by   David Hancock

For over a decade, at several World Dog Shows, I watched the Mastiff of England being exhibited by overseas exhibitors. It made me quite angry. The dogs were so unsound, so disrespectful to a once-distinguished breed - slothful, shambling, grossly overweight specimens of a fine breed 'gone wrong'. Their movement was quite dreadful; their construction so faulty; their eyes deeply-sunken and dull; their flews exaggerated beyond comfort and their ultra-heavy bone a needless handicap. I was appalled. Any group of breed fanciers can lose their way, but when a dog of this size is ill-bred, indirect cruelty is involved. These dogs were heavier than any past function could ever justify; they appeared to be valued because of their extreme bulk. Mastiff breeders overseas take their lead from those in the home of the breed; at our Championship Shows I see exhibits no different from the batch I have described above. Remarkably, the exhibitors of such specimens seem content with their flawed entry; either they have breed-blindness or they just don't know a good dog from a bad one! Breed blindness apart, deformed dogs simply have to be discouraged.

Writing in 'The Book of the Dog' of 1948, edited by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald and published by Nicholson and Watson, Arthur Croxton Smith gave this view: "Breeders seem to have concentrated more and more upon getting immense size, and great bulk usually brings the evil of unsoundness in its train. I have seen plenty of perfectly sound mastiffs, such as could move well and were really active, but latterly the proportion of unsound ones has been alarmingly heavy, for it is extremely difficult for breeders to get soundness in alliance with bulk." No breed can lead a healthy life if its whole design is at the mercy of human whim. Any breed no longer bred for a function, even if that function has lapsed, has a doubtful future.

 If youthen look at the health of the breed as summarised in an authoritative book such as 'Medical and Genetic Aspects of Purebred Dogs' by Clark and Stainer (1994), youcan see some of the problems in the breed. It states: "Many bitches experience uterine inertia after whelping one or two puppies, probably resulting from the breed's characteristic lethargy...Obesity is the curse of the Mastiff breed...many owners continue to overfeed their dogs in the mistaken belief that the heavy feeding increases the dog's size." Far too many of the show ring Mastiffs cannot live an active life, they are simply too heavy, and they do not lead active lives. They can damage themselves just getting out of a car. No dog should be bred so heavy that it cannot live like a normal dog. No dog should be bred with built-in anatomical handicaps. In the pursuit of great size, many Mastiff owners overfeed and over-supplement their young dogs with vitamins and minerals. Obesity is a major threat to the well-being of Mastiffs. Any dog weighing nearly 200lbs desperately needs the soundest of physiques just to ensure a fulfilling life. The Mastiff of England is an imposing breed, developed because of its athleticism not its size; now a veterinary author refers to "the breed's characteristic lethargy". It is dishonest to boast of a breed's historic feats and then breed an animal that simply could not accomplish such a task.

   Concern about the wisdom of breeding Mastiffs to a flawed design is hardly new. Writing on the Mastiff in The American Book of the Dog of 1891, William Wade made these remarks about the Breed Standard cast by MB Wynn: "If you interpret this standard and scale of points with strictness in every particular, and breed to it faithfully, you will get dogs that will be, bodily at least, all you want, and it may be mentally; but if because the scale allots forty points in a hundred to head properties, you magnify that forty to ninety nine, and condone weak loins, straight hocks, too short bodies, weak joints, and frightfully undershot muzzles, as weighing nothing against 'that grand head', you will probably get waddling, ugly brutes that will never rise above the position of prize-winners under 'fancy' judges." Prophetic words! The judge's critique for the Mastiff classes at a 2006 Championship Show started with: "A few quality examples of the breed appeared but the number of untypical specimens with major constructional faults and appalling movement gave much food for thought." In Dog World in September 2009, breed expert Betty Baxter was writing, on the History of the Mastiff: "So what of today? Looking at the dogs in the ring now, so many faults become apparent and the worst of them, to my way of thinking, are the weak hindquarters, straight stifles and lack of width in the second thigh. Hindquarters appear weak, and there is no proper drive and power on the move for many Mastiffs." More unheeded words!

   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..." In 2016, only 102 Mastiffs were newly registered with the KC; it is now a vulnerable native breed in the KC's list of such dogs. This a breed being destroyed by its own breeders!

  Here are some extracts from show judges' critiques in recent years: Mastiff: "I was very disappointed with the quantity of exhibits at Builth Wells and with some exceptions, the quality...In the UK, the Mastiffs that have been picked out and placed from the Working Group can be counted on the fingers of one hand." (Championship Show, 2011). "By far the most common faults were lack of rear angulation and weakness in hindquarters, with inadequate muscular development in second thighs." (Another Championship Show in 2011). In my lifetime, I do not recall seeing a show Mastiff with impressive hind movement.

   A third Championship Show judge in 2011, reported: "Haw is an ever-present problem...Some of the haw was slight and I did not fault that as the eyes in such cases were still quite tight...Haw is quite a persistent fault...I fear that haw, like untypical coats, is a hand-me-down from our distant St Bernard root." Have Mastiff breeders not got the skill to breed out such an inherited defect? Two years after those comments, another Championship Show judge, in 2013, reported: "There were some eyes showing haw which spoils the expression." It also handicaps the dog's vision and comfort, allowing all sorts of debris to collect in the loose eyelids. At unsanctioned dog shows I see crossbred Mastiffs, often with Bullmastiff blood, with tight eyes and strong rear ends; their artisan breeders have achieved more in a short time than purebred Mastiff breeders in a century and a half!

Now is the time for radical thinking in this breed - before it dies! In Australia, the Gammonwood kennel has mated one of their sounder Mastiffs to a renowned racing Greyhound that had a superlative anatomy, to produce what have become known as 'Greydogges', dogge once being the type-name for Mastiffs. Already enlightened breeders on mainland Europe have imported some to improve their stock, and in Irish Wolfhounds, not just in Mastiff kennels. Before any 'lost breed' can be saved, its function has to be bred for - that produces type. Then soundness has to have the top priority. Such restitution will necessarily take twenty to thirty years. For those who actually love this breed, rather than those who ignorantly or brazenly show seriously-flawed stock, bred to a faulty template, it's time to stand up and be counted - the real breed of Mastiff desperately needs you!