by   David Hancock

The  Molossian Connection

 "Of the Molossian breeds of dogs, such as are employed in the chase are much the same as those elsewhere; but the sheepdogs of this breed are superior to the others in size, and in the courage with which they face the attacks of wild animals."
Aristotle's History of Animals c.347BC
(Revised Oxford translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, 1984)

"From a Country of Epirus, call'd antiently Molossia...comes a noble race of Dogs celebrated by all antiquity, and preferr'd before those of any other Nation whatsoever for matchlesse stoutnesse untill Britain being discover'd, and our Dogs brought to tryal. the Molossians were found to be surpassed in courage by the Brittish Mastiffes."
Cynegeticon by Gratius, as quoted by Markham, 1616
(As Jan Libourel, an American professor of ancient history, has pointed out, what Gratius actually wrote was to this effect: "If you want a good hound, a trip to Britain would almost be worth it. The British dogs may not look much, but for bravery in combat even the famous Molossus does not surpass them." The word mastiff was never used in this much misused quote. 

"...the Molossian breed was coming into increasing favor. Its qualities had, in fact, been noticed in classical Greece, though Xenophon does not mention it. It was derived from the guard dogs employed by the shepherds among the mountains of northwestern Greece; 'sheep dogs' would be a misleading term, because the Greek shepherd did not, and does not, use his dogs to herd sheep, but to protect them from wolves and robbers."
Hunting in the Ancient World by JK Anderson, 1985

 "Nemesianus, then, makes it abundantly clear that the Molossus dog, far from being some sort of mastiff, was actually a rangily built coursing dog, probably more akin to the greyhound."
Jan Libourel commenting on the words of the poet Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus c.284AD.

"The history of the breed is confusing. Apart from the somewhat unreliable claims of research workers, the numerous references in early works cannot be relied on, as the name molossus, which is usually translated mastiff, was often applied to any large dog."
Dogs: their history and development by Edward C. Ash (Benn), 1927.

Mastiffs and Molossers

 Time and time again, in books and magazines, especially on the continent and in North America, the mastiff group of dogs is blurred with the molossers, or dogs claiming ancestry with the huge dogs of the Molossi people. The "gripping" or "holding" breeds like the Bulldog, the Bullmastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux, the Cane Corso and the Perro de Presa Canario have become "molossers" in spite of any evidence that I can detect. I have searched the literature, art galleries and museums of Greece and Italy without avail. But there is evidence in abundance of big Molossian dogs taking two distinct forms: a flock guardian and a hound of the chase. But who were the Molossi? They were an Epirote people, ascendant from 500 to 300 BC. Their tribal kingdom stretched from north of Mount Pindus to the headwaters of the Thyamis river, on the Greek mainland, opposite Corfu. Other tribes rallied to them in their battles with the Illyrians from the north. The Molossi were Greek-speaking, sheep-owning, mainly mountain dwellers who cultivated valleys, occupying the wettest part of Greece, with heavy snowfalls in winter and many villages above 5,000 feet in altitude. The Molossi came originally in migrations from the north. In 167 BC Molossia was captured by the Romans and a sizeable proportion of its people enslaved. In happier times, two hundred years earlier, the Molossi had issued their own silver coinage with, as its emblem, the Molossian hound, a tribute to its fame.

The Dogs of the Molossi

 But what does recorded history tell us of the dogs of the Molossi? Aristotle, 384-322 BC, wrote of..."The Molossian breed, moreover, the hunting kind, differs in no way from the rest...But famous above all for courage and hard work is the progeny of Molossian crossed with Laconian". He therefore acknowledges more than one kind and recommends an outcross! But he also recorded that "The Epirote dogs are the largest of all." Varro, born in 116 BC, wrote: "Dogs are called after the district that they come from, as Laconian, Epirot, Sallentine...", going on to differentiate between butchers' dogs and hunting dogs. Theodore Gaza, an eminent Greek scholar of the fifteenth century, refers to "...the Colophonian breed and that of the Castabalienses, who had regiments of dogs that fought in the Van of War", with Pliny as his source. Aelian, living in the early part of the third century AD, wrote that: "The Hyrcani and Magnesii used to be accompanied into battle by their dogs". Neither of these authorities wrote of the Molossian dog as a war-dog. 

