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Molosser Musings: Maestro, If You Please

An Aria for the Neapolitan Mastiff
A love-hate relationship is probably the best way to describe how I feel about the Neapolitan Mastiff. It was one of the first breeds I qualified for as a judge some 25 years ago. After following this fascinating breed in which nothing less than a revolution has taken place, now is a good time to evaluate and to write down my hopes for the next 25 … 
Be forewarned: My observations might cause some serious distress, depending on how “blind” a follower of the modern creation the reader is. It might help if I confess two things: One, I adore the breed, have often thought of owning and even breeding them; and two, I was a blind follower myself until a decade ago.
One more confession: In those 10 years, I felt rather lonely as a Mastino judge, in a nowhere land between the all-rounders, who never liked – perhaps never understood and so were unable to like – the breed, and the breed specialist, who did not show any doubts about the way – give me more, more, more – the breed went.
Modern Mastino (left). Breathtaking, but on the edge. ... Modern Mastino (right): Sad story ...
That is, until Guido Vandoni's 2010 article in Modern Molosser. What a relief to read that one of the best-known Italian breed specialists had similar observations and criticisms. And he was not the only one, as one read through that same issue. It made me really happy, so much so that I would love to see it as a turning point to a Neo that fits the standard, that enjoys life more, that even comes closer to being understood and liked by those who have always frowned on the breed. The one group that would suffer from this change are the veterinarians – less work, a lot less.
I was blessed – too big a word, perhaps, but privileged for sure – to witness the very first steps of the Neapolitan Mastiff in northwestern Europe in the late 1970s. I saw the very first imports and litters born in the Netherlands. In fact, I helped select a puppy for a friend of mine out of the second registered Dutch litter. (I should not say “help to select,” as I knew hardly anything about purebred dogs yet, let alone Neos, but still that is what I did.)
In terms of looks, the first Neapolitan Mastiffs in my part of the world were Molossers for sure, distinctive first and foremost for their striking color (read: blue – the other colors came later). But in type they could be best described as a Mastiff cross, plenty of them no more than Great Dane-Boxer mixes, as my friend’s Mastino turned out to be. Very few looked really impressive in bone, substance or skin, but those that did often suffered from looseness and weakness.
Not long after, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Germans and French showed fanciers outside Italy what real Neapolitan Mastiffs should look like. In particular, Mr. Jürgen Didion of the Mastino del Monte kennels in Germany spent a lot of time, effort and money showing one impressive dog after another, most direct imports from the breed’s homeland. As a breeder he proved less successful, but his homebred Argo del Monte will not be forgotten. There was not much wrong with Argo that I remember. He combined type – truly excellent head, parallel lines, wrinkles, lips, expression, the lot, on a well-proportioned body – with overall strength, balance and soundness, resulting in highly typical and effortless movement.
Ch. Argo del Monte.
That is how I remembered him. But when I looked back at the photos I took of him when he was at his prime, easily winning Best in Show at the German Molosser Championship Club Show in 1994, it was a bit of a shock. And what applies to Argo applies to quite a few more dogs “we all” liked then, at least according to me now: They were not only much lighter in build and far less overdone than modern Mastini – no news there – but also much less impressive in terms of bone, bulk and skin than I remembered. So much so that I started to doubt myself. (See what memory does?) Another big-winning Neapolitan of that era (more massively built than Argo but with less furnishing head wise) whose photo created a similar shock was Enea di Ponzano.
At first, I thought I could not use these Mastini to illustrate this story. I was afraid they would be seen as too plain – dogs of a bygone era. It took me some time to be able to say again: These were lovely Mastini, still are, should still be seen as such, and if not, then it is a problem of the modern observer, not “we” who are in the breed 20, 30 years or more. 
Ch. Enea di Ponzano.
Just look at this lovely head study of Enea and see how “dry” a Mastino head can be, still showing all the stamps of Neo type, combined with quality and nobility – not in the least thanks to eyes that can see something and that can be seen – in an extreme rare way from a modern perspective. Head characteristics that define Neo type are parallel lines of skull and muzzle, deep lips forming a reversed V in front, deep and “open” under lips in the corners, loose skin all over, with one being truly essential and that is the one starting above the eye, going down to end up in the deepest lip corner. As you can see, Enea had hardly any skull wrinkles, but the Neo’s trademark wrinkle is there, giving the breed that noble and at the same time melancholic expression. (“Ample skin with wrinkles and folds of which the most typical and the best marked goes from the outer palpebral angle down to the lip angle,” according to the FCI standard.)
Argo’s head shows everything more pronounced, but still it is far from hypertype – see the quality and health of head wrinkles and the amount of dewlap, very much according to the standard. (“Lower edge of the neck is well endowed with loose skin which forms a dewlap well separated, but not exaggerated, starts at level of the lower jaw and does not go beyond middle of the neck.”)
