The Bullenbeisser was a Molosser-type dog that was native to Germany and the Low Countries. Bred for a variety of purposes, the Bullenbeisser specialized in Bull-baiting and boar hunting. Also known as the Barenbeiszer, Bullenbijter, German Mastiff, and German Bulldog, the Bullenbeisser was relatively common throughout the lands of the Holy Roman Empire for a number of centuries but became extinct in the early 1900’s. At one point there were many distinct localized variety of Bullenbeisser, of which the smallest, known as the Brabanter, was the best-known. The Bullenbeisser is most famous for the key role it played in the development of the Boxer, one of the most popular dog breeds in the world.
Not much is known for sure about the early history of the Bullenbeisser, but the breed had a very long history in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, a conglomeration of thousands of different political bodies, which once covered all or part of modern day Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, France, Italy, Slovenia, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. The breed was primarily kept by the Germans, Dutch, Flemish, and Frisians, speakers of very closely related languages that until recent centuries were all considered to be one people. The Bullenbeisser was originally a type of Mastiff, introduced into German-Speaking lands from France, Italy, England, or possibly the Roman Empire that preceded them. Although every member of the family is different, most Mastiffs are typified by large or massive size, a brachycephalic (pushed in) head, and strong protective instinct. It is unclear exactly when Mastiffs were first introduced to Germany, but it was almost certainly during either the Late Roman Period or the Dark Ages.
Initially, the German Mastiffs were identical to other dogs of their type. Over the centuries, they became different as a result of differing local breeding preferences. In most of Western Europe (with the notable exceptions of Gascony and Naples) Mastiffs were primarily used as beasts of war and/or property guardians. Such dogs were commonly tied to a chain for their entire lives, or at least during the days. These beasts became monstrous in size and immensely powerful, but also became lazy and unathletic. By contrast, the Germans greatly preferred to use their Mastiffs for hunting. These were the only dogs that possessed the power, ferocity, and intelligence to hunt the largest and most dangerous prey found in Europe; the Boar, Bear, and Wolf. German farmers also discovered that these dogs were both fast enough to catch a recalcitrant bull or hog and powerful enough to hold it in place until they could capture or kill it. As a result of being used for more physically demanding purposes, the German Mastiffs became less bulky than similar breeds, but more athletic, energetic, physically capable, and driven.
At some point, German hunters crossed their Mastiffs with sighthounds, possibly Irish Wolfhounds imported from the British Isles. The resulting dog was ideally suited to boar hunting, earning it the name Boar Hound. Better known as the Doggen, Deutsch Dogge, or Great Dane, the Boar Hound gradually became Germany’s premiere big game hunting breed. While the older, more traditional-looking Mastiff continued to be used for hunting, it became more specialized as a working farm dog. The dog was also commonly pitted against either bulls or bears for sport, competitions known as bull-baiting and bear-baiting respectively. Eventually, the original form of the Mastiff became even smaller and more athletic than it had been previously. This breed became known as either the Barenbeiszer or the Bullenbeisser (Bullenbijter in Dutch), which means, “Bear Biter,” and “Bull Biter.”
For much of the Bullenbeisser’s existence, the Holy Roman Empire was composed of hundreds of independent states, ranging in size from a small town to the nation of Austria. Each of these states was governed in a different manner, some were democratic, others were duchies, and some were even controlled directly by the Roman Catholic Church. No matter the type, the ruling classes of many of these political bodies kept kennels of Bullenbeissers for hunting and combat, and farmers and butchers across the Empire did as well although usually for livestock catching. As a result of this political and geographic division, many different localized versions of Bullenbeisser were developed. One such variety was the Brabanter, named for its homeland of the Duchy of Brabant, divided between modern day Belgium and the Netherlands. The Brabanter was very similar to other Bullenbeissers, but was considerably smaller than most others. Beginning in the late 1500’s, the Dutch provinces became a major seafaring power. Bullenbeissers accompanied Dutch sailors and settlers across the world. In 1652, Jan Van Riebeeck brought a Bullenbijter with him when he founded Kaapstad (Cape Town), the first permanent European settlement in what is now South Africa. After which, a number of other Bullenbeissers were imported to the Cape Colony, where the breed had a major impact on the development of the Rhodesian Ridgeback and the Boerboel. It is commonly theorized that the Bullenbeisser and the English Bulldog were occasionally crossed throughout history and influenced the development of one another. However, there does not appear to be any evidence to support this.
Beginning in the early 15th Century, major technological and cultural changes began coming to Europe. The number of states in the Holy Roman Empire shrank dramatically as larger polities began to consume smaller ones. The size of the German nobility shrank, meaning that fewer and fewer people could afford to keep a kennel of Bullenbeissers. At the same time, the German population increased by a factor of several times. This resulted in more urbanization and considerably less land capable of supporting big game. The combination of these factors would have driven many hunting breeds extinct. However, the Bullenbeisser was valuable for so many purposes that it continued to be bred. Primarily kept by working farmers and butchers who could ill-afford to feed a massive dog, the breed continued to shrink in physical size. The one saving grace for the Bullenbeisser in regards to greater urbanization was that it also led to increased crime rates, which in turn led to an increased demand for guard dogs. The end result was that an ever increasing number of German urban-dwellers began to keep the Bullenbeisser for personal and property protection. The demand for smaller more affordable protection dogs meant that the Brabanter became increasingly popular, and gradually began to replace other varieties of Bullenbeisser.
