by   David Hancock

The Mastiff Breeds in the Far East

"This quarter of the globe, as it appears to have been the cradle of man, may also be supposed to have been the birthplace of field sports; and here we have seen that they really received an extension, in some measure commensurate with the size and powers of the wild animals with which the Asiatics had to contend."
An Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports by Delabere Blaine, 1870.

Significance of Trading Routes

 The history of the domestic dog runs in parallel with the history of man; types of dog can be traced to routes taken by migrating tribes all over the world throughout recorded history. China, as a case in point, has benefited from the ancient silk routes, linking Peking with Tibet, Nepal, India and then the west, one of  which went north, from Xpan to Lanzhou, Turpan and Urumqi, then on into inner Asia. Valuable useful dogs passed along these routes, in both directions, with both Toy dogs and hunting dogs featuring in the list. Marco Polo wrote of Chinese barons hunting with mastiffs. Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror (1336-1405) imported European mastiffs for his hunt; his base was Samarkand on the silk route.

European Imports

 Japan was more isolated both from the benefits of such overland trade routes and the incursions of nomadic tribes from inner Asia. But the archives reveal occasional examples of the movement of dogs. The Portuguese captured Goa in 1510 and established trade relations with Japan in 1549. At this time, the Portuguese were using their Filas as weapons to subjugate natives in new colonies. Filas may well have been taken to India via Goa. There is an old Indian breed called the Alangu, described in 'The Indian Dog' of 1962 by WV Soman as: "An extremely short coated dog...of very magnificent proportions with noble carriage. The most common colours are red, fawn and black... the brisket is deep and the limbs are massive and well-muscled...The eyes and muzzle are invariably black. He stands about 27"...He is used for hunting." The name 'Alangu' is of interest; the Filas were originally the hounds of the Alans.

Gifts at Court

 In 1614, a Captain Saris wrote home to England, when visiting the court of the Daimiro of Hirado, recommending presents to be sent out to be "a mastife, a watter spaniell, and a fine Greyhound." A few years later, a Richard Cooke, chief factor for Japan of the East India Company, received a present from the Japanese of 'a great black dogg'; clearly dogs were regarded as prestigeous gifts and identifiable breed-types especially valued. There are endless records of tiny ornamental dogs being traded in this way, perhaps because the trading was on the behalf of wealthy people with access to scholars who recorded these matters.

False Trail in Tibet

 Tibet has been credited as the birthplace of the mastiffs by some authorities but it is difficult to see why. The big dog of Tibet is misnamed as a mastiff. It lacks the skull construction of the brachycephalic or modified brachycephalic dogs and, as with so many other huge dogs from this part of the world, is a flock protector. Marco Polo is alleged to have recorded seeing mastiffs in Tibet 'as big as donkeys.' But firstly, the veracity of his account of his travels has been challenged by scholars, secondly he did not use the word 'mastiff' - his translators did and, thirdly, it seems likely that he was confusing his time in Tibet with his time in the Manzi province of China anyway.

Unfortunate Labelling

 I agree with the opinion of Rohrer and Flamholtz in their book 'The Tibetan Mastiff' of 1989, where they write: "The unfortunate labeling of the large dog of Tibet as a 'mastiff' has led to an incomplete understanding of the breed and its use in the Himalayas. When most fanciers think of the term 'mastiff' they immediately think of England's Mastiff breed or one of its close relatives...but his original and enduring purpose has been as a mountain livestock protector of unquestioned proficiency." The Tibetan Mastiff should be renamed and grouped with the Owtcharkas, the mountain dog breeds, the Pyrenean Mastiff, the Spanish Mastiff and the Anatolian Shepherd Dog. These are magnificent imposing breeds but they are not mastiffs.

Chinese Records

 In China there are references to huge, fierce, broad-mouthed heavy hounds in 600BC. The Book of Odes states that "special carriages were prepared for Shan and Shejo. Both are hounds of the same family, only differing in their mouths; the latter have the short mouth, while the former the long mouth. The purpose of preparing carriages for them is to preserve their energy before their arrival at the hunting place." And the heavy hounds need to conserve energy, with their bulk. Even earlier in 420 BC, there is a record of "Anow, a fine mastiff, 4 feet high, the famous property of Wei-Lin-Kwon, a prince." Earlier still, in 140 BC, there is a reference to: "A sort of large dog was bred in Ribin. These dogs were as large as an ass with red fur." Ribin was a state which existed in Turkestan, a historic region of central Asia, which ranged across what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, south Kazakstan, the Chinese region of Xinjiang and north Afghanistan. Turkestan was a trade bridge between east and west.

