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10 Things to Know Before Judging the Cane Corso

From that all-important head to key proportions, Michael Ertaskiran offers 10 things to know about judging the Cane Corso

1. History

The Cane Corso is one of two native Italian “mastiff type” dogs that descends from the Roman war dog, Canis Pugnaces. Adept as a game hunter or farmhand, the Corso is sturdy, strong and athletic, equipped with a vigorous temper, ready to meet any challenge.  

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Cane Corso proved his versatility by being employed in varying tasks, primarily those of guardian, hunter and farm dog, mostly in southern Italian provinces such as Foggia, Puglia, Bari and Campobasso. The Cane Corso’s versatility made him an ideal farmhand, and he was well suited as a flock guardian, often deployed against wolves. He was also utilized in swine breeding and tending, as he was indispensable in keeping boars under control. It was the agile and vigilant Cane Corso’s job to intervene should the boar present a danger; many a farmer was saved by a leaping Cane Corso. The dog grabbed the swine by the ear or flank to incapacitate him; if he grabbed him by the snout, the boar would be strong enough to run him to the ground.  

The Cane Corso was also used as a cattle or butcher’s dog. The cattle were raised in wild pastures until the time came for them to be brought to slaughter by the butteri, or Italian cowboys. The Cane Corso also has a history as a hunter of large game. In southern Italy, wild boar was a valued food source; hunting it was a dangerous proposition and proved very difficult without the aid of the sturdy Cane Corso. The badger was also considered prized game in the meridone (southern Italy); once the badger was cornered, the Cane Corso was set upon him, knocking him to the ground and killing him with a bite to the neck.  

The Cane Corso’s great versatility and adaptability are the reasons he survives today when other breeds in Italy petered out over time. It is important when you evaluate the Cane Corso that he still appear to be a dog capable of such feats. His physical characteristics should reflect his historical utilizations. This breed was not made; he was forged by the sometimes inhospitable environment in which he plied his trade. The rule of the Italian south was “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Natural selection played a large part in the specialization of the Cane Corso, as only the fittest, strongest and best equipped were allowed the privilege to breed.  


The Cane Corso should be a large, sturdy and substantial dog with heavy bone  but not as large as a Great Dane or Mastiff.


2. General Appearance

When looking at the Cane Corso, your first impression is that he is an athlete, reminiscent of a Greco-Roman wrestler. A good adjective to describe the Cane Corso would be “robust.” Employing the golden rule of dogdom – “form follows function” – the Cane Corso was required to be a large, sturdy and substantial dog with heavy bone. When I say large, I don’t mean like the Great Dane or Mastiff. The Cane Corso is large and compact at the same time; he must be agile enough to leap onto a boar’s ear in mid-charge and skeletally sturdy enough to confront an angry bull. I liken the Cane Corso to the lioness, not the lion (that would be his cousin, the Neapolitan Mastiff); the lioness must be fast and agile enough to catch a gazelle, but also strong enough to confront a zebra or water buffalo.  

To use a sports analogy, the Cane Corso is the linebacker of the Working Group – agile, hostile and mobile.  

The breed is not overdone in any regard; he does not suffer from any excess. The ideal Cane Corso should be free of defilement from other breeds. You should know instantly when looking at the dog that this is a Cane Corso, and nothing else. 


The size and planes of the head are important components of Cane Corso type.

3. Size versus substance

When evaluating taller dogs, it is important to note if the dog has sufficient bone, volume of skull and width of chest, as these areas can be lacking when height increases. The extremely large, overly mastiffy-type dogs tend to lose their athleticism and agility and have too much loose skin, more reminiscent of the Neapolitan Mastiff. When a Cane Corso is moving, you should not see loose skin rippling across his body; you should see taut, sinewy muscles being flexed with each movement. Smaller dogs tend to lack bone and substance and are at loggerheads with the fact that this is a mastiff-type dog. This dog’s history as a war dog and hunter of bear, boar and stag required that he be a dog of great substance and power.  

4. Head

Your first impression of the Cane Corso should be that the volume of the head is disproportionately larger than the rest of the dog – even in females.  

In the Cane Corso, both the skull and muzzle are as wide as they are long.


The head-to-muzzle ratio is 2/3 to 1/3, with the length of the head equal to the length of the neck. Another essential characteristic of Cane Corso type are the angles of his skull. The Cane Corso has slightly convergent planes, like a Boxer or Bullmastiff. He is not parallel, like the Great Dane or Neapolitan Mastiff, and never divergent like the Bull Terrier or Borzoi. You should be able to draw a slightly convergent/descending imaginary line from the occiput meeting at the tip of the nose (with the muzzle on a level plane).  

