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Molossus in the Crosshairs

The Neapolitan Mastiff is under siege in the United Kingdom. Will the rest of the world follow suit?
If your average canine fancier arrived here in the U.K. from foreign shores and picked up a copy of Dog World or Veterinary Times, he or she would be forgiven for having the immediate impression that British owners and breeders of the Neapolitan Mastiff are completely misguided and irresponsible, solely intent on the production of a never-ending line of overdone, crippled and unhealthy mutants enduring lives filled with pain and suffering, and hell bent on creating freaks of nature to impress their peers and make a fortune selling puppies.
And if those accusations are to be believed, the U.K. Kennel Club has simply stood back and allowed this to occur, undetected or even with its support. 
It is possible to have all the elements of Neo type, including great bone and wrinkle, and an impressive head, in a sound and functional package.
Following the prestigious Crufts Dog show this March, the Neapolitan Mastiff is now the focus of even more negative media attention, with bloggers and the canine press bandying around words such as “deformed,” “sad and sorry” and “abominations.” But the breed has really been in the spotlight since the initial airing of the now infamous BBC documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” in 2008. The Mastino now finds itself one of 15 breeds deemed to be in need of the highest level of policing under the Kennel Club’s “Fit for Function, Fit for Life” and “Breed Watch” programs.   
The first effects of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” on the Neapolitan Mastiff was initially seen in the Kennel Club’s rather drastic and knee-jerk amendments to an already generic U.K. breed standard. The breed blueprint now asks for tight-fitting eye rims that do not display haw. The head changed from “very large” to “fairly large,” with “some loose skin permitted on body and head without excess.” Noticeable only by its absence was the mention of the double dewlap, one of the Neapolitan Mastiff’s most fundamental, type-setting features. 
The United Kingdom Neapolitan Mastiff Club met with the Kennel Club Health Committee in February 2009 to discuss the amendments, and was advised that any physical feature of the breed left open to interpretation and excessive breeding practices was to be completely discouraged. Several seminars for judges were subsequently held at the Kennel Club headquarters at Stoneleigh Park, and, in the case of the Neapolitan Mastiff, judges would be required to complete a Kennel Club health survey immediately after completing their appointment, with the following points highlighted as particular “cause for concern”: 
• Excessively heavy in build 
• Excessive in wrinkle or dewlap 
• Conformational defects of the upper and lower eyelids so that eyelid margins are not in normal contact with the eye when the dog is in its natural pose  
• Unsound movement, especially resulting from weak hindquarters                     
Judges were also advised that their performances would be monitored under the Breed Watch Scheme, with a Kennel Club representative always present to record his or her own views on the dogs exhibited. The United Kingdom Neapolitan Mastiff Club was advised that both judges and Kennel Club representative opinions would be collated and made available at the end of each judging season, highlighting areas of breed health where improvement was felt to be needed.  
Another example of a typey yet sound Neapolitan Mastiff that is not exaggerated in any respect.
The overall reaction of British owners and breeders was to rise to the challenge and present at major Championship show level Neapolitan Mastiffs who met the Kennel Club’s criteria. The 2010 show season attracted higher than average numbers of dogs in the ring, as passionate and committed mastinari strived to prove to all that the Neapolitan Mastiff could be both healthy and remain a highly typical representative of the breed. 
They succeeded to a large degree: Feedback in January 2011 given to the United Kingdom Neapolitan Mastiff Club (derived from the judges’ “Fit for Function” health surveys and the Kennel Club’s “Breed Watch” surveys) was largely positive, with several mentioning great improvements in skin condition, construction and sound movement. One area remained where improvement was still required to meet the revised U.K. standard, however: Although eyes were noted to be free from obvious infection, they remained loose and still displayed haw. 
The United Kingdom Neapolitan Mastiff Club held its own well-attended breed-health seminar in November 2010. Following this, specific health recommendations were agreed on between the breed club and the Kennel Club in the areas of hip and elbow scoring, and heart and eye screening. However, current eye testing does not encompass conditions known to exist in the breed (the most concerning relating to eyelid conformation, such as entropion, ectropion and prolapse of the third eyelid, or “cherry eye”) and tests for conditions that do not occur in the Mastino (such as glaucoma). The breed club has requested that the Kennel Club work with their eye specialist, Prof. Sheila Crispin, to devise a more relevant breed-specific scheme to offer better long-term direction for breeders.
This is currently under discussion, but greater clarity is required certainly prior to Crufts in 2012, when the next initiative of the Fit for Function scheme gets underway. This will be the first show where the Best of Breed in all 15 high-profile breeds, including the Neapolitan Mastiff, will be required to undergo a veterinary examination and receive a clean bill of health prior to admission to the Working Group competition. The overwhelming cause for concern is that the slightest display of haw on the eye, despite lack of any eye problem, will be interpreted as a sign of bad health and lead to elimination from competition. 
