The Old English Bulldog was the original variety of the English Bulldog. The Old English Bulldog was a very different animal from its modern descendant; longer-legged, longer-snouted, considerably more athletic and energetic, and a great deal more aggressive and ferocious. The breed was developed to subdue bulls in a blood sport known as bull-baiting, and was exported across the world. One of the most popular breeds in the British Empire, the Old English Bulldog was the direct ancestor to dozens of breeds found across the world. Changing social mores meant that the Old English Bulldog was left without a job. The breed was saved by a large number of fanciers who developed the breed into a companion animal, but one that was so different from the original breed that it is often considered a separate variety or sometimes a unique breed, the modern English Bulldog. There have been numerous attempts to recreate the Old English Bulldog in recent decades, which have resulted in the development of numerous new Bulldog breeds.
Perhaps no dog breed has as disputed a history as the Old English Bulldog. Although a great deal is said about its ancestry, much of the information is conflicting, and there is almost no solid evidence to support any of it. What is known for sure is that the Old English Bulldog was developed primarily in England and that it was quite common throughout the country by the 1600’s. The Old English Bulldog was a type of Molosser, a large group of breeds typified by large to massive size, great strength, a strong protective instinct, a widened jaw, and a brachycephalic (pushed –in) face. Native Molosser breeds were primarily found in most Western European countries, although several have long histories in Eastern Europe and the Near East as well. There is much dispute as to the origins of these dogs. They get their name from the Molossus, the primary war dog of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the prevailing theory is that they are descendants of this breed. Others dispute this and instead claim that they are descended from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and/or Phoenician dogs. Other theories have them being descended from the English Mastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux, or the Tibetan Mastiff which were then spread across the known world by the Romans. Some also believe that these dogs were introduced to Europe by the Alans, a tribe native to the Caucasus Mountains who possessed a fearsome war dog known as the Alaunt, which was almost certainly a type of Owtcharka.
However and whenever the Mastiff first arrived in England, it became a very well-known breed in that country by the end of the Dark Ages (and possibly several thousand years earlier). Known in Old English as the “Mastie” or the “Mastive,” the English primarily used their Mastiffs as beasts of war, and released them during battles to attack enemy soldiers and horses. The breed also served as a property guardian of the upper classes, kept chained during the day and then unleashed at night. Such tied Mastiffs became known as Bandogs or Bandogges. From a very early age, British farmers also realized that these dogs had great use in livestock keeping. At the time, it was a common practice to allow cattle and pigs to graze freely on commonly held land. Such animals reverted to an almost wild state, and would today be referred to as semi-feral. These half-wild bulls and hogs could be very dangerous, and were rarely rounded up easily. The English realized that their Mastiff dogs were fast enough to run down these creatures and strong enough to hold them in place until their masters were able to subdue the animal. Today, dogs used for this purpose are known as catch dogs. The broad jaw and brachycephalic head of the Mastiff are usually a liability when the breed engages in rigorous physical activity because they make it more difficult for the dog to breathe. However, they are of great advantage in bull-catching. Whereas most dogs have a narrow bite that a bull could easily twist itself out of, the wide bite of the Mastiff allows to hold firmly onto even the strongest and most determined bull. It was not only the English who learned that the Mastiff could be used as a highly skilled bull-catching dog. Both the Germans and the Spanish developed Mastiff breeds specifically for that purpose, respectively the Bullenbeiser (Bull Biter) and the Alano (Alaunt).
Gradually, the agricultural necessity of bull-catching evolved into a very popular sport in England, known as bull-baiting. The sport involved a bull being tied to an iron stake in the center of a ring or pit. The bull typically was given about a thirty foot radius in which to move. Often pepper would be shoved up the bull’s nose or it would be otherwise taunted to enrage it. Mastiffs would then be sent in to subdue the bull by grabbing a hold of its snout and holding it in place for a certain amount of time. These battles could last longer than an hour, and frequently resulted in the bull and/or Mastiff dying of exhaustion or other injuries. Bull-baiting events were not only entertainment, but also major social events and the scene of large amounts of gambling. Eventually, the sport became so commonplace that it was seen as a necessity, and butchers who sold the meat of bulls that had not been baited were criminally liable for selling meat unfit for human consumption.
At first, all Mastiffs in England were very similar, but this began to change over time. Although the original Mastiff was immensely powerful and courageous, it was not ideally suited for bull-baiting. Its great size provided the bull a much greater area to gore or kick, as well as making it extremely expensive to keep. The great height of the Mastiff meant that it had a very high center of gravity, which made it much more difficult for the dog to counteract the tremendous force of an enraged bull. Perhaps of greatest concern to bull-baiters was the Mastiff’s evolving temperament. Mastiffs bred to spend most of their lives on a chain became considerably less athletic and energetic. Additionally, changing social mores meant that it was greatly preferred for Mastiffs to tackle intruders and hold them down without attacking them and much of the dog’s aggression was bred out. When fighting a bull, a dog needs to be extremely aggressive and willing to attack without stopping. Gradually, two distinct lines of Mastiff were developed, a larger, slower, less athletic type bred primarily as a property guardian and a competitor in bear-baiting (a sport that pitted Mastiffs against a bear in a fight to the death), and a smaller, more aggressive, and more athletic type used for bull-baiting. Eventually, the smaller type became so distinct that it became a unique breed, known as the Bulldog or Bulldogge. Although there is very little evidence to prove it, it is widely believed that the Alano of Spain and the Bullenbeiser of the Holy Roman Empire were imported into England and crossed with bull-baiting Mastiffs to help develop the Bulldog.
