…”the appearance of the formidable-looking animal, and the knowledge of his powers, more effectually prevented egg-stealing than would the best exertions of a dozen watchers. He was the terror of all the idle boys in the neighbourhood. Every lad felt assured that, if once ‘Growler’ were put upon his footsteps, to a certainty he would be overtaken, knocked down, and detained until the arrival of the keeper.”
These are the words of the esteemed General Hutchinson, writing about a gamekeeper’s night-dog or Bullmastiff, in his classic “Dog Breaking” of 1909. Reading this again recently, reminded me that I simply cannot remember the last time I heard of a Bullmastiff being used in its time-honoured role as the keepers’ protector against gangs of poachers; small wonder that poaching increases each year.
In our eagerness to use herding dogs from Germany as our patrol and security dogs, we have overlooked or forgotten the greater value of a “pinning” or “holding” breed over a barking, snarling or biting breed. Such holding dogs were utilised by gamekeepers all over Europe in the last century: the Dogue de Bordeaux in France, the Neapolitan Mastiff in Italy. The title of the Spanish breed of perro de presa Canario means the holding dog of the Canary Islands. The perro de presa Mallorquin is the holding dog of Mallorca. (I do wish the French translation of this title were not chien de combat; a holding dog makes a poor fighting dog — when your ancestors took on wild bulls and buffalo, why bother with canine psychopaths!). In Wales, the Ancient Welsh Laws refer to the “gafaelgi” or gripping dog, now being bred once again. They were clearly of value to widely separated people, who have striven to perpetuate them.
I once spent a couple of years using two Bullmastiffs to patrol the 1,000 acre estate which I then managed. When they were young, still learning and still growing, the time spent on this was carefully controlled but still most instructive. I am a great believer in breeds of dog still being able to carry out their original function, even if we don’t need them to. If they simply cannot, then in my book they do not belong to that breed. Only in this way can we keep a breed in touch with its roots and retained as a functional useful animal as opposed to a mere ornament. If you are only interested in dogs as ornaments or rosette-winners, don’t read on, it’ll be too revealing for you!
In the past I have used dogs as trackers, anti-ambush or patrol dogs, bomb-seekers and body-finders. I also had working sheepdogs for many years, have judged working tests for retrievers and spaniels and judged working terriers. On my country estate, I gained a great deal of knowledge about how to use Bullmastiffs, mainly from my dogs. What I wanted from them was a willingness to work, natural curiosity, an interest in air and ground scent, the anatomy to get over or round obstacles and responsiveness to commands, underpinned by boldness, self-confidence and determination. What they needed from me was direction and patience — great patience!
Zulu (KC registered name: Colom Flinn) was stag-red and built like a strong hunter horse. Purists might say he was light behind for one of his breed but he was a real canine athlete; he caught his first rabbit when he was six months old. Boris (Marbette Master Sam) was silver-fawn and built like a Suffolk Punch horse. He was enormously strong but tired easily when still young and growing, although he was never stretched because of this. Zulu could carry a pheasant’s egg in his mouth without breaking it. Boris retrieved a grey squirrel at only ten weeks old; he weighed over 100lbs at one year but had no surplus flesh – he was startlingly fast over short distances, having already caught a grey squirrel foolish enough to underestimate him.
In my experience, if dogs of any breed want to hunt, enjoy scent-finding and are alert to wildlife, then they are trainable for country tasks. It is easier to discipline this as a developed interest than to stifle it and try to reawaken curiosity later. My dogs must stop on command — even in the chase, have to be steady to stock and return on the whistle. They do like to understand “why” however and this is easily misread as a disinclination to obey. Above all they are enthusiastic and that’s what I can work on.
My disappointments with my Bullmastiffs were these. Firstly the dogs were just not bold enough. This may have initially been because of their age and perhaps a reflection of the age we live in, when the public can no longer distinguish a protective dog from a savage one, and dogs without spirit are favoured by far too many breeders. Secondly, it was the devil’s own job to get them used to water, but we managed that in time. Thirdly, they were not, before training, determined enough — they would not push themselves sufficiently. And fourthly they were not great obstacle crossers, either shrinking from the challenge and expecting help or being physically unable to cope. That may have been because I discouraged them from jumping when they were still growing and kept them away from barbed wire. It may however have been a drawback from their being so heavy. How heavy does a gamekeeper’s night-dog need to be? Should they be, in horse terms, a Hunter or a Suffolk Punch?
