259 Assessing a Nightdog

by   David Hancock

 From 1995 to 1997 I used two young Bullmastiffs to patrol the country estate which I was responsible for. At that stage the two dogs were immature, still growing and learning. In Volume One I described the traditional role of the 'holding dogs' i.e. to pin bulls, drag down big game before the invention of firearms and later to pin poachers or burglars to the ground and 'hold' them until human help arrived. With my Bullmastiffs my early disappointments were: the dogs were not bold enough, were water-shy and not determined enough at obstacles. A Bullmastiff used as a Gamekeeper's Nightdog must be bold, willing to dash into water and capable of clearing the sort of obstacles found on a country estate. Let me say straightaway that this group of dogs represents the ideal type for such work. They were of course once used all over Europe in such a way: the Dogue de Bordeaux in France, the Bullenbeisser in Germany, the Broholmer in Denmark, the Brabanter-Bullenbijter in the Low Countries, the Cane Corso in Italy and the Perro de Presa (literally 'gripping dog') Canario in the Canary Islands, and then exported to become for example the Boerboel of South Africa. Why use a noisy herding dog when you can get a silent holding dog? Why take a risk with a long-muzzled 'tearing and ripping' breed when you can use a broad-mouthed dog which will just grip its quarry? And why not put the fear of God into criminals with a dog which looks menacing, formidable and worryingly capable?

 In The Gamekeeper in 1904, it was recorded: "There is no doubt about a nightdog being a great deterrent to poaching, even if the animal never tackles a poacher in the whole course of its life. The uglier it looks, and the fiercer it growls the better...The dog may be as mild as a lamb except when aroused, but this fact should be hidden; never take him out unless wearing a formidable muzzle..." In their Breaking and Training Dogs of 1903, Dalziel and 'Pathfinder' advised: "The ironshod muzzle is a very formidable weapon, and one that can be used with considerable effect by a powerful dog." They went on to detail the design of such a muzzle (see figure).

 Those misguided souls who designed the despicable Dangerous Dogs Act probably never realised the way in which muzzles for dogs could actually become an asset to a dangerous dog. These quotations do however make the point that a big strapping fierce-looking dog can be sufficient deterrent by itself. When you are patrolling a large estate by yourself it is more than a little comforting to have not one but two Bullmastiffs to impress the transgressor. In such circumstances I have found it sufficient to warn: "Come out or I send the dogs in!" One look at a Bullmastiff's face is usually a great persuader. A nightdog of former times is incidentally unlikely to allow a poacher's dog with a light on its head to operate or even perhaps survive as some Victorian writers claimed they did.  

 The larger the dog and the more protective it is does call for greater control by the handler. Bullmastiffs are not easy to train. They lack the quick responses of say a Labrador, the willingness to please of a spaniel and the compliance of a Golden Retriever. They are renowned for wanting to know why they are being asked to do something. I don't resent that; I don't want an automaton by my side but a thinking dog. The best way to obtain obedience from this breed is to first gain their respect. That takes time, patience and perseverance. But it is well worth such an investment.

 There have been sad cases of lone females being attacked when accompanied by one of the gundog breeds. I do not believe that would have occurred if a Bullmastiff had been present. I know quite a number of lady Bullmastiff owners who are more than happy to go on lonely walks with their dogs. I suspect too that women make the better trainers of such dogs, which are more sensitive than they look. Regrettably dogs with this appearance and background so often get owned by male social inadequates who illtreat their dogs, perhaps because they are jealous of their magnanimity, self-control and genuine toughness. I would strongly advise those who 'break' their dogs with a stick to choose a different breed.

 If I were younger I would embark on a breeding programme to recreate a keeper's nightdog and try to educate the police, security firms and property owners in their distinct virtues. I am concerned that the modern breed of Bullmastiff is too varied in type (you often see four different head types in the same show ring), too often lacks the boldness essential in a patrol dog, far too often lacks the athleticism needed for guarding in the countryside and, distressingly, is victim to inheritable defects such as lymphosarcoma, leukaemia and hip dysplasia. There is not one mandatory scheme in the breed to put this right, although this breed is hardly alone in this respect.  

 When I was serving in the Malayan emergency we used German Shepherd Dogs and Labrador Retrievers as tracking, anti-ambush and patrol dogs. I doubt if the contemporary specimens in those breeds would be robust enough to carry out such a task. In my mind's eye I can still see the level topline, deep chests, powerful hindquarter drive and sound feet of these admirable dogs. I am horrified by the GSDs I see in the show ring and depressed by far too many Labradors which seem either overweight or too shelly. There is a need for a purpose built patrol dog, rather as the Russian geneticists produced the Black Russian Terrier by blending the best blood of a number of breeds.

