What do we want from our guard-dogs? I don't want a savage dog that could harm straying children. I don't want a dog so huge that that alone is supposed to put the fear of God into would-be burglars. Such a dog would eat a lot, sleep a lot and not be very good at negotiating obstacles. I don't want a ceaselessly barking dog, to me a sign of an 'angst-beisser' or fear-biter that misuses body-language alone in an attempt to look menacing. I want a dog full of confidence in its training, one that stands its ground, looks alert and is naturally suspicious of strangers, deterring those contemplating forcing entry by its steadfast demeanour and its imposing presence. A fixed, steady gaze from a formidable-looking, sizeable dog would certainly deter me; I want a silent sentinel, one hinting at controlled fury, disciplined aggression, sheer power and unchallengeable self-assurance.
With burglaries of country properties at an all-time high, with poaching now the province of gangs of professional criminals and with thefts of even antique garden ornaments increasing alarmingly, the need for security in rural residences is greater than ever before. Worried owners wishing to safeguard their property and possessions are usually wise enough to consult reputable security companies before installing an expensive electronic surveillance system. But an expensive guard-dog is usually installed without any consultation at all. And there are no prizes for guessing the breeds likely to be installed in this way or the country of their origin.
If you look down the annual Kennel Club registration lists of the breeds utilised as guard-dogs in Britain in the last few years, you will quickly notice how dominated these lists are by breeds from Germany. With something like 21,000 in 1998 the German Shepherd Dog leads the guard-dog rankings, to be followed by nearly 10,000 Boxers, some 5,000 Rottweilers then well over 2,000 Dobermanns. If you then look at the numbers registered for the British breeds long associated with guarding duties, there is an appreciable gap, with registrations in 1998 of Airedales (just over 1,000), Mastiffs (under 500), Bullmastiffs (just over 2,000) and Bull Terriers (2,500) being substantially outnumbered by the German breeds. This has not always been so.
At the turn of the century the Bull Terrier was world famous as a companion-guard, admired for its courage, staunchness and loyalty. In the Great War, the Airedale was the preferred breed, as Colonel Richardson, Commandant of the War Dog School then has confirmed: "I have owned and trained at one time or another, nearly every kind of dog suitable for guarding work... but as the result of all my work of years it is my considered judgement that for all round watching and guarding work, the most reliable dog in size and character is the Airedale terrier." Yet today not one Airedale is utilised by the Armed Forces or indeed, by the British police.
All over Europe in the last century, estates and their game were protected by the "night-dogs", big powerful broad-mouthed dogs of the mastiff family; in Italy it was the Neapolitan Mastiff, in France the dogue de Bordeaux, in Britain it was the Bullmastiff, in Denmark it was the Broholmer or mastiff of Broholm Castle. Writing about a gamekeeper's night-dog or Bullmastiff, General Hutchinson in his classic "Dog Breaking" of 1909, used these words:..."the appearance of the formidable-looking animal, and the knowledge of his powers, more effectually prevented egg-stealing than would the best exertions of a dozen watchers. He was the terror of all the idle boys in the neighbourhood. Every lad felt assured that, if once 'Growler' were put upon his footsteps, to a certainty he would be overtaken, knocked down, and detained until the arrival of the keeper."
But how is it that three tried and trusted British breeds have become so overshadowed by German breeds? Are the German breeds really better? (The German police are now turning to the Malinois of Belgium after a century of using German dogs). Did our own breeds actually decline? Or was it merely the result of copycat humans seeing others with these German breeds and wanting the same for themselves? The patriotic Colonel Richardson held clearly-felt views on overseas breeds, once writing (in his "Watchdogs" of 1924): "I do not propose to discuss any of the foreign breeds...they are aliens, and as in the human family, so in the dog--the national and racial characteristics of each country are invariably reflected...The mind of the master becomes mirrored in that of the dog...it is up to the public to support the British breeder in his efforts to keep the national breeds going...Furthermore, there are no dogs in the world which can compare with the British in reliability and courage." The registration tables show the degree to which the loyal public has "supported the British breeder in his efforts to keep the national breeds going." Patriotism apart, are we wise to overlook the breed characteristics of the mastiff group, recognised and capitalised upon for thousands of years?
The mastiff instinct, handed down from the broad-mouthed "holding" dogs of ancient hunting days which were purpose-bred to hang on to big game until the primitive hunters arrived to despatch it with hand-held weapons, is to detain its prey rather than nip it, bark at it or threaten to rush in and bite it, as many baying hounds and the herding breeds do. Burglars have been known to get into a building guarded by a Bullmastiff, a Dogue de Bordeaux or a Neapolitan Mastiff but not to get out!
When I read of pitch-invasions at soccer matches and all the disorder which so often ensues, I recall reports of the demonstrations given at livestock shows seventy or eighty years ago by Mr. Burton and night-dogs from his famous Thorneywood kennels. He would give a guinea to any member of the public who could stay on his feet in the ring with a muzzled night-dog. Such dogs do not need to snarl or endlessly bark at wrongdoers. As General Hutchinson remarked " the appearance of the formidable-looking animal" is usually enough by itself. The mastiff group of dogs provide the ultimate canine deterrent.
