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The Interesting History of the English Bulldog

english bulldog puppy playing with toy

English bulldogs are one of the most recognizable breeds out there. They're in commercials and on greeting cards. They're mascots and a favorite choice as a companion. How would you describe them? Wrinkly, round, lazy, sleepy, friendly, cuddly, adorable...these are some of the words that I would use. Can you believe that the bulldogs that our beloved bulldogs descended from were nothing like that at all? They were actually quite ferocious; dangerous even. Beware, this history lesson isn't for the squeamish.

Bulldogs were once a favorite among Romans living in modern England, hence the name "english bulldogs". The Romans, and later the English, loved to watch bull baiting, which basically means that they liked to watch the dogs battle it out with bulls for entertainment. I think history has made it quite clear that the Romans weren't always the most moral people, and simply learning the history of english bulldogs will highlight the truth in that. The job of the bulldog was to grab a bull by the nose, pull him to the ground, and kill him while onlookers watched and cheered. Bulldogs were bred with wrinkles to allow the blood to drip away from their eyes so that even when the battle became messy, they could still see well. The meanest, most aggressive, and most ferocious dogs were ideal candidates for this sport. Another large factor in choosing candidates for selective breeding was the size of their head and front end of their body. The reasoning for this was not simply for appearance sake. During bull baiting the bull didn't just sit there as a victim, it fought back as bulls are known to do. They would attempt to shake the dogs off, leaving many of the less heavy front ended dogs with spinal damage which is why selectively breeding dogs with bigger and heavier front ends and heads was important. Eventually the people of England realized the heavier the front end of the dog, the better grip and less injury the dog would have.

Over the centuries bull baiting continued as a sport in England. At it's height it was the main competition with theatre. It was still so common in later years that it was even featured in a political cartoon in 1790 which protested an excise tax. It features a bull, known as John-Bull, which represents England, and the dangerous bulldogs with the faces of some of the members of parliament of the time were symbols of the current political figures of the day attacking and destroying England itself with their unnecessary taxes. This symbolism was used because it was easily understood by the people of the 1700s since bullbaiting with bulldogs was still extremely popular.

Bull baiting political cartoon of British Parliament

Times finally changed and bull baiting was eventually frowned upon and became illegal in England in 1835 when parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act.

During the Victorian era (the time era when Queen Victoria ruled England) people began to experiment with selective dog breeding to create unique breeds of all shapes and sizes. It’s no coincidence that many of the national kennel clubs, including the AKC and the KC, were founded in the mid to late 1800s. A few of these dog lovers never gave up on dangerous bulldogs. They chose to selectively breed bulldogs with more mellow personalities. They eventually sought to breed bulldogs that were stockier, lower to the ground, bulkier and with shorter snouts. The dangerous bulldogs that were known for centuries became an entirely new sweet, gentle, and loving breed.

Original bulldog club

The Bulldog Club of England was formed in 1878 and The Bulldog Club of America was formed in 1890. These clubs created the guidelines of what the new official bulldogs would be bred to look like and behave like in both England and the United States.

To this day proper breeders follow the specific guidelines given to us over a century ago by the original creators of the bulldogs that we know and love today. I’m glad that the founders of what we call bulldogs didn’t give up on those gruff, athletic, and high prey driven dogs so that we now have loving couch potatoes to share our snacks and snuggles with.

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