It is unclear exactly when the split between the Mastiff and the Bulldog occurs. Some claim that it may have been more than a thousand years ago, but this is very unlikely due to the paucity of evidence. In 1576, Johannes Caius wrote the first major work dedicated to the dog breeds of Great Britain. His work is considered a classic in the field, and is known for its breadth and detail. Caius makes no reference at all to a Bulldog or Bulldogge, but goes into great depth describing the “Mastive” or “Bandogge.” He describes the massive size, immense strength, and brachycephalic face of the breed, and also tells of its great skill as a property guardian, bear-baiter, and bull-baiter. Because Caius’s work was so in depth, the absence of the Bulldog from his work provides strong evidence that the breed either did not exist at the time or was not widely considered to be a separate breed. The first strong evidence of a unique Bulldog breed comes from 1631. In that year, the Englishman Prestwich Easton was residing in San Sebastian, Spain. He wrote a letter to a good friend in London, George Wellingham, asking him to send him several items including, “a good Mastive dog, a case of liquour, and I beg you to get for me some good bulldogges.” This letter is especially important to Bulldog historians because it includes mentions both the Mastiff and the Bulldog, and makes it clear that they are seen to be different animals.
Exactly what happened between 1576 and 1631 to distinguish the Mastiff and the Bulldog is unclear. Some claim that Alano and/or Bullenbeiser blood was first introduced at this time, creating a different animal. Although such a theory is possible, it is perhaps more likely that the distinction was a result of the growing popularity of bull-baiting. Although popular for centuries before, bull-baiting reached its pinnacle of success in the 17th and 18th Centuries. During this time, the sport was one of the most popular with the British middle and lower classes, and was perhaps the most popular of all. This increased popularity may have motivated breeders to develop more specialized dogs, which became more distinct as a result. It is also quite possible that the increased popularity of bull-baiting simply increased the public’s familiarity with the dogs used in the sport and they were more inclined to see them as being different from the Mastiff. The full truth may actually be some combination of all three explanations.
The Old English Bulldog was a very distinct animal. It possessed the face of the Mastiff, but was generally slightly more brachycephalic and wrinkly. The dog was much shorter than its ancestor, but was still relatively tall. Extremely muscular and powerful, this breed was one of the most physically impressive in history. Most Old English Bulldogs had a long tail, although medium length and naturally bobbed ones were apparently occasionally found as well. Although typically possessing folded ears, some of these dogs had prick ears, semi-prick ears, or mixed ears. The Old English Bulldog was found in essentially every color found in domestic dogs, although dogs with solid white coats or white markings were especially common. Some have said that the white was introduced to the Bulldog as a result of crosses with the English White Terrier or the Talbot Hound, both of which are now extinct, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support this. Depictions of the Old English Bulldog are very similar to modern day American Bulldogs and Olde English Bulldogges, both of which are descended from that animal. In terms of temperament, the Old English Bulldog was quite ferocious. The breed was said to be absolutely fearless, and would stand its ground versus any opponent no matter how outclassed the dog appeared to be. It was also known to be extremely animal aggressive, and would attack and kill almost any non-human creature that it came across. The breed was also quite dog aggressive, although it was apparently capable of working in groups with other dogs on occasion. It doesn’t seem that the Old English Bulldog was particularly people aggressive, as it was regularly kept as a family dog and there are very few mentions of it being used as a protection animal.
Bull-baiting remained quite popular until the early 1800’s. However, changing times brought new social mores. Blood sports such as bull-baiting were seen as cruel and inhumane, and several attempts were made to ban them. These attempts were successful in 1835, when Parliament passed a law banning both bull-baiting and bear-baiting. Without a legal purpose, the Old English Bulldog may have gone extinct shortly thereafter as a result. However, bull-baiting continued to be practiced illegally in rural areas for many decades, possibly even into the first decades of the 20th Century. Such underground bull-baiters continued to breed Old English Bulldogs relatively unchanged from their earlier form. What really saved the Bulldog from extinction was a combination of two factors, dog fighting and dog shows.
Somewhat unusually, Parliament did not ban dog fighting, and this sport quickly took the place of bull-baiting and bear-baiting. The highly aggressive and tenacious Bulldog was the preferred competitor at early dog fighting events, but was not ideal for the purpose. The breed possessed a slow and deliberate fighting style that was excellently suited for battling a bull, but relatively boring when conducted against another dog. Additionally, although the Bulldog was aggressive enough to seriously injure another dog in a fighting pit, it was often not dog-aggressive enough to fight to the death. Dog fighters quickly discovered that crossing Bulldogs with various types of Terrier would solve most of these problems. Terriers were faster in the pit than Bulldogs, as well as being more agile, and so extremely aggressive that many were willing to fight to the death over the slightest provocation, in or out of the ring. The resulting mixes were known as Bull and Terriers, and became the premiere fighting dogs by the end of the 1830’s. Breeders continued to breed Bulldogs in order to create Bull and Terriers, in much the same way that Donkeys were primarily kept in the United States to create mules. Initially just mixes, Bull and Terriers eventually developed into several different types of purebreds, the most common of which where the Bull Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Although exact records were not kept, it is generally believed that the Bull Terrier was primarily Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier was primarily Bulldog.
