The bull dog type of dog is a genetic subgroup developed from the broad-mouthed mastiffs and the old British “pugnaces” (“attackers”) guardian dogs. Types of guardian dogs were used for thousands of years as courageous and impressive fighters in combat dating back to ancient Rome. They were prized as formidable gladiators. The popular blood-sport entertainment of the time would draw spectators by the thousands to witness contests between men and between beasts. Bears and other wild animals were often “baited”—chained and enraged—in an arena and then released to fight these powerful Molosser-type dogs in a contest of strength and skill. The practice of animal baiting for entertainment and gambling shamefully continued as a common pastime for thousands of years, especially among the noble class and among royalty, with famous queens even breeding fighting dogs of their own for such events.
By the sixteenth century, bears had become increasingly difficult to acquire, so bulls became the opponent of choice to compete against these dogs. So this group of dogs were developed specifically for the job of bringing down massive bulls. These “bull dogs” were largely developed from the smaller variety of their guardian ancestors—the “butcher’s dog”—which had been used for herding, protecting the livestock, and for catching loose cattle.
Predatory “gameness” and other distinct behavioral traits (such as having the ability to clench a bull by the nose and twist until the bull was brought down) were carefully bred into these dogs. Breeders wanted all of the dog’s energy to be concentrated into a quick, full engagement of this grab-bite behavior, exaggerating this component of the dog’s predatory sequence (orient-eye-stalk-chase-grab bite-kill bite-dissect/consume). They did not want a dog who was going to waste precious time and energy warning or hesitating to face his opponent. For the bull breeders, it was all about breeding a dog who could get the job done.
Remarkably, increasing the bull dog’s ability to engage so formidably in altercations with other large target animals did not increase any tendencies for aggression toward people. In fact, bull dogs were deliberately bred for the ability to be easily handled. Contrary to popular opinion, these dogs were not bred to be more aggressive than other dogs but rather bred to be less aggressive and more docile in general nature (while perfecting their ability to unemotionally execute in a very specific set of circumstances).
Both bear and bull baiting were prevalent in other countries such as Spain, Portugal, Germany, and France; but England was by far the epicenter of the sport’s activity. Bull dogs were rapidly bred and improved throughout England as bull-baiting arenas became increasingly commonplace in townships until its peak in the early nineteenth century. Bylaws requiring bulls to be baited before slaughter were even passed, as the meat was believed to be tenderized by the process of baiting.
Bull-baiting and fighting between animals of any variety was eventually outlawed in England with the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835. Unfortunately, this only set the stage for the underground emergence of dog fighting. The size of the arena required for dog fights—far smaller “pits” than those required for the baiting of larger animals—made it difficult for authorities to discover these illegal activities and enforce the law, and the sport flourished underground throughout Europe. By the end of the Civil War, interest and participation in dogfighting was widespread across the United States as well.
Bull dogs of many varieties have been developed since the dawn of the world’s first original bull-baiters bred in England. Though bull dogs are some of the most companionable pet dogs in the world, bred largely for their exceedingly good nature with people, bull dogs of many kinds have also continued to be selectively bred for their astonishing fighting attributes as the illegal world of dog fighting has continued to flourish into the twenty-first century.
Bull dogs have been used for other valuable jobs over the years, from defense against and the hunting of aggressive feral hogs to personal protection and companionship. They remain one of the most popular groups of dogs in the world, valued for their remarkable temperaments and adaptiveness to pet lifestyles outside of the contest environment.