What is a Pit Bull? an observational study

As we start October, National Pit Bull Awareness Month, the Electric City Pittie Committee amps up for a busy month. So lets talk about this thing we have identified as a “pittie”. What is a pit bull?

This is often a touchy subject for people who both want their dogs to be called a “pit bull” and those who certainly do NOT want their dogs to be called a “pit bull”.  Webster’s dictionary defines a “pit bull” as:

1or pit bull terrier :a muscular, short-haired, stocky dog (such as an American pit bull terrier or American Staffordshire terrier) of any of several breeds or a hybrid with one or more of these breeds that was originally developed for fighting and is noted for strength, stamina, and tenacity
2:an aggressive and tenacious person

First off, I think Websters got a few things wrong, but this is the “accepted definition” of a “pit bull”. Gee, thanks Webster’s that was clear as mud. A muscular dog with short hair of any number of breeds or combination of breeds. huh. Let’s try a few other resources. Wikipedia, maybe? (I know, I know… I’m not a huge Wiki fan, but they have just about the most comprehensive definition. Click here for the whole link, its actually worth the read.)

Pit bull is the common name for a type of dog. Formal breeds often considered in North America to be of the pit bull type include the American Pit Bull TerrierAmerican Staffordshire TerrierAmerican Bully, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.[1] The American Bulldog is also sometimes included. Many of these breeds were originally developed as fighting dogs from cross breeding bull-baiting dogs (used to hold the faces and heads of larger animals such as bulls) and terriers.[2] After the use of dogs in blood sports was banned, such dogs were used as catch dogs in the United States for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt and drive livestock, and as family companions.[3] Despite dog fightingnow being illegal in the United States, it still exists as an underground activity, and pit bulls are a common breed of choice.[4][5][6]

The term pit bull is often used loosely to describe dogs with similar physical characteristics, and the morphological (physical) variation amongst “bully breed” dogs makes it difficult for anyone, even experts, to visually identify them as distinct from “non-pit bulls”.[7][8][9] While mixed breed dogs are often labeled as “pit bulls” if they have certain physical characteristics such as a square shaped head or bulky body type,[10] visual identification of mixed breed dogs is not recommended by the scholarly community.[7]


Ok, so that is a little muddy still, but slightly less clear than the Mississippi. Sigh, still not sure what a “pit bull” is? Don’t worry… most people don’t know either. But, most people are sure they know and can identify a “pit bull” on sight. Let’s try a legal definition or 2. Places with BSL have to have a clear-cut definition of what a “pit bull” is if they are going to make them illegal, right? Let’s start with Denver. Denver.gov’s website has a “friendly” breakdown of how to tell if your dog is a banned breed. You can click here for the whole read-through.

Under Denver’s Ordinance Sec. 8-55, pit bull breeds (American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or Staffordshire Bull Terrier) are banned in the City and County of Denver.
Pit bull type dogs are defined as any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing (physical) characteristics, which substantially conform to the standards established by American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club.

If your dog is impounded by Denver Animal Protection as an illegal pit bull, American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire terrier or Staffordshire bull terrier, it will be brought to the Denver Animal Shelter for an official breed evaluation.

So, wait… let me get this straight, Denver identifies a “pit bull” as APBT, Am Staff and Staffie, got it. But, it could be any combination of breeds that includes those breeds, OR shares the same physical characteristics as those breeds, then it is considered a “pit bull”? And who decides? How do they decide? If you read the website it tells you that 3 Animal Protection Officers will visually identify the breed(s) within your dog. No DNA, no behavioral analysis, just 3 folks looking at the dog with a checklist of characteristics comparing it to a picture of an APBT, an Am Staff and a Staffie. So… we still don’t know what a “pit bull” is. Maybe Miami has a better definition. Lets see. Here is the Miami-Dade Pit Bull Law.

