by   David Hancock

Just as the poacher had his purpose-bred dogs, his main opponent, the gamekeeper, had his – the night-dogs; specially-bred guard/patrol dogs, often from blends of Mastiff and Bulldog, but with Bloodhound and German Boarhound blood too, they were ‘seizing and holding’ dogs, required to apprehend not scare away. They were often kept on estates and at stately homes, such as Upton House and Lyme Hall, where they were bred separately from the renowned Mastiffs maintained there. Some gamekeeper’s night-dogs achieved fame, with the Thornywood kennel excelling. Some were muzzled and all utilised the mastiff instinct of seizing and holding their quarry, rather than savaging it. In France, such a dog would have been called a chien de contre-braconnage (with quite a number of sheep-guarding breeds utilised), in Germany dogs like the grosse bullenbeisser, forerunner of the Boxer (would be called a 'boar-lurcher' here) and in Denmark a Danish dog. Around 1850, in Denmark, Sehested started to re-create the old Danish dog, now called the Broholmer after his estate at Funen. He knew full well that there had been an intermediate mastiff-like dog, in between the Brabanter/Boxer size and the much heavier mastiff type. Only in Britain did the in-between dog lack recognition. Incidentally, gamekeeper Crabtree's long, low, brindle "mastiff" bitch, named 'Duchess' by him, was mated to Holdsworth's 'Lion' of the Bold Hall strain. A bitch from this mating was later mated by Crabtree to Waterton's 'Tiger', a red fawn Great Dane, illustrating very clearly the mixed and often unknown breeding behind the dogs used by gamekeepers.

For the title Keeper's Night-dog to be utilised in Britain was a significant advance for this distinct type of dog. For the first time it was appreciated that there was a breed-type between the big Mastiff and the smaller Bulldog. It meant that the three sizes of mastiff-like dogs were each accepted in their own right. The ensuing breed title, accepted in due course by the Kennel Club as Bullmastiff, must not be misinterpreted by those persisting with the notion that the Bullmastiff was somehow invented in Edwardian times after an inspired cross between two different breeds. Such an interpretation displays a complete lack of understanding of how the three British breeds: Mastiff, Bullmastiff and Bulldog, came into being. It is significant that the Bullmastiff type predominates in the mastiff breeds of the world, with the French and Spanish breeds and the Boerboel of South Africa being closer to this type than the Mastiff of England.

   In his classic 'Dog Breaking' of 1909, the esteemed General Hutchinson was writing of a night-dog: "The appearance of the formidable-looking animal, and the knowledge of his powers, more effectually prevented egg-stealing than would the best exertions of a dozen watchers. He was the terror of all the idle boys in the neighbourhood. Every lad felt assured that, if once 'Growler' were put upon his footsteps, to a certainty he would be overtaken, knocked down, and detained until the arrival of the keeper." There is a canine instinct being capitalised upon very effectively. In his 'Recollections – Poachers, of 1850, Grantley Berkeley, wrote: "The first dog I could call my own was a black one, of a cross between the bull and the mastiff...His name was 'Grumbo'...I saw the back of one of the men, his figure stationary, his hands held high above his head, and Grumbo, my faithful, sagacious dog, a yard in front of him, barring his path, couched like a lion in the act to spring, his eyes, not his teeth, fixed on the fellow's throat. The menace sufficed, he stood in terror...and in this position I presently seized him by the collar." The Bulldog-Mastiff cross was clearly both known and respected. In his 'Breaking and Training Dogs' of 1906, 'Pathfinder' wrote: "In many parts of the country it is the custom for keepers and watchmen to be provided with night-dogs, and useful co-adjutors they make if only they have been properly trained...Usually the Bull-Mastiff is the breed selected for the purpose, and brindle if possible."

