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Nanny Dog Myth: What’s The Story Behind This Pit Bull Moniker?

Key Takeaways

  • The term nanny dog was claimed to have been coined in the 19th to early 20th centuries, referring to the pits as trusted carers of little children in many family homes.
  • Often, the claims behind the name projecting pitbulls as natural caretakers of children are purely anecdotal evidences hence the nanny dog myth.
  • Essentially, no type of animal can be left as a nanny dog and take care of children.

The nanny dog myth is one that originated from the claims of many pit bull owners that pits were referred to by that name in the 19th to early 20th centuries. This, however, has been debunked many times already, pointing to the fact that no animal can be trusted to look after children.

Most people equate the pit bull with a breed of dog that is a type of guard dog. They are expected to be ferocious and not particularly friendly. When some pictures the pit bull, they picture a dog that is bred for fighting. Certainly, some negative images will come to mind, especially when so much of the publicity around pit bulls have to do with a dog attacking someone. There are even a few documented cases of the pit turning on its owner. But then again, so many people go as far as saying family pit bulls are protectors of children.

So, why would parents ever consider the pit bull as a “nanny” dog? 

A perusal through some research material shows that in the 19th century, in an effort to change the public view of the pit bull, some enthusiasts started painting the pit bull breed as a “nanny” dog, or a natural caretaker of children. 

There are those today who would have the public believe that this is nothing more than an urban legend. However, there are instances where a pit bull dog has kept children in the family out of danger. 

There are documented instances where pit bulls have gotten between a child and a stranger, preventing that child from leaving with the unknown individual. Other stories relate to how pit bulls protected the children in the family in a variety of ways. However, this is usually anecdotal evidence and is often ignored. 

Let’s take a look at why pit bull enthusiasts say that the breed does make for a great nanny dog. 

1. Pits are natural caretakers. 

Bully breeds were developed to be strong, brave, and smart. Of course, like most dogs, pits simply want to please their owners. 

The “nanny dog” was a moniker given to pits in the 19th century. The pit bull, as a family dog, was referred to in this manner because parents could trust them to make sure the children were safe.

2. What happened to the idea of the pit as a nanny dog?

At one time, a pit was considered a beloved dog breed by its owners. Yes, there were unscrupulous individuals who used the bully breed for nefarious purposes, but there were many more who were beloved family pets. They assisted in livestock control as well as guarding the home. 

There are four different types of pit bulls. These include the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and the American Bully. 

American Staffordshire Terrier with tongue out.

Of course, the American Pit Bull Terrier is a breed that is a cross between terrier breeds and bulldogs. The other breeds mentioned are breeds unto themselves. The American Bully was made famous by the Little Rascals, whose dog Petey was the epitome of a friend to children. 

The American Staffordshire was a descendant of the pits that were originally used for pit dog fighting and bull baiting. However, the American Staffordshire was mostly used for livestock purposes as well as hunting. The American Staffordshire was a great pet, by all accounts. 

However, there were those who used pit bulls or American Staffordshires to guard the premises when they were carrying out nefarious activities. These dogs were taught to attack anything and everything—and that’s where the pit gets a negative reputation. These were taught to be aggressive and dangerous dogs. 

When these dogs became known for their aggressive nature and pit bull attacks became common, laws that banned the ownership of the breed began to spring up. Readers should also know that other breeds have fallen under this category as well—German Shepherds have had a bad reputation for turning on their owners. It is often unfounded. Rottweilers and Dobermans have also had to fight this negative reputation. 

The Temperament Test

The American Temperament Test Society ranked dog breeds by their level of tolerance. The most tolerant dog was the Golden Retriever, who has always possessed a great reputation when it comes to tolerating boisterous children. However, the pit bull was ranked second when it came to the most tolerant dogs. The least tolerant dog is one that parents will often procure for their children (especially since there is a widespread belief that the breed will help a child with allergies)—the Chihuahua. 

Pit bulls have been the victim of a bad rap for many years. Some believe that the pit bull has jaws that lock and that the bite of the pit bull is the most powerful. While pitbull do have strong jaws and a powerful bite force, they do not have jaws that lockdown on a victim. The most powerful dog bites on record is not the pit bull, but the Rottweiler. 

3. “Pit bulls attack more people than any other breed.” 

This myth is further perpetuated by the fact that the term pit bull includes at least four different breeds of dog, so it is difficult to accept this with any accuracy. 

Most people have a hard time truly identifying a pit bull. The American Pit Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier look very much alike with only slight visual differences. Then throw in the American Bully, and that’s three different breeds that are very much alike and often confused. 

