Mastiffs from Spain If you look at the recognised mastiff breeds, registered with the various kennel clubs of the world, you could be forgiven for thinking that the mainland of Spain has a limited heritage in this field. By mastiff breeds however, I do not mean those wrongly containing the word 'mastiff' in their breed title, like the Spanish Mastiff or the Pyrenean Mastiff, as recognised by the FCI under this name. These two magnificent majestic rightly famous breeds do not have the skull, instincts or phenotype of a 'modified brachycephalic' dog and are impressive examples of the flock-guarding breeds, like the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, the Estrela Mountain Dog and the Rafeiro do Alentejo, sister breeds with a very similar appearance.
The Spanish influence on the real mastiffs of the world is a considerable one, from the fearsome Alanos of the baiting ring and the renowned Cordoba Fighting Dog of the pit to the broad-mouthed breeds of the Balearics and Central America, the latter still with us today. The Martinez brothers claimed to have utilised the blood of the Cordoba Fighting Dog in the creation of the Dogo Argentino. The Alano is behind the 'holding dogs' found in the Canaries, the Perro de Presa Canario, in Majorca, the Perro de Presa Mallorquin and probably the Cuban Mastiff or Bloodhound, now lost to us, and the Puerto Rican breed, the Gran Mastino de Borinquen.
An Alano was imported into Britain by the well-known Victorian dog-dealer Bill George and was described as a huge Bulldog, rather than as a breed in its own right. (The re-created Regency Bulldog produced much later by the late Clifford Derwent was remarkably similar in appearance to the Alano). Bill George's dog, 'Big Headed Billy', weighed 90lbs. Thirty years later, another British breeder called Marquand imported two more and then Frank Adcock, a well known Mastiff and Bulldog breeder, brought over two more; all these imports weighing 90lbs. This led to great opposition and eventually to the formation of the Bulldog Club to save the British Bulldog from what was termed the 'threatened invasion of the Spanish bulldog' and the 'impending introduction into its veins of blood of the Spanish milk-cart dog.' How silly dog fanciers can be at times!
Whatever the quality of these imports, they were genetically important and were subsequently bred from, although not as part of Bulldog development in Britain. It may be no coincidence that 90lbs 'bull-and-mastiffs' were utilised about that time as gamekeepers' nightdogs. But the name of the Spanish broad-mouthed dog, Alano, is significant. The Alans settled in France, north Africa and Spain in the fifth century after wanderings from southern Asia through central Europe via the Ukraine, the Crimea, Hungary and Roumania. Great horsemen, they brought the famous 'Alauntes', or huge houndlike dogs, most likely a blend of Greyhound and Mastiff rather than a breed, with them, to bequeath us the strong-headed hunting mastiffs.
If you read accounts of the Spanish conquistadores in south and central America, such as the Varners' book 'The Dogs of the Conquest', published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1983, their description of the dogs used to suppress the native Indians is almost identical with that of Alauntes provided by De Foix, who lived near the Pyrenees, in his valuable book on hunting of the fifteenth century. He wrote of these dogs being "...hardy to take all kinds of beast without turning, and hold fast and not leave it...they have a great head...and... help themselves at the baiting of the bull and at hunting of a wild boar, for it is their nature to hold fast". He stressed, incidentally, that whatever type they displayed, they were all hounds.
From such a background have come the surviving broad-mouthed breeds of Spanish origin. One of these, the Perro de Presa Canario, is now well established after being threatened with extinction several times. Antonio Gomez Ramirez, president of the Club Espanol Del Presa Canario, has kindly supplied me with some background on the breed. In the 16th and 17th centuries they were used as cattle dogs, guard dogs and by butchers. The Canaries became an important staging post for ships en route for the Americas, with Alanos and hunting dogs from Spain on board and taken ashore. The Bardino or Majorero of Fuerteventura, a powerful watchdog, is alleged to have been used in breeding programmes, to give the brindles in the breed an almost green-gold colouration.
Sadly, in the 18th and 19th centuries the breed was extensively used in dog-fighting and this persisted into the 20th century, until this activity was finally banned. The breed then declined and the islands suffered an influx of foreign breeds, with the effect that the breed faced extinction in 1960. As is so often the case a small group of local enthusiasts persevered in country areas, until the urban demand for silent, formidable-looking guard-dogs brought renewed interest in the breed. In the 1980s a group of breeders from Tenerife initiated a programme to secure the desired traditional type and select breeding stock. In 1986 a breed show was held for 150 dogs and three years later the official breed standard was issued and accepted by the Spanish equivalent of our Kennel Club.
