By Jon Bastian
One of today’s most popular dog breeds and human companions was originally bred for aggression. Here’s the history of bulldogs.
Like the pit bull, bulldogs were originally bred to help butchers control livestock, although bulldogs most likely predate pit bills, with a history that can possibly be traced back to the 5th century in England and a breed called the Alaunt. By the 15th century, in addition to catching horses, cattle, and boars in legitimate (if dangerous) farming use, bulldogs were also used in the barbaric “sport” called bull-baiting, in which trained dogs would latch onto a tethered bull’s nose and not let go until the dog had pulled the bull to the ground or the bull had killed the dog. Over the course of 350 years, until bull-baiting was banned in 1835, bulldogs were bred for aggression, and an 80-pound dog could easily bring down a bull weighing close to a ton by corkscrewing its own body around its neck, tossing the bull over its own center of gravity.
Once bull baiting was outlawed in the UK, it would seem that there would be no further need for the breed, and they probably would be extinct now were it not for their exportation to the United States and Germany. In the US, bulldogs continued to work at herding hogs and cattle, particularly in parts of the South where the terrain was too rough to allow for fences. In Germany, bulldogs were crossbred to eventually create the boxer. In England, the original working bulldog was bred to a smaller size, although there is some disagreement as to whether this was accomplished merely by selectively breeding smaller dogs, or cross-breeding with pugs. One noted bulldog breeder stated categorically, “I do not believe that a 15-pound Pug was ever crossed in the 17th or the 18th century with a 100-to-120-pound Bulldog. I do not believe that this was possible in those days, since they did not know artificial insemination.” (from a 1997 interview by David D. Jackson, MD, FACS.)
That breeder, John D. Johnson, should know his bulldogs, since he is one of two men credited with saving the breed and creating the American bulldog. Beginning as a teenager in the 1930s in rural Georgia, Johnson began selectively breeding remaining herding bulldogs, later on joining forces in the 1960s with Allen Scott of Alabama. However, the two men ultimately did not see eye to eye on what an American bulldog should be, so eventually went their separate ways, Johnson creating the larger, short-muzzled “classic” type named for him, while Scott bred the smaller, more athletic “standard” or “performance” type, which is also known as the Scott type.
The bulldog—American and English—has gone on to become a popular companion and working animal, as well as a very widely used mascot, and one of the more famous corporate bulldogs is associated worldwide with Mack Trucks. In the US alone, the bulldog represents nearly four dozen universities and 250 secondary schools, and is the unofficial mascot for the US Marines. In the UK, the dog is associated with Churchill Insurance (although Winston Churchill’s dog, while often called a bulldog, was most likely a pug) and is the mascot for various football and rugby teams. Why such popularity? Perhaps because the breed shows such fierce loyalty and protectiveness toward its humans. As Johnson pointed out at the end of that interview, “They say that dog is man's best friend but they are wrong. Man is dog's best friend.” This is particularly true in the case of a breed that would no longer be around had not two men decided to do something to save it.