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Molosser Musings: The Bigger the Better?

Size in Mastiffs
It would be difficult to come up with a Molosser that shows more variation in appearance than the Mastiff, despite the fact that the Mastiff is a well-established breed with a most impressive length and depth of history. Any Mastiff novice ringside is puzzled at the very least by seeing all those differences in size and proportion in the very same ring. It’s as if there were a number of breeds being judged instead of just one – Great Dane-like Mastiffs or ones that show more resemblance to Bullmastiffs or Neapolitan Mastiffs, and then there are quite a number who show an “interesting” melting pot of whatever Molosser characteristics.
When that same novice is brave enough to walk into the ring to have a closer look at the heads, then there is more than a good chance he would feel totally lost. Images of the aforementioned breeds come to him, but also Saint Bernards, Bloodhounds, Newfoundlands, Dogues de Bordeaux ... Many a judge has had to deal with the same feeling. Some find their way; others stay lost – forever, it seems.
To make the life of the Mastiff enthusiast easier – for the length of this article, at least – we are not going into the ring. Let’s stay at the firmer grounds of the ringside. Often I wish that judges would judge Mastiffs from the ringside – read: from a more overall perspective. The Mastiff as a breed would benefit from it, type wise I am sure.
A strange remark about a breed that is considered to be very much a head breed, is it not? We’ll see.
With all that focus on Mastiff heads in the truly interesting Modern Molosser article written by Donna and Jessica Bahlman – there is no direct reason, anyway. So forget about heads for now.

Blame Ourselves

The difficulties that the Mastiff had to overcome – twice, after both world wars, being close to extinction, and the various outcrosses, including those in relatively recent times – are often used as an excuse for the enormous variation in type. Some time ago I would have written “reason” instead of “excuse,” meaning that I have become a bit less “softhearted” – the Mastiff is not the only Molosser breed that has had to conquer these problems, surely not. So there must be another reason why closely related Molosser breeds like the Bullmastiff, Dogue de Bordeaux and Neapolitan Mastiff show less variation in type than the Mastiff.
It is so true that Mastiff type head wise is more difficult to define and more delicate to keep, but that does not count for the general appearance of the Mastiff. No, no excuses, we can only blame ourselves, Mastiff breeders and judges, which has everything to do with how we are dealing with size. The “good” thing is that it is not a modern issue, far from it. Even “better,” it was an issue from day one of the official Mastiff standard, and still is there in the modern standard, that of the (English) Kennel Club and consequently that of the FCI, Australian Kennel Club and so forth. Even in the AKC standard there are similar signs – similar, though not the same …
Dealing with the standard has become of extra interest since the Mastiff breed standard issued by the Kennel Club was changed in October 2009, so size and matters linked to it have been the subject of change. The current FCI standard is a still copy of the former KC standard, creating an ideal opportunity to put them next to each other. It is standard practice that the FCI will incorporate all changes, but that has not taken place yet.

Young Mary Bull

Before I go to the standard, I want to introduce an image that I have looked at countless times, my number-one Mastiff photo of reference, so to speak, to this very day. It is a picture of a fawn female called Ch. Young Mary Bull. The original photo was taken in 1921. I saw it for the first time in The Mastiff  by Marie Moore. The drawing is done by the Davidson sisters from Australia and is part of the book on standards published by the Australian Kennel Club. The Victorian Mastiff Club in that country uses it as a kind of logo – bless them. The drawing gives a slightly more favorable image compared to the photo, more definition of muscles and condition, but both, the original and the drawing, shout Mastiff to me: short head on long, deep, broad body.
Ch. Young Mary Bull, Great Britain (1921).
Despite the fact that I have admired this photo so many times, I am still not sure why I like it so much, more than so many other photos I like to look at it again and again. I would like to think that she strikes me as the first “modern” Mastiff, with a combination of qualities I try to go for in Mastiffs nowadays. In many breeds one can come up with the first modern champion, far ahead of his time.
Before Young Mary Bull was made up, there had been quite a few really nice Mastiff champions, a few even with much “bigger” names than the one of this lady, like Ch. Beaufort, for instance. But still, I consider her special, and I wanted to open this article with her image – if you cannot follow what I try to put in words, just look at her and dream Mastiff.

