The Toy Bulldog was a miniature variety of the English Bulldog popular for several decades of the 19th Century. Developed from the Old English Bulldog and the Pug, the Toy Bulldog was primarily used as a companion dog. The Toy Bulldog became especially popular in France where it was used to create the French Bulldog. Disfavored by English breeders who felt that it was a threat to the English Bulldog, the breed fell into disfavor and eventually went extinct. There are currently a number of breeding programs operating around the world developing new “Toy Bulldogs” but these are all merely recreations of the earlier type.
The history of the Toy Bulldog began with that of the Old English Bulldog, an older variety of the English Bulldog that is now widely (albeit not universally) regarded to be extinct. There is perhaps no dog breed whose history is as disputed as that of the Old English Bulldog. There are thousands of claims made about its ancestry, but virtually none of them have even the slightest bit of solid evidence to back them up. All that is known for sure is that the dog was developed primarily in England, and that it was quite common by the 1600’s, even though it may have been developed centuries earlier.
It is widely believed that the Bulldog was bred down in size from the Bandogge or Mastiff. Present in England since Roman Times, and perhaps for thousands of years before, the English Mastiff originally served as a beast of war, used to attack enemy soldiers. As military technology changed, the role of the Mastiff was shifted to use primarily as a property guardian, kept tethered during the day with heavy metal chains and let loose at night. The Mastiff was also used for farm work. During the middle ages, it was a common practice to keep livestock in a semi-wild state. Bulls often wandered at large, becoming semi-feral. Rounding up these massive beasts was could be quite a challenge, and often required the use of Mastiffs. The breed was strong enough to catch a full-grown bull by the nose and hold it in place until the farmer could get there to subdue it. Sometimes a dog would have to hold on to a bull for an hour or more, and it was not unheard of for either animal to die of exhaustion during a fight. For most activities, the brachycephalic (pushed-in) face of the Mastiff is a disadvantage, as it makes it more difficult for the dog to take in enough air to breathe properly. However, such a face is actually a major benefit when holding onto bulls because it widens the jaw, giving the dog a much larger bite. These larger bites provided more stability when the bull struggled, in addition to giving the dog a firmer hold. Mastiff-type dogs are so well-suited to bull catching that farmers in other regions used them for that purpose as well. The most renowned of such dogs were the various types of Spanish Alano and the Bullenbeiser of the Holy Roman Empire, whose name translates into English as the, “Bull Biter.”
Over time, the catching of bulls in the field evolved into a very popular sport, known as bull-baiting. Bull-baiting involved a bull being tied to an iron stake in either a ring or a pit. Mastiff-type dogs would then be pitted in combat against the bull until they had a secure hold on its snout and held it firmly in place for a certain amount of time. Bull-baiting became one of the most, if not the most, popular sports in England. Bull-baiting became so commonplace that it became seen as a necessity, and butchers who sold the meat of bulls that had not been baited were liable for criminal penalties for selling food unfit for human consumption. As bull-baiting became more prevalent, breeders worked to develop dogs that were more ideally suited for it. While immensely powerful and unfailingly courageous, the Mastiff has limitations as a bull-baiter. Its great height gives it a very high center of gravity, which makes it more difficult for the dog to counteract the tremendous might of an enraged bull. The dog’s large size also gave the dog a much greater area for the bull to gore or kick, in addition to making the dog incredibly expensive to keep. Centuries of breeding dogs that were to spend most of their lives tied with chains meant that Mastiff was not particularly athletic or energetic. Over the centuries, two distinct lines of Mastiff were developed: a larger, taller, type used for property guarding and bear-baiting, and a shorter, more athletic type used for bull-baiting. It is often said that the breeding lines of the bull-baiting Mastiff were heavily influenced by Spanish Alanos and/or German Bullenbeisers. This is certainly possible, and perhaps likely, but no evidence has survived.
At some point, the bull-baiting Mastiff became so distinct that it was seen as a unique breed. It is unclear when this distinction was made clear. Some claim that it goes back over a thousand years, but it is unclear what those claims are based on. In 1576, Johannes Caius wrote the first major book about British dog breeds, describing the many varieties of dog found in Britain and their uses. He makes no mention of the Bulldog whatsoever, but does go into very great depth about the, “Mastive,” or “Bandogge.” He described the breed’s strength, power, courage, and bull-baiting ability. Due to the great quality and breadth of Johannes Caius’s writing, it is highly likely that at that time the Bulldog was either not a separate breed at all or at least was not widely considered to be. The first clear evidence for the Bulldog as a unique breed comes from 1631, In that year, the Englishman Prestwich Easton, then residing in San Sebastian, Spain, wrote a letter to his friend George Wellingham in London. Easton asks his friend for, “A good mastive dog, a case of liquor, and I beg you to get for me some good bulldogges.” This letter is especially strong evidence that the two breeds were distinct at this point as Easton mentions both separately and clearly considered them to be different animals.