Hind Dewclaws

 In the Book of Odes in 1100 AD, there is reference to 'Pun, a sort of watchdog having suspended hoofs'; this latter phrase is believed to refer to the fourth toe or dewclaw on the hindlegs, a feature prized by some fanciers in the mastiff breeds. Later, in the same reference there is a statement that: "The meat of a dog which has four toes is poisonous, and consequently uneatable." This is another reference to dewclaws on the hindlegs. This 'fourth toe' on the hindlegs is seen in breeds like the Beauceron of France (where they are double) and some mountain dog breeds. One day the canine genome may reveal whether such a feature is a distinguishing mark of flock protectors or of mastiff breeds, I suspect it will be the former.


 The Chinese breed of Shar Pei, only saved from extinction in recent times, has a distinct small mastiff look about it. Its wrinkled coat indicates much bigger ancestors; man can reduce the leg length and body size of dogs, but not the amount of coat needed to cover the original size, as the Basset Hound demonstrates. The lion-dogs associated with the Buddhist religion have a mastiff structure to them, although fanciers of Toy breeds favoured in palaces have made the major claim on this comparison. Many sculptors in China had never seen a real lion and so modelled their creations on the leonine hunting mastiffs which they could actually see. It is of interest, in connection with lion-dogs, that the ancient Greeks thought that the ferocious mastiffs of the Hyrcani were the result of a tiger-dog cross, perhaps partly because of their brindle stripes.
The Silk Route
In his valuable book 'De Canibus, Dog and Hound in Antiquity' of 1971, RHA Merlen points out that in Russia there was until very recently a large sheepdog known as the 'Medyanka'. He states that Herodotus (the Greek historian c.485-c.425 BC) records 'spaka' as the Medes' word for 'dog', commenting "in which we can surely see the origin of the modern Russian word 'sobaka'." He then links the Medes of Persia with the Silk Route from Tehran in the west to Sin-kiang, now Xinjiang, located roughly between Kashmir and Kazakhstan, in the east. Were the Medyanka dogs the 'dogs of the Medes'? The Medes reached what is now Esfahan, south of the Caspian Sea in 836BC.

Russian Bear Dogs 

 In his 'The Dog in Sport' of 1938, James Wentworth Day records that "I suppose the last possible descendants of the original dogs of war were the great Medelans owned by the late Tsar of Russia, and kept by him at the summer palace at Gatchina. These dogs were the size of a calf, and quite capable of killing a man single-handed. They were used for rousing bears out of the thickets..." In his 'New Book of the Dog' of 1912, Robert Leighton describes the Medelan as "...resembling the mastiff, or the dog of Bordeaux, rather than the Great Dane", giving its height as 27" and weight as 180lbs. But his description of the breed's coat and general build suggests an Owtcharka-type rather than a broad-mouthed dog.

The Tosa 

 One genuine modified brachycephalic breed has emerged from the Far East however, the Japanese Tosa. Japanese breeds have long been admired in Britain, the little Chin had classes for it here over 130 years ago, with well over 200 now being registered annually with the Kennel Club; in the last fifty years, the Akita, the Spitz and the Shiba Inu have also found favour. We are not however allowed to have the biggest breed produced in Japan, and developed almost entirely from British breeds, the Tosa, banned under the disturbingly inconsistent Dangerous Dogs Act.

Wrestling Dog

 The name Tosa comes from a region on the Japanese island of Shikoku, where the old breed of Kochi was improved by an infusion of Mastiff, Bullmastiff, Bulldog, Bull Terrier and Great Dane blood, between 1868 and 1912 in the Meiji era, to produce a combat dog. Being a holding or pinning breed, it performs, as a 'fighting' dog, more like a Sumo wrestler than a street fighter, holding its adversary in a prolonged grip. These canine wrestling matches are a feature of Kochi beach to this day. There is a long history of dog fighting in Japan, with the Yakuza, Japan's organised gangs, alleged to be involved.