Grand Compromise

In almost all breed standards, one finds a separate paragraph about size. If not, then there is a weight clause or another measurement (circumference of ribcage in Dachshunds in the FCI standard, for instance) that helps define how a dog of that particular breed has to look. Not so in the Mastiff standard of the KC and the FCI; the AKC one comes only “halfway” – more or less a minimum, but no maximum.
For the record, the former KC/current FCI Mastiff standard dictates under “General Appearance”: “Size a great desideratum, if combined with quality. Height and substance important if both points are proportionately combined.” The new KC standard requires: “Size is desirable, but only if combined with quality and if absolute soundness is maintained. Height and substance important if both points are proportionately combined.”
Same message in different package? I’ll come back to it, but first a quote from the AKC standard, under the separate heading “Size, Proportion, Substance”: “Size – Dogs, minimum, 30 inches at the shoulder. Bitches, minimum, 27½ inches at the shoulder. Fault – Dogs or bitches below the minimum standard. The further below standard,
the greater the fault.”
What is the problem, you might wonder? Straightforward enough piece of text, easy to understand – the bigger the better, with an “if” here and there, but that is it: The bigger the better. Yes, but, I would say, referring to the same standards … quite a few buts, in fact.
Before I go into detail you should know that the Mastiff enthusiasts who drew up the first official breed standard could not agree on a height clause. That is why they came up with this compromise. Better not write down anything in terms of exact height or weight measurements, they must have thought at the time, ensuring how the ideal proportions – stamping breed type – should be. A grand compromise as far as I am concerned, but only if understood correctly, and for that one has to carefully study the other sentences that are part of “General Appearance” in the three standards mentioned and “Size, Proportions and Substance” in the AKC standard.


The former KC/current FCI standard asks for “Body massive, broad, deep, long, powerfully built, on legs wide apart and squarely set. Muscles sharply defined. Size a great desideratum, if combined with quality. Height and substance important if both points are proportionately combined. Large, massive, powerful, symmetrical, well-knit frame.”
The latest version of the KC standard gives: “Body broad, deep, long, powerfully built, on legs wide apart and set. Muscles sharply defined. Size is desirable, but only if combined with quality and if absolute soundness is maintained. Height and substance important if both points are proportionately combined.”
When I first read these (and other) changes, I was really upset. First and foremost because I am attached to the old standard, the standard that helped me get into the world of Mastiffs by reading and re-reading it countless times. It has become part of me, and it is the ultimate guideline of how I value the individual specimen of the breed, to the smallest detail. The Mastiff breed standard is not that easy to get familiar with. I know that the input I got from studying the old books and other media have been essential in learning to understand it.
The various talks with the English breeders and judges who “carried” the breed since World War II and witnessing their performances in the ring have been even more important. What grew over the years was nothing more, nothing less than admiration for these true ambassadors, but also for all-rounders of the “old school.” They have been instrumental in understanding a standard that has hardly changed in more than a century, and there was no reason for it – that is how remarkably well the breed pioneers did their job. Here you have at least half the reason why it is so difficult to adjust to changes to one’s “profession of faith.”
The other half is grounded in the belief that it is “easy” to breed and judge a Mastiff that is typical, healthy and sound according to the old standard. “Easy” meaning “this is what to go for”; “how to get there” is a different story. That is my conviction to this day. In fact, I use the old standard with all pleasure in lectures and seminars with aspiring breeders and judges alike to try to get the message across of the need to get the breed more healthy and sound. In that respect, it has been very frustrating that the KC found reason to change that major tool because of the state of the breed in its country of origin, which I am sorry to say is quite a bit worse than in other countries, in the last 15 or so years, that is. In other words, a piling up of the good suffering from the bad – the standard itself instead of the breeders and judges that use it; the state of the breed in Great Britain instead of a more just worldwide evaluation.
Since the standard has been changed, something like two years ago, I have been re-reading the old and new standards, and my conclusions have changed or are changing … No, it’s not the conclusions that are changing, but it is a kind of trying to adjust to what is a new reality, making the best of it, for the sake of the breed, that is. So if the essential word “massive” had to be sacrificed because of all those Mastiffs that are “massive” in the wrong way – variations on the couch-potato theme – then so be it, no worries, as all the essential words that make a Mastiff massive are still in the standard: “Body broad, deep, long, powerfully built, on legs wide apart and set. Muscles sharply defined.”
And what is the real difference between a “powerful, symmetrical, well-knit frame” and “absolute soundness”? It makes a highly interesting subject for a dispute on a lazy Sunday afternoon, in which I would like to take part with all possible vigor and stamina – true Mastiff characteristics – but in the end, in the ring, it results in one and the same, the right kind of Mastiff being praised.
To get back to the theme of this column and to put the previous paragraphs in a different perspective, the way we are dealing with Mastiff type based on size versus proportions I gather to be of greater importance than the latest standard changes.

