Bulldog History III: The Bulldogs of Northwestern Europe

The bulldog family as we understand now is a bit complicated.

One of the harder distinctions in the literature is to come across distinctions between mastiff and bulldog, but it is very clear that by the late Middle Ages, there were specialized dogs that were used as catch dogs on wild boar and to control cattle through gripping.

A certain lineage of these dogs became known as bulldogs in the British Isles, but there are three other lines that are not as well explore.

The first of these lines is the Bullenbeisser and the Bärenbeisser lineage. These dogs appeared in Germanic Europe, including areas of the Netherlands and Belgium.

These dogs were evident in that region by the seventeenth century, where nobles used them to hunt wild boar and bears, and in some eastern region, the relict populations of aurochs. They also likely grappled with wolves, but I could find very few accounts of them being used for that purpose. These were the dogs of the nobles, and they were famous in their courage as catch dogs.

When the Napoleonic Wars transformed this part of Europe, things changed dramatically.  Although Napoleon was an autocratic ruler, his revolutionary ideas changed the remnants of feudal society in that region, which meant that nobles had to give up a lot of their traditional hunting estates.

These Germanic bulldogs wound up in the hands of cattle dealers, who used them in much the same way the British had used them. They were cattle controlling dogs that were sometimes used for baiting contests.

By the nineteenth century, two distinct strains were evident.  In the region around Danzig, a large bulldog called the Danziger bullenbeisser was pretty common.  In Belgium and the Netherlands, a smaller strain was developed called the Brabanter bullenbeisser,

We know now that the Brabanter bullenbeisser was quite common as a pet in Munich, and in the very last few years of the nineteenth century, this breed was bred with the variants of the English bulldog (and supposedly one black schnauzer) to found the modern boxer breed.

In France, a very similar story went with their bulldogs.  What we call the Dogue de Bordeaux is actually a bulldog, not a mastiff. It is the last survivor of a long line of French catch dogs. The larger ones were called dogues and the smaller ones were called doguin. Noble families used them as catch dogs, but as France lurched into a Republic, the dogs became commonly used as working bulldogs in much the same way that the English used theirs.

Today, when we think of French bulldogs, we think of the small ones that became popular in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. These dogs were largely created by the pet market in England, then transported to France, where they were widely accepted. I will have more on these bulldogs in a later post, but they are not the traditional bulldog of France. The dogue and the doguin are.

Some may quibble with my inclusion of the dogue as a bulldog. But we know from genome-wide assays that the bulldog of England, the boxer, and the Dogue de Bordeaux form a clade.

That means that these dogs share a deep common ancestry in Northwestern Europe. Indeed, these three breeds share a close common ancestry that puts them closer to each other than to the other bulldog breeds.

This discovery raises an interesting idea. There have been attempts to re-create the Brabanter bullenbeisser through crossbreeding boxers with other bull breeds.  The result is the Banter bulldogge.

However, I’ve been more interested in the Danziger bullenbeisser, which was larger, and my guess is to recreate that breed, you would breed the boxer to the Dogue de Bordeaux and then select for black skin pigment, brindle and fawn color, and a more athletic build.

So it has captured my imagination a bit. Big, fell bulldogs really didn’t have much of a place in Europe as the larger game species disappeared, but in the American South, the larger bulldog would hold on.

That will be the next installment of the this series.

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Natural History

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