 There are of course some excellent Bullmastiffs around, but the breed has always lacked a truly outstanding breeder and despite over 70 years as a pedigree breed still produces too much variety in the same show ring. Few of the breeders seem to practise or even understand line-breeding. One Crufts prizewinner is extensively used at stud, despite having 59 different ancestors out of 62 on its five generation pedigree. How can a dog from such a genetically confused background ever be a reliable sire? There is undoubtedly some good breeding stock but as so few dogs have been health-cleared (e.g. hip-scored and eye-tested) who knows what problems are being passed on?

 Nearly twenty years ago a well-known Bullmastiff breeder told me that he would have loved to have introduced Dogue de Bordeaux blood into his line. But of course he, even in his honourable quest for better quality, could not have withstood the fierce opposition within the breed and the obstacle of the Kennel Club. He actually used his dogs in his security business and understood what working qualities were. It is ironic that a former Communist country has the untrammelled thinking to go for a new breed of guard dog whilst we in the allegedly free-thinking West are bound by dogma. This attitude to dogs which have a purpose must make the lurcher men smile and the pioneers of so many of today's pedigree dog breeds scowl down on us.

 Whilst I acknowledge the dangers in today's fearful society of producing protective dogs with too much spirit, the need for such a dog is now unquestionable. Every day we open our papers to a new outrage, ranging from aggravated burglary to wanton destruction. A powerful dog, under control, with an instinct to grip or otherwise hold its prey to enhance the chance of human capture is much needed. But a Bullmastiff lacking boldness and the determination to negotiate obstacles, costing vast sums at the vets and not living long enough to repay training and rearing costs may not be enough.

 If I stood up at a Bullmastiff seminar and made this point, the outcry would be loud and sustained. Breeders who boast of thirty years in the breed would get pompous. This would be in spite of the fact most of them have never bred a truly outstanding dog. They will list their trophies but, with untrained and unexamined judges, where is the merit in that? It would be so encouraging for a new young breeder to come along, with an open mind and ample resources, and breed for excellence of function not for the pedigree, nowadays a largely valueless piece of paper. It could be that the Bullmastiff genepool can do the trick -- I would be wrong to judge it on the performance of two dogs, but with inheritable defects so rife and the carriers not yet identified, the risk would be high.

 How can you claim to love a breed and then breed from dogs without health clearances? How can you be proud of a breed in which movement is so poor? In 1997, for the very first time, over 2,000 Bullmastiffs were newly registered; so now we have problems of quantity as well as quality. Yet Bullmastiffs from Britain are being exported all over the world. Commendably the Danish devotees of the resurrected Broholmer, a breed very much like the early Bullmastiffs, are not making them available for export until the breed is strong enough to lose stock. If you go to dog shows on the Continent, you can see impressive examples of the foreign sister-breeds of the Bullmastiff. An infusion of their blood would enhance the genepool, reinvigorate the breed and almost certainly make it more robust.

 Perhaps we should ask the Russian geneticists behind their Black Terrier guard and patrol dog to help us out. They as scientists are not mesmerised by pure-breeding. That would be an insult in a nation like ours, once famed the world over as livestock breeders. But it may well be justified. No doubt if some worthy soul took up this challenge and crossed a number of protective breeds, the news media would descend with cries of 'devil-dogs' and crucify him in print. This is despite the famed temperament of the mastiff-group of dogs.

 In using my Bullmastiffs as country patrol dogs I want them to display the physical prowess of heavy hounds, for that is what primitive mastiffs were. If you study a 17th century writer like Nicholas Cox, in his fascinating The Gentleman's Recreation of 1674, you can discover the use of mastiffs in the hunting field on bear and boar and as far afield as by the King of Poland: "He hath a great race of English mastiffs, which in that country retain their generosity, and are brought to play upon greater beasts."

 In our more complicated times we want our powerful dogs to 'retain their generosity' but also to retain some get up and go. No rational person wants to own a savage dog -- or to see violent crime go undeterred. We should try to re-create the real keeper's nightdog and if it can't be done using pure Bullmastiff stock, then the blood of other breeds may be needed. And to those purists who object to that I say: just remember how and why the breed of Bullmastiff evolved in the first place! And please don't accuse me of advocating the cross-breeding of Bullmastiffs. I am discussing the re-creation of the Gamekeeper's Nightdog NOT the re-creation of the breed of Bullmastiff. No one would be more pleased than I if a pedigree Bullmastiff appeared which could do the job effectively. That's the challenge for the next generation of Bullmastiff breeders!