The sound coming up the stairwell is death.
Gasping, straining, choked-with-rage death. It’s coming from the frothing jaws and fiercely straining neck of a Bull Terrier (or perhaps bull and terrier). Its long, lean muscles pull tight against the collar. Under the gaslights of Victorian England, he does not look quite like the Bull Terrier we know today from Budweiser and Target ads, and his is a purpose certainly not aligned with our modern interests. Aptly named Butcher, his ferocious cacophony portends blood, money, fun.
The chained dog stands before a pit, roughly six feet in diameter, with white painted floors and walls reaching up to the ribcage. Gas lamps light its every corner and cranny. Ditch rats, and the crimson traces of their last moments alive, are easy to spot inside. Outside, a cross-section of London society is gathered around, from military officers to common men, many with dogs of their own; flat-faced Bulldogs, Skye Terriers with fur like Spanish Moss, English Terriers the color of whiskey. Fifty large rats, plucked from London's sewers and ditches, their origin easily discernible from their stench, await Butcher.
Piled up against the walls, some of the spectators closest to the pit amuse themselves by blowing on the rats to scatter them around the ring while Butcher is brought upstairs. After a stopwatch and an official are obtained, Butcher and his second (his human companion) enter the pit. Allowed to finally see his enemy, his purpose, Butcher is turned loose.
When you watch NBC’s taped broadcast of this past weekend’s National Dog Show this Thanksgiving, what you are watching, in essence, is a modern interpretation of an event over 100 years old, a version surely bordering on unrecognizable for any time traveler in the audience, yet replete with vestigial elements. In essence, the show shares much in common with the dogs it features. Philadelphia, home to the National Dog Show, has been a capital of the fancy since 1876. The Kennel Club of Philadelphia and the various iterations which preceded it have been organizing shows there since 1879.
According to the Kennel Club, the one based in the U.K., the first ever dog show was held in Newcastle-on-Tyne in England in 1859. The Kennel Club itself was founded in 1873, and Butcher—as observed by Henry Mayhew—fought sometime in the 1840s. What we think of as modern dog culture has its roots in the 19th century when, as breeds began to be set and made standard, they proved themselves not only in the dog shows but in the dog-fighting and rat-baiting pits.
Numerous breeds shown at the National Dog Show have their roots in blood sport, even if some proclaim it more famously than others. Bulldogs, Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, Mastiffs—who are believed to have begun as war dogs on the British Isles, where they were encountered by the Romans and taken to be used to fight wild animals in the Colosseum—and the Dogue de Bordeaux have all spent time in fighting pits. Fox hounds, as their name suggests, were bred for fox hunting, and the Greyhound and some of its fellow sleek sighthounds, while not breed for blood sport per se, are set on hares and other small prey in a sport called coursing (as depicted in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch).
Baiting, a type of blood sport wherein an animal is set upon another animal, has been practiced in various forms in England since the early Middle Ages. The most famous and popular of these sports is bull-baiting, from whence the Bulldog gets its name. A large bull is tethered inside a ring, and packs of dogs are set on it. The goal of the dog is to latch onto the bull's nose and bring him to ground; the goal of the bull is to live. With his powerful shoulders and formidable hooves and horns, the bull would stamp them, fling dogs through the air—their owner's scrambling beneath to catch them—or disembowel his foes.
No regular dog could stand against such a creature, and so the original Bulldog was born. Likely derived from Mastiffs and taller, stronger, and far more vicious than their modern counterpart, this Bulldog did have the beginnings of the large head, flattened snout, and protruding lower jaw which have become exaggerated in their modern iteration—traits that originally were meant to help obtain a death grip on an enraged bull.
Even victory for a Bulldog could mean death; there are tales of owners lopping off limbs and otherwise mutilating their dogs, who held onto the nose of the bull until the bitter end, thereby proving their litter's worth. The sport’s popularity was driven in part by culinary preference, as a bull's meat was not allowed to be sold without being “enraged,” which was believed to make the meat more tender.
The popularity and commonness of these displays is nearly impossible to comprehend today.
“Animals did not have the same rights that they have today,” Bill Lambert, spokesperson and health and breeder services manager for the Kennel Club, champion Bull Terrier breeder, and Bull Terrier judge said via phone. “They were considered worthless, effectively. And so that's why this was allowed to continue.”
Such an attitude helps to explain why a shocking variety of animals—including, yes, lions and tigers and bears—were set upon by dogs, with the welfare of none of the parties being taken into consideration. By the early 19th century, however, attitudes began to change, and the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835 was passed by Parliament, effectively making blood sports illegal. While the era of widespread bull-baiting ended, the Act did not eliminate blood sport, but rather alter it.
“Interestingly, it almost made dog-fighting more legal, or certainly more common,” Lambert said. “Setting dogs onto a bull was a very public display, and you needed a large space for the activity to continue. Whereas dog-fighting, fighting one dog against another, could be carried out rather more surreptitiously; a lot of this was carried out in pubs and clubs and this sort of thing.”
The Cruelty to Animals Act 1835 and the rapid influx of dog fanciers from throughout England into bustling London combined to change the face of blood sport and some of our most beloved breeds. “These blood sports would bring people together to have their dogs compete against each other,” Lambert said.
In the dog-fighting and rat-baiting pits of the era, the progeny of today's pets wrote their worth in blood, as regional competitiveness, reputation, and money drove breeders to perfect their dogs. It is practically impossible to determine for a fact how impactful blood sports were on specific breeds of dog. In addition to the inaccuracies of records kept in a looser and long-past time, many dog breed lines are shrouded, purposefully, in myth.
“There's so much legend,” Michael Brandow, journalist and author of A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How The Quest for Status Has Harmed Man's Best Friend, said by phone. “There was so much craziness going on, especially in the 19th century. The fancy was establishing itself, and this was a time of rapid socioeconomic change, people scrambling for status and trying to keep their old status, and using dogs to do that. That's part of the reason why dog shows came about.”