Length of Body

Let us get the American standard in again; it helps. I do not mind repeating it umpteen times: For the best possible understanding of a breed, one has to study all the official standards that are around. It gives more relief and/or proof why one and the same breed develops differently in various parts of the world.
The AKC Mastiff standard gives both. Under “General Appearance,” we read: “The Mastiff is a large, massive, symmetrical dog. The impression is one of grandeur and dignity. Dogs are more massive throughout. Bitches should not be faulted for being somewhat smaller in all dimensions while maintaining a proportionally powerful structure. A good evaluation considers positive qualities of type and soundness with equal weight.”
Under “Size, Proportion, Substance”: “Size – Dogs, minimum, 30 inches at the shoulder. Bitches, minimum, 27½ inches at the shoulder.
Fault – Dogs or bitches below the minimum standard. The further below standard, the greater the fault. Proportion – Rectangular, the length of the dog from forechest to rump is somewhat longer than the height at the withers. The height of the dog should come from depth of body rather than from length of leg. Substance – Massive, heavy boned, with a powerful muscle structure. Great depth and breadth desired. Fault – Lack of substance or slab sided.”
What I want to embrace in the AKC standard, would loved to see copied in the KC/FCI standard, is the phrase “The height of the dog should come from depth of body rather that from length of leg.” So true, so essential. That message can be filtered easily out of what the KC/FCI standard
requires in terms of proportions, but to have it there, in words, exact, as an underlining, is best. The rest of the guidelines hold clearly the same message as to what is required in the KC/FCI standard, with some different wording helping to get the same message across: The Mastiff is massive (in the right way). There is one important difference, though: length of body.
The KC standard, old and new, no difference there, dictates, I repeat – too important not to – “Long.” How long is not stated, not under “General Appearance,” not under “Body” in the old standard, but in the new KC standard under “Body” we read: “Length of body taken from point of shoulder to point of buttock greater than height at withers.” The AKC standard requires, as we have seen above already: “Rectangular, the length of the dog from forechest to rump is somewhat longer than the height at the withers.” Nothing more is said under “Body,” no reason for it, all loud and clear, but different, no doubt there, either.
For the record, there are two differences between the KC and AKC standards, one “academic” perhaps, but one major, for sure. The first one is the result of how the measurement is taken. “From forechest” is not the same as “from point of shoulder.” The last is the joint between the shoulder and upper arm, meaning that in a well-constructed dog there are quite a few centimeters between forechest and point of shoulder. In many cynological articles and books, there have been misunderstandings about what is what and where to start measuring, so let’s try not to go for that kind of repetition. What is much more important is that the KC standard does not give a restriction in the amount of length, not in the way anyway the AKC dictates – “long” is not the same as “slightly longer.”
