472 Can we have Mastiff Back

by   David Hancock


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? Our sporting heritage is part of our national culture and our native breeds of animal 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 and this breed, the Mastiff, should be treasured. 

 The lack of a 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 heavily-muscled strong-headed active agile hound, used to close with quarry and seize it for the accompanying hunters. It was not a giant sloth but a powerful 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.

 If the will were there, it would not be difficult to re-create the classic Mastiff, the type portrayed by Ben Marshall two centuries ago. It would be a strapping dog, around 26-28 inches in shoulder height and around 120 pounds in weight. It could be any colour, not just fawn or brindle. It would be tight-eyed and tight-lipped, not a drooling monster with sagging eyelids. It would not be short-muzzled but broad-mouthed - and there is a difference! It would need the hindquarter angulation of a Foxhound, not the straight stifles of the show-ring Mastiff. It would be an imposing dog, one demanding respect. In past centuries a noble family or member of the landed gentry would have undertaken this restoration task, but not any more, they have long abandoned such roles. But their property still needs guarding, perhaps more than ever, and the mastiff instinct is 'reasonable force', i.e. pinning their quarry to the floor.

 The association between large and often imposing houses and large and equally imposing dogs is a long and varied one. In the days when the nobility of Europe prided themselves on their horses and dogs, many famous breeds owed their origin to the dedicated, almost single-minded patronage of landed families. The royalty and aristocracy of Europe liked to have their portraits painted with their mastiff-like dogs, as the Batoni portrait of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, the Della portrait of Kaiser Ferdinand II, the Van Dyck portrait of the children of Charles I and the Velazquez painting of Las Meninas illustrate, the latter featuring a cropped-eared Spanish Mastiff, a breed still existing today.  The inherited sense of sporting history in the blood of such dynasties so often led to the stables and kennels being a prized feature of the family property. The architectural importance of purpose-built kennels such as those at Croxteth Hall in Liverpool and Lyme Hall near Manchester is now acknowledged. The fact that so many of these kennels no longer have dogs in them is disappointing.

 Lyme Hall retains paintings of its mastiffs; Chatsworth and Nostell Priory retain the collars of their mastiffs. But how comforting it would be to see this ancient association revived. The Lyme Hall kennels are now empty but their Danish equivalents may soon be filling up with the mastiffs of Broholm Castle or Broholmers, now thankfully being resurrected. The Belgian Mastiff, misused as a draught-dog, is currently being saved from the threat of extinction. Our own breed badly needs restoration and how good it would be to see these fine dogs back in favour at great houses, whether owned by princes or pop-stars.

 Mastiffs, eminent owners and historic houses coincide again and again when the development of today's Mastiff breed is researched. We can read of the Earl of Oxford's 'Lion', the Marquis of Hertford's 'Pluto', Lord Waldegrave's 'Turk' and 'Couchez', Sir Fermor Hesketh's 'Nero', Sir George Armitage's 'Tiger' and Sir E. Wilmott's 'Lion'. As well as the celebrated Lyme Hall strain, we can discover an old line of pure Alpine mastiffs (probably smooth St.Bernards) at Chatsworth and references to mastiffs at Elvaston Castle near Derby, Hadzor Hall near Worcester, Trentham Park near Stoke on Trent, Bold Hall in Lancashire, Esthwaite Hall in the Lake District and Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, Lord Stanley's dogs at Alderley and Athrington Hall's 'Lion'. Mastiffs and mansions were clearly closely associated and those at Lyme Hall hardly unique.

 I suspect that the separation of noble families from their mastiffs had multiple causes, with two world wars significant accelerators. But one rather sad reason could lie in the departure of the modern breed away from its historic mould as a heavy hound, used to pull down big game such as auroch, buffalo, boar and wild bull, and into a cumbersome unathletic overweight yard-dog. On this basis alone, I can understand any potential Mastiff owner, mansion-owner or not, looking elsewhere. More and more foreign mastiff breeds like the Dogue de Bordeaux and the Neapolitan Mastiff are finding favour here, with our native breed, now resembling the Alpine Mastiff used by nineteenth century breeders to reshape it, losing type.

 Nevertheless, the Mastiff, once a magnificent breed of imposing stature and impressive temperament, is an important feature of our canine heritage and it would be good to see a remodelled breed, physically respecting its own ancestry, gracing the steps of big houses once again. A hundred years ago, the Marquess of Londonderry and the Duke of Gloucester favoured the Bullmastiff, smaller and more athletic than their sister breed but strangely now being desired by some fanciers to be more mastiff-like. Fashion has destroyed more than one breed of dog. It  would be heart-warming to see the real Mastiff of England favoured once again by country property-owners. This was a breed of reassuring solidity, with noble bearing, an air of relaxed superiority yet possessing impressive reliability. They had much in common with the great houses they once adorned and much to contribute to their protection.

