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Black mask Dogue

In the Black

Black-mask Dogues face an uphill battle

Vickie Saez of Gargoyle Kennels in Miami, Florida, will never forget her first year out on the show circuit with her black-mask Dogue de Bordeaux.  

“I walked in the ring with Caesar for the Open Dog class, and the ring steward came over to ‘oh so gently’ tell me I was in the wrong ring,” she recalls. “I had to tell her that Caesar was a Dogue de Bordeaux, and we were most certainly in the right ring.”   No matter what Dogue de Bordeaux standard you consult, no distinction is made between red and black masks: Both are equally correct for the breed. But though the standard is color blind, Dogues with a masque noir still have an uphill battle.  

“There is a noticeable and substantial reluctance by AKC judges to put up black-mask Bordeaux,” Saez notes, though she says things have improved somewhat in recent years with an uptick in the number of good-quality black masks in the show ring. “Their rings contain an overwhelming majority of red or no masks compared with black-mask entry numbers. Because it takes familiarity to gain expertise in any discipline, it is difficult for today’s judges to feel confident when faced with a black-mask Bordeaux; most judges see so few of them.”  

(Time out here for some Bordeaux-specific lingo: There are really three types of masks – black, red and no mask – but typically the no-mask dogs are lumped in with the reds, described by their pigmentation rather than their masking.)  


The Dogue de Bordeaux standard says all mask colors are born equal, but some judges forget that in the ring. Photo: Yessica SamSin


In Europe, despite long-term efforts by breed clubs to educate judges and breeders alike, Saez says there is still a “quiet stigma” to the black mask that can be traced to the opinions of early breed enthusiasts.  

It’s a vicious circle: Because most judges do not see many black-mask Dogues, when they do turn up judges are less comfortable with them and so less likely to reward them, which in turn makes breeders and exhibitors more reluctant to show them, which only cements the black mask’s minority status. And ’round and ’round we go.  

But judges are not the only ones who tend to gravitate toward the red masks. Many breeders also prefer them, for a variety of reasons – including the fact that they are in much higher demand among puppy buyers  

“Some breeders may prefer just to stick to the norm, which is seen as the ‘red mask,’” says Becky Swainston of Emberez Kennels in the United Kingdom. “We are such an overpopulated breed, and it’s sometimes hard enough to win with a red mask, so rather than chance an inexperienced judge not giving your black mask the full credit he deserves, it’s easier just to stick to the red-masked Dogue.”  

Some breeders stress that it isn’t so much that they dislike the black masks, but rather that they gravitate more strongly toward the reds.  

“We have simply had a personal preference for the red mask,” say Mark and Cindy McElderry of Northland Bordeaux in Earlville, Illinois. “Perhaps for us, the red mask on a Dogue with wonderful head type and expression is just very distinctive and striking. A black-masked Dogue would certainly be more likely to be mistaken for another breed – at least by a novice.”  


Photo: Yessica Sam-Sin.


Indeed, there’s always that inevitable concern about mistaken identity. “Many Dogue breeders I’ve spoken to associate black masks with the Bullmastiff, saying that if they had wanted that look, they would have gone into Bullies,” Saez says, despite the fact that the breeds are so different in their head type.  

While correct expression is important in any breed, it is vital in the Dogue de Bordeaux. French breeder René Brochier notes that, while it may be difficult for the novice to see beyond it, mask color is not what gives the Dogue its required “sour mug” look. “It is the volume of its head, its trapezoidal shape with its high and broad forehead, its mobile wrinkles, its deep muzzle with a well-defined stop, its oval eyes set wide apart” – qualities that may be missing on a red mask as well.  

“The expression is the same” on both black and red masks, agree the McElderrys. “There may be some perceived differences that are nothing more than ‘illusions’ due to the color differences. But a judge should see through any shading differences to the characteristics that make up the expression. Perhaps easier said than done.”  

Raymond D. Smith of Heritage Bordeaux in Cincinnati, Ohio, notes that often the color of the coat rather than the mask is more of an obstacle to imparting the “frank” expression that the standard calls for. “It tends to be harder to see a good expression in a dark Dogue in general,” he says.  

