by   David Hancock

Our Victorian writers sometimes made reference to a Cuban Mastiff or Cuban Bloodhound. In his 'The History of the Dog' of 1845, WCL Martin wrote of: "...a dog of Spanish descent termed the Cuban bloodhound. A hundred of these sagacious but savage dogs were sent, in 1795, from the Havanna to Jamaica, to extinguish the Maroon war...they were accompanied by forty Spanish chasseurs…the dogs, muzzled and led in leashes, rushed ferociously upon every object". In his 'The Dog' of 1854, William Youatt writes: "The mastiff from Cuba requires some mention...He was not a native of Cuba, but imported into the country." According to Hutchinson's Dog Encyclopaedia of 1934, a pair of these dogs was presented to the Zoological Society of London about 1832. They were described as being not unlike a 16th century British Mastiff, with a broad head, short muzzle, drop ears, a short close coat and heavily developed lips. They have also been referred to as the Dogo Cubano, hinting at a mastiff ancestry.

In the colonisation of the Caribbean Islands, as elsewhere – and referred to both in earlier and later sections, the Spanish used attack dogs extensively. References to them mention a dark nose and a dark area around the eyes, the distinctive mask of so many mastiff breeds. The more valuable ones were given the protection of an 'escaupil', a cotton-padded cloak, similar to the chain-mail coats worn by mastiffs in the boar hunt. Las Casas recorded, in the conquest and settlement of Cuba, how the local Indians were fed to the Spanish war-dogs, sometimes still alive. These dogs were trained to track humans and on command to seize them, usually pinning their human quarry to the ground to enable capture and subsequent slavery. The more ferocious dogs were trained to go for the entrails and literally tear their victim to death. Such shameful acts were carried out using dogs of the Canary Dog/Alano type.

In 'The Sportsman's Cabinet' of 1804 there is a sinister account of the use of attack dogs in Cuba: "...the troops had suffered great losses, that the militia, and the numbers on duty greatly lessened. No time, therefore, was lost in landing the chasseurs and their dogs; the wild and formidable appearance of both spread terror through the place; the streets were cleared, the doors of the houses were shut, and the windows crouded (sic), not a negro ventured to stir out. The muzzled dogs, with their heavy rattling chains, ferociously making at every object, and forcibly dragging on the chasseurs (who could hardly restrain them), presented a scene of a most tremendous nature, well calculated to give a most awful colouring to the report which would be conveyed to the maroons." In his The History of the Dog of 1845, WCL Martin writes, on the Cuban Bloodhound: “…we hesitate not to regard them as mastiffs rather than hounds, though they have not the heavy head and the extremely pendulous lips of the English mastiff. Their colour is tawny, with black about the muzzle; the ears are comparatively small, but pendant; the muzzle is shorter, and the jaws thicker than in the hound, yet not so truncate as in the bulldog. The limbs are remarkably powerful, and the general contour is compact, indicating both activity and strength; the chest is very broad, their height at the shoulder is about two feet. In their disposition they are faithful and attached, and, unless irritated, very gentle; they make excellent guard-dogs, and will attack both the bull and the bear with determined resolution. It will be seen that in our arrangement of dogs we place these fine animals in the mastiff group.” It was clearly not accurate to describe these dogs as ‘Bloodhounds’, a type of dog renowned for being lacking in savagery; a more likely type is the 'seizing dog' varieties used in the boar and bear hunts .

On the island of Hispaniola, now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, during a battle at Vega Real, one of Columbus's officers, Ojeda, released twenty mastiffs, which immediately threw themselves into the fray, seizing the Indians by their throats or bellies, hurled them to the ground and then ripped them to pieces, often disembowelling them. Las Casas reported that each dog killed around one hundred Indians, commenting with chilling dispassion that the hounds found the skin of these unfortunate human victims far easier to tear than boar or deer hide. In Venezuela, an officer called Garci-Gonzalez used a huge black mastiff to subdue any Indians who opposed him. The quite appalling atrocities carried out in this way are another example of man's misuse of dog; reading such shocking accounts it is easy to blame the dogs, but they were trained and directed by evil men in such activities. Historians often blame the dogs!

