The Dog Behind the Myth and Headlines
Civilize him as you please, make him whatever color you like, man will still worship the born fighter—John Taintor Foote
That is what Foote said in his story about a Pit Bull named Allegheny, and there is such a ring of truth to the quote that I have often pondered it. It’s in our adoration of football players and even of tennis players, where the gladiatorial aspect is somewhat disguised. That’s in spite of the fact that scientists have found that we humans are much more peaceful and cooperative with each other than other primates—believe it or not—and that’s probably the secret of our success. Nonetheless, our thirst for a little mayhem is evident in our most popular movies—and even in Shakespeare’s plays!
It should come as no surprise, then, that the ultimate canine gladiator has gained an unreal popularity all over the world, and the name “Pit Bull” has become known everywhere, but it has become infamous, not famous. And yet, individuals of the breed are “good guys,” quite affable and trustworthy with humans. Hard to believe, but it’s true. Something else that seems hardly credible is that in 1975, the breed was all but unknown to the public. True canine scholars knew of the breed and had great respect for it—but they comprised a small group. What changed? The answer is long and complicated, but it is worth telling.
I learned about this nearly invisible breed circa 1943 in Arizona when I was twelve years old. I had always loved dogs, but I had become interested in Collies from reading the Albert Payson Terhune dog books that were always about Collies—and what Collies! They led the lives of legendary Norse heroes, and they were always touted as the best fighters, winning by slashing finesse. Naturally my first dog was a Collie, but when my buddies wanted to get my goat, they simply set their larger German Shepherd on my dog. All she did was cry, and I was angered that my friends would do that to her, but I was also bewildered that my Collie didn’t rout the big bully dog in the manner that Terhune’s Collies never failed to do.
So where do Pit Bulls come in? There certainly were not any of these dogs in the small town of Ajo, where we resided at the time. Enter the chief of the Border Patrol. He was my father’s boss, but he was a man of legend. He’d been a sheriff of the old school, much like Wyatt Earp, before being made chief of the Border Patrol, and he was responsible for the demise of many a desperado. His name was Carson Marrow. And he was a devotee and breeder of Pit Bulls. It was from him that I got my first information about the breed, although I was not an instant convert. And it was from him that I was able to infer that not all information was reliable in show dog books and magazines—or stories about dogs, for that matter!
One of the reasons I have some knowledge of the breed is that shortly after this time, I became a lifelong scholar of all aspects of the breed. And I’ve been around a long time. The situation with the dogs was complicated even then, but it was certainly much simpler than the way things are now—and the dogs most assuredly were not in the headlines all of the time in those days! The breed was known as the “American (Pit) Bull Terrier” if it was registered with the United Kennel Club, as “Pit Bull Terrier” if was registered with the American Dog Breeders Association, and as “Staffordshire Terrier” when registered with the American Kennel Club—and some individual dogs were registered with all three! In England, the breed was registered in the original Kennel Club as “Staffordshire Bull Terrier.” As if that were not confusing enough, most fanciers of the breed simply referred to it as “Bulldog.” Sometimes they would say “Pit Bulldog” or “Fighting Bulldog” to distinguish it from the show Bulldog that everyone thought of in association with that name. Experienced devotees only use the term “Pit Bull” when talking to someone not familiar with the dog and the term. The AKC people were more likely to refer to their charges as “Stafs,” but even one of their kennels was called “Bulldog Kennels.” Incidentally, from this point on, when I mention Bulldogs I really mean Pit Bulls unless I specify otherwise.
Many of the people who had the dogs then had them for the purpose of fighting or as pets or working dogs, but they were all from fighting stock, as those were different times. In fact, the United Kennel Club even had its own pit rules and awarded championships to dogs that won three sanctioned matches that included UKC-licensed referees, and I believe all the dogs involved also had to be registered with the UKC. Some of the dogs registered with the other agencies were used for fighting, too, but the Kennel Club and AKC adamantly discouraged it. I’m sure that the UKC would just as soon not be reminded of this part of its history, but I’m convinced that it made things better for the pit dogs of the day.
The pit dogs, the dogs used for fighting, tended to vary in appearance, not a lot, but to some degree. That was because their devotees didn’t care what they looked like, but form tended to follow function. The short hair came about, no doubt, to facilitate heat dissipation. The reason for variation in appearance was because color didn’t matter, and no one style of fighting tended to dominate. Everything else being equal, the intelligent dog had the advantage, so the dogs, perhaps surprising to many people, tend to be quite intelligent and good at problem solving.
Since all the variations of the breed were descended from fighting dogs at some point in their history, let’s lay out what is involved in these infamous matches. My purpose is not to encourage, but to merely present the reality of the activity. First, the dogs are matched to weight. That is, a top weight is agreed upon, and when match time comes, the first order of business is to weigh the dogs. If one of the dogs is over the agreed upon weight, its owner pays the forfeit, and the match is usually off. If both dogs are on weight, the dogs are washed in the same tub and in the same water. A coin toss is made, and the winner can choose to wash first or he can choose a particular corner. There is some advantage in washing last, as the dog that is washed first is taken to the pit, and he spends time there, wrapped in a towel, very much aware of what is coming, and some dogs are quite excitable and hard to hold. Such dogs have a disadvantage, as they are using up energy that they will need later. Calm and easy going dogs have the advantage in this situation, so that may be one reason for easygoing attitude of many members of the breed.
Ostensibly, the reason for the wash is to get rid of any noxious substance that might harm the opponent or deter him from his favorite hold. However, I suspect that before antibiotics, it was advantageous to have the dogs and the pit as clean as possible, and the pit used to be washed down in creosote. Oh yes, the pit is somewhat misnamed, as it is not a hole in the ground, but it looks something like a wooden boxing ring, but it is placed low, rather than high, so that spectators can see into it. Both owners have to agree upon the pit. Today, with the sport being a felony in this country in all states, the pit is nearly always portable—but in the old days, some of them looked like Madison Square Garden boxing rings, as they were permanent structures, and they could be made solid and with big fancy banners. The surface used to be the same type of tarp that was used in boxing rings, but today, it is more likely to be carpeting, with scratch lines laid down with duct tape.
Normally, the referee supervises the washing of the dogs, so he is the second person to enter the pit. The dogs are carried to the pit because no collars or harnesses are allowed in the pit, and neither are the towels once the second dog is brought in. The referee announces, “Face your dogs. Ready? Release!” And the dogs normally hit like a couple of freight trains in the center of the pit. Most of the fights are not bloody, but damage is nonetheless done, although broken bones are very rare. Thousands of generations of breeding for this activity has produced animals that are tough and hard to hurt, as well as formidable. They are generally resistant to shock. The fights are not intended to be to the death, but it is not uncommon for dogs to die afterwards, even with the best of care. So how is a winner determined?
