It was a quiet afternoon when a dog came running down the street toward 10-year-old Krystal Jenssen and her friend, Samantha. The girls sat playing in front of Krystal’s home in Plato Center, Ill., while Krystal’s mother, Deborah, and her 2-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier, Amazing Grace, were on the porch. Suddenly, the unknown dog attacked Samantha.
“Gracie flew off the porch, grabbed the dog by the neck, and pinned it to the ground. She didn’t fight it; she just held it down until my husband could get there,” Deborah Jenssen says. Samantha nearly lost an eye in the attack. “Samantha wasn’t even a member of our family, but Gracie knew it was a human in trouble.”
The American Staffordshire Terrier is a much-maligned and misunderstood breed. The wide-headed dogs have even wider hearts for people, particularly children. AmStaffs can make great family dogs; they are versatile, muscular, courageous, and low maintenance.
Many people lump several breeds and mixes into the category “Pit Bull”-a generic name with a media-spun reputation for aggression and violence. Indeed, the term comes from the pit in which such muscular dogs fight for sport-a result of training, not genetics. The outcome: discriminatory breed-specific legislation.
Even people with well-behaved dogs often must pay fees or even relinquish their pets. “Because identifying a pit-bull breed is extremely difficult in many cases, enforcement becomes subjective,” says Lora Bauer, an American Staffordshire Terrier owner and breeder in Ambridge, Pa.
Julia Cruz, an AmStaff owner and rescuer in Austin, Texas, agrees. “Every pit-bull type gets blamed for the actions of one mismanaged dog,” she says. “These are one of the most stable dogs with humans because of how they were bred. Early breeders culled dogs that were aggressive to humans.”
A Stoic Breed
The American Staffordshire Terrier was developed from a cross between the Bulldog and an English Terrier (the exact Terrier breed is unknown). Many such crosses existed in England in the 19th century. They were first seen in America in 1870. Breeders refined the breed to be a farm dog and a fighter that battled other dogs for human entertainment in the United States, the breed’s true home. In 1936, the American Kennel Club accepted some of these dogs-which their owners called Staffordshire Terriers-into its studbook. The name changed to American Staffordshire Terrier in 1972 to distinguish it from the lighter-weight Staffordshire Terrier of England.
The American Staffordshire Terrier has been bred independently of the American Pit Bull Terrier for about 60 years, but both breeds descended from British Bulldog-Terrier crosses. AmStaffs and American Pit Bull Terriers aren’t really different; they all came from the same Bulldog-Terrier cross with nothing new added. Some were given one name in 1898, and others, a different name in 1936. In fact, many AKC-registered American Staffordshire Terriers also are registered with the United Kennel Club as American Pit Bull Terriers.
“The first recognized American Staffordshire Terrier was an American Pit Bull Terrier,” says Ellen Twigg-Patrick, who breeds and rescues AmStaffs in Crestview, Fla. “I think the real differences are in the individual lines, not in the breeds themselves.”
Bruce Hardesty, DVM, a veterinarian in Austin, Texas, who owns 100-pound AmStaff Tiny, would rather work on an AmStaff (or any so-called pit bull) than any other breed. “They are stoic,” he says. “They have a high pain tolerance, so they barely notice shots. They are usually the happiest and friendliest dogs.”
‘A Whole Lot of Lap Dog’
The American Staffordshire Terrier makes an ideal family member when well-trained and socialized. “They are completely content to lie around with their big heads on your feet,” says Rhonda Cook, a chiropractor in Morris , Ill., who owns AmStaffs Billy and Scarface and participates in breed rescue. “Billy and Scar’s favorite weekend activity is to lounge on the couch on our laps. And at 92 and 95 pounds, respectively, that’s a whole lot of lap dog.”
“Most of the time, they prefer human affection to a treat,” says Leah Purcell, an AmStaff owner in Houston. That says a lot of the notoriously food-motivated breed. Twigg-Patrick’s female, Mooky Blue, struggles with a sweet tooth. “When I’m baking, Mooky will stand and stare longingly at the oven the whole time,” she says.
AmStaffs also love to be silly. They need only the reinforcement of a good laugh. “Once, Mooky’s daughter, Mo, tried sitting like a human with her feet out in front of her, and she tipped over,” Twigg-Patrick says. “We laughed. So now every time she wants attention, she’ll sit like that right in front of us and tip over on purpose.”
Dog of All Trades
The American Staffordshire Terrier excels at obedience, search and rescue, therapy work, and detecting narcotics. In the show ring, AmStaffs attract breathless crowds. Once, when Amazing Grace was in the ring, a judge wearing a dangling corsage leaned over her. “Grace grabbed the corsage in her mouth,” Jenssen says. “[The crowd] thought she was attacking the judge. Luckily, the judge liked to see an AmStaff’s playful side.” Aside from personality, a winning AmStaff is typically distinguished by an appearance of compact power. “The judges look for strength within a reasonable size, not a Sumo wrestler with a giant, overdone head,” Bauer says. “Bigger isn’t better.”
Are You Up For the Job?
AmStaffs require a firm, consistent, take-charge owner; they are not always suited for first-time dog owners. Simply walking an AmStaff down the street can mean public ridicule. “You have to be prepared to encounter prejudice everywhere,” says Jenssen, who has been yelled at, accosted, and threatened. “And if you don’t have the gumption to stand up to the ridicule or the media hype, you’ll end up giving up the dog. You have to be willing to be an advocate for your pet.”
Despite prejudice, negative attention, and constant legal battles against breed-specific legislation, AmStaff owners remain devoted. “You have to be able to hold up your head and say, ‘This is my beautiful, wonderful dog, and I don’t care what you think,'” Jenssen says. “These are the sweetest creatures on Earth.”