The Bulldog, a British original that is the foundation of so many modern breeds, has come to symbolize the United Kingdom as well as that island nation’s most celebrated prime minister, Winston Churchill. No other breed of dog can lay claim to an identity so strongly associated with an empire and its most celebrated wartime leader.

The exact origin of the Bulldog is unknown, however its early progenitors existed in Britannia during the reign of Julius Caesar. Canine historians have suggested that Phoenician traders deposited the Greek Molossus there, and the Alaunt from Central Asia is often considered to have played a major role in the development of all Molosser breeds, including the Mastiff and the Old English Bulldogge. So impressed was the Roman army of these fighting dogs that countless numbers were sent to Rome to fight in the coliseum.

Roman gladiators were not the only adversaries to face the strength and stamina of the fighting dogs of Britain. At home, commoner and royal alike fancied “baiting sport” that pitted “Bandogges” against both bears and bulls.

According to The National Geographic Book of Dogs, published by the National Geographic Society in 1958, bull baiting may have gotten its start when butchers used large dogs to bring cattle to the slaughter. “Setting dogs at the bull was long believed to make the meat more tender. The Mastiff, ‘huge, stubborne, ouglie, eger, burthenous of body…terrible and fearfull to behold,’ was a natural choice for this work. And perhaps as naturally in those rude and less humane times, villagers and townspeople would make sport of this clash between dog and bull.”

By the 17th century, separate references began to appear for the Mastiff and the Bulldog, the latter bred specifically for bull baiting. To increase the dogs’ usefulness, crosses were no doubt made with a variety of available breeds, and the Greyhound is said to have lent the early Bulldog its speed without sacrificing its tenacity.

The passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1835 in England caused the end of bull baiting as a sport – even as it ushered in the era of dog fighting. Terrier mixes were made to produce dogs better suited for fighting in the pit; however this threatened the Bulldog’s survival. Supporters dedicated their efforts to preserve the breed as they knew it and, according to the Bulldog Club of America, 19th-century breeders removed the dogs’ “undesirable fierce characteristics, while preserving and accentuating its finer qualities.”

British fanciers dedicated to the promotion of the breed founded the Bulldog Club in 1875, two years after the Kennel Club (England) was established. AKC recognition for the breed came in 1886, and its popularity has remained steady on both sides of the Atlantic ever since.

The Bulldog Club of America was established in 1890, and 65 years on, a Bulldog reached the highest of heights in the American show ring. Ch. Kippax Fearnought, owned by Dr. John A. Saylor, was awarded Best in Show under judge Albert E. Van Court at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in 1955. Fearnought brought his breed further acclaim that year when his image appeared on the cover of the July 4 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.

The Bulldog has come to symbolize a wide array of organizations and institutions in the U.S. The breed is the official mascot of the United States Marine Corps, as well as dozens of colleges and universities including Yale, James Madison and Georgetown. In 1922, Mack Trucks Inc. adopted the breed as its symbol, and a patented sculpture of a Bulldog has adorned the company’s vehicles since 1932.

A faithful friend despite its rather horrific history, today’s Bulldog is an enduring symbol of mankind’s most honorable virtues. In 2012, the kind and courageous Bulldog ranked fifth of the 175 AKC-recognized breeds.

The Bulldog is a popular companion, with an uncommon conformation and a charming personality. Photo by Dan Sayers.

A Massive Short-Faced Head

Winston Churchill was not especially regarded as a handsome man, nor is the Bulldog thought of as a particularly dapper dog. Nonetheless, both the former prime minister and his canine counterpart became easily recognized for their strong, if rather grotesque, profiles.

Considered a “head breed” by most, the AKC standard uses more than 600 words to describe the finer points of the Bulldog’s noggin. A “massive short-faced head” is comprised of a “very large” skull that “in circumference, in front of the ears, should measure at least the height of the dog at the shoulders.”

The “broad and square” head is described by the standard from several angles. “Viewed from the front, it should appear very high from the corner of the lower jaw to the apex of the skull, and also very broad and square. Viewed at the side, the head should appear very high, and very short from the point of the nose to occiput. The forehead should be flat (not rounded or domed), neither too prominent nor overhanging the face.”

As might be expected of a dog with its “business end” upfront, the standard gives careful consideration of the details of the head. “The cheeks should be well rounded, protruding sideways and outward beyond the eyes,” and the stop should be “very well defined, broad, square and high, causing a hollow or groove between the eyes.” The standard goes on to state, “This indentation, or stop, should be both broad and deep and extend up the middle of the forehead, dividing the head vertically, being traceable to the top of the skull.”

