356 Try the Bullmastiff

by   David Hancock

For two and a half years, in the mid 1990s, I used two Bullmastiffs to patrol the 1,000 acre country estate I was managing then. The estate embraced woodland, pastureland, a fast flowing river, formal gardens, the historic hall and the usual obstacles such as culverts, farm gates, stone walls and dense undergrowth, especially bracken and rhododendron. There was extensive public access and every type of farm animal grazing there. There was also plenty of game and a wide variety of vermin, including mink. The estate was threatened by vandals, poachers, trespassing picnickers, dumpers of illegal waste and thieves. My dogs had to be steady to stock, trained to ignore game and able to negotiate every kind of obstacle, whether clearing fences or wriggling under wire fencing. They had to operate under voice control, off the lead.

 Some years before a large garden ornament had been stolen, and, before my dog-patrols, a couple of valuable items had been stolen from the Hall. There was a need for visible security and a perceptible deterrent. I had used dogs before, when serving as a soldier: Alsatians (before their renaming as GSDs) as patrol and anti-ambush dogs and Labrador Retrievers as tracker dogs and body/explosive detecting dogs. The requirements were of course very different indeed. The Alsatians were trained to indicate any human presence ahead during jungle operations; the Bullmastiffs had to spot human presence and react to identified activity, whether it was children inflicting minor damage or walkers quite legally on a footpath. In other words, they had to exercise discretion, perform beyond their training, never act on impulse, in short - think for themselves.

Much is written about intelligence in dogs. I had working sheepdogs for thirty years and they were superb dogs, easy to train, quick to respond, clever and eager to please. But which is the brighter dog, the one which is easy to train and will do exactly what it is told to do, nothing more, or one which may be less easy to train and more measured in its responses but thinks instinctively for itself? Is it really more intelligent to spend your days doing man's bidding, only using the training skills instilled and just responding to instructions, or, to assess each situation separately using inherited skills?

When using my Bullmastiffs as patrol dogs on an estate open to the public I could not possibly allow them to bark menacingly at a law-abiding rambler or threaten a child playing hide and seek. Luckily Bullmastiffs rarely bark and have a great love of children. Similarly, I did not want them to wag their tails at travellers seeking a future illegal campsite or livestock thieves carrying out a reconnaissance. The Bullmastiffs I used lived with us as pets; they were not trained to act as guard-dogs. Yet never once in two and a half years did they 'misread' a contact; they eyed suspicious characters with justified suspicion, they 'noticed' harmless human activity without their hackles going up or their throats rumbling with the beginnings of a growl. That is instinctive behaviour at work. A breed which doesn't bark reactively, as so many so-called guard-dogs do - often out of fear, is a bonus too.

On one early Sunday morning estate patrol, I came across two men on a fungi-foray, harmless trespassers it turned out. They were clearly very frightened of my dogs, and, in a friendly conversation, I asked them why. "Because they look so formidable!" said one. And a nine stone Bullmastiff with a strong head, black mask and muzzle and a steadfast gaze - that studies strangers with an uncompromising focus, a definite deterrent. Snarling guard-dogs straining on a leash look savage; a powerful silent is dog, unleashed but under voice control, eyeing you disconcertingly, leaves a lasting impression of controlled power.

As an infantry soldier, I conducted anti-terrorist operations from Cyprus to Singapore and from Brunei to Belfast. These often involved searching for armed men in caves, outbuildings, house-to-house raids and in thick undergrowth. If you asked me to choose the type of type of dog I would prefer to accompany me on such dangerous activities, I would go for the broad-mouthed, mastiff type such as the Bullmastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux, the Neapolitan Mastiff, the Perro de Presa Canario, the Tosa, the American Bulldog or the Fila Brasileiro. I would never go for the shepherd dogs however easy it is to train a German, Dutch or Belgian dog. When your life is being threatened who would you prefer to stand with you, a dog bred to guard sheep or a dog originally bred to pull down big game, such as buffalo, boar, bull and stag? Which dog would take the most punishment and fight on? It may only happen once!

Of course, the surviving mastiff breeds are bred for show by breeders who rate appearance ahead of character and working ability, (Such dogs are also threatened by strangely-motivated policemen conducting anti-dog operations on the basis that any dog of substantial build, with a strong head and displaying 'extreme persistence' is a menace to the public. Yet a policeman with such attributes is rightly promoted!) The genes of the old 'holding dogs' are still there however and the key instincts merely dormant. One of the British mastiff breeds, the Bullmastiff, was of course developed as a gamekeeper's night-dog. It is odd though for today's breeders to extol this working past and then breed dogs which couldn't carry out such a role.

