by   David Hancock

"And what should they know of England who only England know?" wrote Kipling perceptively. "And what should they know of the mastiffs of England who only of modern breeds know?" might well be equally true and just as perceptive. Many books on the surviving mastiff breeds tell us plenty about the Deutsche Dogge, the German Mastiff or Great Dane, and the Dogue de Bordeaux or French Mastiff. But not many tell us the story of the Englische Dogge or English Mastiff, most prized heavy hound in Central Europe in medieval times. Cox, writing in 1674, described how the King of Poland 'hath a great race of English Mastiffs' which 'are brought up to play upon greater Beasts.' Until the thirteenth century in England, a mastiff-type dog was called a 'docga', an Old English word, still retained on mainland Europe as dogge in Germany, dogue in France, dogg in Sweden and dogo in Spain. The master-engraver Riedinger portrayed the Englische Dogge at the end of the 17th century. No one claimed them as a breed, dogs then being bred for function not form, and never to a closed gene pool. German writers had no doubt about the prowess of the English dog, as these two quotes reveal:

"He was very fond of hunting and chasing; every morning at one o'clock, surrounded by his huntsmen and horsemen, he went forth...He had with him some English dogs, such as Ball, Turk, Anhalt and the young Weckuff, which later was his favourite and even slept in his bedroom; he was snow-white, with a red spot on the ear and on the back of the head; he was a faithful dog, and what he seized he held."
Wilhelm Buch, writing on Prince Phillip of Hesse, (1505-67).

"Besides the Englische Doggen which are the largest, there are the Baren and Bullenbeisser, which, in comparison with the Englische Dogge, are much smaller, so, in fact, that they can crawl beneath them without touching..."
Heinrick Wilm Doebel, Huntsman Practica, 1746-86.

  The strong-headed broad-mouthed type of hunting mastiff was used all over medieval Europe in the pursuit of quarry such as elk, bison, boar, stag, bear and even aurochs. The surviving mastiff breeds range from those in England, France, Italy, Denmark and Germany to those developed in overseas possessions such as Brazil, Puerto Rico, the Canary Islands and South Africa. To be true to their heritage, these breeds need to be powerful but athletic, strongly-muscled yet still agile. Is our native breed, still not proudly claimed by the title - the English Mastiff, true to its heritage? Our sporting heritage is part of our national culture and our native breeds of animal represent the legacy of a considerable breeding achievement. In the world of dogs, our reputation as breeders is slipping and our reputation as exaggerators growing. I am all in favour of fanciers being able to import outstanding dogs from abroad; I am not in favour of our native breeds being not just neglected but bred carelessly to a 'new' design. One of our most famous native breeds now looks less and less like its distant ancestors and this breed, the Mastiff, should be treasured. Or, perhaps, the old Englische Dogge revived as, say, an English Deerhound

The lack of a function for the Mastiff of England, allied to misguided show criteria and a closed gene pool, hasn't helped. Our hunting mastiff was once revered all over northern Europe as the hunting dog: the Englische Dogge. It was a heavily-muscled, strong-headed, active, agile hound, used to close with quarry and seize it for the accompanying hunters. It was not a giant sloth but a powerful canine athlete. In the nineteenth century, in a misplaced desire for great size and immense bulk, breeders blended Mastiff blood with that of imported dogs, such as Great Danes, Alpine Mastiffs and Tibetan Mastiffs, to create the giant breed we have with us today. As a direct result we are left with a very different Englische Dogge, more a fawn Alpine Mastiff, and shame on us for that. Modern Mastiff fanciers boast of the height and weight of their breed but never of what they are capable of doing; any breed of dog without a function to be bred for is going to get lost quite quickly in today's show-dominated arenas.

    In the Middle Ages, thousands and thousands of  ‘strong greyhounds’, both rough-coated and smooth, were used to course deer in Scotland, Ireland and England. The Scottish version developed into the Deerhound breed of today; the Irish dog contributed to the Irish Wolfhound of today.  The English dog became in type what today we would call a lurcher. Hunting deer with scent-hounds became the preferred style and the English deer-hound found a home with the lower order of hunter, the peasant class. But there is plenty of evidence of this hound, in statues, paintings and prints. Of interest to lurcher-men is the account of Irish Greyhounds recorded by Fitzinger in his ‘Der Hund’ of 1876: “The Irish Greyhound, next to the Indian and Russian Greyhound, is the largest specimen of the Greyhound type, combining the speed of the Greyhound with the size of the Mastiff. The second type is the Irish coursing dog, a cross between the Irish Greyhound and the Mastiff or bandogge. He is shorter in the neck with a coarser skull, broader chest, and heavily flewed lips.” He went on to describe a third variety: a cross between the Irish Greyhound and the shepherd dog, shaggy-coated and lower on the leg. He could have been writing about coarsely-bred hunting sight-hounds in England of past centuries too. The surviving British breed of Deerhound, the Scottish hound, retains many of the characteristics of the old native hunting sight-hounds and gives us an idea of their capabilities.

