The Mastiff in America
Harpers Magazine, May 1887
Charles C. Marshall
In the year 1877 the Westminster Kennel Club gave the first dog show of any importance in this country, at Gilmore’s Garden, in the city of New York. The entries numbered 874, and the cash prizes amounted to $1,985. In 1886 five clubs held shows, the entries at which aggregated nearly 3,000, and the cash prizes over $7,500. These figures demonstrate the growing interest in fine dogs, and the importance and value which in the last ten years they have acquired among us.
There was a time when public interest centered almost entirely on sporting dogs, and the exhibition of other breeds formed but a minor attraction at the shows; but the visitor at the yearly exhibitions has seen a great change in this matter, and it is a question whether the non-sporting dogs do not now receive a greater amount of attention than those old favorites, the pointers and setters.
The most recent formation of a club, calling itself the “American Mastiff Club,” with Mr. Robert Lenox Belknap as president, and Dr. Richard H. Derby as secretary, draws attention to one of the non-sporting breeds, whose limited popularity in this country, at least until quite recently, furnishes a remarkable example of the unjust discrimination of the public. The object of this club, as announced in its rules, is to encourage the breeding of that remarkable dog which forms the subject of this sketch. Its formation is only one step in the many by which the things which have been approved in the mother-country have been permanently adopted here.
One unfamiliar with the history of the mastiff will fail to realize the high position of the breed in England. The bull-dog, so often accepted as the typical Britisher, represents in reality only a small section of society, and that by no means the best. It is the mastiff, Canis anglicus, as Linnaeus called him, that is the representative dog in origin, history and characteristics – as closely associated with the homes of England as the St. Bernard with the monastery whose name he bears. He has a history both long and distinguished, made up in part of those heroic acts which have given him his present proud position. It is little wonder that the native who strokes the noble head of some stalwart specimen of his representative dog feels a genuine enthusiasm as he calls to mind the mention made in the ancient chronicles of its country of the fidelity of one of the breed to her dead master on the field of Agincourt, or the combat between the mastiff and the lion in the presence of King James I, in which the former was victorious, winning from the prince the declaration that “he who had fought with the king of beasts should never fight with a meaner creature.”
As the attributes of this historic breed – its almost chivalrous devotion, intelligence and great strength – have rendered it prominent in the annals of its country, so its noble appearance has found a record in art. Landseer made the mastiff a favorite study, and Titian and Vandyck each painted his portrait, the latter introducing into several of his pictures the favorite mastiff of Charles I. In one of the English galleries hangs the portrait of Sir Henry Lee and his mastiff, painted to commemorate the saving of Sir Henry’s life by the latter from attempted assassination by that nobleman’s valet. Mr. Mark Beaufoy, not many years ago, had the portrait of his mastiff Beau and his bloodhound Merton painted side by side ... Beau was one of the most famous mastiffs in all England, and celebrated for his beauty of head and expression.
It is clear, then, that the mastiff has come to us with the very highest credentials. He is eminently the dog of the race, and destined to as general a recognition in this country as he has obtained in the land whose laws and language we have inherited, and those “Jerseys,” “Southdowns” and “Berkshires” we have adopted, with great advantage to ourselves.
At the first, the reception of the mastiff in America was not a warm one, save from a few admirers, who in the early days of American mastiff breeding expended some time, effort and money in importing stock from England and breeding here, but who, owing to their ignorance of the science of breeding, or to their inability to buy good dogs from the English, never produced any remarkable dogs. Up to a few years ago the American breeder was several years behind his English competitor. This is a matter difficult to understand, until one becomes familiar with the transformation that has been going on during the last 10 or 15 years in mastiff type. The English mastiff, who formerly was considered the best representative of his breed, would now scarcely be noticed at a show, so great has been the change.
Englishmen were too shrewd to send to this country dogs of the type which they had been striving to produce, so that for several years Americans were buying dogs of an inferior type, and breeding in lines that had been abandoned in England. This sent through the country a worthless stock of dogs, who, because they were called “mastiffs” and were given long pedigrees, were supposed to be all that could be desired, and, unfortunately, it is from these that most people have formed their ideas of the mastiff. When at length the mistake was discovered, steps were taken leading to a correction of the evil. The show bench now declares the result in a yearly exhibition of mastiffs, among which are American-bred specimens comparing favorably with the best imported dogs. It may well be doubted whether England can show a much more typical mastiff head than that of Dr. Derby’s Pharaoh, who was bred in this country.
The American mastiff of true type having thus become a reality, it will be proper to devote a few words to a description of him.
