“The Medes, Albanians, Gelonians and Hyrcanians, as the various breeds of Assyrian mastiffs were called in after times, came from the north of Persia and the wide districts which extended between the Caucasus and the shores of the Caspian Sea, and there appears to have been something about this wild region which enabled its hounds to retain their supremacy for long ages afterwards.”
‘De Canibus, Dog and Hound in Antiquity’ by RHA Merlen, 1971.
The Value of Heavy Hounds
Pure breeds of dog are a relatively recent feature of the dog world, with the late 19th century mostly seeing the various breed-types becoming stabilised into discernible races from their mixed origin. The pursuit of pure breeding became accepted practice once exhibiting dogs attracted public support. In earlier times dogs were rarely kept for entirely ornamental purposes, it was their functional usefulness to man that made them highly valued and widely traded. To trace breed types and their evolution, we need both to identify function and follow the movement of tribes throughout recorded history. It is vital to keep in mind too that in 10,000BC, in a world population of 10 million, all of them were hunters. By 1500AD, in a world population of 350 million, only 1% were hunters. By 1972, in a world population of 3 billion, only 0.001 were hunters. Even 2,000 years ago, in many parts of the world, the success of the hunting dogs was, for their human owners, the difference between eating or starving. Powerful heavy hounds were invaluable in times when, before the invention of firearms, man needed to catch and kill big game.
Catching Big Game
Scent-hounds could track, sight-hounds could chase, terriers could unearth and setting dogs could indicate unseen game. But when big game was hunted, powerful fearless dogs were needed to risk their lives so that the quarry was either slowed down, pulled down or ‘held’ for the hunters. Just as in warfare infantrymen are needed to close with the enemy and destroy him, so too in the hunting field are strong-jawed, powerfully muscled, awesomely determined dogs needed to actually get hold of the quarry. The hounds of the chase can catch up with and then ‘bay’ the quarry, but the ‘killing’ or capture dogs have to seize and hold it. This was the task of the mastiffs, with their enormous physical strength, immense courage, considerable fortitude and the remarkable gripping capabilities afforded by their mighty broad mouths.
The Broad-mouthed Dogs
The recorded history of the domestic dog is full of contradictions, tendentious research, misleading translations by scholars ignorant of dogs, the selective use of facts and absurd claims by breed historians keen to eulogise their favoured race of dog. What is certain however is that for 99% of the time in which man and dog have coexisted, man has developed dog for function; purity of breeding was never the major criterion, as it is now. The breed of Bullmastiff for example came to us because a powerful, active dog was needed to seize and hold poachers and so the required dog was purpose-bred from an appropriate blend. This blend however was far from new; it was the pursuit of a definite type that gave us the breed. Every breed that evolved from the broad-mouthed or mastiff-type dogs developed for a prescribed purpose and from this purpose comes breed type and the breed design or standard. Each mastiff breed must have a Breed Standard that reflects and respects their time-honoured role.
“The probability is that he (i.e. the Mastiff) owes his origin to some very remote ancestor of alien strain. The Assyrian kings possessed a large dog of decided Mastiff type, and used it in the hunting of lions and for the capture of wild horses…The name Mastiff was applied to any massively built dog.”
The Complete Book of the Dog by Robert Leighton, 1922.
Importance of Role
It is absurd to argue, as past writers, like Leighton in the above quote, and far too many breed historians do, that there is an unbroken blood-line between the Assyrian mastiffs depicted in the famous bas-relief in the British Museum, and the mastiff breeds of today. What is unbroken is their role. Primitive hunters relied on such dogs all over the inhabited world. The broad-mouthed holding dogs found an important role in many different places around the developing world; there is no single ancestor – just a type to be treasured. When a type of dog loses its historic role, then the future of that breed is threatened. That is how we in Britain nearly lost all our “heelers”, our remaining wolfhound and did lose our decoy dog. The setting dog adapted from the net to the gun and thrived. The Bulldog sadly never found a role once bull-baiting was banned in 1835 and is less healthy, less virile and less agile as a consequence. Breeders of the mastiff breeds must produce dogs that are capable of carrying out their historic role, even if they are not required to do so. The breed history gave us the breed; the breed history must be our guide in perpetuating the breed. What alternative path can we follow?