Having said all that, I would not mind at all to have Mastini with more bulk, bone and furnishing than Argo and Enea. I definitely would like to see more furnishing on Enea’s head, but please study these photos carefully and know that the difference between these two and the average champion of today is just too much, too much according to the standard and too much for the health and soundness of the breed.
You might get the idea that hypertype is a modern “disease” in Neapolitan Mastiffs. It is at its peak, I am sorry to say, but it started a long time ago, when Argo and Enea were still in their winning days. We, breeders and judges alike, were in a constant battle to fight the “blue mongrel” in the Mastino and to combine the desired extra richness of type – deep, broad-set bodies on massive, strong legs with ample loose skin all over, especially around the head – with soundness and strength. In that period breeders and specialist judges sacrificed quite a bit, not to say a lot, in terms of overall construction and soundness in order to get this most special Neo look. Rightfully so, I admit: We were dealing with a breed in full development. But not long after, I noticed the first feelings of discomfort with the definite direction the breed took. Luckily the vast majority did not show a severe lack of type anymore, but one could hardly say that the breed was improving in terms of overall construction, soundness and health; quite the opposite, not helped by new health disorders thanks to the extra skin, bone and bulk.
My epiphany came when I was judging Mastiffs and Neos at a breed club show of the German Molosser Club in the late 1990s. I said to myself, “Enough. No more compromises with eyes that clearly have been operated on two or three times, no more accepting excessive and sick skin, the worst possible feet, weak overall construction, no development of muscles” – when some development was noticeable, it was destroyed by no muscle tone. Sadness was my overall feeling when I was judging the breed then; I was busier feeling sorry for the individual dogs than judging them.
From that show on, I changed my judging order. Before it was: 1. standard type; 2. hypertype; 3. insufficient type. The motivation to have hypertype second was the belief that dogs of this type had at least something to offer in a breed in which it was difficult to get the “rich” type. From that show in Germany, I flipped hypertype and insufficient type. Number three became number two, motivated by this thought: “At least they are healthy and able to enjoy life, and there are too many dogs with plenty of type/hypertype around anyway.” This change was not appreciated by the leading breeders of the day. I dealt quite easily with the shift from “adoration” to “severe criticism” (black or white seems to be very much the story in this gray breed), above all because I stayed true to myself, but also because I made a definite choice to be the advocate of one particular breeding school, that of Ponzano. 
I can write like this in retrospect, helped by a “coming home” story, again published in that same issue of Modern Molosser. It was the article about Mario Querci, breeder of the Ponzano kennel. I was literally touched by it, not so much because it was the best piece of text I have read so far about Mastini, but because I became aware how many striking similarities there were between Mario Querci and the Dutch Bloodhound breeder Louis van de Meeren, who has been my most influential mentor. In that respect it has been only natural for me to take the Ponzano route, again in retrospect. 
One particular dog carrying this “holy” affix walks next to me to this very day. The first time I saw him was in 1991, at the FCI European Show in Helsinki, Finland, in the main ring, which he entered as Best of Breed. In one word: breathtaking. Later that same year, I saw him in Dortmund, Germany, at the FCI World Show, where he went Best in Show. More mature, in his prime, even more breathtaking. Never had I seen a Neo like him … no, I do not disagree with what his critics have pointed out as his shortcomings, but what a Mastino. Nobility and quality in capital letters. In a breed where there were and still are so many sick, close to blind cripples around, he was and is one of a kind.
Ch. Caligola di Ponzano.
On the eve of the new millennium, when most people were worried about what would happen to their computers and the digital clocks on their ovens, I tried to come up with a list of three Molossers who had impressed me the most until then. The first one I came up with, easily, was him, Caligola. I am glad that I never forced myself to put him in the ultimate order, together with a Mastiff and a Dogue de Bordeaux, for his as well as the others’ sake – one should not make life too difficult. 
There is one other particular kennel I also would like to mention with gratitude in an article like this, and that is Of the Thatch Roof, originally situated in the Netherlands, but the last two decades or so in Belgium. Breeder Van Dooremalen was one of the very first who started with the breed and made up the first Dutch champion, “Creso” (no kennel name, Italian import). His kennel is without a doubt the most constant force in Europe outside Italy, and he managed to import the right dogs for the next step in his breeding program and that of others. He always showed dogs that were highly typical, complete and honest.          
Ch. Quintus of Thatch Roof in 1995.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, the Mastino in my part of the world has experienced a real difficult time: temperament tests, the threat of breed bans, laws against cropping and docking. It has resulted in a big difference between the quality of the Neo in northwest Europe and countries where the breed was already originally strong and untroubled by bureaucrats – Spain, France, Hungary and some other Eastern European countries. 
Outside Europe, the development of the Neapolitan Mastiff has for many years been of no interest, really – with my apologies to the breed enthusiasts who took on the often ungrateful and frustrating pioneer work, not in the least because they had to start with second- and quite often even third-rate imports. If there were Neos around, however well constructed and sound moving they were, they looked not much more than a sort of Blue Mastiff.  