During the 17th and 18th Centuries, bull-baiting reached the peak of its popularity in England. Bull-baiting was one of the premier forms of entertainment for the English commoner, along with the gambling that regularly accompanied it. Bulldogs, the primary participants in these events, became some of the most well-known and common dogs across Britain. Although these dogs were bred across the United Kingdom, those from London, Birmingham, and Sheffield were considered to be of the highest quality. British explorers and settlers brought Bulldogs with them across the world, where they were used to develop numerous other breeds. However, social mores in England were beginning to change by the early 1800’s. Blood sports were increasingly seen as cruel and vicious and attempts were made to ban them. These efforts were successful in 1835, when both bull-baiting and bear-baiting were made illegal by Parliament. Without a legal purpose, the Bulldog may have gone extinct. However, dog fighting, which was frequently conducted with bulldogs, was still legal and became widespread, and in any case bull-baiting was regularly practiced in rural areas for several decades.
Although it is not clear exactly when the process started, at some point in the early 19th Century, British breeders began to breed Bulldogs exclusively for companionship. These breeders greatly favored smaller animals, and regularly crossed them with the similar looking Pug and occasionally a small terrier. The resulting dogs were stockier than the original form, as well as being much smaller and less ferocious. Additionally, these dogs had a slightly longer body and relatively shorter legs than other Bulldogs. Some breeders favored even smaller dogs, and bred Bulldogs which were regularly as small as 8 pounds. These dogs became known as Toy Bulldogs, and were quite widespread by 1850. These Toy Bulldogs became especially popular with urban factory workers who lived in such cramped conditions that a small dog was a necessity. At the same time, there was a growing movement to standardize various British dog breeds.
Inspired by the efforts of Foxhound breeders, who had begun to keep studbooks in the 1700’s, breeders of the Bulldog and other dogs began to organize their breeding efforts and to keep records of them. Eventually, dog shows were held so that the best specimens could be chosen, and used to breed the next generation. Toy Bulldogs were regularly exhibited in the earliest dog shows, sometimes independently and other times alongside other Bulldogs or even Pugs. At the time, all Bulldogs occasionally had prick ears, but the trait was especially common in the Toy Bulldogs which had a significant amount of Terrier blood. An ideal standard for the Bulldog was drawn up and most breeders began to work towards developing dogs to meet it. The Toy Bulldogs were much smaller than the standards called for, and were greatly disfavored by most Bulldog breeders. These same breeders also greatly disfavored prick-eared Bulldogs. Many of these breeders actually considered Toy Bulldogs to be a serious threat to the Bulldog breed because they feared they would permanently change the nature of the older breed.
The Industrial Revolution brought sweeping changes, some of which resulting in the loss of jobs. Such was the case with lace workers in the English city of Nottingham. Their employment terminated due to technological advancement by the mid-1800’s, they began to settle in Normandy, a region of France directly across the English Channel, to continue practicing their trade. They brought along many British breeds with them, but seemed to especially favor Toy Bulldogs. These small Bulldogs caused a great stir in France, and almost immediately became immensely popular. The French not only favored the smallest Bulldogs, but also those with prick ears. Wealthy French fanciers began to import every Toy Bulldog from England that they were able, especially those that most suited the French fancy. Ironically, British Bulldog breeders thought that they were pulling a fast one on their French counterparts by selling them what they considered to be their most inferior stock, but those dogs that were least desirable to the British were most desirable to the French. A few Toy Bulldog kennels were actually created with the express intent of sale to the French market. These dogs would eventually develop into an entirely new breed, the French Bulldog. Breeding records were not kept of early French Bulldogs, and it is very possible that Pugs, Terriers, and other dogs were added to its bloodlines. It is also widely believed that a few Toy Bulldogs were exported to America where they may have influenced the development of the Boston Terrier, but this may or may not have been the case.
During the last few decades of the 19th Century, the Toy Bulldog became increasingly rare in Britain. The vast majority of the population was exported to France, where they were more desirable and brought a greater profit. Those few dogs that remained in Britain were increasingly rarely bred as they did not fit the accepted Bulldog standard. Toy Bulldogs were still found in England until at least the first decade of the 20th Century, but were already quite rare. The breed became totally extinct at some unknown point, but most likely between 1905 and 1925. It is possible that the hardships wrought by World War I were the breed’s final death blow, but it had been on the decline for many decades previously.
In recent decades, the popularity of the English Bulldog has increased dramatically, especially in the United States. Breeders across the world have begun developing new versions of Toy and Miniature Bulldog. Some of these programs exclusively use small Bulldogs, while others cross Bulldogs with other breeds. These dogs are not the original Toy Bulldog, and almost certainly cannot trace their lineage back to the earlier breed. Instead, they are recreations of the earlier type. Although not currently recognized by any major Kennel Club, a number of rare breed registries are starting to recognize them and keep studbooks.