433 Knowing Mastiffs of England

by   David Hancock

 "And what should they know of England who only England know?" wrote Kipling perceptively. "And what should they know of the mastiffs of England who only of modern breeds know?" might well be equally true and just as perceptive. Many books on the surviving mastiff breeds tell us plenty about the Deutsche Dogge, the German Mastiff or Great Dane, and the Dogue de Bordeaux. But not many tell us the story of the Englische Dogge, most prized hunting mastiff in Central Europe in medieval times. Until the thirteenth century in England, a mastiff-type dog was called a 'docga', an Old English word, still retained on mainland Europe as dogge in Germany, dogue in France, dogg in Sweden and dogo in Spain. The master-engraver Riedinger portrayed the Englische Dogge at the end of the 17th century. No one claimed them as a breed, dogs then being bred for function not form, and never to a closed gene pool.

 But how did such powerful dogs come into being in England? The myth that the Romans found mastiffs here when they reached England has long been exposed; it is however still being repeated by the lazier writers and research-free breed historians. In RA Harcourt's 'The Dog in Prehistoric and Early Historic Britain' of 1974, he sets out his painstaking examination of all the bones of dogs unearthed in the immediate pre-Roman period. He found no massive, heavy-headed dogs but plenty of medium-sized hounds. But an examination of dog bones from Romano-British times revealed the presence here then of much larger dogs. The cavalry of the Romans invading Britain was provided by a steppe people, the Alans, famed for their mastery of the horse, for the quality of their horses and for their formidable hunting dogs, the Alauntes.

 Marcus Aurelius, according to Sulimirski, sent 5,500 Alan horsemen to Britain, where they protected, amongst other places, Hadrian's Wall. The rivers Avon in Hampshire and the Alne in Northumberland were both once called the Alaun, such was their legacy. Chaucer, in the fourteenth century, made reference to Alauntes as big as steers. The word mastiff was not in general use in Britain until the end of the eighteenth century. The Middle English word bandogge was used before then. Dictionaries often give bandogge the definition of tied-up or tethered yard-dog. But it refers in fact to a fierce mastiff-like dog secured, in the hunting field, on a leash or quick-release collar, until needed as a catch-dog. In Old High German a bant is a hound's leash and a huntbant is a hound's collar. There are scores of portrayals of tethered catch-dogs or bandogges in hunting scenes in medieval engravings and post-medieval paintings.

 Alauntes were famous in France, as De Foix's The Master of Game of 1304 reveals, but as he indicates, they were types of strong-headed seizing dogs, not one breed. Hunters in medieval times did not seek breeds but developed types for specialist functions. In Central Europe the zwic-darm, literally a tucked-up seizing dog, resembled a mastiff-greyhound cross; a trip-hund was a heavy boarhound, a swinruede was a catch-dog for use on boar. De Foix described the mastiff, separately from the Alaunte, as a powerful hound. The Alans settled in Spain around 800AD; the broad-mouthed Iberian breeds described as Filas and Perro de Presas emerging subsequently. Such dogs had strong heads but not short muzzles. I suspect that strapping hunting mastiffs were often crossed with Alauntes in the timeless pursuit of an improved hunting dog, especially in the hunting of big game such as bison, stag, boar, wild bull and auroch.   

 Strong-headed, square-skulled, broad-mouthed dogs are notoriously difficult to breed uniformly, even in a closed gene pool. Alauntes varied from the powerful zwic-darm type of mastiff-greyhound blend down to the Alauntes of the Butcheries or smaller heavier-headed seizing dogs. In England, we featured the taller hunting mastiff, once expeditated or de-toed to prevent them harassing game, the more compact sturdier 'holding dogs', once utilised as nightdogs, and the even smaller baiting dogs, favoured by butchers as holding dogs with cattle. In such ways did the modern breeds of Mastiff, Bullmastiff and Bulldog develop separate identities. But the Mastiff and the Bulldog have long been developed by modern breeders away from their classic phenotype.

 I do not believe that breeders of today have kept faith with the heritage behind the magnificent breeds handed down to them by those who used the breeds of Mastiff, Bullmastiff and Bulldog and designed them for that use. Any observer of giant badly-constructed Mastiffs and muzzle-less unathletic Bulldogs in our show rings cannot deny this. I agree with the under-valued Scottish writer, James Watson, in his The Dog Book (in two large volumes) of 1906, on the modern Mastiff. He considers that this breed was wholly reconstructed in the 19th century with the use of Alpine Mastiff, Great Dane and Tibetan Mastiff blood. The bizarre pursuit of giant dogs too contributed. The Mastiff of the 18th century was more the size of the Bullmastiff. Dr J Sidney Turner, a well-known and respected Mastiff breeder of the 1890s, had only one of his top seven dogs exceeding 29 inches at the withers.

 Wynn, the acknowledged Mastiff expert of the 19th century, wrote: "Many good dogs are only 28 or 29 inches." The introduction of outside blood in any breed has long-lasting effects. When working and living in Germany on three separate occasions and researching the Great Dane there, it was apparent that boarhounds in the medieval hunt were around two feet at the shoulder. It was the introduction of Suliot Dog blood, giant hounds from Epirus, used as outpost sentries in the Austrian army and as parade dogs by German regiments, which raised the height of the German boarhound. I suspect that no boarhound would last long in the medieval boar hunt if it lacked both agility and coordination. No successful coursing Greyhound has ever been 30 inches at the withers.

