523 THE SHEPHERDS' MASTIFF
THE SHEPHERDS' MASTIFFS
“The shepherd’s masty, that is for the folde, must neither be so gaunt nor so swifte as the greyhound, nor so fatte nor so heavy as the masty of the house; but verie strong, and able to fighte and follow the chase, that he may beat away the wolfe or other beasts, and to follow the theefe, and so recover the prey. And therefore his body should be rather long than short and thick; in all other points he must agree with the ban-dog. His head must be great and smooth and full of veins; his ears great and hanging; his joints long; his fore legs shorter than his hinder; but verie straight and great.”
The Tibetan Dogs
The Tibetan Mastiff has recovered from the absurd claims of Victorian and early 20th century zoologists, natural historians and even some archaeologists that the breed represented the original mastiff, whence came all mastiff-types in the West. They are bred now to resemble what they have always been big strong livestock protection dogs, thick-coated, strong-muzzled and physically extremely robust. In their The Tibetan Mastiff – Legendary Guardians of the Himalayas of 1989, Ann Rohrer and Cathy Flamholtz wrote: “The Tibetan Mastiff holds a very special place in the hearts of the nomadic sheepherders. Perhaps they, above all, can truly appreciate the breed. The nomads, with their black yak-hair tents and large flocks of sheep, goats and yaks, resemble whole towns, temporarily halted in their eternal wandering. They live life on the move, roving from one highland pasture to another.” In this informative book, the authors describe the caravan dogs, used to protect a convoy of goods for trading, including livestock. They point out that: “Appearance was of no particular importance to the caravan man. In order to effectively perform his job, however, the caravan dog had to have certain attributes. Imposing size, heavy bone, power and agility were musts. However, size could never be so exaggerated that it interfered with function. A giant cumbersome dog just couldn’t keep up with the rigors of caravan travel.” There is a strong message there for all breeders of large pastoral dogs. It is worth a look at one classic example of such a breed to assess its contemporary quality.
The Breed in Britain
It was good to read, in a critique on the Tibetan Mastiff Club Show of 2003, these admiring words: “It is some years since I have judged the breed in this country and was amazed to see what progress has been made in uniformity of type and conformity to the Standard. Gone are the square, long-legged, plush-coated, Chow-headed dogs of yesteryear…Most were well ribbed-up with length of ribcage and compact loin, giving the desired body:height ratio. There has been a big improvement in strength of hindquarters and set of hocks.” All the points made are of importance to such a breed. The Finnish judge of the breed at Crufts in 2007 made these observations: “The entry at Crufts posed me with many problems as the variation in type was extensive. The dogs ranged from tall and leggy to small and low to the ground. Several were long cast whereas some were too short in body and too high on the leg.” Such comments are worrying; this judge pointed out that similar problems had been encountered but overcome in Finland. When I saw the breed at the Helsinki World Dog Show, I was impressed with the quality there. In 2009, judges of the breed here reported some alarming faults: poor hind movement, clicking hock joints, straight stifles and too long a hock (in other words exaggerated angulation), faulty front movement, weak hocks and too close a movement in the hind legs. A year later, a judge expressed disappointment in the quality of movement, lack of layback in shoulder, weak and close rear movement with the exhibits showing good breed type having less quality than those without. But in 2012, it was reassuring to read a critique stating: “I enjoyed seeing the progress that has been made since I last judged the breed in 2009. Fronts have improved greatly and rear angulation is better. Rear movement is improving, though still some way to lose cow hocks completely.” This is a magnificent ancient breed, developed in the hardest of schools and meriting the very best custodianship.
Any breed developed the drive off fierce and savage predators needs the strength, stamina and intense dedication to do so. Such powerful dogs have long been valued. In medieval times, there were laws under which some court fines were assessed in terms of wolves' tongues. At one time, the yearly tax in Wales was established at 300 wolves' heads. France was one country particularly populated by wolves; as early as 1467, Louis XI created a special wolf-hunting office, whose top member was appointed from the highest families in the land. In the French province of Gevaudan in the 1760s one wolf is alleged to have killed more than fifty people, the majority women and children. At the end of the French revolution in 1797, 40 people were killed by wolves, tens of thousands of sheep, goats and horses slaughtered by them, and, in some remote districts not a single watchdog left alive. The dense forests led to the French mainly hunting them with packs of scenthounds rather than coursing them with faster hounds. But in the remote pastures, the shepherd relied on his ‘mastiff’.
Use in the Hunt
Perhaps inspired by living in the Windrush Valley in Oxfordshire, classic grazing fields for drovers en route to markets to the south-east, I once tried my two young Bullmastiffs as flock guardians, with the consent of a local farmer. Handicapped by not having been weaned alongside sheep, but naturally protective and responsive to new training, the two powerful dogs soon understood that they were to guard the fields and me, the temporary shepherd. They responded immediately to any dogs passing by (a public footpath crossed the pasture) and soon learned to ignore the sheep (and the prospect of mutton!) But the most informative reaction was from the sheep; they very quickly relaxed with two big dogs lying down in their field and, more importantly, followed the dogs when I led them around the perimeter of their pasture. If it’s not wishful thinking, the sheep seemed to know they were expected to follow the dogs – and did so. The relaxed laid-back attitude of the hefty dogs no doubt removed any hint of threat to the sheep from them. But I could see at once the immense value to a shepherd of a powerful dog, left alone to guard his flock.
The ease of modern living has led to our devaluing the contribution made throughout human history by the flock protectors, but our ancestors prized them and developed them as highly impressive, extraordinarily robust, canine specimens. We must be careful with the surviving breeds not to substitute show-ring criteria for functional need. Huge cow-hocked, straight-stifled, over-coated, under-muscled shepherd's mastiffs would not have lasted long in the demanding pastures of past centuries. Our respect both for our rural heritage and those breeds surviving man's changing requirements needs to be demonstrated by a seeking of soundness before ‘stance’ and fitness ahead of flashiness. These quite remarkable faithful, selfless, admirable dogs, often killed by marauding packs of predatory wolves, deserve no less. With around 330 sheep currently being killed annually by bears, reintroduced from the Czech Republic into the Pyrenees, perhaps the reintroduction too of the shepherd’s mastiff, more determined than the mountain dogs, would be timely.
“Many hundreds of years ago, when our island was principally primeval forest, with few clearings, it must necessarily have been infested with wolves, bears, and the lesser British carnivorae, and to protect the flocks and herds it must have been requisite to have a large and powerful dog, able to cope with such formidable and destructive foes, able to undergo any amount of fatigue, and with a jacket to withstand all vicissitudes of weather, for his avocation was an everyday one; day and night, and in all weathers, was he watching and battling with heat and storm and marauding foes. What other dog but the old English sheepdog possesses attributes necessary for the multifarious duties urged upon such a business?”