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Molossoid Breeds of Mastiff Type in the Working Group

Molossoid Breeds of Mastiff Type in the Working Group

This series is a discussion about the natural tension that exists between how we view show dogs, field/working dogs and dual-purpose (show and work/field) dogs. The dog grouping last discussed was the all-around farm/watch/draft and rescue type dogs of the Working Group. This month, we will explore those questions for other functional groupings within the AKC Working Group. How does the evolved morphological form relate to past and/or current function? How and why is it that some breeds have developed different types for field/work and show? What are the actual or perceived similarities and differences between the purebred show dog and field/work dog?

What have breeders done to breed dogs that can do the job for which they were intended, if it still exists, and if not, what simulations exist that are as close to the original intent as possible?

Before standards were written for the Working Group breeds we recognize today, dogs were already being used and selectively bred to perform certain work. Multiple factors impacted the development of these breeds and their continued evolution, including geography, climate and terrain, culture and customs, as well as type of work to be performed. Within this Group, we find breeds that serve as flock/livestock guardians, human/property guardians, farm dog/draft dog/watchdog, sled dogs, and other purposefully evolved dog breeds working in various jobs via snow, water, or big game hunting. In so many cases, the original purpose of the breed has been supplanted by technology and machinery, enabling man to do the dogs’ work faster and more efficiently at times. Still, there are dedicated breeders who continue to breed quality specimens that demonstrate the individual breed’s working abilities where the actual work, or a simulation, exists.

The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) has divided this grouping of dogs—all found in the AKC Working Group—mainly into two distinct groups: Spitz (FCI Group 5); and Molossian (FCI Group 2). Two of the breeds, Komondor and Kuvasz, fall into FCI Group 1 (Herding, Sheepdogs). The Portuguese Water Dog falls into FCI Group 8 (Retrievers, Flushing, Water Dogs). Neither the Chinook nor the Boerboel are classified or recognized by the FCI. Five of these breeds (Cane Corso, Doberman Pinscher, Giant Schnauzer, Rottweiler, and Boxer) are subject to working trials. For these breeds, their working ability is commonly demonstrated via IPO/Schutzhund. Internationale Prüfungs-Ordnung (IPO) is the FCI name for sport Schutzhund titles. Within the Working Group, the Black Russian Terrier, not named in FCI as subject to working trials, also participates in IPO/Schutzhund. The purpose of Schutzhund is to identify dogs that have or do not have the character traits required for these demanding jobs. Some of those traits are a strong desire to work, courage, intelligence, trainability, a strong bond with the handler, perseverance, protective instinct, and a good sense of smell. The various levels of Schutzhund working trials encompass tracking, obedience, and protection. There are various Schutzhund associations within the United States, some focusing on one or multiple eligible breeds.

In this installment of the series, the remaining six Molossoid breeds of Mastiff type (Boerboel, Bullmastiff, Cane Corso, Dogue de Bordeaux, Mastiff, and Neapolitan Mastiff) will be explored. The Neapolitan Mastiff has a working certification requirement in its native country in order to gain the CACIB. Of these breeds, only the Boerboel is not yet recognized by the FCI, but is recognized by the Kennel Union of South Africa (its country of origin) and the AKC.

Common to these six breeds is a progenitor Mastiff-type ancestor. This ancestral Molossian type has been depicted in numerous works of stone and clay as far back as 2500 BC. A Mastiff-type dog has been known throughout the European continent since at least the late Middle Ages, having been portrayed in various surviving tapestries and other representational pieces of work from the period. The early influence of this Mastiff progenitor spread its morphology and guardian instincts into Eurasia as well as most of the other continents. As has been noted in some of the articles in this series, the Mastiff progenitor influenced the development of guard dogs, hunting dogs, war dogs, and those that were used for blood sports, throughout the world.

