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What Were Boston Terriers Bred For? Breed History Explained

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By Nicole Cosgrove

Boston terrier

Boston Terriers are beloved companion dogs for many families, but they weren’t always so cuddly and adorable. Their ancestry lies in the popular dogfighting rings of the 19th century. Their vicious tenacity and feisty natures also made them excellent ratters for factories during the Industrial Revolution.

Eventually, dogfighting became frowned upon. Due to this, Boston Terriers began to be bred for friendliness, gentility, and adorableness rather than fighting ability.

They’re still a relatively new breed, having only been around for just over a century. Still, they have a rich and varied history.

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Boston Terriers Through the Years

The Late 1860s

The Boston Terrier’s introduction to the U.S.A., where they earned their name, is uncertain. While they were one of the first breeds bred in America, their ancestors started out in England, though there’s a bit of debate about how they came about. It is agreed that they were originally intended to take part in the dogfighting circuit, a pastime that was incredibly popular during the 19th century.

Coachmen of Wealthy Families

When it first started, dogfighting was of particular interest to the rich and nobility. Due to the popularity of the sport, many people began experimenting with new and improved fighting dog breeds. It’s believed that the coachmen of wealthier families played a large part in the original development of the Boston Terrier breed.

red boston terrier
Image by: Zero Degrees Photography, Shutterstock


The first ancestor of the Boston Terrier, a dog named Judge, was the result of a Bulldog being crossed with a White English Terrier, a breed that has since gone extinct. Judge wasn’t born in Boston, Massachusetts, but in Liverpool, England. Regardless of his birthplace, he is widely known as the patriarch of the Boston Terrier.

Judge didn’t have much in common with the breed that we’re familiar with today. He was described by a breed historian as “strongly built” and weighing about 32 pounds. Although he shared the white face stripe and jawline of the modern Boston Terrier, he was also more muscular, bigger, and more obviously bred for fighting.

William O’Brien

Depending on the story that you believe, the official introduction of the Boston Terrier to the U.S.A. is the result of the efforts of at least two people. In some accounts, William O’Brien bought Judge while on a trip to England in the 1860s. He then brought the dog home to Boston and sold him to Robert C. Hooper in 1870.

boston terrier
Image by: JStaley401, Shutterstock

Robert C. Hooper

Like O’Brien, Hooper also lived in Boston, but his role at the start of the story changes depending on who tells the tale.

While some people believe that he bought Judge from O’Brien, others believe that Hooper himself first brought Judge to the U.S.A. in 1865. In these stories, it’s said that when Hooper met Judge, he was reminded of a dog that he’d owned as a child and couldn’t pass up the chance to take him home. Either way, Judge quickly became known as “Hooper’s Judge.”

Burnett’s Gyp

Regardless of how Hooper found himself with a new canine companion, it was his efforts that led to the basis of the Boston Terrier that we know today. A friend of his in Southboro, Massachusetts, called Edward Burnett, owned a small white Bulldog named “Burnett’s Gyp,” which became the first and only partner for Judge.

Boston Terrier
Image credit: Leah Kelley, Pexels

Well’s Eph

While Judge is considered the patriarch of the Boston Terrier, most of the breeding process fell to his offspring. Well’s Eph was the single male puppy born from the original pairing of Judge and Burnett’s Gyp.

He wasn’t considered the most attractive puppy, but Hooper admired several of his traits and continued breeding him. A partnership with a female dog called Tobin’s Kate led to their offspring being crossbred with several French Bulldogs, which further solidified the foundations of the breed that we know today.


Until 1889, the Boston Terrier hadn’t gotten their name. Instead, they were known as “Round Heads” or Bull Terriers. So, when 30 owners of the breed founded the first breed club, it was originally called the American Bull Terrier Club.

This name, however, was met with controversy from both Bulldog and Bull Terrier fanciers. Bulldog lovers, in particular, were held in high regard by the AKC, and the human friends of the Boston Terrier decided to gracefully stand down when it came to the name of their first official club.

Boston Terrier
Image credit: Introvertz3, Pixabay

The Early 1890s

With so much focus on reforming the breed’s original fighting purpose, the early years of the Boston Terrier’s integration into the U.S.A. were solely focused on transforming the breed. During these years, the dog became softer, friendlier, smaller, and generally more attractive to people.

Despite their difficulties with the name of the breed club in 1889, the Boston Terrier Breed Club of America was formed in 1891. It was also the first time that these dogs were officially known as Boston Terriers, a name that they were given to honor the city where most of their development took place.

Considering how quickly these dogs were rising in popularity, it’s no surprise the AKC registered them as an official breed in 1893.

The 1900s

Now that the breed was officially recognized by the AKC, breeders began to determine which colors and patterns would best define the Boston Terrier. The 20th century found a much greater rise in popularity for the breed — the Boston Terrier was the most popular breed in the 1910s — and the development of the breed standard.

A brindle patterning with solid black or seal coloring was the final decision, leaving Boston Terriers with the dashing tuxedo look that we know and love today.

The 1900s also found the Boston Terrier rising in fame. Not only were they chosen as the bicentennial dog of the U.S. in 1976, but they also became the state dog of Massachusetts in 1979.

Boston Terriers play parts in schools too. Boston University in Massachusetts, Wofford College in South Carolina, and Redlands High School in California all use the breed as their mascot.

Boston Terrier
Image By: Aneta-Jungerova, Shutterstock

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Famous Boston Terriers

The Boston Terrier’s popularity didn’t end with them becoming beloved family dogs. Plenty of these dogs have stolen the hearts of celebrities throughout the years.

Pola Negri, a Polish silent film star in the 1900s, carried her Boston Terrier, Patsy, everywhere, and two of America’s Presidents also owned Boston Terriers. Gerald Ford owned two called Fleck and Spot, and Warren G. Harding owned one called Hub.

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Despite their roots as fighting dogs, modern-day Boston Terriers are a far cry from the fighting breeds that they are descended from. With their non-sporting, companion designation, it’s hard to believe that they ever played a part in blood sports.

These days, Boston Terriers are loving and adorable friends to families big and small all over the world. With their cute tuxedos and calm demeanor, they’ve long since earned the nickname, the “American Gentleman.”

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Featured Image Credit: Eve Photography, Shutterstock

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