The History of the Bulldog
The bulldog as we know it today has evolved greatly from its ancestors. The bulldog is a close pet relative of the fierce and fiercely-loyal castle guardian, the Mastiff, and was primarily bred in England. The bulldog received its first recorded literary mention in 1500, when a script described a character “then came one with two Bulldogges at his tayle…”.
The bulldog was bred to fierce combatant in a barbaric spectacle called bull-baiting, where a fierce dog or pack of dogs would attack a tethered bull, bear or horse. These dogs were prized for their capacity to peruse an assault despite despicable injuries. It was actually believed that this performance would make the meat of the bull more tender after butchery. In darker times, laws required that all bulls be baited in this manner before being butchered.
But above all, bull-baiting was the common spectator sport and live entertainment to appease an uneducated system constantly harangued by disease starvation and the brutal feudal systems in place. The bulls and dogs offered an impressive spectacle and events were highly popular and widely advertise. Patrons would most certainly place their wagers on favorite dogs; dog owners stood to make a fortune off a strong bloodline.
One of the more horrific tales tells of a dog owner so confident in his bulldog’s bloodline and sheer savagery he exemplified his confidence with an act of legendary cruelty during a match against a particularly irate bull. The owner had his dog’s legs chopped off one by one, yet by the end of the match the dog had slain the bull before it was euthanized to end its suffering. This tale has gone down through the ages and, while deeply disturbing, is a tribute to the tenacity and valor of the English Bulldog.
Of course, the bulldogs of back then were far taller and heavier than the squat type we see today that were bred for cuteness. Between the 13th to 19th centuries, the Bulldog was bred for its capacity participate in a horrifying blood sport. The bulldogs would typically creep close to the bulls on their bellies so the irate bovine couldn’t get a sharp horn under their sides and chuck them high into the air. Once the dog crept in close enough it would take a solid bite into the muzzle. The bull would try to shake the dog loose, but the powerful bulldog jaws were not easily dislodged.
The dog’s nose was notoriously short as well which allowed the bulldog to breathe easily while gripping tightly to the bull’s face with their jaws. Bulldogs also feature a high tolerance for pain and this is another edge they had in this violent sport. Even the distinctive wrinkles on the bulldog’s face are said to serve a purpose. As it turns out, these furloughs would direct the blood flowing in great quantities from flooding the eyes and causing blindness.
By 1835, many enlightened minds had spoken out against bull-baiting and the laws of England outlawed the spectacle. It was thought that this tough dog would die out from lack use. At the time it was certainly not an affectionate companion. The bulldog was bred to kill and those chosen to breed were the most ferocious and aggressive. The bulldog had known only the bull-baiting pits where they were pitted against bulls, bears and all manner so savage opponents they were simply meant to kill.
But, the dog was still a pinnacle of achievement and many still had a strong admiration for the tenacious dog with superior stamina and strength. No longer needed as savage killing canines, they were now selected on their amicable qualities and gentle temperament.
Since then the bulldog has seen a considerable re-engineering. The dogs were now only bred for their docile temperament as great house pets. Those that would have been favored for their aggressive nature, were not allowed to breed. Through this selective breeding process, dog breeders transformed the beast of bull-baiting into the lovable bulldog we have as pets in our homes and properties today.
Breeders began to showcase the bulldog in conformation shows as early as 1859. But it wasn’t until 1860, that a bulldog would be given a place in official dog show held in Birmingham. The next year saw a bull dog “King Dick” taking first place at the same Birmingham dog show. One of King Dick’s descendants, named Crib, was named “Close to Perfection”.
Bulldogs eventually arrived in the US and “Donald” a white and brindle bulldog was exhibited at the 1880 New York Dog Show. In 1886, “Bob” was registered in the American Kennel Club and in 1886, Bulldog Club of America was established by H.D. Kendall of Lowell, Massachusetts.
At first, this kennel was focused on preserving the original English Bulldog, but they were looking for something more specific to their needs and in 1864, the American breed of bulldog was established as the American standard. This was not readily accepted by breeders back in England who had arguments against some of the items featured in the American standard, after several revisions were made, the new American standard was set 1896 and exists to this day.
In 1890, the American Kennel Club accepted the bulldog on their list of accepted breeds. Their popularity as a companion grew in the 1940’s and 50’s, and they soon appeared on the top 10 most popular dog breeds. Today, the bulldog is 12th on the AKC’s list of preferred dog breeds and this is a credit to the complete change in bulldog temperament and its fine-quality as a companion.
Most of all, the bulldog represents the versatility of a dog breed to be molded to the needs to which it is bred. Not too long ago, in the 1800’s, it was illegal to walk on the streets of Rome without these mincing creatures restrained they were still quite ferocious.