by   David Hancock

The Mastiff of Southern Africa

"The lion is one of the animals frequently hunted by the colonists of the Cape of Good Hope; indeed the whole country offers a fine field for the sportsman in the variety and importance of its wild animals. The chase of the lion does not however beget an interest equal to that of the tiger; for the lion is easily overtaken by stout dogs, which, if sufficiently well trained to the purpose, will arrest his progress, and keep him at bay..."
An Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports  by Delabere Blaine, 1870.

Historic Accounts

 There are plenty if scattered references to big imposing guard dogs in Central and Southern Africa in the historic accounts brought back by travellers there in past centuries, without a surviving example to indicate their exact size and appearance. In his Asia Portuguesa of 1666-74, Manuel de Faria e Sousa relates how in the early 16th century the king or sheik of Sofala (near Mozambique) included 200 dogs in his guard force. De Avity, in his The Estates, Empires and Principalities of the World of 1615, wrote of the King of Monomotapa (part of modern Zimbabwe) having a guard of 200 mastiffs (as translated by European scholars). One writer, in a ship’s log of 1593, recorded that the Bantu, in war, used assegais and ‘gelded’ (neutered) dogs in size and appearance like large curs. (Theal’s Records of South-Eastern Africa of 1898).  In his Through the Dark Continent 1878, HV Stanley recorded enormous and fierce dogs of war in the vicinity of Lake Victoria and that the Wakedi of Uganda made use of ‘great dogs as large as lions’, with noticeably large mouths, in their war-parties. Other writers from the past have mentioned guard dogs in Royal Households from Ghana to south of the Sahara, as David Karunanithy sets out in his Dogs of War of 2008. But hounds in the northern half of Africa today are usually sighthounds. 

Lion Hunting

 In South Africa, the colonists not only needed to hunt, but had to protect their livestock from fearsome predators. The sport of big game hunting too led to the importation of some foreign breeds. In his 'Hunting Big Game in Africa with Dogs' of 1924, the American sportsman, Er M Shelley, described the dogs he used: "...a well-broken pack of bear-dogs...twenty young hounds from the State of Mississippi, eight shepherd dogs picked up on farms near Olney, Illinois, six fox-terriers from England, and a separate shipment of six police dogs from Germany. We had some good Airedales, that I secured locally, and six three-quarter bred English foxhounds, bred in that country. These in addition to the eighteen broken hounds and fighting dogs that I brought over and four stag-hounds made up the pack." It is quite clear from this book that the 'fighting dogs' (big bull terriers of the type developed by breeders like John P Colby in America) closed with the lions.

Holding Dog Role

 Shelley also stated that: "The fighting dogs are never allowed to run with the trailing hounds, for they would break up the hunt...The fighting dogs are always led by natives, until the lion has been jumped from his lair". If you look at medieval hunting scenes you can note the holding dogs restrained on leashes until the baying hounds have done their work. Shelley went on to point out the value of his holding dogs: "When the good fighting dogs were in and fighting, they (i.e. the three-quarter bred English hounds) would fight well also; but, without the aggressive dogs, they could not be depended upon." If you look at boar hunting scenes of past centuries you can soon detect the matins and the purebred hounds mixed up at the kill in a similar way.

Lion Dogs

 In Rhodesia the early settlers and hunters developed what was originally called the Rhodesian Lion Dog but is now known as the Rhodesian Ridgeback, a distinguished hound breed, a remarkable running mastiff (see later chapter). But further south, the settlers developed a different type of 'lion dog' and from mastiff ingredients. A writer in 'The South African Kennel Gazette' of March 1909 recorded: "I remember in 1860 seeing a fine strain on the Thorn River near Cathcart...these dogs were light-red in colour, wiry coat with massive heads, fairly fast and large. They were very vicious...about 1870, I saw some fine Boer dogs, answering the above description, excepting that they were darker in colour...I had two dogs, the one named 'Kafir', whose sire was a cross between a bull and a mastiff, dam a foxhound. The second named 'Smoke', whose sire was a cross between a stag and bloodhound, dam a mastiff. These dogs had all the characteristics of the Boer hunting dog."