It is a fact that dogs from this group, like the Bullmastiff, mature slower and do not develop or respond to training as early as the German guarding breeds. But is early maturity the top priority in a guard-dog in the country? The huge advantage of the Bullmastiff lies in the fact that it was intentionally and specifically bred for such duties, in contemporary jargon we have here a 'designer' gamekeeper's dog. Just as the poacher needed his lurcher to chase, catch and retrieve game silently and stealthily, so the gamekeeper required a powerful, steadfast, disciplined dog to chase, catch and detain the poacher. Not a task for a nervous, noisy, restless dog but the strong, silent type, able on command to knock down and then hold down a tough, fit, very determined countryman, perhaps after tracking him or quietly observing him acting illegally for a while.
Having decided the specification, the desired product was then tailor-made for the job. There has long been three varieties of mastiff-type dogs in Britain: the huge Mastiff, the medium-sized Bullmastiff and the baiting dogs, like the Bulldog, although the Pug blood introduced into the latter has vastly reduced its gameness. From such an appropriate background, came a strapping, utterly fearless, superbly-proportioned, imposing-looking animal, combining the massive stature and sheer pugnacity of appearance of the age-old, stoic-natured Mastiff breed with the famed courage and prized tenacity of the renowned Bulldog. This gave the modern Bullmastiff three priceless qualities in a protecting breed: ideal temperament, normally placid but ferocious when roused; a self-confident almost arrogant bearing, and, most important of all, the instinct to pin its quarry rather than bite it. The powerful Bullmastiff doesn't savage its target or "worry" the raised arm of a standing wanted man - the Bullmastiff's quarry isn't left standing! He has the strength and the inherited impulse to pin his victim to the floor.
Of course the Bullmastiff's splendidly pugnacious black-masked face, sheer size and his impressive, almost regal, composure often persuades the criminally-intentioned not to let matters get to that stage at all! A Bullmastiff looks you in the eye as an equal! And who would you prefer to be guarded by anyway, a converted shepherd or a professional bodyguard? Italian estates have long been guarded by Mastini; the South Africans have resurrected their Boerboel; Brazilian ranchers utilise Filas. The French port of St Malo, in the twelfth century, used Dogue de Bordeaux as curfew dogs to great effect.
I can understand public reluctance to utilise the services of an unathletic, wheezing Bulldog or a cumbersome, slobbering, present-day Mastiff, but can find no justification for the failure to make best use of the instinctive protectiveness of the mastiff family as a whole. Why use foreign sheep-herding or cattle-driving breeds ahead of foreign mastiffs like the Neapolitan, Bordeaux, Cane Corso, Boerboel, Canary Dog, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasiliera, Tosa of Japan, or even the newly-imported American Bulldog?
What arrogance modern man displays, and what ignorance too, in brushing aside the choice of property owners for two thousand years of the mastiff group as canine sentries, choosing instead breeds with quite the wrong instincts. When I see snarling police dogs or hear endlessly barking so-called "guard-dogs", I wonder why such fearful aggression is not seen through. WD Drury, in his 'British Dogs' of 1903, wrote: "Many are under the impression that what is required in a night-dog is ferocity. No greater mistake could be made, as those who have witnessed the work of night-dogs, alike in this country and abroad, can testify. Strength, a good dark colour, and the knowledge of how to floor an 'undesirable' are essentials in any night-dog...found naturally in the Mastiff."
Sixty years ago a police dog-handler in Norfolk wrote: "Personally I want no better dog than a bullmastiff for police work and I am ready to back it against any other breed...A gamekeeper friend recommended it to me, and said I should never regret having one. His words were true." Before the Great War, Count VC Hollander, who knew a thing or two about dogs, recorded this little incident: "...Mr and Mrs Bennett had gone to a party, leaving the children in the charge of the maids. A man forced his way into the house; one of the maids loosed a dog, a bullmastiff, who held the man from nine o'clock in the evening until Mr. and Mrs. Bennett returned in the early morning." If your ancestors could pin a bull, what's the problem with a mere man!
Yet despite such testimonials, more and more black and tan dogs from Germany are being paraded. At a country sports fair recently I counted fifteen German guard-dogs in as many minutes. One was being loudly encouraged to worry and attack a thick stick by an overweight man with tattoo'd biceps, who was verbally and physically goading the dog to bark threateningly. Wasn't it Goldsmith who wrote:
"The watchdog's voice that bay'd the whisp'ring wind.
And the loud laugh that spoke the vacant mind."
It is the "vacant mind" that chooses a breed without verifying its characteristics or unthinkingly copies others. Who needs an endlessly barking guard-dog? It is nearly always the sign of a frightened dog. The mastiff group are not irritating barkers or snappy, they are "holding" dogs, that's why they have broad mouths and massive necks. As Ruth Short, owner-breeder of the world-famous Bulmas Bullmastiffs once wrote: "The bullmastiff...is not a great barker because his guarding potential has been used for night-work and years of training him for work against the poachers who were the bane of the great estates of yesteryear. Generations of training have inbred in him a quiet watchfulness rather than a boisterous outcry when he senses an intruder." That's the dog for guarding your property!