One way is for an owner to concede the match if he sees that his charge has no chance and leaving him in would just risk his life. A second way is for a dog to be killed, but as mentioned earlier, this is quite rare. So most dogs lose by failing to scratch. I’ll explain. No one knows where the term “scratch” came from, but it probably came from the scratch lines. Several hundred years ago, they may have literally been lines scratched in the dirt at the bottom of a real pit. Who knows? But that’s a good guess. These are lines that are placed in each corner, and they provide space for an owner and his dog in between scratches. If a dog turns his head and shoulders away from the other dog, even in a maneuver, a turn is called on him. A handler has to ask for a turn, but the referee usually grants it, as the idea is to get the dogs scratching as soon as possible. Once a turn has been declared, the handlers can pick up their dogs free of holds. When the action has slowed down, it is easier to accomplish this feat, but sometimes it can be 15 minutes or more before the dogs can be grabbed up free of holds. But once it is done, the dogs are taken to their corners and kept behind their scratch lines, with their heads facing the corner. The handlers have 25 seconds to minister to their dogs and to evaluate any injuries and their general condition. At the lapse of 25 seconds, the referee calls out, “Twenty-five seconds! Face your dogs. That dog to go. Ready? Release.” The dog then has ten seconds to cross the pit and make contact with his opponent. The handler holding the non-scratching dog has the option of releasing at any time, for it is good strategy to release your dog if his opponent is coming with considerable momentum so that he doesn’t get driven right into his corner.
If a dog fails to complete his scratch, from loss of interest or inability to cross the pit, he loses the match. The dog that the turn was called on has to scratch first, but after that, the dogs take turns scratching, and they can be picked up anytime they are free of holds, no matter how momentary.
As a spectacle, it doesn’t amount to much. Those who are not ardent enthusiasts of pit dogs soon lose interest. The dogs make no noise. That is, they don’t growl, yelp, or bark. The only sound is of their feet pushing against the carpet and the labored breathing. But to devotees it’s the most interesting sport in the world. Handlers, who have put in weeks of work conditioning their animals, undergo some apprehensive moments. While there is not a lot of money on matches, all the conditioning work is at stake, and the performance of the dog is a validation or repudiation of a breeding program.
One of the reasons the dogs of this breed (that are used for the pit) differ so much in appearance is that the dogs have different styles. Some dogs’ main strategy is to drive for the chest or shoulders. These are the boring in type of dogs, and dog men like them, as there is a general opinion that a pit dog should always go forward with a do or die attitude. Others of the same type drive for the stifles, the “knees” or rear legs. These driving dogs, whatever their preference, are generally inclined to be longer in body and sometimes have slightly shorter legs, too.
Unlike Terhune’s Collies, pit dogs take hold, but they don’t just go to sleep on a hold; they work it, twisting, pushing, and occasionally shaking wherever they have a hold. Superficially, these matches resemble human wrestling matches. In the case of the dogs, strength of the jaws is a factor, too. And for every hold, there is a counter. Most pit dog men don’t like their dogs to go for the front legs because his opponent will peel him off the leg by the nose, and that’s one of the more vulnerable parts of the body.
In direct opposition to the driving dog is the defensive dog, one that keeps the other dog out by grasping an ear or the head, giving the other dog nothing to grip but air. These dogs downright dance with their hind legs as they allow the other dog to continue pushing, but never let him get a hold. Both styles can win or lose depending on how good a dog is at applying it. The fact that neither style dominates is testament to the fact that both can be quite successful.
In giving just two styles, I have oversimplified the situation, as there are many variations of tactics. But this is not intended as a treatise on pit dogs. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the sport that had a big part in forging the breed.
I should mention that experienced pit dog men come to value another type of dog above all others, and that is the smart, versatile dog that can analyze another dog’s fighting style, whatever it is, and use it against him. Some of the all-time greatest pit dogs have been of this variety. It is because of the success of these dogs that the breed is surprisingly intelligent.
Above all, pit dog men value gameness. Gameness is the trait of not losing enthusiasm for fighting contact. It is wrongly confused with aggression, as some of the deeply game dogs are not aggressive. It is not surprising that this trait is so venerated. It does a hard-driving dog no good to dominate his opponent and then get tired and fail to scratch. The same is true of the defensive dog or even the smart analytical types. A dog can get pummeled by his opponent and win on gameness by making one more scratch than his opponent. Truthfully, I think pit dog men get more excited about that than other wins. It’s something like a football team being down by four touchdowns and coming back to win.
Another reason gameness is so revered is that it is this quality that so differentiates the breed from the others. And I think it can seem downright spiritual to dog men. I don’t think that it is, of course, but I can see why they think that way. In any case, even the general public appreciates gameness in the sense of never giving up, and that’s in people or animals.
Famous Strains and Famous Dogs
Even Staf people are interested in some of the great dogs that are in their dogs’ pedigrees—the pit dogs just happen to be much further back in the pedigree because of Stafs having been bred for show so long. One of the most famous strains was the Colby line. That was because John P. Colby sold dogs to the general public. This was unusual, as pit dog men were often secretive about their own lines, and they were very much dismissive of “peddlers” who sold to the general public. Since the dogs were purposely kept secret, as opposed to being deliberately advertised and publicized, as was the case with show dog people, the public didn’t know much about the dogs, and there was little demand for them. John P. Colby was a big charming guy, though, and he actually made a living out of selling the dogs. He was one of the select few who ever did so, but because he started doing it in the 19th century, there are few dogs that don’t have Colby blood somewhere in the pedigree. His advertising slogan about the breed was, “They can do anything any other dog can do—and then whip him, as well.”
One of the reasons the Colby line has stayed around so long is that his sons continued breeding the dogs after he died. In addition, other people had allegiance to the strain and tried to perpetuate it in quality. But other lines were bred by others, too, and some of them were based on a particular outstanding dog. For example, Tacoma Jack was such a sensation that he not only inspired the Tacoma Jack line of pit dogs, but inspired a Staf kennel named Tacoma that used him as foundation stock for a line of show dogs.