Imported Breeds

 This same writer mentions that in the 1860s military posts were 'scattered about the frontier' and at each post could be found bloodhounds, staghounds, greyhounds, bulldogs, terriers, mastiffs, pointers and sometimes foxhounds. Another writer to this issue of the Gazette describes how as a boy, fifty-two years earlier (i.e. in 1857), he had hunted tiger and baboon using "...a cross breed between the mastiff and the bulldog, the parents coming from Europe. The boarhound, though big and strong, is too fine skinned to withstand the claws of a tiger, and...the mastiff, though strong and big, is too lumpy and no match for the nimble tiger; the bulldog is plucky and tenacious, but owing to his lightness, the tiger...can throw him...The cross-breed, that is the mastiff and the bulldog, combine the swiftness and tenacity of the one with the strength of the other, and have always proved to be the best for fighting with a tiger."

Big Game Hunting Dogs

 This quote should not only please Bullmastiff fanciers but indicate why medieval hunters in Europe used running mastiffs to chase the bigger game but used killing mastiffs, with heavier heads and thicker skins, to close with their quarry. There are records too in South Africa of a Jan van Riebeeck arriving in the Cape in 1652 with his 'Bullenbijter' or broad-mouthed mastiff-type dog. Such a dog would have been employed in Northern Europe as a catch-dog or pinning and gripping breed. Today in South Africa, the surviving hunting mastiff, now called the Boerboel (literally 'farmer's bulldog'), is being carefully bred by a devoted group of fanciers.

The Boerboel

 In August 1990 the first country-wide appraisal tour was undertaken by Jannie Bouwer of Bedford and Lucas van der Merwe of Kroonstad, with Lucas's wife Anneke as secretary, to identify future breeding stock. This tour covered 5500 kilometres, involved the examination of 250 dogs, from which only 72 were selected to be registered as a breeding base. A number of founder members then started a breed society: Johan de Jager, a sheep farmer from Utrecht in Natal, Dr Andre du Toit, a wine grower from Paarl Valley in the south, Lucas van der Merwe, a game rancher from Kroonstad, Johan du Preez, an engineer from Senekal, the Nel family from the eastern Free State and Mrs Owen from Warden. Since then they have been joined by another half a dozen key breeders: Leon Riekert of Pretoria (with his Leonard stud), Babs Bosman from Douglas (Ravata), Ella Louw from Volsrust (Waterval), Steyn Opperman from Ficksburg (Christian), Nic van der Linde from Standerton (Geelbos) and Klaas van Waveren from Pietersburg in the Transvaal (Ysterberg).

Overdue Recognition  

 The emergence of mastiff breeds like the Boerboel of South Africa, the Gran Mastino de Borinquen in Puerto Rico and the Cao de Fila de Sao Miguel in the Azores is immensely pleasing; after years of misuse, overuse and neglect by man, this remarkable group of dogs is now receiving the recognition it deserves. The Boerboel appears to feature all the best attributes of the mastiff breeds: immense power combined with great faithfulness, physical stature combined with admirable tolerance and a temperament capable of placidity or ferocity, if its family is threatened.

False Heritage

 I do hope that the more patriotic breed fanciers don't now come up with a breed history claiming that this breed is directly descended from Brabanter Bullenbijters, brought to South Africa by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, has been kept on remote farms for three hundred years and only recently surfaced, to display characteristics only previously shown in the hunting mastiffs of Assurbanipal two thousand years ago. A comparable claim was misguidedly made for the foolishly named Pharaoh Hound from Gozo close to Malta a decade or so ago. The claims ended when it was pointed out that every sizeable island in the Mediterranean has its own version of the bat©eared sighthound and that Gozo, far from being isolated, was visited by every marauder and colonist in that part of the world for several thousand years.

