History of the Mastiff

The Mastiff (without any prefix like “Old English” or such) is an old breed as breeds go. As a more or less specific type of dog it has a much longer history. It has existed in England for more than two thousand years. The origin of its name is not really known. It was used for the first time in a manuscript still in existence in the thirteenth century. In the forest laws of that time to be precise. From then on you find it spelled as Mastie dogge, Mastive, Mastivus, Mastiff, Mastif and Mastyf. People have suggested all kinds of derivations but there really is no proof at all, because we don’t have any writings where the word gradually changes from such origins into the modern term. The word Bandog is supposed to be just another word for the same breed but again there is no real proof. In fact in some old writings about dogs they are both mentioned. In fact there are woodcuts by Bewick of both “breeds”. In that instance the bandog is apparently a lighter version of the Mastiff (who is not too imposing either). The fact that the “Bandog” is mentioned in earlier forest laws may mean that something more than just a dog on a chain was meant. You might remember that we also find the “cur” as a separate breed in some dog encyclopedias.

fawn mastiff

The Romans found the broad-mouthed dogs of Britain to be quite different from the Molossers they knew. Apparently the Molosser did not have this broad muzzle but a pointed nose like a shepherd dog. Roman authors mention the broad mouth especially as a characteristic of the British dog. As far as we know they didn’t find the British dogs particularly beautiful but there was nothing wrong with their courage and fighting spirit.

At the time when breeding Mastiffs with pedigrees started, the breed concerned had become nearly extinct. The people who had kept Mastiffs in the centuries before, had switched over to Newfoundlands and Pyrenese Mountain dogs. There were but a few places where more or less purebred Mastiffs were kept but it’s difficult to assess how much these still have contributed to the modern Mastiff. Among the ancestors of the modern breed are a Presa Espagnol by the name of Couchez, a “black” or “blue brindle” dog by the name of Pluto of whom we know nothing about where he came from and a bitch caught in a fox trap and another one of unknown provenance and one bought by mister Lukey to breed to the black dog mentioned above. There is also a fawn Alpine Mastiff involved, of which I doubt very much that it was just a Saint Bernard as the St. Bernard of the time look rather different (more like the Grosse Sennenhund).

Breeders who contributed to the modern Mastiff are Mr. Crabtree, who knew them as a forrester, Mr.Thompson who had grown up with Mastiffs and Mr.Lukey who had bred some kind of toy breed before. On the whole the comments of Mr. Thompson about the Mastiff should have validity as he had known them while they were still being used against poachers among other things. He is one of those who felt that originally the Mastiff had not been a really very large dog and that anything over thirty inches was in fact due to foreign blood. He also wasn’t fond of really huge bone as he wanted an agile animal. His description of the true character of the Mastiff with their energy and their restraint at the same time are very like the standard’s grandeur and good nature.

Mastiffs have been used and misused for all kinds of purposes, ranging from herding cows and horses to hunting bear and boar and in the end bullfights and bear baiting and so on. In war they were supposed to guard the knight who had fallen from his horse and couldn’t get up (the armour weighed about six hundred pounds) against other knights still on horseback. As in the famous example of the bitch of sir Pierce of Legh, who died of his wounds anyway. Apart from that they were taken on journeys for simple protection against thieves and robbers and they guarded the family home. Nowadays this is about the only task a Mastiff still can fulfill.

Still in breeding Mastiffs one should remember that it is as much a case of trying to keep alive a living monument of olden times. It is in fact a heritage that should not get lost because somebody fancies another type of dog and just starts to breed according to his own lights. The purpose of breeding them must always be in the first place to keep them as they “always” have been. Or should have been (?)

It is important to acquaint oneself with the historical place and functions of the Mastiff as well as its history before trying to do anything with the breed. Tastes may vary but it must not influence the character and appearance of the breed. If you breed to a general taste in order to be able to sell the things as Mastiffs, you are working very much to the detriment of the breed. It has to remain as it was or be restored to how it ought to be.

Mr Wynn, author of the famous “History of the Mastiff” deplored the tendency to breed for “noble” expressions rather like Bloodhounds, just because people liked it better. As he put it, Landseer did paint portraits of dogs like that but he had the decency to call them what they were. Mongrels. He would have loved to destroy all those paintings because they were clouding the issue of what the breed should really look like.