The Bulldog’s head is built for battle, with an uncommon conformation of the face and muzzle. “The face, measured from the front of the cheekbone to the tip of the nose, should be extremely short, the muzzle being very short, broad, turned upward and very deep from the corner of the eye to the corner of the mouth,” according to the standard. “The nose should be large, broad and black, its tip set back deeply between the eyes. The distance from bottom of stop, between the eyes, to the tip of nose should be as short as possible and not exceed the length from the tip of nose to the edge of underlip. The nostrils should be wide, large and black, with a well-defined line between them.” Brown or liver-colored noses are a disqualification.

Most importantly for a dog originally bred to face-off with a massive bull, the Bulldog’s jaws possess considerable power and its bite is of great importance. “The jaws should be massive, very broad, square and ‘undershot,’ as described by the standard. The teeth are large and strong, “with the canine teeth or tusks wide apart, and the six small teeth in front, between the canines, in an even, level row.” The lower jaw projects in front of the upper jaw “considerably,” creating that defiant profile for which the breed is renowned.

The lower jaw is upturned and is completely covered by flews that are “thick, broad, pendant and very deep.” The flews, or “chops,” join with the lower lip in front where they “almost or quite cover the teeth, which should be scarcely noticeable when the mouth is closed.”

The Bulldog is remarkable for many reasons not the least of which are its extraordinary head properties topped off with lovely “rose” ears and a downright dour expression.

A Low-Slung Body

The Bulldog is a “medium size” breed with a “heavy, thick-set, low-swung body.” Overall balance is important, with the center of gravity located upfront where it provides the requisite strength and power for the breed’s original function.

The AKC breed standard contains a 100-point scale that gives equal weight to the breed’s essential head characteristics as well as the construction of its “body, legs, etc.” Clearly this is one head breed in possession of a first-rate physique.

Built for business, the Bulldog – weighing in at 50 pounds for mature dogs and 40 pounds for bitches – is a middleweight contender that, despite its unconventional anatomy, is blessed with symmetry. As noted by the breed standard, “The ‘points’ should be well distributed and bear good relation one to the other, no feature being in such prominence from either excess or lack of quality that the animal appears deformed or ill-proportioned.”

A very thick and well-arched, short neck supports the Bulldog’s massive head. The topline should present a “slight fall in the back, close behind the shoulders (its lowest part), whence the spine should rise to the loins (the top of which should be higher than the top of the shoulders), thence curving again more suddenly to the tail, forming an arch (a very distinctive feature of the breed), termed ‘roach back’ or, more correctly, ‘wheel-back.’” The underline should appear “well ribbed up behind with the belly tucked up and not rotund.”

The Bulldog’s body is defined as “well let down between the shoulders and forelegs, giving the dog a broad, low, short-legged appearance,” per the standard. The body and the brisket are “very capacious, with full sides,” and the ribs are described as “well-rounded” and “very deep from the shoulders down to its lowest part.”

The back is short and strong, “very broad” at the shoulders and “comparatively narrow” at the loins, with a straight or “screwed” tail that is “short, hung low, with decided downward carriage, thick root and fine tip.”

Although a mere three points is allotted by the standard for the Bulldog’s gait, the construction of the breed’s low-slung body nonetheless creates a style and carriage that is described as “peculiar.” The breed’s characteristic “roll” is a “loose-jointed, shuffling, sidewise motion” that must be “unrestrained, free and vigorous.”

Equable and Kind, Resolute and Courageous

The General Appearance section of the breed standard describes the Bulldog’s attitude as suggesting “great stability, vigor and strength.” Its disposition should be “equable and kind, resolute and courageous (not vicious or aggressive), and [its] demeanor should be pacific and dignified.” The standard goes on to state that these attributes “should be countenanced by the expression and behavior.”

The Bulldog is legendary for its charming personality and ability to get along with others. The BCA’s Illustrated Guide to the Standard states, “The Bulldog is a friendly, outgoing, companionable breed with an expression of intelligence, kindness and dignity.”

“We shall never surrender,” Churchill’s message to Parliament on the eve of the Battle of Britain, very accurately describes the character of the “British” Bulldog. Resolute in the face of danger and diplomatic in dealing with others, the iconic Bulldog is adored throughout the world today for its dignified demeanor, as much as for its rather massive “Winston” mug.