by   David Hancock

 What is the point of breed-type in the Mastiff of England if the fanciers, and breed clubs/kennel clubs, change their minds with each century? Every breed gets refined by show ring whims but head-type is crucial to breed-identity, created initially by function, having been shaped by purpose. The Mastiff was a hound - as the famous hunter De Foix recorded very definitely in 1405. In Medieval Europe the Englische Dogge - with Dogge meaning mastiff, as in Deutsche Dogge or Great Dane. I believe that it is fair to argue that the Mastiff's head was spoiled in 19th century Britain, mainly through the use of outside blood, like that of the Tibetan Mastiff, Alpine Mastiff and Danish Dog blood introduced by misguided breeders striving for size and sheer bulk, for some foolish show ring whim. If you study depictions of the quite dreadful Mastiff 'Crown Prince' you can spot the Alpine Mastiff (very much like a smooth St Bernard) influence straightaway. Chatsworth had them in their kennels and they were resorted to by many a 19th century breeder - as many breed records actually boast. The Alpine Mastiff was of mountain dog type not heavy hound - in came the massive bone, needless bulk and disfigured head. The breed has never recovered.

As Lawson wrote in his The Modern Farrier of 1830: "The genuine old English mastiff is rarely to be seen, as the breed has been contaminated by various intermixtures." Famous names on early Mastiff breeding records indicate the remarkable mixture behind the breed. The esteemed 'Couchez' was in fact an Alpine Mastiff; Waterman's 'Tiger' was a Great Dane from Ireland. Lukey's 'Pluto' and 'Countess' were reportedly 'of Thibet Mastiff type'. The Mastiff breeder HD Kingdon, writing in Webb's Dogs of 1883, mentions "breeders who insist no mastiff has a pedigree of forty years' standing, and who have 'manufactured' for our shows a big cross-bred dog that...has been exhibited ”under the name of mastiff." James Watson, in his The Dog Book of 1906, wrote, and I believe he is quite right, that: "The patent facts are that from a number of dogs of various types of English watchdogs and baiting dogs, running from 26" to "29" or perhaps 30" in height, crossed with continental dogs of Great Dane and of old fashioned St Bernard type, the mastiff has been elevated through the efforts of English breeders to the dog he became about twenty years ago." Those last few words are important; the ‘dog he became’ especially. The main anatomical feature to suffer from such a casual approach was the head.

An acceptance of that view would allow Mastiff breeders to be more vigilant in watching out for the blood of an ancestor breed coming through too strongly. HD Kingdon wrote, again in Webb's Dogs of 1883: "We do not believe in the purity of mastiffs over thirty inches..." I support that; the universal mastiff type is between 24" and 28" at the shoulder; the flock guarding breeds are bigger and I suspect it is their blood, i.e. that of the smooth St Bernard and the Tibetan Mastiff, that have produced this size increase in the Mastiff. In his British Dogs of 1888, Hugh Dalziel writes that "I do not care to consider whether they were manufactured twenty years ago or have an unspotted lineage from the Flood...although we may produce a fine dog by a mixture of breeds, we cannot have a Mastiff unless that blood is allowed to predominate..." In other words, type matters, head type perhaps more than some other features.

  The longer coat of the Alpine Mastiff, the Great Dane cranium and the Tibetan Mastiff's upward-curving tail and thicker heavier coat have already surfaced to the detriment of true Mastiff type. Breed type once lost takes decades of devoted breeding to restore. In his The Practical Dog Book of 1931, the much respected Edward Ash recorded: "In 1867 we read that the Mastiff was being crossed with the Bulldog in order to get a shorter face, for the Mastiff head then was a longer head than was desired. Bloodhounds were also used. The heads became narrow, the eyes sunken and the haw exaggerated." In his The Dogs of the British Islands of 1878, 'Stonehenge' wrote: "A much worse stain in the pedigree of the mastiff is the cross with the bloodhound..." But so many contemporary show ring Mastiffs resemble in outline the early importations of the smooth St. Bernard, only the solid fawn coat reveals the advertised breed. Is this really what the famed Mastiff of England should be like? Is the head-shape not a breed-distinction? If not it should be!