Tough Development

 The Boerboel looks to be a magnificent breed, developed in a hard school by tough farmers who were threatened by every kind of dangerous predator, in testing terrain and a challenging climate. Hard-pressed pioneer farmers, however resourceful, didn't have the circumstances that exactly encouraged the conservation of rare breeds of dog. They had a need for brave powerful virile dogs and bred good dog to good dog until they obtained the desired result. The way in which the Rhodesian Ridgeback was bred by hunter-farmers is probably a model for all such dogs. Performance directed every breeding programme. Purebreeding, handsomeness and a respect for heritage doesn't usually feature highly in a pioneer hunter-farmer's priorities. It should be a matter of pride that the Boerboel was developed from the best mastiff-type dogs available in South Africa and brought there by soldiers, colonists and settlers from Europe. It is a breed to be proud of for that reason alone.

Importance of Breed Standard

 As a registered, purebred, recognised breed of dog, the Boerboel will need a well-worded breed standard if it is to be bred true to type and function in future years. It is disappointing, therefore, to read the first issue of this standard and assess the impact of its wording on breeders who have simply no concept of what a dog like this was expected to do on a lonely farm in the early days of South Africa. Under 'General Appearance', the Boerboel is expected to be bigger than the Boxer but shorter in the leg than the Great Dane; no mention of its mastiff type. Under the head description, it stipulates that the nose bone must be straight, with very little or no tilting up like the Boxer and no longer nose like a Great Dane. I know of no other breed standard which tells you which features of another breed are not to be copied, without stating what the comparable features in the subject are expected to be.

Welcome Emergence

 Sadly the tail of this breed is preferred cut short, unlike just about every other mastiff-type breed of this size. For me, this spoils the symmetry of the dog and makes the rear end appear too ‘Bulldoggy’. The muzzle does not have to feature the black seen in our equivalent breed, the Bullmastiff, and a light eye is permitted. It is so good however to see that this standard sets out clear guidance on the muzzle length, guidance so vital in a modified brachycephalic breed where shortness in the muzzle can mar the appearance of the head, an important feature in every breed with this build. The emergence of this breed is more than welcome and I salute those visionaries who had the interest and enterprise to save it for all of us.

Solid-coloured Breed   

 The Boerboel is expected to be between 61 and 66 cms at the withers when full grown and weigh between 55 and 65 kgs; the breed is expected also to be active and assertive. Temperament is rightly stressed; there should be no sign of sullenness, sulkiness, surliness after reprimand or ill-temper. The dilute black colours of the mastiff group manifest themselves in this breed, with brindle, yellow (lion), grey, red-brown and brown, with or (to me sadly) without black muzzles. The intention is to develop a solid-coloured breed with no or little white. The nose must be black, unlike the Dogue de Bordeaux. The phenotype of this breed is typical of the mastiff group everywhere in the world. There would be merit however in an international mastiff body that could rationalise the different breed standards, especially over the words used to describe acceptable colours.
Triumphant Emergence
The emergence of this fine breed, after a century of neglect and indifference in its native land, and its subsequent stabilisation into a distinct canine race, is not only a tribute to its loyal fanciers but also to the dogs themselves. How virile they must be to survive the climate; how robust to survive the terrain and fearsome wild opponents; how dependable in remote locations to inspire their owners to continue with them and how strong the genotype to triumph after a century of anything but pure-breeding. Perhaps the biggest threat to them in the long term is misuse once imported into Europe, misguidedness in their future design by show breeders and a closed gene pool, which they have managed well enough without in their whole history. 
Need for Alertness          
But these pressures face all pure breeds once recognised; the closed gene pool receives undeserved worship and sickly, unathletic dogs, quite unlike their ancestors, are perpetuated in so many purebred dogs in far too many developed allegedly civilised countries. In Britain the lurcher men still breed excellent dog to excellent dog regardless of breed, function rules. The working Basset Hound has been out-crossed to the Harrier to enhance performance. The show Basset Hound continues to be bred to an unhealthy design. The English Mastiff is now bred for bulk rather than activity. The Bullmastiff is in danger of becoming a small Mastiff with a Bulldog's head as breeders lacking skill decide its future. The admirable Boerboel devotees need to be alert and open-minded if their breed is to survive in the 21st century.