The Staffordshire Bull Terrier
The Misunderstood Clown
The Staffordshire Bull Terrier is by nature a fun loving clown, never happier than when tumbling around the floor with young children and using only so much of his incredible strength as will sustain the game for the longest possible time without ever risking injury to his beloved humans.
Unfortunately the breed does not always extend this love to all gods creatures an it is this latter dislike for other animals that almost inevitable results in the Stafford being misunderstood and abused.
The Staffords’ ancestors developed from selective breeding and some crosses between Bulldogs and various Terriers around the end of the 18 th century. Bull baiting and dog fighting became illegal in 1835 when the Humane Act was passed in Parliament. Despite the change in the law, it did not prove easy to suppress dog fighting which in the absence of baiting, actually grew in popularity.
The fancy looked for a more athletic dog with the endurance and power of the Bulldog combined with the tenacity and speed of Terriers. The Bull and Terrier developed in various parts of the country but whether in the new industrial areas or rural backwaters, the character formed around two essential needs.
Living mainly in labourers cottages and small terraced housing, the dogs had to be capable of living throughout the week with the family, most especially the children yet also had to be able to earn its keep in the pit when called on. A dog which showed unprovoked aggression towards the family would soon find itself at the bottom of the river with a brick around the neck. The original purpose of the dog meanwhile, ensured that only the best pit dogs were used at stud to produce better fighters.
The Bull and Terrier was becoming the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde character, perfectly trustworthy with humans but anything but reliable when other animals approached. Various other dog “sports” were popular including rat competitions where a known number of rats were let loose in a pit ant the crowd bet on the time for killing them all. Again, the ultimate champion was a Bull and Terrier “Billy”, who achieved the amazing feat of killing 100 rats in just five and half minute. As the country sports were suppressed and faded into insignificance the various types of Bull and Terrier began to evolve into the modern family pet. Some breeders began to look towards the show scene and consideration was given to registering the breed at the Kennel Club. A close cousin had already been registered as the Bull Terrier and so the initial application was in the name of “the Original Bull Terrier”. When this was turned down, the alternative “Staffordshire Bull Terrier” was accepted and the Stafford began its advance into the hearts of the wider population.
At least some of the dogs involved in the early days of showing were probably still being used in illegal pits. One story of an early Stafford perhaps demonstrates the controlled aggression typical of the breed even today. It is said that a well known fighting and show dog accompanied his black country master to the pit where he successfully defeated his opponent. Master and dog began the journey home, but whilst the owner turned into the public house for his lunchtime sustenance, the dog proceeded home on his own, quietly passing other people and animals alike, totally aloof, and sat patiently waiting on the door step until his master’s return.
The Stafford has been in the show ring for over 60 years. The original Breed remained in effect from 1935 until 1950 when alterations, most noticeably to the height clause, reduced the ideal specimen from 15/18 inches to 14/16. Strangely the weight clause was not changed at this time which has led to a generally broader, squatter dog than had been typical in the earlier years.
Since balance is considered such a vital ingredient of the correct “type”, this is perhaps surprising. What is not surprising is that virtually any discussion the Standard amongst Stafford people seems to turn on the height and weight clause.
In 1987 the Kennel Club called for changes to the Breed Standard’s form of words but indicated that they did not wish to actually alter the definition itself . Various breed clubs attempted to discuss the matter in open forums but inevitably, the usual debate developed about the height and weight and the resulting correspondence to the KC did not address the issue of wording. The KC therefore proceeded to make the alterations itself an slthough an improvement in some respects, unfortunately some terms as “rather light in loins” were left out. Many owners are concerned that this omission will further alter the breed and not necessarily for the better.
For many years the Stafford rarely featured in the reckoning for best Terrier. The majority of Terrier breeds have curly of wire coats and certainly move very differently from the Stafford. The original standard did not mention movement at all although descriptions in various books on the breed tended to liken the preferred Stafford movement to “the gait of a drunken sailor”. Hardly surprising that many all round Terrier judges cannot understand the requirement and still chose to ignore the Stafford despite its frequent superior numbers and quality.
The modern Stafford is not a fighting dog, in fact in many respects it is the ideal family pet. The Stafford combines a joy for life with a renowned laziness. Unlike many working dogs and hounds, the Stafford is happier with a brief period of intensive exercise than the continuous slog of repeated long walks. The breed is not particularly prone to disease, eats well, but not to excess and is always willing to offer companionship.
Misunderstood? Just listen to those unfamiliar with Staffords when they really open their entire face and grin in total contentment with their place alongside their favourite humans. I well remember the photographs of open mouthed Stafford used by the tabloid press during the early 90’s. Comments about the jaw pressure and size of teeth were completely wasted on Stafford owners who easily recognised the typical Stafford grin.