For me, as a judge of all Molosser breeds, this “long” in the Mastiff standard of the KC (country of origin) and FCI (my “home”) is of extra value; in no other standard of any Mastiff breed except the (Old English) Mastiff is this required. In all other standards, the restrictions are clearly given – slightly longer than tall or square or 10:11, etcetera.
The Mastiff is the only Molosser breed that should be long – full stop. So, longer than any other Molosser breed, right? But how long is long, the same as long in a never-ending story? No, as long as it goes together with a well-knit frame; well-angulated front and hindquarters, “kept together” by a “level topline maintained whilst on the move,” according to the new KC standard, or “straight, level and firm, not swaybacked,” as required in the AKC standard. That long, as in Young Mary Bull-long. Or like in my BOB (Ch. Yangerdook Showmedamoney) at the Jubilee Show of the Mastiff Club of Victoria in Australia in 2008. In terms of body proportions, there were more dogs there that were impressively wide and deep, on nice bodies that were clearly longer than tall, but he was extra impressive in length, without sacrificing any strength or athletic ability. In fact, the reason I gave him the top spot was his breathtaking, highly typical show of strength and athletic ability on the move. (His head was strong, masculine and typical for sure, but did not have the quality and expression of my Runner Up to Best in Show, Yangerdook Harlem Knight, or Bitch Challenge and Best Opposite Sex in Show, Yangerdook Take A Trick.) His performance on the move was a proof in point that only a Mastiff that excels in body proportions – deep, broad, with extra length, please – is the one that moves like a Mastiff, like no other Molosser is able to, because of that extra length of body and because of all those other qualities like construction, muscle development and tone. But that goes without saying because it can be seen in any well-bodied dog of whatever breed, or in sound, well-muscled, short(er) coupled Mastiffs, even.
Jubilee Show 2008 Mastiff Club of Victoria. From left: Ch. Yangerdook Showmedamoney (BIS), Yangerdook Harlem Knight (RBIS) and Yangerdook Take A Trick (BOS). Photo: Rob Russell
It is not easy to describe highly typical Mastiff movement in words, but I like to think that the following comes close: It is surprisingly easygoing, without effort, it seems, certainly when shown by a dog that massive, smooth almost, with an impressive length of stride, surprisingly long even for a dog that deeply bodied and in total giving the impression of a slow-motion film. Interesting that the same dog in similar competition later on was criticized for being too long. Well, he would be too long according to the American standard, but he was shown in Australia, so should be judged to the standard of that country, which is a copy of the original KC standard. I even can understand if a judge who is not that familiar with Mastiffs considers a dog that looks (very) different from all the others to be the wrong one, not being “average,” so to speak. But he and I agreed on this particular dog to be anything but average on the move. We both made clear that this was easily the best-moving Mastiff on the day. My motivations I have given above, which I would like to bring in when spending a lazy Sunday afternoon with the other judge.