In Central and South America, the Spanish and Portuguese colonists similarly took dogs of various types with them, either as hunting dogs or dogs of war. In the latter category came the mastiffs. This has left us with the Fila Brasileiro in Brazil (a hunting mastiff), the Dogo Argentino in Argentina (a classic 'running mastiff'; see later chapter) and the Gran Mastino de Borinquen or Sporting Mastiff of Puerto Rico. The Cuban Bloodhound was undoubtedly of mastiff type; the Bajan Biting Dog of the Bahamas was also a holding or gripping breed. In Uruguay there is a big white flock guarding breed very similar to the Spanish Mastiff; the Spaniards had settled most of the country by the late 18th century.

  In Uruguay, the Perro Cimarron (otherwise known as the Perro Criollo or Perro Gaucho), a fawn or brindle 40kg dog about 60cms at the withers, is used as a watchdog, guard dog and boar catch-dog. Little known outside Uruguay, it is in fact now the national breed, with FCI recognition being sought. Cimarrones are agile, active, muscular dogs, with great determination in the chase. They are used in boar-hunting with a number of other breeds like the Dogo Argentino, exactly as medieval hunters used running mastiffs with hunting mastiffs or catch-dogs/holding dogs. This resuscitated breed bears the classic phenotype of the ancient hunting mastiffs. In Brazil, the Rastreador Brasileiro or Brazilian Tracker is nearing extinction, having been developed by one breeder, Oswalde Aranha Filho, from scenthound- mastiff crosses to hunt the jaguar, rather as the Dogo was bred in Argentina. But with the jaguar attaining protected species classification, this breed has lost its reason to be.

In Puerto Rico, a Spanish colony until ceded to the United States in 1898, the Gran Mastino de Borinquen, a Bullmastiff-like breed, is being revived by Professor Hector De La Cruz Romero. Also known as the Puerto Rican Sporting Mastiff, Viejo Perro de Lydia Espanol and Gran Sato Bravo de los Campos (Barsino de Borinquen)/Perro Jibaro, those who can remember the breed from the turn of the century refer to them as the Old Perros Bravos. Some link the high incidence of rear dew claws in the breed to the old Spanish fighting breeds of mastiff type. Fanciers like Pura Cabassa, Modesto Maldonado, Edgardo Pauneto, Dr Gallardo and Anibal Torres have done much to develop this emergent mastiff breed. Ranging in height from 24" to 28" for males, 22" to 26" for females, weighing around 80lbs if from the fighting strain or up to 150lbs if from the boar catching strain, the coat colours are black, red, chestnut, buckskin or any of these brindled. It is good to hear of the progress of this mastiff breed. There may well be others in Central and South America awaiting discovery.

Those involved in the training of protection dogs will tell you how hard it is to find a dog which will actually attack a human being. It is thankfully rare to find a dog that will kill another dog, without being carefully bred and incited to do so. The mastiff breeds of today are famous for their relaxed attitude towards children, and quite remarkable tolerance of them, their stable temperament, faithfulness with their own family, natural instinctive guarding qualities and steadfastness when provoked. As guard dogs they rarely bark and seem to have an innate ability to distinguish between acceptable visitors and unwelcome intruders. For dogs with their violent past to emerge with such tolerance, trust and restraint is a telling commentary on their inherent qualities. For impressive breeds such as the Fila Brasileiro and the Dogo Argentino, both perpetuating the blood of the old Spanish Alano and each the national dog breed of their native country, to be banned from Britain under the discredited Dangerous Dogs Act is just absurd; such a ban tells you more about the brains of those responsible for its enactment than it does about the admirable breeds it names. Most dog bites in Britain are inflicted by small dogs; the mastiff breeds have an instinct to grip their quarry not inflict a flesh-tearing bite but the Fila Brasileiro has more temperament tests in its homeland than any breed anywhere in the world. Such a breed should be welcome everywhere.