It is illegal in Miami-Dade County to own or keep American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, or any other dog that substantially conforms to any of these breeds’ characteristics. For more information, view the Miami-Dade County ordinance, Chapter 5, Sec. 5-17.

There is a $500 fine for acquiring or keeping a pit bull dog and court action to force the removal of the animal from Miami-Dade County.

They include this handy little reference guide for the breed standards of each of the above listed breeds. UKC standards referenced from 1978. And if your dog conforms by visual identification to 51% or more of the UKC breed standard, then your dog is a “pit bull”.

Ok, so what do these breeds look like? I’m kind of a visual person, so I like to have a visual reference for things. Lets focus on the 3 breeds that everyone has mentioned so far. American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

American Pit Bull Terrier

American Pit Bull Terrier

UKC Breed Standard:

General Appearance

The American Pit Bull Terrier is a medium-sized, solidly built, short-coated dog with smooth, well-defined musculature. This breed is both powerful and athletic. The body is just slightly longer than tall, but bitches may be somewhat longer in body than dogs. The length of the front leg (measured from point of elbow to the ground) is approximately equal to one-half of the dog’s height at the withers.

The head is of medium length, with a broad, flat skull, and a wide, deep muzzle. Ears are small to medium in size, high set, and may be natural or cropped.

The relatively short tail is set low, thick at the base and tapers to a point.

The American Pit Bull Terrier comes in all colors and color patterns except merle. This breed combines strength and athleticism with grace and agility and should never appear bulky or muscle-bound or fine-boned and rangy.


American Staffordshire Terrier

American Staffordshire Terrier

AKC Breed Standard:

General Impression: The American Staffordshire Terrier should give the impression of greatstrength for his size, a well put-together dog, muscular, but agile and graceful, keenly alive to hissurroundings. He should be stocky, not long-legged or racy in outline. His courage is proverbial.Head: Medium length, deep through, broad skull, very pronounced cheek muscles, distinct stop;and ears are set high. Ears – Cropped or uncropped, the latter preferred. Uncropped ears shouldbe short and held rose or half prick. Full drop to be penalized. Eyes – Dark and round, low downin skull and set far apart. No pink eyelids. Muzzle- Medium length, rounded on upper side to fallaway abruptly below eyes. Jaws well defined. Underjaw to be strong and have biting power. Lipsclose and even, no looseness. Upper teeth to meet tightly outside lower teeth in front. Nose definitely black

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

AKC Breed Standard

At 14 to 16 inches at the shoulder Staffordshire Bull Terriers don’t stand particularly tall. But we classify them as medium-sized because, weighing anywhere between 24 to 38 pounds, Staffordshire Bull Terriers pour a gallon of dog into a quart-size container. These are rock-solid, muscular dogs renowned for their strength and agile movement. The head is short and broad, with pronounced cheek muscles, and the tight-fitting coat can be one of several colors along with white. Staffordshire Bull Terriers are smaller than their Colonial cousin, the American Staffordshire Terrier.


So, we are looking at a medium sized dog, 25-65lb(ish) with a square head and jaw, short hair coat, muscular build, long tail that tapers to a point, big cheeks and no underbite… well, heck; that could be a number of breed combinations. I wonder what would happen if you crossed a Frenchie with a Boxer. Ooh, what about a Bull Terrier with a Lab?! What about an American Bulldog and… just about anything? Well, chances are good you will end up with a dog that carries a number of the same characteristics of the dogs above with absolutely no “pit bull” in them at all.

Is your head spinning yet? It kind of should be. There is no breed called a Pit Bull. There is no standard definition for the catch all term “pit bull”. There is a rather large size variety in the accepted breeds included in the “pit bull” term.

This is the reason that I get a little touchy when people look at a dog and say things like, “Oh, is he pure Pit?” the first thing I want to ask them is, what is YOUR definition of “pit”? Cause Lord knows the world can’t seem to agree on what that is.

Next time, we’ll focus on “Bully Breeds” and how they differ from “Pit Bulls”. uff-da.