The Fall and Rise of the English Bulldog

Keith Stewart Thomson. American Scientist. Volume 84, Issue 3. May 1996.

The English (British) bulldog is a breed with a checkered history. It probably started out as a hunting and guard dog, a smaller variant of the mastiff. It was reviled as an untrustworthy tool for a revolting sport and then became a symbol of national courage and fortitude. Today it is merely a dysfunctional lapdog. This history should cause us to reflect not only on the real and symbolic uses to which we put our domestic animals, but also the ethics of their breeding.

These days I do not often see the journal Country Life, that staple of the English doctor’s waiting room. Indeed, I have never been quite sure whether I approve of it. It gives heavy play to subjects about which I have grave doubts, like fox hunting and debutantes, and others that I cannot afford, like fine antiques and magnificent country estates (or debutantes, for that matter). Recently a friend passed on a number of copies, and it was interesting to see how little the magazine has changed over the years–the same heavy stock, superb photographs and above all those fascinating advertisements for breathtaking country properties offered for sale at alarming prices–time warp, as they say.

Country Life’s aim is the preservation of a particular way of life in the British countryside, some where to the idealistic right of the damp cottages and backbreaking work that made it possible. It celebrates something that one could argue has been a more consistent source of strength to the nation than the Industrial Revolution ever was. Not surprisingly, therefore, the August 24, 1995, issue features the English bulldog. If ever there were a symbol of former glory that had fallen on hard times, it is the English (or British) bulldog, which urgently needs a breeding program that would restore some grace and integrity, let alone dignity, to this very ancient breed.

Bulldogs have always held an odd fascination for me, perhaps because my having grown up in England where the bulldog is an important totemic animal. I also spent 20 years at a university whose football mascot is the bulldog “Handsome Dan.” (It has to be noted that Yale’s Handsome Dan is occasionally a female, but never mind.)

Fashion Victim

Bulldogs, like train wrecks and house fires, are hard to ignore. There is an almost voyeuristic fascination in the physical deformities that have been bred into the modern bulldog–the severely brachycephalic head, prognathous upcurved mandible, distorted ears and tail. A modern bulldog, with its overly short legs, exaggerated broad stance and slow, heaving gait more resembles a veterinary rehabilitation project than a proud symbol of athletic strength or national resolve. Not only is this dog grotesquely disfigured, it is partially handicapped by the insult to its nasal and respiratory apparatus. Furthermore, bulldog pups have to be delivered by Caesarian section.

Older accounts of the bulldog always refer to its tenacity and brute strength, but they clearly refer to a different, more athletic animal. How did it come to its present sorry state of affairs?

Of course the answer is fashion and breeding for fashion. One only has to compare the English bulldog of 1996 with that of 1840 to see how fashion reinforced or, perhaps, led by those arbiters of canine conformation–the various Kennel Clubs–has changed this dog. Handsome Dan now has a face that only a mother could love. In truth, the dog is cruelly malformed.

The bulldog of the early 19th century, like those 500 years earlier, had a broad head with a moderately foreshortened muzzle, but far less so than today. Its jaw was undershot, but although the occlusion of its splayed teeth was disrupted, at least it had a functioning set of jaws. The face was heavily jowled, as in the mastiff. The dog had the characteristic four-square “bench stance,” but its legs were perhaps 10 percent longer than in today’s breed. Its ears were distorted, but its tail was long. Throughout time, the notion has been that the more repulsive its appearance, the better.

As recently as 1843, Charles Hamilton Smith in Jardine’s Natural History compared the bulldog favorably with the mastiff for size and appearance. (He also noted that the bulldog was only “favoured, and more rarely bred with care … by professed amateurs of sports (with) feelings little creditable to humanity.” It was a working dog. Unfortunately, the work for which the bulldog was bred was far from politically correct. Bull-baiting was an especially nasty “sport” that happily has gone the way of bear-baiting, cockfighting, bare-fisted prize fighting and other amusements of the culturally and ethically impaired.

However, although the uses for which it had been bred were despicable in our eyes, the dog itself had some admirable qualities, such as courage and tenacity. This stemmed in very large part from its unflinching way of attacking targets far larger than itself and, once having seized its prey, refusing to let go even if severely wounded. This made it ideal for the lovers of blood “sports.”

The sad truth of bull-baiting is that the bulldog attacked the bull by leaping up and grabbing its nose, lip or eye, eventually driving the bull to a maddened frenzy. A weak or “cowardly” dog would let go or be thrown off. It is for these dubious characteristics that the bulldog became an icon of nationalistic vigor, especially in the period from 1800 through the expansion of the Victorian empire. Winston Churchill could easily be thought of as the personification of a bulldog. Perhaps the last one.

The bulldog was always a good guard dog, but sometimes too good. Bulldogs are among the very few breeds that do not bark to signal an attack. They were prone to turn on their masters, especially if ill-treated, but even if not. As their masters in the bull-baiting years were considered no better in character than their dogs, few tears may have been shed over this.

Such a dog was something less than an easy house pet. To be fair, it was said that if the puppies were treated properly they could become exceptionally docile and loyal, excellent with children. But not with strangers. And never fully reliable. When bull-baiting was finally abolished by an enlightened British parliament in 1835, the national symbol became something of a liability. The only solution was to try and improve its temperament by breeding.