In the 30s and 40s, there was campaigned a dog so impressive that everyone bred their bitches to him, and bred the progeny back to him again. This was Centipede, a dog that was down from Lightner and Colby blood, but he was solid red, with a red nose. He and his sire and brother helped form the foundation for the Old Family Red Nose line. Not only did a lot of pit dog men perpetuate the line, but it became popular with show dog people, too, and a dog from the line appeared in the very popular movie Splash Dance. (I do believe that the nose coloration is forbidden in the AKC version though.)
The movies had always been a place to find Bulldogs. You would never know that this was a rare breed if you judged by the movies. Many individuals appeared in silent movies, and Petey of the Little Rascals fame was in silent movies and in talkies later on. There is a YouTube video of his trainer demonstrating how he made the transition from spoken commands to hand signals. Petey was straight out of pit stock, and obviously, stand-ins were occasionally needed, as the studio advertised in Bloodlines Journal, the UKC publication, for lookalikes. The trainers obviously appreciated the dogs for their trainability—but they were probably having a secret laugh about individuals of the greatest fighting breed in history being used in various movies, especially as a playmate for children.
The truth is that the individuals of the breed did have excellent dispositions, as pit dog men had no patience for ill-tempered dogs. Besides, they knew more than anyone the damage the dogs could do if they ever actually attacked a human the way they would another dog. The fact is that if the dogs were raised from pups as pets, they didn’t always go to fighting. This was especially true with dogs they were raised with from puppyhood, but it is not a good idea to develop an attitude of insouciance around strange dogs. Even pet owners need to be extra responsible with individuals of this breed. There is no guarantee to keep a dog from developing a taste for fighting, but it has been accomplished many times. The guidelines for achieving this are (1) to avoid any conflicts so that the dog doesn’t get a taste of fighting and (2) provide other outlets, and I’ll give some possibilities in this direction later.
In 1975, I wrote a book about the breed that was published in early 1976. One reason for writing the book was that I was frustrated that the breed was virtually unknown and any time that it might be mentioned, it was a miasma of misinformation. I’m not sure how much my book contributed to the explosive popularity that began to develop, but I much regret any impact it had in that way. First, it is not good for any breed to become popular because a natural consequence is that some profiteers begin to breed litters without regard of the quality of the sire and dam. Second, although the APBT is a candidate for the top breed of all dog breeds, it is not a dog for everyone. It requires very responsible ownership, and the sad fact is that its appeal is all too often to the exact opposite: reckless and inconsiderate people.
Perhaps I shouldn’t feel guilt—it may have been that my book had little to do with explosive popularity that was bound to come. Certainly, hysterical headlines fueled enthusiasm for the breed in all the wrong people. I am hopeful that my books attracted people to the breed that were assets to the dogs, in particular, and to society, in general. But I’m sure there were some of the other types, too.
In any case, a strange thing began to happen in the general news media. The breed began to be featured a lot in good stories and in bad—but mostly bad—and the dogs were always identified as “Pit Bulls.” My fellow breed lovers were dismayed, of course, and I remember two, in particular. One was a police officer, and the other was an attorney. These two formed an alliance. They were both in the Los Angeles area, and the idea was that they would track down all of the so-called “Pit Bull” attacks and verify what had really happened.
They both kept records, but Al Stone, the attorney, kept a scrapbook of all the clippings. He tracked down and investigated each incident. Often there was no attack at all. That is, it had been reported in the paper, but Al could find no evidence whatsoever that it actually happened. Another trend was that any dog attack was reported as a Pit Bull, even when it was no such thing. When Al would point out that the dog wasn’t a Pit Bull and a retraction should be printed, he was told that “it could have been,” so they wouldn’t print a retraction. Anyway, it wasn’t considered an important story—even though it had merited headlines days earlier. Besides the newspaper maxim had always been, “Dog bites man is not news, but man bites dog—that’s news!” The idea was that the novelty of the circumstance is what made news. Suddenly, though, dog bites man was news—if it was a Pit Bull!
All of us had confidence that the disposition of the breed was so good that a true Pit Bull bite would be rare indeed, and none of us could track down a single case of a true Pit Bull bite. So my friends and I simply challenged the media whenever they ran such stories. One comely young reporter confided to me that Pit Bulls had become a “sexy subject.” They had become something of a canine Frankenstein monster that could be used to “stir up the natives,” as H. L. Mencken used to say. Andy Rooney was a dog lover, and he called what was going on “canine racism.”
One of the strangest stories that was run in newspapers and distributed nationally by the wire services was about a pair of police officers that were “treed” on top of their police car by a couple of “Pit Bulls.” Not only did the cops have to get to the top of the car for safety, but the dogs chewed out their tires, too, really stranding them. The story couldn’t possibly be true for a number of reasons. First, the police had pistols, and they could have simply shot the dogs. Second, if the dogs really wanted to get them, they could have climbed up the hood or trunk, and they would have been very quickly upon them. (Or leaped upon the car. Most of these dogs are freakishly athletic, and I have seen individuals that could easily jump over a sedan.) Third, Bulldogs have strong jaws, but it is very unlikely that they could have chewed through inflated tires so rapidly—especially steel-belted tires that these were reported to be. But that was just one example of the type of stories that none of us could verify.
One day, though, I read a report in the newspapers that had a ring of authenticity to it, and my heart sank. It told about a man who was mowing his lawn with a power mower, but the dog kept attacking the mower. This is something I had experienced and known about for many years. Not all Bulldogs do it, but many do. I suspect it is from their long hunting history, dating back at least 400 years according to the artwork. The animals they hunted were large and noisy, such as wild boar hogs and bears, not to mention large cats. Anyway, loud noise and rapid movement can bring out the prey drive. I even recall a man who foolishly let his Bulldog run loose many decades ago in Chicago, and the dog attacked a steam engine head-on! It is amazing what a Bulldog can pull off and the animals he can defeat, but needless to say, this one lost that contest to the steam engine.
So I knew the part about the lawnmower rang true. According to the news story, the man, frustrated in his attempt to mow the lawn, placed this excited Bulldog in an excited state in the house with his infant son, barely two months old. I have many times warned that dogs don’t recognize infants as human, so it can be dangerous to have them around them. This includes such easy going dogs as Labrador Retrievers and Border Collies. In fact, three Pekinese mobbed and killed an infant, according to a newspaper report many decades ago. It is safe to raise a Bulldog puppy with an infant, but the situation described in the paper was a recipe for a real tragedy. And this time, I knew it was true. It was the first “Pit Bull” attack that I never questioned.
