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The Cropped Dogue de Bordeaux: What Happened?

Changing social norms — along with a British snub — likely contributed to the French mastiff regaining its nature ear

Recently, landing on yet-another engraving of a 19th-Century Dogue de Bordeaux, the thought skittered across my mind — and not for the first time:

Why are all these early Dogues cropped, and today none are?

Instead of letting that question flutter away, like some punch-drunk butterfly, I grabbed my trusty reporter’s net, and here we are.


Fight to the End


While today the decision to crop ears may be aesthetic — to say nothing of illegal in many parts of Europe and Great Britain — in previous centuries cut ears signified a definite job description: Cropped dogs were assumed to be fighting dogs, their appendages cut off to prevent their opponents from getting an advantageous grip.

And Dogues de Bordeaux were, historically, fighting dogs.


French prize-winning Dogues de Bordeaux, Sultane and Buffalo, 1890s. Note that their ears are not cropped, but rather rosed, a throwback to Bulldog blood.


“From a point of view of sport, a cropped ear has been without doubt the traditional head-dress of the fighting-dogue throughout the ages,” wrote French judge L. Amédée in the July 1912 issue of Chasseur français. “In the Tarbes-Toulouse region, where the passion for the canine tournament still burns, the custom of cropping still survives.” And, indeed, it was for this reason that the English often referred to the breed as the “Dogue of the South of France.”

In his Saga of The Dogue de Bordeaux, which quotes that article, Raymond Triquet devotes an entire chapter to the subject of dog fighting, entitled, simply, “Fights.”

While Triquet notes that “the Dogue de Bordeaux was made to fight the bull,” he lists a number of other species that in another century might have found themselves facing off with this French foe, including donkeys (“it defended itself very well”), wolves, other dogs and — “first and foremost” — the bear.

But some bear fights with Dogues were highly ritualized, ensuring the survival of both combatants.

“In my opinion the battle against the bear was the only interesting one, because there was no danger, as the bear was muzzled and wore a leather helmet,” Triquet quotes Barés, a printer in Bordeaux who wrote about his impressions of the fights of the past in a 1922 booklet. “The dog was unleashed and took hold of the helmet. As a result it was a fine contest of strength, very competitive, the dog maintaining his grip and the bear trying to free himself.”

Regardless of the species of their opponent, the exploits of the fighting dogs of Bordeaux were known far and wide.


Caporal — French for “Corporal” — was so famous he was dubbed “the Invincible.” Weighing in at around 108 pounds and 25 inches tall, he was “at the height of his reputation” as a fighter “around 1889,” according to the French dog expert of the period, Mégnin.


In his book, Triquet tells the story of Sultan, a highly successful fighting dog whose owner pronounced him to be nigh undefeatable. In response, a man named Darthés made him this proposal: Darthés, who owned a dog named Menelick II (considered by one expert to be “the most powerful of his time”), would lock him up in a room with Sultan. The two owners would then go to dinner, taking the key with them, and when they returned, the surviving dog would be considered the victor.

The proposal appears to have been just that — a proposal — but it is one of any number of examples of the fight-to-the-end reputation of France’s home-grown Molosser.


Across the Channel


Dog fighting had been outlawed in France in 1850, but it continued clandestinely for more than a half-century, until the arrival of World War I turned the nation’s attention to a growing conflict within its own species.

In Britain, however, dog fighting had been officially banned in 1835. More important, over the ensuing decades, it had developed a veneer of disrepute: While in the past, baiting animals had been a “sport” appealing to all social classes, by the mid-19th Century, Britons associated it with decidedly de-classe doings.


Bataille, a successful bear-baiter and show dog, circa 1880.


In an 1896 press account, an Englishman on a Sunday walk in Ghent, Belgium, reported with horror that he had stumbled on “an entertainment long believed to have been abandoned in civilized communities,” noting that the attendees “were among the very scum of the city, morally and physically.” Even more horrifying: The advertised bull-dog that was to bait its eponymous foe “was not English,” and the Newfoundland that had been pitted against a Dogue was not “one of that noble race of animals.” (This concern with the erosion of British breeds also figures in the Dogue’s lack of popularity in the British Isles, as we will soon see.)