What blood stocks were blended with the original bulldog is unclear. But the result is beyond argument. A nasty transition took place from the tough English bulldog to the cruelly deformed animal we see today. To be sure, modern owners of bulldogs give them high praise for a very pleasant temperament. They are dogs of character and intelligence (but as one authority generously says, “slow”) and admirable in all ways except those related to their physical deformity. Rating now among the least athletic of dogs, puffing and grunting along, the bulldog is scarcely a well-chosen mascot for a football team, even in the Ivy League]

According to many authorities, in the late 1800s the bulldog was bred with the pug in order to improve its disposition. Supposedly this also accentuated the ferocious look of the face with the upturned jaws and dished, foreshortened muzzle. Whether the cross with pugs actually happened or not, the modern bulldog is more pacific. And, in a period of about 50 years, the bulldog acquired a smaller, more chunky body, shortened legs and a piggy little tail. Whether by design or by accident, it also acquired a drastically more distorted face. The Country Life article shows one modern bulldog in which the muzzle has almost disappeared between the eyes.

Skeletons in the Genetic Closet

Trying to unravel the genetic basis of the modern bulldog would normally be impossible. However, we can get some clues from the extraordinary work of Charles R. Stockard of Cornell University. In the 1930s Stockard conducted a range of breeding experiments on breeds of dogs, experiments on a scale that could never be countenanced today. His aim was to discover the endocrinological basis of size, shape and temperament in dogs. In this he largely failed. However, his experiments revealed a lot about the basic heritability of various skeletal traits.

It will not have escaped the reader’s attention (as they used to say in the days when bulldogs were real dogs) that craniofacial malformation is superficially similar in the bulldog, pug, Boston terrier and Pekingese. It is the result of various forms of chondrodystrophy of the developing axial skeleton, revealed most strongly at the two extremes–face and tail. Similarly, the dwarfed distortion of the limbs in basset hounds and dachshunds is due to chondrodystrophy of the appendicular skeleton.

In other words, these malformations result from a developmental defect in the precartilaginous stage of bone formation. Once the defective templates have been set in place, bone tissue develops more or less normally. These dogs are being bred to preserve and even accentuate birth defects that we would be happy to cure in people (where chondrodystrophy leads to a common form of dwarfism affecting most of the skeleton.)

Stockard showed that chondrodystrophy of the limbs of bassets and dachshunds is apparently the result of a single dominant gene. Stockard readily produced crosses between German shepherds and basset hounds, and between saluki and Pekingese, in which all of the resulting first-generation progeny had the typical dwarfed legs. In all cases, the extent of the phenotypic expression of the “gene” depended in part on the genetic background into which it was bred.

The characteristically broad skull and shortened face of the bulldog turns out to be under the control of a complex genetic system affecting the entire axial skeleton. In fact, chondrodystrophic brachycephaly in the bulldog is different from that of the pug in that it affects only the face, whereas the mandible is almost normal–resulting in the characteristic upturning of the whole muzzle like a bear trap. In the pug, Boston terrier and Pekingese the mandible is shortened along with the face. Brachycephaly in these latter breeds is also associated with malformation of the basicranium and the creation of an almost spherical braincase.

None of this is seen in the bulldog, which may suggest that the pug did not figure in the recent history of bulldogs after all. The extreme foreshortening of the face may simply be due to strong selection–and severe inbreeding–within the bulldog line in which the axial skeleton defects were accentuated.

Crosses of the bulldog with German shepherd and basset showed that the brachycephalic face is under the control of a complex of mostly recessive genes. However, the first-generation progeny of the cross between bulldogs and German shepherds showed a shorter face than the parent shepherd, and the ears were half-dropped. A range of more or less intermediate facial conditions can be produced by careful backcrossing. For example, when Stockard took the first-generation offspring from a cross between a bulldog and a shepherd and back-crossed them to a bulldog, the resulting offspring ranged in appearance from a modern bulldog to an old-fashioned bulldog, a boxer and mastiff.

The bulldog is descended from the mastiff. The long-established and popular bullmastiff breed is said to be the result of a cross (essentially a back-cross) of bulldog and mastiff. Various other versions of the same cross gave us the boxer. These were early versions of more modern attempts to produce a dog with a tractable disposition. Similarly, crossing the bulldog with the (extinct) white English terrier gave us the bull terrier. And the Boston terrier is a mix inter alia of English bulldog, French bulldog and bull terrier.

Given this close relationship of the modern breeds, it ought to be readily possible to reverse at least some of the damage of the last hundred years and to breed a bulldog of healthier conformation from within the mix of relatives. A model already exists in the breed known as the American bulldog, which has been isolated in North America (ostensibly from English stock) for at least 200 years.

David Hancock in his Country Life article praises the efforts of a few modern English breeders to fly in the face of canine fashion and authority and to crossbreed the bulldog stock in order to restore facial structure. In fact, successful attempts have been made on both sides of the Atlantic to breed a new–that is, old–bulldog using crosses with bullmastiff, American bulldog and bull terrier to recover some of the old conformation. The results are already somewhere closer to the original breed, but restoration of leg length seems to be difficult. (One American strain suffers the indignity of being termed the Olde Englishe Bulldogge, but it is a handsome animal.)

All this should be encouraging not merely to dog lovers, but to anyone interested in the ethical treatment of animals use the term in its broadest sense if only because it allows us to feel better about ourselves. Ethics is a tricky issue he. Even if we were empted by the “naturalistic fallacy” (original equals good) into condemning the breeding of dogs for fashion and fancy, we would not know where to start.

There is nothing “natural” about any breed of dog. They have all been created by people out of some ancient canine stock. Therefore a highly developed line of “working dog” is no more ethical than an equally highly bred line of “toy dogs.” There is nothing inherently wrong in maintaining a particular breed. Excessive inbreeding is obviously wrong because it leads in most cases to less healthy animals, often of a poor temperament. Deliberate selection for dysfunctional traits is, however, something quite different.

It is clear that careful crosses have the possibility of restoring the bulldog line to something of its former dignity if not glory. One can make a strong ethical argument for this simply because the present trend in the evolution of the bulldog (and possibly other breeds) is producing a medical as well as a physical grotesquerie. In the meantime, breeders and owners alike have a lot to answer for.