Weird History
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The History of the Name "Bulldog" is Far More Horrifying Than You Can Even Imagine

Updated July 10, 2020 27.7k views8 items

How did bulldogs get their name? It's an interesting question with an even more interesting (and rather disturbing) answer. The popular breed is known today for its loyal and protective nature. Bulldogs can also be rather lazy and are great with children. But the history of bulldogs reveals that centuries ago, they were fierce and tenacious animals. The bull baiting bulldog was bred to be aggressive and used for entertainment celebrated by both the rich and poor.

During the Middle Ages, spectators would congregate in towns across England to watch a bulldog taking down a bull. It was a violent sport that was outlawed in 1835, but its outlawing almost brought the breed to extinction. Eventually, the bulldog made its way to the United States and became one of the country's most popular breeds, which is evidenced by the dozens of universities and schools that have a bulldog as their mascot. Even the Marines favor the bulldog, which is known for its strength and patience. Today, it's hard to believe that the bulldog used to be one of the most aggressive canines around.

  • Photo: Pieter Aertsen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Bulldog May Have Been The Result Of Breeding Between  A Mastiff And A Pug

    The bulldog breed has been around for a very long time. Their English roots go back to the 5th century, and some believe they are connected to the alaunt breed. Others think the bulldog was the result of a pairing between a mastiff and a pug. In 1632, a dictionary entry for the alaunt compared it to the mastiff, and a letter written that same year by one Preswick Eaton included the first known use of the word "bulldog." He wrote: "procuer mee two good Bulldogs, and let them be sent by ye first shipp." Notably, in that same letter, Eaton mentions a mastiff, which indicates that the two were distinct breeds at the time.

  • Photo: Samuel Henry Alken / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Dogs Were Specially Trained For A Popular Sport, Bull-Baiting

    Throughout history dogs performed various farm tasks, including corralling horses, cattle, and other animals. Beyond their work tasks, however, dogs were also used in a sport known as bull-baiting. A bull was chained to the ground by his neck, so he had limited mobility. The dog was trained to bite the bull's nose and hold on until: 1) he pulled the animal to the ground, or 2) the bull killed the dog. This activity was extremely popular during the Middle Ages, and it wasn't outlawed until the passage of the English Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835.

    Bulldogs became the dog of choice for this sporting event, hence their name.

    Dogs involved in bull-baiting learned how to "play low," which meant they learned how to stay close to the ground and not let their heads become targets of a bull's kicks. The larger breeds of dogs were trained to go towards a bull's stomach in order to effectively attack while evading the horns. The bull, in turn, looked for an opportunity to spear the canine with its horns and throw it up into the air.

  • Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Flickr's The Commons

    Breeders Needed Small Dogs With Strong Backs To Participate In The Sport – And The Bulldog Earned His Name

    In the beginning, mastiffs and other large dogs were used in bull-baiting. However, these dogs lumbered around and were too slow. Breeders realized that they had to develop a new kind of dog that carried more of its weight on the front of its body. This would make them less susceptible to back injury when the bulls tossed them around. The breeders also needed their dogs to be smaller so they could avoid the bulls' horns.

    The bulldogs were fierce and aggressive animals. Incredibly, it was not too difficult for an 80-pound dog to subdue a bull, which typically weighed 2,000 pounds. The bulldog would do a corkscrew and use his center of gravity to throw a bull down. It helped that the bull's nose was not only accessible, but also one of the most sensitive areas on its body.

  • Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / No restrictions

    The Loss Of Dog Life Was Incredibly High In The Sport – Many Dogs Died Or Lost Their Teeth

    Many of the dogs who participated in bull-baiting were relentless and refused to let go of the bull once they latched on to its nose. The canine would hold on until the bull swung its powerful neck around and threw the animal aside. It wasn't uncommon for dogs to break their bones or die from the sport. Some were flung into the air so violently that they lost their teeth.