A Short and Cuddly History of the English Bulldog

In a popular account on the history of bulldogs, a “nobleman” saw butchers’ dogs harry a bull on the village green. The year was 1210 and the man was enamored by the spectacle. He was so amused that he “commanded a repeat performance as sport.” This account is widely distributed on the Internet and it is claimed to be the first official bull baiting contest. The story likely comes from a T.F.H. Publications book on bulldogs. And it is most likely untrue.

While the nobleman’s saga is dubious, bull baiting was certainly a popular pastime by the reign of Queen Anne. A bull was tethered to limit its range of motion. It was pitted against dogs who were free to roam. One at a time, each dog would try to “pin” the bull. In a successful attack, a dog latched on to its sensitive snout and forced it to the ground.

The Olde English Bulldoge was the preferred breed for this spectacle. Compact, short and muscular, it somewhat resembled a contemporary pitbull terrier. The Bulldogge’s build made it well suited for the sport. Its short snout enabled it to breath while it had a bull by its nose. Its hindquarters were light which meant its spine wouldn’t snap if the bull shook its head wildly in an attempt to dislodge the dog. Most importantly, it had a vice like jaw.

In 1835, Parliament outlawed bull baiting. With that act came a decline in interest in the Olde English Bulldogge. Yet many were reluctant to see the dog go. It was extremely loyal. After a brutal day in the ring, the Bulldogge would gladly walk home with the man who placed him there. This loyalty greatly appealed to the working classes who stubbornly kept the breed alive despite a ban on the activity that allowed it to thrive.

Gradually, its traits began to change. Dogs were selected for gentleness. English working men lived in small quarters and they selected pups from dogs who did well in that arrangement. As a result, today’s English bulldog is loyal, gentle, good with children and perfect for small apartments. Successive breeding eliminated the traits which made it a formidable fighter in the ring and enhanced the qualities that made it appealing to the men who refused to let the breed die.

If one man was responsible for this transformation, it was the dog breeder Bill George. After bull baiting was deemed illegal, he attempted to improve the breed for domestic use. George helped select dogs for the traits mentioned above. He helped draft the first British standard for the breed. In 1874, almost forty years after bulldogs seemed destined for extinction, the Bulldog Club of London was formed.

Members frequently met at the Blue Post Pub on Oxford Street. In places where ales are consumed arguments are known to occur. A frequent dispute was over the traits of contemporary bulldogs compared with the old bull baiting dogs. To settle the dispute, club members pitted a more traditional bulldog named Orry against Dockleaf, a shorter broader dog in the new tradition. The contest was simple. They would see which dog could walk the furtherest. Traditionalist thought Orry was better suited to the task and bet heavily on him. But today’s bulldog owners know how this turned out. Dockleaf beat him soundly.