Size At Last

Enough about length. I even would not mind to say, for argument’s sake, forget about extra long, as long as the Mastiff is long, meaning measuring more than slightly longer. The three apricot dogs shown on the photo taken at the end of the Jubilee Show of the Victorian Mastiff Club show variation in body length, but I consider them all to be more than slightly longer than tall, and together with the input of the other body proportions they make lovely bodied Mastiffs. Lovely Mastiffs in total, because of what they offered in head type also.
Let us talk about size – at last, I know – but I am going to stay a bit longer behind those three principal winners Down Under two years ago. Luckily I am not the only one who was impressed by the three apricots. I cannot tell you how many reactions I have gotten from their admirers, literally from all over the world, who have seen my “slightly emotional performance” after the show on YouTube – is it not great, modern times? Well, let’s not go there, I don’t have that many Sunday afternoons free to laze around. But what I do know is that I had to deal with remarks about the size of these Mastiffs. Not the type, not the heads, not the bodies (praise only there, at least), but a serious – or should I say worrying – numbers of admirers had to follow their lovely feedback with questions like: How big are they? They are not that big, are they? Aren’t they small? Not one was brave enough to say that he or she thought them too small, but I am a pretty good “reader” and brave enough and even more stubborn to state: They are of the right size.
I’d like to stick to this statement – that is how stubborn I am, even if I have to admit that they are around and about the minimum height according to the AKC standard, if they even “make” that. I do not know how much they measure at the withers; I always say better ask a German judge, they are the best measurers and counters in the doggy world (of teeth first and foremost). But see what has happened to the German breeds: In all countries, they have surpassed their country of origin (except for the German Shepherd, perhaps, which I do not have a clue about anyway).
But what I do know is that these three are highly typical Mastiffs, and, as there is no minimum, nor a maximum in the KC and FCI standards, “my” standards, they are of the right size. What I also know, based on seeing perhaps thousands of Mastiffs (and having judged a few less) in close to 35 years now, is that the size of these three apricots is the size at which true Mastiff type can flourish. And I know that the Mastiffs that have been admired by long-standing authorities in the “old world” as “the best ever” were of pretty much the same size as these three. If they were bigger (read: measured more at the withers), then it was by a couple of centimeters only. (And I like to think that the best Mastiffs in the “new world” were not that big either, and that they were often criticized for one thing only: size, meaning lack of it.) Speaking of big and measuring: A true Mastiff may seldom be really big, but he will give that impression to you. With all his special qualities captured in a short head and long deep, broad body, he shouts at you: MASTIFF.
The one and only conclusion of this plea is: Size comes last. At least according the way I read the old and new KC standards. Not because the ideal Mastiff is or must be a small dog (let’s say 75 cm, or 29½ inches, at the withers, which I would not call small whatever the dog or breed – would you?), but because it is already so extremely difficult to get a Mastiff of the right type (i.e., a faultless blend of everything the standard requires), and it is almost impossible to get a Mastiff of, let’s say, 80-plus centimeters (31 plus inches) who would come close to that.
“Close to that” and “almost impossible” are a very nice way of putting it. See all those “really big” Mastiffs? If they are lucky, they are sound and well constructed from a non-specific breed point of view, but the vast majority of them must be regarded as lacking in width and depth, too light in bone, too short coupled or hardly long enough, according to the standard, any Mastiff standard. The unlucky ones are “lifetime prisoners” within crippled bodies; “luckily,” they normally do not get that old. The extra-sad story in Mastiffs is that the same kind of prison is offered if breeders and judges put too much emphasize on head type and kilograms only.


Harsh comments, Bosch. Who are you, anyway? Okay, time for a confession. I dare to use these blunt words because I have made these judging errors myself. I can easily come up with an article of this length with wrong decisions based on going for size only, or heads and substance and nothing else, or “interesting” combinations of it, and coming up with excuses like, the Mastiff is a head breed – no head, no Mastiff … any mongrel is well-constructed, not difficult at all to get … for a big dog he is decently constructed and moves relatively well, pretty good …
In that respect I feel that at many moments of judging I have touched the history of the breed; making the same mistakes when vital decisions were in order for the sake of the breed with the standard as my compass. Learning to read a compass is not something you can do overnight, is it? Anyway, it has taken me more than a night, but I feel blessed that I have been able to witness British specialist judges in the ring who started in the breed after the second world war, and some world-renowned all-rounders for an intelligent and sound perspective on reading the standard. I could easily write yet another article of this length about them and the memorial moments they have given me performing in the ring.
This is still confession time, is it not? Well, to show how important “they” have been to me, I must admit that they are still around, years after they passed away. They always join in when I am standing in the middle of the ring in front of yet another tricky class of Mastiffs. I hear them talk and like to think that I know what they would have done in these circumstances. I am not doing the same thing all the time (me being stubborn, do not forget), but I am sure that whatever I do, they will talk to me again when necessary. That contact is so special that I can only wish that every breeder and judge will have that kind of mentor, even if it is only one once in your life. If not, then there is always nature.
Mastiff type in brindle. Van de Cathalyanda Oberon and Tember Diva. Photo: Hans Rosingh/BBPress-Mastiff Images

