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Spurious Relations?
Here, Archie Bryden asks just how close dogs are to their ‘cousins’

When I was in Canada on a judging engagement in September 2004, just before the problems in Ontario erupted, I was horrified to read in a respected newspaper an article about problems of attacks by ‘pit bulls’. In it was quoted the ‘Winnipeg definition’ of the ‘pit bull’. This was adopted when that city banned the ‘pit bull’ about a dozen years ago and stated there were three variants of the ‘pit bull’ – the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT), the American Staffordshire Terrier (Amstaff) and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier (SBT).

I had not come across this before, nor had many others I suppose, so it appears to have been unchallenged for many years and thus a convenient rule of thumb for any, such as the Attorney General of the Liberal Provincial Government of Ontario, wishing to introduce Breed Specific Legislation directed at the ‘pit bull’. To the layman the very definition suggests a close relationship between the dogs named - some might glibly say they were cousins - but the problem is in the definition of ‘cousin’! In the eyes of the layman, and the politician, ‘cousin’ suggests a common set of grandparents, or something equally close, as occurs in all our families, but in dogdom ‘cousin’ is used much more loosely, often denoting a connection in the dim and distant past. No one would claim that those of us sharing a common ancestor five or six generations back were closely related, yet breeds with even more remote relationships are still referred to as cousins! The question is ‘Are the APBT, the Amstaff and the SBT closely related?

As many know, the general belief is that the basis for the SBT is the crossing of the bulldog of the late 18th century with terriers, notably the old English Terrier, to produce a smaller faster dog which would be better for fighting and ratting contests. The heavier bulldog of the time had been used for bull and bear baiting but these pastimes had fallen into decline and it was considered a smaller more agile dog, usually referred to as the bull and terrier, would give better ‘sport’.

However we must be aware that terms, like ‘bulldog’, ‘terrier’ etc. used in these times, did not indicate specific breeds as they do today. They were generic groupings of those dogs that were used for baiting bulls or bears, or for going to ground and so forth. Of course those in a particular group may have shared similar characteristics without having any close genetic relationship.

Did the bulldogs or terriers used to produce the bull and terriers in, let’s say, Birmingham have any connection with those in London, Manchester, Newcastle, Scotland, Ireland or wherever? I doubt it and, if there were any, I reckon this would be largely by accident rather than design.

Of course there were probably local strains that would have borne some inter-relationship but pedigree breeding on a par with today was most unlikely. Some may dispute such theories which have been handed down to us from the fanciers of earlier times and it is unlikely we will ever know what genetic hotchpotch existed in the dogs from which the breeds of today evolved.

Visual appearance

Nevertheless there is enough evidence in early photographs and models of the late 19th century to show that SBT-like dogs existed at that time in various far–flung areas of the country, suggesting they were far from uncommon. It is interesting to note that Joe Dunn, the first secretary of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club, in his early book on the SBT, stated that the name ‘the Stafford’ (or sometimes Staffordshire) was is common use, maybe for many years, prior to the SBT gaining Kennel Club recognition, even although the name was not first choice for the breed at the time. He was of course writing in the Black Country where the SBT’s forefathers were extremely common.

So come 1935 when the SBT was recognised and came into official existence, dogs were KC-registered as SBT’s following expert opinion on whether they were close enough to the Standard that had been drawn up. Everything depended on the visual appearance, pedigree was irrelevant and parentage was usually by pet-name only. (For information the current Standard contains a height clause of 14-16 inches and a weight clause of 28-38lbs for dogs and 24-34lbs for bitches.)

We must also remember that some degree of crossing with other breeds occurred, deliberately or accidentally, with the evolutionary Staffords while apparently maintaining the type that had developed. For example, we know the Stafford was used in the development of the Coloured (English) Bull Terrier, pre-1935 to my knowledge. But what happened to the puppies that were not up to scratch? I have it on good authority they simply went back into the Stafford ‘pool’ so the SBT may have a closer connection with the Bull Terrier than is generally realised.

However any cross-breeding that did occur must have been between British dogs for many years prior to 1935 as the British quarantine laws introduced in the early 20th Century would have rendered the importation of foreign stock extremely difficult to say the least. And there is one final, if not the most important, point we must never forget about the developing Stafford and that is its love of humans. It did not matter whether the breed’s forefathers were used for ‘sporting’ activities or not, they had to live safely with their families, which were frequently large in those days, often in conditions which were grossly overcrowded by today’s standards.

Thus 1935 saw the start of a well-documented developmental process resulting in the SBT of today, which is now regarded as the finest all round family dog. During those seventy years of pedigree breeding, genetic purification and selection has inevitably taken place too. Initially there were several male lines present in pre-War stock but all but one which now pre-dominates, and possibly another, have disappeared thus suggesting some genes at least from the large pool of the early days have been lost.

