by   David Hancock

The coat colours in the mastiff breeds seem to be rooted in black and dilutions of black. Starting with the Bullmastiff, the Breed Standard calls for any shade of brindle, fawn or red, for the coat colour to be pure and clear, for the black muzzle to be essential, with slight white marking only permissible on the dog's chest (and more usually found in brindles). It is likely that the black mask and muzzle is dominant over no black mask/muzzle. The black mask/muzzle was at one time more often missing in dogs bred in the United States. Many early registrations here, including those bearing the Farcroft affix, did not feature the black mask and muzzle. The genetics of coat colours in the Bullmastiff are comparable with those for the Boxer, except that white markings are frowned on in the former. It is unusual in British show rings to see a Boxer without white feet, blaze and brisket; this collection of markings seems to be associated with light bone, a less substantial frame and eternal puppy-hood. It may be that the solid-colour brindle Boxer has been lost.


Common Colours

 The standard of the Mastiff unwisely calls for just three precise colours: apricot fawn, silver fawn or dark fawn brindle, with an obligatory black mask (overlooking pied and black in the breed's gene pool). These variations are also available, together with black, in Pugs. Little (1957) described the apricot fawn as "probably the ordinary reddish fawn" and stated that "The silver fawn may be due to the chinchilla gene..." Reds or sables of various shades are common in the bulldog, together with brindle. Robinson (1990) described the fawny colour known as 'fallow' as: "...may be red diluted by a chinchilla gene..." Walkley, in his book on the Bullmastiff, attributes the red colour in the breed to the Dogue de Bordeaux, despite the liver nose found in the French breed not manifesting itself in the Bullmastiff. (It is important too to keep in mind that the English occupied Bordeaux for over 200 years at a time when hunting mastiffs from England were prized. The Dogue de Bordeaux is much more likely to be an off-shoot of British stock than an influence on it.) The usual colours in the Bloodhound are red and black and tan; we know that Bloodhound blood is behind the Bullmastiff and is shown on some early pedigrees, e.g. Osmaston Turk's dam was half Bloodhound and half Mastiff.

The Pinning or Gripping Breeds

 It is worth a look at colours in the other 'pinning' breeds. The standard of the Dogue de Bordeaux calls for 'red to fawn', allows white patches on chest and feet but not the face. The Cane Corso is required to be black, blue, chestnut, tawny, red or any of these colours brindled. Black and tan is allowed but not sought. The Perro de Presa Canario is required to be tiger, silver and golden brindle, from dark brown to light grey or solid colours ranging from sand to dark ochre. The Neapolitan Mastiff can be black, blue, all shades of grey, brown varying from fawn to red with brindling permissible on either of the latter colours. This is similar to the colour variations in the Great Dane, although harlequins occur in the latter. The mastiff of Broholm Castle in Denmark, or Broholmer, can be fawn or black. The Fila Brasileiro can be any solid colour or brindle. The Tosa is preferred in solid red, but white markings on the feet and chest are permitted; brindle, dull black and fawn are permitted but the red dog is very much favoured. The Perro de Presa Mallorquin is favoured in fawn, again with white markings permitted. The Boerboel from South Africa is favoured as a solid coloured dog: brindle, yellow (lion), grey, red-brown or brown; white markings are permitted, the black mask is not essential, light brown or yellow brown eyes are acceptable but the nose must be black, not liver-coloured.

Harlequin and Black Merle
The Great Dane can produce both harlequin (black patches on white) and black merle (black patches on grey) offspring. In 'Great Danes, past and present' of sixty years ago, Dr. Morell MacKenzie quotes breeders as saying: "I believe that it has always been recognised that a black or blue should be crossed in about every third generation to avoid harlequins being too lightly marked...Ch. Orus of Lockerbie, was a brindle-harlequin, in the days when such a colour was permissible. I consider a harlequin dog to a merle bitch one of the best matings." (Mrs Cowan). "Mrs Blackler bred some of the best harlequins out of a black bitch with a white blaze and white on her neck and feet...she once had a beautiful golden brindle puppy from a sire and dam who had been harlequin and black for generations." I have never seen a brindle-harlequin anywhere in the world, but have seen mainly white dogs with brindle.