Then there was the Pit Bull attack seen around the world. The dog, in total fact was an AmStaf, but I’m willing to accept them as Bulldogs, too, although they have been bred along show lines for many decades now. It certainly looked like a media setup. The animal control officer was already there, as was the camera crew. Apparently, the owner of the dog, a very truculent, unlovely fat woman, had been in violation many times before. The woman warned the pretty young animal control officer that the dog was coming out, and she should beware. She loosed the dog upon this young woman, and the dog grabbed her right in the chest. It was a horrific sight, and my heart beat fast, just from watching the footage. I hated to see the woman suffer, and she was screaming with pain. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, as the dog was easily chased away from its victim by merely hitting it with a stick the sound man wielded.
But the whole scene was sordid and horrifying. And it was shown over and over, much like the footage from the attacks of 9/11 was for weeks thereafter. To make matters even worse, it was shown around the world. Friends in Malaysia who had gotten pups from me wrote me that friends and neighbors called them to make sure that their dogs had not attacked them. They themselves knew that they were in absolutely no danger from their dogs, for although they were powerhouses, they were temperamentally incapable of hurting any human. But the hysteria had begun. It had started, actually, before this media event, but this fed it to the extent that it grew rapidly, and there was no controlling it. Truthfully, I wasn’t surprised. I was aware of how horrified my reaction was to the video, but I knew the breed. And because I did, I was well aware that the dog in video was far from typical of the breed. But I knew that people who weren’t familiar with the dogs would react with panic.
The breed truly came under siege then, as it was banned in England, not to mention Norway, as well as several other European countries. Nor was the United States immune, as several municipalities and states begin to ban the breed. The Center for Disease Control eventually did a study that concluded that no one breed was responsible for fatal attacks than another, but their most telling finding was that breed bans had not lessened attacks.
Some legitimate attacks began to appear, and they received nearly worldwide attention. We couldn’t investigate every putative Pit Bull attack then, but I began to realize some of the reasons that they had begun to happen. Not only were there poor breedings made by people simply for the money, but a certain element even wanted mean dogs, and they tried to breed for it. Also, they crossed the breed with other dogs. I had always warned against that particular practice. What I was always concerned about was if a Bulldog were to be crossed with a guard dog breed, such as a German Shepherd or a Rottweiler. I was very much worried that the disposition of the guard dog breed would be inherited by the pups, but if they subsequently bit someone, it would be categorized as a “Pit Bull attack”—and sure enough, I was right. That’s exactly what began to happen.
At this point, articles about dog fighting began to appear regularly in a variety of publications. Ironically, one that appeared in the infamous Hustler magazine was the most accurate, as there had apparently been an attempt to work toward that goal. They did their research, as the editor called me, asking for input, and I didn’t even know what the magazine was. Honest! Other magazines seemed to make no attempt to orient to reality. All semblance of reason was thrown out the window, as it was common for stories to report that the handlers kicked at the dogs on the way to the pit because “mean dogs win.” Other stories reported the use of cattle prods to incite the dogs. All of this was just fabricated “news.” The stories published were not only false; they contradicted one another. For a major point was that the dogs were naturally vicious. On the other hand, it was fighting them that was making them that way.
The truth is winning dogs are good guys, affable dogs that love people. A lot of them even get along with other dogs outside the pit. However, I must admit that most Bulldogs have a tendency to be dog aggressive. I admit that freely, but that is a lot different from being aggressive toward people.
The most lurid writers seemed to garner the most attention, so it was a race to see who could come up with most provocative hokum. A staple news item soon became that bait animals were used to train pit dogs. It started out with kittens and ended up with puppies. If I had not been skeptical about the general news before, I was certainly influenced in that direction by all of this claptrap.
Of course, I tried to debunk it. By this time, I had written at least two books on the breed and was regarded as something of an authority. I took calls from writers, and I spent a lot of time with them on the phone or in person. I also appeared on television shows, not only here, but in England, New Zealand, and Italy. I always had someone in opposition, and it was usually someone who had read all the misinformation that had appeared about the breed and was therefore an “authority.” I remember one young attorney who opposed me on a local show several decades ago that quoted a man in England who had stated that Pit Bulls had a bite stronger than an alligator and a worse disposition. In rebuttal I said, “He obviously knows nothing about the dogs, so he quotes someone abroad who is in similar straits. Does that make nonsense sound more credible?”
All of this publicity stirred the public, and legislators moved to pass laws to make dog fighting a felony. I appeared in opposition in several states. The first law to pass was in my home state of California. After that, the argument was that since California had made the sport a felony, the dog fighters were flooding into their state to practice their trade. It was depressingly effective.
Everything was thrown into the hopper that made dog fighting sound like the worst sin imaginable, as though that were needed. Dog fighting was touted as a front for prostitution. Oh yeah, it was also a cover for drug running. It was very lucrative, and that made it a big draw. The last charge was particularly laughable, as the sport, as bad as it may be, is simply an expensive hobby that is very demanding of time and effort. I was always amazed that the activity wasn’t attacked on its own merits, as there is certainly room for criticism. And those that were pushing for all of this did not exactly have clean skirts either, as the humane groups published widely any enacting of a new felony law as their doing. And I’m sure the money poured in. But they didn’t make things better for the dogs, as some of the more decent people left the hobby. The ones that stayed were of two types—those who weren’t worried about felonies and those very rare individuals that were so committed to the hobby that they would risk a hanging penalty if that was the next step, as indeed it often seemed to be. One of the other bad effects was that breeders were put at risk, too, as they could be charged with keeping the dogs for purposes of fighting. That was because most of the laws were very poorly written—at least, from a civil liberties perception.
In the years since, I have been certified as an expert witness, and I have appeared in a number of courts across the country. I always face the same cross examination in regard to my having appeared in opposition to felony laws. The idea is that I must be a fan of the sport. Well, I’m not, but I do like the breed. My concern, which proved to be well founded, was that innocent Bulldog owners and breeders would be charged on flimsy evidence. In any case, I believe that the felony laws are now extant in all states, and that situation has not helped the dogs, and it has often hurt innocent owners.
One of my prime examples of how frustrating it was to try to defend these dogs is when an editor from Sports Illustrated called me and told me that they wanted to do a balanced story on the breed, one that would contradict some of the bad publicity. So I agreed to have a couple of photographers at my place. They took pictures of my dogs doing things like opening gates, and I had one dog who could track and catch any ball no matter how high in the air it was thrown. I could tell that the photographers, who seemed like good guys, liked the dogs. One comment was that they were so easy to work with, as they were used to working with professional athletes or spoiled college stars. One of them commented that the dogs were probably smarter, too, than some of the human athletes they covered.
