The American Pit Bull Terrier is a wonderful dog, well-known for its intelligence, strength, and loyalty. In recent years, the breed has been unfairly villanized as overly aggressive and dangerous. While the pit bull does indeed possess a feisty and spirited character, the history of the breed reveals a much more complex tapestry of temperament and personality.
Like many modern breeds, it is impossible to be completely sure of the details of the American Pit Bull Terrier’s long history. However, many pit bull enthusiasts believe the origins of the breed can be traced back to antiquity and the Molossian family of dogs. The Molossian family of dogs bears the name of the people with whom they were most often associated – the Molossi tribe, a group of people who lived in ancient Greece and favored the use of robust, muscular dogs in warfare. Officially termed canus molossi (dogs of the Molossi), these animals were reknowned for their fierceness, and for their innate ability to intimidate the enemies of the tribe.
During this same time period, it is also believed that the Molossian dogs were used for other purposes. In fact, early Phoenician traders may even have used the Molossians as a bargaining item in their commercial transactions.
The Molossians gave rise to another family of dogs known as the Mastiffs. The early Britons employed a variation of the Mastiffs as pugnaces – fighting dogs that could be used in either a guardianship or warfare capacity. When the Roman emperor Claudius defeated the Briton Chief Caractacus in 50 AD, the powerful pugnaces piqued his interest. He quickly seized on the opportunity and began exporting select quantities of the dogs back home to satiate his countrymen’s appetite for entertainment in the arenas and coliseums of Rome.
Once in Rome, the British dogs were crossbred with their Roman counterparts. From the years 50 AD to 410 AD, the breed was widely disseminated throughout the Roman Empire for use as fighting dogs. Along the way they mixed with other indigenous breeds throughout Europe, creating a genetic melting pot for the bulldogs that are thought to have been the immediate antecedents of the American Pit Bull Terrier.
Sadly, the Romans would not be the last to use pit bulls in cruel and grisly blood sports. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they introduced a new sport called baiting. Interestingly enough, baiting originated with butchers who kept dogs (called Bullenbeissers) to handle unruly bulls as they were herded to the market for slaughter. When a bull stepped out of line or exhibited uncontrollable behavior, the dogs would clamp down on its nose and simply hang on until the handler could regain control of the wayward animal.