1901 bull terrier.
One of the hardest aspects of doing any research on dog breed history is trying to figure out the nomenclature.
On this blog, I’ve pointed out the words “Newfoundland” and “retriever” were often interchangeable with the words “Labrador” and “St. John’s water dog.”
The fact that the names are not hard-defined breeds as we know them today often leads people astray in their thinking. For example, I often come across accounts of Chesapeake Bay retriever history that claim that the breed was derived from the Newfoundland dog, and one will often see a photograph of the large Newfoundland breed accompanying the text. Of course, the two dogs that established the retriever culture in Maryland were “Newfoundland” dogs, but they were much more likely dogs of the St. John’s water dog type than the giant Newfoundland variety.
But there is actually an even more difficult breed to figure out from the historical record.
When I say the words “bull terrier,” I’m sure that one’s concept of that breed is the Spuds MacKenzie dog. It’s a dog that is famously white or predominantly white in color with erect ears and an egg-shaped head.
When one reads historical accounts of dogs, one will also run across the term “bull terrier” to describe a dog, but as with the retrievers, the name “bull terrier” was once more general term.
It initially referred to any bulldog and terrier cross, and not all bulldog/terrier crosses were bred for fighting. It also could refer to ratting and go-to-ground terriers that had some bulldog blood. Fox and Jack Russell terriers were all famously derived from a mix that included a bit of bulldog, and the addition of this blood makes some sense. Bulldogs were used for dog fighting, but this ability was much more strongly selected for in bulldog and terrier crosses. If a bulldog was a good fighting dog, then it might make the terrier a bit harder on a fox or rat if bulldog blood was added.
In the nineteenth century, dog fighting was a big deal in English industrial cities. The Black Country region of the West Midlands was an area where lots of men, both working class and gentry, bred fighting dogs from bulldog and terrier crosses. This area is called the “Black Country” because it was a major coal and steel producing area. The burned coal often left a nasty deposit of black film on the buildings. Industrialization, unionization, and democratization created an industrial class with a bit of disposable income and some leisure time to engage in dog fighting.
This area is just west of Birmingham and includes part of the county of Staffordshire. To any historian of bull and terrier types, these areas should ring a bell. The show variant of the bull terrier we know today, as well as its miniature bull terrier descendant, was developed in Birmingham, and the rougher fighting-bred stock was still common in the English county of Staffordshire, even when the rest of the country had adopted the “white cavalier” as the official bull terrier. The dogs that were derived from that Staffordshire type were called “Staffordshire bull terriers.”
Both of these breeds are derived from essentially the same stock, but one was bred to be a gentleman’s dog that allegedly never started a fight but would gladly finish one when challenged. The other was the nasty pit dog.
The bull terrier that we know today was a creation of an Irish-born dog dealer from Birmingham named James Hinks, who crossed the refined ratting terrier known as the English white terrier with a bulldog. Hinks sold dogs to middle class people, as well as the gentry, and he made a comfortable living doing so.
He is said to have added Dalmatian blood to his crosses to “refine” their bone, but he always slected for a predominantly white bull terrier.
In the United States, there were fighting dogs of this bulldog and terrier cross blood. Pit fighting was popular, not just in the South, where most people associate the custom, but also in New England. Both Massachusetts and Rhode Island were well-known centers for breeding fighting bull terriers. These dogs were almost never pure white in color, and because they were derived from the same crosses as the dogs bred in the Black Country they looked very much like them. Some may have been exactly this same stock, but it is really hard to determine the exact ancestry of them.
Now, in America, the white bull terrier bred by Hinks became a popular show dog, and the British spread them throughout their empire, but the other kind of bulldog and terrier was still used for fighting.