Greatly reduced shipping costs meant that Germany was able to import dogs from across the world. Perhaps the most popular of these imports was the English Bulldog, at the time a very different animal, more similar to the American Bulldog of today than the modern English breed. Lithe, energetic, and indomitable in combat, the English Bulldog served very similar functions to the Bullenbeisser, but was smaller, bulkier, and came in a wider variety of colors. In order to improve their dogs, many Bullenbeisser breeders began to cross their dogs with English Bulldogs. Previously an exclusively fawn or brindle breed with or without black markings, the English Bulldog introduced a white coat to the Bullenbeisser. Other breeds were also likely crossed with the Bullenbeisser as well, such as the Bull Terrier, English White Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. At the same time, technology had begun to take the Bullenbeissers traditional functions, and new breeds such as the German Shepherd Dog were taking its roles as a protection and police dog. By the end of the 19th Century, the traditional Bullenbeisser was becoming increasingly rare and was likely slowly dying out.
During the late 1800’s, dog shows were becoming an increasingly popular pastime with the European upper-classes. This boom in popularity coincided with a tidal wave of German Nationalism inspired by the Unification of Germany led by the Prussian strongmen Otto Von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I. There was a desire throughout Germany to standardize the indigenous breeds. A number of fanciers decided to standardize the Bullenbeisser, and ideally return it to its ancestral form prior to the introduction of English Bulldog blood. These efforts were centered in Munich, and resulted in the creation of a standardized breed known as the Boxer. The first Boxers were probably about 50% Bullenbeisser and 50% English Bulldog. For a number of reasons, breeders favored the introduction of increasing amounts of Bullenbeisser blood. Many of the last Bullenbeissers were added to the bloodlines of the Boxer, which eventually became about 70% Bullenbeisser and 30% English Bulldog. However, the use of Bullenbeissers in the creation of the Boxer meant that fewer were available for breeding Bullenbeissers. The Boxer itself quickly became so popular across Germany that it completely replaced the old Bullenbeisser. By the end of World War II, the Bullenbeisser was entirely extinct as an independent breed, but may have been virtually extinct prior to the end of World War I.
In modern day, some have posited that the only true descendant of the now extinct Bullenbeisser is the American Pitbull Terrier (APT); a theory that is at the very least uneducated and at the most disproven by the known history of the APT. While there may be a connection between the APT and the ancient Barenbeiszer or Bullenbeisser (which mean, “Bear Biter,” and “Bull Biter” respectively), this connection rests solely on the theory the Bullenbeisser and the English Bulldog were occasionally crossed throughout history influencing the development of one another. There is, however, no evidence to support this, and even if this were in fact the case, the connection between the modern APT and Bullenbeisser would have been diluted to the point of non existence by crosses between the English Bulldog and fighting Terriers during the 1840’s by English dog fighters in their quest to create the ultimate fighting dog; a crossing that would result in the birth of the also now extinct Bull and Terrier (the primary ancestor of the modern APT).
A popular pit fighting dog of the 19th century, the Bull and Terrier breed would by 1860 (just two decades after its creation) begin to split into two branches, the pure white Bull Terrier and the colored forms that would eventually become recognized as a legitimate dog breed called the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The modern Staffordshire Bull Terrier being one of three breeds, along with the American Staffordshire Terrier and American Pit Bull Terrier to be classified as a Bully Breed; a group that is often collectively referred to as Pit Bulls. There is a great deal of debate as to the relationship of the three breeds, with some saying that they are completely separate breeds, and others saying that they are merely varieties of the same breed. Whatever their relation, and whether or not they bear a close resemblance to the ancient Bullenbeisser, they are a distinct genetic group all their own and not the modern reincarnation of the Bullenbeisser.
Other modern breeds believed to have either a close connection to or be a good representation of the Bullenbeisser include the aforementioned Boxer, a 70% Bullenbeisser and 30% English Bulldog mix; the Great Dane which can trace roughly half of its ancestry to that breed, and the Boerboel and Rhodesian Ridgeback that were partially descended from Bullenbeisers brought to South Africa with Dutch colonists. The Banter Bulldoggeis created in the 1990’s by Todd Tripp, of Southeast Ohio is also commonly cited to be a good modern recreation of the Bullenbeisser. Additionally many authorities on the subject feel that the present Spanish Bulldog (Alano Espanol) and very similar Dogo Argentino provide a nearly identical modern representation of the Bullenbeisser, not only in appearance but also in usage.