No, dog fights and bull baits were no longer appropriate pastimes for England’s burgeoning middle class, which suddenly had leisure time and discretionary income, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. Instead, they were more interested in spending their newfound wealth on acquiring novel breeds rather than turning them on each other.

Indeed, by the late 19th-Century, the fascination with purebred dogs had reached a fever pitch in Great Britain. Many breeds from the Continent were capturing the imagination of the British public — to say nothing of the many dog dealers who satisfied the demand for new canines of all shapes and sizes. Schipperkes, Chow Chows, Afghan Hounds, Great Pyrenees, Chinese Chins and countless other foreign breeds nursed the Victorian middle class’s fascination with the “exotic.”

This was precisely the moment that the first Dogues de Bordeaux were presented to the British public — timing that at first glance, given the British fascination with the new and novel, should have been fortuitous.


Timing Is Everything


In 1895, two Dogues were exhibited in Britain at the Birmingham National Show: a female named “Cora” imported by Sam Woodiwiss, a dog and cat breeder best known for his Bulldogs, and a male Dogue called “Turc,” owned by H.C. Brooke. The two men had reportedly read an article in The Stock-Keeper newspaper about fighting dogs in the south of France, and had set off to acquire them.

Cora and Turc 2, both owned by Sam Woodiwiss. It is unclear whether this is the Turc owned by Brooke and later acquired by Woodiwiss, or whether it is a son. 


Indeed, Brooke — sometimes misspelled “Brook” — was a prime force in trying to popularize the Dogue in British circles. “A connoisseur in curious pets,” as his 1901 interview in The Windsor Magazine proclaimed in its headline, Brooke went to veterinary college in Berlin, where he surrounded himself with a battery of critters both wild and domestic: foxes, jackals, polecats, martens, a wolf hybrid, a toy Pomeranian, long-haired Dachshunds, a Bloodhound, a “fighting boarhound” (“never beaten, though he fought over sixty battles”) and snakes both poisonous and not (including a nine-foot-long boa constrictor, “tame as a kitten, who used to sleep between my mattresses”).

Disenchanted by the “old-fashioned glory” of established British breeds like the Bulldog — which he dismissed as a “soft-minded gentleman’s lapdog” — Brooke devoted himself to rare foreign breeds like the “Esquimaux Dog,” known today variously as the Canadian Eskimo Dog, Canadian Inuit Dog and Greenland Dog. Similarly, he was an early promoter of the French Bulldog, the “hair-less Mexican dog” and “the most rare” Tibet Mastiff, a rather small example of which he owned named “Dsamu.”

“I admire [Dogues] immensely, as I consider, next to the Tibet mastiff, the dogue is the grandest breed of all,” Brooke said of his French imports. “I tested them at baiting a bear, and I know what they can do. I have also tried the dogue at a bull with excellent results.”

So, together with fellow fanciers Sam Woodiwiss and G.R. Krehl, Brooke introduced the Dogue to his countrymen, hoping that they would appreciate this “ancient and historic breed” as much as he did.


Ear’s the Thing


Unfortunately, the Dogue’s reputation as a cold-blooded killer that had so entranced Brooke had the opposite effect on people like the famous canine writer Vero Shaw. According to Shaw, writing in The National Observer in 1895, the Dogue “is described by some as a benignant beast, by others as a canine invincible that exists on raw flesh and will quaff only blood as drink.”

In an unbylined December 1895 article in the Pall Mall Gazette covering the famous show at the Royal Aquarium where only foreign breeds were exhibited, the author introduces the Dogue as “a great hulking specimen of the lower order of the half-caste bulldog.”


A cartoon by famous illustrator Louis Wain depicting some of the breeds in attendance at the Aquarium show.


The tirade continued, first criticizing the Dogue for being some sort of devil spawn arising between a Mastiff and Bulldog. Interestingly, this is the same combination that produced Britain’s native and much-beloved Bullmastiff, and some modern dog writers have suggested that the animosity toward the Dogue has its roots there.

