by   David Hancock

The invention of firearms brought not just dramatic advantages to hunter-sportsmen but a substantially reduced risk to their lives. This very much lessened their dependence, in some forms of hunting, on determined courageous dogs. We live in times when powerful dogs brave enough to tackle boar, bull and bison are banned in some countries, not because of any current misdeeds, but purely because of their past as a type of dog. In modern times too a dog that can singlehandedly catch a hare is valued less than a dog that can only retrieve a dead rabbit. Until the writings of Phil Drabble and then Brian Plummer redressed the situation, whole libraries were devoted to dogs only capable of retrieving dead game whilst books on lurchers and catch-dogs were as rare as a sighthound in jungle country.

It would be good to see appropriate recognition for the hunting mastiffs, whether described as docgas, bandogges, seizers, holding dogs, pinning dogs, perro de presas, filas, bullenbeissers or leibhunde. They should at least be respected for their past bravery and bred to the design of their ancestors. A big game hunting breed like the Mastiff of England seems prized nowadays solely for its weight and size. The Englische Dogge (dogge meaning mastiff) was once famous throughout central Europe as a hunting mastiff par excellence. It is a fact that, in the boar-hunting field in central Europe in the period 1500 to 1800, many more catch-dogs were killed than the boars being hunted. In those days there was a saying in what is now Germany that if you wanted boars' heads you had to sacrifice dogs' heads.

In his 'Hunting Big Game in Africa with Dogs' of 1924, the American Er M Shelley describes how the catch-dogs were not allowed to run with the trailing hounds but held by natives until they were needed. This was the role of the hunting mastiffs in medieval Europe. This is why I believe the term 'bandogges' referred to leashed catch-dogs and not to chained yard dogs, as many writers record. The risks to the dogs in hunting big game are described by Shelley: "Dogs are very fond of hunting them (i.e. warthogs), but it usually proves disastrous for the dog, for these hogs have two long tusks that protrude far out from the lower jaw, and they use them with deadly effect. Dogs can be maimed or killed much more readily by hunting these hogs than by hunting lions."

In the 16th century, boars and wild bulls were hunted by mounted hunters using lances and catch-dogs. Even in the days of primitive firearms, powerful dogs were essential for any hunt where huge fierce quarry were pursued. These were the days of ferociously dedicated hunters as well as ferociously persistent dogs. On the 12th of January 1656, on Dresden Heath, 44 stags and 250 wild boar were killed; in Moritzburg in 1730 the bag was 221 antlered stags, 116 does, 82 fallow bucks, 46 fallow does and 614 wild boar; in 1748 in Wurttemberg during one hunt 500 animals were killed; in Bebenhausen in 1812 in one hunt alone, 823 animals were killed, including 116 stags. Not surprisingly, hunting on this scale led to an enormous demand for huge determined dogs or hunting mastiffs.
The Greek Philostratus refers to 'Indian' dogs in his description of a boar hunt. These were huge hunting mastiffs originating not from modern India but from Sumerian/Assyrian territory linked to the Euphrates and the Tigris and the north-east, towards the Caspian Sea. 'Indian' dogs were among the 2,400 hounds which paraded in Ptolemy II's procession. Marco Polo, when visiting the court of Kubla Khan in 1298, recorded that: "He hath two barons...the Keepers of the Mastiff Dogs...there are 2,000 men who are each in charge of one or more great mastiffs..."  The word mastiff in this translation was a scholar's choice of words. He was not of course referring to the Mastiff, the English breed, but powerful big game hunting dogs.

Nearer home, in Central Europe, big game was hunted using strong-headed hard-running 'hetzruden' or boar-lurchers. Duke Henry Julius of Brunswick was reputed to own the largest number of hetzruden, 600, in 1592. Whilst each castle featured its own kennels, the sheer numbers led to forcible boarding out. Shepherds were required to board at least one, in addition to their stock dogs, or their lambs were confiscated. In the 17th century, millers were required to board a specific number each year. Eventually over-hunting led to a vast reduction in boar numbers and a consequent reduction in hetzruden. In time only small numbers of them were kept at the princely courts. Towards the end of the 19th century, they increasingly became the property of private citizens. The last of the Hessian dogs was sold in 1876. They were described as being fawn or red-fawn with black masks and muzzles, part-ancestors of today's Great Dane, the bullenbeisser ancestor of dogs like today's Bullmastiff.

Today's Great Dane/Deutsche Dogge or German Mastiff, was originally imported here as a boarhound. South American mastiffs like the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro were designed for big game hunting. Strapping catch-dogs like the Spanish Alano, the Canary Dog, the Cane Corso and the American Bulldog, have been used too as butchers' dogs, the only type powerful and determined enough to deal with stampeding cattle or stubborn pigs. It is a gross misrepresentation for an American Bulldog to feature a short-face or muzzle-less skull; this was a feature no catch-dog could benefit from, jaw strength coming from the balance between length and breadth - all the way down to the nose. Any hunting mastiff with the lack of agility as in the modern show-ring Mastiff would have soon died in the medieval hunt. We cannot claim to be conserving these breeds honestly if we breed them to be function-less.
Who can say that we will never need such dogs to function once more, as domestic cattle succomb increasingly to epidemics, drought and changing crop requirements. Hunting big game for food may not please the morally vain, until their larders are empty, that is. Which meat would you prefer, that from sickly animals fed on steroids and hormones, or that of wild animals robust enough to survive without vets? Hunting mastiffs do not rip or tear flesh, but seize and hold, until the hunters arrive; in a way, an improvement on a chemical tranquilizer fired after a terrifying helicopter chase or prolonged landrover pursuit. Big game quarry are hunted by wild animals every day of their lives, they expect this to happen and are designed to survive it. We live in times when it is entirely acceptable to sit watching large packs of small wild dogs eat their quarry alive, whilst roundly condemning regulated hunting. But it is, of course, only happening on the telly!