Imported Hunting Mastiffs

 In the Kamakura period, 1185-1333AD, the regent Hojo Takatoki promoted mass dog fighting. This involved hundreds of vicious dogs being divided into two teams and set against each other. In the Muromachi period, 1333-1568AD, large foreign breeds (kara inu) were imported from Europe, mastiff-type dogs for use as hunting dogs by war-lords. From the time of the Tokugawa to the Taisho era, 1603-1925, the native breed of Akita was used both as a hunting dog and a fighting dog. The Akita is now well established in Britain, with annual registrations running at around 1200 but has a record as a fighting dog spanning three centuries. The Tosa, banned from entry and registration here has a record as a fighting dog of just over one century.

American Breeder

 Hunior Perozo of the Shakuhachi Kennels in New York uses the blood of the famous Japanese Yokuzuna line, only outcrossing to lines carrying the traditional temperament, stamina and agility. All his dogs can be traced back to those of the Japanese Tosa Ken Centre in Kochi, where one pup can cost its purchaser around $20,000. His dog Shakuhachi Sumo and his bitch Shakuhachi Delilah each stand 33" at the shoulder.

Need for Athleticism

 The Tosa has the classic mastiff phenotype: red, fawn with a black muzzle, dull black and brindle in colour, with red preferred, on a short, hard, dense coat, weighing 100lbs or more from a minimum height of 25" (males) and 23" (females). The Tosa is described in its standard as having a 'stately' manner and a 'robust' build, with a temperament 'noteworthy for patience, composure, boldness and courage'. Sensibly it is required to have the gait of a powerful athlete. A dog weighing 100lbs needs to be athletic if it is to avoid threats to its health and comfort. A 'non-athletic' overall appearance is considered a minor fault, together with a slight over or undershot jaw. A major fault is listed as shyness and I applaud that: shy, frightened, fearful dogs bite more people than bold ones. But I do not like one of the other major faults, accepted by the FCI, 'a lack of boldness towards other dogs'. What may be undesirable in a fighting dog must be related to the needs of dog in society.

Distasteful Activity

 Despite the role of Tosa bouts in Japanese tradition and their accompanying ceremonial rituals, modern society does not find attractive the spectacle of two dogs artificially being made to fight each other for protracted periods. Such activity is actually foreign to the nature of dog and should be repulsive to human beings, no longer classed as barbarians. Humane societies should combine to get this loathesome so-called 'sport' banned in Japan; it only occurs in a small area and is more rooted in the past than likely to receive long-term public support. But it is the activity which should be banned, not the breed.

The Negativity of Banning

 Just as other dogs bred for fighting have been reclaimed as companion dogs, so too could the Tosa. By banning the breed here, we help to condemn it to the dog-fighting arena and ownership by the social misfits who enjoy such degrading events. Already the breed is a domestic pet in the USA and in continental Europe. Tosa dogs are trained and bred to fight in this manner in Japan by human beings; they are not acting naturally. Dogs of every breed soon sort out their pecking order and if correctly socialised as pups rarely fight for real. Furthermore the Tosa does not have a reputation for being aggressive with people; as with any mastiff breed, it is stable, equable and has the inherent magnanimity of all big dogs. Why do we abandon this breed to man's baseness?

Breed Behaviour

 When I re-read books on the instincts and temperament of dogs, such as Eberhard Trumler's 'Understanding your Dog', Konrad Lorenz's 'Man meets Dog', Clarence Pfaffenberger's 'The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior' and Michael Fox's 'Understanding your Dog' it is quite clear to me that sufficient research has already been conducted. Breeds do not behave simply as breeds. At the World Dog Show in Vienna, I watched a pair of Tosas, resting with their owner, happily snoozing away whilst hundreds of humans stepped over them and hundreds more dogs of every conceivable breed stopped to sniff them over. The two Tosas presented that resigned imperturbability of every mastiff breed and posed no threat to any living thing. In the background could be heard a snarling dispute between two huge ferocious permanently-muzzled Russian Owtcharkas; the latter can of course, unlike the Tosa, be freely and legally imported into Britain.

Victims of Man

 Throughout history the mastiff breeds have been misused by man, made to fight bears, bulls, human gladiators, other dogs, even lions. We have boasted of their courage, determination and stoicism. We have bred them to our design, for our purposes, and now we blame them for being a threat to our well-being. We have long been a threat to theirs. It is now reparation time. We must accept responsibility for the breeds of dog we have shaped, especially when the bureaucrats step in, and, in their ignorance and shameful desire to be seen to be doing something, punish a breed of dog unfairly. Instilled proclivities can never remove or permanently over-ride the innate nature of dog. Those who occupy positions with power over dogs should learn more about dogs before they embarrass the dog world with their unenlightened opinions. The first step in any dog-restraining legislative action must always be to punish man not the subject creature he abuses.