“The bulldog and the mastiff appear between them to have the dogue de Bordeaux on their consciences, and the sight of one must give a sickening shudder of shame to any member of either family whose birth is duly inscribed on the flyleaf of the family Bible …” continues the article, in one of several religious allusions throughout this diatribe.

At first, the writer grudgingly admits the Dogue’s virtues: “He has the massiveness of the mastiff and the jaw power of the bulldog; and there is, too, about his wide-planted legs and his broad, straight line of chest more than a touch of the wheelbarrow.” This is indeed correct, as the Dogue de Bordeaux is arguably the “Bulldoggiest” of all the Molossers, retaining more than any other breed the qualities of that low-slung ancestor.

“But with these characteristics are unmistakably blended most of the spiritual qualities of the hell-hound,” continues our writer without missing a beat. “The first thought of the patriotic Englishman on seeing the exhibit will be one of thankfulness to Providence that the Dogue is a foreigner. No one could possibly trust him near a baby; his very owner stands some distance away from him, and regards him with mingled fascination and uneasiness …”

Aside from the breed’s foreignness and allegedly dubious pedigree, the other quality that so rankled this journalistic observer is the same trait that so endears the Dogue to modern fanciers — its “sour mug” expression.

“But not to either race does the Dogue owe his dominant point, the ill-favoured, cruel expression, the invariable presence of which constitutes his one claim to be regarded as a breed,” the writer pouts, noting that two of the Dogues were priced at £2,500 each (something on the order of $100,000 U.S. today), and the cheapest offered at £60.

“There are many other varieties of dogs in the show, all of them curious, some of them highly comic, but none of them able to compete with the Dogue de Bordeaux in villainous ugliness.”


Mock If You Will


While perhaps more acidic than most, that commentary reflects much of the late-19th Century British attitude toward the Dogue de Bordeaux. The breed had already been present in England for at  least a half-century, as the below classified ad from a Liverpool newspaper in 1834 attests. And in the 1870s, L’Ami — “the French Mastiff of Leicester Square” in the center of London — made the papers when his “consort Lionne” — presumably another Dogue — died of poisoning by “some miscreant,” according to a press report. But by the 1890s, when the Dogue was introduced to the fancy, it was positioned as a breed as rare and expensive as it was ferocious.



The period accounts quickly move from discomfort with the breed’s job description to negative characterizations of the Dogue’s appearance.

In a serialized story, “The Secret of the Pearls,” circulating in British newspapers in 1898, a Dogue de Bordeaux is an outsized character glimpsed in the window of an old house by the narrator. The fact that the Dogue rather than any other type of dog was chosen speaks to the fact that it was generally known among the British public — there is no need to explain what the breed is. But as in the British dog world, in this literary endeavor the Dogue is described as villain rather than hero.

“I stepped close up to [the window], and peered inside. A face retreated, and another remained — a face unlike any other I had ever seen before. It was long, and covered with a series of flabby wrinkles bagging under deep-set, bloodshot eyes, and … the huge, prominent nose was a pale flesh-pink.

“At first, as I peeped between the shutters, under a curtain of vines, into the darkness within, I believed this face to be human. But in an instant I saw that it was that of an enormous dog of a breed I had never met with; but, judging from descriptions I had read of the creature’s curiously human features, I fancied that it must be one of the famous Dogues de Bordeaux.”

Soon, in press accounts, shock over the appearance of the Dogue was supplanted by ridicule.


“These Dogues are enormous animals, weighing as much as ten stone,” read the caption accompanying this photo of a cropped Dogue and “first prize winner” from an unnamed publication in the 1930s. “In spite of their ungainly size and almost ludicrous general appearance, they are very popular in France.”


Dragonne, a rather typey Dogue bitch owned by Mrs. Brooke.


A show report in Gentlewoman magazine skewered Brooke’s wife, herself an exhibitor and member of the Ladies’ Kennel Association, after she exhibited the couple’s Dogues at that previously mentioned Aquarium show in 1895:

“In Arctic dogs Mrs. H.C. Brooke was first and second, the same lady winning in dogues de Bordeaux. This animal is causing a goodly amount of talk, most of it tinged with ridicule. Those (and there are many) who can see no beauty in the British bull dog will think still less of the dogue de Bordeaux, which does not impress the beholder with the idea of pure blood. I do not envy Mrs. Brooke her dogue, any more than I do her winner in the hairless class” — a reference to the “hairless dog of Mexico,” which the Brookes also promoted and which the writer dismissed earlier as one of the “monstrosities of dog life.”


