The Mastiff referred to by most Kennel Clubs simply as the Mastiff, is a breed of large dog perhaps descended from the ancient Alaunt through the Pugnaces Britanniae. Distinguishable by enormous size, massive head, and a limited range of colors, but always displaying a black mask, the Mastiff is noted for its gentle temperament. The lineage of modern dogs can be traced back to the early 19th century, and the modern type was estabilised in the 1880s. Following a period of sharp decline, the Mastiff has increased its worldwide popularity.
With a massive body, broad skull and head of generally square appearance, it is the largest dog breed in terms of mass. Though the Irish Wolfhound and Great Dane are taller, they are not nearly as robust.
The body is large with great depth and breadth, especially between the forelegs, causing these to be set wide apart. The AKC standard height (per their website) for this breed is 30 inches (76 cm) at the shoulder for males and 27.5 inches (70 cm) (minimum) at the shoulder for females. A typical male can weigh 150–250 pounds (68–110 kg), a typical female can weigh 120–200 pounds (54–91 kg).
Coat colour standards
The former standard specified the coat should be short and close-lying (though long haired Mastiffs, called “Fluffies”, are occasionally seen) and the color is apricot-fawn, silver-fawn, fawn, or dark fawn-brindle, always with black on the muzzle, ears, and nose and around the eyes.
The Mastiff has a distinctive head with dewlap and flews.
The colours of the Mastiff coat are differently described by various kennel clubs, but are essentially fawn or apricot, or those colours as a base for black brindle. A black mask should occur in all cases. The fawn is generally a light “silver” shade, but may range up to a golden yellow. The apricot may be a slightly reddish hue up to a deep, rich red. The brindle markings should ideally be heavy, even and clear stripes, but may actually be light, uneven, patchy, faint or muddled. Pied Mastiffs occur rarely. Other non-standard colours include black, blue brindle, and chocolate mask. Some Mastiffs have a heavy shading caused by dark hairs throughout the coat or primarily on the back and shoulders. Brindle is dominant over solid colour. Apricot is dominant over fawn, though that dominance may be incomplete. Most of the colour faults are recessive, though black is so rare in the Mastiff that it cannot be certain if it is recessive, or a mutation that is dominant.
The greatest weight ever recorded for a dog, 343 pounds (156 kg), was that of an English Mastiff from England named Aicama Zorba of La Susa, although claims of larger dogs exist. According to the 1989 edition of the Guinness Book of Records, in March 1989, when he was 7 years old, Zorba stood 35 inches (89 cm) at the shoulder and was 8.25 feet (251 cm) from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail, about the size of a small donkey. After 2000, the Guinness Book of World Records stopped accepting largest or heaviest pet records.
The Mastiff breed has a desired temperament, which is reflected in all formal standards and historical descriptions. Though calm and affectionate to its master, it is capable of protection. If an unfamiliar person approaches near the Mastiff’s perceived territory or its master, ideally, it would protect its master. If the approaching person is perceived as a threat, the Mastiff may take immediate defensive action by placing itself between its master and using a “warning growl” although some will actually hide behind their master and issue their intimidating growl from there. Mastiffs, even fearless ones, will rarely attack an intruder or perceived threat (unless severely provoked) and instead will generally pin the individual until a human they know arrives and tells them it is ok. Mastiffs are good natured, calm, easygoing, and surprisingly gentle for their size. They are a very sensitive breed, and as such harsh training methods and discipline are not recommended. It is a well-mannered house pet, requiring minimal daily exercise and activity. The Mastiff is typically an extremely loyal breed, exceptionally devoted to its family and good with children and small dogs and is often described by owners as “their giant teddy bear.”