The British in India

 It would be quite wrong to write of the mastiff breeds in the Far East without mentioning the use of such dogs by the British in India. The British serving there and the Indian nobility were avid hunters and, with big game abounding, they found much to attract them. The British brought their 'bullbreeds' out with them and found them invaluable as holding dogs on a wide variety of game. Big game hunters in India called such dogs 'seizers'; they discovered that whilst there were local hounds of merit, no local dog would close with the quarry and hold it. As 'seizers' they used dogs resembling today's Bullmastiff, Bull Terrier, Bulldog and crosses between these breeds. The best account of these dogs is contained in Sanderson's 'Elephant Catching in India' and a section of this is produced here:
"The seizers should be bulldogs or bull-mastiffs. In using the word bulldog I mean the dogs -usually bull and terrier - commonly termed bulldogs. I need hardly say pure bulldogs are very rarely seen, nor, if procurable, would they answer so well as the cross between the bull and terrier. The pure breed is seldom large enough, and the true bull is a particularly unintelligent and peaceable animal. It is necessary to hit a happy medium. The bulldog's determined courage and forward attack must be joined with the terrier's vivacity and intelligence. With too much of the bull in his composition a dog will be stupid; whilst if the terrier element preponderates too strongly his courage may be doubtful, and, what is fatal in a seizer, he may go at some other part of the animal than the head.
The duty of the seizers in hunting is to fix on to any animal at which they are loosed. It must be remembered that imported dogs are generally useless until they have had a little teaching, as their instincts are seldom developed or encouraged in England, where a dog that would attack other animals would be a nuisance. But dogs of the right stamp all have it in them, and a little training upon stray cattle, or one of the gaunt village pigs which can be bought for a few rupees in India, will be sufficient to teach them. One of the best dogs I ever had for seizing large animals knew absolutely nothing when I received him from England.
The seizers should not weigh less than from 35 to 40lbs. Excellent dogs of this class can be got in England for a few sovereigns. Show-dogs are not required. Sometimes suitable dogs may be bought from European soldiers in India, but the general run of their bull-terriers are not heavy enough, nor are they always reliable as to courage. Perhaps the best plan in starting a pack is to get a couple of heavy, well-bred country bitches (bull-terriers), and to import a dog for them. The progeny live better in India than imported dogs. They can be used when nine months old, and should be trained to worry raw skins, jackals, etc., as soon as they get their permanent teeth...
It is worse than useless to have a pack of dogs in which there are but one or two good ones. The others urge these on, and they will be sacrificed through not being supported. It is cruel to set an insufficient number of dogs to attack an animal. Six will be as many as are required for any bear, bison, or panther, and indeed four will generally suffice, or even two with most bears. Anything like a running hunt is to be avoided, as the dogs may be disposed of in detail as they come up. They should be slipped well together, and not before they all see clearly what they have to do. Unless they understand that there is a common enemy, such excitable and pugnacious dogs are liable to fall on one another. It is necessary to keep them all on as friendly terms as possible, but this can sometimes only be managed by keeping them apart, as rivals will fight whenever they get a chance.
I shall best convey an idea of how the sport of tackling large game is to be conducted by describing a few hunts in which the efforts of myself and pack have met with success.
The first animals I introduced my pack to were a couple of bears. I had the following six seizers then:
MARQUIS   An imported bull-mastiff, weighing 40lb.
LADY      A country-bred bull terrier bitch, 35lb.
VIPER     ( Pups of the above, weighing about 30lb
FURY      ) each, nine months old.
TURK      A country-bred bull terrier, weighing 40lb.
I have not had many fair chances at bison with my dogs. The solitary bulls that lie out by themselves are the best animals to attack. Buffalo might also be hunted in this way in many parts of Bengal and other places where they are found. When it is considered with what ease one good dog can pull down the largest tame buffalo or bullock, it may be easily imagined that a bison or wild buffalo has no chance against three or four. His enormous power is of no avail to him against such pigmy antagonists. A less powerful but more active animal would stand an infinitely better chance of escape by shaking them off, and betaking itself to flight, than does a bison.
In approaching bison or buffalo, and in fact all animals, with dogs, it is necessary that the men keep out of sight if possible, as many animals will stand to fight dogs which make off at once if they suspect the presence of man. When the dogs have got to work their master may put in an appearance. From what I have seen on occasions such as the following, I have no hesitation in stating my opinion that four good dogs should hold any bison or buffalo so that it may be hamstrung.
It was on the 30th of August, 1876, that I started from Poonjoor with a strong pack in search of bison. There were seven couples in all, of which Bill Sykes, Bismarck, Turk, Tiger, and Lady were the seizers, and the rest were finders. Some of the latter were quite plucky enough to join the attack when an animal was seized by the big dogs. The seizers were in single leashes, the others in couples, so that I had some ten men with me leading them, in addition to the trackers. As we could not find a solitary bull's track we followed a herd.
We came on the bison in bamboo cover after two hours' tracking. The finders were all slipped at them, but the seizers were kept in leash till one of them should be brought to bay. A bull made off up a hill by himself, with the finders after him, and they badgered him so much that he soon stopped to fight, whereupon the seizers were taken forward and slipped. I came in view just in time to see Bill Sykes fix on to the bull's nose, when he turned and thundered down the hillside past myself and men, at a pace which was astonishing in so heavy a beast. Bill Sykes of course hung on, though he was carried through two or three thick places where any but a most determined dog would have been swept off. He was a model seizer; he always went in straight, and never waited for a more favourable opportunity, nor the assistance of the other dogs. Dogs may be sacrificed by this reckless courage on occasions, but the general safety is best insured by all going in without hesitation, and holding on under any punishment. How often curs with just enough pluck to make them take a snap or two are killed by going within reach of a dangerous animal, whereas dogs that fix and hold render the beast comparatively harmless. Seizers should act by nature on the tactics recommended by Nelson to his young officers in their dealings with the enemy, 'Never mind manoeuvres, always go at them.'
The other dogs did not get a chance till the bull was at the bottom of the hill, when they sprang at his head one after another as they came up, and pulled him down...Thus a few dogs prove more troublesome assailants to a bison than a tiger does, as the latter, from his size, can more easily be tossed or trampled on...I have never killed a panther in the jungles with dogs only, but I once let a full-grown leopard out of a cage in an open plain with Bill Sykes, Turk, Bismarck, and Tiger. They speedily rendered him 'hors de combat'...Turk was the only dog bitten, and he was not severely hurt. Panthers or leopards in caves might be easily overcome with such dogs. For use against panthers or bears a leather collar, almost as thick as a trace, and 3 inches wide, is ample protection for the dogs' throats. There should be no spikes or plates on the collar, as whilst a panther will seize the throat (which he cannot harm through the leather) if there be no spikes, their presence is likely to make him lay hold elsewhere, where he may do more damage."
This extended quotation from Sanderson's book gives great insight into the problems experienced and the techniques used by earlier primitive hunters hunting big game with dogs. The awesome courage of the seizers has to be marvelled at, even when we view such activities with 21st century eyes.