 Youatt wrote of the protective Mastiff in his 'The Dog' of 1854: "He seems to be fully aware of the impression which his large size makes on every stranger; and, in the night especially, he watches the abode of his master with the completest vigilance..."   Frank Townend Barton in his 'Non-Sporting Dogs' of 1906 expressed his confidence in a Mastiff renaissance: "... there can be no doubt that these monarchs of strength and beauty will again become fashionable and find places in the stately halls of Great Britain and her dominions."  Two years after he wrote those words of optimism only 35 Mastiffs were registered with the KC. Two years after the end of the Great War only 25 Mastiffs were registered with the KC; two years after the end of the Second World War the total number of Mastiffs in Britain was seven. For the second time in a century the breed was re-created, this time with Bullmastiff blood being involved.

 Since this second rebirth, the breed seems to have gone through a carthorse-construction period, in which owners boast of their dog's weight rather than its anatomical soundness. But as the great Mastiff expert MB Wynn was writing in 1886: "The old English Mastiff, without the aid of foreign assistance, was never a large dog."  Another Mastiff expert, Dr J Sidney Turner, active in the breed in the late 19th century, owned dogs with shoulder heights of 26 inches, for his bitches, and 28 inches for the male dogs. Wynn gave the view that many good dogs are only 28 and 29 inches, and that a dog standing 28 inches ought to achieve a weight of 125lbs. In 2004 an American Mastiff weighed in at 21 stones; ten years ago a London-based dog weighed over 22 stones. I doubt if knowledgeable Mastiff men like Wynn and Sidney Turner would have had much time for them.

 It would be good to see a patriot-breeder restore this magnificent old English breed to its historic size, physique and colour. The modern breed can now be apricot fawn, silver-fawn, fawn, brindle or 'non-standard'; Bewick, Buffon and Sawrey Gilpin depicted mastiffs two centuries ago that were black and white. Black mastiffs were renowned three centuries before that. I do hope that 'non-standard' embraces black and black and white in this recent amendment to the colours in the breed. In recent years I have come across some quite superb mastiff-type dogs, one a Mastiff-Bullmastiff cross, another a Mastiff-Staffie cross and a further one a blend of Ridgeback, Mastiff and Bullmastiff. I have judged American Bulldogs which were not only superb dogs but, with a longer muzzle, could have passed as Mastiffs of old. I have also seen Mastiffs in the show-ring both here and abroad which I truly considered to be Bullmastiffs in every detail.

 But what are Mastiff devotees saying about their own breed? Here are extracts from just two letters in breed club newsletters: "...as a lover of mastiffs for over half a century...I sometimes think that this great breed has become the victim of over zealous breeders...many mastiffs cannot get into a car unaided." "After 22 years of living with mastiffs, I find it hard to envisage life without them, and I am desperately sad to be leaving the breed...because of the lack of honesty and head-in-the-sand attitudes which have brought the breed to its present plight." A year or so ago, one breed correspondent reported that a Dutch and a Belgian breeder no longer came here because they considered our Mastiffs to be so bad. One show-ring judge, three years ago, wrote a critique on the exhibited Mastiffs which started: "I have to express concern at the direction in which this fine breed is going..."   

 There is unintentional irony in the Kennel Club's very first phrase on the Mastiff, in its Illustrated Breed Standards, which reads: "This breed, perhaps not in exactly the form as we know it today, has been with us for many hundreds of years..." The 'form as we know it today' is that of a fawn Alpine Mastiff rather than the athletic parti-coloured heavy hound our distant ancestors bred and one revered by distinguished hunters all over Europe. But it is from Europe where the remedy to the plight of the contemporary Mastiff might come. The already resented ETS 125 from the Council of Europe demands breeding programmes for dogs which set maximum and minimum values for the height and weight of very large dogs - to avoid skeleton and joint disorders. The Mastiff newsletter contributor responsible for one of my quotes above also wrote: "I am surprised that pet insurance companies are still willing to take mastiffs on."

 The KC/BSAVA Scientific Committee Purebred Dog Health Survey, recently conducted, drew only 51 returns out of the 424 questionnaires sent out to Mastiff owners, just a 12% return. This is not reassuring; how shaming if it takes an edict from Europe to force the issue. And even more shaming it would be for a huge athletic mainly white structurally sound American Bulldog to be put on display at 'Discover Dogs' to demonstrate what our Mastiff should look like if it were true to its own heritage. But at least this might free the contemporary Mastiff to be displayed as a living example of the old long-lost Alpine Mastiff. Can we please have our Mastiff back?