This standard requires the breed to be around two feet at the shoulder, over 50kgs for males and 40kgs for females, aloof with strangers, alert and confident, with a strong brachycephalic head, cropped ears (where allowed), a level topline and a body slightly longer than the dog's height. What is especially pleasing is a clear statement on what constitutes a fault and its seriousness. Excessive fearfulness or aggression, absence of mask, loins lower than withers, a shallow chest and a nose lacking pigmentation leads to disqualification. A roach back, sagging loins, undershot mouth (exceeding 4mm), lack of bulk, poor spring of rib and light eyes are considered to be very serious faults. Serious faults are: too short a muzzle, excessively pendulous flews, too large a dewlap and sagging eyelids. How I wish our 'modified brachycephalic' breeds had such sensible stipulations.
The sister breed of Perro de Presa Mallorquin has a similar appearance but a different origin. Sometimes called the Mallorquin Bulldog, but known to the Catalans as Ca de Bou, it was traditional to crop its ears in a rounded form to achieve an almost feline look. These dogs were widely used in dog-fighting, even being exported to the Spanish islands of the Caribbean for this purpose. The specimens that I have seen at World Dog Shows have been calm, friendly, equable and stable in temperament. How like humans and legislators in particular to blame such dogs for being made by humans to fight each other. I do hope this breed doesn't get proscribed as a result of disgraceful deplorable human behaviour in past times.
A comparable breed, from a similar background, is the Gran Mastino de Borinquen, also known as the Puerto Rican Sporting Mastiff. Still a rare breed, it is being promoted by enthusiasts such as Professor Hector De La Cruz Romero, whose ancestors favoured the breed. From a type used at one time by the Spanish conquistadores to enforce a reign of terror in Latin America and subsequently as boarhounds, cattle dogs and farm guards, these were (and still are) huge animals, up to 28" at the shoulder but with those used for fighting much smaller and lighter. A local obsession with foreign breeds almost wiped them out in the last fifty years but now, thanks to the dedicated work of Hector Romero, the founder of the modern breed and author of the breed standard, this distinctive breed is progressing.
Our Victorian writers sometimes made reference to a Cuban Mastiff or Cuban Bloodhound. In his 'The History of the Dog' of 1845, WCL Martin wrote of: "...a dog of Spanish descent termed the Cuban bloodhound. A hundred of these sagacious but savage dogs were sent, in 1795, from the Havanna to Jamaica, to extinguish the Maroon war...they were accompanied by forty Spanish chasseurs.. the dogs, muzzled and led in leashes, rushed ferociously upon every object". In his 'The Dog' of 1854, William Youatt writes: "The mastiff from Cuba requires some mention...He was not a native of Cuba, but imported into the country." According to Hutchinson's DogEncyclopaedia of 1934, a pair of these dogs was presented to the Zoological Society of London about 1832. They were described as being not unlike a 16th century British Mastiff, with a broad head, short muzzle, drop ears, a short close coat and heavily developed lips.
If you consider all these modified brachycephalic breeds associated with the Spanish, then add those associated with the Portuguese - the Filas of Brazil and the Azores, it is clear that the Iberian peninsula has had a major role in the development of the mastiff-type dogs. Such dogs were favoured both in the hunting field and as man-hunters in times when the Spanish and Portuguese were at their zenith as colonists and overseas adventurers. However questionable in today's more enlightened times, the activity and capability of such huge fierce dogs gave their owners and handlers an enormous advantage over even much larger numbers of hostile natives, perhaps the difference between winning or losing a battle. They therefore played a key role in securing Spanish and Portuguese possessions overseas.
To this day, these surviving breeds present a formidable appearance but have the classic temperament of the mastiff group: equable, magnanimous, stable, tolerant of children, protective but with an instinctive awareness of strangers who pose a menace and those who do not. Their inherited instinct of pinning their quarry to the ground and detaining them, rather than tearing limbs or flesh with a nasty bite, makes them valued guard dogs and surely less of a danger to human life than other breeds with a different instinct and a longer muzzle, one designed simply to bite rather than to 'hold'.
Yet a number of countries, Britain, Holland and now Spain itself among them, as well as some German regions, have banned breeds from this group either out of ignorance and fear based on their imposing appearance or as a result of individual dogs being permitted as pets for quite unsuitable people, in quite unsuitable conditions. The politically ambitious rarely address the latter; formidable-looking dogs make a more dramatic target, create more emotion, provide vote-attracting opportunities. We breed dogs to look menacing and frightening in one century and then proscribe them in a subsequent century for being just that. And humans are supposed have the superior intelligence? Give me dogs every time!