When it comes to black masking, the standard does not stipulate how much of the muzzle it must cover (though it does warn that it cannot invade the head itself). “It can be confined to the tip of the muzzle, or it may be a full mask,” says William Duvall of Mount Sinai Kennels in Melbourne, Kentucky. “But I personally prefer a full black mask on a deeply red Dogue.”  


Black-nose Dogue Bull di Alfaree.


In an effort to give the black-mask more recognition, some show organizers overseas have special classes for them. But Swainston sees that as a mixed blessing.  

“It raises awareness of the black mask being accepted, but it also singles them out and says, ‘Here’s a class for the minority so they have a chance to win something,’” she muses. “I think sometimes breeders, judges and show organizers may feel that black masks can’t compete with the red masks and win the main show, and that sometimes is the case, which is crazy!”  

Some Dogue de Bordeaux breeders contend that breeding to a black mask every few generations helps improve pigment. (Ironically, in other breeds where the black pigment is more common than red, such as Rhodesian Ridgebacks, breeders say the same thing about the red-pigmented dogs.)  

Brochier points out that several other myths have sprung up around the black mask.  

“One should not subscribe to the belief that a brown mask born of two blacks would be ‘superior,’ nor to the belief that only those black-mask specimens born of a black-brown mating would themselves be ‘superior,’” he says. “The most common myth that circulates in the canine world about the black mask is that it would possess a more dominant character.”  

One thing, however, is undisputably true: The black-mask Dogue, Brochier warns, “could one day disappear completely if we do not use it.”  


Photo: Yessica Sam-Sin


In the end, preferences aside, breeders agree on this: A typey Dogue is a typey Dogue, no matter what color the mask. If it is more difficult to breed a typey black mask than a red one, that has nothing to do with the mask color, but rather with the limitations of the gene pool.  

“One of the nicest Dogues we ever bred is a black mask,” Swainston says, though her kennel has bred many more champion red masks over the years. “That isn’t because the quality is better in the red masks,” she explains, “but because the breed’s gene pool of black masks is so small that there are very few variations in bloodline that would suit our breeding program.”  

In the end, she says, the same kind of color blindness that we encourage and foster in our human society should be applied to the breed as well.  

“We may be seen as black-mask fans, but this isn’t true,” she insists. “We are Dogue De Bordeaux fans.”  


Photo: Yessica Sam-Sin


The Standard Says

FCI Standard

“Mask: • Black mask: The mask is often only slightly spread out and must not invade the cranial region. There may be slight black shading on the skull, ears, neck and top of body. The nose is black. • Brown mask: (used to be called red or bistre).  The nose is brown; the eye rims and edges of the lips are also brown. There may be non-invasive brown shading; each hair having a fawn or sandy zone and a brown zone. In this case the inclined parts of the body are a paler colour. • No mask: The coat is fawn: the skin appears red (also formerly called ‘red mask’). The nose can then be reddish.”

AKC Standard

“Black Mask: The mask is often only slightly spread out and should not invade the cranial region. There may be slight black shading on the skull, ears, neck and back. Pigmentation of the nose will be black. Brown Mask: Pigmentation of the nose and eye rims will also be brown. No Mask: The coat is fawn: the skin appears red (also formerly called ‘red mask’). The nose is then reddish or pink.


The Nose Knows

When Dogue de Bordeaux fanciers use the terms “red mask” and “black mask,” what they are really referring to is the pigment of the dog, which is reflected in the nose color. Red-nosed Dogues have red masks (or no mask at all), and black-nosed dogs have black masks, but the gene for masking is inherited separately from pigmentation.   Pigmentation in dogs is a simple autosomal recessive: The black is dominant, and red is recessive.   What this means is that in order for a Dogue to have red pigment – and by extension a red mask, if it is present – it must carry two copies of the recessive gene for red pigment, or nose color; this genotype would be written as “rr.” When two red-nosed Dogues are bred together, they can only produce red puppies. In order to produce black-nosed puppies, one of the parents must be black nosed.  

