Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bulldogs: How Did We Come to Select for Defect?

I got a very nice email yesterday from someone who wanted to know who wrote a piece on the main web site entitled Rosettes to Ruin: Making & Breaking Dogs in the Show Ring.

That would be me. I suggested that if they liked that piece, they might want to take a look at Inbred Thinking.

They wrote back: Did I have a "before" picture of what an English Bulldog looked like?

Before the Kennel Club got to it? Ah, there's a question!

I replied: "There is no before with the Bulldog. The dog is mostly Chinese Pug crossed with what is now called a Staffordshire Terrier. The English Bulldog is a dog created at the time of the Kennel Club or shortly before, complete with invented history. The true 'Pitbull' was a stock-catching dog and sometimes fighting dog. It is what we now call the Pitbull." For more history and background, I suggested she read an earlier post entitled What the Hell is an American Staffordshire Terrier?

OK, I thought. But she wanted dog skull pictures. I have those somewhere, don't I? Now where were they?

And so I found them on my hard drive, and post them here. The dog skull pictured below is that of a Pitbull, with a wide head and a short powerful jaw designed to catch farm stock.

You can find a living example of this dog in almost any animal shelter in America today. Some dogs have a shortened jaw, as seen here, but most of the true working pitbulls have slightly longer muzzles.

Most of these dogs make wonderful pets, and their only real fault is that they are no longer puppies and are members of a much-maligned breed.

The American Pitbull was not always treated with such contempt. In fact, this is the most American of dogs, and was once among the most popular.

Anyone who grew up with the Little Rascals television shorts in their living room on Saturday morning also grew up with Pitbulls. Petey (pictured at right) was a Pitbull. That's what the dog was called before it became an "American Staffordshire Terrier."

And, of course, long before it was called a "Pitbull," it was simply called a "Bull Dog."

To be clear, however, the old "Bulldog" has little or no relation to the short, flat-faced dog that is now called an English Bulldog.

Let us not confuse lightning and the lightning bug!

The change, of course, started with dog shows.

The card below was printed in 1859, the year the very first dog show was held in the UK, and the same year that Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published.

As can be seen, the dog that was then called a Bulldog was a pretty tall dog with straight legs, a real muzzle, and a real tail. Today, we would call this dog and its antecedents a "Pitbull."

With the rise of dog shows, however, exaggeration and odd choices quickly reared their ugly head.

By 1890, as the dog show poster below makes clear, the Bulldog was already starting to change shape, with the face shortening even more, and the the size coming down as well.

By 1915, the English Bulldog no longer had any resemblance to its old Pitbull form.

The new dog, as seen below, was shorter and had gained an enormous number of wrinkles, along with a much flatter face and bowed legs.

The Bulldog was now so unlike the original dog, that the original dog was now being presented as an American breed!

What had happened?

The simple story is that this new dog was no longer purely British.

In fact, it was now mostly Chinese Pug crossed with Staffordshire Terrier!

The resulting cross breed had the flat face, bowed legs, and pig tail of the Pug, but the larger size and coloring of the Staffie.

Since the introduction of Pug blood, the English Bulldog has been "perfected" by show ring exaggeration.

Today's modern dog has been selected for profound brachycephalism (a flat face) with the result being that the modern dog has a hard time breathing, and has a higher-than-average chance of getting brain tumors as well.

Due to the very flat face, the dog has no place to put its tongue, and its eyes are more easily damaged.

In order to try to get oxygen into its system, the dog has a habit of gulping air which, combined with a twisted gut (a by-product of dwarfism) and a poor digestive tract, means the dog farts so often, it is now a defining characteristic of the breed.

The pig tail on the dog is a source of such routine infection, that is is generally amputated after a show ring career.

The dog is also achondroplastic (a type of dwarfism), and with this condition comes a tendency towards heart and joint defects, and also benched (Queen Anne) legs, which means the dog cannot run very well.

Because the dog has been positively selected for a massive head, bent legs, and a narrow pelvis, the dog has a hard time mating on its own (see Does the Breed Standard Require a Rape Rack?), and is generally born cesarean section in a veterinarians office.

As for the skull of the dog, as can be seen below, the nose has all but disappeared, while the jaw has shot out from underneath to such a degree that many British Bulldogs are incapable of picking up Frisbee.

To which many people may simple say, So what? Why does the Bulldog have to be "fit for function" if it no longer has to do any function?

Good question. And the answer is that the dog does not have to be for its original function.

It should, however, be fit for its current function, which is that of simple pet. The bar here is very low.

Job One for a pet is to be healthy. There is no Job Two.

And yet, basic health is something the British Bulldog fails at from birth through death.

This is a dog noted for both crushing veterinary expense and a short life.

It is a dog that lives most of its life in respiratory distress, and is likely to to be plagued with skin infections, eye damage, spinal problems, and heart disease as well.

This is what the Kennel Club did to healthy, happy Pitbulls!

The good news is that a fine and friendly Pitbull can be had at almost any shelter in this country.

The bad news is that due to prejudice, thousands of these healthy and friendly dogs are being killed every day and are, in fact, banned in Britain, while the dysfunctional and unhealthy English Bulldog is not only a Top Ten breed in the American Kennel Club, it is the veritable symbol of the United Kingdom!


BaltimoreGal said...

My APBT/ Lab is 16 months old and is as healthy and happy as can be!I am quite certain it is because she is a mixed breed and because pits are so generally healthy as long as they have protein-heavy diets. She doesn't get along with bigger dogs but her aggression has never been more than wrestling and posturing- no injuries. Can't say the same for some bulldogs- american or otherwise- or labs- or golden retrievers that I've met- on the aggression or health issues. Good to see that there are people trying to get the truth out!

Caveat said...

Good post, Patrick.

The APBT is still called a bulldog by long-time fanciers, by the way.

Of course in the old days, there weren't any 'pure' breeds so the bulldogs were, as you say, most like the ubiquitous mutts people call 'pit bulls'.

Pit bull NM said...


Great post. I will be sure to add it to the "featured posts" section of my blog. In addition to the fantastic history lesson and honest look at today's showring "bulldog", I think many folks will find it enlightening to read such kind, honest words about Pit bulls from someone that is not writing on a dedicated Pit bull blog or website.

Best of all: Pit bulls from the shelter system got an all too needed "thumbs-up"! Good stuff!


Silly Wicket said...

Thanks, Patrick. I've been reading Terrierman for years now. You've inspired us to try going-to-ground with our small terrier mix. I really love your take on what the show ring is doing to ALL of our dogs...including the AKC's take on the pit bull - the American Staffordshire Terrier.

Deidrel said...

Thanks for the overview on this interesting question! I was left wondering one thing: does the Chinese pug have these same problems due to its flat face and pig tail? That is, was a Staffordshire mixed with an already problematic breed -- or was it the combination (and show standards, etc.) that really brought these problems to the fore?

PBurns said...

Yes, the pug has all these same problems -- cannot breath well, no place for the tongue, easily eye damaged, skin infection, etc. In short, a complete mess!


The meanderings of a history hound said...

Excellent post!

I just watched the recently released Sherlock Holmes movie & had a fit because of the HUGE anachronism in the movie using a modern day bulldog. The producers went to such lengths to be historically accurate in so many other areas, but ruined it when they used a modern dog whose structure did not exist in the later part of the 1800's.

Canine history, particularly working dogs is a hobby of mine, so of course I noticed right away.