Sadly, dog-breeding in purebred dogs is conducted, not on lines of desired and measureable improvement but on repeating the past, despite advances in scientific knowledge and a pronounced loss of type in some breeds. When, as part of my professional responsibilities, I ran a rare breeds' farm, I was able to benefit from a range of systems and recommended procedures, not utilised in adapted form by dog breeders. But even when breeding longhorn cattle, I never once heard the desirability of heavy bone mentioned in breeding programmes, and these were creatures weighing over a ton each. Strength and power in animals doesn't reside in bone size, as racehorses, antelopes and hyenas demonstrate only too vividly.
If you take a powerful breed of dog, such as the Bullmastiff, then compare its breed standard to the remarks made in judges' critiques, you can soon spot different requirements. The Breed Standard of the Bullmastiff makes just one reference to bone in its wording: the forelegs are expected to be 'well-boned'. The 'general appearance' section demands a dog that is not cumbersome; the hindquarters must not be cumbersome. The 'characteristics' section demands a dog that is active. There are no words in the breed standard to demand heavy bone, great bone, outstanding bone (whatever that is!) or substantial bone. But 'bone-headed' judges rush to find it!
These extracts from thirteen recent critiques covering just Bullmastiff exhibits make my point for me: "He had the best bone of the puppies I was considering"; "...outstanding bone"; "...great bone"; "...well-off for bone"; "...good bone"; "...super bone"; "...well-boned"; "...good bone throughout"; "...she is heavily-boned"; "...with plenty of bone"; "...could have more bone for his size"; "...terrific bone"; "...lovely bone"; "...with adequate bone". I'm glad about the latter, for surely the dog would have fallen over without it! Were these judges judging to the standard? Most animals with heavy bone are cumbersome and lack activity, two features undesired in the standard for this admirable breed.
I don't believe the words in these quotes have any value for the novice breeder but, to me, they reveal confusion amongst judges. To breed dogs with bone heavier than nature intended is asking for trouble, as the statistics on hip and elbow dysplasia, cervical vertebral malformation and osteochondrosis sadly demonstrate. But if the prototypal Bullmastiffs didn't display heavy bone and the breed standard doesn't authorize it, in whose name are judges seeking it when judging the breed? The situation in some other big breeds is even worse. The Mastiff of today seems to be bred for beef not any previous canine function; a Mastiff exhibitor at Crufts once boasted to me of the heaviness of his dog's bone - but heavy bone is not required in the Mastiff's standard.
It is worth noting the requirements for bone in the Breed Standards of the heftier breeds. The requirement is so often, as in a separate quote, writer and vet RH Smythe remarked, perceived as a forequarters' feature. The Pyrenean Mountain Dog, for example is required to have, in its forequarters, heavily-boned forelegs. The forequarters of the St. Bernard have to be strong in bone, those of the Tibetan Mastiff to be strongly boned, those of the Rottweiler need plenty of bone. The bones of a Mastiff's forelegs have to be large boned, the Leonberger's, the Maremma's and the Komondor's well boned, the Estrela's strongly boned and the Bouvier des Flandres's heavy boned. But shouldn't it all be a matter of degree? Does a Bouvier really need heavier bone than a Mastiff or a St. Bernard? Should Breed Standards not be coordinated and comparable?
This breed was re-created in the 19th century using the blood of the Alpine Mastiff/Smooth St Bernard, the Tibetan Mastiff and the Great Dane. The first two named were of the transhumance type, heavily-built dogs for sound functional reasons. Portrayals of Mastiffs before this infusion of foreign blood did not feature the heavy bone, considerable bulk and vast size of the contemporary dogs being passed off as Mastiffs. The function of dogs in the true mastiff mould was that of hunting dogs, as so many prints depicting the medieval hunt exemplify. The breed of Mastiff should never display 'great bone', huge bulk or be prized for its size. It should be an impressive big dog of activity, agility and strength. It should never ever be the canine equivalent of a cart-horse.
It forever disappoints me that the profession of veterinary surgeon doesn't bring with it a more developed desire to speak out when dogs are bred to a harmful design. They appear quite vocal on the docking of dogs' tails but are silent, and quite busy, on the castration of dogs for alleged 'behavioural' reasons. It is rare indeed to hear one hold forth on the perils of breeding 'shorthorn' dogs. Twenty years ago, one vet, Simon Wolfensohn, wrote on this subject in New Scientist magazine. He wrote: "There is no simple explanation for the shorter life-span of the giant breeds...apart from those that are destroyed because of bone problems early in life (usually due to faulty development of the growth plates of the bones or defects in bone mineralization) or because of severe arthritis...it may be that the hormonal mechanisations or other factors responsible for the giant size and heavy bone development of these breeds are intimately related to the aging process."