Certain celebrated dogs pop up more often than others, however, and from these regularly referenced animals and Victorian-era sources, it becomes possible to argue that blood sports helped develop not only the Bulldog, but also a dizzying range of adorably savage terriers—especially Bull, Staffordshire, and Yorkshire terriers. Yes, the Yorkie. With the 1835 Act necessitating smaller, smarter dogs for clandestine dog-fighting and rat-baiting, the Bulldog and various terriers began finding themselves bred together, the most famous of these the motley category of legendary pit dogs, the bull and terrier, less a breed per se than a catchall for any crossed Bulldog and terrier.
“To make them [Bulldogs] more suitable for dog-fighting, they were crossed with all sorts of dogs, but largely terriers,” Lambert said. “Because it made them more agile, and they wanted the tenacity and the viciousness of the old Bulldog, but they needed a dog that was a bit more quick-witted, a bit more lean, where it could twist and turn more easily, and so they crossbred with all sorts of terriers, largely the White English Terrier.”
As early as 1859, a distinction was being made between the original Bulldog, bred mainly for bull- and badger-baiting, and the various crosses with smaller dogs. The English sports writer John Henry Walsh, who wrote under the pen name Stonehenge, considered the Bulldog to be a finer dog than the Bull Terrier, which he described as more “quarrelsome in nature” in his 1859 work The Dog in Health and Disease.
Walsh considers the Bulldog “the best means of infusing fresh courage into degenerate breeds,” and goes so far as to acknowledge blood sport’s influence on the breed's purity.
“Though bull and badger baiting may not be capable of extenuation,” Walsh wrote in The Dog in Health and Disease, “to them we owe the keeping up of this breed in all its purity; and though we may agree to discontinue these old-fashioned sports, yet, I am sure, my brother-sportsmen will see the bad taste of running down a dog who, with all his faults, is not only the most courageous dog, but the most courageous animal in the world.” (The italics are Walsh's.)
The bull and terrier is considered the forerunner to the modern Bull Terrier and the Staffordshire Terrier. Some of the most famous rat-baiting champions, dogs whose names appear again and again in historical texts, are bull and terriers. Jacko, owned by Jemmy Shaw, was a legendary pit dog of the day, perhaps surpassed only by Billy. A portrait of Billy hung in Shaw's publichouse. Writing in 1948's The Book of the Dog anthology, Phil Drabble mentions advertisements he owns heralding Billy's rat-baiting matches, including one in which he killed 90 rats in under eight minutes.
James Hinks is recognized as the father of the modern Bull Terrier. As Lambert tells it, the original bull and terriers had looks as nasty as their temperaments; on a mission to breed a “gentleman's companion,” Hinks bred extremely selectively, most often with the White English Terrier, to get the white coloration still common in the Bull Terrier. Staffordshire Terriers and what we now consider pit bulls are also derived from the bull and terrier.
Smaller, less obvious terriers also derive, at least in part, from blood sport. Fox Terriers were originally bred to dig out foxes who go to ground during a hunt. The Skye Terrier is recognized as a fine sporting and vermin dog by the Victorian sportswriter Walsh, and Mayhews's sighting of one at the rat-pit suggests they were used for rat-baiting as well.
Even the adorable Yorkie may trace elements of its ancestry to blood sport. An early fancier of the dog, John Richardson of Halifax, Yorkshire, believes that the Waterside Terrier—not to be confused with the Airedale Terrier, which is sometimes called a Waterside as well—is the forbearer to the Yorkie. This particular terrier was popular during the era of King William IV (1765-1834), and in an 1877 article of The English Stockkeeper, Richardson told writer G.H. Wilkinson that the Watersides would go into the rat-pits almost daily.
While the myth surrounding dog origins and the distant and nebulous way the oldest ones came to be makes tracing some breeds lineage difficult to do with certainty, what is certain is that the little terrier did not begin as a lapdog. Country dogs bred to kill vermin, badgers, weasels, and chase out foxes that had gone to ground, the various terriers, while adorable and sometimes classified as toy dogs today, have a notably vicious past, flashes of which can still be seen by their owners. Called “the red mist” by Lambert, terriers have been known to fly off the handle when presented with a rat or other vermin.
“I've seen it,” Brandow said. “When that happens, he's getting into a fight over a ball, or there's a rodent in the street, their eyes just glass over, and you've lost control. You've completely lost them.”
The terrier cannot, of course, tell us where he goes in those moments. But perhaps he is in the same place Butcher, his ancestor, was nearly two hundred years earlier: a white-floored pit, lit by gaslight, his enemies lapping at the walls.
A special thank you to Ciara Farrell, library and collections manager of the Kennel Club.
The website of the Kennel Club, www.thekennelclub.org.uk. Accessed 11/14/17.
Brandow, Michael. A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How The Quest for Status Has Harmed Man's Best Friend, Beacon Press, Boston, 2015.
Fraser, Jacqueline. The American Staffordshire Terrier, Denglinger Pub Ltd, Fairfax, VA, 1989.
Gordon, Joan B. and Janet E. Bennett, The Complete Yorkshire Terrier (1st, 8 printing edition), Howell Book House, New York, 1985.
Leighton, Robert. The Complete Book of the Dog, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, 1922.
Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor, 1851. Archived at the Tufts Digital Library.
Munday, Ethel. The Popular Yorkshire Terrier, Popular Dogs, London, 1958.
Vesey-Fitzgerald, Brian, editor. The Book of the Dog, Borden Publishing Co., LA, 1948.
Walsh, John Henry. The Dog, in health and disease, 1859. Digitized from Oxford Library by Google.