Despite all the cooperation and communication between the United Kingdom Neapolitan Mastiff Club, its membership, the Kennel Club and its appointed judges, and all the positive moves to increase health awareness and the clear direction undertaken to achieve it, the Neapolitan Mastiff continues to receive a high – some would say unwarranted – level of attention from Jemima Harrison, the freelance writer and television producer whose most notable work is, of course, “Pedigree Dogs Exposed.” At Crufts 2011 (where the Mastino was judged by Portugal’s Luis Pinto Teixeira), Harrison set about making a series of somewhat unflattering photographs of Neapolitan Mastiffs in and out of the ring and of pet examples present in the Discover Dogs exhibition, which were labeled “A Parade of Mutants.” The images were featured in a highly emotive fashion on her website, as well as submitted to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dogs Trust (the U.K.’s largest dog-welfare charity), the British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association for their comments, along with calls for the breed to be “banned,” although this was later clarified as “deregistered” by the Kennel Club.
A deregistering of the breed would leave breeders unable to show the Neapolitan Mastiff at any Kennel Club-sponsored events or dog shows, including Crufts; additionally, they would be unable to obtain paperwork and Kennel Club pedigrees for puppies. The breed club would subsequently become unrecognized and therefore not privy to any of the Kennel Club health initiatives, educational seminars or accredited breeder schemes currently available. The only recourse would be for U.K. owners and breeders of the Neapolitan Mastiff to register their dogs with the Irish Kennel Club and become eligible to compete in European Dog Shows under ENCI (the Italian registry, Ente Nazionale della Cinofilia Italiana).
The call for these actions by Jemima Harrison has once again left breeders and owners pondering what more they can actually undertake at this moment, and resulted in further condemnation of the breed’s health by veterinary organizations. An article in the Veterinary Times called for the Kennel Club to take urgent action, with judgment passed on photographs representing a small percentage of the dogs present to show “obvious serious issues of health.”
The Kennel Club has been swift to reassure the United Kingdom Neapolitan Mastiff Club and its members that it has no intention of deregistering the Neapolitan Mastiff or any other breed, but wishes to continue on the agreed path and assist owners and breeders to make the identified improvements with both their guidance and support. 
Despite his heavy bone and size, a correct and typey Mastino should still move soundly.
So, is the long-term future of the Neapolitan Mastiff as we know it really under serious threat here in U.K.?
The answer going forward, I feel, lies in the increased level of health screenings owners and breeders can be encouraged to undertake, as well as collation of related statistics that demonstrate that long-term health is a very serious consideration of breeders. There needs to be evidence of progress moving in a steady and positive direction, all the while with a steely determination that the breed here in U.K. will not degenerate into a generic, washed-out version of the true Mastino Napoletano. The real fear is that examples of early dogs held up by those outside the breed as ideal will be promoted as the correct path to follow for a working dog that is “fit for function, fit for life,” to use the Kennel Club’s catch phrase. But those with an educated eye see that those dogs of the 1940s and ’50s are without the fundamental features that make the breed the breed: Produced at a embryonic time in the breed’s history, they very much represented a “work in progress hybrid” by breeders involved in the Mastino’s reconstruction – not the “real” Neapolitan Mastiff. It is a very frustrating process to defend your corner against a healthy and sound-looking animal who is not representative of a good, strong type Neapolitan Mastiff, and the only real defense will arrive from a greatly increased number of screenings of very typical dogs who receive positive results.  
There is no doubt that the Neapolitan Mastiff was in need of a wake-up call – and still is in other areas of the world where it is not yet subjected to the level of scrutiny as here in U.K. The current low volume of any kind of breed-specific health information is woeful, and this needs to change before the U.K. situation escalates to a worldwide problem. The health standard set for a show dog should be the same regardless of the breed, and examples of Neapolitan Mastiffs who enter into this forum should be as other breeds: free from problems with skin, eyes and construction. Harder decisions must be made by exhibitors with regard to examples they wish to take to high-profile dog shows, and a clear distinction made between a beautiful dog for show and a beautiful dog who carries a health defect and is therefore not showable.  
In my interview with veterinarian Dr. Loris Pazzaglia in 2007, he noted that the breed had changed a lot in terms of health since in 1982, when he began seeing Mastini at his practice in Prato, Tuscany. Pazzaglia was the veterinarian of the late and much celebrated breeder Mario Querci, and so witnessed a lot of negative changes occurring in the breed from 1980s to the present day. He laid the blame for the increase in genetically inherited illnesses firmly at the door of the major commercial breeders, who had created a bottleneck effect in their inbreeding practices, and warned that in order to improve, this needed to change greatly. His message to the world’s breeders was to seek out the more rustic dogs still existing in rural areas of Italy and to incorporate them slowly into their breeding programs to retain as wide a gene pool as possible. Otherwise, they risked suffering the same demise he had seen in his homeland: many dogs with shortened lifespan, high rates of heart issues and hip dysplasia, increasingly high infertility and productions of small litters all too often born via Caesarian section.