The Hyrcanian or 'Indian' Dogs

 The Hyrcani lived in a country well known to the Greeks and Romans, Alexander the Great called the Caspian Sea the Hyrcanian Sea. Hyrcania was in an area known as Gorgan, Gurgan, Jurgan or Jurjan, with, beyond them to the east, a people referred to as the Ser, Seres, Seri or Siracians (linked by some with 'Serica' the 'Silk Country'). Serica may have been part of Sin-Chiang in Eastern Turkestan in the Chinese Empire. Hyrcania was south-east of the Caspian Sea, where today the modern states of Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan meet. Hyrcania was part of  Parthia in the Persian Empire. In his In Search of the Indo-Europeans, of 1989, JP Mallory writes: "...it is in the Gorgan region that the domestic horse first appears in the Near East about 3,000-2,250BC. There is, for example, a cylinder seal depicting a horse-drawn vehicle from Hissar IIIB. As the association of horsemanship and chariotry with Indic elements among the Mitanni has already been clearly established, this evidence could indicate the route of Indic movements towards Mesopotamia." Where men and horses went, dogs went too, especially hunting dogs.

Traded Hounds

 In his The Golden Age of Persia of 1975, Richard Frye writes: "One should not fail to mention Gurgan (Arabic: al-Jurjan), ancient Hyrcania, a fertile province to the east of the Caspian Sea, where from ancient times settled Iranians had to defend their lands against nomads from the northern steppes." Inevitably this was where valuable goods, including hounds and horses, were traded between the plain dwellers in settlements and the nomadic tribes from the north and north-east. Hyrcania embraced mountainous forests, extensive plains, lakes and rivers, with wild life ranging from tigers, bear, hyenas, wolves and wild boar to wild horses, asses, buffalo, deer and antelope. These animals were the traditional quarry for hunting mastiffs and holding dogs. Mallory mentions that pottery of the 'grey ware' tradition had appeared in Gorgan before the end of the fourth millenium (i.e. 3,000BC) and by "migration or diffusion" had been discovered as having been in use in western Iran, towards the Zagros mountains, two thousand years later. He states: "In the south-east Caspian, the culture that emerges in the Iron Age, the Dahistan culture, is solidly regarded as Iranian (the land designated Varkana (Hyrcania) in early Iranian texts), and it is seen to have emerged out of the local Gorgan tradition possibly coupled with steppe influences." The movement south-westwards of steppe nomads spanned several millennia; wherever they went horses and hunting dogs went too.

Historic Employment

 The well-known "terra-cotta dog" of Asshurbanipal would be a fair representative of the prototypal mastiff family. Several of these statuettes have been found, bearing such names as "Tear the Foe" on the back of the collars. As already discussed, there are also canine artefacts from even older periods e.g. Lagash and Larsa. The first Lagash dynasty was from around 2500-2350BC; the Larsa people were ascendant in the early second millennium BC, i.e. four thousand years ago. In his much respected work 'The Sumerians, their History, Culture and Character' (University of Chicago Press, 1963) Samuel Noah Kramer records how "animal husbandry was supplemented by hunting, and there are texts recording the deliveries of deer, wild boars and gazelles." He also mentions accounts of 'successful hunting on the plain'. The Sumerian artefacts of broad-mouthed dogs, one of a bitch suckling four pups and the other of an alert lying dog could well be portrayals of mastiff breeds today. Why should the broad-mouthed breeds be robbed of two thousand years of their history by scholars who know little of dogs? The famous Assyrian bas-relief in the British Museum shows with remarkable vividness the use of heavy hounds to hunt wild asses. More recently the paintings of artists such as Hondius, Snyders and Hackert, together with the drawings and etchings of Ridinger, have depicted very distinctly the heavy hounds used at the kill in European hunting scenes. These huge strapping dogs were utilised all over Europe in the Middle Ages and subsequently. The holding and gripping or pinning breeds, collectively known as the broad-mouthed dogs, recklessly brave and renowned for their ferocity, were quite invaluable, especially before the development of firearms.