As a broad-mouthed breed, each mastiff breed belongs to a brave and distinguished group of dogs. Their instinct to seize and hold their quarry was prized by man down the ages. Man was a hunter before he was a farmer and powerful hunting dogs were the difference between living and dying before the invention of firearms. This valuable instinct can quickly be isolated from others in big powerful dogs, despite a lack of wisdom in some breed titles. The flock-guarding group of dogs, sometimes referred to as Shepherd’s Mastiffs, even in their titles, embraces the Maremma, the Sar Planina, the Anatolian Shepherd, the Kuvasz, the Sage Koochi or Nomad Dog of Afghanistan, the Bhotia, the Bisben, the Powendah, the Owtcharkas and the misnamed Tibetan, Bangara, Spanish and Pyrenean Mastiffs, the St Bernard and the other mountain dogs: Estrela, Tatra, Bernese, Appenzeller, Entlebucher, Great Swiss and Pyrenean. Their instinct is to identify with livestock, usually sheep, and protect them from predators. These are not broad-mouthed mastiff breeds with the instinct to seize and hold; they would make highly unsatisfactory flock guardians if they were.
Of course, in the days before pure-breeding, mastiff blood may have been utilised from time to time but the key instinctive flock-guarding function was always preserved as a priority. Much less protectively, there remained man’s quite separate need to catch and kill wild mammals of various sizes, hence the need for hounds. We talk today of scent-hounds and sight-hounds, perhaps better described respectively as tracking dogs and those which hunt principally using sheer speed. All hounds use their considerable scenting powers. But at the kill, when big game like bison or boar were hunted, the scent-hounds were either not brave enough or were considered too valuable to be risked at such highly dangerous quarry. The life-threatening task of seizing the prey fell to the ‘holding dogs’, huge determined dogs of reckless courage and immense neck and jaw strength. The expression ‘broad-mouth’ however should not be confused with a short face; the holding or gripping dogs needed jaw length as well as breadth to seize their quarry.
A good title for such dogs would be hunting mastiffs; they are often portrayed in famous paintings of the killing of big game, confusing many Great Dane researchers who see every dog at a boar hunt as a boar hound. The holding dogs or hunting mastiffs (alauntes veutreres) were quaintly described by Gaston de Foix in his Le Livre de la Chasse of 1388: “They are almost shaped as a greyhound of full shape, they have a great head, great lips and great ears, and with such, men help themselves well at the baiting of the bull and at the hunting of the wild boar, for it is natural to them to hold fast, but they are so heavy and ugly, that if they be slain by the wild boar it is no great loss.” Breeders of the mastiff breeds today should note that De Foix, the greatest hunter of his day, did not list great bone or a short muzzle in his quite full description.
The hunting mastiffs, bred for their dash and fearlessness, were sometimes gored to death, were considered expendable and not always carefully bred. Medieval hunters relied on them to weaken and then detain big game such as stag, wild boar and wild bull until they could arrive to dispatch the quarry with spear, club or hunting knife. Used in more ancient times by people like the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hyrcanians, Alans, Greeks, Romans, Franks, Hispanics and Teutons, such dogs had to be able to go on breathing whilst ‘pinning’, holding or seizing a much bigger adversary, sometimes massive animals like buffalo. They especially needed jaw length and breadth. They therefore developed as broad-mouthed, powerfully-muzzled, immensely strong necked, awesomely determined hunting dogs, with the stamina to keep up with the chase and fast enough in the final dash to avoid horns or tusks or lashing hooves. The big scenting hounds or running mastiffs needed tracking skills and great stamina. The huge white ‘alauntes’, referred to by Chaucer and Shakespeare, typified the running mastiffs. In their The Natural History of the Dog of 1968, the Fiennes write that: “…in both France and Britain, mastiffs were known until the Middle Ages as ‘Alains’ or ‘Alaunts’ and a separate derivation is, therefore, improbable.”