Bullmastiffs are fiercely loyal to their owners and famously protective of their family and property. They may not be instinctive retrievers; mine could never see the point of retrieving an object only to see it thrown away again! They may not be built for agility work or temperamentally suited to automaton-dog activities like heelwork. I don't want my dogs to glue their heads to my knee. I very much admire and treasure the Bullmastiff's desire to know why it is required to carry out an instruction. Give me a thinking dog ahead of a clockwork model any day! As the great nightdog man Burton said a century or so ago: "Teach the dog to rely on himself". But we really should exercise their tracking, searching and detaining skills.

A number of breeds take part in Schutzhund or protection dog work. I suspect that the Bullmastiff would instinctively 'down' a man rather than worry an arm protected by a canvas sleeve. Early in the last century, a London vet, Charles Peirce, used to encourage his Bullmastiffs to 'down' a man on command.  Peirce's most celebrated Bullmastiff was a brindle called 'Lion', descended from a famous night-dog Osmaston Viper.

Peirce had a fenced-off 'ring' in his yard and he would wager against any man being able to stay on his feet when opposing 'Lion' for just five minutes in this ring. 'Lion' never lost a wager for his owner despite many takers. The dog never harmed his 'challengers', just put them down and 'held' them until ordered to release them. This is instinctive behaviour for a 'holding dog'. It is instinctive behaviour which service-dog providers have never capitalised on. A criminal held by one arm can still fight or even wield a knife or fire a gun. It is a different matter if the criminal is pinned to the ground by a powerful dog - that makes no attempt to savage him. Shepherd dogs have the jaws for savaging. The mastiff breeds have the jaws for 'holding'. A 'holding dog' had to be brave not savage.

Like the infantry in battle, the holding dogs had the task in the medieval hunt of closing with the enemy. Close-quarter combat was their speciality. Nowadays we choose breeds because of their so-called trainability rather than their instinctive behaviour. It may save training time and therefore training funds but does it save policemen's lives when the chips are down and a life-or-death struggle between a desperate criminal and a lone policeman is  being enacted? Police trainers list the qualities needed in a police dog as: soundness of temperament, courage, stamina, good health, working ability, versatility, controlled aggression, agility and fitness, drive and determination and genetic clearances. No mention is made of instinctive behaviour, the most compelling force in a dog's performance.

There are over 2,500 police-dogs in the UK, 67% are German Shepherds, with Weimaraners, Malinois, Rottweilers, Bouviers and German short-haired Pointers also featuring and interest being shown in the big Russian Black Terrier, I understand. The Bullmastiff was once the choice of Liverpool dockland police and an early breed club was a police one: The National Bullmastiff Police Dog Club, the premier organisation until 1933. What did the policemen of those times know that today's policemen do not? They had the knowledge to appreciate the breed of Bullmastiff. One policeman, Sgt Cordy, is on record in 1932 as stating: "Personally I want no better dog than a Bull Mastiff for police work, and I am ready to back it against any other breed...I will do all in my power to further this grand all-English breed." He wasn't merely being patriotic.

Colonel EH Richardson, Commandant of the War Dog School in the early part of the 20th century, selected and trained thousands of dogs in his long career. He recommended the Bullmastiff for those times: "...when a man is faced by an extremely dangerous and lonely situation at home or abroad. Absolutely undaunted in attack, and with this reputation alone carrying added value, this is a fine breed for special circumstances." Who is listening to a man with unrivalled experience of service-dogs? It is quite extraordinary that in Germany and sadly in the south-east of England too, policemen are waging war on the mastiff breeds, breeds which would offer them the greatest protection when they are under attack from violent criminals.

The 'special circumstances' mentioned by Richardson refers to exactly that kind of life-or-death encounter. Anyone attacked on patrol with a Bullmastiff would have a dead dog before they had a dead patrol-man! A sad but comforting thought. A Bullmastiff looks you in the eye as an equal; some dog trainers actually dislike that. I welcome it. This is a breed seeking a partnership with its handler. From such a partnership comes superb support. This is a sensitive breed, despite their formidable appearance. Anyone wanting a dog on automatic pilot should steer clear of this breed. I like dogs to think for themselves and not depend entirely on commands or instilled reactions. When that emergency comes, you really do need a dog with initiative - and great courage. Try the Bullmastiff!