It’s a good thing I read and understand Italian, as the history I’ve researched for this Italian breed was all in Italian! Known as the heir to the Roman Molosser, the Neapolitan Mastiff (Mastino Napoletano) was rediscovered in 1946 by Piero Scanziani at an exhibition in Naples. He described the breed as descending from Molosser dogs known to the Sumerians, Mesopotamians, and Assyrians, and prized as guards, big game hunters, and fighters of wild beasts. It was Scanziani who struggled for the breed to develop and be recognized by the Italian Kennel Club (ENZI) in 1949 as a fearless guardian of person and property. The Mastino is a breed of deception: very large size and weight, a superabundance of loose skin, and an almost feline grace to its movements and demeanor. Add its coloration to this deception and it blends into the night. Despite these traits, the Mastino is extraordinarily quick on attack when given sufficient reason. Woe to the trespasser or burglar who enters a Mastino-guarded home or property.

Although the Mastino that we see today has taken on more exaggerated features from those known and pictured in the 1940s and ‘50s, the breed has changed little. Despite its low global registration numbers, the breed is still used as a guardian, unequivocally devoted to its people and property. There are no known breed-specific working/guardian tests.

Another Italian breed, also descended from the Roman Molosser (and reported to predate the Mastino), is the Cane Corso. The breed is thought to have been in use throughout Italy since antiquity. It survived in the southern regions, mainly Puglia in the southeastern part of Italy and extending into the heel of the country’s “boot.” The Latin derivative of its name “Corso” is cohors, meaning protector and guardian of farms, and “Cane” being the Italian word for dog.

The Corso was almost lost as a breed in the 1960s following the end of the Italian share-cropping system. From the selective breeding of surviving Cane Corso in the 1980s, we have the breed we know today. It was recognized by the ENZI in 1994, with full FCI acceptance in 2007 and AKC recognition in 2010.

The Cane Corso was, and is, a multi-purpose breed focused nowadays on guarding, personal protection, law enforcement work, and as a companion. He must pass a working trial (IPO/Schutzhund) in order to become a champion in his native country of Italy. The Corso is eligible to compete in IPO and other Schutzhund-like protection sports in the US. Within a relatively short time frame, from the time of its renaissance in the 1980s until now, the breed has changed little in morphology and type. The breed continues to be tested in protection sports in its country of origin in order to gain an Italian championship.

The Dogue de Bordeaux, also known as the French Mastiff or Bordeaux Mastiff, is one of the oldest of the French breeds, with a similar predecessor known as early as the 14th century. The breed is thought to predate the Bullmastiff and the Bulldog. It originated in the northern Aquitaine region, more specifically in the Bordeaux area of France, and was historically used to guard the castles of the elite as well as guarding flocks, pulling carts and other heavy objects, hunting large game, and fighting.

At one time, the breed had two sizes; the smaller Doguins and the much larger Dogues. The Doguins fell out of favor and no longer exist. The French emphasized keeping the Dogue breeding pure, hence the self-colored pigmentation, with black masked individuals thought to be from crosses with the English Mastiff. Despite that quest for purity, the breed ended up with three distinct types, each dependent on the job it was bred to do and its region of origin: the Parisian, the Toulouse, and the Bordeaux. Since the time of these three types, the breed coalesced around the Bordeaux type and became what we know it as today.

Despite being first exhibited in the 1860s, the breed faced extinction due to the World Wars. However, the breed was renewed in the 1960s through the dedicated efforts of French breeders. Art from the early 1900s indicates a dog much like today’s, heavily muscled and with the same topline, but with a bit more muzzle length. Like many other breeds, the Dogue de Bordeaux’s traditional jobs have disappeared. The parent club maintains a recognition program for Dogue’s that attain titling in a variety of canine
performance sports.

Known as the “Gamekeepers Night Dog,” the Bullmastiff was originally developed by English estate gamekeepers (professional game managers) in the 19th century to guard estates from poachers of game, be it fur or feather. The breed was created from the now-extinct Old English Bulldog, once known for its strength and tenacity, and the larger milder-mannered English Mastiff. He was bred to tackle and take down poachers who trespassed or poached on their land. Since the dog’s work was mainly at night, gamekeepers preferred dogs of the dark brindle color so as to provide
greater camouflage.