When one considers that the pit bull is often confused with other dogs, then it is easy to understand that these dogs are often blamed for attacks or bites that shouldn’t be attributed to the breed. 

One popular myth regarding pit bulls is that they were prone to swelling of the brain and therefore were more prone to “going crazy.” [1] The pit isn’t the only breed that this type of issue was falsely attributed to. The Doberman Pinscher was said to have this same affliction, and there is no scientific basis to this claim. 

Dobermans were said to have a small skull that could not properly house their brain. So, when it swelled, according to the urban legend, the dog would “snap” and attack anyone, including their owners. When Doberman Pinschers became less of a “fad” dog to own, and the popularity of the pit bull began to grow, the rumor of the swelling brain seemed to latch on to pit bulls. 

4. Pit bulls “turn” on their owners. 

As stated previously, the pit bull isn’t the only dog breed that has a reputation for turning on its owner. The German Shepherd, which has served as a military dog and a police dog, has unfairly earned that description as well. However, this is unfounded, just as it is unfounded in previous rumors about the Doberman Pinscher and the pit bull. 

Dogs do not do things “just because.” When a dog attacks its owner, it is not without reason. This doesn’t mean that a dog has been abused. Dogs usually give their owners multiple signals that something is amiss, and owners must be aware, too. 

Aggression is most instances is a symptom of something much deeper. Aggression can manifest if a dog has not been socialized properly, or if they have been handled improperly. Plus, sometimes the dog owners can misread behavior as aggressive when it is truly not. 

On occasion, some aggressive behavior is the result of the disease. This is why it is so important for pit bull owners—any dog owner—to keep their pets healthy and to take them in for vet check-ups regularly. Owners must also know how to train an aggressive dog as well as understand the root cause of the aggression.

In a companionship animal, there are signals that the dog is unhappy or unwell in some way. Dogs usually do not resort to biting or otherwise warning their humans that they are not happy by using their teeth without displaying these signs. It’s important to always observe and understand a dog’s behavior.

Where did the nanny dog myth come from? 

It seems that the pitbull nanny dog myth is actually one that began within the last decade. An article in 1971 printed in the New York Times can be credited with the initial origin of the pit bull as a nanny dog. 

The article featured a Staffordshire bull terrier breeder. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier is a similar breed to pits, but it is not the same. It is also not the same as the American Staffordshire or the Staffordshire Pit Terrier. However, since pit bulls tend to be confused with these breeds, it is understandable how the myth began. 

The breeder wrote that the Staffordshire Bull Terrier “loves children and is often referred to as a nursemaid dog.” 

Baby and dog.

Of course, we’ve already explored that pits and Staffordshire Bull Terriers are often confused, so it is easy to see how these breeds could be confused and the pit become known as the “nanny dog.” 

No historical texts ever mention the pit bull or any of the breeds that are often confused with the pit as a “nanny dog.” However, there is anecdotal evidence of pits protecting children. In fact, there are likely people readers know who have seen how protective the pit can be with family members. 

There ARE pictures of children and pit bulls together. Some point to these photos as evidence that the pit bull can be and was a nanny dog. Again, a pet who has been raised with children will accept them as a part of his or her family, and the pit likely will protect them fiercely. 

It is most important to remember that no dog—not a pit, not a Golden Retriever, not a Chihuahua—should ever be left with children unsupervised. Children who have no experience with dogs may be too rough on a dog. Plus, we have to understand as both pet parents and as human parents that dogs do not understand that a child is just playing if they tug on Fido’s ear or pull his tail. 

Until a child has enough experience with dogs to understand how to properly play with and treat a dog, they should always be supervised just to prevent anything from occurring. More than likely, your dog will be patient and will never harm your child, but, it is always prudent to be cautious. 

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1. When did the nanny dog myth start?

The nanny dog myth has been around for many years, but we can likely point to a newspaper article in which a breeder of Staffordshire Bull Terriers mentioned that the dog was a great “nursemaid” for children. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier is often confused with pits, and this is likely where the myth came from. 

2. Where did the term nanny dog come from?

The New York Times article mentioned that the Staffordshire Bull Terrier was a great nursemaid, which is an archaic term for “nanny.” 

3. What were Pitbulls originally bred for nanny dogs?

There were breeders who bred pit bulls in order for them to guard property. It is highly unlikely they bred them to watch out for children specifically. However, a pit tends to guard everyone in the family, including children. 

4. What does a nanny dog do?

A nanny dog will watch over children as they play. Technically, there is no such a thing as a “nanny” dog, but guard dogs tend to guard everyone in the family, including children.

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