Mesopotamian Ancestry

 The Sumerians settled in Mesopotamia in the fifth millennium BC and thrived until the early second millennium BC; interestingly their language resembled the Mongol speech, being reminiscent of the Ural-Altaic languages. Their early rulers maintained close ties with the city-state known as Attala, believed to have been located in the region of the Caspian Sea. Artefacts depicting broad-mouthed dogs have been found at Lagash (now Shippurla) and Larsa (biblical Ellasar, now Senkerah) and dated at two thousand BC. Only in the twentieth century did scholars discover the importance of Sumer as an advanced civilisation; it may well be that the Sumerians migrated south-west from Tartary taking their huge hunting mastiffs with them. Certainly their artefacts of mastiff-like dogs are the oldest ever found. In this part of the world, Persia was a central Asian power, the link between east and west. The Babylonians were hunting with broad-mouthed hounds two thousand years before the Molossi were even known. The Assyrians were hunting with broad-mouthed hounds one thousand years before the Molossi were known.

Ignorance of Translators

 Despite this scholars with no knowledge of dogs still attribute the origin of the mastiff group to a small isolated group of mountain people in Epirus, rightly famous for a different type of dog. Scholars translating Gaza, Gratius, Varro and Aristotle, especially in the Middle Ages when the word mastiff meant any and every huge hefty dog, are the source of much misinformation. They have misled any number of breed researchers who read the word mastiff as synonymous with the name of the modern pedigree breed.
Take for example this quote:
"When half enraged,
The rude Molossian mastiff, her keen teeth
Baring tremendous,"
Such a quotation is so often used, or rather misused, by mastiff devotees to prove a point on the breed's heritage. But if you look at the Latin original:
"Inritata canum quom primum magna Molossum
Mollia ricta fremunt, duros nudantia denteis,"
you can quickly see that the word mastiff is missing. Once scholars started perpetuating the idea that a huge fierce dog from Molossia is a mastiff, their subsequent words fed the tendentious researches of breed historians. In his The History of the Mastiff of 1886, even Wynn gave the view that: "Many people therefore erroneously think the word molossus necessarily means a mastiff, whereas the Greeks only became acquainted with the true mastiff about the time of the Macedonian conquest at 336BC."

Hounds Various

 Similar misapprehensions have led Tibetan Mastiff fanciers to misapply the records of Marco Polo's travels. He allegedly referred to "mastiffs as large as donkeys" but didn't use the word mastiff at all. His translators, scholars with no knowledge of dogs, did so. His record was of huge dogs, the size of local donkeys (smaller than ours) which "...are trained to hunt every type of animal; but particularly the huge and fierce wild oxen. There are many different kinds of hounds..." I would read this as meaning that hounds of the chase were variously employed to seize and pull down big game. This part of the world, in those times, came under Kubla Khan. We also learn from Marco Polo that from October to March the court was provided with 1000 head of game per day. Two thousand men in red and another two thousand in blue, each colour supported by as many as 5,000 dogs, hunted in two lines spread out over a distance of a day's journey. The hounds walked, the hunters were mounted. Translators have referred to these dogs as mastiffs when they should have called them heavy hounds. Does anyone seriously think that the Mastiff breed of today so often linked by their owners with the Marco Polo reference could carry out such a feat? Many that I see in the show ring can scarcely manage a circuit or two. Yet Mastiff breed researchers regularly claim links with such hounds entirely because the ignorant translators have misused the word mastiff.

