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Group Think

Could an AKC Molosser Group become a reality?
Dog breeds, it turns out, are really about dog people.
 
Nothing drove that point home more clearly that the American Kennel Club’s attempt in 2009 to broach the subject of “Group Realignment” – the expansion and reapportioning of its seven Variety Groups.
 
The practical need for the change is uncontested: As the AKC recognizes a growing number of breeds every year, some of the Groups, notably Working and Sporting, are splitting at the seams. But the shelving of the committee’s proposal had nothing to do with practicality, and instead with a cultural reaction that would be better analyzed by anthropologists than cynologists: Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute fanciers refused to go along with the idea of the proposed “Northern Group” – a linchpin of the realignment – because they reportedly did not want to lose the word “Working.” Yes, something as simple and powerful as semantics scuttled the Group realignment, as those two parent clubs saw the loss of the word as a direct threat to the breeds’ requirement for functionality:  If they weren’t called Working dogs, people might think they didn’t need to work. An argument based on emotion, perhaps, but in the end that is what breed cultures – and breeds themselves – are about.
 
If the AKC hopes to realign its long-standing Variety Groups, it isn’t enough to propose categories based on absolutes, like history and foundation breeds. Beyond that, it is about hearts and minds – about how fanciers see their breeds, and how they want them to be seen. 
 
Hoping the second time might be the charm, the AKC Group Realignment Committee reconvened late last year to take a fresh look at the problem. One of the options they are considering is the possibility of an AKC Molosser Group.
Tom Davies of Brimfield, Mass., chair of the AKC Group Realignment Committee, notes that the idea of a Molosser Group was floated in the committee’s initial discussion. And the existence of a magazine like Modern Molosser, he adds, bolsters the idea that the Molosser category is a viable, workable one.
 
A dozen breeds is the minimum number for an AKC Variety Group -- and the maximum number for this living room. Photo by Nancy Spiller.
 
One of the reasons that the Molosser Group concept was scuttled in round one was “the concern that it might give fuel to the animal-rights folks – that we would be putting all the ‘big, mean, dangerous dogs’ in one bunch,” Davies explains. Creating a group that might be a laundry list for home-insurance exclusions is a more than legitimate concern, and the prejudice exists not only among those on the outside looking in, but within the fancy as well. As long as a Molosser Group might be seen as the corral for “big, mean, dangerous dogs,” it is doomed.
 
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the idea of a Molosser group is the “M word” itself. Though it is commonly used and understood overseas, it is unfamiliar to many American fanciers and judges, who might find it – there’s that theme again – “scary,” Davies says.
 
Some Molosser breeds are intertwined: The Bullmastiff defines itself by what the Mastiff is not. Photo by Gail Painter.
 
 
 
“Molosser” (pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable – Mole-OSS-er, not MOLE-oss-er) derives from Molossia, an area in ancient Greece where a type of dog was bred for characteristics that would facilitate his role as a formidable protector of estate and livestock. The dogs that we call Molossers today have the phenotype of this ancient forebearer: large size; heavy bone; short, powerful necks; massive heads; relatively foreshortened muzzles; and thick, sometimes wrinkled skin. These features, minus size, also characterize the “mini-Molossers” such as the French Bulldog and the Pug.
 
Looking to Europe, there certainly is precedent for a Molosser Group: The Fédération Cynologique Internationale has one – not that the AKC is predisposed to copying the FCI, American autonomy being part of our DNA and all. While conceptually, the FCI classification system differs dramatically from the American one – the former broad and flaccid, with subcategories under subcategories (and, inexplicably, a Group devoted solely to Dachshunds), the latter taut and sometimes frustratingly inflexible – there is merit in looking at what breeds FCI places under its Molosser banner.
 
FCI Group 2 is divided into three sections, the second of which is “Molossoid breeds.” In turn, that is divided into two more sections: “Mastiff Type” and “Mountain Type.” This reflects the divergence in the role of Molossers: some were created to protect person and estate; others, to guard livestock.
 