Modern equivalents would be the Great Dane, the Broholmer, and, especially, the Dogo Argentino. The Dogo Argentino was created by the Martinez brothers to hunt puma, jabali (wild boar), peccary (a small local wild pig) and very large native foxes. The breed comes from a blend of white Bull Terrier, Bullmastiff, Great Dane, Foxhound and an infusion of the old Cordoba fighting dog, similar to the Dogue de Burgos. The blend is of some interest to Boerboel and Bullmastiff fanciers; it shows the value placed on the ‘bull-breeds’ (breeds with ‘bull’ in their title) by men expecting a great deal from their dogs. The international kennel club or Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) originally chose to classify the Mastiff of England and other pure-bred mastiff breeds, such as the Neapolitan Mastiff, the Perro de Presa Canario and the Dogue de Bordeaux, as Molossers. This classification is puzzling in the light of historical evidence. This is discussed elsewhere on this site.
The Holding Dogs
Just as the Great Dane should be bred as a huge hound, symmetrical, athletic, balanced, tight-lipped and not too heavy headed, so the mastiff breeds should be bred as heavy hounds, hunting dogs powerful enough to succeed at the killing stage in big game hunting and fast enough in the charge to survive. In the Stock-keeper of April the 29th 1887, Dr Sidney Turner was writing: “Mr. Sanderson, for many years Director of the Government Department of Elephants in India, used mastiffs (of the Bullmastiff type) to take leopard, bear, and even small elephant; but he found it requisite to employ two dogs of greater fleetness to bring the quarry to bay, and allow time for the heavier and more powerful dogs (four) to get up and make the real attack.” There is a perfect example of hunting mastiffs working with running mastiffs.
The Beisser Breeds
In Central Europe, hunting mastiffs or holding dogs were known variously as ‘bufalbeissers’, ‘barenbeissers’ or ‘bullenbeissers’ according to whether they seized or ‘gripped’ buffalo, bear or wild bulls. Fritz Bergmiller, according to Ferdinand Schmutz in his Mein Hund of 1954, considered that in the Middle Ages the hunting dogs in use in Germany were limited to eleven breed types, one of them being the ‘grosse bullenbeisser’ (literally ‘big bull-biter’ but better described as large gripping dogs used on bulls). These dogs, and smaller varieties, were later used in bull-baiting. It is not correct to think of bulldogs, in the sense of bull-baiting dogs, being restricted to Britain or indeed to think that nightdogs (like the breed of Bullmastiff) only occurred here. The French, for example, had both bouledogues and chiens de nuit/chiens du guet. In Belgium they had the Brabanter Bullenbijter, in Holland the Niederlandischer Bollbeisser and further north there was the Danzigger Bahrenbeisser, for use on bears.
The Presa or Fila Breeds
In southern Europe were the ‘presa’ or ‘fila’ breeds, used by Spanish and Portuguese colonists in South America. These holding and seizing dogs are perpetuated today in the Perro de Presa Canario, the Fila Brasileiro and the Neapolitan Mastiff. The Cuban Bloodhound comes from such stock. It would be wrong to think of dogs in previous centuries being restricted in movement by such controls as our long era of quarantine and banning of breeds under the foolish Dangerous Dogs Act. The use of words in different languages to denote the seizing dogs: presa in Spain, fila in Portugal and beisser in Germany shows the widespread use of such dogs by medieval hunters.
