by   David Hancock

Mastiffs from Spain

"The Corsican and Spanish bulldogs closely resemble the English breed, but are larger. A Spanish bulldog, which we had very recently an opportunity of examining, was certainly the most powerfully formed dog we have ever seen. In stature it was between the English bulldog and mastiff, but of massive build, with thick muscular limbs, tremendous breadth of chest, and an awful (meaning awesome,DH) head. It was very gentle, excepting when urged to make an attack, when its ferocity knew no bounds."
 'The History of the Dog' by WCL Martin, 1845

 "The Indians fled in surprised terror, pursued by a great dog that bit them and did them much harm; for one dog against the Indians was worth ten men. Columbus then went ashore and took possession of the island in the name of the Spanish sovereigns."
'Dogs of the Conquest' by John and Jeannette Varner, 1983

Confusion in Breed Titles

 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 Contribution

 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 (Ca de Bou), in the Azores as the Cao de Fila de Sao Miguel and probably the Cuban Mastiff or Bloodhound, now lost to us, and the Puerto Rican breed, the Gran Mastino de Borinquen.

The Alano

 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 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 silly dog fanciers can be at times!

The Alan Influence

 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' nightdogs. 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 the famous 'Alauntes', or huge hound-like dogs, with them, to bequeath us the strong-headed hunting mastiffs.

Mastiffs in the Colonies

 If you read accounts of the Spanish conquistadores in south and central America, such as the Varners' book 'The Dogs of the Conquest', 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.

The Mastiffs of the Islands

 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.

Guard-Dog Role

 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.

Breed Requirements

 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 brachycephalic or modified brachycephalic breeds had such sensible stipulations.

The Majorca Dog

 The sister breed of Perro de Presa Mallorquin (at one time called the 'matin of Terceira') 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. I understand that in the 1960s there were no pure specimens left and the breed had to be reconstituted, with around 500 now existing worldwide. The specimens that I have seen at World Dog Shows have been calm, friendly, equable and stable in temperament. Sergio Gual Fournier, president of the Club Espanol del Ca de Bou, specialist judge of the breed and owner of the 'Almallutx' kennel, assures me that the breed is in safe hands and thriving.

Spanish Dogs in Central America

 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.

Spanish Bulldogs

 In about 1556 large numbers of English Bulldogs were introduced into Spain and the island of Cuba, by Philip II, to be used in the arena. They would have been valued and bred from. Dalziel in his 'The British Dog' of 1888, quotes Richardson as describing the Spanish Bulldog with these words: "His head is of prodigious size, even apparently too large in proportion to his body; his eyes are placed very far apart; his upper lip pendulous; the ear is small, and not perfectly pendulous, being erect at the root, but the tip falling over; colour usually tawny or light rufous (i.e. reddish-brown, DH); the under jaw is also undershot, ”and I do not think I can give my readers a better idea of the dog than by describing him as a giant Bulldog.” In his The Dog Book of 1906, James Watson wrote: “There is no question that there was also a similar dog in Spain as an assistant in bull fights, attacking and holding the bull by the ear.” In his Our Friend the Dog of 1907, Gordon Stables wrote: “The Bulldogs of Spain were celebrated for their immense size and their indomitable courage and perseverance, as well as tenacity.” The Catalan Ca de Bou is the modern equivalent of such dogs

Colonial Powers

 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 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. In his Discovery of South America of 1979, JH Parry wrote that “Next to horses, the animals the Spaniards found most useful were dogs. Every conquering band was accompanied by a pack of dogs, formidable brutes of mastiff type. They were trained to attack and were employed to guard the camps and to cow or track down recalcitrant Indians.” In his The Conquistadors of 1957, J Descola described the advantages that the Conquistadors had over their Amer-Indian enemies, including “formidable mastiffs trained for war, which galloped ferociously beside the horses.” Any dog accompanying horses in the gallop simply had to be athletic, physically sound and possessing great stamina; a huge overweight physically-handicapped dog, like so many modern mastiffs, just would not have coped with the physical demands made by such a role, in testing climate and ground conditions.  

Change of Role

 The Azores cattle dog, the Cao de Fila de Sao Miguel, is 60cms at the withers and weighs around 30kgs, with a multi-coloured brindle coat which features more red and yellow than most of this mixed hue. It is a tough, no-nonsense animal, excelling at controlling strong-willed cattle and detering intruders. Like the Boerboel of South Africa, their tails are docked which to me spoils the symmetry of their hindquarters. It is remarkable how, all over Europe and the new world, dogs of this type found use as butchers' dogs, cattle dogs and watchdogs, having once been big game hunting heavy hounds, war dogs and baiting dogs. 

Alano Survival

 In Spain the Alano has only just survived the 20th century, at one time the last two were believed to be those exhibited in Retiro Park in Madrid in 1963. But then some were discovered in Cantabria, in the western area of Vizcaya, in the Carranza and Llera valleys. The breed was originally used as a hunting dog, in the classic catch-dog role of the broad-mouthed breeds. They were used as cattle driving dogs, especially with half-wild cattle. They were used until the mid-19th century in the bull-ring, in one of the phases of the bullfight known as the 'dogs' turn'. Not surprisingly the breed was mainly used, in the hunting field, in the 'gancho' method of hunting boar, in which the dogs 'held' the boar until it was despatched by the human hunter's knife. Around 25" at the shoulder and weighing between 35 and 45 kgs, the ones displaying the fawn coat, black mask and black muzzle could be mistaken for plainer-headed Bullmastiffs at first glance. 

Stable Temperament

 To this day, these surviving breeds present a formidable appearance but have the classic temperament of the mastiff group: equable, magnanimous, stable, tolerant of children, protective but with an instinctive awareness of strangers who pose a menace and those who do not. Their inherited instinct of pinning their quarry to the ground and detaining them, rather than tearing limbs or flesh with a nasty bite, makes them valued guard dogs and surely less of a danger to human life than other breeds with a different instinct and a longer muzzle, one designed simply to bite rather than to 'hold'.

Human Demands

 Yet a number of countries, Britain and Holland among them, as well as some German regions, have banned breeds from this group either out of ignorance and fear based on their imposing appearance or as a result of individual dogs being permitted as pets for quite unsuitable people, in quite unsuitable conditions. The politically ambitious rarely address the latter; formidable-looking dogs make a more dramatic target, create more emotion, provide vote-attracting opportunities. We breed dogs to look menacing and frightening in one century and then proscribe them in a subsequent century for being just that. The human race demands a great deal from its dogs.