A mastiff certainly must not look like a moronic softy. He must be kind and gentle when there is no threat and yet ready to defend his people at a moment’s notice. On the whole he should be reserved with strangers. Not much interested in fact unless they should prove to be a threat. One should remember that one old standard calls his expression “lowering”. After all it is better when a guard dog intimidates intruders by his looks than when he has to grab hold and bite them to make his point. The threatening look of a guard dog generally prevents the need for real aggression. And it’s not as if a threatening or intimidating expression can’t mask a sweet temperament as it does in Bulldogs and Boxers who seem intimidating to people who don’t know those breeds. Whereas on the other hand the sheep-like countenance of the Bedlington or the rather moronic visage of the Saint Bernard may well hide the true nature of the beast.

brindle mastiff

A Mastiff should impress you with his power and energy. Dark eyes, almost hidden within the black mask and a black muzzle and ears. The muzzle should be neat, closed and square in shape. The lips should be closed, that is the upper lips should completely cover the lower lips and hide them from sight. Viewed from the side the muzzle should also be square, meaning that the underline of the lips should ideally be horizontal. They should not droop down towards the neck with open flews drooling spittle. The ears should be small and thin to the touch which happens rarely. Most importantly they should not be corkscrew ears like those of the Bloodhound. Their shape should always remain triangular. Eyes should be slightly sunken, protected by the slightly raised eyebrows from the claws of enemies. Ectropion and entropion are not uncommon. Stop not too abrupt. This is one of the places where the Mastiff head clearly differs from that of the Saint Bernard or Boxer. The line over the muzzle lies above that between the eyes, giving the dog a rather haughty look because he has to look down over his nose at people, like a Camel or a Beefeater. The body also should be “square”. A long rectangle on big strong legs. The belly should not be tucked up as in Greyhounds or Danes. The rib cage should extend to just below the elbows and it should be deep, broad and long with the last ribs far to the back. The loins should be thick and strongly muscled. The line over the back (topline) should be more or less horizontal and the tail should in fact start at the end of that line. In practice a rather low tail onset is the rule rather than the exception. Bone in the legs must look neatly rounded. Which is in fact more an effect of thick tendons and muscles than of bone, which cannot be rounded because the lower arm and leg contains two separate bones. Feet should be large and strong with tightly curved toes (cat feet). Males generally tend to turn the front feet slightly outwards (French stance) but preferably as little as possible. There should be a good angulation in front and hindquarters. In front this means that the shoulders should be, as they call it “well laid back” meaning that the withers (the highest point of the shoulder blades) must be far back from the front which results in a rather short back (distance between withers and tail onset) and a long neck ( distance between withers and occiput). Angulation between shoulder blade and upper arm bone nearly ninety degrees. The thigh bone slope backwards and there must be a reasonable amount of angulation in the knees and hocks with the result that the hocks are almost perpendicular. The shin bone (“second thigh” in the breed standard) must be quite long with the calf muscle that runs alongside it thick and long and the foot rather short. This makes for the strongest construction for driving the body forwards. The whole body should be long to allow room for cantering with extension without the feet on the same side touching each other. In a craze for straight toplines often length of the body is lost, which makes perhaps for dogs standing nicely at attention at a show, but is unsuited for action. Dribbling should be reserved for lesser breeds.

Colours, pale to apricot fawn. Red is an off colour. Anything redder than an apricot is probably due either to Bloodhound or St Bernard. Brindles have the same base colour with black stripes running vertically from the backbone to the belly. The stripes should be as clearly delineated as possible against the fawn background. The amount of black must preferably be so large that the dog appears black at first sight, which is why they are called dark brindles. Preferably there should be no white. It used to be quite common in the eighteenth century but in fact by breeding for uniform colour nearly all white was eliminated. If Mastiffs have bigger white patches an outcross is suspected. And it is well known that these have taken place so we shouldn’t be too surprised at an occasional white patch. Just don’t breed in on those that produced it. Other characteristics are more important than a little bit of white, however unsightly. In the Mastiff one had better look for real movement. Not the laughable trotting shown at dog shows, but real movement where the animal stretches its legs and goes at a speed which is far too fast for show rings and handlers alike.

Don’t think you’ll ever get a Mastiff puppy that has all the virtues and none of the vices. Even if a breeder should succeed in producing such a puppy, he would be a fool to sell it. And if he was a fool he would not have been able to produce it.

The Mastiff has a very characteristic way of trotting and cantering. It almost looks like slow motion. The legs move rather slowly but because they are long legs anyway and there is a lot of extension possible, they move much faster than the eye would have it. Their paces are a lot longer than you’d guess. This is what we call extension.

Character is not over friendly to all and everybody. A bit reserved, like a classical Englishman who doesn’t talk to somebody he’s not been introduced to. Very characteristic of them is that they prefer to make the advances. People who come up to them spontaneously are perceived as rather cloying and annoying. He likes to make his own choices and doesn’t want to be disturbed when he’s not yet done thinking whatever deep thoughts wallow grandly through his brain. Also he has to keep an eye out for threats against his family. As far as their own safety is concerned they’re not exactly watchful.

Like any breed of dog, you either like them or you don’t. There’s hardly anything in between. They may be guard dogs, but their concern generally is more for the members of the family than their possessions. They don’t bark much and generally only come into action when there’s real danger. Therefore they may be less apt guardians for some people than dogs that are a bit more attentive and bark a lot more.