Turning to Molossers of that first group, “Mastiff Type,” we find those AKC breeds that appear regularly in this magazine’s pages: the Bullmastiff, Cane Corso, Dogue de Bordeaux, Mastiff and Neapolitan Mastiff. These are breeds that, for all intents and purposes, have no problem calling themselves Molossers, which is the ultimate litmus test of “What is a Molosser?” no matter what the history books say. 
 
The Dogue de Bordeaux has the word "molossoid" in its standard.
 
But then there is the rest of the list: Boxer, Bulldog, Great Dane, Rottweiler and … Shar-Pei? (Under the original AKC realignment, the Shar-Pei club voted to relocate from the Non-Sporting Group – more appropriately the We Don’t Know Where You Fit Group –  to the Northern Group. But under the FCI system, the Shar-Pei’s wrinkles, thick skin and massive head place it in the Molosser camp.)
 
And it is here that we encounter the gravitational pull that breed culture can make on how a breed is classified. In the end, it does not matter if a breed is truly a Molosser in terms of heritage and classification, if its fanciers do not wish it to be.
 
Consider, for example, the Great Dane, which is, by definition, the German mastiff. All true mastiffs are Molossers. But countless ringside conversations have told us plainly that many Great Dane fanciers do not see their dogs as Molossers. Particularly in the American show scene, the emphasis on the breed’s elegance seems counterintuitive to the Molosser label, with its focus on strength and power. The same likely applies to the Boxer, which in the U.S. has evolved dramatically from its heavier overseas counterpart.
 
The French Bulldog, along with the Pug, is considered a "mini-Molosser."
 
 
 
But that is not to say that the Molosser category by definition excludes athletic, even elegant breeds. Look at the Cane Corso and, lesser known to American fanciers, the Dogo Argentino. These are breeds that have, yes, Molosser heads in terms of their massiveness, but their conformation, while always strong and powerful, gives the impression of a dog that could run all day. We have seen beautifully constructed Corsos that could give a hound a run for its money in terms of their balance, athleticism and fluidity of form – all in a package that is distinctly Molosser. 
 
The FCI’s second grouping of Molosser breeds, Mountain Type, contains many breeds that are not well known to the American fancy. But the Tibetan Mastiff certainly is. Its presence in this subgroup – and the name change, to Do- Khyi, with “Tibetan Mastiff” parenthetically – reflects the fact that some smaller examples of this breed were used as livestock tenders. But a strong contingent of Tibetan Mastiff fanciers here and abroad, particularly in Asia, have articulated the idea of the more mastiff-like members of this breed community as historically being the more desirable. This remains a point of controversy, as the American Tibetan Mastiff Association recently put forth a proposed standard that arguably nudges the breed away from its mastiff form. But it is fair to say that the most successful, prolific and visible Tibetan Mastiff breeders in the United States clearly hold the breed as a Molosser in their mind’s eye.
 
Some see the proposed AKC standard changes for the Tibetan Mastiff as a threat to its Molosser identity.
 
 
Lingering among the Mountain Type breeds for a moment, let’s stop at the Saint Bernard. Here is a breed that is certainly Molosser in phenotype. So much so, in fact, that it has been used as a backcross in other Molosser breeds over the decades to restore soundness and type, most notably in Mastiffs. Do Saint Bernards consider themselves Molossers? We simply can’t say, though we have yet to have one in our pages.
 
If you ever doubted how deeply rooted this self-identity among individual breeds actually is, consider a magazine that was published some 30 years ago, the philosophical forerunner to the one you hold in your hand. Molosser Magazin was published in Germany by Christofer Habig, now vice president of the FCI, and an influential thinker in the world of European dogs. It is fascinating to us to note that the breeds that appear in that vintage magazine over and over again are the very same breeds that find themselves in our pages, with little to no variation.
 
What is it, then, that these self-appointed Molossers have in common? What is it that binds them, and makes them comfortable assuming, even seeking out, the Molosser label? No one can say for sure, as each breed culture is as unique as the breed it cherishes, but we can hazard some guesses.
 
