Stocky, imposing, but sweet-natured American Staffordshire terriers—AmStaffs or Staffies to their friends—are muscle-bound softies who form fast, strong bonds with their humans. Excellent watchdogs and loyal companions, they have lots of energy and a playful streak—they’re always up for a run, or a good game of fetch or Frisbee in the yard.
Much like their cousin the pit bull, American Staffordshire terriers are stocky, muscular dogs with a deep loyalty streak and a knack for strong-willed behavior. For many years, these traits were exploited to turn AmStaffs into fighting dogs. But despite their bad reputation, properly trained and well-socialized American Staffordshire terriers can be terrific family pets who are as gentle and trustworthy as they come.
Built like fuzzy fire hydrants, American Staffordshire terriers top out around 19 inches tall, but pack a solid 60–80 pounds of muscle on those small frames. This gives the AmStaff an unmistakable presence, with their thick, muscular necks, barrel chests, and slender hindquarters.
AmStaffs come in a variety of colors, with liver, sable, brindle, and brown being the most common, often with some white on their heads and chests. Their stiff, glossy coats are short with no undercoat, making them easy to care for, but also more sensitive to cold temperatures.
They have broad, intelligent faces, usually with dark colored eyes, though blue is an occasional exception. Their tails are short, compared to the rest of their body, tapering to a point and never docked.
OK. So, elephant in the room: Yes, the American Staffordshire terrier has a history as a dog bred for fighting. However, much like their pit bull cousins, that past has always been a product of their physical traits, rather than their mental or emotional ones. Despite the stigma around this breed, AmStaffs are incredibly loyal, loving dogs with quick minds and warm hearts.
AmStaffs are intelligent dogs—they understand commands well and have above average trainability. However, the breed does have a propensity for headstrong behavior and they are willful dogs. So it takes a steady, constant hand and lots of patience to train them properly. It’s also for this reason that first-time owners might want to look elsewhere.
“If anything, I’m subtly steering (first-time owners) them away from them,” says Dennis Riordan, DVM, of Riordan Pet Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. “If you go to any shelter, the majority of the dogs you’re going to see have those (Staffie) traits, partly because people don’t realize there are breed-specific restrictions [and have to surrender their dogs because of those restrictions], and partly because they can be a lot for a new dog owner to handle.”
Staffies love people and do very well with children, though it’s recommended that children be over the age of six before playtime with a Staffie is allowed. Their rambunctious play, coupled with their heavy, stocky build, can make them a bit much for small children to handle. Similarly, their size and headstrong nature can make them a challenge on a leash, which may make them poor choices for smaller children or seniors to take on walks.
AmStaffs need daily exercise and mental stimulation to keep them from getting bored. And keeping them from getting bored is going to be a priority for any owner, because a bored AmStaff is a “mouthy” AmStafff who will chew on shoes, furniture, or whatever else they can get their paws on. Keep plenty of chew toys around.
But their high drive and muscular frames make them ideal dogs for any kind of dock-diving or agility games, and the breed has even excelled when trained for search and rescue operations. Their stoic nature and resilience makes them a natural fit for physically demanding or dangerous work.
“My dad loved pit bulls and Staffordshire terriers because they were such courageous, stoic dogs,” Riordan says. “You can put them on the table [to treat] open wounds and they’ll just stand there.”
American Staffordshire terriers make excellent guard dogs, purely for their intimidation factor. They are dogs that will bark a healthy amount, no matter what the situation, and they are blessed with loud, deep voices. Couple that with their powerful frames and the breed’s intimidating history, and that’s usually enough to keep any unwanted strangers at bay.
This breed traditionally doesn’t do well with other dogs. Exceptions can be found when American Staffordshire puppies are socialized at an early age but your Staffie will do best if they’re the only dog in the house. Similarly, while the breed’s prey drive isn’t the highest in the world, they will tend to see cats as food, not friends.
“This is the biggest caution I give people about the dogs,” Riordan says. “Yes, temperament comes down to the individual dog. But for big, strong dogs like Staffords, the issue isn’t ‘Does my dog have a strong prey drive?’ or ‘Is my dog aggressive?’, it’s ‘How much damage can he do in a worst case scenario?.’”
Easily the simplest part about owning an American Staffordshire terrier is caring for an American Staffordshire terrier. Their single-coat fur is short and slightly oily, preventing it from retaining dirt and making them resistant to burrs and matting. They are very light shedders, requiring little to no brushing. Similarly, the oils in their hair keep them from developing any of the traditional “dog odors,” meaning that bathing will need to happen only on an as-needed basis, rather than on any kind of regular time table. Their nails will need regular trimming, too.
The American Staffordshire terrier is a generally healthy dog breed. Their strong muscles and high metabolism keep obesity from being a common problem. They are, however, prone to skin allergies, urinary tract infections, and some autoimmune diseases. Hip dysplasia and elbow problems are also relatively common. Additionally, it is recommended to get your AmStaff tested for cerebellar ataxia, a condition that can result in a decline in muscle coordination and that usually manifests between the ages of three and five.
The American Staffordshire terrier has undeniable ties to the bloodsport dogs of 18th and 19th century England. These dogs were bred exclusively to fight and were either set on one another or released in packs to challenge bears or bulls for the amusement of crowds. It’s from this formidable, unfortunate dog that breeds like the American Staffordshire, the bull terrier, and the modern English bulldog all draw lineage.
The American Staffordshire terrier was developed from the original bulldog (a very different animal from today's English or American bulldogs). What other dogs were used in cross breeding is a murkier river to trace, but it is believed that now-extinct species such as the white English terrier or the black and tan terrier were used to create the Staffordshire terrier.
Those Staffordshire terriers made their way to the U.S. by the 1850s, where American breeders developed a version that was larger and heavier than the English Staffordshire, which the AKC recognized as a separate breed in 1936.