   'Stonehenge', writing in his 'Dogs of the British Islands', gave us this view: "...there is probably no variety of the species which combines so much strength and power of doing mischief with such docility and amiability, and hence he is, par excellence, the keeper's dog...every one of experience knows that many keeper's dogs, which are fully half bull, are perfectly under control even with severe provocation..." There is the best possible terminology for the Breed Standard's words on temperament in the breed! There were six entries of "Yard or Keeper's Night Dogs" at the 1871 Crystal Palace exhibition. Eight years later, 'Stonehenge' was writing in his 'The Dog in Health and Disease': "The bulldog (is) an excellent watch, and as a guard unequalled, except perhaps by the bull-mastiff, a direct cross from him." The early use of the breed title is spoiled by the traditional lack of knowledge of broad-mouthed dog history. In his valuable 'The Dog Book' of 1906, James Watson referred to: "Another old breeder of mastiffs for use by keepers was John Crabtree, who while making his rounds as gamekeeper, found a long and low brindle mastiff bitch in a trap...she came from Lancashire, and Crabtree always said she had bulldog blood in her."

The Bullmastiff is usually described in articles on dogs only in its one time role as the gamekeepers' night-dog. Such a description does scant justice to a breed-type which survived centuries of mixed breeding, indicating a strong perennial identity, and of brutal use by man, in the hunting field, the baiting of wild animals and as a butcher's dog, used to pin wayward bulls. The Bullmastiff is also usually described as a Mastiff/Bulldog cross, which overlooks the Bullmastiff's long existence as a large Bulldog or smaller Mastiff before being finally accepted as a breed in its own right. The best summary might be that there are three British mastiff breeds, sharing the same ancestry. In the night-dog role however, this ancestry had its distinct value for the Bullmastiff. It’s worth noting the words of Webb in his quaintly titled Dogs, Their Points, Whims, Instincts and Peculiarities of 1883: “Mr Legh (of Lyme Hall) accounted for a second type of mastiff at Lyme…saying he had for some years had Lord Stamford’s breed for night dogs for his keepers, but had never allowed them to be crossed” – i.e. with his Lyme Hall strain of Mastiff.

I simply cannot remember the last time I heard of a Bullmastiff being used in its time-honoured role as the keepers' protector against gangs of poachers; small wonder that poaching increases each year. In our eagerness to use herding dogs from Germany as our patrol and security dogs, we have overlooked or forgotten the greater value of a "pinning" or "holding" breed over a barking, snarling or biting breed. Such holding dogs were utilised by gamekeepers all over Europe in the last century: the dogue de Bordeaux in France, the Neapolitan mastiff in Italy. The title of the Spanish breed of perro de presa Canario means the holding dog of the Canary Islands. The perro de presa Mallorquin is the holding dog of Mallorca. (I do wish the French translation of this title were not chien de combat; a holding dog makes a poor fighting dog - when your ancestors took on wild bulls and buffalo, why bother with canine psychopaths!). In Wales, the Ancient Welsh Laws refer to the "gafaelgi" or gripping dog, now being bred once again. They were clearly of value to widely separated people, who have striven to perpetuate them.

Of course, any powerful dog with the innate guarding instincts can be utilised as to protect land and game. In his 'Training a Keeper's Night Dog' from 'Dog Breaking'  by 'Wildfowler' in 1915, he wrote: "...it is better to have a very large animal, whose growls alone are somewhat terrifying, and whose size is bound to impose respect. At the same time, growling is not sufficient; the dog must be able and willing at any time to 'go in' at a nod from his master, and he must take his death, if necessary, when called upon to protect him." That asks quite a lot of any dog and it's important to capitalise on canine instinct when seeking a dog for such a demanding role. In his 'The Gamekeeper at Home' of 1879, Richard Jeffries recounts the sort of desperate situation in which Keeper's Night-dogs were regularly placed: "In the last party (the squire's) were six men and a mastiff dog; four of the men had guns, the gentleman only a stout cudgel. They came upon the gang (of poachers) in a drive deep in shadow. With a shout the four or five men in the drive or green lane, slipped back behind the trees, and two fired, killing the mastiff dog on the spot and 'stinging' one man in the legs." It is interesting that the poachers made a high priority of killing the dog. Poachers' dogs were clever talented animals; it took a very resolute and equally talented (albeit in different qualities) to deter and if possible capture their owners. Both types of dog deserve our respect.