So what of the American dogs? During the mass emigration from these shores in the late 18th and early decades of the 19th Centuries, dogs often went with their owners and these, of course, included bull and terriers. It has been claimed that many came from Ireland and not England but as the Irish dogs were considered, by some at least, to come from English stock this would seem to be rather irrelevant Even in the later 19th Century there are reports of dogs, notably one or two from the fighting scene, despite this being totally illegal, going across the Atlantic from these shores. The important point is not where these imported dogs came from, but what happened to them afterwards. Some would undoubtedly have been used for ‘sport’ in the developing conurbations of the Eastern States, but more than being a family pet was required of them.

The first thing was guarding ability as protection was paramount in the brave emerging New World even in the cities where law and order were not what one would hope. As settlers, frontiersmen and prospectors spread West, the need for good guards increased and in addition their dogs were needed to fulfil other tasks such as herding, hunting, catching wayward or escaped cattle or pigs, and even, I regret to say, escaped slaves. To produce such multi-purpose dogs there is general agreement that crossing with other types, possibly those developed in the USA from earlier imports, or even those of the indigenous American Indians, took place. Already one can see a divergence from those that remained in Britain and were the basis for the SBT, which is not the best of guards and has been found to be unsuitable for ‘man-work’.

The type of dog that had emerged was known by a variety of names including American bulldog, or simply bulldog (not to be confused with the Bulldog in Britain), pit bulldog, Yankee terrier, etc. However with the formation of the United Kennel Club in 1892, the name American Pit Bull Terrier came to the fore and the first dog actually registered with the UKC was the founder’s APBT. A Standard was drawn up and interestingly there no height clause is included but simply one stating the weight should be 35-60 pounds for dogs and 35-50 pounds for bitches, although overweight animals should not be penalised unless disproportionate. This is extremely wide and all embracing.

The UKC has a pedigree register on the lines we are used to here in Britain and I am informed it functions well. While it does hold conformation shows, like the ones we are used to, it appears to put more emphasis on dogs, of all its recognised breeds, performing the functions for which they were bred, than we do here.


In 1909 the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA) was formed, catering solely, despite its all-embracing name, for the APBT and its owners. It, too, established a register but it was not until 1976 that it drew up a Standard for conformation shows, following many requests from its members. Interestingly, the ADBA Standard has no weight or height clauses! A further point of interest was that the ADBA also determined that its Standard had to be different from those of the UKC and American Kennel Club (AKC- see below re-Amstaff).

The big question is ‘Is the pit bull a pure bred dog?’ According to the regulations of the UKC and ADBA, all APBT’s registered with them should have verifiable pedigrees and registered sires and dams. Consequently, on that basis the APBT can be regarded justifiably as being a pure breed.

However many, not just in countries where the APBT is not recognised but even in North America, regard the pit bull as being a cross-breed or mongrel. Actually there are probably two sections of pit bull owners – those that work responsibly within the UKC and ADBA systems and have pedigree APBT’s, and those that do not. In fact many in the USA simply refer to the latter unregistered dogs as ‘mutts’ and not ‘pit bulls’, but elsewhere ‘pit bull’ is used quite extensively for all smooth-coated dogs of a similar build.

It would appear that recent problems in Canada are supposedly connected to ‘pit bull’ ownership by inner-city ‘yobs’ and criminal elements - their use by drug traffickers for protection would be a good example. This is not dissimilar to the situation in the UK where the importation (see below) of the ‘pit bull’ has caused many problems for law-abiding dog owners. On both sides of the Atlantic there have been many reports of crossing with other breeds to enhance certain characteristics, and while such reports are largely anecdotal (it is unrealistic to expect appropriate documentation, isn’t it?), there are sufficient to say that such breeding is rather common.

A greater insight into the APBT may be had by referring to ‘The Book of The American Pit Bull Terrier’ by Richard F. Stratton written about 1980. The author concerns himself greatly about the ‘gladiatorial’ aspects of the breed but does make some interesting and relevant points. He states that ‘man-fighters’, i.e. ones that will attack humans, are no use as clearly any dog, being tested in the ‘pit’, which cannot be handled safely by the seconds is a danger to all and sundry.

He also indicates that in his opinion the APBT is another that should be good with children. However he refers to APBT’s doing rather well in ‘Schutzhund’ (man protection) tests, so popular with certain sections of German Shepherd Dog owners, demonstrating their ability to be trained for defence purposes and their versatility. Although he speaks highly of the ADBA and its standard, he does not seem concerned about pedigrees to the extent that show people are.

Rather he tends to talk about various strains such ‘Old Family Red Nose’, or ones coming from individual breeders whose names ‘prefix’ them. Similarly dogs are often referred to by owner’s name and the dog’s pet name, like Smith’s Sam or Brown’s Black Billy, unlike the grander names of the show ring.

