by   David Hancock

How many of us ever consider the view obtained by the sporting dog when facing even traditional quarry? The view from two feet off the ground, or less, is not just much more limited but so often much more dangerous. It's not unheard of for shooting men to get cross with gundogs unable to mark game easily spotted by a six foot man but invisible to a two-foot high dog. It's easier to appreciate the task of a heeler rounding up or driving wayward cattle if you too get down on all fours behind a restless heifer or bullock! But in the long-lost days of big-game hunting with dogs, the sheer bravery, as well as extraordinary agility, of the hunting dogs was quite exceptional. In the baiting rings, more dogs died than bulls but sadly this was never a factor in their abolition. In the medieval boar-hunt more dogs were killed than boars, that is why the more expendable 'matins' were used in the final stages ahead of the more precious specially-bred boarhounds. Dogs used in the auroch and wild bull hunts had a very different task from that of the dogs encouraged to bait the bull, the latter was usually tethered. In the Nordic elk-hunts and the far-eastern stag-hunts of Victorian big-game hunters like Sir Samuel Baker, the hounds used had to combine courage with dexterity, do their master's bidding yet live to hunt another day! They always have a ground floor view. When next at an agricultural show spend time standing close to a longhorn bull and appreciate the sheer power of such an impressive beast. Imagine what ferocity an angry one could summon up!

The dogs used as 'seizers' were not huge but benefited from eye-levels of around two feet as well as immense determination. Not surprisingly, dogs with 'bull' in their breed title are renowned for their persistence if nowadays condemned for it by the animal-police. Breeds specifically developed to hunt a fearsome adversary, such as the Dogo Argentino on jaguar, were selectively bred to combine the talents of several breeds, by inspired hunter-breeders like the Martinez brothers. Sanderson used Bull Terrier crosses to control elephants when managing forests in Victorian India. Every contemporary breed of dog now revered for its long record of pure-breeding only became famous and respected due to the mixed blood used in its creation, stand tall lurcher breeders! If you exclude the odious so-called 'sports' of bull, badger and bear baiting, where brainless ferocity was prized in the dogs - ahead of gripping prowess, in grande venerie, the timing of the 'seize' and the sheer stamina needed to get there in the first place, demonstrated quite extraordinary dogs at work. Hunters in Africa could always climb the nearest tree - the dogs had to evade the herd! Ratting enthusiasts can always stand on a chair, ratting terriers are often surrounded, at eye level, by a sea of squirming rodents!

The barbaric sport of bull-baiting demanded the production of savage, ferocious, fearsomely aggressive dogs. Any thirty pound dog prepared to attack an enraged one ton bull has to be both extraordinarily brave and almost irrationally determined, valuable characteristics but not ones without dangers. A savage, aggressive, recklessly-brave dog, however much admired in its time, has a more limited future once an unpleasant recreation like bull-baiting is discontinued. Writing in his "The Bulldog - a Monograph" of 1899, Edgar Farman 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".

  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.

The Spanish influence on the hunting mastiffs of the world is a considerable one, from the fearsome Alanos of the baiting ring and the renowned Cordoba Fighting Dog of the pit to the broad-mouthed breeds of the Balearics and Central America, the latter still with us today. The Martinez brothers claimed to have utilised the blood of the Dogue Espagnol in the creation of the Dogo Argentino. The Alano is behind the 'holding dogs' found in the Canaries, the Perro de Presa Canario, in Majorca, the Perro de Presa Mallorquin and probably the Cuban Mastiff or Bloodhound, now lost to us, and the Puerto Rican breed, the Gran Mastino de Borinquen.

An Alano was imported into Britain by the well-known Victorian dog-dealer Bill George and was described as a huge Bulldog, rather than as a breed in its own right. (The re-created Regency Bulldog produced much later by the late Clifford Derwent was remarkably similar in appearance to the Alano). Bill George's dog, 'Big Headed Billy', weighed 90lbs. Thirty years later, another British breeder called Marquand imported two more and then Frank Adcock, a well known Mastiff and Bulldog breeder, brought over two more; all these imports weighing 90lbs. This led to great opposition and eventually to the formation of the Bulldog Club to save the British Bulldog from what was termed the 'threatened invasion of the Spanish bulldog' and the 'impending introduction into its veins of blood of the Spanish milk-cart dog.' How puerile dog-fanciers can be at times!

Any dog willing to engage with a huge ferocious horned beast has to be incredibly committed, and, to survive, remarkably agile. Our ancestors bred recklessly brave, almost disposable, seizing and holding dogs for the medieval big-game hunt and then bred from those that survived. The mastiff and bulldog breeds that resulted deserve our respect and merit being bred to their classic design rather than some artificially-manufactured show-ring fad. But if you look at the breeds now perpetuating that ancient role all you can see is exaggeration as know-better, self-appointed breed-fanciers pervert the prototypical form that function produced for such admirable dogs. They should all spend time studying the artistic portrayals of such dogs by the best artists of their day and then have the humility to see where they are going wrong, then quickly put it right. Brave dogs deserve brave breeders!