Impact of Steppe Nomads

 Because steppe nomads long before the Great Khan, the Scythians and the Sarmatians, were illiterate and left little trace of their arts and crafts, we have tended to underrate their astonishing impact on other civilizations. Their mastery of the horse brought them over the Caucasus and Carpathians to provide cavalry for the Greeks and Romans and teach the Assyrians most of what they knew about the use of the horse. On their belt buckles and shields the elongated "S" denoted the dog.  Before about 1500BC Egyptian hunters operated on foot but then the Hyksos arrived from the southern steppes with horse and chariot. From then on Egyptian noblemen had stables as well as kennels. The steppe nomads also had hounds with the capability of keeping up with the horses. So these were traded too. The Alans, probably the mightiest tribe of the Sarmatians at one period and famous horsemen, accompanied by huge hounds, reached well into Western Europe in their time. They also provided the cavalry for Roman legions in northern Europe. Topographical place names of Alanic origin appear in Poland, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Germany, Georgia, France (e.g. Alencon), Spain and throughout the Roman Empire, including Britain.
"Another mediaeval hound frequently mentioned was the alan or alaunt. It is, quite probably, a near relative of the modern Great Dane or German Boarhound. Resemblance to the last named species is indicated by what Master of Game says of their shape and coloration. It was a powerful, aggressive beast, and held 'faster of his biting than can three greyhounds the best any man can find.' Their chief role was played in boar-hunting, always a sanguinary sport and most destructive to a good pack. When the boar took refuge in a thick wood, and running hounds were unable to make him come out, alaunts were loosed and 'if they be slain by the wild boar...it is not very great loss." So wrote Henry L Savage, in his Hunting in the Middle Ages published in Speculum  (Vol 8, parts 30-41) in 1933. He may have been unaware of the wide range of holding dogs embraced by the word alaunt.

Alans and Alauntes

 For any type to be correctly named an Alaunt, it is vitally important to keep in mind a number of historical facts: firstly, that Alaunts didn't form a breed but a casually-bred type for a function. Secondly, they had to run with horses, which rules out heavy cloddy dogs with too much bone and bulk. Thirdly, they were hounds not powerful watchdogs; they were hunting dogs not huge yard dogs. Any fool can describe his dogs as Alaunts but if historical accuracy is desired and the name used honestly, then a canine athlete, a running dog, is the goal. The Alaunts 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 Alaunt as a hound 'better shaped and stronger for to do harm than any other beast'; he made a distinction between mastiffs and Alaunts. 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. He would not have blurred mastiffs with Alaunts, he used them in different ways. They had different functions.

Varying Types

 Three types of Alaunts were listed: alauntes 'gentle' (made and shaped like a sighthound but with a stronger shorter wider head), alauntes veutreres 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, 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. Chroniclers referred to them as mastins, alanos and lebrels, the latter strong-headed sighthounds, rather like a bull-lurcher, and called zwicdarm in Germany. The Spanish still have their perro de presa (holding dog), the Canary Dog and their Alano. The Portuguese took theirs as filas (holding dogs) to Brazil, to found today's Fila Brasileiro, or holding dog of Brazil. The Cuban Mastiff, the Borinquen Mastiff of Puerto Rico and the restored Perro Cimarron of Uruguay are embraced by this type.   
No depiction of an Alaunt shows an over-boned cloddy heavily-built short-faced yard-dog. They show, not the American Bulldog conformation, but much more apparently the Rhodesian Ridgeback/ Dogo Argentino style: just over two feet high, with tuck-up, strong-headed with breadth right down to the nose, but never a Bulldog head, a powerfully muscled body, short-haired and with small drop ears, essentially a real canine athlete. Such a dog had to be able to clear obstacles, keep up with the mounted hunters and pull down its quarry, usually boar or stag. Eventually, as the par force hunt developed into less of a steeplechase, the seizers were held by their collars until needed, and referred to as bandogges. But for all their power in the charge, such dogs had to accompany the hunt, which demanded stamina, and clear fallen logs or undergrowth at speed, which demanded explosive power. One day the kennel clubs of the world will accept that mastiffs were heavy hounds; even the international body, the FCI, groups them as 'Molossers and Dogues', embracing mountain dogs and the mastiff breeds. The recognition of breeds and the subsequent alteration of them by show ring fanciers has led the general public to assume that the Bulldog was always squat, muzzle-less and unathletic and the Mastiff huge, bulky and unathletic; not so. The Mastiff's true ancestors were heavy hounds not mountain dogs; the Bulldog's real ancestors were alauntes of the butcheries not pug-mastiffs.

