by   David Hancock



The Mastiff Breeds in Northern Europe

"Guillot le Mastinier, called Sonot, for his expenses in the Forest of Dyrmon in seeking 24 mastiffs borrowed for the King's sport in his boar-hunting in the Forest of Halatte, and for his lodging for this purpose and for bringing these mastiffs to the Forest with the boar-hounds for ten days..."
'The French Royal Hunting Accounts' of Philippe de Courguilleroy, Master Huntsman to the King, 1398.

"From this period there is ample evidence of the dissemination of this breed of dogs (i.e. Bulldogs) over the Continent; and this was much assisted by the fact of so important a town as Bordeaux having been in the hands of the English from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, and the court of King Edward, with its attendant English sports of bull and bear baiting, having been held there for about eleven years."
'British Dogs' (Vol II) by Hugh Dalziel, Upcott Gill, 1888

European Origin  
In a study published in the journal Science in 2013, it was claimed that dogs first became man's
best friend in Ice Age Europe between 19,000 and 32,000 years ago, earlier than previously
thought. Olaf Thalmann of the University of Turku in Finland, who led the study, stated that: "I
was amazed how clearly (the findings) showed that all dogs living today go back to four genetic
lineages, all of which originate in Europe."
The findings indicated that dogs were tamed by fur-clad hunter-gatherers and
suggested that the canines may have sought out the camp sites scavenging left-over
meat. They contradict earlier conclusions that man tamed dogs only when they
became farmers in Eastern Asia 15,000 years ago. This study found that dog's nearest
relatives were European wolves and not wolves, coyotes, jackals and dingos from
further afield. This does not show that the mastiff group originated in Europe, or that their role did,  but it does give a new importance to the European influence. Most of the mastiff breeds were developed in Europe, mainly due to the style of hunting pursued there in the Middle Ages.  

Mastiffs 'at the Kill'

 If you look at prints, engravings and paintings of hunting scenes in northern medieval continental Europe, you can soon detect strong-headed mastiff-type dogs or 'matins', usually depicted at the kill of the quarry concerned: boar, stag, bison, even aurochs. Such dogs were clearly in wide use and yet few survive as recognised breeds. The boar hound, used as a hound of the chase, lives on as the Great Dane, known in Germany as the Deutsche Dogge or German Mastiff, with the noun being used to denote, not a broad-mouthed dog or killing mastiff/holding dog, but a hunting mastiff or par force hound. The boar lurcher, or less carefully-bred catch-dog, one type of which developed into the German bullenbeisser, is arguably represented by today's Boxer, albeit in reduced size, more uniform type and a less coarse appearance..

Hunting Obsession

  The heavy demand for the 'beissers' was rooted in the remarkable taste for hunting the bigger quarry in Northern and Central Europe using powerful dogs and hand-held weapons five hundred years ago. It is important to keep in mind the sheer scale of hunting in middle Europe from medieval times up to the late 18th century. Elector John George I of Saxony (1611-1656) held hunts that killed 31,902 wild boar. His son reduced this to 22,298 during his time! The scale too of hunting kennels needs to be remembered. The early 17th century hunting calendar of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum lists in just one: 40 Leidt Hunde or leashed scenthounds, 40 Blut Hunde or trackers, 200 Ruden or pack hounds, 40 Englische Hunde, 30 Sau Finders or boar 'finders' and Leib Hunde, literally 'body dogs' or the dogs that closed with the quarry, the catch-dogs or holding dogs.

Lost 'Holding Dogs'

 The French have their Dogue de Bordeaux, probably a legacy of two hundred years of the English presence there, for, as discussed earlier, Englische Doggen or English hunting mastiffs were widely prized on mainland Europe. But where are the Dutch, Belgian, Danish and Polish holding dogs of old? We can find references to the Niederlandischer Bollbeisser, the Brabanter Bullenbijter, the Danische Dogge and the Danzigger Bahrenbeisser. The first two may well have become draught dogs, where their power and determination could be exploited; certainly some went to South Africa with the Dutch colonists to help create the breed of Boerboel. The Danish are now reviving their version as the Broholmer or Mastiff of Broholm Castle. But Eastern Europe has lost the 'holding and seizing' dogs once found there, although more scenthound breeds are emerging there each year as national interest in native breeds grows..

