647 Bulldog Back

by   David Hancock

 Shamed by a hard-hitting well-researched BBC documentary on harmful breeding practices in pedigree dogs, the Kennel Club is insisting quite rightly on a number of changes to the written standards, the 'breed design', of many pedigree breeds, including the Bulldog. Altered by 19th century show breeders and reshaped by exaggeration, the Bulldog has since degenerated into an inactive squashed-faced over-wrinkled caricature of its former self. But already the entrenched Bulldog breeders are opposing the proposed changes. The question many vets have been asking for years is this: why should this breed struggle with breathing and whelping difficulties created by the wording of the standard for the breed? Before the excesses of the show ring took effect, the Bulldog had a muzzle!

 Rumour has it that a group of continental Bulldog fanciers have approached the international kennel club, the FCI, with a request for a 'Continental Bulldog' to be recognised by them. This 'new breed' will  apparently be a reversion to the old-style more athletic one, depicted in old prints and paintings, lacking the muzzle-less head, wide forefront and narrow hips of the KC-recognised breed, favoured in the show-ring here. An English breeder once attempted to re-create the older type, calling them Regency Bulldogs. More recently, the late Ken Mollett and his Victorian Bulldog Society members have pursued a comparable project. In Switzerland, Holland, Australia, the United States and Canada, other talented and well-intentioned breeders have produced less exaggerated specimens, with mixed success. It would be shameful surely if overseas breeders managed to produce a Bulldog, and get it registered, which more faithfully portrayed our much-loved native breed.  


  The British have over the years created more breeds of dog than any other nation. But of these breeds, one above all has been singled out, especially in times of international crisis, to symbolise our national characteristics: the British Bulldog. Long misused by man in such barbaric activities as bear and bull-baiting, the Bulldog has come to be seen as epitomising the tenacity, stoicism and pugnacity desired in British stock. But in this breed, as with some other pedigree breeds of dog, the wish to perpetuate strong breed show-points has led to harmful exaggeration. This has not happened however with the French Bulldog.

 The desire for a smaller more passive dog, with the pugnacious look which so typifies the Bulldog, led misguided fanciers in the past to outcross with Pugs, mainly to shorten the muzzle. The seeking of an indomitable, 'no surrender' stance in the breed has led to poor front quarters, with specimens in Victorian times displaying all kinds of quite dreadful structural faults. The KC show Bulldog is now a caricature of itself. I have judged both the American Bulldog and the Victorian Bulldog and been impressed by their soundness, both in physique and temperament. I have also seen 'Sussex Bulldogs' and  'Dorset Old Tyme Bulldogges', currently being bred by well-intentioned fanciers, which looked healthy and unexaggerated, active and agile, breathing and moving freely.

 It is only fair however to say that, in the last twenty years, some show-ring  Bulldog fanciers have taken steps to make the breed sounder, with tighter mouths and a more symmetrical build for example. But it is also fair, I believe, to say that the pedigree Bulldog still lacks the mobility, muzzle-length, leg-length and health and vigour of its prototypal ancestors. To survive in the bullring, a bulldog had to be lightning fast; agile and athletic, as well as fearless and tenacious. We cannot claim to be breeding real Bulldogs unless the breed is still physically able (although thankfully never asked) to carry out its original function.

 Against this background, it is pleasing to come across Bulldog breeders in Canada and Australia, using stock handed down from migrating ancestors, who are perpetuating the breed much more in its classic mould than many show-ring fanciers in this or any other country. Bulldog devotees here would no doubt claim that only a "Kennel Club" Bulldog is the real Bulldog. To them one can only say: Look at the early paintings, even the early photographs of the breed and you will soon see that you have lost your way, in your endeavours to strive for those breed points which, somewhat strangely, judges consider as essential.

 Lolly Wilkinson of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, tells me that her Original English Bulldogges weigh around 75lbs for a male and 50lbs for a female, with the dogs about 19" at the shoulder and the bitches around 17". This is rather different from the current KC standard for the breed which puts dogs at 55lbs, with no height stipulated. The 1865 description of a Bulldog by 'Philo-Kuon', often quoted by breed enthusiasts, lays down a bracket of 20-60lbs weight. But at the end of the 18th century, with bull-baiting still in vogue, taller and heavier dogs were favoured, as the illustrations of the breed at that time indicate.

 The painting of a pair of Bulldogs 'Crib and Rosa' by Abraham Cooper in 1817 inspired many Bulldog breeders in the nineteenth century, with 'Rosa' being considered to "approach perfection in shape, make and size of the ideal type of the bulldog", as the early standard put it. But in 1894 the committee of the Bulldog club deleted this sentence. Since then the pedigree Bulldog has lost the length of leg, the athletic build and the overall symmetry of 'Rosa'. Writing in his authoritative "The Bulldog - a Monograph" of 1899, Edgar Farman referred to this deletion with these words: "By the old school this act on the part of the Bulldog Club was considered little short of vandalism...Certain it is that fashion has decreed for the moment that the English bulldog should not be what Rosa was..."