By 1924, the breed was recognized by the English Kennel Club as a pure breed. With the demise of the large English estates and the need for professional gamekeepers, the breed began to lose its function as an estate guard. Today, the breed still holds onto its natural guarding abilities as it watches over its home and family. The parent club does not list any specific performance recognition programs. However, the breed does participate in sports that demonstrate its strength, including weight pulling.

Photos of the breed from the 1950s and before show a breed with significant diversity in substance, height and size, type, and head dimensions. The homogeneity attained through the concerted efforts of breeders over time has resulted in the dog we see today.

Used by the ancient Celts as war dogs, a Mastiff-type dog has been part of British Isles history since at least the first written laws of England (1016-1035). Over time, the progenitor breed has been used as a courageous war dog, guardian, fighter of large animals, and carting dog. Through its ancestral lineages, the British created the breed we know today as the Mastiff, or English Mastiff. Artwork from the middle 1800s depicts a dog similar in scope to the Mastiff we know today, though not as heavy in bone or substance or with the same head dimensions.

During and immediately after World War I, the breed’s need for substantial amounts of nutrition (that could otherwise go to feed hungry people) almost caused its demise. By the 1920s, they were almost extinct. Fortunately, the breed had been exported to the US and Canada, and was popularized there. It was offspring from these dogs, in part, that served to repopulate the Mastiff breed in England post-World War I. During and immediately following World War II, the Mastiff again went through a period of decline. Again, stock from North America, primarily Canada, provided a rebirth. The post-World War II gene pool of Mastiffs that continued on into today’s pedigrees consisted of 14-16 dogs. Contributing to that very small gene pool was a French Dogue de Bordeaux bitch imported to the US in 1959 and registered as a Mastiff.

The Mastiff of today is known as a gentle companion, albeit still vigilant of its people and property. Compared with Mastiffs from the first half of the 20th century, today’s breed has, on the whole, greater substance and a shorter head length. Although some members of the breed participate in performance sports, their popularity in these domains is not as significant as it is with other breeds. There are no formal performance recognition programs by the parent club and simulations of the prior types of work are also not available.

A Mastiff-type dog was brought to the Cape area of South Africa in the mid-1600s to protect a family, their belongings, and land from unknown dangers. During a migration in the early-to-mid 1800s, these Boer dogs were distributed all over the area that came to be known as South Africa. Breeding with native dogs and in-breeding led to the early development of a tough, strong dog, renowned for its loyalty, obedience, strength, protective nature, and its intensity. This dog eventually came to be known as the Boerboel, which derives from the South African Afrikaans words meaning farmer (boer) and bulldog (boelhond).

With the ending of the Second Boer war in mid-1902, the Boerboel was cross-bred with the Bullmastiff and various long-legged Bulldog types brought by the British. This yielded a stronger and tougher dog. Again, in 1938, a Bullmastiff used to guard diamond mines was crossed with a Boerboel and the resultant offspring were instrumental in the continued development of the breed. In the early 1980s, two individuals began a search in South Africa for the original Boer dog. A very large search area was covered and yielded about 250 Boer dogs. Of these, 72 were found suitable for registration. Due to various issues, the tumultuous history of South Africa has kept numbers of the breed to a low level. It wasn’t until 2006 that the Boerboel was included in the AKC’s Foundation Stock Service, with entry into the AKC Working Group made in 2015. The AKC registry was kept open until early 2020.

Comparison of existing photographs of current Boerboels in their country of origin and in the US demonstrates a dog that is the same on both continents. Photographs of earlier Boerboels show a dog much like that of today, though with the inclusion of more piebalds. The breed is versatile and is titled in many of the disciplines available to AKC registered dogs, including farmwork.

I’ll look forward to your commentary and questions on this article, as well as the ones that follow in this series. Feel free to send your comments to [email protected] or to me at [email protected].