Modifying Gene

 In his 'Genetics for Dog Breeders', (Pergamon Press, 1989), the late Roy Robinson wrote: "The harlequin is basically a merle but with a modifying gene H which changes the bluish areas of the merle to white...The merle effect is produced by heterozygosity (i.e. containing two different alleles of the same gene, DH) of a gene M which is dominant to normal colouring." The black merle of the Catahoula Leopard Dog is quite remarkably similar to that found in the collie/greyhound lurchers bred in England by my namesake. In Norway the Dunker Harrier has three colours: grey-mottled, black and white with small grey-mottled patches. The grey-mottled dogs can have large black patches. Running mastiffs display merle and harlequin coats, but not the hunting mastiffs, the modified brachycephalic dogs.  

Wide Range

 The Boerboel of South Africa is part-descended from the Brabanter bullenbijter, like the Danzigger bahrenbeisser, a brindle 'pinning' or 'gripping' dog of the Middle Ages in Northern Europe. In the 18th and early 19th centuries most of the portrayals of our Mastiffs and Bulldogs showed parti-coloured dogs, as was Howitt's Bullmastiff of 1810, although fawn with a black mask also appeared from time to time. These fawn Mastiffs were more usually those portrayed with the landed gentry. In the middle of the 19th century, mastiff-type dogs were produced from Great Danes, St Bernards and the blood of large cross-breeds, like the Suliot dog of Lord Truro. This was conducted mainly in pursuit of great size. There is a wide range of colour and blood behind the Mastiff of England and, not surprisingly, the Bullmastiff. Pied Mastiffs, when cropping up in purebred litters, should be prized; there are irrefutable historical records of this coat colour being part of the Mastiff gene pool. It is noticeable that pied Mastiffs are stockier, more substantial and heftier than usual; this could be the old Alpine Mastiff/Smooth St Bernard blood re-emerging from its mid-19th century infusion into the English breed, e.g. at Chatsworth.

Far too many purebred dogs suffer from man-imposed limitations that lessen the variety, especially within a closed gene pool. Restrictions on colour reduce the size of a breed's gene pool and increase the perils of too-close breeding. A griege Weimaraner, a bay Hanover Scenthound or a sorrel Ridgeback look distinctive but such one-colour breeds come from a small base. The Mastiff does not and any restrictions on its breed livery are wholly whimsical. Mastiff expert, Wynn, was writing, over a century ago: 'Formerly the mastiff ran all colours, and were mostly pied with white...the question of colour looked at impartially, will at once be seen to be anything but a characteristic, all colours being admissable...for my own part I prefer the all-black, or the stone, or smokey fawn, with intense black ears and muzzle...' He was the best informed Mastiff breeder of his day. Weckuff was a favourite Englische Dogge in medieval Germany and was mainly white. (Daisy, a purebred Mastiff - from champion stock, DNA-tested as 100% Mastiff, white with small cream patches, is now registered as such by the AKC.)

The Brindle Factor

 A Belgian researcher, Marcel Wynants, claims to have traced the brindle colour in pure-bred Mastiffs back to the Marquis of Hertford's 'black' dog Pluto, in the middle of the 19th century. But there are illustrations of brindle Mastiffs well before that time and plenty of outside blood has entered the breed's gene pool before and after that date. Both Greyhound and Great Dane blood could have been responsible for brindle in the neoteric Mastiff. Brindle is very much a feature of mastiff-like dogs, as the Perro de Presa Canario, the Fila Brasileiro, the Cane Corso, the Alano and the Fila de Sao Miguel demonstrate today. Looking at the inheritance of the brindle factor, mating two fawn Boxers produced 808 fawn-tan and 2 brindle pups. Mating two fawn Great Danes produced 60 fawn and 4 brindles. Six matings of brindle X brindle Boxers gave 33 brindles to 6 fawns. 566 pups from two brindle Great Dane matings produced 493 brindles and 73 fawns. Even without statistics from Bullmastiff litters, it is clear that genetically you could get brindle from mating two fawns but I do not know of such an occurence. A brindle parent increases the likelihood of brindle offspring; a brindle Great Dane bitch mated to a black and tan Bloodhound produced nine pups, every one of them brindle.