Not that long ago, less than 10 years, it started to change. I noticed I was more and more interested in what was going on in England, America and Down Under. Some clever importing and breeding must have taken place, because suddenly their Sound Blue Mastiff became a Mastino Napoletano, and as an extra bonus they managed to combine the best of both worlds – the richness of Neo type draped on a strong and sound fundament. I am quite fascinated by it all, and it helped to fill up my battery of love again for this very special breed. 
How delicate this process is – finding and keeping the balance between type and soundness in a breed where type means “more” – is shown in the same three countries. In no time, hypertype crops up, and it always seems to be embraced. Why is it so difficult to say, “Stop, no more”? Why does one “more” – or even two, if you really want it – have to become “Can’t get enough”? Why must history repeat itself? The good news is that in these three countries there is enough honest stock around and a surplus of all-round judges who are able to say, “No further than here” – if they act like true all-rounders, that is… 
Eastern Europe has had some great Mastini over the years, like this one in Russia, Best of Breed under the author in the early 1990s.
Which brings us back to the question: What is a Neapolitan Mastiff? I sincerely hope that with all that has been written above it is pretty clear when it is too much. If not, then perhaps I should say: Use common sense and let your heart and instinct speak at the same time. Read and re-read the standard so often that it becomes your profession of faith. It is all in there. Or go to Italy; from day one, it has been the breed’s number-one country, always will be, because the Italians are too smart to let the best ones go; all types and qualities to work with are there, and they know the pedigrees … But still, practice has proven that it is not so simple to understand true type in a Mastino Napoletano. 
I do not want to sound self satisfied, but I personally have never experienced the interpretation of the standard as that difficult. Possibly it is because I see – very simply – the Mastino Napoletano as the Italian version of the (Old English) Mastiff. In principle we talk about a dog of the same make and shape: broad, deep-set body, longer than tall, horizontal top and underline, massive short head with a muzzle-to-skull ratio of one-third to two-thirds. Even in movement, there are some striking similarities. Both breeds move with long, easygoing strides, almost in slow motion, with their heads more or less on the same plane as the topline. (The Mastino should definitely have a more feline-like “swing,” though.) 
Now we get some culture in, with classical music in the background. When I think of the Mastiff, I think of England, a country full of history and tradition in which restriction plays an important part. The so-called “English song” goes very well with it, pure and modest, quiet, demure. It is difficult to find a culture in Europa that is more the opposite of the English than the Italian – the country where life is embraced and celebrated, the heart speaks, shouts, where the most exuberant sort of classical music, the opera, flourishes as in no other country on earth. The Mastino Napoletano is opera. The most obvious difference – not to talk about color, that’s silly – between the Mastiff and the Neo is the amount and quality of skin. In the Mastiff it is like an English song, in the Mastino it is the opera.
Just read the standards: Both dictate how the music should be played. The boundaries are clearly given so one knows when it gets out of tune. Comparing both standards you learn what have become essential differences between the two. The main difference in head other than the furnishing of skin between the Mastiff and the Neo is that the latter must have parallel skull-muzzle lines. 
It has really surprised me over the years that the average Mastino does not seem to suffer from the kind of unsoundness and disharmony so common in other Molossers. A lot of them are unsound and lack balance, but in a different way. Why are defects like being overbuilt or having straight hindquarters so less common? Good question, is it not? Here is another one: Why are there so many more Mastini around with the right ribs and forechest, qualities which are disappearing in so many breeds?
I do not have the definite answers, but I do know that the unsoundness in the Neapolitan Mastiff has a lot to do with overall weakness. Underneath all that loose skin there seems to be a body made of soft tissue, ligaments and muscles that are as loose as their covering – even the quality of bone is “soft.” It is a certain constitution the breed enthusiasts have selected for, which proves to be very dominant, hence the relatively quick development of this ultra-modern creation of ultra everything except strength. There is a Dutch saying that is so appropriate when dealing with Mastini: “One needs strong legs to carry the wealth.” The most recent development in the breed – getting even more bulk on lower legs and overangulated hindquarters (is that possible? yes, easily) together with the wrong kind of muscles (long instead of short) – does not help at all. The results are sickle hocks and pacing (mentioned in the FCI standard as “allowed,” but not because of this and the Mastino always should be able to trot, which this newest variation just cannot do).
After all this, one might wonder: Why on earth do all the crazy Mastini fanciers – including yours truly – keep on being associated with this breed? For the same reasons one loves the opera … crazy or not, because there have been plenty of Neapolitan Mastiffs around that were, in a word, stunning, so we all know what is possible. The only route to more of these breathtaking dogs is to restrict ourselves. Use the images of the Great Mastini of the past, led by Caligola as far as I am concerned – look at his legs and feet, they were made to carry all that wealth with pride and dignity. I know for sure that I want to be part of the world of the Mastino Napoletano for the next 25 years, and I am pretty sure that it will be another 25 full of love and hate. 
How can it be any different? It is opera, after all.  

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