Undesirable Coarseness

 Breeders of Boxers should be congratulated on breeding out the awful coarseness which many 'modified brachycephalic' breeds can so easily display, especially in the head and neck and usually on into the shoulders. The Bullmastiff, purebred for three quarters of a century and with fewer ingredients than manufactured breeds like the Dobermann, the Rhodesian Ridgeback and the Black Russian Terrier, so often features this undesirable coarseness, which spoils this quite admirable breed. But the lack of substance in the contemporary breed of Boxer, together with too short a muzzle, spoils that breed too. Show breeders may have 'refined' the breed, often displaying smoother lines and good muscularity but seem to have forfeited power and substance.

Impression of Power

 A dog like International Champion Siguard von Dom of Barmere, described as the first of the great modern Boxers, had substance, symmetry and gave an impression of real power. Dutch Champion Favoriet vom Haus Germania, a great influence on the breed in Britain had better bone than any dog I see in today's rings. Champion Wardrobes Huntingpink was better muscled than any dog I see in contemporary show rings. US Champion Utz von Dom of Mazelaine, one of the four great Boxers to influence the breed in America, displayed a broader front and more powerful hindquarters than any exhibit I see now. Sieger Heinz von der Elbe, eighty years ago, possessed a chest of immense strength; today I see straight fronts in profile, lacking chest capacity.

The Boxer's Loss of Substance

 Yet the breed standard calls for: strong bone and evident, well-developed muscles; chest deep...ribs well arched; hindquarters - Very strong with muscles hard and standing out noticeably under skin. It also asks for a dog that is: distrustful of strangers, with a guarding instinct. Far too many that I see behave as adults like retarded puppies. I do not know of any organisation, even in Germany today, which uses the breed as a guard dog. When I lived in Germany nearly forty years ago, the breed had wide employment in this role. I can't remember the last time I saw a solid brindle in Britain; every exhibit seems to feature the white socks, white brisket and white blaze of an apparently desired uniformity. Years ago a strapping solid brindle Boxer was an impressive sight.

Lack of Power

 In his excellent book 'The Boxer' of 1949, the American John P Wagner wrote: "In the other extreme, refinement, or just plain raciness predominates at the expense of substance. If the Boxer is developed in this direction he will be high, small-boned and narrow-chested, lacking even sturdiness." This is how I see far too many Boxers in England today. Up until the early 1890s there was still some unwise inter-breeding between English Bulldogs and German Boxers, leading to concerns about the developing breed becoming too low-slung and cloddy. Perhaps the fear of a return to this has led to a contemporary breed which is too light, too finely timbered and under-muscled. The German ancestors of the Boxer were catch-dogs and would not have lived long if they lacked power and substance.

The Boxer in Britain Today

 This breed has found sustained popularity in Britain for some years. Thirty years ago, around 4,000 a year were being registered; in 2007 it grew to over 8,000 a year; then back to 4,000 a year in 2012 and again in 2013. These appreciable numbers have been matched by quality, with high class dogs being produced each year. The breed seems to breed true to type and keeping in mind the rather coarse dogs that started the pedigree breed, has emerged as a consistently sound, handsome animal. There is, justifiably, concern about health issues in the breed. I am concerned too about two tendencies, one mental, one physical, in the breed; firstly they all too often for me develop into grown-up puppies, lacking maturity of outlook and a lack of any serious intent - perhaps because they lack a perceived role. Secondly, the show fanciers seem to favour upright shoulders and exaggerated angulation in the hindquarters. The judge at the Southern Counties Championship Show in 2012 reported: "Of course there were some faults...like erratic front movement and some who were a bit long in the loin. Some had too much angulation in the rear and not in balance to the front assembly." The judge at the London & Home Counties Boxer Club Championship Show wrote: "I found quite a few front assemblies where the upper arm was rather more upright than ideal and this affected the overall balance..." These are serious flaws and need rectifying before they become the norm.

Boar Hunting

 The running mastiffs of northern Europe, the Great Dane and the Broholmer, are covered in some detail in Chapter 4. Behind these breeds and the Boxer however, there is a breed-type, commonly called Hetzruden or hunting packhounds, frequently including matins or boar-lurchers, and extensively used in boar-hunting in the forests of what is now Germany. These strong-headed ferocious heavy hounds were often fortified with the blood of hunting mastiffs from England. Some writers considered these dogs, which were kept in kennels described as 'English stables', possibly because of the size of the dogs, to be a blend of Irish 'greyhound' and English Mastiff. Young boarhounds, still learning, or highly valued hounds were equipped with padded jackets of brown fustian (a thick hard-wearing twilled cloth) or of bombazine (a twilled fabric of worsted and silk or cotton), with whalebone on the chest and belly to reduce the ripping action of the enraged boar's tusks. The Duke of Coburg's old sporting armouries near Gotha featured coats of mail, made up of leather or strong canvas, fastened with wire and hempen cord. The old German princes liked to pick out the biggest and best of these brave hounds to serve as bodyguard dogs; these wore silver or silver-gilt collars, lined with velvet and edged with tasselled fringes. Many of these dogs were killed in the chase. Landgrave Philip wrote to Duke Christopher of Wuerdenberg in 1559: "During this boar-hunting we took 1120 wild boars with the help of our home-bred dogs..." This could have led to the death of several hundred dogs, there being an expression of that time that "those that wanted to have boars' heads had to sacrifice dogs' heads."

