It is not uncommon to hear fanciers of the American pit bull use the word game or game-bred” when discussing the breed. Just what does this term mean? Is it a word that is only properly used in connection with illegal dog fighting, and, as such, is it a word that no law abiding pit bull breeder should use? Or is it a term which can correctly be applied to a variety of dog breeds? The correct answer spans an enormous amount of usage for one reasons: the term game means different things to different people and is applied different to different breeds.
Those involved in dog fighting consider the American pit bull the only game dog, and some even refer to the breed by the name American Game Dog. In their eyes, the term game refers to the innate desire of one dog to cross a pit in order to destroy another dog, despite pain, exhaustion or injury. The ultimate goal of those who breed fighting dogs is a "dead game" dog, meaning an animal which will, while in the heat of battle, continue to struggle toward its opponent when called upon to cross the pit while dying of heat exhaustion, in shock, with broken legs, internal injuries, crushed nasal cavities or other conditions which cause its death in the pit or within a few hours after the fight.
Game indeed, is the dog which can show this particular type of determination - and the fact is ONLY the pit bull is capable of this kind of courage and determination. It takes a special kind of guts for a dog to continue to cross the pit into the face of death when being out fought and destroyed by another dog. But that is the heritage of the pit bull - to win or "lose right".
But does gameness only refer to the actions of an animal fighting for its life? And specifically a dog fighting another dog of the same weight? Or does gameness have a broader meaning?
The standard dictionary definition for game runs along the lines of: plucky and unyielding in spirit; resolute. The term bulldog is often used in thesauruses to define unyielding. This association of resolution and unyielding with the bulldog goes back to the days of bull baiting. When the 40 to 80 pound butcher's dogs grabbed the much larger (around 800 to 1000 pounds) bulls by the nose, the dog had to hang on despite a severe thrashing about by the enraged bull. The physical ability and unique desire to hang on in the face of certain death or injury in order to complete the job of pinning the bull became the hallmark of the working bulldog. This toughness is still seen today in "typey" American pit bulls, the most direct descendant, by the way, of the medieval bulldog.
When baiting or controlling a bull, there can be little doubt that the dog which hung in there, fighting from the bottom as it were, in sense of size and strength and fury, beaten upon the ground, flung over the heads of spectators (and expected to return immediately to the bull despite its injuries) and ultimately pinning the bull or dying while trying, was game. Dog fighters often disparage the breed's original purpose as not proving gameness - because the bull did not bite the dog. True, the bulls overwhelming size and overwhelming strength more then made up for the difference in the method by which it punished the bulldog. In a weight matched dog fight, serious injury or death can take half an hour or much longer to occur, if it occurs at all; a single stroke from a bull's hoof or horn can disembowel and kill. When one considers the force generated by an animal capable of lifting a horse clear off the ground on its horns; that force used to dash the dog again and again upon the ground, it makes is clear that bull baiting focused on the bulldog taking punishment rather than giving it.
In dog fighting, however, a dog may be described as a winner, a champion - even as game - by virtue of winning a fight with another dog of the exact same weight. In reality, if one dog is a barnstormer who, by virtue of a more aggressive fighting style, a hard bite, or some other characteristic, hurts his opponent quickly, his gameness may never be tested at all. It may never be known if the dog would continue faced with a bigger, stronger dog - let alone an angry bull. As well, a dog can become a champion - and be considered game - by defeating dogs which hardly fight back or jump out of the pit. Hard to imagine the owners of those medieval bulldogs not scoffing at the thought that many of today's modern dog fighting champions are game.
Along with plucky and unyielding in spirit; resolute, game is also defined as willing, ready, up for, on for, disposed, inclined; ready and willing to do something, especially new or unusual.” Nowhere is game defined as willing to kill another dog. In fact, it is this ready and willing attitude which has endeared the pit bull to so many people for so many centuries. James Thurber describes it in his pit bull who fetched gigantic sticks for the love of the challenge. Explorer Stanley (of Stanley and Livingston) described with awe how his black brindle pit bull bitch brought down wild beasts by the nose as he crossed Africa. Laura Ingalls Wilder describes the brave, plucky Jack, the brindle bulldog who trotted under the wagon as they crossed the vast prairies, was swept away during river crossings, kept large buffalo wolves away from their covered wagon, guarded against horse thieves and Indians, hunted with Pa, helped to bring home the cows and played with Laura.
It can be argued pretty convincingly that the American pit bull is the single gamest (in any of its definitions) breed of dog - but it would be foolish to think no other dog breed demonstrates the traits of willingness, resolution and pluckiness. The best individuals of all the performance bred breeds demonstrate awe inspiring gameness at the tasks they are bred for. Almost every year performance bred Alaskan huskies prove dead game while racing in the Iditarod endurance sled race. Silently, without a whimper, theses huskies carry on resolutely and drop, sick and exhausted, dead in the harness. Every year field bred English pointers gallop on, sucking in the wind and seeking birds until they die, dead game from heat exhaustion. Their breeding and their hearts won't let them stop and seek shade. Retrievers, too, suffer exhaustion and hypothermia in icy water, and die doing their work. Who would dare to call these dogs "cur" despite the fact they may not burn to conquer one of their own?
The American pit bull - like all dog breeds - is a work in progress, changing with the whims of fad and available work. Yet the core of the bulldog is simple: an animal which grips what man dictates he should grip with courage and with tenacity. For good or evil the dog understands not. As a gripper of large, dangerous game he was no doubt honored by the men who entrusted their lives to his courage and flawless tenacity. As the butcher's helper, he was an actual community hero, saving lives and property from dangerous livestock. Later, after a king has spied him bringing a runaway bull under control, his job became more entertainment, as a bull and bear baiter, and he fell in with less savory keepers. And when the bull and bear bait was outlawed he was turned upon his own kind, a sad reduction in status, and became primarily a gambler's tool.
No matter what his job though, the pit bull's happy go lucky, people friendly, never say never attitude has found him friends. Where other breeds have become extinct or nearly so when their jobs disappeared, the American pit bull is today arguably one of the most popular and populous breeds in America, despite his job being a felony in most states. Today's breeders face a challenging job of stewardship; to keep him from becoming "just another dog", but to help him put illegal dog fighting in his past where it will cease to drag him down in public opinion as a vicious breed. Just as he did not cease to be all bulldog when his millennia of controlling bulls was at an end, neither will he cease to be all bulldog when his two hundred years of dog fighting are at an end - if his breeders remember that the definition of game includes ready and willing to do anything, especially something difficult, demanding or unusual.
© copyright Diane Jessup ALL