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The Origins of the Mastiff

This article is reprinted from Canis Max, Winter 1996/1997. All rights are reserved by the author, Tamara Taylor, of Patteran Dairy Goats & Turkish Livestock Guard Dogs. E-mail:

Every domesticated animal species shows tremendous variety in size, color, and conformation as a result of man's intervention in the breeding process. However, no species demonstrates more variety than man's best friend, the domestic dog. Canis familiaris comes in every imaginable size and shape, with every possible color and coat variation. Where did these varieties come from? Throughout the ages, an amazing number of people have pondered that question and theorized answers. Most of these people began by first cataloging the different kinds of dogs. Among the most well-known of these "catalogers" was Dr. Caius, who was the personal physician to Queen Elizabeth and who undertook the classification of British Dogs in 1576. Robert Leighton, another Englishman, records early classifications in his New Book of the Dog. Among them is one which was drawn up by the Romans and which classified dogs into canes villatica (watchdogs), canes pastorales (sheepdogs), canes vanatici (hunting dogs). These hunting dogs were further sub-divided into pugnaces (attackers), nare sagaces (trackers), pedibus cleres (chasers).

These early classifications were made primarily on the basis of the dog's function, its job. Today a widely accepted classification of dogs divides them into four main categories each representing a different origin and sharing certain physical traits. Those categories, according to Richard and Alice Fiennes, are the Dingo group, the Northern group, the Greyhound group, the Mastiff group.

It is in the last of these, the Mastiff group, that most of the massive dogs fall. The mastiff, or "canis maximus" as his fans call him, takes his generic name "mastiff" from the same base as "massive", meaning "mountain-like"; however, the English word "mastiff" is dogge in German and dogue or dogo in some romance languages.

The word mastiff brings to mind immediately the British breeds known today as the Bull-Mastiff and the Mastiff; likewise, the words dogo and dogue appear in the names of the French Dogue de Bordeaux and of the Argentine Dogo. However, this family spreads it branches much further, encompassing a large number of breeds, such as the hounds, setters, bulldogs, and modern mastiffs, all of which still share certain distinctive traits. Those shared characteristics can be traced back to the earliest mastiff type dogs, the root stock of this family.

To find those roots we must go back to a time that antedates the writing of Dr. Caius or even that of ancient Romans, Varro and Columella. In fact, we must go back beyond these written records to the dog as recorded in ancient art. No culture was so proud of their animals as the Egyptians, who left us a virtual treasure trove of animal artwork. Interestingly enough, as Leighton points out, the ancient mastiff is noticeable for its absence in early Egyptian works. To find an early artistic rendition of the heavy boned, drop eared, short-muzzled mastiff, we must go to ancient Assyria. There numerous examples of the ancient mastiff are seen in stone bas-relief from sites like Nineveh (from about 640 BC). Today many of these carvings are housed in the British Museum.

Did the ancestral mastiff come from Assyria and Mesopotamia, which is so often referred to as the cradle of civilization? Paul Strang, a cynologist and a noted authority on the Great Pyrenees, observes in his book The Complete Great Pyrenees, that the existence of massive native breeds today in Turkey, Iran, and Southern Russia could support the theory that the ancestors of today's mastiff breeds came from the Middle East. Other serious cynologists, such as David and Judy Nelson, agree with that possibility. Experts on the Turkish native breeds, they have been involved in field observations and research in that area of the world for over twenty years. Their work in the eastern regions of Turkey (due north of ancient Nineveh, as the crow flies) has focused Western attention on the Kangal Dog, a native of the Sivas region of Turkey.

The Kangal Dog is a classic example of a "natural," working mastiff without the exaggerated body proportions seen in many of the more "modernized" breeds today. Nonetheless, the Kangal Dog is identifiable as a mastiff, powerfully built with pendant ears, relatively short, heavy neck and muzzle, a definite stop, and well-developed flews (lips) and dewlap. Used as both a livestock guardian and a military dog, this dog is itself an object of national pride, so much so that the Turkish government sponsors several breeding facilities and limits its export.