The 'Gripping and Holding' Dogs

 In Wales, the Ancient Welsh Laws, codified around 920 AD, refer to two kinds of "mastiff" (meaning huge dog): the 'Cadgi' or battle dog and the 'Gafaelgi' or gripping dog. There were clearly two different kinds of dog for such a distinction to be made. In northern and central Europe were the 'beissers' or heavy hounds, like the so-called boar-lurcher, for seizing the bigger quarry. I can find no reference at all to the Molossi using holding or gripping dogs despite the fact that such dogs were known in their time. There is however, as I have set out, a multitude of references to war-dogs, battle dogs and butchers' dogs being owned and used by other tribes e.g. the Hyrcani and the Magnesii. Because the Molossian hound and the Molossian flock-guarding dog were fierce and at times savage (as Aristotle records) they were lumped together with the other "canes pugnaces or bellicosi". Statius wrote of the soldiers of the Molossi weeping over their faithful canine companions slain in the war. But the Molossi used their huge dogs as outpost sentries not as war-dogs, as the Hyrcani did. Even in the last century, the Suliot dog (from the Suli mountains in Epirus) was used to guard outposts in the war between the Austrians and the Turks. These huge dogs found their way into Western Europe (Lord Truro owning one) and a role as 'parade dogs', marching as mascots at the head of regiments. They were subsequently bred with German boarhounds. No dog writer of those times suggested that these dogs were modified brachycephalic or broad-mouthed dogs. It is highly significant that the Romans referred to the latter as Canes Pugnaces or Bellicosi and not Molossi.

Classification of Canine Types

 The French professor Pierre Megnin, in 1896, a trifle simplistically, defined four basic canine skull structures: lupoides (e.g. the spitz breeds with the long muzzle), braccoides (e.g. the scent-hound family), graioides (e.g. the sight-hound family) and molossoides (e.g. the mountain dogs, 'fighting dogs', mastiff breeds and even Pugs), and listed the breeds of dog identified then either in these groups or from a mixture of them. At that time Megnin was unaware of the Sumerian hounds or the pre-dynastic dogs of Hierakonpolis, but clearly knew of the Molossi and their dogs, if not their hounds. Felice Cesarino believes that some of the Saharan graffiti showing heavy-skulled dogs could be from the "grande fauna selvaggia" phase, ante-dating the Sumerians. Johan Gallant, President of the Africanis Society in South Africa, who pointed this out to me, shares my belief that an update of Megnin's classification is long overdue.

Discovered Errors

 Blaine, writing in his Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports of 1840, makes a number of points for me when he states that: "Linnaeus appears to have erred much in naming this variety (i.e. the Bulldog) Molossus...Much of the obscurity which attends the origin of the Bulldog has arisen from confounding him with the ancient account of other pugnacious dogs..." He then goes on to make rude remarks about the ignorance of translators "who could not distinguish a Bulldog from a cur". Wynn, writing forty years later, stated that: "Classical writers carelessly or for convenience called any and all dogs approaching anything like the dogs of Epirus in size or character by the common term molossus...classical writers used the word molossians at a later period to embrace the true mastiff and allied groups, and Dr Caius, Gesner, Linnaeus, and other naturalists followed the classical jumble. Therefore readers and translators should be very guarded how they render molossus as a mastiff, for the true molossian was...identical or almost so, with the modern Suliot boarhound." Scholars and natural historians have I believe compounded their own errors over many many years.

Description of Molossian Dogs

 A description of a Molossian dog is contained in Travels in Sicily, Greece and Albania by the Rev. Thomas Smart Hughes, of 1820: "The colour of these dogs varies through different shades from a dark brown to a bright dun, their long fur being very soft and thick and glossy; in size they are about equal to an English mastiff; they have a long nose, delicate ears finely pointed, magnificent tail, legs of moderate length, with a body nicely rounded and compact." It is significant that although the Rev. Hughes evidently knew what an English Mastiff looked like, he did not suggest, size apart, that there were any other similarities. The statue of a Molossian dog in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence does not portray a broad-mouthed dog.

