Both the Bulldog and the Mastiff are believed to have a common origin in the extinct breed known as the Alaunt (also written Alaune or Allan). In “The Knight’s Tale”, published in 1390, Geoffrey Chaucer described the Alaunt as a white dog “as large as any steer” and having great strength and courage. The breed was used for chasing lions and bears.
Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, published in London in 1611, says the Allan de Bouchere, “is like our Mastiff” and is used “to bring in fierce oxen, and to keeper their stalls”. In the descriptions of these dogs, there are three distinct Bulldog characteristics that remain to this day: large, thick heads; short muzzles; and fierce courage. When attacked, they hung onto their opponent by their teeth. Bandogges or Bulldogs also were known to have been crossbred with various other breeds to correct the other breeds’ lack of courage, tenacity, and determination.
Early English Bulldogs were heavier than they are today, although they have always maintained an exceptional degree of tenacity and stamina. The early Bulldogs were also quite powerful, ferocious animals. In temperament, they were not the soft-hearted, friendly companions of the modern era.
There can be no doubt that the English Bulldog was originally bred for bull- and bear-baiting, as well as for fighting other dogs. These “baits” were held in roped-off enclosures, and the object was to see whether the dog could approach a tethered bull or bear, grab him, and pin him to the ground. The enraged animal would attempt to dislodge the dog, and terrible injuries to both often resulted. Spectators lost and won large sums based on the outcome of such contests.
At that time, the English Bulldog was quite large, weighing from 80 to 100 pounds or more. The sport of bull-baiting was popular with all classes of British society in the 1500s and 1600s, particularly around London and the Midlands. There were bullrings and dog pits in many areas. In the beginning, the dog would attack the bull by the ear and hang on until the bull was exhausted. Later, the bull’s nose was the target, and a smaller, quicker dog was more efficient.
The inhumane practice of bull-baiting was finally outlawed in Great Britain in 1835. Although there were still illegal dogfights, Bulldog breeding soon diminished, since the dogs apparently no longer served a useful purpose. Had it not been for a handful of Englishmen who saw the virtue of preserving this exceptional breed, the banning of bull-baiting would have resulted in the extinction of the Bulldog.