The skull, like the muzzle, is as wide as it is long. This characteristic is a fundamental element of Cane Corso type. When viewed from above, the skull should appear as two squares – the head and the muzzle, both broad and wide. The back skull makes a horizontal line from ear to ear. Everything about the head and skull should be powerful, even in bitches. The muzzle should be wide and deeper than it is long. The depth of muzzle should be skeletal, not a perception of depth created by loose, hanging lips. The width of the muzzle should not be so wide as to resemble a marine mammal rather than a dog. There needs to be a discernable distinction between the skull and the muzzle. Head faults are equal, meaning if the dog’s muzzle is too long, that is just as unacceptable as if it were too short. The Cane Corso has a marked stop; the angle of the stop should be approximately 105 degrees when viewed from the side.  

5. Bite

The bite of the Cane Corso should be undershot, but not more than a quarter inch – and that means up to a ¼ inch! 

There seems to be some confusion among judges as to what a quarter of an inch is; in relation to the relatively small confines of a dog’s mouth, a quarter of an inch is larger than some might think. Picture a number-two pencil’s width – that is how much this breed is allowed to be undershot. The incisors should be in a relatively straight line with the canines angled away from each other (divergent). This creates an immovable serrated bite. The teeth are supposed to be big and white, with no more than two missing.   Level and scissors bite are acceptable provided all parameters of the skull are correct. More important than what is inside the dog’s mouth is whether he has correct angles, proportions and type. A dog that has good type and a scissors bite is much more desirable than a dog that has a head like a Doberman Pinscher and a perfect undershot bite.  

6. Body

The breed is longer than tall, but not as long as a midtown express train. The chest is wide, and forechest is muscled and prominent. Its width, in close relation to the width of the thorax, reaches 35 percent of the height to the withers; the breastbone is at the same height as the tip of the shoulders. Seen from the side, the chest is visible between the forelegs and slightly curved. The front legs of the breed are to have heavy bone.  

While not mentioned in the standard, the thorax is extremely important and should be well developed and prominent. The ribs are long and well sprung to accommodate the Cane Corso’s high breathing capacity. This breed has a moderate tuck-up: too much would be indicative of a slight-boned dog; too little, a dog absent agility or athleticism. The breed’s length of neck is equal to the total length of the head. He has a slight drop (15 degrees) at his croup to accommodate drive. He should have a level topline. The back should connect harmoniously to the withers. The back line should be horizontal, with the tail being an immediate extension. At the trot, the backline remains level and rigid. A roached or rounded topline is very undesirable.  

The Cane Corso has moderate angulation. He is somewhere between a Bullmastiff and a Boxer. It is important that he be balanced; the rear and shoulder angulation should be in harmony with each other. A dog that has no rear or front angulation would be balanced, but not correct. Angle of the shoulder is 50 degrees. Its length, from the top of the withers to the ridge of the shoulder, is equal to 30 percent of the height at the withers.  

The Corso should have a low hock set and flexible pasterns – always strong, heavy bone.  

When in motion, the tail should be carried in the 2 to 3 o’clock position. The tail should never be carried straight up like a candlestick; this is considered a serious fault. A low-set tail should be penalized, as it usually goes with a steep croup and restrictive pelvic tilt. Docked tails are preferred and should be cut between the fourth or fifth vertebra. However, the length of the tail dock can vary for several reasons, including natural space or the size of the vertebrae, or error when docking, but this should be considered a cosmetic issue.  

Though black Cane Corsos are very popular – and almost ubiquitous in Europe – there is no preferred color in the breed.

7. Coat and color

The Cane Corso should not have a coat like a Boxer. His coat can be somewhat longer, and in colder climates significantly heavier to protect him from the elements. The breed can present a light fringe on the thigh from beneath the tail to above the hock joint. The old-timers used to describe this coat as “cow hair,” meaning the guard hair is a little coarse. The coat is not plush, nor would you say soft to the touch. In blue dogs the coat tends to be less dense. While armed with a sturdy undercoat, the Cane Corso suffers the cold and is not equipped to live out doors unsheltered. The coat is short, with vitreous texture, shiny, adherent, stiff and dense, with a light layer that becomes thicker in winter (but never crops up on the covering hair). Its average length is approximately ½ inch. On the withers, the rump, the back margin of the thighs and on the tail, it reaches about ¾ inch without creating fringes. On the muzzle the hair is very short, smooth and adherent, not more than ¼ inch.  


In the Cane Corso, the color of the eye should correspond with the color of the coat. Photo: Anita Lopes Graça


There is no preferred color in this breed; none should be preferred over another provided all are in standard. The Cane Corso comes in four base colors and patterns: black, fawn/red, gray/blue and brindle. Black dogs can have brindling (as with all colors in this breed) and should have a dark eye. But black brindle can have a little lighter eye as in this breed the eye color matches the brindle.  

Fawn/red Cane Corsos will have a black mask. (In actuality the dilute fawn is more common than red.) The mask must never exceed the eyes. Again, the eye color matches the coat. One of the more interesting color patterns that the Cane Corso occurs in would be blue fawn, called formentino in Italy (slang for the color of fermented wheat). This is essentially a washed-out or carbon-colored fawn that will have a blue nose and mask.  