However, some cynologists, such as Strang, have proposed that the roots of this ancient family may trace even further East, to Asia, and to the area where ancestors of the modern Tibetan Mastiff were found. This theory maintains that as ancient nomadic peoples moved westward, they brought with them their flocks and their guard dogs. Leighton simply states that the "Thibet" (sic) Mastiff is "no doubt . . . depicted in the sculptures from the palace of Nimrod" but offers no further support as to why the relatively smooth-coated dogs depicted should be considered Tibetan Mastiffs. He does, however, cite a Chinese manuscript from 1121 BC which describes a dog sent from a western Chinese province to the Emperor Wou-wang. Leighton calls this dog "a great dog of the Thibetan kind . . .four feet high, and trained to attack men of a strange race."

Whether the prehistoric ancestors of the "massive" breeds today were Asian or Middle Eastern really matters little. In about 485 BC, Hubbard tells us, mastiffs were brought by Xerxes from Persia into Greece. At this time, all of modern day Turkey was part of the Persian Empire. These dogs may have had their origins in ancient Assyria or even in the area that would later become Turkey. Or their ancestors may have made the circuitous journey from the mountains of Central Asia, through India into Asia Minor, the gateway to Europe.

Whatever their prehistoric origins, these early mastiffs are thought to have first served as guard dogs for the flocks and herds of their owners. At a time when large predators still roamed the mountains and plains of Central Asia and the Middle East, these fierce guardians were invaluable. The Assyrians depict the dogs in battle with lions. Ancient stories say that the massive Hyrcanian dog from India, which took its name from the ancient Hyrcanian peoples of northern India and Baluchistan, was itself the result of a mating between a tiger and a bitch. In the American Kennel Club's The Complete Dog Book, a story recounts the disappointment of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire about 550 BC. Receiving a mastiff from the King of Albania, Cyrus immediately set about proving its "mettle" and attempted to fight it against another dog and then against a bull. The mastiff showed no interest in fighting. Cyrus had it killed and then notified the King as to the cowardice of his gift. Cyrus received a second mastiff; however, this dog was accompanied by the message that the dog would scorn such pitiful opponents as a Persian cur or a bull. Cyrus was told to find the dog a worthy opponent, such as a tiger or an elephant, and to know he would receive no more mastiffs. As the story goes, the mastiff was set upon an elephant which she did finally bring to its knees.

Whether this story is true is doubtful. However, it does tell us the respect with which the ancient mastiff was regarded. These ancient mastiffs, whatever their origins and prey, are believed to have been the ancestors of the later war-dogs and sheepdogs for which ancient Epirus and Sparta were to become so famous. Molossia, a country in Epirus (located on what is now the Western coast of the Greek mainland), gave rise to the term "Molosser," which was the name given to the famous mastiffs of that region and which is still used to refer to members of the mastiff family.

Phoenicians traveling to Italy and on to Spain and France are thought to have carried these guarding dogs with them, perhaps selling them along with sheep and goats to herdsmen in those areas. By this time there were already reported differences in the ancient mastiffs. A number of sources available today refer to the early difference that developed between the white, longer muzzled, graceful "shepherd's" dog and the darker, heavier, dog used for protection and for war (Raulston). Both Strang and von Stephanitz report that Columella, a Roman writer, in about the year 60 AD in De Re Rustica describes two types of guard dogs: the white, swift sheep guarding dog or shepherd's dog and the dark colored, heavy farm guard dog. These early imports from Asia Minor to the Pyrenees were certainly of the first type and were the basis for the breed we now know as the Great Pyrenees.

Once the mastiff reached the Roman Empire, they had already been bred to suit special purposes, the first step in the development of "breeds" within a species. The Romans had developed one breed that very closely resembles the Sennenhund or Swiss Mountain Dog of today (Hubbard). In fact, there were no prehistoric Swiss mastiffs, or doggen, prior to the last century BC (Raulston). The Romans took their mastiffs into Gaul, now known as France. Their mastiffs guarded the mountain passes where a few hundred years later the St. Bernard would be found. These early mastiffs also contributed to French breeds like the Dogue de Bordeaux and quite possibly to the many breeds of hounds found in France. To the south, in Italy the Neapolitan Mastiff was born. In Spain, very near the homeland of the Great Pyrenees, the Spanish Mastiff developed. To the north, in Belgium, the feared tracker, St. Hubert's Hound, the ancestor of today's Bloodhound, was developed from the descendants of those fierce hunting dogs of prehistoric times. The retrievers, like the Labrador and the Chesapeake, are thought also to trace to the ancient mastiffs.