 Our Bulldog too has been spoiled by outside blood. I have been accused of propounding an individual view on the use of Pug blood in the Bulldog. Six different Victorian and Edwardian writers stated that this cross occurred; I have merely restated their joint view. Depictions of Bulldogs before this cross showed dogs with ample muzzle length, distinct leg length and a far less squat build. In a free society dog breeders can breed whatever they like; but they cannot claim to be perpetuating a breed if it is quite unlike its own ancestors. The Bullmastiff too is veering away from its prototypal models, many looking like fawn American Bulldogs.

 Bullmastiff fanciers revere the pioneer breeder SE Moseley and then totally ignore his advice! In Frank Barton's The Kennel Encyclopedia of 1930, Moseley is quoted as saying: "After thirty years' experience in breeding and training, I see no reason to depart widely from the type set by those grand old dogs of the past, 'Thorneywood Terror', 'Osmaston Viper' and 'Shireland Vindictive'."  These three famous early Bullmastiffs each weighed around 90lbs, had good jaw length and little or no wrinkle. These three early Bullmastiffs would go unplaced in our contemporary show rings. An outstanding contemporary dog like Wyburn Nightcap, 28" at the withers, athletic, unwrinkled and strong jawed but not not Pug-faced, would have been treasured as a nightdog. Today's fanciers and certainly today's judges would consider him plain-headed and perhaps too long (for them) in the back. If you judge any breed on its head, then you will get what you deserve, a head on legs!

 Our native mastiff breeds are testament to the fact that once a breed loses its function it is prey to every misbegotten human whim imaginable. Sadly the public assume that breed fanciers know their breed and accept immobile Mastiffs, waddling Bulldogs and increasingly short-faced wrinkled Bullmastiffs as desirable perpetuations of treasured historically-correct breed type. Regrettably, the dog papers tell us far too little in depth about dogs, preferring trivia in so many breed notes to the discussion of important breed issues. There is rarely, in the world of the pure-bred dog, any serious sustained discussion about type, true type that is, just the endless round of shows, many featuring untypical dogs, which win! A debate is needed before true type in so many breeds is lost.           

 There are plenty of quality Bullmastiffs in our show rings, but that quality is undermined when dogs which breach the breed standard are not only placed but extensively bred from. When a dog with excessive wrinkle becomes a champion the validity of breed assessment through the show ring is undermined. The breed standard states that even 'fair wrinkle' is not permitted when the face is in repose. By what right do judges ignore the stipulations of the breed standard? On jaw length, the standard states that the distance from tip of nose to stop must be approximately one third of the length from tip of nose to the centre of the occiput, or the crest of the skull. By overlooking this wise wording, breeders and judges are producing, not a traditional British breed, but a fawn American Bulldog. Did the pioneer breeders of Farcroft, Pridzor, Wynyard and Bulmas dogs ever intend this to be the destiny for the breed they handed down to us? Do the Bullmastiff breeders of today truly know the breed? Do they respect its prototype? 

 The same question could be put to Mastiff and Bulldog breeders with even greater justification. The sheer perversity of many breeders in these two breeds is astonishing, in the light of sustained criticism, often from within the breeds, over two centuries. Writing on the Mastiff in 1891, the American expert William Wade, commenting on the tendency to judge the breed solely on its head, wrote: "...you will probably get waddling, ugly brutes that will never rise above the position of prizewinners under 'fancy' judges." The man was a prophet! Six years later the much-respected Dalziel was writing: "...when the present rage for heads of immense girth, and exaggerated truncated muzzles in Mastiffs subsides...the extravagantly massive and unwieldy frame that is so popular...give us once more a Mastiff that can gallop and take a fence..."

 More recently, the highly regarded show ring judge Liz Cartledge was writing in a Mastiff critique: "I also had problems with lameness, such heavy animals landing awkwardly just getting out of a car can often make them unsound for weeks." Is it moral to breed dogs to such a weight? One Belgian fancier has stated that he doesn't come to English shows any more because our Mastiffs are so bad. Do our Mastiff breeders truly know the breed? A move away from traditional type also occurred in the Bulldog. James Watson in his The Dog Book of 1906, recalls visiting an Alexandra Palace dog show in the late 1870s and being briefed by the Bulldog breeder Bill George's son, Alfred. He was told by Alfred that '...there has been a great change since you went away. You will see some of the old sort at father's, but they don't do for showing.'

 That last phrase is the killer: don't breed for type, don't breed to honour tradition, breed to win in the show ring. This kind of narrow, selfish, visionless, harmful, disrespectful thinking has threatened the future of more than one breed. Show ring whim brings no consistency, no guarantee of soundness, no motivation for improving a breed. It is driven by wallet-conscious exhibitors, not by those who truly know the breed. The Bulldog expert Edgar Farman, writing in 1899, gave this view: "From one extreme breeders have gone to the other, and the national dog in many instances is not possessed of those characteristics of which he always figures as the emblem. Excellent as an example of distorting nature by patient inbreeding...he is a manufactured article - a mass of show points." What a sad commentary on the fanciers of the Bulldog.

 Dog shows were never intended to provide an arena for the parading of breeds exhibiting a 'mass of show points'. They were intended to provide a contest between good dogs, so that breeding material could be identified. Some breeds have benefited from such an honourable intention, some have not. The English 'docga' and the English 'bulldogge' do take some knowing; neither was an inactive yard-dog. Both were remarkable canine athletes and shame on us for not respecting that legacy.