On the Pit Bull as “Nanny Dog”


Recently, a link to a 2010 blog post claiming to debunk the myth of the “nanny dog” has been recirculating through the web. According to “The TRUTH About Pit Bulls” (by “CKing”)the “nanny dog” myth lulls dog owners into a false sense of security, exposing their children to dangerous pit bulls. Comments to the post quickly devolved into heated debate, with ample name-calling on both sides.

Though I find declarations on a whole breed to be highly specious, my purpose presently is not to defend pit bulls, so I’m going to step around the sticky question of which nineteenth-century breed(s) might or might not be considered to be the genetic counterparts to today’s pit bull. I’m more interested in CKing’s primary argument: the history of the idea of the pit bull as “nanny dog.” According to CKing, the epitaph was a 1970s fabrication by one avid “pit nutter,” with no foundation in fact.  

But CKing’s blog post focuses more on the actual phrase “nanny dog” than on clarifying how the pit bull was regarded in the nineteenth century. Citing two nineteenth-century texts, he correctly establishes that the pit bull was considered to be an excellent fighter. There is no doubt that the bull terrier, like the bull dog, were purposefully bred for fighting for the amusement of men. The author finds it immediately “inexplicabl[e]” that a dog breed renowned for its fighting abilities would also be considered “the supposed dog of choice” to babysit children. Yet this does not seem to be paradoxical on its face: a courageous fighter would logically serve as an excellent guard.

In fact, CKing misrepresents at least the first of his two citations. When he refers to J.G. Wood’s “account of a Bull Terrier’s attack on a rhinoceros by a dog” called Venus, CKing makes it sound as if a random dog on a random day found a random rhinoceros to maul. But if we would just read a bit above and below the cherry-picked quote, we would see that Wood’s account is clearly meant to showcase the bull terrier’s courage and sagacity.

“[The rhino] had still strength enough to make a dash at them; and would probably have laid hold of some of them, had not a small bitch (half Terrier and half bull-dog, called Venus, in derision of her ugliness) caught the enraged animal by the lower lip, where she stuck with such tenacity that the rhinoceros, with all his fury, was unable to shake her off. She only relinquished her hold when her huge antagonist was fairly laid prostate by a ball” (Wood 311). 

So a band of white imperialists touring southwestern Africa faced off with a rhinoceros. It’s not clear who started the fight—the dog or the rhino—but Wood obviously approves of how the fight ended: the dog had saved the men, giving them the opportunity to shoot their common enemy. Instead of providing a fair summary of the account, however, CKing hones in only on the parenthetical reference to Miss Venus’ ugliness—an ugliness that I would argue served as a badge of honor for the dogs preferred by sporting men. The pit bull, Wood praises, “dashes with brilliant audacity at any foe which his master may indicate to him, or which he thinks he ought to attack without orders” (311).

My brief exploration suggests that, if anything, the nineteenth century’s views on pit bulls were, like today, fairly mixed. An 1889 piece in The Cultivator & Country Gentleman records that, at that time, the ‘true’ nature of the bull terrier was in question because of its fighting capabilities (Beale 604). On one hand, we have William Youatt, an English authority on the dog, testifying before the House of Commons in 1836 that the bull terrier “will bite every thing”:


On the other hand, we have an American authority, George O. Shields, explicitly describing the bull terrier as “kind and affectionate to children” and the best choice of house dog.


And a March 1891 issue of Babyhood Magazine (“Dogs for Babies’ Playmates,” p.121), an American publication, also recommends the bull terrier for children:

Contrary to CKing’s assessment, nineteenth-century views on the bull terrier far from settled, and on the whole, rather more positive as they had more use for fighting dogs.

Today, the controversy is only more heated, what with breed-specific legislation cropping up all over the country with more approbation than gun control legislation.