I well remember the day the issue appeared. It couldn’t have been more of a betrayal. On the cover was a snarling brindle Bulldog, and the caption below was “Beware this dog!”
Only one picture from my place was used, and it was of one of my dogs opening the gate, and the caption read, “A fence can’t keep Stratton’s Hoover confined.” The implication here, of course, was that Hoover, the sweetest of dogs, was letting himself out to lay waste to the city.
Obviously, I was not happy. I called one of the photographers, and he was as surprised as I was that the story had been slanted that way. To show his sincerity, he gave me all the photos he and his partner had taken. These were great photos, as I was later to learn, these two guys were considered wunderkinds of photography. I had a book coming out in which I could use them, so it helped take some of the sting out of things. But I haven’t given any interviews since. And I got an unlisted phone number.
Not everything that happened was bad. Dog Fancy, a respected magazine that mostly covers dogs as pets, solicited an article from me to give readers an insight into what the breed was really like. It was a refreshing treat to be paid to write things that I had been desperate to share with the public. My local paper also paid for an occasional column about the breed.
Truths about the Breed
To truly understand the breed, the reader has to know something about the history of this breed, albeit there is not total agreement on details, as is so often the case when it comes to historical “facts.” For a long time, the origins of the breed were considered to be a cross between a Bulldog and a terrier. Now, most breed scholars think that this was not the case. I have pored over 19th century books and artwork, one of our best windows to the past. The following is my opinion of the breed origin and history.
Artwork from over 400 years ago shows dogs being used in hunting large game, from wild boars to bears, with three types of dogs: scent hounds for finding the game, Greyhound types for running them down, and grasping dogs for actually engaging the animals and slowing them down or holding them in place for human hunters to catch up and dispatch the game with spears and other similar weapons. There are many such depictions, but one of my favorites is by the Flemish painter Rubens, as it shows all three types of dogs, and the “grasper” looks just like a modern American Pit Bull Terrier, and his intensity is very well caught by the painter.
Presumably the dogs were owned by different people. The ones who did the hunting were either nobility or landed gentry, as peasants weren’t allowed to hunt large game. It is not difficult for me to imagine that these sportsmen would occasionally allow the dogs to fight in accidental skirmishes, just to see which dog was the toughest. These incidents may have been formalized into actual contests with rudimentary rules agreed upon. Maybe a pit then actually was a hole in the ground, some convenient abyss of the appropriate size. And scratch lines may have actually been scratched out in the dirt in the beginning of all of this.
Eventually, the dogs were used by butchers to catch bulls for them, so that they could dispatch them with a heavy hammer. That may be where the term “bulldog” came from, but it was originally spelled “bolddogge” in some of the first known references. So the original meaning may have been “bold dog” that somehow morphed into “bulldog,” perhaps because of their use by butchers. There are some depictions and some reports of bull baiting and bear baiting, in which the dogs were loosed upon shackled animals, but I’m inclined to doubt that these things were ever common, as all the depictions I have read express disgust for the activity, both for the sake of the dogs and the wild animals.
It is worth noting, though, that the dogs are still used for hunting wild boar and for catching bulls by ranchers. So far, all of this is legal, as the boars were never part of the wild fauna of this country and have therefore been an environmental disaster, and the ranchers have difficulty roping recalcitrant bulls that get into brush or difficult terrain. In my study of the breed, I have observed all of this, and it is truly amazing what the dogs, often only forty to fifty pounds in size, can accomplish, holding a bull or boar in place until a rope can be placed upon the animals. But back to origins.
During all of this time, the dogs were kept as pets, too, and I think the ones with the brachycephalic heads (pushed-in noses) were favored because of their comical and human appearance. I believe these pets eventually became the show dogs that are most widely known as Bulldogs. It is quite possible that James Hinks may have actually crossed a terrier with one of these types of Bulldogs to get his Bull and Terriers, and perhaps these eventually became the modern Bull Terrier. But that’s the history of Bull Terriers, not our dogs. Bull Terriers would be remotely related to our dogs, though, because the cross was to the show Bulldog, which was a direct descendent of the same ancestors.
Of course, all of this is just my opinion, but it is informed opinion, as for many years I have read what was written, and I have pored over artwork and photographs. It is worth noting that both the (show) Bulldog and Bull Terrier have changed quite a bit in a hundred years, while our dogs still look very much the same.
In 1898, Chauncey Bennett organized the United Kennel Club and recognized the breed formally for registration. There was a division among fanciers as to name preference. Some wanted “Pit Bull Terrier,” while others preferred “American Bull Terrier.” Bennett’s solution was to christen the breed “American (Pit) Bull Terrier,” indicating that either name could be used. In the meantime, the American Dog Breeders Association recognized the breed as “Pit Bull Terrier” in 1905. Although the American Kennel Club had not officially recognized the breed or established a show standard, they did accept members of the breed for registration as “Pit Bull Terriers.”
In 1935, the Kennel Club in Britain recognized the breed as the “Staffordshire Bull Terrier,” and in 1936, the American Kennel Club accepted it as the “Staffordshire Terrier.” Devotees of the breed wanted “American Bull Terrier,” but the Bull Terrier people were influential, and they blocked use of the Bull Terrier name. Interestingly, about 1969 when Staffordshire Bull Terriers were imported from England, some breeders, most notably the influential Howard M. Hadley of Glendora, California, felt that the selective breeding practices had been so different that the breed should not be crossed with the Staffordshire Terrier or be recognized as such. At that time, the AKC offered the American Pit Bull Terrier name to American fanciers, and they voted it down! That was the name they originally wanted, but a new generation was now in charge. Instead, they changed the name to American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier was recognized by its British name. Keep in mind here that both of these breeds were down from the same stock as the American Pit Bull Terrier, and they could be presumed to be different strains of the same breed.
I’m afraid that I may have been at least partially responsible for the present stance of considering all of these dogs as separate breeds. There were some valid reasons for making that case. The Staffords and AmStafs had been bred almost exclusively for show. Most certainly, they were not used for fighting except by neophytes that were getting into the pit dog game with little guidance. But are they really separate breeds? Generally speaking, the Stafford is smaller and stockier than either the AmStaf or the American Pit Bull Terrier. Both the AmStaf and the Stafford is less inclined to be aggressive toward dogs and other animals than the APBT. The AmStafs have been utilized to some degree in guard work, so it is not surprising that we get more people-aggressive dogs in that variation than the APBT. So there are differences, but are they separate breeds? Since I’m the one who led the way into that kind of thinking, it may be only proper for me to be the one to question it. In the field of biology, some biologists are famous or infamous for re-describing what was once considered one species into two or many more based on previously unconsidered differences. They are derisively termed “splitters” as opposed to “lumpers,” but the splitters were often the ones who had studied the situation most carefully. But perhaps I was overzealous in that respect in regard to the breeds, even though I was just giving an opinion. But there are complicating factors.
