History of the Ancient English Bulldog - A Greatly Misrepresented Animal

09/19/2012 08:23

This article by Col. David Hancock first appeared in the The Countryman's Weekly (U.K).


History of the Ancient English Bulldog - A Greatly Misrepresented Animal


 "Now Bull! Now Dogge! Loo Paris, Loo! The bull has the fame,' Ware Horns Ho!'"  The "Paris" so vigorously encouraged in these lines was a very different type of dog than the English Bulldog of today, much more on the leg, infinitely quicker and more active; and a hot tempered brute to whom the joy of fighting was as the breath of his nostrils." These lines by the Kennel Correspondent of Country Life in the edition of June 10, 1905 were illustrated by photographs of Bulldogs of that time. These, when compared to the 1980 Bulldog, show that 75 years later we have today once more produced a very different type of dog even from the "improved" breed of 1905.  

​ Often used as the British national symbol and identified with our native doggedness, the Bulldog has always had a rather special place in the heart of the nation. In the first World War, a Bulldog wearing the union flag and a sailor's cap was used as a recruiting lure for the Royal Navy. In the Second World War, Winston Churchill's head used to symbolize our national determination never to submit to a larger, better equipped adversary. But, perhaps because of this very identification with steadfastness, solidness, indefatigability, and massive determination, the modern Bulldog has become even heavier boned, bigger headed and shorter legged than his ancestors. Bulldog fanciers would claim perhaps that the physique of the modern dog merely perpetuates the build needed to fulfill if s original task, and that the 1980 shape reflects the historic model. But does such a claim withstand scrutiny?


In very ancient days, man utilized dogs to hunt animals such as the bison, the bear and the boar-, these hunting dogs employed those qualities handed down from even more ancient fighting dogs" the speed to maintain the chase, the courage to take on an enraged, highly dangerous quarry and, perhaps above all, the ability to hang on to and thereby retard a much speedier quarry until the hunters with their primitive weapons arrived for the kill. These dogs needed an extremely powerful jaw to maintain the grip, the setback nose to enable the dog to breathe whilst maintaining the hold, and well developed forequarters to withstand the physical strain. Eventually, a breed type emerged known as "Beissers" or the biters, with affixes indicating how the varieties developed for each specialized use were employed. Hence, bullen-, baren-, or bullen-beisser to denote a buffalo, bear, or bull biter.


One of man's earliest domestic animal assets, these dogs helped primitive man in the chase to obtain food. They were trained to guard his property and in turn, secured his protection. These barren-beissers or bullen beissers can be traced right back to the earliest Celtic and Teutonic tribes, and subsequently throughout the British Isles. By medieval times, these dogs had evolved into three distinct sizes; the heavy guard/protector bullen-beisser (English/Mastiff type); the lighter, faster hunting mastiff hound (which in turn led to the emergence of the Deutsche Dogge or modern Great Dane); and the smaller, more compact bullen-beisser , - forerunner of the English Bulldog and the Boxer and part-ancestor of our modem Bull Terriers.


Although there are records of such a breed type being used for Bull baiting in 1209, a more precise description of the breed we know as bulldogs did not emerge until 1631 and was featured in Chardin painting of 1740. At one time it had been illegal to kill a bull that had not been baited. One reason was that in this way, the local people would be aware that a bull was about to be killed and that genuinely fresh meat would be on sale. Another was the belief that any animal killed immediately after very violent activity produced the most tender meat.


This commercial purpose in time became a sport, with huge wager being made on the outcome. The bull was tethered by a 25 yard rope from his horns or collar to a stake in a fairground or on the village square. Sometimes the bull’s horns were encased in leather sheaths. It was the practice to goad the bull until it was suitably enraged.

The Bulldogs had to be keen, brave and cunning; they were frequently gored and often killed. When slipped, the dogs never rushed in headlong but crept forward, low, as flat to the ground as possible. The bull waited, head down, forelegs closed, its throat protected. If the bull had been baited before, he had learned enough to dig a hastily scraped hole in a pathetic attempt to guard his vulnerable nose. When the dog attacked, the bull's aim was to get one horn under the "dog and hurl him into the air. The dog’s owner would try to break the dog's fall using a leather apron or even more adroitly a bamboo pole to slide the dog down. In any case, the dog was at least badly winded, but even when cracked ribs or vertebrae were sustained, the dog was expected to return to the fray.

The dog's aim was to seize the bull's nose, lips, cheek or ears and hang on, quite literally, for dear life. Eventually, after a protracted ordeal, the wretched bull's head would drop in sheer fatigue: the Bulldog had pinned its quarry and won the stake. At this stage, young bulldogs were sometimes released to taste blood and "learn their trade.''