The white dog became celebrated as the ideal family dog. It was also promoted as a noble creature that rarely fought and many experts even claimed that it was never a fighting dog. Of course, Hinks himself did match one of his dogs against a traditional Black Country dog. Rawdon Lee wrote about the match between one of Hinks’s dogs, a bitch named Puss, in which she actually killed her opponent:
It was early in the fifties that James Hinks began to cross the patched, heavy-headed bull terrier, used for fighting, with the English white terrier, and in due time he produced dogs handsome enough to make a name for themselves, and able to revolutionise the variety. Some of the old “doggy men ” said this new breed were soft and could not fight. “Can’t they?” said Hinks, when talking to a lot of his London friends at the Holborn Horse Repository dog show in May, 1862. “I think they can.” “Well,” said one of the London school, “let’s make a match.” Hinks, nothing loth, did make a match, and backed his bitch Puss—that day she had won first prize in her class—for £5 and a case of champagne, against one of the short-faced patched dogs similar in weight. The fight came off the same evening at Bill Tupper’s well-known rendezvous in Long Acre. It took Puss half-an-hour to kill her opponent, and so little the worse was she for her encounter that she appeared on the bench next morning, a few marks on her cheeks and muzzle being the only signs of the determined combat in which she had been the principal over night. When accounts of this became bruited abroad, although it was not generally believed, the popularity of the “long faced” dog was established (pg 30-31.)
But that didn’t matter. The bull terrier had already been branded as a refined show dog and family pet. It was seen as being very different from the “pit dogs.”
However, when it was determined that breeding the dogs for white only was doing nothing but encouraging deafness in the strain. In the early twentieth century, a man name Ted Lyon tried to solve this problem through cross-breeding with the Staffordshire-type bull terriers.
American fanciers went nuts over the suggestion. For decades, they promoted the myth that their white dogs were totally distinct from the pit dogs, and because of some political wrangling, were only brought into the bull terrier registry as a separate variety from the white ones.
It was the long-headed and white bull terrier that was the good dog. The evil fighting dog was the shorter-faced dog of many colors.
It is only through branding that the white bull terrier was given high status while its pit dog cousin was given short shrift.
Of course, later on, the indigenous American strains of pit dogs became better established as family pets through much of the earlier part of the twentieth century.
But earlier branding created an entirely arbitrary breed split, which only could have happened through Hinks’s careful branding in the middle part of the nineteenth century.
Bull terriers of the Hinks type are now rarely the target of breed specific legislation, and other descendants of bulldog and terriers, such as Boston terriers and Jack Russells, never have been banned.
Breeding bulldogs to terriers created a type that could be used for a lot of different things, and the term “bull terrier” did not always mean only the dogs of the Hinks type. The Hinks type is just the kind of dog that got established as the fancy Kennel Club dog first, and dog shows and the fancy had a way of promoting this dog as the refined type.
In the histories of the dog fancy, we have tended to ignore the role of dog dealers in defining types. If anything, the dog fancy empowered the dog dealer, and if the dog dealer couldn’t produce the dog that one wanted for the ring, he would make up his own.
The white bull terrier as the white cavalier was a branded type in much the same way that the black wavy-coated retriever was. These were dogs that no up-and-coming man of means could be without. Never mind that the fighting dogs were of many colors,and that the retrievers of decades before were of a very diverse ancestry.
These dogs were sold as status symbols in much the same way we sell golden and Labrador retrievers as the ideal family dogs and German shepherds as the world’s best guard dogs.
Branding can drive the evolution of dogs in ways we really haven’t explored. The creation of this egg-headed bull terrier, which was originally just a longer-headed white bull terrier with cropped ears, is really nothing more than lots of selections for a particular “brand” of bull terrier.
In the past 150 years, Westerners have stopped breeding dogs solely for function. We then began a long period of isolating gene pools and heavily selecting within those gene pools. We did this because Western societies became more affluent through industrialization. And industrialization made many dogs obsolete as true working animals. With all these dogs running around and this time and money, we decided to begin playing around with their bloodlines, creating and refining many esoteric types with just as esoteric conformation standards.
Their utility largely came in the brand they came to represent.
This is why most of the “breeds” we have today exist as they do, and this also why we can’t have rational discussions about outcrossing and doing away with closed registries.
To break that boundary is to defy the brand. It was that way when Ted Lyon began crossing Black Country fighting dogs with white cavaliers, and it’s that way now.
We’ve allowed ourselves to get so worked up in breed brands that we’ve lost all sight of what the science of population genetics says about closed registries. It’s as if that science doesn’t exist at all.
The dogs have become prisoners to the symbolism they represent for their owners.
Their only hope is that we can rise above our symbolism and our cultures to breed for something else.
But humans have a hard time rising above their symbols and their culture.
And change will be an uphill battle.
The brands are difficult to overcome.
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