He took the view that St Bernards and Bloodhounds have a strong inherited tendency to acromegaly, a condition caused by excess production of growth hormone in the adult, which leads to heavier than normal bone structure, especially in the feet. Article 5 of the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, at last receiving some official attention here, takes account 'of the anatomical characteristics which are likely to put at risk the health and welfare of the animals.' Before we reject as unwarrantable interference from Brussels such an Article, we surely need to remind ourselves of the times we live in. Animal welfare attracts a higher priority in contemporary life than hitherto. Do we really want unseemly scenes over dogs bred for harmful features, such as 'great bone' in breeds that never originally displayed it and are penalised by it?
Heading for Trouble
If you put four fawn-coated black-faced mastiff breeds: a Boerboel (undocked), a Canary Dog (with uncropped ears), a Dogue de Bordeaux (with a black nose, as permitted in its standard) and a Bullmastiff, in a show ring with an all-rounder as a judge, I am prepared to bet that they would confuse the breeds. The most apparent breed identifier should be the head in each case, but with specialist Bullmastiff judges so often ignoring the breed standard's words on the breed's head, it is hardly surprising if confusion reigns. So many Bullmastiffs now resemble fawn (or brindle) American Bulldogs, because untypical heads are being rewarded. If this continues, breed type could soon be threatened and big Bulldogs replace the true breed of Bullmastiff.
The head construction is often a decider when identifying breeds; the Braque St Germain looks like our Pointer at first glance, but when you look at the stop and the occiput, then the ear carriage, it is easier to separate them. This is true too of the two recognised ridgeback breeds, a Thai Ridgeback has a different ear carriage from the Rhodesian version, with most of the latter being stronger in build. Closer to home, the Mastiff is expected to be bigger than the Bullmastiff, but at world dog shows it is easy to confuse the two. For me, the contemporary Mastiff has lost its classic head and is too heavy-headed and loose-lipped. But sadly the Bullmastiff is now changing, with the help of show ring judges, from being 60% Mastiff 40% Bulldog to being 75% Bulldog 25% Mastiff, not what the pioneer breeders sought at all. A round-headed stub-nosed dog with a wrinkled forehead contradicts the Bullmastiff standard, but dogs bearing such features are richly rewarded in today's show rings. There should not be such basic differences within a breed, not if breed-identity and breed-type are truly valued. Head type has long created dispute; as C Aubrey Smith, owner of the Mastiff 'Colonel Cromwell', a 1902 champion, is quoted in Crompton's 'The Twentieth Century Dog' of 1904:
"Breeders of today adhere to the short, bulldog, thick, Bordeaux type of head. Surely this was not the type of the old English mastiff? To my mind it deprives the king of dogs of intelligence of expression, to say the least. And I vote for length of muzzle accompanied with due breadth, and free from any suspicion of tampering, as being most in accord with the original type."
and from Dog World August 1932 written by Arthur Craven, author of 'The Bullmastiff As I Know It:.
"Another fault we find in some animals is muzzles. Here we often see weakness where strength should prevail. Some people say many of our present-day specimens show too much of the Mastiff muzzle; a few people give other reasons...one cannot afford to ignore these cranks, who in most cases know absolutely nothing about the many subjects they discuss, but do their best to try and get others to imagine they are experts. In Bull-Mastiff circles we find a number of these self-claimed authorities at practically every dog show, but fortunately few people listen to their claims."
The head of the Bullmastiff is one of its main breed points, but it should not, according to its KC-approved Breed Standard, be Pug-nosed. The Breed Standard specifies quite precisely that the distance from the nose-tip to the stop must be approximately one-third of the length from the tip of the nose to the centre of the occiput. A shorter muzzle is a breach of the breed standard and an exaggeration. Yet Bullmastiffs quite often become champions, rewarded by both breed and all-round top judges, with muzzles which breach the standard, as well as featuring a degree of wrinkle, in repose, which also breaches it. A well-known Bullmastiff breeder and judge recently told me that she has both correct and incorrect (i.e. too short) muzzles in her kennel. The dogs with approved muzzle length can run and run; the ones with incorrect muzzles are out of breath all too quickly and suffer in the heat. It is shaming that the European Convention is needed; it is good to know that our KC is starting to act to reduce such distress; too short a muzzle does bestow distress.