Boarding Out

 Duke Henry Julius of Brunswick was reputed to own the largest number of hetzruden: 600, in 1592. Whilst each castle featured its own kennels, the sheer numbers led to forcible boarding out. Shepherds were required to board at least one, in addition to their stock dogs, or their lambs were confiscated. In the 17th century, millers were required to board a specific number each year. Eventually over-hunting led to a vast reduction in boar numbers and a consequent reduction in Hetzruden. In time, only small numbers of them were kept at the princely courts, and, towards the end of the 19th century, they became increasingly the property of private citizens. The last of the Hessian dogs was sold in 1876. They were described as being fawn or red-fawn with black masks and muzzles. In Hutchinson’s Dog Encyclopaedia of 1934 there is reference to the entering of such dogs to their hunting role: “The training of the Hatzrueden consisted of the younger ones, accompanied by older dogs, being put in the presence of wounded wild boars, when they had to seize the latter sideways by the ear; later on the youngsters were put against two-year-old wild boars, but were supplied beforehand with so-called ‘protective jackets’, to protect them against the tusks of the boars.”

The Dogue de Bordeaux

 The French catch-dog, the Dogue de Bordeaux, protection dog and hunting mastiff par excellence, hardly lacks substance. But I do see too many cloddy specimens, low-set, over-dewlapped and coarse in the neck and shoulders. This type seem to feature too an undesirable 'Chippendale' front, in which the front legs bend in at the pasterns then out again in the feet. Yet this breed has one of the best written breed standards I have ever read. Its list of faults, especially disqualifying faults, gives clear unambiguous guidance to judges and should be a model for the other modified brachycephalic breeds. I like the phrase under 'general appearance' which requires: "a very muscular body yet retaining a harmonious general outline." Shown at the first French dog show in Paris in 1863, the breed once had three types: the Toulouse (which showed signs of Spanish influence), the Paris and the Bordeaux type (linked with the wine trade and the dogs of the countries trading e.g. England), which prevailed. The breed was imported into England in the 1890s by two Bulldog fanciers, Woodiwiss and Brooke. Woodiwiss purchased a fighting dog, scarred from combat with bears as well as dogs. Not to be outdone, Brooke imported from Bordeaux itself a fawn dog, with immediate ancestors which had tackled wolf, bear and hyena, one being killed in San Francisco whilst taking on a jaguar. Brooke tried his dog at a large Russian bear which stood six feet high when up on its hind legs. The account of this contest stated that: "The dog showed great science in keeping his body as much sideways as possible, to avoid the bear's hug, and threw the bear fairly and squarely on the grass three times."

Need for a Correct Mould

 I like bears too much to approve of such a contest but the enormous strength and determination of the dog has to be of note. The Kennel Club's anti-earcropping regulation dampened the enthusiasm of these early British fanciers however, with both Woodiwiss and Brooke selling their dogs to a Canadian who exported them. Now the breed is gaining favour in Britain once again, attaining KC recognition in 1997 and now fielding two breed clubs and attracting growing support. Britain does not however have an entirely admirable record in breeding its own mastiff breeds soundly and in their correct historical mould. I do hope this breed doesn't end up as a caricature of itself, as some Bulldogs and Mastiffs sadly do. At the end of the Second World War only 4 specimens remained in France; in 2010 nearly 3,000 were registered in Britain alone. There is a strong need for breeders to research their stock diligently if the predictable end-results of too-close breeding start to manifest themselves.