For one thing, Staffords were used for hunting badgers in northern England only recently, so selection in regard to that activity would favor a prey drive in that breed. Also, one of the times I was in England, I met a man from Ireland who had a dog that just looked like a small version of the APBT, but the dog was from all Irish ancestry. And he was from fighting stock, but he was registered as a Stafford. I would not be surprised if some English Stafford breeders bred some of their bitches to that dog, even though it would be a setback to show conformity that emphasized stockiness. The upside would be that it would improve gameness and athletic ability.
In regard to AmStafs, they have only been separated from our breed for less that eighty years—although that truly can make a big difference, as that is a lot of dog generations—but the AKC several times opened its stud books to dogs from the UKC and ADBA, so that certainly makes a difference. Also, it is worth noting that breeders of game dogs that sold dogs to the general public, such as Colby and Corvino, also registered their dogs in the AKC, so here were pit dog progeny that were also registered as Stafs! One of the most famous pit dogs, Going Light Barney, was dual registered!
I don’t think I was entirely wrong, as there are certainly different expectations with APBTs, but I wanted to point out that all Bulldog owners, whether they be AmStafs, Staffords, or APBTs, have a common interest in defending all of these dogs against any laws that attempt to outlaw the breed.
One of the tragedies of the breed is that it should have responsible ownership, but the appeal is all too often to thuggish individuals with little sense of duty to their dogs or of responsibilities to the public. It has always been thus, but it was balanced out in earlier days by those individuals who really knew the breed and cared about it. With the explosive popularity that began to happen in the late 70s, the influence of the knowledgeable and responsible dog men began to be diluted because of increase in numbers of the other type. Certainly, pit dog men can be irresponsible, too, but most of them are going to keep a low profile, and they weren’t the ones causing the problems. No, it was mostly those who kept the dogs as pets, but they loved to terrorize the neighborhood with them, unleashing them upon any hapless canines that happened to be loose.
Not all the new owners were bad guys, but a lot were nevertheless bad for the breed. The old game-bred dogs tended to be on the small size. Truth to tell, there was much variation in size, as there were some pretty good-sized pit dogs, but since they came from generally small ancestry, they produced dogs that reverted back to a smaller average. The reason for the smaller size was that pit dog men were not impressed by size, as the dogs were matched to weight. Besides, they had a tendency to like the small dogs. They were easier to handle when training them for a match, and they ate less. They were just as proud of a thirty-one champion as they were of one at a higher weight. But those new to the breed, including me in my youth, preferred the larger dogs. One of the problems with popularity was that more and more large dogs began to show up because the neophytes were breeding for size.
The trouble with making a concerted effort to breed larger dogs is that it is easy to let other beneficial characteristics slide. As an example, you could be certain that no Bulldog would ever have such things as hip dysplasia, but with all of this breeding for size and other things, such things as that began to show up, along with other problems, such as skin ailments. This was a real tragedy to me, as one of the things that I always appreciated about the breed was that its individuals were pretty much bullet proof, and they didn’t cost you much in the way of vet bills.
In addition to liking large dogs, many newcomers preferred the dogs with exaggerated characteristics. They had a special penchant for a dog with a big head and a wide body. Some of these characteristics have become so pronounced that I wouldn’t even have recognized them as the same breed just a couple of decades ago. Some of them seem on their way to becoming yet another show Bulldog. The pushed-in nose is not quite there yet, but the entire animal looks as though it is headed that way. Even connoisseurs of these dogs call them something different to set off their special traits, such as “Bully Pit” or “American Bully.”
Another problem with newcomers was that they thought that the dog should be a watch dog. I can understand that, as the breed has a reputation, especially now, as a macho dog in every way, and that would include as a guard dog. I have heard about drug dealers keeping these dogs as guards, but I think most of them just like a tough dog with a reputation that is as bad as their own because the dogs very rarely make good guard dogs, as they are not barkers, and they are friendly to people. Nonetheless, I must confess that there are some people-mean Bulldogs out there that could function as guard dogs, but that is a completely new phenomenon.
About forty years of fad breeding has produced a lot of undesirable dogs. That is always predictable with any breed, but it is worse with this one. Some of the greatest of the old pit dogs, such as White Rock and Searcy Jeff, were mildly shy with people. Pit dog men were more tolerant of this trait than a show dog person would be. (The same is true of other performance dogs, such as Border Collies, trail hounds, and sled dogs.) They might prefer a completely outgoing personality with people, but it was not as essential to them as it was with show dogs, where dogs that showed any shyness were never placed. It may have been rare with pit dogs, but there was enough of it that game-bred dogs are surprisingly soft to correction, and I’ll talk about that later in regard to training. I don’t mind that, as the dogs are eager to please, and they don’t like being in trouble.
It is a different story though with the growly-shy dogs—dogs that are not only reticent with people, but suspicious of them. Some of these dogs are fear biters—and we most certainly don’t want any Bulldogs that bite people. In addition, a lot of these dogs are barky dogs. That is anathema to me, as I had become accustomed to the almost ghostly quiet of the old time Bulldogs.
Another influencing element, surprisingly enough, is the rescue dog component. I have always appreciated people who participated in this, as I understood their good intentions, and I have even been of aid to them at times because of my high regard for them. I understand the philosophy: better to save a dog’s life by picking a dog that would eventually be euthanized than to pay good money for a dog from a breeder. The problem is that a lot of the pound dogs are there for a reason: they caused someone problems. (I am well aware, of course, that some dogs are left off because of other reasons that made things become untenable for the former owners. But nonetheless, there is a sizable contingent of problem dogs.) I must confess that I am not eager to have problem dogs out there that will simply add to the infamy of the breed or will cause some sort of tragedy for a family.
It is not only possible problems with disposition, though, as a lot of these dogs have health and structural problems. Coming from a long line of irresponsible breeders, the dogs will often present health problems, ranging from cancer to hip dysplasia to other structural problems, such as bad knees and torn or vulnerable cruciate ligaments. It is important to keep in mind that the price you pay for a dog is a small percentage of what you will pay over its life time—and that is especially true if you get an unsound animal!