In his early book on Staffords, John Gordon, referring to the breed standard as it deals with eyes advises people not to “stare too intently as the real sort do not like it!” I regret I have to disagree. In my view, one of the most classic means of identifying a true Stafford is to look straight into his eyes. He just cannot resist, he just has to break into a huge grin and try every means of getting close enough to lick you to pieces.
So what about this clown? Anyone taking the time to get to know a Stafford will soon come to realise just what a real gem he is. Every Stafford is an individual and the twinkle in the eye is a clue to the true character. Living with Staffords is an experience not to be missed. Every day brings a new trick, a new silly walk, a roll on the floor, sleeping with head lolling at a strange angle or just a delightful cuddle when least expected.
Soppy? you ain’t kidding. Away from “threat” the Stafford only has eyes for its own family and is just full of fun. My clown prince at home at the moment is “Magic”. Even as a puppy he was full of fun and despite having agreed to send him to a new home, I was forced to telephone and tell them I had changed my mind and he was going nowhere. His favourite trick as a puppy was to climb to the top of the fibre glass whelping pen standing against the wall at an angle of about 45 degrees and slide down. Now you would expect a dog to slide down on all fours; not “Magic. At 3 months old he carefully climbed up the surface, turned around, sat down, looked to make sure his audience was watching before sliding gracefully back on earth.
Not quite the image of the dreadful fighting dog the papers might have you believe.
The Stafford quite possibly is the ideal family pet but not everybody is worthy of owning a Stafford. The ancestry will occasionally come to the surface and any Stafford, believing its owner or itself to be under threat will “retaliate first”. The problem is that different Staffords have a greater or lesser idea about just what constitutes a “threat”.
My own bitch “Ruby” earned something of a reputation for not tolerating any other bitch in the same ring yet has the same mother as “Toby” who was once nipped on the shoulder by a Boxer, off its lead in the park and, saving the look of total disdain in the interloper’s direction, merely walked on without breaking stride. Responsible owners will take every precaution to avoid situations where their Stafford might perceive a threat where none exists. Unfortunately, not all Stafford owners are that carefull.
Over the past few years Staffords have become a fashion accessory of some youngsters. Parading around with studded harness of length of rope, the Stafford is seen to epitomise the modern image of “street cred”. Many of these dogs will eventually end up “on rescue” when the whim has passed or the holiday season comes around. Although clearly intimidating in the wrong hands, its traditional love for all people probably makes the genuine Stafford actually safer with the general public than virtually any other breed.
The recent popularity has also encouraged both careless breeding and fraud. As mentioned earlier, the original Bull and Terriers were the result of selective breeding to meet the needs of a tough fighting dog able to live in harmony with the family group. Dogs which failed to come up to either desired trait did not feature in the breeding program. The modern back street breeder has no need to let such concerns guide him. Breeding any dog to any bitch will produce puppies worth GBP 250 to GBP 400 to the unsuspecting public and by the time the dog begins to show any clear departure from true shape or temperament, the new owners are hooked and will do almost anything not to lose their precious family pet.
Over the years, the same names come up again and again over breeding or selling “Staffords” which eventually turn out to have a variety of non-Stafford characteristics. One accepts that genetics will occasionally produce a 20’throwback but with a few “breeders” these incidents occur just too often to be mere fluke. The warning is clear, anyone wishing to buy a Stafford really must take the trouble to contact a breeder with a reputation to protect. If in doubt, contact the Kennel Club and obtain the address of the nearest breed club. Go along to a show and meet some breeders. See who you get long with and which dogs and bitches take your fancy. Do not be in too much of a hurry. Hopefully your Stafford will live with you for around 14 years and it is worth waiting a few months for the right dog.
When I speak to people looking for Staffords I always give them the same advice. “Buy a dog from some one who does not want you to have it”. By this I mean that the breeder who just wants your money and is happy to see you arrive, pay and leave with a puppy is the wrong sort. The breeder who insists on you bringing your whole family, perhaps visiting your home before allowing you to chose a puppy and who really gives you a hard time is the one who cares sufficiently for the puppies they have bred to warrant your trust.
Approaching the 21 st century, the Stafford is the 10 th most popular breed in terms of Kennel Club registrations and is probably significantly more popularif unregistered stock is taken into account
That very popularity however, represents a major worry for those who really care for the breed. Popularity brings the greedy, the uncaring and the foolish. Surely if ever a breed personified the PRO DOGS motto: “Dogs deserve better people”, it is the misunderstood clown, The Staffordshire Bull Terrier.