Separate Origin

 The Molossian dog took two forms: a big flock-guarding breed, rather like the Kuvasz of Hungary and the Maremma of Italy, and a huge hound, perhaps perpetuated today by breeds such as the Great Dane and the Dogo Argentino. In Dr Smith's Classical Dictionary of 1859, he writes "The Mollossian hounds were celebrated in antiquity, and were much prized for hunting." Martial describes a venatio in Rome at which a hind is chased by swift Molossians. Claudian refers to the Molossian dogs guiding the huntsman to his prey by their subtle scent. The mastiff group, the strong-headed, broad-mouthed breeds such as the Perro de Presa Canario, the Neapolitan mastiff and the Dogue de Bordeaux have a quite separate Central Asian origin.
In his Animals in Roman Life and Art of 1973, JMC Toynbee writes: "The war dogs of Asia Minor that feature on the great frieze of the altar of Zeus at Pergamon as the comrades of Hekate, Artemis and Asteria were used for hunting such big game as boars and antelopes. They were extremely strong and muscular, with heavy muzzles, large, solid heads, powerful necks...straight upstanding ears and long tails." The well-known "terracotta dog" of Asshurbanipal would be a fair representative of the prototypal mastiff family. Several of these statuettes have been found, bearing such names as "Biter of his Foe" and, more interestingly, "Catcher of the Enemy" on the back of the collars. As already discussed, there are also canine artefacts from even older periods e.g. Lagash and Larsa.

Tartaric Ancestry of Mastiffs

 By an Asiatic origin however I do not mean one linked to the flock-guarding breeds like the so-called Mastiff of Tibet. As argued earlier, I consider the Tibetan Mastiff to be misnamed and I can never understand why so many writers have linked this fine breed with the origin of the mastiff group. Why choose this breed? Why not go for another yak or sheep-protector/herder like the Sage Koochi, the Bangara 'mastiff', the Bhotia, the Kumaon, the Bisben, the Powendah or the Caucasian Owtcharka. I suspect that cynologists of the 19th century only knew of the Tibetan Mastiff from the Central Asian area and based their theories on incomplete evidence as well as ignorance of function. A far more impressive candidate for their theories would have been the Sage Koochi or nomad dog of Afghanistan, sometimes called the Aryan flock guardian, found in the Pamir mountains and related to the Central Asian Owtcharkas. This Koochi dog can be 32" at the shoulder and weigh 80kgs, with types varying from the Pamir or Wakhan-type, the most powerful, the steppe-type and the oasis-type, a short-haired variety which can crop up in litters of the other types. But the flock guardians are not mastiffs in our modern sense of the word. Admirable breeds like the Anatolian Shepherd Dog, the Tatra and Estrela Mountain Dogs and the Spanish and Pyrenean Mastiffs must not be bred to the design of the broad-mouthed dogs. In this respect, St. Bernard fanciers have in my view already lost their way, now producing specimens quite unlike both their own ancestors and sister breeds of Swiss mountain dog.

Respecting Origin

 Once breeders either ignore their breed's origin or get misled by false research (or ignorant translators!), then essential breed-type is threatened. The Germans call the Great Dane a German Mastiff; the consequence must not be square-headed, lower-slung dogs with all their weight on the forehand. Breed titles and breed histories are all too often misleading and they do matter. Undoubtedly the true mastiff breeds and the flock guarding breeds have been interbred in the past for a variety of reasons. I suspect that any modified brachycephalic breed that is over 28" at the shoulder has been the recipient of blood from a flock-guarding breed. The phenotype of the true mastiff breeds is 24-28" so that size and especially bulk does not conflict with function. The requirements in a heavy hound and in a flock-guarding breed are essentially different and that difference really does matter. Loose groupings like Molossers are fine - as long as they refer to hounds of the chase or the huge flock guardians and not the seizing and holding or 'gripping' breeds. The Molossi bred magnificent huge dogs, but they were not mastiffs.