The Mastiff is a particularly large dog demanding correct diet and exercise. Excessive running is not recommended for the first two years of the dog’s life. However, regular exercise must be maintained throughout the dog’s life in order to discourage slothful behavior and to prevent a number of health problems. A soft surface is recommended for the dog to sleep on in order to prevent the development of calluses, arthritis, and hygroma (an acute inflammatory swelling). Due to the breed’s large size, puppies may potentially be smothered or crushed by the mother during nursing. A whelping box, along with careful monitoring can prevent such accidents. The average lifespan of the Mastiff is about 7 years although it’s not uncommon for some to live to 10–11 years.
Major problems can include hip dysplasia and gastric torsion. Minor problems include obesity, osteosarcoma, and cystinuria. Problems only occasionally found include cardiomyopathy, allergies, vaginal hyperplasia, cruciate ligament rupture, hypothyroidism, OCD, entropion, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), and persistent pupillary membranes (PPM)
When purchasing a purebred Mastiff, experts often suggest that the dog undergo tests for hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, thyroid, and DNA for PRA.
History before the First World War
The Pugnaces Britanniae (Latin) was the name given by the Romans to the original English Mastiff.
The origin of the term “Mastiff” is unclear. Many claim that it evolved from the Anglo-Saxon word “masty”, meaning “powerful” Other sources, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, say the word originated from the Old French word mastin (Modern French mâtin), the word being itself derived from Vulgar Latin *ma(n)suetinus “tame”, see Classical Latin mansuetus with same meaning.
In 1570, Conrad Heresbach, in Rei Rusticae Libri Quatuor, referred to “the Mastie that keepeth the house”. Heresbach was writing in Latin; his work was translated a few years later into English by Barnabe Googe as Foure Bookes of Husbandrie. This work is adapted from De Re Rustica by 1st century Roman writer Columella, which highlights the Roman connection, but it has been speculated the Mastiff is descended from dogs brought to Britain by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC. From Roman to Medieval times, these dogs were used in the blood sports of bear-baiting, bull-baiting, dog fighting, and lion-baiting. Dogs known as Bandogs, who were tied (bound) close to houses, were of Mastiff type. They were described by John Caius in 1570 as vast, huge, stubborn, ugly, and eager, of a heavy and burdensome body. Throughout its history, the Mastiff has contributed to the development of a number of dog breeds.
When in 1415 Sir Peers Legh was wounded in the Battle of Agincourt, his Mastiff stood over and protected him for many hours through the battle. The Mastiff was later returned to Legh’s home and was the foundation of the Lyme Hall Mastiffs. Five centuries later this pedigree figured prominently in founding the modern breed. Other aristocratic seats where Mastiffs are known to have been kept are Elvaston Castle (Charles Stanhope, 4th Earl of Harrington and his ancestors) and Chatsworth House. The owner of the Chatsworth Mastiffs (which were said to be of Alpine stock) was William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, known to his family as Canis. Mastiffs were also kept at Hadzor Hall, owned by members of the Galton family, famous for industrialists and scientists, including Charles Darwin.
Some evidence exists that the Mastiff first came to America on the Mayflower, but the breed’s documented entry to America did not occur until the late 19th century.
In 1835, the Parliament of the United Kingdom implemented an Act called the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, which prohibited the baiting of animals. This may have led to decline in Mastiffs used for this purpose, but Mastiffs continued to be used as guards for country estates and town businesses. Organised breeding began in the 19th century, when J.W. (John Wigglesworth) Thompson sought out a bitch, Dorah, from John Crabtree, the head gamekeeper of Kirklees Hall, whose dogs were often held in the name of his employer, Sir George Armitage. Dorah was descended in part from animals owned by Thompson’s grandfather, Commissioner Thompson, at the beginning of the century, as well as a Mastiff of the Bold Hall line, recorded from 1705, one purchased from canal boat men and another caught by Crabtree in a fox trap. J. W. Thompson’s first stud dog Hector came from crossing a bitch, Juno, bought from animal dealer Bill George, to a dog, Tiger, owned by a Captain Fenton.