Mastiffs from Italy It could be that the breed known as the Neapolitan Mastiff is the nearest and truest ancestor of the famed 'Indian' dogs, or mastiff dogs of the Hyrcani, as they were known to the Ancient Greeks. These latter dogs descend from the huge mastiffs employed in the hunt by the Assyrians and are depicted on their well-known artefacts. Such a theory would cause fanciers of the Mastiff breed of England in the Victorian Age, like the Rev MB Wynn author of 'The History of the Mastiff' of 1886, to turn in their graves. For they saw the Mastiff breed of England as the fount of everything mastiff. It would please the Italian promoters of the Neapolitan Mastiff and the Cane Corso, the two Italian mastiff breeds. But such promoters so often spoil their case by blurring their breeds with the Molossian dogs, which researchers so regularly confuse with the mastiff breeds, despite the evidence to the contrary.
I believe that the original mastiffs came from the east with the Sumerian people, were passed down to the Babylonians, then the Assyrians and widely traded because of their ferocious bravery in the hunting field. The Molossian people were identified at least a thousand years later, becoming famous for two types of dog: a huge flock guardian and a giant hound rather like today's Great Dane. Neither of these Molossian breeds was brachycephalic in skull conformation. To call the Italian mastiffs 'Molossers' denies them the first two thousand years of their history.
I suspect too that the Neapolitan Mastiff was once an even bigger breed. An abundance of loose skin, a distinct breed feature, is a sign to me of a breed 'bred down' in size, rather like the Basset Hound. Breeders can alter the leg length and overall anatomical size but they are unable to reduce the surface area of skin. In this connection, it could be that the Chinese Shar-Pei is a much reduced modern specimen of an ancient Chinese mastiff breed. The wrinkled coat being the main clue. Of course the sad tendency of breeders to exaggerate unusual features in a breed is a factor in excessive skin in any breed, but some excess was there to a lesser degree in the first place. There are strange theories linking the looseness of skin on dogs with an enhanced capability to turn when gripped in the dog fighting ring or still be able to bite back when seized by an opponent, but they lack credibility. Pit Bull Terrier breeders would have pursued such a feature ruthlessly if it had any validity.
I remain to be convinced too of the sense of the Neapolitan Mastiff (and Fila Brasileiro) being preferred by some fanciers to be higher at the croup than at the withers. This detracts from the symmetry of their appearance and affects their gait, since their hindlegs are unnaturally longer when the croup is higher than the shoulders. There is no sign of this feature in the bas-reliefs of the Assyrian hunting mastiffs, from which Neapolitan Mastiff fanciers claim their breed is descended. It does not manifest itself accepably in the sister mastiff breeds and is undesired in just about every other breed. When there is imbalance between front and rear movement, the strain on the skeleton is greater. When this imbalance is compounded by substantial weight then the strain can be harmful to the bones, the hips especially, of any four-legged animal. A 'rolling' gait may be distinctive but it may also be harmful, and increasingly so as the dog gets older. I suspect this higher croup is an undesired feature which is only claimed to be a breed point when breeders are unable to breed it out.
The two mastiff breeds of Italy, the Neapolitan and the Cane Corso undoubtedly share a recent common origin and can be confused even when side by side. In summary, the Neapolitan is looser-skinned, more heavily wrinkled, especially around the head and neck, and has the larger skull. I recently read an expensive Italian book on the Neapolitan where it described the Cane Corso as coming from Corsica. (The book also contained a number of photographs of ancient statues of the big cat family, claimed as mastiff dog portrayals, so desperate was the author to promote his breed). Piero Scanziani, a respected breeder and writer of the 1950s, however, linked the word 'Corso' not with Corsica but an old Italian word for robust or strong; he considered this title another name for the Neapolitan Mastiff. But now we have two separate breeds, recognised as such by the FCI.
I believe that in southern Italy there still can be found fanciers who prefer shorter-legged Neapolitans, similar to the low-slung mastini of Zaccaro, a type associated with Naples half a century ago. About that time, in Campania, near Lake Patria, Claudio Cocchia maintained a kennel of white mastini. This was more the 'dirty' white found for example in the Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier, than the pure white of say the Bull Terrier. But white does feature in the brachycephalic breeds, as the Bulldog and the Boxer demonstrate. Its association with albinism and deafness leads to its exclusion in more than one breed however.
The Neapolitan Mastiff has been called the 'cane de presa', or gripping dog, in Naples, just as the Spanish sister breeds are called Perro de Presa Canario and Perro de Presa Mallorquin and the Portuguese and Brazilian related breeds Fila de Sao Miguel and Fila Brasileiro respectively. Presa or Fila means seizing and holding and refers to the same characteristic as found in the 'beissers' further north. The dogs used to hold or grip there were called barenbeissers, for use on bears, bullenbeissers, for use on bulls and bufalbeissers when used on buffalo or bison. This group of dogs was immensely valuable to man in the hunting field before the development of firearms. Cattlemen still use them in the Azores and South America, with North American ranchers also trying them.