The British in Ceylon

 In his book, 'The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon', Longmans, 1890, Sir Samuel Baker wrote of using a cross between the Foxhound and the Bloodhound for elk-hunting. He stressed that the hound must be 'of great size and courage'. When boar-hunting, he observed: "The end of every good seizer is being killed by a boar. The better the dog the more likely he is to be killed, as he will be the first to lead the attack, and in thick jungle he has no chance of escaping from a wound."
He described his favourite seizer 'Smut' as being sired by a 'Manilla bloodhound', probably a Cuban Mastiff. This dog, 'Smut', 26” at the shoulder, with a girth of brisket of 34" and with 'immense limbs', he praised with these words: "I have seen many dogs who would rush in heedlessly upon a boar's tusks to certain destruction; but 'Smut' would never seize until the proper time arrived..." He went on to note that: "A veteran seizer is generally seamed with innumerable scars...The only important drawback to...elk-hunting is the constant loss of the dogs. The best are always sure to go. What with deaths by boars, leopards, elk, and stray hounds, the pack is with difficulty maintained."           
With a different approach nowadays to most forms of hunting with dogs, all compassion is directed towards the prey. In past times too, the suffering of hunting dogs received hardly any compassion at all. The surprisingly high number of dogs killed in hunting boar, stag, bison, auroch, elk, leopard, lion, bear and jaguar around the world has never been recorded. The game 'bag' however has long been listed in great detail. Seizers or holding dogs would have certainly headed the canine casualty list.