A Shortcut

I have to come to an end to this article, so I would like to make a shortcut via the various dog breeds that nature allows us to cherish and preserve.
Still not finished with size-related matters. Have a look at those dog breeds that are the tallest, the Irish Wolfhound and Great Dane. How much more narrow and leggy are they compared to a typical Mastiff? Like day and night. Right. If you would study the standard of these two breeds, their history and the way breeders and judges try to deal with issues such as size, construction, balance and movement, you have to come to the conclusion that it is a surprisingly similar world as that of the Mastiff, quite scary really. Proof in point: The Wolfhounds and Danes considered to be “the best ever” are not at the top of the standard size wise, no way.
For those who are not pleased with this comparison because the Mastiff is so much more substantial, I will present two more breeds within our group of Molossers. I talk about rare breeds here, certainly from an American perspective, but they are much bigger than the average Mastiff, and the best ones are coming close to being as substantial as the Mastiff. I mean the Matin Espagnol and the Middle Asian Ovtcharka.
In the first breed, one sees a (much) higher percentage of dogs that are really big (80-plus cms, easily) and as massive as Mastiffs, and in the second, one sees a surprisingly high number of real big dogs (80-plus-plus, easily), not as massive as the Espanol, but almost always (extra) heavy boned, beautifully angulated and so light footed and easygoing on the move that it’s almost unbelievable. For the right perspective, there are many dogs in both breeds that are (much) smaller, and it should not surprise you anymore that those are almost always extremely well constructed, balanced and full of strength and quality. But I have to give you that it is possible to have an extra big, really massive dog, so why not in the Mastiff?
Well, you only have to look at the heads. I will not ask you to study the heads of the two breeds mentioned first; all that length and narrowness with hardly any stop will give any true “single-minded” Mastiff enthusiast nightmares. But I ask you to have a really close look at the last two mentioned. Pretty pleasing, are they not? Strong heads, decent stops, real strong muzzles, all true, but totally different heads than what is required in the Mastiff. A Mastiff head should have a much shorter muzzle – compared to his skull, the ratio should be 1:2 instead of 1:1 as in the other two. It should have definitely more stop and a much wider skull, resulting in a head clearly more square (looking). (According to the standard, I would like to add.)
In other words, it seems that nature puts up an extra obstacle for size if you want to have a short-headed dog with a long, broad, deep, sound, well-built body. When you want to have something different you can breed it, for sure, but not without sacrificing something somewhere at least; sacrificing a lot all over the place is more likely, as anyone can witness. So if you want to have a Mastiff of 80-plus centimeters at the withers you should not be surprised to end up with a smaller, more narrow head (a desired amount of stop you can go for, no worries, even the right amount of muzzle length seems to be possible), and that he will be more leggy, more narrow and (!) often shorter coupled.


Since I am aware of these laws of nature, I have become even more impressed by the pioneers who wrote the first official breed standard. And it has gone together with a growing regret that in those early days the two parties did not manage to agree, resulting in more exact measurements about size.
Without any clearly understandable boundaries as in the KC and FCI standard, or halfway borders as in the AKC, it seems that breeders and judges feel the freedom to go for extremes, motivating it with misinterpretation of whichever standard.
If one takes all this into consideration, one can no longer be surprised that the Mastiff seen from a safe distance looks like three breeds, at least …
Sometimes I am seduced by the thought that it would have been so much better if the old KC standard was kept intact, except for one new paragraph only to support the right interpretation in a definite, clear, straightforward manner: a minimum and maximum height. Or even better: a maximum height only, and that for 10 years or so we would judge on size like Germans.

Respect and Gratitude

The reality is different, I know, which all these words have to be used to explain. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done that with all pleasure, even if only out of respect and gratitude to the “old school.” Is there any better way to underline this than with a photograph of a European champion of the early ’90s of the former century? The photo below looks to be taken many more decades before and the pictured Mastiff (Falmorehall Hudson) seems to be of a timeless quality.
“Hudson,” Ch. Falmorehall Hudson, Ireland/the Netherlands (early 1990s). Photo: Hans Rosingh/BBPress-Mastiff Images
To me, it shouts MASTIFF. Hopefully it does the same to you. It shouts that much Mastiff that not one true breed enthusiast should have the guts to ask: How big is he? If there still would be that ignorant a soul around I would try to stay calm, take a deep breath and formulate with all possible dignity – another true Mastiff characteristic, so beautifully shown by this Hudson at a very advanced age: Sir or Madam, my sincerest apology, but I do not care. He is of the right size, as he is one hundred percent Mastiff. And if you insist, by all means, bring me as good a Mastiff of greater size. I wish you the best of luck.
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