Besides a decline in the quality of the breed, many owners have become more irresponsible than ever—and a lot of this is from young people. For one thing, hardly anyone educates themselves about the breed or about dogs in general. And I can’t blame them too much for that, as pet stores are filled with magazines and books that are filled with misinformation, as well as just fluff, a lot of questionable information that is not very important. Everyone should know the nature of the Bulldog, the good and the bad (which may seem worse to some people than others). I got a chance to experience the pain of this irresponsibility first hand. My beloved granddaughter, Veronica, was living in a coastal area in Southern California in which there were a lot of young people, and most of them had dogs. But she had a kitten that she loved as though it were her own child. She tried to keep it in the house (in keeping with my philosophy that cats should be kept inside for their own safety, as well as for the safety of birds and lizards), but one of her roommates accidentally let it out, and it was immediately killed by a Bulldog running loose! She knew the owner, and she said he was a good guy, but I was incensed.
Pain that she felt hurt me, too, and perhaps it was good that I got to experience some of what an irresponsible Bulldog owner can inflict on the owners of animals that are killed. Veronica has always liked Bulldogs, much like her grandfather, as after all, she was raised around them her entire life, and she knew them well. I wouldn’t have blamed her if that painful incident had not turned her against the breed, but it didn’t, and I’m happy about that because she, of all people, would be a responsible owner.
I would like to have responsible and educated owners, as well as good dogs out there, as the breed is always in danger of being outlawed by some crazy municipality or country—and besides, I don’t want the dogs inflicting the type of pain that my granddaughter experienced. I don’t want hatred for the breed either, but that can only be assuaged with good dogs, well trained dogs, and responsible and educated owners. That is one reason for this book.
Virtues of the Breed
A real Bulldog, a true representative of the breed, is going to be bulletproof in regard to health problems. But we should not sugarcoat the main thing that makes the breed what it is. It is the ultimate canine gladiator. That doesn’t mean that’s what the dog should be used for, but the owner should always be aware that there is a danger there and a responsibility. The breed may be barely medium sized as dog breeds go, but no breed has been able to best it consistently, even large Japanese fighting dogs, the Tosas, that were themselves bred for fighting. It’s true, and before the APBT breed was well known, any itinerant grifter who knew about the breed could tour small towns and make a decent living with his little innocuous-looking Bulldog. (The con consisted of ascertaining the town tough dog and getting the town folk to bet on him against his little dog. These things usually transpired in a saloon.)
How can the breed prevail against all comers—and in the past, these included many wild animals, too, such as wolverines—even when he is often much smaller than his opponent? Part of the answer is in the absolutely unreal athleticism with which this breed has been endowed from countless generations of participating in the most demanding of contests. But another part is in the gameness of the breed. I’ve defined that before as the trait of never losing enthusiasm for fighting contact. That means that a losing dog, or one that seems to be losing, will wag his tail enthusiastically from the bottom. It’s just a matter of time until the tide changes, and he has lots of patience. Who knows, he may not be thinking that at all, but whatever the reason, the losing dog seems to enjoy things just as much as the one who is having his way. He’s just happy to be there. A third advantage is that individuals of this breed are able to override pain under fighting conditions. The kind of pain that would make dogs of all other breeds holler and run simply seems to fuel the concentration of one of these dogs. The dogs are also hard to hurt in the sense that they are hard to damage. Having descended from countless generations of winning dogs seems to have endowed the breed with a special grade of protoplasm. Well, I’m sure that’s too simplistic an explanation, but it can sure seem that way sometimes, as one of these dogs is truly tough to kill or even to hurt. They really do seem to be made of special stuff.
A legitimate question would be why anyone would want such a dog. Fifty or sixty years ago, dogs ran loose in most municipalities, and dog bites were not uncommon. In those days, a Bulldog was ideal to walk on a leash, as he was the perfect anti-missile missile. And that didn’t mean that your walk was interrupted by dog fights, as even the biggest aggressive dogs seemed reluctant to come within striking range of even a small dog that was staring holes through him, as though silently measuring him for a coffin.
Nowadays, of course, only those who appreciate the background of such a dog and venerate stark courage would be especially drawn to the breed. But it has many other qualities, too. While I was personally won over by the breed because of its stark warrior spirit and fighting capabilities, I have changed a lot in my lifetime, and I now particularly appreciate the intelligence and good disposition of the breed. However, I do believe that anyone who considers a member of this breed should make peace with its fighting and hunting history and be willing to keep the dog contained and on leash.
Even with the multitudes of fighting ancestors whispering to each member of the breed, not all of them are going to incorrigible fighters. There have even been veterans of the pit that became great pets and were friends to every dog. I heard stories told by old-timers about pit dogs that could run loose in the street in between fight dates, but that’s not the way it usually is. To be so good at something, there usually had to be a passion there of the activity for the individual warriors. It is not surprising that it would be that way, but what is surprising is how many of these dogs can have their passions channeled in other directions.
Still, the fact must be faced that some of these dogs are going to develop a strong urge to fight, even without experiencing fighting contact. That is the chance you take when you get a pup of this breed. It’s in their genome, and it expresses itself in different ways in different individuals. Usually, they will become friends with non-aggressive dogs with which they are raised, and sometimes they will become friends with other Bulldogs. But I don’t think it’s safe to leave them unsupervised. Rough play can gradually escalate into fighting. Some will be friends with dogs they know, but strange dogs are on the menu. We shouldn’t be surprised. Bird dogs have an innate interest in birds, and their attention is drawn to them. That is called “birdy” by bird dog people. Well, there is a similar interest in Bulldogs in strange dogs, but I’m not aware that that trait has ever been given an analogous term.
One thing to which I do object is the practice of some people to use electric shock to drive that behavior out of a dog. I only witnessed it once, many decades ago, as I was leaving a training facility. The owner was holding the dog on leash while a strange dog was walked by. When the Bulldog lunged toward the dog, he was given a jolt from the cattle prod. I don’t know if the training ever worked, but both my wife and I were considerably perturbed at the treatment of the animal. Why didn’t the owner pick out a different type of dog? Wasn’t he willing to keep the dog under control at all times? I don’t know. Since it still bothers me now, perhaps I should have gotten out of the car and confronted the people involved. But I was completely unknown then, and my opinion would have made little difference. But the “training” being done was very much akin to kicking a bird dog on point, punishing a dog for something that was inborn.