 Since that decision, our famous Bulldog, considered by many to be our national mascot, has become in the eyes of many critics a squat, wheezing, low-slung, unathletic distortion of its true form, unable to give birth naturally and handicapped by respiratory problems. But Lolly Wilkinson in Canada has a ten year old dog which can run, swim and frolic endlessly; her bitches whelp large litters in a few hours without veterinary assistance. She will have nothing to do with kennel clubs or breed clubs and quite admirably breeds principally for health and temperament. In Australia too, Noel and Tina Green breed the 'Aussie Bulldog', commendably athletic and remarkably like the old prints some Bulldog fanciers here still hold dear, without honouring this heritage.

 Writers have not been kind to this breed or its breeders down the years. Goldsmith, in his 'Animated Nature' of 1840, wrote of the Bulldog: "Their life is short, though their development is slow, they scarcely acquire maturity under eighteen months and at five or six years show signs of decrepitude." Concern has been expressed in recent years too about the short lifespan of the breed. Vero Shaw, writing in 1879, related that "The Bull-dog has undoubtedly suffered considerably from his association with the lower classes of the community...amongst other undesirable practices which have crept in...is the abominable mutilation resorted to by some breeders to shorten the length of the upper jaw, and turn the nose well up. No words can express our repugnance at the horrible cruelty thus inflicted upon the unhappy  puppies..."

 Three years earlier, two Bulldogs had been disqualified for such 'faking' by the veterinary inspector at a major London show but the KC permitted a second vet to pronounce them 'honest' and restored their prizes. This was not exactly the most admirable or encouraging decision for the governing body to make for the breed. The near muzzle-less skull and squat build introduced by Pug blood (a cross denied by many but verified by six quite different Victorian writers) was not admired by every Bulldog admirer. James Watson, in his masterly 'The Dog Book' of 1906, writing: "It is useless for fanciers either here (i.e.the USA) or in England to argue that the present-day dog is the same as the old sort; those who say so cannot have any personal knowledge of what Bulldogs were..." 

 Half a century later, the well-known writer Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald was to write in his 'The Domestic Dog': "...Thus we developed the Bulldog. But it must not be thought that the Bulldog of the bull-ring bore any resemblance to the squat and wheezing barrel that bears his name today...breeders have produced an animal that is a travesty of the old English Bulldog. The exaggeration of the peculiarities in the breed has been done, of course, for show purposes." One expert on the breed, Barrett Fowler, in his 'Bulldogs and all about them' of 1925, supported this view, writing: "It was the aim of some breeders to produce the most exaggerated specimens possible. They misread the standard and taught others to misread it also."   He was a Bulldog devotee.

 It is fair to ask what the Kennel Club, with its self-appointed mandate of 'the improvement of dogs' was doing whilst this was going on. But that body has often in the past just responded to breed clubs rather than truly overseeing them. That light rein has its merits when things are going well, not so much so when unsound unhealthy dogs result. Barrett Fowler also wrote: "...a vast number of crippled, unhealthy and grossly exaggerated specimens of the breed were being exhibited, and, what is worse, winning prizes." Those prizes were won at shows run by the KC. Another Bulldog expert, Edgar Farman, in his 'The Bulldog-a Monograph' of 1899, observed that: "From that time forward the breed began to deteriorate, and, with the era of modern dog shows, the appearance of an up-to-date specimen became a caricature of the active and plucky animal that baited the bull." These are the words of Bulldog men.   

 Occasionally I see a KC-registered Bulldog which could challenge a Victorian Bulldog for type, health and vigour; but this is only exceptionally. At half a dozen world dog shows I have been seriously depressed at the sheer unsoundness, quite apart from a departure from historic type, of the Bulldogs exhibited there. I was no longer proud of their British origins. Writing on the Bulldog before the First World War, Robert Leighton, the leading dog writer of that time, stated that: "It must be acknowledged that there are many strains of this breed which are constitutionally unsound...Excessive shortness of face is not natural...The specimens alive in 1817 as seen in prints of that period, were not so cloddy as those met with at the present day". For many the Bulldog is still "cloddy" and unlike its ancestors.

 Arthur Croxton-Smith, writing between the wars, stated that: "Few breeds have undergone more changes or departed more markedly from the original than the bulldog". We now need a Bulldog breeder with the independence of character to show the way back to other Bulldog fanciers. (And, please God, before the appearance of the Euro-Bulldog!) A love of dogs alone could lead that breeder to produce a healthier more mobile Bulldog; a love of country in addition could lead to our national canine symbol being restored to its true type, without in any way losing that superlative character, so exploited by our newspaper cartoonists to exemplify our desired national image. Are we, now that the KC has acknowledged two centuries of folly, going to get our Bulldog back?