Movement of Dogs
When Saxons and Celts migrated to Britain they brought their hunting dogs with them. When the Normans invaded they were accompanied by their hounds. When armies crossed the channel, their dogs went along too. The Lyme Hall mastiffs were established by Sir Piers Legh’s Mastiff bitch being mated to an unknown sire in France. Noblemen on their Grand Tours, returned from Continental Europe, rather as Marlborough’s, Wellington’s and subsequent servicemen did, with valuable sporting dogs. British dogs, called mastiffs and bulldogs, but only very roughly resembling the breeds of those names today, were widely exported. Holding dogs like the bullenbeisser were valued and traded. But unlike today’s dogs, they were traded, valued and bred from only because they were highly functional – highly successful at their job.
The ‘Dogge’ and the Bullenbeisser
Against that background of the unrestricted movement of valuable dogs, it is possible to detect three distinct forms of ‘doggen’, or mastiff-type dogs, in Northern Europe from the 14th to the 19th century. Once breeders either ignore their breed’s origin or get misled by false research (or ignorant translators!), then essential breed-type is threatened. The Germans call the Great Dane a German Dogge or mastiff; the consequence must not be square-headed, lower-slung dogs with all their weight on the forehand. Many books on the surviving mastiff breeds tell us plenty about the Deutsche Dogge, or Great Dane, and the French mastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux. But not many tell us the story of the Englische Dogge, most prized hunting mastiff in Central Europe in medieval times. Until the thirteenth century in England, a mastiff-type dog was called a ‘docga’, an Old English word, still retained on mainland Europe as dogge in Germany, dogue in France, dogg in Sweden and dogo in Spain. The master-engraver Ridinger portrayed the Englische Dogge at the end of the 17th century. No one claimed them as a breed, dogs then being bred for function not form, and never to a closed gene pool.
In his The Cassell Dictionary of Word Histories of 1999, Adrian Room points out that the word ‘dog’ came from the Old English word ‘docga’ and was the name of a specific powerful breed of dog. The word ‘dogge’, (pronounced ‘dogga’ and meaning a mastiff-type – not just dog), is therefore used here to avoid confusion by using the word mastiff, nowadays used precisely as a breed name, to refer to a powerfully-built, short-haired, large-headed, drop-eared, strongly-muzzled heavy hound or hunting dog with immensely strong jaws and a willingness to close with then seize and hold its quarry, rather than just chase it and then bay it. These three forms can be listed as:
1. The ‘grosse’ bullenbeisser or heavy mastiff-type.
2. The cross between the bullenbeisser group and the old type of huge strong-headed hound used against stag and boar.
3. The small bullenbeisser, the size of today’s Boxer, a reduced form of no.1.
In the Middle Ages, Northern European sportsmen favoured what they called the Englische Dogge, a blend of mastiff and scenthound, often called staghounds in England at that time. As specialist hounds became favoured in Britain and much of our big game became extinct, these huge, strong-headed, tucked-up, hard-running hunting dogs stayed in fashion in Central Europe, to hunt bison, wild bull, boar and stag. Cox, writing in 1674, described how the King of Poland ‘hath a great race of English Mastiffs’ which ‘are brought up to play upon greater Beasts.’ In Germany there were strong-headed par force hounds known as Hetzrude or Saurude, which contributed to the development of the Deutsche Dogge or Great Dane. The Saxons and the Celts had their par force hounds, big, ferocious, strong-running, heavy-headed and recklessly-brave hunting dogs. It is worth noting that the great Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, in his breed-identifying exercise of the early 18th century, described the mastiff of England, not as Canis Molossus – as so many mistaken scholars have done – but as Canis Anglicus, in other words as the Englische Dogge or English Mastiff.
Wide Use in Southern Europe
In Southern Europe, the Spanish had their Perros de Presa or pinning dogs, which went with the conquistadores and were greatly feared by the South and Central American Indians; the dogs still found in the Canaries and Balearics perpetuate such dogs. The Portuguese had their Filas, which in turn went to their South American colonies to leave us with the Fila Brasileiro (and in the Azores with the Cao de Fila de Sao Miguel); fila meaning gripping, pinning or holding. In Italy strong-headed hunting mastiffs were widely employed at boar hunts, as the Philipp Hackert (1737-1807) painting of Ferdinando IV of Naples in the hunting field illustrates. In Naples, what we know today as the Neapolitan Mastiff was once known locally as the ‘cane de presa’.