A Functional Dogue de Bordeaux

 I believe that before the Second World War, an English sportsman living in France kept a small pack of Dogue de Bordeaux to hunt boar. These would have been valuable breeding material but sadly did not survive the war. Powerful dogs bred unwisely, without skill, without regard for their heritage and with no concern over their health soon deteriorate and, like the St. Bernard and many Great Danes, become weak dogs, both in physical strength terms and in their resistance to disease. The Dogue de Bordeaux could very quickly become an anatomical disaster if its breeders do not keep to their agreed breed standard. This standard, drawn up by the highly experienced Raymond Triquet in France, makes many subtle but vital points. The feet should turn slightly outwards, the topline should show some dip, the stop should be pronounced, at an angle of 95-100 degrees to the muzzle, any wrinkles formed should be mobile not static, giving an elasticity to the skin, the loin is wide and strong but not long and there are three colour variations of the muzzle mask: black, chestnut and red, with the nose leather matching these shades. The chin should not protrude beyond the upper lip nor be covered by it. The lips should meet edge to edge at the front, with the thicker upper lip falling away to the sides, covering the lower lip. From the front, this fall-away should create a large, wide, inverted V. If rounded to inverted U-shape then a Bulldog look is obtained, if the V is too acute then a Neapolitan Mastiff look is displayed.

Head Carriage

 As with all breeds of this type, the weight is on the forehand, with the centre of gravity well forward. This means that, on the move, the dog carries its head low - because it is designed to do so. Handlers in the show ring who strive to make the dog move with a high head carriage are inhibiting the natural gait/posture of the breed and judges must be alive to this. A Dogue de Bordeaux has been recorded with a neck of 70cms, weighing in at 75kgs. How on earth can a dog of such dimensions move with a high head carriage? This strange show ring insistence could one day reach back and influence the breeding programmes of the misinformed, with disastrous consequences for type in this breed.

The Alan Connection

 It is worth noting, in connection with the origins of this breed that: the Alans settled in France for a while in the fourth century, mainly in the Orleans, Valence, Beauceron and Narbonne areas; Gaston de Foix, the famous hunter of the early 15th century, used three types of Alauntes, the hounds of the Alans, and hunted between Bordeaux and the Pyrenees. There are around thirty French place names associated with the Alans, e.g. Alencon. De Foix described the alauntes of the butcheries as great butchers' hounds, valued as guard dogs, bull-baiting dogs and boar catch-dogs. He wrote of the latter role: "For when a wild boar is within a strong hatte of wood (thicket), perhaps all day the running hounds will not make him come out. And when men let such mastiffs run at the boar they take him in the thick spires (wood) so that any man can slay him, or they make him come out of his strength, so that he shall not remain long at bay." Every major European country made use of hunting mastiffs in the Middle Ages; I suspect that the modern breed of Dogue de Bordeaux has links with ancient French heavy hounds whatever the link between Bordeaux and the English, through occupation or the wine trade. This breed has, in my view, every right to be called the mastiff of France.
The Dogue de Bordeaux in Britain Today
 This breed has had a remarkable rise in popularity in Britain in a relatively brief period of time. In 1994, 11 were registered; in 1998 it was 195; in 2001 - 661; in 2003 - 1,238; in 2009 - 2,790; over 2,000 each year since then. It would be very surprising if, in that space of time, quality matched quantity. I can see why the judge at the Three Counties Championship Show of 2011 wrote: "...because the breed has become so popular, indiscriminate breeding is taking place. Novice owners are mating their bitches to dogs that do not complement them and we are doubling up on faults - and we are beginning to see dogs with short upper arms, dippy toplines and rear-ends that are too high..." I see far too many specimens with over-wrinkled heads, short front legs, overlong backs and a distinct lack of athleticism. This breed has to have controlled power and give an impression of disciplined strength. The Crufts judge of the breed in 2013 wrote: "..although a heavy breed with a long low gait, they should be able to move around the ring more than a couple of times." The breeders of this distinctive breed must look at the fate of the Mastiff breed in the hands of show ring fanciers: the same dippy toplines, high rear-ends, over-wrinkled heads, short front legs and, arguably worst of all, a complete lack of athleticism. This French Mastiff deserves the best breeders - and watchful judges. 

Health Issues

 Sadly, this breed is among the shortest-lived and is one of the worst scoring breeds in the BVA hip score scheme; elbow problems and breathing difficulties from too fore-shortened a skull are all too common. One fifth of births have to be by Caesarean section. Excessive facial wrinkle can cause eczema, hot spots and sores, as well as eye disorders such as ectropian and cherry eye. The most common cause of death reported in the American breed survey was lymphosarcoma; but almost as common was heart disease, aortic stenosis in young dogs and cardiomyopathy in adults.