From the Alps, the mastiff is thought to have been adopted by the Germanic peoples and then to have traveled to Great Britain with Angles and Saxons. The Great Dane is known as the Deutsche Dogge (or German Mastiff) in most countries today. In Chaucer's day the Middle English words alaunt or alan and alano were also used to indicate early mastiffs. These words may have derived from the word Alani, the name of an Eastern race that lived before the time of Christ in what is now Albania (AKC) or they may have , in fact, been corruptions of the word Allemannni, the Germanic people who invaded France prior to the reign of Charlemagne.

The Fiennes tell us that, while these early mastiffs may have been used initially for guarding, their courage and ferocity against predators also suited them for hunting bear and wolf, which existed in Britain in Saxon times. By the Middle Ages, some mastiffs had become butcher's dogs and then were bred for bull-baiting and dog-fighting. With each change in role, came physical changes to enable the dog to better perform in its new role.

In the meantime, throughout the mountainous regions and high plains stretching from Central Asia through Asia Minor and Eastern Europe into the Pyrenees of France, shepherds continued to use the white livestock guardian described before the time of Christ as the protectors of their herds. The descendants of those long-coated white dogs still exist as the Akbash Dog of Turkey, the Tatra of Poland, the Chuvatch of Czechoslovakia, the Kuvasz of Hungary, the Maremma of Italy, and the Great Pyrenees of France. Likewise, the dark colored livestock guardians are also still found in certain areas: the Shar Plainenetz of the former Jugoslavia, the Kangal Dog of eastern Turkey, and the Tibetan Mastiff.

Mastiff blood with an introduction of the northern "spitz" type dog is thought to be the probable source of the rough-coated ovcharkas of Russia and the Komondor of Hungary, as well as the "bearded" herding dogs of Britain (Fiennes). The Bergamsco of Italy, rarely seen in this country, and the Bearded Collie of Britain are also probable members of this group. That northern native "spitz" type dog is also considered to be the ancestor of many of the Oriental breeds, some of which were crossed with mastiff breeds to produce dogs such as the Tosa Inu, the famed fighting dog of Japan, and the Dosa of Korea.

The descendants of the mastiff are alive and well in the New World, with many of the Old World breeds represented in our homes and show rings. A surprising number of dogs from the lesser known breeds, like the Akbash Dog, the Tatra, the Kangal Dog, the Maremma, serve in their ancient role as livestock guardians on North American farms and rangeland. There they are well-known as protectors of sheep and cattle from mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, wolf, and even the Grizzly bear. South America, likewise, has developed its own mastiffs, the Argentine Dogo and the Fila Brasileiro, breeds specifically designed for the South American ranches and plantations.

Today the descendants of the ancient mastiff are spread throughout the world and come in an amazing variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. However, most still share some of the physical characteristics which set them off from the other breed types thousands of years ago. Even more importantly, they are still known for their courage, their determination, and their watchful demeanor. The modern mastiffs still function as potentially ferocious protectors of man and his possessions.

The American Kennel Club. The Complete Dog Book. 17th edition. N.Y.: Howell Book House, Inc., 1987.
Fiennes, Richard and Alice. The Natural History of Dogs. Garden City, N.Y.: The Natural History Press, 1970.
Hubbard, Clifford L.B. Working Dogs of the World. London: Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, 1947.
The Kangal Dog Club of America Homepage.
Leighton, Robert. The New Book of the Dog. Vol. I, II. London: Cassell and Company, Limited, 1916.
Nelson, David and Judy. The Akbash Dog: A Turkish Breed for Home and Agriculture. Delaware, 1983.
Raulston, E. Georgean, ed. The New Complete Saint Bernard. N.Y.: Howell Book House, Inc., 1973.
Strang, Paul D. and James M. Giffen. The Complete Great Pyrenees. N.Y.: Howell Book House,Inc., 1981.
Von Stephanitz, Capt. Max. The German Shepherd Dog. 8th edition. Augsburg, Germany, 1950.

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