First, there seems to be a willingness among Molosser fanciers to accept and even embrace the idea that in some shape or form, their breed’s job description at one time included protection.
 
This does not mean that these breeds have sharp temperaments – sometimes, quite the opposite. Consider the Mastiff. As a whole, the Mastiff community promotes their dogs for what they are: gentle giants, with the emphasis on “gentle.” Justifiably famous for their love of women and children, Mastiffs are not poster children for ferocity, nor are they promoted as such. But they are a breed developed to “keepeth the house,” and they do have a protective instinct, though it is more likely to manifest by sitting on an intruder rather than savaging him. When you weight 250 pounds, you have that option.
 
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Fila Brasiliero. This Brazilian breed made frequent appearances in Habig’s Molosser Magazin, even though phenotypically, with its down face and houndy ears, it just as easily evokes a Bloodhound as a Mastiff. But the Fila’s raison d’etre is protection of its master, so much so that its standard makes accepting the touch – just the mere touch – of a stranger a disqualifying fault. Clearly, the draw of the Molosser category for this breed is a desire to be placed among those breeds developed for protection, as it is the ne plus ultra for that purpose. But in this respect the Fila is atypical of most other modern Molossers, which try to distance themselves from that xenophobic temperament. 
 

Modern Molosser's European predecessor.
 
 
Shared points of reference seem to be another commonality between fanciers who embrace the Molosser label. The Bullmastiff, for example, defines itself by what the Mastiff is not, and so a kinship of sorts exists, as these two breeds lean on each other conceptually. The Dogue de Bordeaux, being France’s answer to the Bullmastiff, is another close branch on this family tree. In Italy, the two Italian mastiff breeds – the Cane Corso and the Neo – counterbalance each other. Many countries, from South Africa to Japan to Spain, have their own home-grown mastiffs, and, in recognition of these extended family ties, these breeds often accept the Molosser moniker handily. (With the exception, we’ve previously noted, of the German Mastiff, the Dane, which has evolved so far from its mastiff identity that it no longer sees itself as one.)
 
Finally, many of those American breed communities that are aware of and accepting of the Molosser label have maintained ties to their parent countries and fellow enthusiasts overseas. There is no serious American Dogue de Bordeaux fancier, for example, who does not know the name Raymond Triquet, widely acknowledged as the savior of the Dogue, and the architect of the standard. He is responsible for the second sentence of the AKC standard for the Dogue de Bordeaux: “He is a typical brachycephalic molossoid type.” If you’re a Dogue fancier and you don’t know your breed is a Molosser, you haven’t been paying attention in class, not just today, but all semester.
 
Davies of the AKC Realignment Committee notes that a good-sized group would contain 15 to 20 breeds; the smallest groups proposed by the committee on the first go-round encompassed about a dozen breeds (such as Pointers and Setters, and Sighthounds). Doing the math, then, there are the six breeds that appear regularly in this magazine, and so are reasonably assured to want to take on the Molosser mantle: the Bullmastiff, Cane Corso, Dogue de Bordeaux, Mastiff, Neapolitan Mastiff and Tibetan Mastiff. Then there are the Boerboel and Dogo Argentino, both of which entered the AKC Miscellaneous Group in January 2011, and both of which culturally might be comfortable with the Molosser moniker, making eight breeds. Could another four be persuaded to join the fold?
 
To test the waters, Modern Molosser sent an email to the presidents of the Bulldog Club of America, the American Rottweiler Club and the St. Bernard Club of America, inquiring whether, if there was a Molosser Group on the table, those breeds would consider themselves a part of it. Only the Rottweiler club sent a response, saying its board would be discussing it. That hesitance is to be expected: Parent clubs by their very nature do not respond swiftly to questions that their membership have not had a chance to gnaw on.
 
Though the Bulldog has not crossed with Mastiff blood in centuries, phenotype -- great bone, wrinkles and impressive head -- are distinctly Molosser.
 