Of course, speed, balance and athleticism are not the prerogative of the slim — as many Olympic athletes demonstrate! A dog bred to pin a man to the floor and hold him down needs to weigh at least 80 lbs. But before detaining its human prey, the dog has to get to the scene, however wild or remote. I have used patrol dogs in mangrove swamp, hill jungle and the bush. Once my patrol had to carry an exhausted tracker dog, a Labrador (a Stafford might have persevered!) Any breed, wherever they are used for such work, has to have good feet, stamina, a strong desire to work, not carry too much surplus weight and be under control at all times. The role of the Bullmastiff is more specialist than an all-terrain, all-purpose patrol dog but the key qualities are the same.
If you look at illustrations of the famous ‘Farcroft’ or ‘Thorneywood’ dogs at the turn of the century, they look much more hound-like than today’s Bullmastiff. The winning dog at the World Dog Show in June 1995 was an impressive specimen but essentially different from the prototypal Bullmastiffs. This dog was most definitely a Suffolk Punch and not a Hunter. That may be what show-ring people want but is such a dog built for the role of the gamekeeper’s night-dog? Weight is needed but so is athleticism and staying power. I didn’t know the answer to this until my dogs were three years old and tested. At the start, my stag-red dog was the muscular steeple-chaser; the silver-fawn dog was the power-packed sprinter – built like a powerfully-muscled 100 metre-man.
Traditionally, the brindle-coloured Bullmastiff was the keeper’s dog, but I was amazed how difficult it was to see my stag-red dog at night. My dogs were originally both gun-shy and water-shy and one barked out of fear at times. This was overcome. Protective dogs must advance towards threats, look self-reliant, confident and bold. I do hope our safety-first society isn’t breeding this out in dogs. I know that Bullmastiff expert the late Douglas Oliff was deeply concerned about the spirit of such dogs. Confident dogs rarely bite people; fearful dogs don’t protect people. In the shadow of Britain’s ludicrous Dangerous Dogs Act, we need to keep our nerve. People who break the law in the countryside need to be stopped.
At a dog show you can soon identify dogs which spend their lives in kennels. They have lacked stimulation and display little curiosity or eagerness to work. They are nearly always soft-muscled – and a soft touch. There was a case not long ago where pups were stolen from a Bullmastiff bitch! I worry that in trying to breed good-looking dogs we are overlooking brains and character, and in seeking unaggressive dogs are producing shy dogs which will one day be “angstbeissers”. Such dogs are a greater threat to children, postmen and the public than a fierce-looking Bullmastiff. Behind the latter is an impressive heritage.
The Bullmastiff is popularly described as a manufactured breed, from a combination of 60% Mastiff and 40% Bulldog (the real Bulldog, not the modern victim of show-breeder whim and the lighter active Mastiff). A contemporary example of the ‘broad-mouthed’ dogs, used to pull down big game before the invention of firearms, they are immensely strong, especially in the jaws, neck and shoulders. At livestock shows in Britain just over a century ago, William Burton would challenge any young spectator to stay on their feet in the arena with one of his muzzled Bullmastiffs, for a guinea. “The Gamekeeper” of 1 August 1901, stated that his ‘Thorneywood Terror’ was the cleverest and most highly trained night-dog in Great Britain. Today’s gamekeepers, in their choice of guard-dog, evidently feel they know better.
As the owner of a Bullmastiff, you enter into a mutually-respectful partnership. It is not a breed to be kept in a shed or an outhouse. Gamekeepers and professional gundog trainers who “break” a dog with the stick are advised to steer well clear of this breed. Bullmastiffs have a mind of their own – that is part of their charm! They are slower to learn than say a Labrador (but they eat less). They love children and respond especially well to women-owners. They regard other breeds as curs but tolerate them. Mine were superb companions and great characters and eventually good night-dogs.
As the only British breed to be purpose-bred for guarding duties, they have a wide range of inherited skills to offer. Why then are they outnumbered by at least four German herding breeds? Who would you rather be guarded by, a hefty bodyguard or a shepherd! When I was an infantry officer, the highest judgement on a colleague was: “Would I be happy to go into action with him?” My Bullmastiffs passed that test.