Neither of these had any pedigree, as was normal for the period. Between 1830 and 1850 he bred the descendants of these dogs and some others to produce a line with the short, broad head and massive build he favoured. In 1835, T.V.H. Lukey started his operations by breeding an Alpine Mastiff bitch of the Chatsworth line, Old Bob-Tailed Countess (bought from dog dealer Bill White), to Pluto, a large black Mastiff of unknown origin belonging to the Marquis of Hertford. The result was a bitch called Yarrow, who was mated to Couchez, another Alpine Mastiff belonging (at the time) to White and later mated to a brindle dog also in White’s possession. Lukey produced animals that were taller but less massive than Thompson’s. After 1850, Thompson and Lukey collaborated, and the modern Mastiff was created, though animals without pedigree or of dubious pedigree continued to be bred from into the 20th century. Another important contribution to the breed was made by a dog called Lion, owned by Captain Garnier. He bought two Mastiffs from the previously mentioned dealer Bill George. The bitch, Eve, bought by George at Leadenhall Market, was old enough to be gray-muzzled, but of good type; the dog, Adam, was of reputed Lyme Hall origin, but bought at Tattersalls and suspected by Garnier of containing a “dash of Boarhound”, an ancestral form of Great Dane. Garnier took them to the United States with him and brought back their puppy, Lion. He was bred to Lukey’s Countess to produce Governor, the source of all existing Mastiff lines. (Lion was also mated to Lufra, a Scottish Deerhound, and their puppy Marquis appears in the pedigrees of both Deerhounds and Irish Wolfhounds.)
The controversial Ch. Crown Prince, pictured in old age.
In the 1880s soundness was sacrificed for type (widely attributed to the short-headed but straight-stifled Ch. Crown Prince), and subsequently, the Mastiff lost popularity but gained a consistency of type. In the USA particularly, Mastiffs declined steadily through the 1890s and the early 20th century. From 1906 to 1918, only 24 Mastiffs were registered in the United States, none American bred after 1910. By the time the First World War ended, other than for a few imports, the breed was extinct outside of Great Britain.
History after the First World War
In 1918, a dog called Beowulf, bred in Canada from British imports Priam of Wingfied and Parkgate Duchess, was registered by the AKC, starting a slow re-establishment of the breed in North America. Priam and Duchess, along with fellow imports Ch Weland, Thor of the Isles, Caractacus of Hellingly and Brutus of Saxondale, ultimately contributed a total of only two descendants who would produce further offspring, Buster of Saxondale and Buddy. There were, however, a number of other imports in the period between the wars and in the early days of the Second World War, and those whose descendants survive were 12 in number, meaning the North American contribution to the gene pool after 1945 consists of 14 Mastiffs. In the British Isles, virtually all breeding stopped due to the rationing of meat. After the war, such puppies as were produced mostly succumbed to canine distemper, for which no vaccine was developed until 1950. Only a single bitch puppy produced by the elderly stock that survived the war reached maturity, Nydia of Frithend, and her sire had to be declared a Mastiff by the Kennel Club, as his parentage was unknown, and he was thought by some to be a Bullmastiff. After the war, animals from North America, prominently from Canada, were imported. Therefore all Mastiffs in the late 1950s were descended from Nydia and the 14 Mastiffs previously mentioned. It has been alleged that the Mastiff was bred with other more numerous giant breeds such as Bullmastiffs and St. Bernards, as these were considered close relatives to the Mastiff. In 1959, a Dogue de Bordeaux, Fidelle de Fenelon, was imported from France to the USA, registered as a Mastiff, and entered the gene pool. Since that time, the breed has gradually been restored in Britain, has reached 28th most popular breed in the USA, and is now found worldwide.
Extract from Abraham Fleming’s translation of John Caius’s description, dated 1570, of the “Mastiue or Bandogge”.
