The English bulldog has a long and storied history. Several theories regarding the breed’s origin have been introduced. Some are plausible and supported by documentation; some are easily dismissed. Most experts agree that the bulldog is a cross between a mastiff and a pug. However, some experts contend that the bulldog is a descendant of the Alaunt (a molosser breed that is now extinct).
Though some speculate that the English bulldog’s roots lie in twelfth-century Asia, the breed’s first mention in English society was in the early 1600s. In a letter to a fellow Englishman, a man named Prestwich Eaton made the distinction between mastiffs and bulldogs. Many enthusiasts consider this letter to be the first piece of documentation that signals a clear separation of the two breeds.
Bull Baiting: Commerce And Sport
English bulldogs are today known for their calm demeanor. But, this was not the case centuries ago. The breed was regularly used to control bulls and oxen in preparation for slaughter. It’s widely accepted that the breed was named expressly for this reason. Known as bull baiting, the practice quickly evolved from a method to tenderize the bull before slaughter into a blood sport.
Bull baiting involved tying a bull to a stake in the ground and allowing a bulldog to pin the beast. Despite its comparatively small stature, bulldogs were adept at the sport. They were trained to remain low to the ground (thus, avoiding the bull’s horns) and grabbing the bull’s nose to render it powerless. While the blood sport attracted many spectators and betting was common, it was outlawed by Parliament in 1835.
Dog Fighting Takes Flight
In response to Parliament’s prohibition of bull baiting, English society began organizing dog fights. It was around this time when the purebred bulldog started to disappear. In the hopes of producing a dog with a competitive fighting edge, breeders began breeding them with terriers. This crossbreed produced a fighting dog that blended the power and pain tolerance of the bulldog with the agility of the terrier. In short, the effort to create a superior fighting dog was successful. However, the trend against blood sports was gaining traction, and soon, interest in raising bulldogs waned.
Bulldog Clubs Emerge
Noting that the bulldog breed was in decline due to a lack of public interest in raising them, a small and dedicated group of enthusiasts formed the Bulldog Club in 1964. Its objective was twofold: to promote the breed and to bring loyal owners together. That club only lasted a few years but had created a small surge of interest in the breed. In 1875, a new club (also called the Bulldog Club) was formed. Its chief interest was keeping the English bulldog breed pure from the Spanish breed. Members created a Standard by which Bulldogs are still judged today.
The Bulldog In Contemporary Society
While the breed’s past is steeped in blood and controversy, bulldogs are now primarily kept as pets. The aggressive combatant that stunned owners and spectators by taking on bulls several times its size has been completely removed from the breed. Today, the only thing that gives this breed cause to become aggressive is an apparent threat to its owner and family. Predictably calm, and relentlessly loyal and protective, the English bulldog has evolved from a ferocious fighter to a kind-hearted member of the family.