Lurcher fanciers would enjoy the words of ‘Stonehenge’ in his ‘The Dogs of the British Islands’, of 1878: “…with the disappearance of the rough greyhound has been the rarity of the deerhound in modern days, the former being displaced by the smooth breed, and the latter by various crosses, e.g., that between the foxhound and greyhound advocated by Mr Scrope; the mastiff and greyhound cross of the Earl of Stamford, and all sorts of crosses between the colley and greyhound , rough as well as smooth, as mentioned above. In the present day pure deerhounds kept for the retrieving of deer are comparatively rare, and I believe even those in Her Majesty’s kennel are not used for that purpose. Hence it is idle to attempt to describe this dog  solely from the deer-stalker’s point of view, and he must be estimated rather from an artistic standpoint, in which capacity he rivals, and perhaps surpasses, all his brethren,, having the elegant frame of the greyhound united with the rough shaggy coat, which takes off the hardness of outline complained of by the lovers of the picturesque as attaching to the English 'longtail'.”  The latter phrase is of interest - the English 'longtails' were of a definite type - English Deerhounds!

It is easy to overlook the value as well as the prowess of hounds which could hunt red deer successfully before the wide use of long range firearms. The red deer is the largest of Britain’s wild mammals; a mature stag measuring four feet at the shoulder and weighing around 300lbs. In a harsh winter the skill of such a dog could mean the difference between starvation and survival for the primitive hunters. Once this value diminished however, these huge shaggy fast-running hounds fell on hard times, surviving only in some areas through the patronage of the nobility.  In his Medieval Hunting (Sutton, 2003) Richard Almond writes: “This is undoubtedly due to the change in role of greyhounds by the eighteenth century, from that of hunting deer, hare, wolf, boar and fox to that of coursing hares in organized matches.”  He wrote too that “Deer were obvious targets for peasant poachers…Recent research into the thirteenth and fourteenth century records of the Forest courts reveals that peasants poached deer not only for immediate consumption but for future pleasures too, such as a family wedding feast or Christmas dinner…”  Deer poaching would have entailed the use of  fast, strong Greyhound-type dogs – English deerhounds or staghound-lurchers! Today's bull-lurcher is a perpetuation of that type.

In his Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports of 1870, Delabere Blaine records, on deer hunting, that “In feudal times…from five hundred to a thousand  were sometimes slain at one general hunting match…As late as the third century, the Britons who had remained unconquered, and lived beyond Adrian’s wall, were principally  supported by venison…”  The call for hounds must have been remarkable.  The worth of the best hounds would have been considerable, but they were valued for what they could do, not their statuesque appearance, any air of nobility or  aloof grandeur, as flowery breed descriptions of today can hint. Sighthounds specializing in deer-hunting were once very much part of England’s sporting canine scene. Lord Ribblesdale in his book The Queen’s Hounds, wrote that “a breed of deer-hounds were long preserved at Godmersham and Eastwell in Kent, the strain of which went back to Elizabethan days. A good one always pinned the deer by the ear, a criterion of the purity of the strain. They were cream or fawn-coloured, with dusky muzzles, greyhound speed and half-greyhound, half-mastiff like heads.” They were par force hounds - English Deerhounds. Some bull-lurchers of today would answer that description. Deer-hounds don’t have to be rough-coated and Scottish!

In his book The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon (Longman’s, 1890) Sir Samuel Baker wrote of using a cross  between  the Foxhound and the Bloodhound for elk-hunting. The elk is the largest living deer, about the size of a larger horse in the hunting field. (Baker used Deerhound crosses on sambur deer.)  He wrote that  “ The only important drawback to elk-hunting is the constant loss of the dogs. The best is always sure to go. What with deaths by boars, leopards, elk and stray hounds, the pack is with difficulty maintained.”  In pre-war India, sportsmen noted that the local sight-hounds, like the Banjara, the Mudhol, the Vaghari and the Rampur, always went for the deer’s hindquarters, whereas the imported  Deerhounds seized by the throat.  One day soon we will have lost all our dogs with hunting instincts like this and who can say they will never be needed again. We may once again need the Englische Dogge.

Who would dare to steal sheep if we still had our shepherds’ mastiffs, living constantly with the flocks? Equivalent pastoral dogs, like the Anatolian Shepherd Dog, are being introduced into African flocks  to protect against marauding  members of the cat family, with measurable effect. Sporting dogs don’t have to be conserved solely by bodies like the Kennel Club, with their major outing being to Crufts, recently very appropriately sponsored by a sofa manufacturer. But it is individual native enthusiasts who should be stepping forward. The admirably-intentioned Native Dog Breeds Trust has now been wound up through lack of support. No doubt a foreign ‘deer-hound’, with an invented provenance and little merit, is about to be imported. The English deerhound lives on, to some extent, in the lurcher ranks, often casually described as 'bull-lurchers', but shame on us for losing such a distinctive and once-valued type of native hound. In the sporting field we are going to lose our long-established canine heritage, whereas in some countries there is a new determination to safeguard such a precious national asset. In Australia, despair over the giant clumsy unathletic Mastiff of today, the enlightened Gammonwood kennel has crossed a Racing Greyhound with a Mastiff to produce their stunning Grieffs or Greydogges. In England, David Platts has carefully bred, over ten generations, his English Deerhounds, much-in-demand lurchers of a set type now worthy of breed status. This is the way forward - no more recycling old genes, but the best use of good ones, in other words, nature's way!