As Snyders (1579-1657) illustrated in his paintings, bull-baiting was first conducted with one bull being baited by three or four ‘dogges’. But this became such a brutal spectacle that a relay of much smaller dogs became favoured and led to the development of what became the English Bulldog. In the 17th century, in Germany, a clear distinction was made between the grosse or Danziger bullenbeisser and the kleine (or smaller) bullenbeisser or Brabanter. Hans Friedrich von Flemming, writing from Leipzig in 1719 made these remarks about such dogs: “About the Baren or Bollbeissern…in the chase they appear to be very hot and are ferocious in attack…I personally believe that they are of Tartaric origin…They are used in the Polish and Hungarian bison chase and in the bear chases…Most of them have short noses with a black muzzle and the lower jaw protrudes. They have yellow and brown stripes…”
Heinrich Wilm Doebel, in his Huntsman Practica of the late 1700s, wrote of them: “Besides the English Doggen which are the largest there are the Baren and Bullenbeisser which…are much smaller…as the former sometimes stand three feet high.” In 1836, Hartig was writing in his hunting lexicon that: “The stature of the English Dogge is beautiful, long and gracefully muscular. The stature of the Bullenbeisser is less pleasing. It is chunkier and the head is broad, dull and short. But these dogs are extremely courageous fearing no danger. Most of them are fawn with a black mask.” There is a fair description of a prototypal mastiff-like ‘catch-dog’.
It was entirely predictable, almost inevitable, for watchkeepers, gamekeepers and estate owners to turn to the broad-mouthed holding dogs when they needed protection against violent poachers or trespassing criminals. Here was a powerful, determined, courageous dog, bred to take on bison, bear, bulls, stag, buffalo and boar, being asked to take on dangerously aggressive men, who were likely to be well armed. The instinct, the motivation and the anatomy were there but control was needed. And so, some of the more savage strains were found unresponsive to training and bred out. The skill of the breeders at that time was to retain boldness, fearlessness, assertiveness and great determination, whilst shedding ferocity, undesirable aggression, unpredictable temper and a savage disposition. Modern breeders have to take great care not to produce dogs that only look the part, i.e. lack the essential assertiveness and the will to go forward in demanding circumstances. The mastiff breeds must be retained as strongly protective dogs and not mere statuesque ornaments.
Chien du Guet
In France, in the twelfth century, local mastiffs were employed as ‘chiens du guet’ or watch-keepers’ dogs, used for example in the Brittany ports to impose a night curfew so that marauding bands of brigands and pirates could be deterred from raiding the smaller ports. In Spain and Portugal, mastiffs were used as weapons of war, especially when new territories overseas were being conquered. In England, gamekeepers utilised mastiff-type dogs to deter and apprehend poachers and protect estate staff patrolling land and property. These dogs were chosen because of their formidable appearance, their willingness to ‘close with the enemy’ and seize their quarry, rather than merely bark threateningly, and for their stoicism in the face of punishment. In other words, they were chosen because they were mastiffs with all the historic qualities accompanying that type of dog.
Value of Mastiff Breeds
From their employment by primitive hunters to pull down or ‘hold’ or pin large animals needed by the hunters for meat and skin to their use as watchdogs and protection dogs in more recent times, the mastiff breeds have long served man, many losing their lives in doing so. Huge wild creatures such as aurochs, bison, boar and stags are formidable adversaries; only the mastiff breeds had the courage, strength, agility and fortitude to tackle such quarry. Moral judgements made today on hunting cannot diminish the remarkable physical and mental qualities of dogs expected by man to fulfil a function in times when man either hunted successfully or starved. We should respect the heritage of the mastiff breeds and then honour it by breeding healthy, virile, physically powerful but mentally stable dogs, for that is their historic mould.
Article was written by Mr David Hancock.