by   David Hancock

The Mastiff of Brazil – the Fila Brasileiro

Iberian Influences

 The name Fila Brasileiro means the 'holding dog' of Brazil, just as Perro de Presa Canario means the holding dog of the Canaries. The British equivalent would be the Bullmastiff, developed to seize and detain poachers here a hundred years ago. Brazil was a Portuguese colony from 1500AD, having been inhabited by American Indians from around 5000BC. Just as the Spanish conquistadores used savage dogs to quell native opposition during their forays inland, so too did the Portuguese. In his Dogs of War of 2008, David Karunanithy records: “Guard and tracker dogs were probably actually bred by colonists in Brazil from as early as c.1500 by crossing mastiffs, bloodhounds and Spanish bulldogs (Doggen Engelsen).” Such dogs were the derivatives of the alauntes, known on both sides of the Pyrenees and coming in three main forms: the huge hounds rather like today's Great Dane, the hunting mastiffs used in the hunt 'at the kill' rather on the physical lines of today's Bullmastiff and the smaller 'alauntes of the butcheries' rather like the original authentic Bulldogs of Britain.

Blended Blood

 The Spanish conquistadores referred to three types: the alaunt, the mastin and the lebrel, a powerful greyhound type of hunting dog. Such dogs were trained as Perros de Ayuda or protection dogs and Perros de Presa or capture dogs. In parallel, the Portuguese in Brazil developed their comparable types and the breed of Fila Brasileiro eventually emerged. Undoubtedly, Bloodhound and Mastiff blood was used in this creation, and probably that of the ancestors of the contemporary Portuguese flock-guarding breeds, such as the Cao de Castro Laboreiro, the Estrela Mountain Dog and the Rafeiro do Alentejo. The Azores has recently seen the re-establishment of its surviving holding dog, the Cao de Fila de Sao Miguel.

Variations in Type

 The Filas Brasileiro that I have seen at a number of World Dog Shows seem to vary in type: the black ones, and some of the fawns, indicating Great Dane blood, the brindle ones hinting at Mastiff ancestry and the red fawns looking a little ‘Bloodhoundy’. But, importantly, all of them looked, as all historically correct mastiff breeds should, like heavy hounds. The British enthusiasts who made the mastiff of England into a ponderous, cumbersome, heavy-boned, inactive yard-dog at the end of the 19th century have a lot to answer for. A huge dog needs soundness of physique more than a small one if it is to lead a healthy active life. A heavy dog needs sound movement more than a lighter one if needless wear and tear is to be avoided. It is vital therefore when this breed is judged in the show ring, for it to be viewed as a working animal, possessing an anatomy that permits this. This Brazilian breed, their national dog, is still used as a hound and a cattle dog, as well as a greatly-respected guard dog.

Protective Use

 At the Brazilian army's Centre for Instruction for Jungle War at Manuas, Colonel Moniz de Aragao has been testing this breed for some years as anti-guerrilla dogs. Having myself used Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs in the Malayan jungle, I know only too well how such work can be a severe test for any breed. In Canada, Copeland and Alice Shavers have been testing the breed for the demanding Schutzhund training and found it superb. A Fila has a strong instinctive guarding nature; it is strong minded, watchful, protective and just will not tolerate a threat to its family or property.

Cattle Dog

 A huge dog that is docile, obedient and devoted to its family, but is naturally aggressive towards strangers, may not be welcome in contemporary Britain, where criminals seem less likely to be prosecuted than the owner of an alert guard dog, but is invaluable on isolated estates and ranches in Brazil. This breed is not just valued as a guard dog in its native country. In Minas Gervais, believed to be where the breed originated, it has gained a reputation as a cattle dog. Used to round up semi-wild cattle, the Fila - in classic holding dog manner - can seize recalcitrant bulls by the ears or cheeks, until the herdsmen move in. The Filas also protect the herd from predators and rustlers.

Breed Points

 A large dog, males weighing at least 110lbs and measuring 27" at the withers, the Fila is a strongly-boned dog, hinting at great power. With a sizeable head and a substantial jaw, scenthound ears and dewlap, thick loose skin and a distinctive deep bark, the breed displays a formidable physical presence. Coat colours are the solid colours, black, fawn, red, plus brindle but not mouse-grey or white. Some experienced dog breeders will be surprised to find the lighter-bone and limited angulation in the hindquarters and the tendency for this breed to be higher at the croup than the withers. This gives the breed its distinctive rolling gait and 'camel' pace, reminiscent of the Neapolitan Mastiff. The Fila is however a good jumper, an excellent swimmer and remarkably agile for its size. The breed has been used to hunt jaguar and wild boar; it displays surprising stamina and seems able to withstand humidity and stinging insects.

Breed Character

 Clelia Kruel, an experienced Brazilian breeder and judge, has stated that the greatest value of this breed lies not in its handsome appearance or impressive stature but in the unique character of the dog. Despite being a tough breed they are not difficult to train, needing little training to be guard dogs. Vincent Tucci, a New York breeder, values the serenity, self-assurance and air of relaxed calmness found in the breed. This came into my mind recently as I watched an English Mastiff displaying worrying shyness in the ring. In the United States, the Fila has been used for protection work by the police, capitalising on the breed's size and instinctive guarding skills.