Gray/blue comes in different shades ranging from plum to slate to light gray. These dogs have self-coloring eyes; in some cases, the eye is as dark as brown. As dilutes, blue dogs will have blue noses and toenails. Just as common, if not more so, is blue brindle. Again, the eyes are self-coloring, and as with all brindle dogs the eye should match the color of the brindle.  

Brindle dogs generally have a mask that is the color of the darkest part of the brindle. The eye, again, is self-coloring, matching the brindle. The Cane Corso, unlike the Rottweiler, does not come with an eye-color chart. In our breed we have many transplants from other breeds, and some try to fit a square peg into a round hole when viewing the Cane Corso. I refer to this practice as the “Rottweiler-ization” of the Cane Corso, and the eye chart is a good example of that.  

8. Movement

The Cane Corso is effortless in his ability to cover ground, leaving one to wonder: How does such a big dog get around so easily? The breed should be synonymous with powerful reach and drive.  

To quote the CCAA judges’ manual: “The Corso is a utility breed. The variety of its traditional tasks did not call for a specialized build, but an adaptable one. The lengthened trot is the ideal gait for the Corso, displaying efficiency and endurance. The Corso has effortless, powerful movement. The length of leg is 50 percent of the height at the withers so the center of gravity is well off the ground. As the Corso moves, the feet move under the body toward the center of gravity, causing the dog to almost single-track. However, it should never cross over in the front or back. The spine should remain rigid and level. The head is not carried high but slightly lower and forward at a trot. Bounce and roll are limited. The front reach and back extension are almost equal to the height at the withers. The rear is very muscular and processes powerful drive, allowing for burst of speed when necessary.”  

9. Temperament

When evaluating the Cane Corso, character must also come into the equation. The Cane Corso should never be fearful. If a Corso is afraid, how can he effectively perform his duties as a guard dog? Timid character should be severely faulted.  

This breed’s history predicates a somewhat belligerent attitude toward other dogs, particularly dogs of the same sex, so a Cane Corso that shows this should not be faulted (as long as he poses no threat to others). He should never be overly agitated or fidgety; he is always reserved and confident. The Cane Corso should be territorial; he should be in tune and aware of his surroundings and show a keen interest in them. The Cane Corso should never be afraid to meet any challenge.  

Do not mistake indifference or standoffish behavior with fear or aggression. Most Cane Corsos are not likely to look at you and wag their tail; some, yes, but in most cases this will not be so. He should not be outwardly aggressive toward you; he must be under control at all times. The Cane Corso should be a very balanced animal mentally as well as physically; he should be confident, secure, and vigilant. The firmness of his nerves represents the true mental strength of the breed.  

The Cane Corso should be like furniture; meaning he is just there. He is not acting aggressively, posing threat for no reason. He is not shy or hiding behind his owner’s leg. He’s just there, ready to act if necessary, and with only the appropriate level of deterrent. This breed has a profound attachment to his owners; they are his sun and moon. He suffers if left alone or stuck in a yard; he needs social interaction with his family.  

Your first impression of the Cane Corso should be that the volume of the head is disproportionately larger than the rest of the dog.

10. Important proportions and angles

The Cane Corso has a number of important angles and proportions that are essential to breed type.  

The length of the head is equal to 36 percent of the height at the shoulders

The breed is 10 percent longer than tall The rib cage descends to 50 percent of the height at the withers

The length of the forearm (not including the pastern) is equal to 32 percent of the height at the withers

The height of the hock is equal to 32 percent of the height at the withers

The length of the neck is equal to the length of the head

The length of the muzzle is equal to 34 percent of the total length of the head

The circumference of the head is equal to twice its total length

The angle of the stop is 105 degrees

The incline of the neck is 45 degrees

The incline of the shoulder is 50 degrees

The incline of the humerus is 56 to 60 degrees

The incline of the metacarpal is 70 degrees

The decline of the croup is 15 degrees

The incline of the femur is 70 degrees

The incline of the tibia metatarsals is 140 degrees

The angle of the hock is 90 degrees  


Finally, I like to say about the Cane Corso, it’s not black and white. There is a lot of gray there – and I don’t just mean the color.  

About the Author

Mike Ertaskiran first met the Cane Corso in 1994 at the now-defunct U.S. Neapolitan Mastiff Club’s show in Mullica Hills, N.J. He became the president of the International Cane Corso Federation in 1995, and was the driving force behind the breed’s pursuit of full AKC recognition. Ertaskiran has judged numerous rare-breed specialty shows, and had the privilege of being the first American to judge the breed in Italy at a Cane Corso specialty show. During his many trips to Italy, he sought out all the breed’s old-timers, those responsible for preserving the breed and its recovery.


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