by   David Hancock

Breed historians of the broad-mouthed breeds often write of their breed's links with the ancient 'Alauntes'. But for any type of dog to be correctly linked with the Alaunte, it is vitally important to keep in mind a number of historical facts: firstly, that Alauntes didn't constitute a breed but a functional type. Secondly, they had to run with the mounted hunters, which ruled out heavy cloddy dogs with too much bone and bulk. Thirdly, they were, by function, hounds not powerful watchdogs, as successor breeds are likely to be; they were hunting dogs not huge yard dogs. Any breed fancier can try to link his dogs with the Alauntes but if historical accuracy is desired and the name used honestly, then a canine athlete, a running dog, is the goal. The Alauntes were the dogs of the Alans. As the cavalry for the Roman legions, the Alans have left their mark in Britain. The Avon in Hampshire was once called the Alaun, as was the Alne in Northumberland. Allaway in Scotland comes from this source too. Chaucer did of course refer to 'Alauns' as big as steers; the type was evidently acknowledged here then. In his very informative book on hunting of 1410, the renowned hunter Gaston de Foix's words on French dogs are reworked by Edward, second Duke of York in his work entitled The Master of Game. He describes the Alaunte as a hound 'better shaped and stronger for to do harm than any other beast'; he made a distinction between mastiffs and Alauntes. He regarded the latter as seizing dogs, the former as big running mastiffs, for use in the chase. De Foix was the greatest hunter of his time, maintaining a kennel of over a thousand sporting dogs, near the Pyrenees. He would not have blurred mastiffs with Alauntes, he used them in different ways. They had different functions.

Three types of Alauntes were listed: alauntes 'gentle' (made and shaped like a sighthound but with a stronger shorter wider head), alauntes veutreres (stronger-made) or hunting mastiffs and alauntes of the butcheries or great butchers' hounds, the latter being the catch-dogs, seizers or pinning and holding dogs. Contemporary equivalents would be, in that order: a smaller version of the Great Dane - rather like Rhodesian Ridgeback; a Cane Corso or a Boerboel; and the Bulldog (of old). De Foix wrote that 'the good alaunte should run as fast as a greyhound, and any beast that he can catch he should hold'. The alauntes veutreres were employed as boarhounds, but as a seizer after the alauntes gentle had hunted down the quarry. The three types were complementary, supporting each other as specialist hounds. The war-dogs of the conquistadors were alauntes, used extensively to subdue natives in the Spanish Americas.

For me, the dog historian with the best understanding of the facts surrounding the Alaunte is the under-rated Scottish writer James Watson. His two volume The Dog of 1906 is a little known masterpiece. Watson was a rarity of his time, a man who understood the development of the dog in the medieval hunting field. The knowledgeable Ash lacked this understanding. The much-quoted Dr Caius was a scholar with no knowledge of dogs but is sadly so often utilised as an authority rather than an erudite  collector of information (e.g. for Linnaeus). The Alauntes were the dogs of the Alans. The Alans were astounding horsemen, so rated as to provide the cavalry for the Roman legions. In a well known inscription, found at Apta on the Durance, the Emperor Hadrian praises and commemorates his 'Borysthenes Alanus Caesareus Veredus' that 'flew' with him over swamps and hills in Tuscany, as he hunted the wild boar. The Romans hunted the wild boar with hunting mastiffs; the Alans would have provided hunting mastiffs as well as horses, their renowned Alauntes.

If you look at the recognised mastiff breeds, registered with the various kennel clubs of the world, you could be forgiven for thinking that the mainland of Spain has a limited heritage in this field. By mastiff breeds however, I do not mean those wrongly containing the word 'mastiff' in their breed title, like the Spanish Mastiff or the Pyrenean Mastiff, as recognised by the FCI under this name. These two magnificent majestic rightly famous breeds do not have the skull, instincts or phenotype of a 'modified brachycephalic' dog and are impressive examples of the flock-guarding breeds, like the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, the Estrela Mountain Dog and the Rafeiro do Alentejo, sister breeds with a very similar appearance. The Spanish influence on the real mastiffs of the world is a considerable one, from the fearsome Alanos of the baiting ring and the renowned Cordoba Fighting Dog of the pit to the broad-mouthed breeds of the Balearics and Central America, the latter still with us today. The Martinez brothers claimed to have utilised the blood of the Cordoba Fighting Dog in the creation of the Dogo Argentino. The Alano is behind the 'holding dogs' found in the Canaries, the Perro de Presa Canario, in Majorca, the Perro de Presa Mallorquin and probably the Cuban Mastiff or Bloodhound, now lost to us, and the Puerto Rican breed, the Gran Mastino de Borinquen.

An Alano was imported into Britain by the well-known Victorian dog-dealer Bill George and was described as a huge Bulldog, rather than as a breed in its own right. (The re-created Regency Bulldog produced much later by the late Clifford Derwent was remarkably similar in appearance to the Alano). Bill George's dog, 'Big Headed Billy', weighed 90lbs. Thirty years later, another British breeder called Marquand imported two more and then Frank Adcock, a well known Mastiff and Bulldog breeder, brought over two more; all these imports weighing 90lbs. This led to great opposition and eventually to the formation of the Bulldog Club to save the British Bulldog from what was termed the 'threatened invasion of the Spanish bulldog' and the 'impending introduction into its veins of blood of the Spanish milk-cart dog.' How childish dog fanciers can be at times!