There is plenty of evidence to show that the Mastiff, the English breed of that name, has not always been enriched by the breeders who bred it or the breed historians who wrote about it. Flowery accounts have been composed on how it was brought to Britain by the Phoenicians, without a shred of evidence to back them up. Every mention of the word 'mastiff' in historical documents has been instantly interpreted as referring to the modern breed, whereas the word 'mastiff' itself, for several centuries, meant any large mongrel or huge formidable dog, regardless of coat colour, shape of skull or function. In The Journals of Two Travellers in England in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Times, edited by Razzell in 1998, one of the travellers gives his account of one experience: “In the middle of this place a large bear on a rope was bound to a stake; then a number of great English mastiffs were brought in…On leaving we descended the steps, went behind the theatre and saw the English mastiffs, of which there were one hundred and twenty together in one enclosure, each chained up to his own kennel however.” This should be regarded, not as evidence of the Mastiff breed, but as a description of very large baiting dogs, no doubt strong-headed and physically powerful. The writer might well have described them as huge bull-dogs, well known in the baiting rings of those times. The Bulldog head comes through, sadly, in many a contemporary Mastiff - usually proudly exhibited by a novice exhibitor!

In Henry Webb's Dogs: their points, whims, instincts and peculiarities of 1883, it's recorded that the distinguished animal painter Earl sought to paint the Lyme Hall Mastiff 'Barry' because this dog "so completely brought out, by comparison, the evidence of the impurity of many of the show dogs he had been painting, and, by contrast, so showed the bull and bloodhound crosses in most of them..." A Bloodhound head, with its giant ears and sunken eyes, or the Bulldoggy (brachycephalic) look, with its foreshortened muzzle and excessive wrinkle, should be avoided like the plague. Both, once accepted, take years of dedicated breeding to remove. In his The Conformation of the Dog of 1957 (Popular Dogs), RH Smythe writes: "Once the brachycephalic strain is introduced it is seldom completely bred out again. Its existence is associated with a special endocrine (glandular) mechanism which influences temperament, eye placement and eye shape." In other words it brings in a very different type in both mental and physical forms. Pictorially, the head of the Mastiff has been shaped and then reshaped by man throughout its history, but more so during its recent history and the breed has not been favoured by this. The views of the Breed Clubs has not helped in such deleterious changes.

In his The History of the Mastiff of 1886, MB Wynn wrote: "The English mastiff has not been so much improved as some people ignorantly think, it has simply been resuscitated, and in some instances from very doubtful blood..." 'Doubtful blood' has a nasty habit of coming through, at some stage. Wynn was scathing about the often-praised Mastiff breeder Lukey, writing that: "It should be a significant warning to modern breeders that in crossing, he introduced a foreign and distinct type, and ignorantly made use of the male offspring arising there from, thereby losing his old type..." Today's breeders appear to have lost the 'old type' if depictions of the latter are at all accurate. The Mastiff judge at the Windsor show in 2003 gave the view that: "When I last judged two years ago, there were still a number of the older type around, but on this occasion, I was stunned to see what was almost a different breed." The last two centuries have not been kind to this breed, as the images, both in prints/paintings and in photographs starkly reveal.

It is said by some that the advent of a Mastiff called 'Crown Prince' is responsible for many of the problems in the breed. He became a much sought after sire, even with his light eyes, Dudley-coloured foreface, straight hocks, short body, poor movement, very short muzzle, unattractive colour and huge out of proportion skull. In Hutchinson's Dog Encyclopaedia of 1934 he is described as 'the worst influence which ever operated on the breed.' The writer then went on to state that: "Another point on which breeders have been much deceived is the undue search for wrinkle." The American Mastiff expert, William Wade, writing in The American Book of the Dog of 1891, gave the view that: “These dogs (i.e. Mastiffs like Turk, DH) had long muzzles, deep and blunt, showed general symmetry and vigor, and were succeeded by the ‘Crown Prince dispensation’ of puggy, undershot muzzles, straight hocks, flabby obesity and a lack of vigor.” He could have been writing today! Do dog breeders learn from past mistakes? The last two centuries have not been kind to this breed, as the images, both in prints/paintings and in photographs starkly reveal. The Mastiff of England has completely lost its historic type; restoring its classic head should be the principal aim of every true Mastiff-lover, if only to earn that description!