by   David Hancock

 If you study the paintings of George Morland, at the end of the 18th century, you can detect in his rural scenes, a very different bulldog from the one portrayed in the 19th century by a range of town-based artists. Morland had a special feel for the rustic, the cottage-dwelling farming people, and was closer to rural living than most of his fellow-artists of those times. In the countryside, bulldogs were used to 'pin' or seize wayward cattle by farmers and butchers, usually by seizing their ears or even their noses. This was not just an English practice; dogs like the existing breeds of Ca de Bou in Mallorca, the Fila in Sao Miguel and the Cane Corso in Italy were also bred and designed for this role. It demanded great neck and shoulder strength, an awesome 'bite' or grip and, if the dog was to survive, considerable agility. Such dogs had broad mouths, powerful fore-quarters, immense perseverance and remarkable dexterity. If they were not athletic and quick on their feet, they were kicked or maimed to death by an enraged bull. Some butchers baited bulls to, allegedly, tenderize their flesh and increase its perceived value. In time, bull-baiting became a town sport and dogs produced to engage in it.


If you next study depictions of bull-baiting of the early 19th century you can soon see that the bulldogs involved were much more like Staffordshire Bull Terriers of today than Bulldogs (the breed) of today. Bulldogs, in time, became the 'status dogs' of that time, soon associated with ruffians and 'ne'er-do wells' as the saying went. Inevitably, in the hands of such characters, bulldog-dealers abounded, with the potential of their dogs exaggerated as well as their 'strong heads' and powerful chests. By the time bull-baiting was abolished in 1835, the market in such dogs in the towns was considerable and the usual boasters were vocal: 'My dog has a broader front than yours, mine has a wider mouth than yours, my dog is fiercer than yours...' In time, the bulldog type changed to an exaggerated form, made even worse when the exhibition of dogs became popular, especially in town pubs or urban centres. Urban artists depicting dogs liked to feature the 'overdone' specimens as 'the dog in art' became much more popular and rewarding for the artist.

If you now study the portrayal of Bulldogs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries you soon detect a very different dog from that depicted by Morland: grossly overdone, muzzle-less, squat, unathletic, and featuring an unnaturally-wide front or 'spread', heavy bone, narrow at the hips and decidedly undershot in the jaws. Contraptions were made to be placed on the pups to prevent forward jaw-growth. Dealers boasted of breeding the flattest-faced dog in London, using Pug blood to enable this. Such dogs could have no function, no physical soundness and only appeal to the exaggerators - or those wishing to win in the ring, for this became the favoured type, as the son of the famous Bill George once lamented. There is a famous painting by Cresswell Desmond, entitled The Old Order Changeth, Yielding Place to New, depicting the newly-fancied brindle exaggerated Bulldog coming to the fore and the old more athletic dog exiting to the rear. The craving for shortened muzzles in show ring Bulldogs had won the day, sadly for the health and type of this superb breed. The infliction of such harm to a breed, knowingly, is shameful in most circumstances; when related to the breed of Bulldog it is a crime.

 In his Bulldogs and all about them of 1925, Barrett Fowler wrote: "...a vast number of crippled, unhealthy and grossly exaggerated specimens of the breed were being exhibited, and what is worse, winning prizes...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." 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."  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. The prizes referred to by Barrett Fowler 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.   

In the late 1940s, as a youngster fascinated by dogs, I was thrilled to watch 'bulldogs' working pigs in Somerset, to get them to the slaughter-house or abattoir, driving them by nipping their rumps and if they broke away, grabbing them by their ears. These dogs looked exactly like those portrayed by George Morland in the 1790s and nothing like the show Bulldog of today. I have since seen the odd Dorset or Sussex Bulldog (and the occasional Victorian Bulldog - of the type bred by Ken Mollett) resembling this style of bulldog.) As I learned when overseeing a Rare Breeds Farm for fourteen years, where we conserved and developed those breeds of native farm animals in danger of dying out at the time: Bagot goats, South Down and Shropshire sheep, White Park and longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs and a number of poultry breeds, the selection of breeding stock counted much more than the mere perpetuation of remaining examples. In other words, it was usually preferable to aim to breed back to a desired type from the soundest stock, than to try to make the best of poor specimens of purebred stock struggling to survive in that dying breed. The restoration of true type was always best obtained by utilising excellent animals to a set plan than by trying hard to improve 'the last remaining' specimens available. The genes contributing to the revival are always so much more important than the blood of the survivor-members of a vanishing breed. Breeding back to the desired type can actually be made more difficult by using flawed ancient genes.

In pedigree dog breeds like the Irish Wolfhound, the Field Spaniel and the Scottish Deerhound, their blood was once revitalised using the blood of a similar breed and type retained through carefully selected breeding stock. In others, like the Dogue de Bordeaux and the Neapolitan Mastiff, the breeds were re-established using the limited stock remaining and today these two breeds lack virility, lead short lives and suffer from inherited diseases, all resulting from a tiny gene pool being relied on. Some breeds, such as the English Mastiff - re-created by Victorian breeders from indifferent stock, suffers today from an absurd phenotype inflicted on it by short-sighted breed devotees who place purity of breeding stock ahead of virility and health, and certainly ahead of true type, with the contemporary breed being quite unlike the famous Englische Dogge of the European medieval hunt. The Bulldog of England has been bred by the show ring fanciers to be a cruel caricature of its real self and deserves release from this untypical and unhealthy straitjacket. Well done those enlightened souls, in many different parts of the world, still striving to restore sanity to this very special English breed!