Whatever the quality of these imports, they were genetically important and were subsequently bred from, although not as part of Bulldog development in Britain. It may be no coincidence that 90lbs 'bull-and-mastiffs' were utilised about that time as gamekeepers' night-dogs. But the name of the Spanish broad-mouthed dog, Alano, is significant. The Alans settled in France, north Africa and Spain in the fifth century after wanderings from southern Asia through central Europe via the Ukraine, the Crimea, Hungary and Roumania. Great horsemen, they brought their famous 'Alauntes', or huge hound-like dogs, most likely in appearance a blend of today's breeds of Greyhound and Mastiff rather than being a breed in their own right, with them, to bequeath us the strong-headed hunting mastiffs.

If you read accounts of the Spanish conquistadores in south and central America, such as the Varners' book 'The Dogs of the Conquest', published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1983, their description of the dogs  used to suppress the native Indians is almost identical with that of Alauntes provided by De Foix, who lived near the Pyrenees, in his valuable book on hunting of the fifteenth century. He wrote of these dogs being "...hardy to take all kinds of beast without turning, and hold fast and not leave it...they have a great head...and... help themselves at the baiting of the bull and at hunting of a wild boar, for it is their nature to hold fast". He stressed, incidentally, that whatever type they displayed, they were all hounds.

From such a background have come the surviving broad-mouthed breeds of Spanish origin. One of these, the Perro de Presa Canario, is now well established after being threatened with extinction several times. Antonio Gomez Ramirez, president of the Club Espanol Del Presa Canario, has kindly supplied me with some background on the breed. In the 16th and 17th centuries they were used as cattle dogs, guard dogs and by butchers. The Canaries became an important staging post for ships en route for the Americas, with Alanos and hunting dogs from Spain on board and taken ashore. The Bardino or Majorero of Fuerteventura, a powerful watchdog, is alleged to have been used in breeding programmes, to give the brindles in the breed an almost green-gold colouration.

Sadly, in the 18th and 19th centuries the breed was extensively used in dog-fighting and this persisted into the 20th century, until this activity was finally banned. The breed then declined and the islands suffered an influx of foreign breeds, with the effect that the breed faced extinction in 1960. As is so often the case a small group of local enthusiasts persevered in country areas, until the urban demand for silent, formidable-looking guard-dogs brought renewed interest in the breed. In the 1980s a group of breeders from Tenerife initiated a programme to secure the desired traditional type and select breeding stock. In 1986 a breed show was held for 150 dogs and three years later the official breed standard was issued and accepted by the Spanish equivalent of our Kennel Club.

This standard requires the breed to be around two feet at the shoulder, over 50kgs for males and 40kgs for females, aloof with strangers, alert and confident, with a strong brachycephalic head, cropped ears (where allowed), a level topline and a body slightly longer than the dog's height. What is especially pleasing is a clear statement on what constitutes a fault and its seriousness. Excessive fearfulness or aggression, absence of mask, loins lower than withers, a shallow chest and a nose lacking pigmentation leads to disqualification. A roach back, sagging loins, undershot mouth (exceeding 4mm), lack of bulk, poor spring of rib and light eyes are considered to be very serious faults. Serious faults are: too short a muzzle, excessively pendulous flews, too large a dewlap and sagging eyelids. How I wish our 'modified brachycephalic' breeds had such sensible stipulations.

The sister breed of Perro de Presa Mallorquin has a similar appearance but a different origin. Sometimes called the Mallorquin Bulldog, but known to the Catalans as Ca de Bou, it was traditional to crop its ears in a rounded form to achieve an almost feline look. These dogs were widely used in dog-fighting, even being exported to the Spanish islands of the Caribbean for this purpose. The specimens that I have seen at World Dog Shows have been calm, friendly, equable and stable in temperament. How like humans and legislators in particular to blame such dogs for being made by humans to fight each other. I do hope this breed doesn't get proscribed as a result of disgraceful deplorable human behaviour in past times.

A comparable breed, from a similar background, is the Gran Mastino de Borinquen, also known as the Puerto Rican Sporting Mastiff. Still a rare breed, it is being promoted by enthusiasts such as Professor Hector De La Cruz Romero, whose ancestors favoured the breed. From a type used at one time by the Spanish conquistadores to enforce a reign of terror in Latin America and subsequently as boarhounds, cattle dogs and farm guards, these were (and still are) huge animals, up to 28" at the shoulder but with those used for fighting much smaller and lighter. A local obsession with foreign breeds almost wiped them out in the last fifty years but now, thanks to the dedicated work of Hector Romero, the founder of the modern breed and author of the breed standard, this distinctive breed is progressing.

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.     

If you consider all these modified brachycephalic breeds associated with the Spanish, then add those associated with the Portuguese - the Filas of Brazil and the Azores, it is clear that the Iberian peninsula has had a major role in the development of the mastiff-type dogs. Such dogs were favoured both in the hunting field and as man-hunters in times when the Spanish and Portuguese were at their zenith as colonists and overseas adventurers. However questionable in today's more enlightened times, the activity and capability of such huge fierce dogs gave their owners and handlers an enormous advantage over even much larger numbers of hostile natives, perhaps the difference between winning or losing a battle. They therefore played a key role in securing Spanish and Portuguese possessions overseas. The blood of the ancient alauntes has come through in these contemporary breeds and the links between Spain and them is indisputable. Such a genetic past is to be valued and the essential type, related to original function, respected in today's dogs - it's a rich heritage.