Brindle Types

 The brindle colour produces variations, often referred to as silver brindle (from the grey tone of the stripes), tiger brindle (light tan stripes) or red brindle. Fawn in the Bullmastiff is often described as apricot fawn, silver fawn or red fawn. When the latter displays a darker saddle, it is referred to as being stag-red. Although brindle was favoured in the Gamekeeper's Nightdog, red and red fawn are surprisingly difficult to pick up at night. Some of the old breeders mistakenly believed that the brindle colour indicated Greyhound blood and therefore greater athleticism. The Greyhound may well have obtained its brindle coats from past Bulldog crossings (e.g. Lord Orford's well known experiment), although primitive tribal sighthounds in north and South Africa also display this colour. In Leighton's The New Book of the Dog (1912), WK Taunton, who kept a large kennel of Mastiffs for over forty years, wrote: "It has occurred that Mastiffs bred from rich dark brindles have been whelped of a blue or slate colour. In course of time the stripes of the brindle appear, but puppies of this colour, which are very rare, generally retain a blue mask, and have light eyes. Many such puppies have been destroyed; but this practice is a mistake...some of the best Mastiffs have been bred through dogs or bitches of this shade." Campaigns by breeders to restrict the gene pool by obliterating the rarer colours do harm to a breed. Surreptitious outcrossing also has to be concealed when coat colours betray the traditional coat colours in a litter.


 On the subject of pigmentation, pigmentation is a genetic matter not a nutritional one. The Bullmastiff breeder who informed me at Crufts twenty years ago that he fed his dogs iron filings to ensure good pigmentation was living in the dark ages. It is not a good idea to seek a thickening of the skin of the lips in breeding stock, which some older breeders linked with pigmentation, because this increases the tendency to acne and furunculosis, not uncommon in the mastiff breeds. Rate of hair growth is influenced by nutrition but not the colour of nails/claws, rims of eyes or noses. It is believed by geneticists that different genes are responsible for the colour of skin, nose and hair. Many standards call for dark toe nails; if however judges reward dogs with pink toe nails then they are encouraging this as a future breed feature. Winning dogs get bred from and their genes proliferated. The mastiff breeds look more than a little effeminate with pink toe-nails; it is a degrading feature and undermines the presentation of a powerful athletic dog.

Colour Prejudice
The modern breed, according to its KC standard, can only be apricot-fawn, silver-fawn, fawn, brindle or 'non-standard', whatever that means. But Bewick, Buffon and Gilpin depicted Mastiffs two centuries ago that were pied, black and white or mainly white. Foreign mastiff breeds, as pointed out earlier, like the Broholmer, the Neapolitan, the Fila Brasileiro, the Tosa, the Cane Corso and the Great Dane can feature a black coat. But in recent years, as already covered, a Welsh enthusiast, Gareth Williams of Bishopston, Swansea, with his wife Claire, has been promoting his line of black Mastiff, which he considers is a descendant of the Welsh holding dog or gafaelgi, used by butchers to seize wayward bulls and before that to pull down big game. Douglas Oliff in his The Mastiff and Bullmastiff Handbook of 1988, mentions two fifteenth century references which translate from Welsh as, 'what good are greyhounds, two hundred of them, without a gafaelgi' and 'the gafaelgi takes fierce hold of the stag's throat, and is black in colour'. Note the coat colour.

In his informative and valuable Practical Genetics for Dog Breeders, leading geneticist Malcolm Willis has written: "If a colour is associated with a specific problem (as with MM) (i.e. the merle gene, DH) then there is good justification for avoiding or banning the colour. Where no such biological excuse exists bans are less justifiable...Those breeders whose breed allows any colour are advantaged and should preserve such advantages." Some colour prejudices come from quite primitive beliefs; Italian shepherds once regarded white pups as the only pure ones; Portuguese shepherds once believed that harlequin ones were pure; Turkish shepherds used to consider fawn with a black mask as a sign of purity. Having a very human preference for one colour is understandable; but, in a closed gene pool, it is unwise to ban a colour that once featured in that gene pool. Black Mastiffs are historically correct.