Mastino breeders are aiming to produce a functional eye like this one, without loose eye rims or exposed haws.
Since the passing of Mario Querci and his long line of champions, culminating in World Champion Caligola di Ponzano, there has been no breeder or dog capable of crossing the boundaries of this specialist breed adored by its fans to that of an unique type of dog whose aura and presence is admired by the entire canine fraternity. While the overtype monster with massive bone and copious wrinkles adorning an enormous head is awe inspiring to witness, is this really the kind of dog that can appeal to the show world and promote the breed as one that enjoys a normal life and a healthy level of activity for a working guardian breed? Herein lies the problem faced by the world of the Mastino: How much of what people love to see can they sacrifice for greater health, longevity and long-term security for this most wonderful of breeds? And how many of the genetic issues that currently afflict this – and many other – breeds can be screened for and bred out without losing the kind of dog breeders and fanciers of the Mastino desire?  
Will the Mastino ever see again breeders and mentors with the passion and skill of Querci? People who knew him well describe him as “The Crown Prince” or the “Unforgettable Mastinaro Supremo.” Without doubt, with such clear vision, he knew exactly the kind of dog he wished to produce and was able to do so with great regularity. The dogs he used in his foundation breeding were found in many different places throughout Italy and although they bore similar phenotypes, it was important to him that they also be genetically diverse. This, he felt, was the key to producing a dog who had it all, including correct temperament. If he were around today, he would certainly still be at the very top of the tree in the world of show dogs. Much can be learned by study of the work of this great mastinaro and subsequently adopting some of his methods. For example, having the confidence in his breeding to use with such great effect a relatively plain dog such as Toscano di Ponzano – the famous Caligola’s sire – where many would have discarded him. Querci understood that the value of a Mastino as a dog for reproduction was not always based on his external beauty, but that which could be more appreciated in the progeny. This is certainly a message that has gotten lost along the way, and very few modern dogs have a reputation or title of Champion of Reproduction.          
The Bateson Report – commissioned in 2010 by the Kennel Club to investigate the state of dog breeding in the U.K. – states quite clearly that dogs that do well in the show ring are the ones people want to buy puppies from and use at stud. In order to alter the perception and reputation of the breed currently held by outsiders, the greatest emphasis needs to be for all exhibitors to bring to show a Neapolitan Mastiff who is not only a wonderful representative of strong type, but who is also presented in optimum condition of health, with skin free from calluses and hotspots, dewlaps with no rash, clear eyes free from obvious signs of infection or corrective surgery, and completely sound construction and character. Then we need to rely on those who control the decision-making process – the high-level show appointed judges – to get it right and promote those dogs that are balanced in all aspects.
It is crucial that all specialist judges of the Neapolitan Mastiff who are held in high esteem throughout the world support this ethic – not only when they arrive in the U.K. to undertake their judging appointments, but in their own countries. Only in this fashion does the message become a reality to all: You must breed healthy typical dogs to make your champions. Maybe then, once more, the Mastino Napoletano will return to his rightful place as “The King of Dogs.” 
To try to articulate why we who are involved in Neapolitan Mastiffs remain so passionate about the breed is very difficult when it has much to do with emotion. But I can try, via an account of an event back in the mid-1990s when, as a relatively young, wet behind-the-ears owner of a couple of Mastini, I made my first trip to visit Allevamento Del Bengasche in Rome.
I was lucky to be taken to meet many of the small owners and breeders of Mastini living in the rural areas on the outskirts of Naples. There, I met an enigmatic peasant farmer named Liccola, and began to question him about the famous dogs of the day and their pedigrees. His reply was that before I begin to think about bloodlines, I should always remember the “spirit” of the Mastino Napoletano, this majestic animal who had fought to remain with us for thousands of years as protector and friend. That it was our duty to protect him now, for the future generations, so he would always be safe in a changing world. 
I hope that through this article, the message of Liccola will be heard by all with a passion for the breed, to protect and preserve the true essence of the Mastino Napoletano and undertake all the necessary steps with which to achieve it.

About the Author

Kim Slater has owned Molosser breeds for more than 25 years, and has been a specialist in Neapolitan Mastiffs since 1995. She was mentored by the late Douglas Oliff, author and world-renowned judge of Mastiff and Bullmastiffs, and was first introduced to the Italian Mastino by Uberto Gasche. She is currently the health coordinator of the United Kingdom Neapolitan Mastiff Club.
© 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.