"...mastiffs from Tartary, molossians from Epirus, hounds from Flanders..."
Betteloni, 1800

"Indian dogs, tall, strong, short-eared, and short-coated, were acclimatized in Mesopotamia in antiquity. In the Roman period they were used for hunting in eastern lands, at least, as a papyrus dated after 29BC indicates. The Greek Philostratus mentions Indian dogs in his description of a picture of a boar hunt; and Indian dogs were among the 2,400 hounds that walked in Ptolemy II's procession."
from Animals in Roman Life and Art by JMC Toynbee (1973)

"The term for the mastiff among some naturalists, is the molossus, originating with our early writers, who chose to think that the classic writers meant a mastiff, in the sense we now use the word, whereas the molossus was not in reality a mastiff. Many people therefore erroneously think the word molossus necessarily means a mastiff..."
The History of the Mastiff by MB Wynn, Loxley, 1886.

The Mastiff Diaspora - World-wide Mastiffs


Closing with the Quarry

 In the hunting field, it is all very well having hounds that can track or bay their quarry, in the end, primitive hunters simply had to have brave, powerful, determined dogs that could go in and grab the hunted animal so that the dismounted hunter can then dispatch it with a knife or spear. This is how the mastiff breeds evolved; they were the hunting mastiffs or beissers. The ablest survived to be bred from, the less able perished. These skills in time made such dogs valuable guard dogs, baiting dogs and protection dogs in a variety of ways. These dogs developed too according to local preferences: of colour, head shape, size and temperament, but the broad-mouthed type prevailed. Once hunters found the value of such dogs, their fame soon spread.

Function determined Type

 In this way the Dogue de Bordeaux developed in France, the Bullenbeisser in Germany, the Brabanter Bullenbijter and the Niederlandischer Bollbeisser in the Low Countries, the Danzigger Bahrenbeisser in Eastern Europe, the Neapolitan Mastiff and the Cane Corso in Italy, the Perro de Presa Canario and the Perro de Presa Mallorquin in the Spanish Islands and in due course the Tosa in Japan, the Bajan Biting Dog in the West Indies, the Gran Mastini de Borinquen in Puerto Rico, the American Bulldog and Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog in the United States, the Fila Brasileiro in South America and the Boerboel in South Africa. The Cuban Bloodhound, now lost to us, had distinct broad-mouthed features and probably descended from the Perros de Presa of the conquistadores. Dogs with such powerful 'seizing' instincts were valued by butchers and livestock handlers, especially to 'grip' wayward stock or 'hold' cattle for slaughter. A different instinct, purely of protecting livestock from predators, has been capitalised on in the livestock protection dogs or flock guardians.
Dogs of the mastiff group, the modified brachycephalic breeds, can be found in northern and southern Europe, north, south and central America, South Africa and the Far East. They travelled with nomadic peoples and settlers in new countries. These dogs have a clearly defined phenotype: a shoulder height of around 26", drop ears, a well-defined stop, a short coat, thick skin, a strongly-made head with a powerful jaw, a broad mouth, most of its weight on the forehand and coat colours composed of black or dilute black, i.e. blue, slate grey, grey, red, shades of fawn and brindle, usually with black muzzles and masks, sometimes with white on the front of the dogs. Breeds of this type, like the Mastiff of England and the Fila Brasileiro, that are bigger have had different blood added to them: Alpine Mastiff, Great Dane and Tibetan 'Mastiff' blood in the English dog's case. The flock protecting breeds, which were not expected to hunt, have always been bigger, as the Caucasian Owtcharkas, the Kuvasz, the Sage Koochi, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog and the Spanish 'Mastiff' demonstrate to this day. Their sheer size allowed them to survive in remote pastures, in testing climates and on long transhumance journeys. The true mastiffs, the broad-mouthed dogs, have a remarkable footprint across the globe and this is covered in the following chapters.