The mastiff, as it exists today, is an artificial breed, whose characteristics are maintained only by the most careful breeding. There is therefore opportunity for the greatest diversity of appearance, all depending as it does on the selection and crossing of various strains of blood. This diversity shows itself frequently in the matter of size. The minimum height allowed by the English Mastiff Club is 27 inches. The maximum height of the breed is said to be 34 inches, but a height greater than 31 or 32 inches is seldom attained. The height should be produced by depth of body, and not by length of leg. Massiveness of frame should be the first consideration, stature the second. Yet for many years the one idea of the American breeder was to obtain height. To get this he seemed willing to sacrifice every characteristic of the breed, introducing crosses of mongrel blood that have proved most unfortunate in their effects, all the time ignoring the fact that great height, though desirable, is not an essential characteristic of the mastiff. This seems one of the most difficult things for the tyro to learn. It is not desired that these statements should be taken as a declaration in favor of small size in the mastiff. The aim of the breeder should be toward the largest dog that can be produced without a sacrifice of that most valuable attribute which the breeder calls type or character. A mastiff 27 inches high should weigh 120 pounds, and one 32 inches high should weigh 180 pounds.
The head is the great point. The choice lies between a dog with a head like Hero III, or a dog with a head like Pharaoh. Both types have in this country their admirers and advocates. We believe that there has never been any authoritative declaration on the question by any of the American kennel clubs, but we quote an extract from the points of the mastiff as declared by the English Mastiff Club:
“Head— very massive and short, with great breadth and depth of skull and squareness of muzzle. Expression—lowering. Forehead— broad, flat and wrinkled.”
Muzzle—short, truncated, deep and broad, not tapering toward the nose. Jaws—very wide.”
It is claimed by some that a dog of great size and perfect formation, with such a head as that above described, is contrary to the laws of nature, and cannot be produced. This assertion is based on certain scientific analogies, and on the fact that so many of the broad, short-headed mastiffs are either small in size or weak in legs. The latter defect, being particularly prevalent in heavy mastiffs, leads to the impression that the mastiff is naturally a slow, unwieldy animal; but this is not true. Strength and agility should be united in him, and from the present stand-point there seems to be no good reason why a mastiff with a typical head and of large size should not be produced as strong and agile as a certain English specimen which was known to be able to seize in his jaws the carcass of a full-grown sheep and leap with it over an average stone wall.
If a dog of short head and great size cannot be produced, it would seem that we must be contented with a dog of smaller size than usually thought desirable, or else abandon the mastiff and construct a new dog in his place. For, many years ago, before the days of the English Mastiff Club, Cuvier, most careful of naturalists, wrote that the characteristics of the mastiff were “shortness of upper jaw, projection of lower jaw beyond the upper,The causing the teeth to be undershot, height of forehead, depth and breadth of muzzle, and massiveness of head.”
Of the three colors which characterize the mastiff, the red, the brindle and the fawn, the last seems to be regarded in America as well as in England with by far the most favor. When that grand brindle Ilford Cromwell was first exhibited in this country, it was thought that he would turn the fashion toward his color; but such was not the case, and if one may judge by the show bench, he has not been much used as a sire. Yet, apart from his color, this dog is one of the best, and in the mind of some judges the best mastiff in this country. However, the brindle has its admirers. It has been a fashionable color in the bull-dog, and is highly prized in those gigantic Germans the Ulmer dogs, and there seems to be no real objection to it in the mastiff. Several of the most famous specimens of the breed have been of this color. The red is the least desirable color, and it is quite rare. We call to mind only one specimen in recent shows, and that a very indifferent animal. One attraction in the fawn-color is the sharp and effective contrast produced with the dense black mark and ears. The black mark renders essential the dark mastiff eye— the eye, where it is light in color, giving the dog’s face an unpleasant, almost sinister, expression. The coat should be soft and smooth. It is one of the most remarkable things in breeding that so large and powerful a dog as the mastiff can be produced with a coat which, though short, is as soft and fine as a spaniel’s.