Dying Embers


The failure of the Dogue to win the hearts of Britons has long been attributed to British anti-cropping laws. It’s for that reason, Brooke himself admitted in his 1901 interview, “I have given up benching these valuable specimens.”


San-Peur (literally, "without fear"), another Dogue owned by the Brookes, depicted in an illustration (above) and with La Goulue, named for a famous can-can dancer (below, San-Peur at right). 


But the first mentions we can find of ear-cropping bans as the reason for the Dogue’s lack of popularity were made in the early 1900s — initially by Brooke, and then repeated by the authors of the day, like W.D. Drury, who wrote about the Dogue in his 1903 book British Dogs, Their Points, Selection, and Show Preparation that “those who championed its cause here suggest that it was the abolition of cropping that was mainly responsible for its fate here.”

There is an easy solution to the problem of cropped ears: Keep them natural. So other factors must have prevented Britons from being attracted to the breed in the first place. In that respect, cropped ears might simply have been a symptom of the cultural conflict that the Dogue elicited in the British dog world — and became an easy excuse for dismissing the breed.

In the period accounts of the new breeds that were flooding late-Victorian England in the last decade of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th, there is the unmistakable whiff of a sense of cultural and moral superiority, along with debasement and ridicule of anything foreign. For the British — who had invented the dog game, only to see it overtaking them elsewhere in the world, where their global influence and grip on their colonies was waning, too — the defensiveness is understandable, even if somewhat high handed.

In an 1895 article in the National Observer, Vero Shaw bemoans the fact that British breeds have stumbled in both popularity and quality. “The reason of this degeneracy is not difficult to seek, as it appears to be unquestionably due to the steady importation new varieties from abroad” — “many of which,” he snipes, “are doubtless mongrels.”


A sculpture of a Dogue de Bordeaux fighting a wolf, 1896, at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.


Shaw's patrician tone is also a smack at entrepreneurial types like Brooke. In the past, the landed gentry brought in new breeds, nurturing them on generations-old estates with the requisite demureness and social selectivity. Indeed, Shaw notes that the arrival of the Borzoi “has no doubt affected the position of several English breeds” — the Greyhound presumably among them — but adds that “the absorption of the best specimens by the Duchess of Newcastle’s Clumber kennel has no doubt, and happily too, militated against the progress of the breed.” In other words, thank goodness the Duchess bought up all the good dogs, so the riffraff can’t get any.

(The Duchess’ Borzoi, by the way, weren’t all that and a bag of chips: The great American breeder Joseph B. Thomas of Valley Farms in Connecticut visited the U.K., and, dissatisfied with what he saw in the Duchess’ breeding program, travelled all the way to Russia to buy from the imperial kennels of Perchino and Woronzova. The remaining Russian dogs later all perished at the hands of the Bolsheviks, leaving the United States with the greatest concentration of quality Borzoi in the world.)

Back to the Dogue and social shaming: How else can one interpret these lines from the previously cited, inordinately vicious review of the Dogue at the Aquarium show for foreign dogs: “In justice to the misguided Mr. Krehl, who introduced the alleged animal, it should be said at once that the Dogue is not edible. Mr. Krehl, who keeps a restaurant in his leisure moments, has always taken the greatest care not to introduce any breed of dog that had the slightest taint or suspicion of edibility.”

Partially a jab at the fact that Mr. Krehl made a living as a restaurant owner, partially a swipe at the popularity of Asian breeds like the Chow Chow, which historically were raised for meat, the message is clear: Distance yourself from these “gargoyle dogs,” or risk being associated with all sorts of unsavory types or practices.


"Some 'Aliens' Found At Our Dog Show," from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1912. The Dogue is just above the Esquimaux Dog at bottom right.


