I've had a few people approach me recently in relation to bull terriers and their use in the field, which has resulted in some very interesting discussions on the whole. Those of you who have ever read my articles from way back when will know that I'm of the opinion that a day with a bull terrier in the field is a day salvaged for the dog from the cosy confines of the sofa or the wide-boy posturing of the street corner. I know the argument that comes up all of the time, that they're no good and a waste of kennel space that would otherwise be better occupied with a more appropriate dog, and you won't find me disagreeing with you, and I don't think that argument will ever go away. You will never find me advising you to go out and pay good money for a bull terrier to add to your hunting pack, but should you already have one, then it wouldn't hurt to give it a go. You aren't going to break records but you never know you just might enjoy yourself. Anyway, I've said all of this before, so I won't bore you all again.
One of the things that has been discussed recently was the state of the Stafford and its closely related cousin, the American Pit Bull Terrier. I know there are some that scoff at the prefix "American" but that's an argument for another day and one that I won't go into here. In terms of numbers, the situation in America is almost a mirror image of that of the UK, with the ownership of one dog far outweighing the other. I don't know the exact details, but I believe the Stafford is one of the breeds at the top of the pet ownership statistics in the UK, and for that very reason, it really is the preserve of the public at large. Sure, some sporting people own them, but compared the pet owners, they are in tiny minority. In an even smaller minority are those sporting kennels given over to the Bull Terrier, although I believe inroads are being made there. To what extent I don't know. My only experience of that particular breed left me with a bitter taste in my mouth despite me wanting them to succeed so badly. To obtain a Stafford would seem to be a question of simply having the right amount of money. Or you could try the dog pound if money is an issue as there are thousands currently languishing in rescue centres, which would seem to be the cruel result of their popularity aligned with their natural exuberance, and when the fickle hand of fashion played its part it sadly meant that the Stafford fell victim. Was it ever thus? Consider this excerpt from J. Wentworth Day's book "The Dog in Sport" in regard to the breed, written in 1938:
"Now, sir, there has been a great deal of nonsense written and spoken about this fast dying breed…….They are bred simply and solely to fight – each other preferably, or any other dog – if it so happens. They are entirely useless for badgers as they almost invariably get an unsuitable hold and get killed. A true Staffordshire has no written pedigree, verbal only, never weighs over 25lb., has a jaw like a shark, is never fawn or part white (these are nearly as soft as an ordinary show bull-terrier), a head relatively like a coal-scuttle – never, never squeaks and fights in silence. I doubt whether there are fifty in England."
A few contentious points there and I don't expect all will agree, but keep in mind that this was written not very long after the Kennel Club recognised the breed (25th May 1935) and consider that maybe the troubles we associate with the Staffords are more ancient in origin than we'd like to admit. Food for thought.
So what do you do if you want a good Stafford? Realistically, that is a much harder proposition, which given the sheer number of Staffords out there, isn't too surprising. The first question I would ask myself would be why exactly do I need a good Stafford, and the answer to that will depend a great deal on your personal definition of "good." The Stafford world is fraught with dangers and the propensity for replication (or lack thereof) is a serious consideration for any seeking any semblance of consistency, especially when dealing with pet/show bred stock, and that also goes for the pedigree unknowns. A veritable minefield. Many took what they believed to be a short-cut.
In the pre APBT days, which were obviously pre-DDA and pre-internet days, an interest in owning a bull terrier didn't seem as prevalent and widespread as it is now. Mass communication was the television, telephone and newspaper. It wasn't the situation in 100% of the cases, but a lot of lads who kept sporting dogs did so for specific reasons. There was no A-frame, or weight pull or other "athletic" dog sports to legitimise the casual ownership of such dogs. Sure the pet homes kept them, but nowhere near to the extent that they do now. If a lad wanted in on this type, then he would invariably have to get off his arse and put the hard yards in, earn his apprenticeship and become accepted. I don't see a single thing wrong with that. The people who wanted/needed the dogs, where the ones who kept the dogs and were the custodians of them, and in my view they should have been mindful of where the pups went. Those willing to take a risk, or unable to get "in-the-know" could take a pup from show/pet bred parents, and plenty did this, some with good results, some not so good. Then came the dogs from overseas, and whilst they didn't come with a guarantee, the strike rate was probably higher than that of domestic dogs which were easily available to the layman. So you soon had a situation where there was a new product on the shelves, and this product was not only more potent than the existing brand (in a lot of cases), it was also marketed nationally and available to whomever turned up with the right cash. A new exotic product, which quickly gained an aura of notoriety, and available to all. The dogs quickly moved from the (semi) exclusive preserve of the sporting men to being owned by all and sundry. There was no need for an apprenticeship anymore. When this knowledge and these dogs had to be sought, and worked for, and strived for and effort had to be expended, there were fewer. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it's very hard to put it back in. So you had a situation whereby certain owners of these dogs didn't realise the potential that the dogs had. Or maybe they did and that's why they bought them anyway. Regardless, people who in my mind, had no business owning them, had them for whatever reason. And what did they do? Some bred them. Clawed back the cost of the initial outlay and then some. Were they good enough examples to be bred from? How would the majority know that? They wouldn't have been tested to see. So the genie grows and grows and grows, until one day, someone says enough. Enter the DDA.
I know a lot of people who thought that the DDA was a good thing, because it meant that once again, if you wanted one of these dogs, you had to put the hard yards in, had to serve your time and be accepted. Not all of the time, as most of us will realise, but enough to make it harder for the layman. You had to be aware of the risks involved in owning these dogs and that meant risk to not only to your dog, but also to you. The product disappeared from the shelves. That didn't last long though, and once again, some decided to sell to whomever had the money, and the merry go round started again. Like all things that become desirable, moody versions start appearing, so just like the La Costa ski jacket I bought from Chatham market in 1984, people bought facsimiles of the real thing. That notoriety of owning a "banned breed" was available and with markedly less risk. I even had the pleasure of seeing two asian gentlemen walking a "Tosa" into a hall in Manchester once. It looked like someone had crossed Scooby-f*****g-Doo with Red Rum. We now live with the internet, and more and more people are talking to each other. Notoriety can be instant and apprenticeships are no longer needed. Maybe they are for the working side of things, but ownership becomes substantially easier. Have the dogs become better? Some might have, but on the whole, they become diluted as each generation passes without testing them. And who keeps the better ones? Probably the same lads who had them before the genie was out of the bottle, or at least earned their stripes with those blokes. In the public's eye the moody facsimiles become the real thing, and perception becomes reality and they are either vilified, heaping more unwarranted scorn on the original, or they are coveted and more are bred. More often than not, both situations happen in tandem – cause and effect. It's a sad situation for a magnificent animal.