I have heard trainers talk about specialist breeds, such as this one, as well as others, like bird dogs and trail hounds, saying that they tend to be single minded. They are therefore hard to train for other pursuits. But they always make an exception with this breed. The dogs don’t come from a long history of ancestors that were used for training—they are not in that way a working breed—and they do have their problems. But trainers love them anyway. The problems are fairly minor. I’ve already mentioned that the dogs are soft to correction, but most good trainers these days don’t use harsh correction techniques anyway. I have also noticed that trainers aren’t always that crazy about intelligent dogs. One of the reasons for that is that a really smart dog is often trying to figure out to get his way instead of what the trainer wants. The saving grace here is that Bulldogs are like other dogs, in that they are eager to please. Perhaps a little more so.
If trainers like these dogs, veterinarians who know them are absolutely crazy about them. Cooperation in any medical treatment received was obviously favored in hunting dogs and fighting dogs, so these dogs seem to realize that whatever pain and indignity they endure at the vet is for their own benefit. I well recall many a time a veterinarian putting his hand on the head of one of my dogs and saying, “It is a pleasure to treat a dog such as this.” It always made me feel like a proud father.
“Versatile” is a term that is used to sell almost any breed—especially those that don’t do anything—but I’m not selling this one. In fact, now I would much rather see enthusiasm for the breed calm down a bit. But I still have great affection for the dogs, and I don’t like to see them maligned, and I do like to see them get their due. So I’m going to admit that the versatility of this breed is truly unbelievable. Let me pick a few examples at random. My friend Larry Katz, who owned Centurion Boarding and Training Kennels, had a Bulldog who would climb trees on command. This ability is more common in this breed than in others because the dogs use their forelimbs, much like human wrestlers, in fighting, and that seems to aid them in climbing trees, as a surprising number of them do it. But Larry’s dog’s name was Radar, and he was also trained as a drug-sniffing dog—and he said he was the best one he ever trained!
I also knew a man who trained dogs for retriever trials for a living. That is a rich folks’ pastime, as people leave their dogs at a trainer’s quarters for training most of the time, and then they come to watch their dogs perform at field trial day. They remind me of race horse owners in this respect, but the point is that there are professional retriever trainers. In this case, the trainer’s own personal dog was a Bulldog. I had seen retriever trials, and there was a retriever training facility about twenty-five miles from my place, and we both knew the owner. So the guy demonstrated to me what his Bulldog could do. Even I was surprised, and the owner of the property, also a trainer, made the proclamation that the dog could win a retriever trial, as he was that good. His owner demurred though. He explained that the dog didn’t have the insulation fat of a field trial Labrador Retriever, nor did he have the thick coat. For that reason, he would eventually succumb to hypothermia. Other than that, he could have been a winner—if he had been the right breed. (It may be that retriever trials are open to all comers, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be, as I have never seen anything but a black, field-trial-bred Labrador Retriever win.)
I’m quite fond of trail hounds, but I’m going to list some Bulldog accomplishments here that the reader can check for himself. For more years than one, Bulldogs have won national coon hound trials, besting those dogs at their own game. Not only does this demonstrate the extreme versatility and athleticism of the Bulldog, but it may be an indication that the coonhound field trials should emphasize the cold nose scent abilities of their charges in their competitions.
I very much doubt that Bulldogs would have been allowed as war dogs in the second World War because of their danger to other dogs, but Sergeant Stubby, a member of the breed was the heralded war dog of the Great War, the first World War. I think the dog was a mascot for one of the men, but he ended up performing all sorts of exploits that were reported on back home, possibly from the letters of his owner. In any case, he was given a rank, and he led some of the parades after the war. And he actually received medals for specific acts of heroism, and he was claimed to be the most decorated war dog of that war. He was the canine Audie Murphy of the Great War! But I’m pretty much a peace proponent, so I shouldn’t even have included this.
A question that an owner of this breed often gets is the rather inane, “You don’t fight them, do you?” I have learned to joke, “Only on the weekends!” But inherent in the question is why would people want such a breed if they didn’t want them for fighting. People think I am joking when I tell them that I like the breed for its disposition, but it’s true. I truly believe that the breed has as good a disposition with people as any breed extant. And that’s true also even with other dogs that they are friendly with. But, of course, there are tons of other reasons.
I personally delight in having a dog with such freaky athletic ability, and I also take a quiet pleasure in knowing that the dog is game and that he is a unique product, down from ancestors that were selected for breeding by hard-to-please people. That’s the main reason for the good disposition. The only thing the breeders through the ages were not finicky about was appearance. Disposition and accomplishment was all that mattered. Hence, the lack of uniformity, but a good looking Bulldog is hard to beat in appearance. I recall my father looking at one of Carson Morrow’s dogs and commenting that he looked like a mountain lion. At that time, my idea of a good looking dog was still a Collie, but I could see the resemblance. As I came to love this breed, however, it was never for its appearance—but I confess now that there is no dog that looks better to me than a good looking Bulldog. Not all of the individuals excel in appearance, but it depends on what you like. A lot of people don’t like the brindle hues, but it has been a Bulldog coloration (actually a pattern, rather than a color) for so long that it is one that I particularly like.
I still love all dogs, but it would be hard for me to be satisfied with one from another breed, as I’ve truly been spoiled. As a young man, after I had kept several and had become a student of the breed, I took my parent’s dog, Trixie, for a walk with me one night, just to give her an outing during a time that they were away and I was house sitting. She was just a mutt, a lovable one, but I discovered a long walk was not part of her job description. I ended up carrying her all the way back! I was amused though mildly disgusted. I could have taken a 15-year-old Bulldog on that walk with no problem.
The truth is that a Bulldog is just not going to poop out on you in any activity. In general, they are bears for work, and they are enthusiastic for just about any activity. I recall introducing one to giant waves in the ocean. And she couldn’t get enough of it. The waves would toss her back, and she would run right back in, quite typical of the Bulldog attitude. It is suggested even to retriever owners that they introduce the dogs gradually to water—and especially ocean water, as dogs can get sick from swallowing that. But Belle may have swallowed half the ocean, but it didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for it. In the waves, Belle had an opponent that just kept coming and never gave up! What more could a Bulldog want?
She loved to retrieve, and we kept finding large sticks to throw in the water for her (on subsequent days, with a calmer ocean). We couldn’t find anything too big for her to retrieve. I think she would have brought back a telephone pole if only we could have found a way to throw it out there.
I’ve never had a Bulldog that didn’t like the ocean or swimming. It seems to be part of their genome, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it just came with the package that favored enthusiasm for any activity. Whatever she had is part of the charm of the breed.