160 IN PRAISE OF MASTIFFS
IN PRAISE OF MASTIFFS
This piece is dedicated to a better future for the mastiff breeds, whether titled doggen, dogges, dogues, dogos, beissers, filas, perros de presa or mastiff in their distant past. They were the bravest of the dogs used in the hunt, fiercely loyal dogs and the ones most misused by man. They need to be bred as active, powerfully-built, canine athletes not as over-boned, fleshy, bulky status symbols. Their broad heads must not become flat-faced, limiting both their breathing and their scenting capability. In today's mainly urban society, they must not be anything other than even-tempered, good-natured dogs, retaining their guarding instinct yet posing no threat to family and friends. This group of dogs originated as heavy hounds used to assist man in the hunt for the bigger quarry: horned and hoofed beasts of great size, immensely difficult to catch and 'hold' but a supreme provider of meat. Primitive hunters would have found great benefit in having sizeable dogs to pull down such substantial quarry.
This group of dogs comprised the canine big game hunters, of infinite value to human hunters and, unlike hounds pursuing smaller quarry, all too often sacrificed their own lives in providing a source of food to humans. Their desire to persist in the hunt has led to their being misused by man in combat with other animals and even each other. Their matchless power in the hunt has led to their being prized for their sheer size and impressive appearance. They should be prized for what they are: superb canine athletes, valuable protectors and steadfast companions, never misused to bolster shaky egos or become associated with the misguided public parading of outward belligerence. Our increasingly town-dwelling world limits their activity: for employment, exercise and therefore spiritual release. Their past service to man however should ensure that we breed them wisely, respect their basic needs and honour their heritage. They represent a quite remarkable feature of man's past needs and activities in a primitive world. They bring qualities of tolerance, restraint, controlled power and innate gentleness that we should admire. May they long continue to live in harmony with humans and find new outlets for their admirable, honest qualities.
Big Game Hunters
Mastiffs! The very word conjures up images of powerful, protective, formidable yet faithful big dogs. My book The Mastiffs - The Big Game Hunters (available in Publications, above) tells you about the surviving breeds – their ancestry as big game hunters for primitive hunters, as ferocious battle dogs, fearless armoured catch-dogs in the boar hunt, statuesque parade dogs and steadfast anti-poacher dogs. From the Americas to South Africa and from Europe to Asia, we can learn of their reckless courage and immense fortitude at the behest of man and how man has, in modern times, bred them less wisely and prejudiced their future. They were the heavy hounds of the medieval hunting field, prized for their bravery, remarkable determination and astonishing stoicism. In forgetting their origins we have lost our way in breeding them ‘fit for function’; their function gave us their design and to be true mastiffs they simply must be bred as powerful but athletic canine hunters, willing to do what the scent-hounds were not designed for: closing with their dangerous prey, seizing it and holding it until the human hunters arrived. We may no longer require dogs to do this for us but, having produced dogs intended to do just that, we should acknowledge their past, respect their role and honour their heritage; they were not slothful yard dogs but revered hounds.
The strong-headed, broad-mouthed type of hunting mastiff was used all over medieval Europe in the pursuit of quarry such as elk, bison, boar, stag, bear and even aurochs. The surviving mastiff breeds range from those in England, France, Italy, Denmark and Germany to those developed in overseas possessions such as Brazil, Puerto Rico, the Canary Islands and South Africa. To be true to their heritage, these breeds need to be powerful but athletic, strongly-muscled yet still agile. Is our native breed, still not proudly claimed by the title - the English Mastiff, true to its heritage? It has a greater claim than the Bulldog to be a national emblem. Our canine heritage is part of our national culture and our native breeds represent the legacy of a considerable breeding achievement. In the world of dogs, our reputation as breeders is slipping and our reputation as exaggerators growing. I am all in favour of fanciers being able to import outstanding dogs from abroad; I am not in favour of our native breeds being not just neglected but bred carelessly to a 'new' design. One of our most famous native breeds now looks less and less like its distant ancestors but this breed, the Mastiff of England, should be treasured.
The lack of a modern function for this distinguished breed, allied to misguided show criteria and a closed gene pool, hasn't helped. Our Mastiff was once revered all over northern Europe as a hunting dog: the Englische Dogge. It was a powerful strong-headed active agile heavy hound, used to close with quarry and seize it for the accompanying hunters. It was not a giant sloth but a mighty canine athlete. In the nineteenth century, in a misplaced desire for great size and immense bulk, breeders blended Mastiff blood with that of imported dogs, such as Great Danes, Alpine Mastiffs and Tibetan Mastiffs, to create the giant breed we have with us today. As a direct result we are left with a very different Englische Dogge, more a fawn Alpine Mastiff, and shame on us for that.
The great forests of central and Eastern Europe once provided endless opportunities for hunting large quarry with dogs and up to the end of the 19th century this pursuit was conducted on a vast scale. In France there were over 350 packs of hounds. In 1890 the Czar of Russia organised a grand fourteen-day hunt in which his party killed 42 European bison, 36 elk and 138 wild boar. In many of these hunts, scenthounds, sighthounds, running mastiffs or par force hounds (the true gazehounds) and hunting mastiffs (often held on the leash until needed at the kill and called 'bandogges' by the Saxons) were used in the same hunt. ‘Hunting cunning’ this was not!
Who can say that we will never need such dogs to function once more, as domestic cattle succumb 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 Land Rover pursuit. Big game quarry is 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 on TV large packs of small wild dogs eating their quarry alive, whilst roundly condemning regulated hunting. In that paradoxical world the hunting mastiffs still live – with their long and distinguished heritage behind them and a more than uncertain future ahead of them. This book is an attempt to promote greater understanding of where they came from and how they should be conserved. They thoroughly merit our understanding and our compassion.
"In Anglo-Saxon times every two villeins were required to maintain one of these dogs for the purpose of reducing the number of wolves and other wild animals. This would indicate that the Mastiff was recognised as a capable hunting dog..."