At the same time as dog fighting was rising in popularity, dog shows were doing the same. By the end of the 18th Century, English Foxhound breeders had begun to keep studbooks in order to keep their lines pure and to develop the best possible dogs. The results were so successful that fanciers of many different dogs began to do the same. Eventually, dog shows were held to determine the most superior specimens, with the ideal goal of only using the best examples to breed. Bulldogs made regular appearances at the earliest dog shows, but the breed was quite variable in appearance at the time. In the 1860’s and 1870’s, the first attempts were made to form Bulldog clubs dedicated to the breeding of these dogs. In particular, many fanciers were concerned about the proliferation of Toy Bulldogs and the introduction of Spanish Bulldog (Alano) blood. They began to develop a set of appearance standards for the Bulldog. From that time on, Bulldogs were increasingly bred to meet these standards which called for a much smaller, shorter, and extremely brachycephalic animal, as well as one with a naturally short tail. Many founding members of early Bulldog clubs kept their animals primarily as companion animals rather than workings dogs, and in any case the Bulldog’s primary use was illegal. As a result, one of the primary goals was to soften the temperament of the breed and eliminate its aggression. Many claim that the introduction of Pug blood was used to do so, but this is hotly contested among Bulldog fanciers.
The Old English Bulldog had been steadily decreasing in popularity since the 1820’s, but was still relatively common until at least the 1870’s. By that time, the Bull Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier were largely purebred and didn’t need as many regular infusions of Bulldog blood. That was also the point that Bulldog breeders began to develop the modern English Bulldog breed. As the decades went on, fewer and fewer breeders created Bulldogs of the traditional type. Most of the last Old English Bulldogs were included in the breeding lines of modern English Bulldogs or those of the Bull Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. By 1913, when Vero Kemball Shaw wrote The Encyclopedia of the Kennel, the Old English Bulldog was widely considered to be extinct. It is unclear exactly when the Old English Bulldog went extinct. Some claim that it was essentially extinct as early as the late 1880’s, while many others believe that a few were still kept in rural areas well into the 20th Century, perhaps as late as World War I. It is likely that the last few purebred Old English Bulldogs were still used in illegal bull-baiting competitions.
The Old English Bulldog was one of the most popular breeds found in England for many centuries, and was exported all over the world with the British Empire. The breed was also extremely well-suited for its primary task. The dog was so immensely popular that it was been used to develop dozens of other breeds across the world. From the very earliest colonial times, English settlers brought their Bulldogs to America. They became widespread throughout the American South, where they were primarily used as catch dogs and plantation guardians. Known colloquially as English Whites, these Bulldogs remained very similar to the Old English Bulldog in temperament and appearance. Several modern breeds have been developed from this stock, including the American Bulldog, Antebellum Bulldog, Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog, Catahoula Bulldog, Old Country Bulldog, the Olde English Bulldogge, and several more recently developed breeds. In England, gamekeepers crossed the Old English Bulldog with the Mastiff to develop the Bullmastiff. Also in England, the smallest Old English Bulldogs were crossed with Pugs to develop the now-extinct Toy Bulldog, which in turn was used to develop the French Bulldog. For many centuries, the British Navy and countless British sailing fleets dominated the seas, and spread the Bulldog and its Bull and Terrier descendants across the world. Some of the many breeds that are primarily descended from these dogs include the American Staffordshire Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, Boston Terrier, Dogo Argentino, Perro de Presa Mallorquin, Bulldog Campeiro, Valley Bulldog, Bully Kutta, and Gull Terr. The Old English Bulldog was also used to improve many other dog breeds, and heavily featured into the development of the Boxer, English Foxhound, Tosa Inu, Kangaroo Dog, Pug, and dozens of others. The growing popularity of Molosser type dogs means that new breeds are constantly being developed from the Old English Bulldog’s descendants. Many of the Old English Bulldog’s descendants are counted among the world’s most popular breeds including the English Bulldog, Boxer, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and American Pit Bull Terrier, and it is highly likely that the blood of the Old English Bulldog flows through the veins of more individual dogs than any other breed in history, with the possible exceptions of the English Mastiff and the Molossus of Rome.
In recent years, a number of different breeders have initiated programs to recreate the Old English Bulldog. These programs have resulted in the development of several new dog breeds. While these programs almost exclusively use the descendants of the Old English Bulldog, primarily the English Bulldog and American Bulldog, they are still recreations as the Old English Bulldog completely died out a century ago at the latest. Some of the most popular of these recreations are the Olde English Bulldogge of the United States and the Australian Bulldog of Australia.