During that period, the British dog fancy also had a tendency to rewrite the histories of foreign breeds it admired. In The Definitive Brussels Griffon (which, in the interests of full disclosure, I published), authors Jeffery Bazell and Jeffrey Kestner painstakingly unravel the fiction that the breed was the result of crosses between British toy breeds, including Yorkies and the now extinct Navy Terrier. Presumably, its actual origins were too offensive: Griffon ancestors were in fact the barn dogs of pogram-fleeing Jewish cabriole drivers in Brussels. Their best customers were the prostitutes of the red-light districts, who "entertained" in the horse-drawn carriages —and adopted the precocious ratters as companions and ice breakers with their gentleman callers. Not exactly blue blooded!

There were some half-hearted attempts at this nationalistic bait-and-switch with the Dogue. “I doubt the truth of calling the dogue de Bordeaux ‘the true French mastiff,’” one reader wrote to the Field magazine in 1903. “I do not think that the name occurs until after Guieuve and Gascony were English provinces, and I believe the dog to have been an English importation, thought I cannot at present adduce any documentary evidence.”

Apparently, he never did.


Image Burnishing


In France, where none of these cultural complexities applied, the breed was nonetheless slowing trudging toward extinction, too.

“Certainly the end of the fights marked the beginning of the decline of the Dogue de Bordeaux,” Triquet writes in the Saga. "‘Doguistes,’ as they were known at the time, didn’t breed according to a standard, nor with a view to showing their dogs. What they bred for was called ‘sport.’ For them, the Dogue had lost his reason for existence. This disaffection wasn’t compensated for by the supporters of the first shows, the ‘dog-fanciers’ of the future. By reason of his fights, and perhaps even more as a result of the tales told about them, the Dogue de Bordeaux had acquired a detestable reputation.”


Porthos, an early Dogue.


To understand what saved the Dogue in its native country — and endeared it to the rest of the dog world — let’s go back to one of those bear fights in the South of France.

In an L’Eleveur article quoted by Triquet, entitled “Dogues and doguins,” Joseph Dhers talks about meandering through an arena in the Saint-Gaudens region after the fights had finished, and seeing the off-duty Dogues and bears co-existing in “perfect harmony.”

“At dusk, when wandering around, behind the scenes of the arena, I have often seen bears and dogs eating together in perfect agreement, from the same trough," he writes. Dogues “aren’t the brutes some have painted them,” he concludes, with both animals cordial to each other — until “the moment the bear was dressed in his working outfit, his leather protective.”

Unlike the British, the French had lived with the Dogue de Bordeaux long enough to appreciate the breed’s surprisingly affectionate character.

“Although the law has recently put an end to fights between animals, the utility of the Dogue de Bordeaux isn’t at all something of the past,” wrote A. de Beaumais in a 1913 Chasseur français article cited in Triquet’s Saga. “ … Nevertheless it is to be regretted that his gentleness, his faithfulness and his intelligence have been neglected. If he is not kept tied up or trained to fight, if, as I did, if you allow him freedom to play from an early age, he becomes a most amiable guard dog … he is a pleasant companion, precisely because of his gentleness.”


Roland, another Dogue of the period.


In France, then, the Dogue de Bordeaux easily transitioned from the fighting pit to the hearth, with an emphasis on its ferocious loyalty to those it holds dear. In this new incarnation, his ears were kept natural — an indisputable sign that his fighting days were well behind him. This permitted the widespread recovery of the breed after World War II — spearheaded, of course, almost single-handedly by Triquet — at first in France and then to virtually every corner of the globe. That includes, of course, the United Kingdom, which has produced some exceptional Dogues in the last several decades, even winning the ultimate prize, Best of Breed at the French nationale elevage. (I'm thinking, of course, of 2010, when the lovely "Skye" — Multi-Ch. Tyrannus Skyjacked by Emberez — did just that.)

In terms of that breed-saving transformation, let’s give the final word to Triquet.

“You must know how to discover the heart of solid gold which lies beneath his exterior, forbidding as befits a guard dog,” he concludes. “It’s easy, all it needs is a little love.”



© Modern Molosser. This article may not be reposted, reprinted, rewritten, excerpted or otherwise duplicated in any medium without the express written permission of the publisher.