The reputation of the mastiff for docility and gentleness has in his native land been very great. If we may judge from observation and experience, it will be equally great here in this country, for the dog, as bred here, seems to have all the ancient characteristics. At one of the large dog shows the experiment was recently made of having a person who, though he was greatly admired in the breed, was a stranger to each of the 30 mastiffs exhibited, handle each of them as they lay in their stalls. The dogs seemed to recognize that they were in a public place and subject to public inspection, for not a growl was elicited from the entire number, and most of them made a demonstration of pleasure. The same experiment was then made with the St. Bernards and collies, but with a very different result. No one acquainted with canine physiognomy would ever impute a churlish, snarling disposition to Ilford Cromwell, or those two grand dogs Prussian Princess and Rosalind. There may be something of sternness or solemn dignity, but nothing of ill-temper. These admirable traits come out very strongly in the conduct of the mastiff toward creatures smaller and weaker than himself. Not long since the writer had occasion to visit the stock farm of a gentleman who has been one of the pioneers in American mastiff-breeding. On this farm there were at the time some 10 full-grown mastiffs, with whom the little child of the owner was accustomed to roam about at will. The dogs were loose at the time, and it was a strange sight to see the troop of 10 following after a playfellow so much smaller than themselves. Their owner said that they had always been accustomed to the child, and always treated him with the greatest gentleness. This disposition of the mastiff has in some cases been known to show itself in his treatment of animals smaller than himself. An instance was noted not long since of a strange attachment between a full-grown mastiff and a diminutive Yorkshire terrier, who for two years occupied the same kennel and ate from the same dish in the most friendly manner.
But with the mastiff, as with all dogs, the disposition is largely the result of his training. Environment influences the character of the puppy as well as of the child, The man who relegates his mastiff to the confinement of a stable and the exclusive attention of the man-of-all-work will probably succeed in rearing a dog that will be anything but desirable in disposition or habits. There is no dog more fitted for human association than the mastiff, and there is no dog which goes wrong so quickly for the want of it.
In America, where leisure hours are few, and a busy life the life of nearly all, it seems desirable to secure the popularity of a dog whose uses and character will harmonize with the common life. The various sporting dogs, the greyhound, and the stag-hound all have special traits which render them most valuable to those who have the time and the means to develop them, but the mastiff takes so kindly to domestic life, thrives so well in the house yard, and performs so valuable a duty as a guard, that any man with a home may find great pleasure in him. His master can give him all the exercise necessary for a full-grown dog by a daily walk through the village or the city streets. This walk will be made most decorously, for among the most amusing and desirable traits of the well-trained mastiff are his dignity and gravity. It is a well-known fact that when called upon for protection he does not bite except under extreme provocation, but, throwing his huge body against his opponent, knocks him down, and then stands over him until help arrives, delivering a moral lecture meanwhile in a series of savage growls. It is in this capacity of protector that he excels, and it is a pleasure to find his whole characteristics in his line portrayed by two English authors of note. We refer to the description of the mastiff Bran, whom Kingsley in Hypatia makes so prominent as the companion of Raphael Aben-Exra, and to old Don Roderigo, who does so much to add to the attractive scenes in William Black’s novel of Judith Shakespeare. Strangers to the mastiff will doubtless consider Mr. Black’s description of Don harnessed in ribbons and ridden about the garden by little Bess Hall as rather ideal, but those familiar with him will not be so incredulous. If our American girls ever get the habit of strolling through country lanes, like Mr. Black’s heroine, they can find no more faithful guard than one like her Don.
As the American bench shows furnish an opportunity to most readers to see the best mastiffs in the country, an extended reference to those shown in the illustrations is not necessary. Hero III, Mr. Colwell’s puppies, Boss, Lady Clare, and Pharaoh were all bred in this country. The other illustrations represent some of our best imported stock.
Many other fine specimens are scattered throughout the country. The attention of English breeders has lately been drawn to American stock by the success of Dr. J.F. Perry, of Boston, in breeding two dogs who are said to be dogs of fine type, and in the matter of weight and size to surpass the record of Orlando, one of the most famous of England’s representatives. We refer to the dogs Ashmount, Nero, and Lorna Doone II, now owned by Mr. P.F. Amidon, of Hinsdale, New Hampshire. The former stood 30 inches high at the age of 13 months, it is said, and weighted 184 pounds, being the heaviest weight ever attained by a mastiff at that age.
The question is frequently asked, what does a mastiff cost? The price of a dog is always a matter of some uncertainty, depending largely on the demand. It is always cheapest in the end to buy the very best stock. There is much stock to be offered for sale at low prices that a man will do well to refuse as a gift. A really desirable puppy cannot well be procured for less than 25 dollars, and perhaps one at 50 dollars will prove a better investment. The full-grown dogs, if of the best stock, will bring very large prices. Ilford Cromwell was once offered for sale at $250; his present owner undoubtedly values him at a much higher price; and there are dogs which are said to have brought prices much greater than this within the last few years. But the reader need not allow these sums to discourage him, for puppies of excellent stock can be obtained at reasonable figures.
© Modern Molosser Magazine. This article may not be reposted, reprinted, rewritten, excerpted or otherwise duplicated in any medium without the express written permission of the publisher.
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