Weird History
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Ways Bulldogs Have Changed Over Time

Updated July 17, 2019 9.4k views14 items

Commonly tied to the 17th-century practice of bull-baiting, the bulldog may have roots that reach further back into history. Bulldog evolution reveals how they have changed over the centuries while offering insights into human motives and techniques for manipulating the breed.

As a mascot, a companion, and a beloved family pet, bulldogs have long represented strength, but numerous aesthetic changes have altered their health and lifespan. By looking at where the bulldog has been, you may be able to see just where the breed will go next. 

  • Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5

    Ancient Romans Supposedly Used Animals Resembling Early Bulldogs

    After the Romans conquered Britain in the first century, dogs were one of the many resources they imported from the isle. Possibly related to a mastiff, Pugnaces Britanniae may have been the ancestor to modern bulldogs.

    These "broad-mouthed dogs of Britain" could also have been related to the now-extinct Alaunt breed. As dogs of combat, the Alaunt were bred by members of the Alani tribe from the Caucasus for hunting and herding.

    The dogs were used in combat in amphitheaters. According to the 3rd-century Roman poet Nemesianus, "sundered Britain sends us a swift sort, adapted to hunting-tasks in our world." The dogs were supposedly so strong that, in the words of 4th-century poet Claudian, "they [could] break the backs of mighty bulls."

  • Photo: Thomas Clayton / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Bulldogs Used To Be Slimmer And Have Longer Snouts

    Early bulldogs (the ones used for baiting) were called "Mastyne" or "Bandogge" during the late 16th century. They were described as "vast, huge, stubborn, ugly, and eager." Though smaller than modern bulldogs, they possessed longer jaws and bigger ears. During the 1700s, they averaged 40 to 50 pounds and sported "a heavy and burdensome body."

    Often tasked with keeping watch over farms and households, these bulldog predecessors were "serviceable against the fox, and the badger" and could "drive wild and tame swine out of meadows." They could also "take the bull by the ear, when occasion requireth."

    According to contemporary accounts, one or two bulldogs were allegedly sufficient to handle a bull. Three could handle a bear and four was a good number to deal with a lion.

  • Photo: Edward Orme / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Bulldogs Were Specifically Bred For Use In Bull-Baiting

    Because bulldogs were strong and brave, they began to be used and trained specifically for bull-baiting. One 16th-century author wrote that men would "teach their dogs to bait the bear; to bait the bull, and other like cruel and bloody beasts... without any collar to defend their throats." This training involved fighting a human armed with "either a pikestaff, a club, or sword" for their own safety.

    Soon, training wasn't enough. Because bull-baiting was a betting sport, people began looking for stronger and larger dogs. They began breeding dogs to make their heads and jaws stronger, while simultaneously making their temperaments more ferocious. At the height of the bull-baiting craze in England, bulldogs weighed as much as 80 to 100 pounds. The practice ended in 1835.

    Bulldogs weren't the only canines to derive their name from baiting. For much of their history, pit bulls were similarly tied to the practice. Unlike the bulldog, they continue to be stigmatized for it today.

  • Photo: Philip Reinagle / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mastiffs and Bulldogs Weren't Clearly Distinguished Until The 17th Century 

    In 1631, a Spaniard wrote to his colleague in England to request "a good Mastive dog, a case of liquor and I beg you to get for me some good bulldoggs." This is the first clear delineation between mastiffs and bulldogs in recorded history.

    In Johannes Caius's description of the breeds some five years earlier, they seem to be interchangeable in terms of strength, size, and use. What led to the distinction remains unclear, but it coincided with changing attitudes about dogs in general.

    While many dogs remained work animals, increased urbanization and aristocratic distinctions made dog ownership more of a recreational pastime. For example, fox hunting dogs were increasingly tied to social rank.