Temperament Test

 A test of temperament is compulsory for all Filas, after reaching one year, before they can be registered as champions. These tests are conducted at breed speciality shows and examine self-assurance, resoluteness, steadiness under fire (blanks are fired five yards away from the dog to simulate this) and protective instincts. Some breeders of other large guarding breeds are apt to scoff at such an examination, forgetting that the most unpredictable untrustworthy dogs are those that bite out of fear, the dreaded 'angstbeissers'.

Temperament Essentials

 The breed standard emphasises the manifestation of temperament desired in the breed, requiring an expression which in repose is calm, noble and full of self-assurance, never disclosing a bored or vacant look, appearing determined when alert and featuring a challenging look in the eyes. A short muzzle, excessively light-coloured eyes, wrinkles on the skull when in repose and a lack of chest depth are considered to be serious faults. A pronounced stop, timidity, straight or cow hocks and excessive height (i.e. over 75cm for males, 70cm for females) are rated as very serious faults. Cowardice, a pink nose and a faulty mouth, either over or undershot, constitute disqualifying faults.

Sound Breeding

 Mark and Carol Doerrsam, of the Doerrhund Kennels in Ontario, Canada, have not sacrificed temperament, agility, size or soundness in their breeding programme. Their kennel is home to several Brazilian imports, and sons and daughters of the 1996 and 1997 World Champions and the 1998 World Junior Champion. Their breeding stock features dogs with impressive ancestors. One of their sires is Axl Rose Do Jamari, from a long line of temperament tested and conformation tested international champion Filas, based on six generations of champion animals with a long history of sound hip structure and excellent genetic health. If only other mastiff breeds could be bred with such care and skill.

Selective Breeding

 Ed and Sue Williams of Deer Graze Kennels in Jackson, New Jersey, run an extremely successful Fila breeding programme. Producing just two litters a year, based on a highly selective breeding system, they own 20 champions and possess a stud dog 'Gunner', the holder of 13 international champion titles and 3 US ones. Their dogs are carefully screened for health problems before being bred from, including eye tests and complete blood scans. They also screen potential owners, not just to enhance the likelihood of a good home for one of their pups but also to protect the good name of a powerful protective breed. That is the way for all mastiff breeders to proceed.   

Wider Use

 An American farmer, Dexter Brunette, who runs 180 head of cattle at Barnesville, bought a Fila as a companion guard but soon found it was a natural cattle herder. His dog now works daily and yet has gone on to become a champion in the USA, Puerto Rico and South America. It is easy to forget the shepherds' mastiffs of England until hearing of the prowess in one of the mastiff breeds like this. The shepherds' mastiffs were big, tough, drovers' dogs, able to protect the herd or flock on the driveways to urban markets or to pin wayward cattle in the market or for the butcher. The mastiff breeds are working dogs and must have a construction and temperament which permits this. I gather that some Brazilian breeders have introduced Neapolitan Mastiff blood into their Filas; this could spell disaster for their Filas in that they will lose breed type in a very significant way. Two types of Filas, the Mastiff type and the Bloodhound type are surely quite enough for any breeder to strive to reconcile without a further complication.  

Faithful as a Fila

 Dawna Berg, of Arlington, Washington, in the United States, from her successful Eshabeta II kennel, speaks highly of her Filas' instinctive guarding qualities based on devotion to family and family property. 'As faithful as a Fila' is a Brazilian saying, a result of a hard earned reputation. Their faithfulness is now as famous as once was the ferocity of dogs of this type and historic employment. The Varners, in their book 'Dogs of the Conquest', recount how in Florida, "De Soto and his men made impressive use of their dogs...Hearing the Spaniards shouting and seeing the Indians fleeing, Bruto (De Soto's personal dog) set out in pursuit. He dashed past the first three Indians and, throwing his paw on the fourth one's shoulder, knocked him to the ground. Successively knocking each of the others down, he went back and forth among them and, with much skill and trickery, prevented them from rising, frightening them in the meantime with his ferocious barking..."

Portuguese Influence

 "Dogging" – as used to describe the use of fearsome large dogs, usually of the mastiff type, to savage or tear to pieces human quarry - was not unusual in southern Europe, as well as being widely used in the American colonies of Spain and Portugal. The Azores, the Portuguese island group in the North Atlantic Ocean, was settled by the Portuguese in the 15th century, mainly as a staging post en route for the Americas. There, a breed of Fila can still be found; employed as a watchdog, cattle-dog and butchers' dog the Fila de Sao Miguel is a powerful brindle animal with a tendency to fierceness only recently toned down. It is a remarkable fact that fierce brindle mastiff-like dogs have been utilised by man for the last two thousand years and from the Near East in ancient times to the Americas in modern times.

War Dogs

 Columbus, on his later voyages, carefully listed the number of his fighting men, his horses and, in some detail, his fighting dogs - "the most fearsome weapon of all." A Spanish officer, Ponce de Leon had the most fearsome war-dog in the Americas; it was called 'Becerillo' or little bull-calf and was so effective that it was said to be worth twenty men in battle. There is an appalling account of an incident involving a war-dog called 'Amigo', which was starved and then set loose on a local Indian leader called Tamanaco, who had led an uprising against the Spanish, and was to be killed in a horrific manner to deter his fellow countrymen. The dog attacked the Indian leader so ferociously that he tore his head off. Today, thankfully, we breed dogs with stable temperaments and more generous natures but in the wrong hands and in pursuit of the wrong motives, any huge powerful dog can become a very nasty weapon. But as such dogs are subject creatures it is man who brings this about and man who must therefore bear the responsibility for the actions of dogs.