 
So we dashed off a query to Bulldog breeder-judge Anne Hier, who knows the development of the breed, and so could speak from a historical perspective. “I agree with the FCI that the Bulldog is of molossoid descent,” she replied, outlining the breed’s “Bandogge” heritage, though noting that by the time bull-baiting became illegal in Britian in 1835, Bulldogs “hadn’t been bred with any molossoid stock such as the Mastiff for a few centuries.”
 
Culturally, though, Hier doesn’t think the Bulldog is an ideal fit for a Molosser Group. “Bulldogs have not been bred for a protective, utilitarian, working temperament for almost 200 years. They are companion dogs,” she says. “As a Bulldog breeder, I do not prefer to see the breed viewed by the public as a guard or working animal, which might be the impression given if they were classed in this group for show purposes.”
 
Hier’s response represents the most common argument against a Molosser Group, with the idea of a protection component resurfacing again. But the reality is that today’s Molossers are not the fierce young warriors of their forbearers. Most have instead evolved into armchair gladiators, looking the part, but with their battles long behind them, mellower and wiser for it. In modern times, as in so many breeds, Molossers have been tempered into companion animals, sometimes gentler pound for pound than some of their more diminutive counterparts.
 
Katherine Kubicek, public-relations liaison for the Dogo Argentino Club of America, worries that a Molosser label will pigeonhole a versatile breed like hers. “Dogos are in a rough spot: molossoid in phenotype, but big-game-hound in character,” she says. “A pack-hunting Molosser is a bit of an anomaly. There are mixed feelings in the community about the Dogo’s placement in a Molosser group. As a community, we are intensely concerned about correct public perception of our breed; they should not be viewed as all-around working, guardian-type dogs. They are hunting dogs, first and foremost.”
 
The Saint Bernard is clearly a Molosser in terms of phenotype, or physical appearance.
 
 
 
With all these shades of gray, is the idea of a Molosser Group a viable one? There is no way to know unless the breed communities mentioned here are made aware of their Molosser status – the canine equivalent of getting an unexpected letter from your birth parent – and then begin to wrestle with questions of identity. Some of the decisions will come from purely strategic thinking: “Does a Molosser Group make my breed more competitive, as I won’t be blocked by that flashy Doberman anymore?” But most of it will come from whether or not those breeds – Saint Bernards and Rottweilers, Leonbergers and Bulldogs, even Great Danes and Boxers, Pugs and French Bulldogs – see the Molosser Group as company they want to keep.
 
And that is why, if there is to be an AKC Molosser Group, it needs to be one based on a general morphology rather than history or temperament. If the word Molosser could be understood to mean not the mythical warrior dog from Molossus, but rather those dogs of today who share great bone, great heads and great hearts, perhaps then an AKC Molosser Group has a fighting chance.
 
 

FCI Group 2: Molossoid Breeds, Mastiff Type:

Recognized by AKC:
Boxer
Bulldog
Bullmastiff
Cane Corso Italiano
Dogue de Bordeaux
Great Dane
Mastiff
Neapolitan Mastiff
Rottweiler
Shar Pei
 
In AKC Miscellaneous Group*:
Dogo Argentino
 
Not AKC recognized:
Broholmer (Danish Mastiff)
Ca de Bou (Majorca Mastiff)
Cão Fila de São Miguel
Fila Brasiliero (Brazilian Mastiff)
Majorca Mastiff
Tosa (Japanese Mastiff)
 
* The Boerboel is not yet FCI recognized.
 
 

FCI Group 2: Molossoid Breeds, Mountain Type:

AKC recognized:
Anatolian Shepherd 
Do-Khyi (Tibetan Mastiff)
Leonberger
Newfoundland
Saint Bernard
 
Not AKC recognized:
Atlas Mountain Dog
Cão da Serra da Estrela (Serra da estrela Mountain Dog)
Cão de Castro Laboreiro (Castro Laboreiro Dog)
Caucasian Shepherd Dog
Central Asia Shepherd Dog
Hovawart
Karst Shepherd Dog
Landseer
Pyrenean Mastiff
Pyrenean Mountain Dog
Rafeiro do Alentejo
Sarplaninac
Spanish Mastiff
 
 
© 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.