Saturday, December 03, 2005

The English Mastiff, just a Bandog?

This was originally written by DaveUK and posted to an English Mastiff board.

Credit for references in this article are due to Colonel David Hancock, MBE

The history of the English Mastiff is somewhat confusing. Apart from the unreliable claims of research workers, the numerous references in early works cannot be relied on as the name molossus, which is usually mistranslated to Mastiff and is often applied to any large breed dog.

The wishful thinkers seeking a long and pure ancestry for the EM would be wise to ignore the absurd claims of English Victorian breed enthusiasts, and accept that in previous centuries the Mastiff was, in modern terms, a very large mongrel. Idstone writing in his The Dog of 1871 states, "We cannot visit a fair or market in any provincial town without seeing this mongrel Mastiff on guard amongst travellers carts, generally brindled, frequently blazed and blended with greyhound." Thomas Berwick recorded in 1790, "The Mastiff in its pure unmixed state is now seldom to be met with. The generality of dogs distinguished by that name seem to be compounded of the Bulldog, Danish Mastiff and Bandog."

The word Mastiff is believed by some to come from the French 'Metif', in old French 'Mestif', in middle English 'Mastyf' or 'Mastiv', meaning mixed breed or mongrel. Others consider it comes from the middle English, obscurely representing the old French 'Mastin', based on the Latin 'Mansuetus' or tame. Chamber 20th century dictionary states it is from "an assumed old French Mastiff" probably a variant of old French 'Mastin.' In the dictionary of word origins 1994, it states that the word seems to have come into the language as an alteration of the old French 'Mastin' ; 'Mastin' in time became 'Matin' translated as Mastiff, a cur or scoundrel, clearly no compliment. These original meanings should not be seen as demeaning to the breed of Mastiff today; pure breeding is a modern phenomenon.

In RA Harcourts The Dog in Prehistoric and Early Britain of 1794, he sets out his examination of the bones of all dogs unearthed in the immediate pre Roman period and found no massive heavy headed dogs, but plenty of medium sized hounds. An examination of dog bones in Romano British times revealed the presence of much larger dogs. The Alan's provided the Roman Calvary; Marcus Aureliu sent 5,500 Alans to Britain, where they guarded Hadrians Wall. They left Alanic place names behind them in Britain. The Alans were accompanied by their Alaunts, huge hunting Mastiffs. Could they have been the first hunting types in England? It certainly was the case in Italy.

Chaucer makes reference to Alaunts as big steers. The word Mastiff was not in general use in Britain until the end of the 18th century. The middle English 'Bandogge' was used before then. Dictionaries give the origin of bandogge as band+ dog, a dog kept on a lead or chain. It is unlikely this means a tethered yard dog however, but a dog kept leashed in the hunt until needed, i.e. , as a catch dog. Medieval paintings show this in the hunting field. There is an old English ballad from about 1610 that includes the lines, "Half a hundred good band-dogs came running over the lee." There is little indication of solitary tied up yard dogs in those words.

The Romans found not Mastiff like strong headed dogs in Britain, but course haired, strong headed, medium sized fighting dogs. Opian described British fighting dogs as monkey faced. As the distinguished historian Toynbee states, such fighting dogs were much more of the Irish Wolfhound phenotype. Despite this, books on the mastiff, the English breed, all relate to how Romans found this breed in England. There is simply no evidence for this that withstands scrutiny. There is however much mistranslation by Victorian enthusiasts which contributes little to peoples understanding of how and where this breed originated.

Famous names on early Mastiff breeding records indicate the remarkable mixture behind the breed. The esteemed 'Coushez' was in fact an Alpine Mastiff. Waterman's Tiger was a Great Dane from Ireland. Lukey's Pluto and Countess were reportedly of Tibetan Mastiff type. The Mastiff breeder HD Kingdon, writing in Webbs Dogs of 1882, mentions "breeders who insist no Mastiff has a pedigree 40 years withstanding, and who have 'manufactured' for our dog shows a big cross bred dog that has been exhibited under the name Mastiff."

James Watson in his book The Dog Book of 1906, wrote that, "The patent facts are that from a number of dogs of various types of English watchdogs and baiting dogs, running from 26" to 30" in height, crossed with continental types such as the Great Dane and old St. Bernard, the Mastiff has been elevated through the efforts of English breeders to the dog he has become about 20 years ago." HD Kingdon wrote, "We do not believe the purity of Mastiffs over thirty inches tall." This statement bears weight in that the universal Mastiff type is between 24-28 inches. The flock guardian breeds are bigger than this and it is obvious that the smooth St. Bernard and the Tibetan Mastiff have been used to produce this size in the mastiff. The thicker coat of the Alpine Mastiff, the Great Dane cranium and the Tibetan Mastiff's upward curving tail are all features that can surface to the detriment of the true Mastiff type. Breed type once lost, takes decades of devoted breeding to restore.