Northern European Breeds

 These Northern European breeds may well have come to the fore when the Celts were pushed out of east France and west Germany, for the hunting dogs of the Celts were famous and much admired by both the Greeks and the Romans. I suspect that the strong-headed par force hounds of the Celts were of the Irish Wolfhound type if not size, and live on in the French hounds like the Griffon Nivernais, the Grand Griffon-Vendeen and the Grand Fauve de Bretagne. All of these were used on stag, wolf and boar. A broad-mouthed, drop-eared, smooth-coated, modified brachycephalic holding and seizing dog does not feature on Celtic artefacts but strong-headed, prick-eared, longer-muzzled, usually rough-coated hounds do. In his 'Animals in Roman Life and Art' of 1973, JMC Toynbee, in commenting on the Roman poet Claudian's declaration that British dogs were strong enough to break the necks of mighty bulls stated: "Possibly the poet had in mind dogs of yet another breed that crossed the Channel and even made their way to Rome, namely, the Irish hounds (Scottici canes) which according to Symmachus, aroused great interest in the capital." The writer Silius Italicus suggests that the Irish wolf dog is linked with the Belgic dog of ancient fable but offers no evidence to support such a suggestion. Later on, I mention the restoration of the Matin Belge to the lists of mastiff-type dogs.

Change of Role

 Some of the modified brachycephalic dogs of Northern Europe never achieved recognition as a modern registered breed, others found employment as draught dogs. In his monumental work 'Dogs of all Nations' of 1894, Count Henry de Bylandt listed the various Chiens de Trait/Ziehhund/Trekhonds. He illustrated this list with depictions of such dogs that showed powerful sizeable dogs, some strong-headed enough to indicate mastiff blood. Enthusiasts like Johan Gallant are striving to re-create the Matin Belge, after dogs of this phenotype were found still in existence on remote farms. Alfons Bertels has been the zealot behind this restoration, with the old breed gradually being re-established. The emergence of the Boerboel in South Africa, the Gran Mastino de Borinquen in Puerto Rico and the Perro Cimarron in Uruguay gives encouragement to such a worthy cause. These big fearless formidable-looking dogs have given faithful service to man all over the world and deserve recognition and conservation.

"...the French 'matin'...was by no means identical with our present breed of Mastiffs, nor even with the old British mastiff or bandog. The French 'matins' were generally big, hardy dogs, somewhat light in the body, with long heads, pointed muzzles, flattened forehead, and semi-pendant ears; some were rough and others smooth coated. 'Matins' were often used for tackling the wild boar when run by other hounds, so as to save the more valuable ones when the boar turned to bay."
W.A. and F. Baillie-Grohman's Appendix to 'The Master of Game' by Edward, Second Duke of York, Chatto & Windus, 1909.

"So highly valued were these good alaunts that they were not always permitted to take part in the more dangerous sports of boar hunting and the wolf chase. The rough work, in which the death of a dog would not matter so much, was undertaken by high-couraged dogs called mastins, for which we got the name of matin in French - a dog which has no connection with the English mastiff, except that both dogs were of mongrel or cross-breeding and full of courage."
'The Dog Book' by James Watson, Heinemann, London, 1906.

"Two main groups of hunting occur...Firstly, the chase on horseback with sword, lance or spear, and secondly, the more usual combat on foot between the hunter, armed with a spear, and the boar, held at bay by a pack of hounds, two of which have seized the beast by the ears. Naturally enough, fighting a wild boar at close quarters in this manner was accorded most honour, and since the method is still practised today by a number of hunters on the continent, it may be said to be one of the oldest extant forms of European hunting."
'Hunting' by Gunnar Brusewitz, Allen & Unwin, 1967.

The Danish Dog

 Yet to be seen in Britain and America is the restored Danish breed of Broholmer, rescued by Danish enthusiasts from near extinction, and now being painstakingly developed as a recognised native breed. At first glance it resembles the portrayals of the Lyme Hall mastiffs, once conserved by the Legh family in Cheshire. Plainer headed than most mastiff breeds, lacking any exaggeration or coarseness, they are genetically important and their survival is to be welcomed. Unlike the Lyme Hall dogs, whose importance has been usually exaggerated by Mastiff breed historians, this Danish dog has to my mind been surprisingly unacclaimed. Just as the Great Dane is misleadingly called a German Mastiff, so too is the Broholmer called the Mastiff of Broholm Castle, Both are running mastiffs or par force hounds and not modified brachycephalic holding and seizing dogs. (see chapter 4).