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What Are Bulldogs Bred For? – Jobs, Roles & Origins of the English Bulldog

Bulldogs were originally bred for bull-baiting and other various blood sports.
Written by Richard Jeng

Bulldogs have made their way into the mainstream as loving and silly family dogs. But with their flappy skin, a scrunched face and bulky build, many people often question the purpose of these dogs. There’s more to the Bulldog history than you know.

So, what were Bulldogs bred for? Bulldogs were, as their name implies, simply dogs that were bred for bull-baiting. It was a gory blood sport which took place in towns and villages all across England during the Middle Ages. Bulls were variously pitted against Bulldogs and other animals in this sport.

The spectacle of a bull fighting was entertainment for people from all British classes. The result of these fights was one victor and one dead loser. Eventually, bull-baiting and other cruel blood sports were banned in England by the Act of Parliament in 1835.

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Purpose-Breeding Bulldogs

Dogs as pets and companions are a relatively recent phenomenon. We humans live in an age of plenty, when we have the luxury of time and resources to have pets and pamper them. But this wasn’t always the case.

For much of human history, life was hard and it was a hardscrabble existence for most. Dogs were domesticated over thousands of years ago as pre-historic humans found that dogs could be of help with hunting, herding, pulling things and other activities.

However, a single dog breed could not excel at doing all the things humans wanted them to do. Rather, humans discovered that you could selectively breed dogs with particular qualities and characteristics to refine a specialized breed over many generations.

Those traits would get accentuated and thus a dog “breed” would come into being. Various dog breeds were good at doing a particular thing whether it be guarding, pointing, herding, hunting, pulling a cart or a sled.

In other words, all dogs were bred for a certain task, job or role in society. And, Bulldogs are no exception. Both the temperament and physical qualities of Bulldogs were purposely bred for a reason. Read on to find how what the reason was.

What Bulldogs Were Bred to Do

As humans acquired the skills of growing food through agriculture and of storing food, they had “leisure time” on their hands for the first time in their existence. And in those pre-Internet days, humans turned to types of fighting activities to entertain themselves.

Bull-baiting was one such blood sport in which bulls would fight with bears or dogs. For the purpose of bull-baiting, they needed a dog that would be borderline crazy and aggressive to be willing to taunt a 1,000-pound bull.

This is where the Bulldog came in. With the short stature, muscular structure, tenacious attitude and specific facial characteristics, Bulldogs were ideal for the “job.” And for a long time, this was the only job that the Bulldog had in society.

Bulldogs in Bull-Baiting

The English, through the centuries, were fond of dog-fighting and bull-baiting among other cruel blood sports. However, bull-bating may have been the most infamous sport, which featured a more aggressive Bulldog breed.

Bulldogs were used in bull-baiting to pin and hold the bull by its nose. As the bull tried to free its muzzle by lowering its head to use its horns, the Bulldog too would “play low” or keep close to the ground to avoid being struck and injured.

To provide an advantage to the Bulldogs, the bull was also anchored to an iron ring attached to a heavy stone or a stake driven into the ground. Plus, they were secured with a rope of about fifteen feet in length to limit their mobility around the ring.

The bulls had a freedom of movement of about 30 feet. As the bull-baiting proceeded, the bull would keep his nose close to the ground and the Bulldog would keep his head low on the floor. It’s a most extreme game of attrition – survival of the fittest.

A Bulldog could take a lot of beating and survive. After all, they were bred to withstand tough punishment from the much-larger bull. They could even kill the bull, whereas other dog breeds would have met a swift and gory end if tasked with fighting a fearsome, angry bull.

This is why Bulldogs were bred — to take on, taunt and even kill the bull. It’s was a dark past for both humans and Bulldogs. You could say the job of the Bulldog was to try and latch on to the bull’s nose and not let go till the bull died from bleeding.

The Butcher’s Dog

Don’t worry, not all past Bulldogs were used for dog-fighting and other blood sports. There is some good in their history, such as being the ultimate assistants and work dogs for butchers. In fact, this was originally how they got their names.

Before the bull-baiting, Bulldogs were used as working dogs for slaughterhouses. As a result, a Bulldog was also called a “butcher dog” due to its profession. Their primary role was to keep the bulls (and other livestock) in check to prevent injury to the butcher.

Though there’s no definitive proof, many historians believed that the Bulldogs also acted as the guardian for the Butcher. Much like the Rottweilers, Bulldogs would have made great guards of the money when butchers were at the market.

Regardless of the specific tasks, Bulldogs were essential to their butchers. And since they were first working dogs before fighters, their strong work ethics still remain in these dogs today. But instead of tedious tasks, they’ll be “working” by playing.

Bulldog as a Companion

Historians consider the Old English Bulldog to be a descendant of ancient war dogs, such as the “Alaunt” or the old Mastiff. However, the modern-day Bulldog has certainly come a long way since the beginning.

And while their past can be considered a gloomy one, the comeback of the Bulldog is one that made one of the most popular dogs in the world. The modern Bulldog is almost solely bred for companionship. As such, they’re much different than the past.

When bull-baiting was rightfully banned, the existence of Bulldogs was threatened. In just a few short years, the banning led these dogs to the verge of extinction. The only way to keep them relevant was to reinvent the Bulldog. And so that’s what they did.

He is wonderful around my grandchildren. My oldest is 7 and scared of my bulldog, but he senses that so he will kneel in front of her to let her know he wont hurt her.

– Outcasinnc (City Data)

Today, Bulldogs tend to be sweet-natured and reliable dogs. In fact, the aggressiveness and “dangerous” aspect of these dogs had long been bred out of them. They’re so affectionate and calm, that many consider them excellent dogs for kids.