Threat to Health
I recently attended a game fair on a warm but not hot day; several hundred dogs were present: a Foxhound pack, a Beagle pack, a collection of hunting Bassets for a competition on the flags, gundogs for a scurry, working terriers for a show, racing Whippets and over a hundred visitors' pets. Of all of these dogs only one, an American Bulldog with a short nose, became distressed by the warmth of the day. Thirty years ago I attended the World Dog Show in Brussels; a Bulldog collapsed in the ring in the heat and had to receive emergency attention. Within half an hour, it was back in the ring, only to end up in the veterinary room, being given oxygen and covered in ice-cubes. The wretched Bulldog just could not breathe properly through its muzzle-less mouth. This is direct cruelty and should be prosecuted. Our KC has recently amended the Bulldog standard to include: 'Dogs showing respiratory distress highly indesirable'. But does every judge know of this?
At the Neapolitan Mastiff Club's Open Show of the 9th of April 2005, the judge was an extremely knowledgeable very competent Dutch breed specialist. In his critique on the open dog class he wrote: '...over the years I have come across quite a few bad eyes, but some entries managed to make me almost speechless; how is this possible...searching for eyes, which proved to be too small, too deep set and severely damaged.' Did the exhibitor-owners of such dogs themselves have 'severely damaged' eyes which prevented their spotting such a handicap? I think not; but the standard for this breed does actually stipulate eyes that are 'set fairly deep'. That is most unwise and the breed standard, which is owned by the Kennel Club, needs early amendment. No other mastiff breed has such a requirement; this is not a breed difference but a breed disability, and an intolerable one.
In their book, Dogs (Scribner, 2001), the Coppingers write on the Bulldog: 'Their faces are so squashed that the turbinate bones in their nostrils are tiny. Turbinate bones are covered with respiratory epithelial tissue, which helps the dog to breathe and cools its brain. As a result of the tiny turbinates, bulldogs and the other flat-facers have poor brain cooling, poor breathing, and low oxygen tension in their blood'. In their authoritative 'Breed Predispositions to Diseasein Dogs and Cats' (Blackwell, 2004), Gough and Thomas devote more words to the Bulldog than any other breed, stating that brachycephalic upper airway syndrome (BAOS) is common in the breed (and in the Boston Terrier, Pekingese and Pug), with 55% of cases of hypoplastic trachea being found in this breed.
The short-faced or brachycephalic head shape is the result of an inherited defect in development of the bones of the base of the skull; the skull is of normal width but is significantly reduced in length. The soft tissues of the head are not proportionately reduced, so too much tissue is crammed into the space available, leaving little space for the passage of air. Other breeds show this defect through having too deep a stop, e.g. American Cocker Spaniels, St Bernards and some Boxers, but to a lesser extent. Bulldogs often have elongated soft palate. Bull-bitches have an unusually hard time whelping, with one study stating that only 6% of Bull-bitches whelp naturally. The seeking of a relatively large head in this breed contributes to this, with the head shape not helping.
The short face also imposes scenting limitations, with such a construction imposing a loss of 80% of scenting ability. With scenting power meaning as much to dog as sight to us, this is comparable to a loss of 80% of sight in a human being, some handicap. Eye problems occur in dogs with the short face; Boston Terriers can suffer from outward turning of the eyes, making it difficult to achieve binocular vision, as well as protrusion of the eyeballs, which can lead to their eyes popping out of their sockets, from even moderate trauma. The Pug, with shortened nasal passages, suffers from chronic sinusitis and other respiratory infections. Some Pug owners actually find their dog's snoring 'comforting'!
Breeding dogs for the psychological needs of humans is not very admirable but I've read of Pekingese owners liking the look of a permanently 'crying' pet and of pop-eyed breeds being desired because they look vulnerable, and they are! Eyeballs that protrude excessively expose the eye to drying, even difficulty in closing the eyes properly, and risking corneal injury. Too short a muzzle also leads to dental problems; the upper and lower jaws are not equal in length and the jaw is so short that the teeth are overcrowded. The short face also results in skin problems; deep folds or wrinkles around the nose attract bacterial infection, leading to surgical removal of some folds. Folds around the mouth tend to trap saliva and debris, causing at least a foul smell, at worst dermatitis. Inheritance should be something prized not something dreaded by vets and dog-owners. But what went before is so often intentionally falsely interpreted by irresponsible fanciers - preferring to seek rosettes ahead of soundness, even in their own kennel. Fad of the day can easily become harm in a very short span of time. That apart, breeding the broad-mouthed breeds with a short muzzle displays total ignorance of their function and the anatomy required to permit historic function. Inheritance should mean too prizing all the genes in a breed - not concentrating unhealthily on the ones that suit your breeding plans. Of all the breeds of dog needing human understanding, the mastiff breeds cry out for more humane criteria over their size and shape and far greater respect for their distinguished past.