“This kind of Dog called a Mastyue or Bandogge is vast, huge, stubborn and eager, of a heavy and burthenous body, and therefore but of little swiftness, terrible, and frightful to behold, and more fierce and fell then any Arcadian curre (not withstanding they are said to have their generation of the violent Lion.) They are called Villatici, because they are appointed to watch and keep farm places and country cottages sequestred from common recourse, and not abutting weapon other houses by reason of distance, when there is any fear concealed of thieves, robbers, spoilers, and night wanderers. They are serviceable against the Fox and the Badger, to drive wild and tame swyne out of Meadows, pastures, glebelandes (church lands) and places planted with fruit, to bite and take the bull by the ear, when occasion requires. One dog or two at the uttermost, sufficient for that purpose be the bull never so monsterous, never so fierce, never so furious, never so stearn, never so untameable. For it is a kind of dog capable of courage, violent and valiaunt, striking could fear into the hearts of men, but standing in fear of no man, in so much that no weapons will make him shrink, nor abridge his boldness. Our English men (to the intent that their dogs might be the more fell and fierce) assist nature with art, vise, and custom, for they teach their dogs to bite the Bear, to bite the Bull and other such like cruel and bloudy beasts (appointing an ouerseer of the game) without any collar to defend their throats, and oftentimes they train them via fighting and wrestling with a man hauing for the safegarde of his life, either a Pikestaffe, a club, or a sword and by using them to such exercises as these, their dogs become more sturdy and strong. The force which is in them surmounteth all beleefe, the fast hold which they take with their teeth exceed all credit, three of them against a Bear, force against a Lyon are sufficient, both to try master with them and utterly to out match them.”
Extract from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Conrad Heresbach’s description of the Bandog for the house:
“First, the Mastie that keepeth the house. For this purpose you must provide you such a one as hath a large and mightie body, a great shrill voyce, that both with his barking he may discover, and with his sight dismaye the theefe, yea, being not seene, with the horror of his voice put him to flight. His stature must be neither long nor short, but well set ; his head, great ; his eyes, sharp and fiery, either browne or grey ; his lippes, blackish, neither turning up nor hanging too much down ; his mouth black and wide ; his neather jaw, fat, and coming out of it on either side a fang appearing more outward than his other teeth ; his upper teeth even with his neather, not hanging too much over, sharpe, and hidden with his lippes ; his countenance, like a lion ; his brest, great and shag hayrd ; his shoulders, broad ; his legges, bigge ; his tayle, short ; his feet, very great. His disposition must neither be too gentle nor too curst, that he neither faune upon a theefe nor flee upon his friends; very waking; no gadder abroad, nor lavish of his mouth, barking without cause; neither maketh it any matter though he be not swifte, for he is but to fight at home, and to give warning of the enemie.”
Sydenham Edwards (1800), wrote in the Cynographia Britannica, London: C. Whittingham:
“What the Lion is to the Cat the Mastiff is to the Dog, the noblest of the family; he stands alone, and all others sinking before him. His courage does not exceed its temper and generosity and in attachment he equals the kindest of his race. His docility is perfect; the teasing of the smaller kinds will hardly provoke him to resent, and I have seen him down with his paw the Terrier or cur that has bit him, without offering further injury. In a family he will permit the children to play with him and will suffer all their little pranks without offence. The blind ferocity of the bulldog will often wound the hand of the master who assists him to combat, but the Mastiff distinguishes perfectly, enters the field with temper, and engages the attack as if confident of success: if he overpowers, or is beaten, his master may take him immediately in his arms and fear nothing. This ancient and faithful domestic, the pride of our island, uniting the useful, the brave and the docile, though sought by foreign nations and perpetuated on the continent, is nearly extinct where he was probably an aborigine, or is bastardized by numberless crosses, everyone of which degenerate from the invaluable character of the parent, who was deemed worthy to enter the Roman amphitheatre and in the presence of the masters of the world, encounter the pard and assail even the lord of the savage tribes, whose courage was sublimed by torrid suns, and found none gallant enough to oppose him on the deserts of Zaara or the plains of Numidia.”