Eventually, the remaining Bulldogs which had been bred for bull-baiting were long gone. Their image quickly changed from a hard-working dog, to a fighter, and eventually a kind and sweet dog breed. These are the Bulldogs we know today.

Popularity of Bull-Baiting

Queen Elizabeth was among the connoisseurs of bull-baiting who often had parties around bull-baiting — sort of like summer BBQ parties but for the Elizabethan Era. It was a national sport in England from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century.

Bull-baiting was so popular that there arose a demand for dogs suited for this sport. The dogs were naturally bred to be ferocious, powerful, and courageous. These were your Bulldogs, which eventually evolved into Pit Bulls.

The scenery is graphic: many dogs could be found at early English bull-baiting events with their organs hanging out, still urged to fight the bull. It was truly a horrific sight to see, and one that I wish to never be able to witness.

Bull-baiting was not a normal sport – it was ingrained into English lifestyle. As such, Butchers could be liable to a penalty in many English towns if they sold the flesh of a bull in the market without that bull having participated in bull-baiting the previous day.

Why was this necessary? It was universally believed that the flesh of a baited bull was more tender and nutritious than that of bulls slaughtered without first participating in bull-baiting. Of course, there’s no science to back this up.

The good news is that bull-baiting was ultimately abolished but only after heated debates in the House of Commons. Though, the 1802 bill was defeated and bull-baiting continued until the mid and late 1800’s, when it was finally banned by the Cruelty to Animals Act.

Why Bulldogs Exceled at Bull-Baiting

Bulldogs were bred to be excellent at fighting bulls. There’s more to a good bull fighter than a dog that’s trained to fight. Several generations of work was put into developing the ultimate bull-fighting dog. Here’s why and how Bulldogs fit the bill.

Bulldogs were aggressive in nature which made them want and dare to fight an animal several times their own size. Combined with their particular physical characteristics, this ambition was not completely “fool-hardy.”

Qualities of a Bull-Baiting Dog

The short stature of a Bulldog, while seen as a disadvantage today, was ideal for bull-baiting. This meant a low center of gravity for the Bulldogs. The bully’s short legs also helped with preventing spinal injuries when bulls would plough their horns.

These dogs take a beating from bulls. And by beating, I mean they were often outmatched by the sheer power of the bull. Short legs also helped when bulls would shake them in the air or when bulls would try to gore them on the ground.

With their strong jaws, Bulldogs could hold on to a bull’s nose and not let go till the bull bled to death. As a bull swings his torso and head, it’s in the Bulldog’s interest to hold on and hang tight, otherwise they’ll be flung across the ring.

Those loose folds of skin of the Bulldog served as protection for the Bulldog’s vital organs. The face wrinkles, a distinctive feature of Bulldogs, helps move blood down their faces to keep the blood out of their eyes. All of which, were very useful.

It’s worth noting that Bulldogs had short snouts and flat faces that wasn’t really an advantage, though that wasn’t known at the time. They’re called brachycephalic dogs, and the unique facial structure actually restricts airflow in high-endurance situations.

Bulldog’s Transition Into Pets

Bulldogs are not smart when it comes to working and obedience.

There are two epochs (periods of time) in which we can divide the story of Bulldogs: one was the time before bull-baiting was banned and the other epoch being the time after bull-baiting was banned.

Clearly, once Bulldogs could no longer indulge in bull-baiting or could not be forced to fight gory battles with bulls, they needed another reason to justify their existence. The modern breeds of Bulldogs eventually found patrons due to their inherently loving nature.

Needless to say, the transition into pets was smooth. Bulldogs remain one of the most popular breeds in America today. And while Taco Bell may not have taken a liking to Bulldogs, lots of colleges, universities and the US Marines use a Bulldog as their mascot.

The Bulldog’s Nature and Fitness

Bulldogs aren’t the smartest dog breeds (though smarter than you think) nor as famous as the breeds loved by Elvis Presley. However, Bulldogs possess plenty of other characteristics that endear them to humans, and especially dog lovers.

Their pure aggression has been bred out of them, which make them friendly and docile. Bulldogs are neither the most active nor the laziest couch potatoes. In addition, they also are unfit for extremely hot or extremely cold environments.

Bulldogs are not the healthiest breed, as they are usually conceived with the help of artificial insemination and delivered by C-section. Plus, they often suffer from other ailments and health issues such as dysplasia, cherry eye and respiratory issues.

Despite all the flaws of these dogs, they are great companions that will thrive in a loving home. Given the proper socialization (they’ll need plenty of this) and obedience training, they make excellent playmates for older children.

They’re dependable dogs with a personality that’s undeniably hard to resist. Though these dogs are well past their aggressive days, you still need to be wary around them. Because they’re so energetic and lively, they may unintentionally hurt a person.

Are Bulldogs For Me?

Bulldogs have lasted centuries and shown themselves to be quite adaptable to the changing circumstances. The human-bulldog bond seems destined to endure and continue for years to come. But are Bulldogs right for you?

Bulldogs have not been Olympic mascots nor have they been a center of political controversy or been ascribed with possessing skills such as speaking a human language. However, they continue to thrive just by being who they are.

If you’re looking for a playful companion that’ll always have your back, the Bulldog may be right for you. Bring home a Bulldog and you won’t regret it. There’s a reason why they’re ranked as one of the most popular dog breeds in America (and the world!).

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About the author

Richard Jeng

Richard has been raising dogs his whole life, including a Poodle, Pomeranian, Corgi and Australian Shepherd. He's always working with animal shelters and dog rescues because of his passion for all dogs. Fun fact: his all time favorite breed is the German Shepherd. Read More.

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