fighting dogs appear to be very much like dogs doing similar work back when Caesar walked the streets of Rome.

Meanwhile, the working terriers we see in the field today are very much like the working terriers we see in 1790.

Put a Pit Bull down a natural dug-fox sette?  I'd like to see that!

And what Miracle Magic is the true working terrier supposed to bring to the world of pit fighting dogs?

I assure you there is none.

The Pit Bull man has a lot of fantasy about working terriers, but no one who has dropped a thousand holes with steel shovel and iron bar shares that fantasy.

Those who dig know that bullshit and bull dogs never get more than 6 inches past the front of the hole. 

As in all things, Caveat Emptor, and keep your shovel sharp.


Lynette N said...

I learn a lot from your blog. This post reminds me of George the Jack Russell terrier that saved some kids from pit bulls. And I am pretty sure I read in The Complete Book of Greyhounds that racing greyhounds are descendants from bulldog/greyhound crosses. Sorry if I'm wrong, it's been a while since I read it.

PBurns said...

Racing greyhounds are not cross-bred. The dogs used to catch foxes and coyotes on the run are sometimes greyhound - Bullx crossesm through they may also be deerhound or Saluki or other running dog pure breeds or crosses.