It should also be noted that the ‘pit bull’ was held in the highest esteem in the USA during the first half of the 20th Century, in fact it could virtually be regarded as the National dog. One (actually several with appropriate make-up) was a star of an early film, featuring a group of children, called ‘Little Rascals’. So rightly or wrongly its fall from grace during the latter part of the last century has been spectacular!

Erroneous connection

Understandably many will wonder about the origins of the ‘pit bulls’ in the British Isles. Their chief protagonist initially purchased a couple of SBT’s via newspaper advertisements but considering that they, in his opinion, were not the real ‘pre–War’ type, he then went and imported several ‘pit bulls’ from the USA. Clearly he was wanting taller rangier dogs and subscribed to the belief that all SBT’s in the late 1930’s were so constructed; this is incorrect as many were also much smaller than those we are used to seeing today. The ‘pit bulls’ he acquired were from proven fighting strains and it is unknown, and indeed dubious, if they were registered with either the UKC or ADBA. All this was explained in a book he published embracing both SBT’s and APBT’s.

For the benefit of those not familiar with such publications (and there are others!) covering both SBT’s and ‘pit bulls’, one immediately has the feeling that an attempt at clouding the situation is being made by inferring an erroneously close connection between them. Why this should be necessary is debatable, unless it is to enhance the perceived poor image of the ‘pit bull’. But why would this be required if the motives of those involved were totally legal and above board? Such publications denigrate the SBT (and even the APBT) as a consequence! (Readers should also note that adverts for ‘Irish’ or ‘Old Time’ or ‘Pompey’ appear in advertisements – there are no such ‘breeds’ and such terms almost invariably involve ‘pit bulls’ or crosses, sometimes with other breeds reputed to have aggressive tendencies.)

So where does the Amstaff fit into the scheme of things? In the 1930’s the AKC, founded in 1884 before both the UKC and ADBA, recognised the pit bull but not under that name. As ever there was much discussion and, although it was not the first name of choice, they eventually accepted it as the Staffordshire Terrier in 1936. This was because they considered it was the American version of the SBT, recognised by the KC in London the year before. (Some 30-40 years later it was renamed the American Staffordshire Terrier, hence the abbreviated ‘Amstaff’!) The use of ‘Staffordshire’ in the names of both breeds is unfortunate and misleading as any relationship is remote, even by the time they were recognised in the 1930’s.

The AKC Standard for the Amstaff gives height clauses of 18/19 inches for dogs and 17/18 inches for bitches but not one for weights. It cannot be denied that the Amstaff was developed from the APBT and dogs on occasion have been dual-registered as Amstaff with the AKC, and APBT with the UKC or ADBA.

However since 1936, the Amstaff has clearly developed along its own lines over the last seventy years and has possibly under gone similar genetic purification and selection as occurred with the SBT in Britain.

So, as asked at the beginning, are the APBT, the Amstaff and SBT closely related? Perhaps the best answer comes from Stratton, an authority on the APBT. In his book, referred to previously, he states in the preface ‘Actually, the only breed our dogs (i.e. the APBT) are at all close to is the

American Staffordshire Terrier, as they were the same breed nearly fifty (now seventy) years ago. Some people claim they are still the same breed, but those people are distinctly in the minority’. He clearly considers the Amstaff is not a pit bull and, as the SBT does not deserve a mention in his statement, he clearly considers the SBT is even less of a pit bull, lacking totally any connection!

Looking at it another way, the SBT has been a pure bred dog, within the UK and any country to which it has been exported, for seventy years which is about 25-30 generations! The same may be said for the Amstaff under the auspices of the AKC! To go back to the original bull and terrier crosses, believed to be behind all the breeds in question, is 150 years or more or about sixty generations. I think using generations is a useful way of putting things into perspective.

Imagine how much further back one has to go in human terms for 25-30 generations! This takes us back to mediaeval times a couple of centuries before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, to the time of King Robert the Bruce, to the Black Death, and almost to the time of the Vikings! Going back sixty generations will virtually take you to the Romans! How much more remote can you get? Such comparisons emphasise how far removed the SBT is from both the APBT and the Amstaff!

Whoever drew up the ‘Winnipeg definition’ has simply grouped the dogs named in much the same way as lumping together all the spaniels, or sheepdogs, or retrievers, or terriers of Scotland, or terriers of Ireland, etc. In fact it is probable that closer relationships may be found within any of those groups than the supposed ones between the SBT and Amstaff and APBT. The person (or persons) behind the ‘Winnipeg definition’ was either grossly misinformed or had committed the cardinal sin of not seeking and verifying the relevant facts. Any claim of a close canine relationship is simply spurious!

With kind thanks to The Stafford for permission to reproduce this article.