A famous Mastiff breeder, James Wiggesworth Thompson, of Southowram, Yorkshire, who started breeding Mastiffs in the early 1830s and whose family had several black Mastiffs, once wrote: 'I have seen mastiffs of exceptional character with more or less white on them, and think any judge ignoring a dog simply for this reason, would display fastidiousness to a fault.'  It is this 'fastidiousness to a fault' that imposes quite artificial and historically incorrect limitations on coat colour in more than one distinguished breed. Imagine, if, in 1900, the Labrador fraternity had decided that, despite their gene pool, black dogs were to be disallowed. How many quite outstanding Labradors would have been denied to us as a direct result? However much we admire the yellows and the chocolates, the blacks have been the bedrock of Labrador excellence. The black Pointers of the Duke of Kingston once excelled but nowadays whole black Pointers don't seem to be favoured. Colour prejudice seems to flourish in dogdom. You can register silver, apricot, fawn or black Pugs but all of those coat colours except black in Mastiffs. The outside blood introduced into the Mastiff gene pool in the 19th century included that of the Great Dane and the Tibetan Mastiff, both of which can be registered as blacks. So the black gene is acceptable but not the colour when manifested. Genetic diversity, especially in a closed gene pool, is highly desirable. I know of no geneticist who supports the pursuit of coat-colour exclusions. It is irrational; it lessens the genetic health of a breed. 

Show Men not Dog Men
Half a century ago, two leading Mastiff breeders also kept Newfoundlands; in the 1960s one winning Mastiff carried a distinct Newfie head. I just wonder how many black Mastiff pups were found, and never admitted, in litters over the years. Our distant ancestors bred good dog to good dog and handed down superlative dogs to us as a direct result. It is absurd when a black Greyhound whelp is welcomed but a black Mastiff pup is destroyed entirely because of its coat colour. A really fit black Greyhound with the sun shining on its gleaming coat is a sight for sore eyes. There aren't many solid-black short-coated breeds and a majestic black Mastiff would be quite impressive. In past times, richly-coloured near-black brindles like the Marquess of Hertford's Pluto (1830) and EG Banbury's Wolsey (1890) were strikingly good-looking dogs.

Sadly for dogs, far too many exhibitors in KC-sanctioned rings are show-men rather than dog-men; the rosette means more than the breed, with breed-improvement not on their agenda. At game fairs, country shows and companion dog shows I see pioneer-breeders trying, without doctrine or dogma, to produce quality dogs of a set type or a re-creation of a breed long spoiled by show-breeders. They will get nothing but scorn from the pedigree perpetuators, which is often totally unfair, because they regularly produce admirable dogs. Last year I saw several Mastiff-crosses that were far sounder dogs than the show ring specimens bearing the Mastiff name. The Mastiff is a breed that screams out for improvement, even a new start. The blind pursuit of pure-breeding when the results don't justify it is not an exercise in livestock breeding but misguided eugenics. Breed sanctity can become breed insanity. 

Our Kennel Club has made sustained attempts in the last five years or so to widen its mandate and extend its reach in keeping with its self-imposed leitmotiv of 'the general improvement of dogs'. Just as the KC once recognized and registered crossbred retrievers and gamefinders, it should similarly attract the registration, on a separate register, of unrecognized breeds, such as Fell Terriers, Plummer Terriers, Sporting Lucas Terriers (already registered with the UKC of America), Dorset Olde Tyme Bulldogges, Sussex Bulldogs and the Williams's Gafaelgis or Welsh Mastiffs. The owners of such dogs may not want to exhibit them to the KC's criteria but they deserve encouragement, they need support. Sniffy disdain does nothing for the general improvement of dogs, enlightened leadership can contribute a great deal. Why should a water spaniel from America, a newly-created spitz breed and an American variation of a Japanese breed obtain a higher priority than British breeds developing here? We need a Register of Emergent Native Breeds - and soon!

Need for Inclusion
Emergent breeds are often much more virile and robust than many long-established breeds, probably benefiting from hybrid vigour. The black Mastiffs of the Williamses will receive nothing but suspicion, scorn and opposition from the Mastiff breed fanciers of today. But it will be opposition not based on knowledge of the history of the breed but on show ring thinking, modern within-the-breed prejudice. The latter with its closed mind and unthinking perpetuation of past folly can harm a breed. Any honest genuine breed fancier would honour its breed's past, respect the great breeders of the past and their wiser philosophy, so often intentionally overlooked in the blind following of mistaken contemporary dogma. Many a bright future has come from a dark past.           

 “Men who breed bull terriers for the pit pay no attention whatever to colour or points, breeding only from dogs of proven courage, and it would be ridiculous to imagine that Englishmen of four or five hundred years ago adopted any other course in breeding for a dog that would bait the bear and the bull. We can see the results of this system of breeding in the colour of the mastiff of one hundred years ago, all of the illustrations of that period showing more or less white about the head and body, and that was not bred out even when show-dogs were started.”
From James Watson’s The Dog Book of 1906.