It is vital, now that the Cane Corso and the Neapolitan Mastiff have been recognised as distinct breeds, for each of them to retain their own special breed points. At the seminar for the Neapolitan Mastiff and the Dogue de Bordeaux held on the 10th of October 1999 at Essington near Wolverhampton, the Cane Corso was introduced to a British audience. Imported by Nino and Gee Lo'Raso in 1998 and then by Alan Bates of Brandoux Dogue de Bordeaux, with Bullmastiff breeder Grant Slater, in 1999, this breed should soon achieve recognition and popularity here. Resembling the Perro Cimarron of Uruguay and the Fila de Sao Miguel of the Azores, the Cane Corso lacks the exaggerated features of many other mastiff breeds. With their shortened tails and cropped ears, the imports looked very different from our native mastiff breeds. But British bred specimens will feature high-set drop ears and a full tail in due course.
The hand-out on the breed, made available at the last world show by the Italian KC, contained these words on the breed: "It has always been a property watchdog and hunter of difficult game, such as the boar. It originated in the central-southern regions of Italy where it was used as a cowherd for cows and swine raised in the wild. It also defended carters and travelers from highwaymen. Its name is the one by which it has always been known in the south, having the same root as 'corsiero' (courser), the medieval war horse; perhaps it is derived from the Latin 'cohors' (courtyard, body guard)." (I would be inclined to link the word 'corso' with the Latin 'coercere', to restrain, for that is what all the holding dogs do.) In the words of this hand-out you have the classic role of the mastiff breeds throughout history: used on boar, with feral cattle and as a battle dog/body or property guard.
Black and tan or blue with tan is not favoured in the breed, some linking this colour combination with an alleged Dobermann cross by the dog-fighting fraternity in southern Italy. A black and tan specimen without cropped ears might well resemble a Rottweiler. I do hope this fine breed, new to Britain, doesn't attract the attention of the Dangerous Dogs Act agencies and their misguided totally unfounded policy of blaming breeds for isolated cases of unacceptable canine behaviour rather than individual animals or their owners. Holland, Spain, Ireland, some states in America and regions of Germany have now listed quite a number of breeds under their anti-dog legislation, breeds with a long and distinguished record of service to man.
The Cane Corso has a long proud record as a family protector, staunch but not savage guard-dog, cattle herder and catch-dog. It is vitally important that puppies in Britain are not sold to unsuitable owners, to be ill-used and mis-used and then mis-judged. A powerful breed like this needs a strong-minded dedicated breed club to promote its best interests and guide its early development in the UK. New breeds often attract the fickle; powerful new breeds always attract the interest of social inadequates who see their 'image' being enhanced by having a hefty, powerfully-muscled dog on their leash. This is the time for careful control of stock not the blind selling of energetic big pups to any old purchaser. One act of unwanted aggression by a powerful newly-introduced breed member can put at risk the future sales of that breed; it therefore makes commercial sense as well as common sense not to sell unwisely.
The mastiffs of Italy must be conserved as functional dogs. It is worth noting that the Alans, famous for their hunting mastiffs, were valued in Roman times for their small swift horses. In a well-known inscription found at Apta on the Durance, the Emperor Hadrian praises and commemorates his 'Borysthenes Alanus Caesareus Veredus' that 'flew' with him over swamps and hills in Tuscany as he hunted the wild boar. The Romans hunted the wild boar with hunting mastiffs; the Alans could have provided hounds as well as horses, their renowned 'alauntes'. The governors of Milan were once commended "because they mixed horses as breeders with large mares, and there have sprung up in our region noble Destriers (a medieval knight's war horse) which are held in high estimation. Also they reared Alanian dogs of high stature and wonderful courage."
This 'high stature and wonderful courage' is an admirable combination in a breed of dog; strapping brave dogs, fierce when need be but otherwise placid and tolerant, make rewarding companions. I do hope British breeders will honour the distinguished heritage of these Italian dogs and continue the work of devotees such as the Leone, Caldarola, Cilla and Principe families and enthusiasts such as Casalino, Gandolfi, Serini and Malavasi, whose kennel of Cane Corsos was selected to pioneer the first breeding scheme. I do hope too that we respect the Italian breed standards. That of the Neapolitan Mastiff has been described as 'dauntingly geometric'; but these are Italian breeds and we should accept that they own the blueprint. May these breeds flourish 'communi consensu'!