Works of art
| Group: Non_Sporting
Breed Family: Bulldog
Rivaled only by the Mastiff as a contender for England's national breed, the Bulldog is also one of England's oldest and most beloved dogs. Bred originally as a guard dog and to bait bulls and bears, the pre-nineteenth century history of the Bulldog would rather be forgotten by most modern fanciers of the breed. As the eminent historian on the Bulldog, Edgar Farman, writing in 1899, pointed out,
"The Bulldog has undoubtedly suffered considerably from its association with the lower classes of the community, especially from the time that bull-baiting ceased to be a fashionable pastime until the close of that still more degenerate period in the early years of the present century, when a lower depth of brutality than bull-baiting had been reached, and the "bloodthirsty" sport of dog fighting was the entertainment provided for the lowest residuum of the canine fancy."
The antiquity of the Bulldog has long been controversial, and the first mention of a Bulldog with an approach to its modern spelling was by Edward Jesse, in 1832, writing of "a good Mastive dogge" and "two good Bulldogs." The physical characteristics of the breed distinguish it from the Mastiff, as it was actually developed in order that it might perform its principal task - that of grasping the bull's nose and not letting go. Farman points out that:
"The under jaw projects beyond the upper, to enable the dog when running directly to the front to grasp the bull, and when fixed, to give him a firmer hold. The lower jaw being very thick and strong gives to the mouth an appearance of curving upwards across the middle of the face. The top of the nose inclines backwards, so as to allow free passage of air into the nostrils whilst 'holding' onto the bull."
While it seems bizarre indeed to modern sensibilities, the training of bulls, bears, horses and other animals for the purpose of baiting them with dogs was a common practice from the reign of King John (1199-1216) onwards, and it is somewhat obscure how it originated. The Survey of Stamford credits the then Earl of Surrey, who was also Lord of Stamford, with introducing bull baiting into Stamford. Evidently the Earl, standing upon the castle walls of Stamford, saw two bulls fighting in an adjacent meadow, until a group of dogs belonging to the local butchers pursued one of the bulls. Much to the delight of the Earl, the furious bull ran through the entire town with the dogs yelping at his heels.
The sight so pleased the Earl that he donated all the meadows where the duel between the bulls first began, afterwards known as the Castle meadows, to the butchers of the town, but on one condition. The butchers were to find a mad bull six weeks before Christmas day for the continuance of the sport every year.
Over the years, the practice spread, as did the belief that if a bull were to be slaughtered, it should first be baited so that the meat would be more tender and edible. Indeed, in some small towns, a butcher who sold the flesh of a bull in the market without having first produced the animal on the previous market day to be baited, was liable to a penalty.
In bull baiting, the objective for the dog was to "pin and hold" the bull, that is to seize the bull by the nose and then not let go. The bull had a collar about his neck fastened to a rope some four or five yards long, hung to a hook and attached to a stake so that he might turn around. A circular low ditch was provided for additional sport, so that the bull could hide his nose from the dog. The dogs were held back by their masters, and usually let go one at a time on the bull, who would attempt to hide his nose into the small ditch provided for him. Inevitably, though, the Bulldog would fiercely bite onto the bull's nose, and not let go. The bull, in terrible pain, would try to throw the dog, and often succeed, hence the many paintings which depict the Bulldog flying high in the air after being thrown by the bull. Considered a sport at the time, many wagers were placed on which dog might hold on the longest, and dog after dog was let loose on the bull until he succumbed.
By around 1800 there was a great resistance to the cruel sport, and in 1835, bull baiting, bear baiting and organized dog fighting were prohibited by Act of Parliament. Pitting one dog against another for "sport", however, had been popular and although outlawed, its practice continues even to the present day.
Dog fighting declined after the passage of the 1835 Act, and some nineteenth century authors feel that from that point onward the Bulldog began to go down hill. Edgar Farman, for instance, states that the breed began to deteriorate 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, and which was a dangerous customer at any time. For the show bench as an object lesson of what can be done by scientific breeding for "points," the bulldog is an excellent example of the triumph of man over nature, but as an example of what the dog originally was he can hardly be considered a success."