Edward Ash recorded in 1931, "In 1867 we read that the Mastiff was being crossed to the Bulldog to get a shorter face, for the Mastiff head then was longer. Bloodhounds were also used. The heads became narrow, the eyes sunken, and the jaw exaggerated."

Stonehenge wrote, "A much worse stain in the pedigree of the Mastiff is the cross with the Bloodhound." Today so many show ring Mastiff's resemble the early importations of the smooth St. Bernard, only the solid fawn coat differentiate them as a Mastiff. Is this what the famed Mastiff of England should look like? "The island of England breeds very valiant creatures. Their Mastiff's are of unmatchable courage." ~William Shakespeare

There is plenty of evidence to show that the Mastiff, the English breed of that name, has not always been enriched by the breeders who bred it or the breed historians who wrote about it. Flowery accounts have been composed on how the breed was brought to Britain by the Phoenicians, without a shred of evidence to back them up. Every mention of the word Mastiff itself, for several centuries, meant any large mongrel or huge formidable dog, regardless of coat color, shape of skull, or function. The confused background in no sense degrades the modern breed of Mastiff. It merely indicates a lack of wisdom in its fanciers.

Despite the Mastiffs confused history, the Mastiff as it should be is a magnificent breed, however its misuse by man as a show freak is quite appalling. At dog shows througout the world, including the FCI world show and Crufts, the Mastiff is a dreadful, sluggish, shambling, overweight specimen of a superb breed gone seriously wrong. Their movement is awful, their construction disastrous, their eyes sunken and sad, their flaws exaggerated beyond comfort, and their ultra heavy bone a needless handicap. Any group of breed fanciers can lose their way, but when a dog this size is ill bred, indirect cruelty is involved. The modern show Mastiff is heavier than any past function could justify. They seem to be valued now simply for their sheer size.

Arthur Croxton Smith wrote in 1948, "Breeders seem to have concentrated more and more upon getting immense size and great bulk, usually bring the evil of unsoundness in its train. I have seen plenty of perfectly sound Mastiffs, such as could move well and were really active, but latterly the proportion of unsound ones is alarmingly high, for it is extremely difficult for breeders to get soundness in alliance with bulk."

No breed can lead a healthy lifestyle if its sole purpose is at the mercy of the human whim. Any breed no longer bred for function, even if that function has lapsed, has a doubtful future. The Mastiff is a classic example, some would say, THE classic example, of the broad mouthed dogs, which were used by primitive hunters to pull down big game, such as auroch, bison, wild bull, boar, and even bear. They were heavy hounds. They are sometimes called holding dogs, gripping or pinning dogs. Such dogs were recklessly brave, many being killed by their quarry. Eventually there became a separation between the running/hunting Mastiffs, and the "killing" Mastiffs of the butcheries. The former were par force hounds, used in the chase, the latter were used to close with and kill its quarry. These dogs needed great courage, immense tenacity, massive determination, and considerable agility, or they didn't live long enough to breed. They needed colossul muzzle strength, provided by wide jaws with abundant length, as every depiction of them shows.

When one sees Bullmastiffs with the head structure of a pug it is quite despairing. No holding or gripping dogs could effectively do its job without length as well as breadth of muzzle. And when one hears the hoary old tale used to justify muzzles of Bulldogs, of how this feature was necessary to enable the Bulldog to go on breathing while gripping the bull, it's laughable. One does see Mastiffs with short muzzles in British show rings. It gives a coarse ignoble look to a breed with a natural lordly manner.

Many believe it was the success of a dog called "Crown Prince" that was the ruination of the Mastiff. Crown Prince was a show champion and a much sought after sire. Even with his worrying resemblance to a St. Bernard. To breed from such a shambolic dog simply because he had been selected as a winner by a misguided judge is folly and irresponsible.

The Mastiff as it was, a hunting and gripping killing dog, a guardian of great estates of the Aristocracy is all but extinct. There are a few examples that hark back to the days when the Mastiff was a superior working breed, but these examples are far too few and widespread for any concerted effort to restore them, to be successful. It is very regrettable and sad that a once formidable, majestic, fearless breed has been reduced to the role of show freak by its breeders and fanciers.

In closing Dave says, "As far as I am concerned, its the dogs that deserve the credit. If any one of those people that continually use those message boards to vent their vile personality flaws had even 1% of the character and courage of the dogs they brag about, they'd be 1000 times the people that they are. These dogs humble us, show us what we ought to be in terms of character, loyalty, unconditional love and patience. Very few owners live up to the dogs they have at their side."


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