A black-nosed Dogue can be homozygous for the gene – written “RR” – which means that he carries two copies of the dominant black gene, and so can only produce black-nosed Dogues. But most Dogues de Bordeaux are heterozygous for this trait – “Rr” – meaning that they carry one dominant gene for the black nose, as well as one recessive gene for red. Phenotypically, this dog will have a black nose, but can produced red when bred to a red-nosed Dogue or another black who also carries the recessive gene for red.   When a heterozygous black-nosed Dogue is bred to a red, each puppy produced has an equal chance of being black nosed or red.  

When two heterozygous black-nosed Dogues are bred together – an exceedingly rare happening in the Dogue world – each puppy has a 25 percent chance of being red nosed, and a 75 percent chance of being black. – Flaim    


Quick Quote

Raymond Triquet, author of The Saga of the Dogue de Bordeaux and widely considered the most authoritative expert on the Dogue, has this to say about black masks:  

“The black mask of the Dogue de Bordeaux is very particular: First, it’s never widespread. It doesn’t reach the region of the skull. Some black may be found on the brows, but it’s never very dark, it doesn’t form ‘dark glasses’ ... It is never so extensive as in the Mastiff and above all, it’s not so deep. The fawn of the coat can always be seen through the black of the mask, or is at least hinted at ... Black may be limited to the front of the muzzle, to the front part of the upper lips, and the rest is banded hair, fawn and black, giving the impression of a shaded area on a lighter ground ... In the past one used to say the Dogue de Bordeaux shouldn’t resemble the Mastiff ... it was also the very black and pronounced masks which are not at all typical of our dogue.”  


Anatomy of a Bias

The black-mask Dogue de Bordeaux has been neglected in recent decades, and as a result very few exceptional examples stand out from the crowd. Fortunately, the trend is being reversed because fewer and fewer breeders adhere to the myth that the black mask is not a pure Dogue.  


In a black-mask Dogue, a dark eye is especially important, because a light eye contrasted with the black pigment gives an undesirably harsh expression. Photo: Raymond D. Smith


This theory was published in 1896 by Pierre Megnin, former army vet and editor of the newspaper L’Eleveur, in a precursor to the first Dogue standard. Megnin denounced the black mask as a bastardization of the breed by the infusion of Mastiff blood, although it must be remembered that crossbreeds have always existed.  

In 1910, Joseph Kunstler, professor of comparative anatomy and embryology at the Bordeaux Faculty of Sciences, curator of the Bordeaux Museum of Natural History and regarded as the “father of the modern Dogue,” restored the truth. In his Critical Study of the Dogue de Bordeaux at French Shows, he was the first to point out the lack of intensity of the black mask (and nose) of the Dogue, through which a reddish base is frequently visible compared to the nose and the mask of the Mastiff and Bullmastiff. Also worth noting is that the black mask in the Dogue is never very extensive. Although the eye sockets can be darkened, the black should not form “spectacles,” common to the Mastiff and Bullmastiff, nor spread to the head region.  

In 1898 the article “Characteristic Points of the Dogue de Bordeaux” published by vet Lucien Richard in Richard Annual pointed out that if the mask color was ultimately not important it should not prevent a Dogue with a red (brown) mask being ranked first. (Not a typo!)   Finally, Paul Ferriere, one of the important figures mentioned in Raymond Triquet’s The Saga of the Dogue de Bordeaux and owner of the famous “Caporal,” hit the nail on the head in the December 1912 issue of Le Chasseur Français magazine by saying he had always seen black-mask Dogues without being aware of Mastiffs.   The Mastiff does not have the “sour mug” expression that is typical of the Dogue. It has become fashionable to say that a black-mask Dogue lacking head type resembles a Mastiff. But similarly, a Mastiff would not be rewarded if it looked like a Dogue. – René Brochier


Xohor de Fenelon (V’Pach x Sara), whelped 1949.



N’ Hems du Domaine des Sources (Lutteur de Gorge d’Or x Urelia), whelped 1977.



Emilion Du Terroir Bordelais (Croux De La Seigneurie Des Chartrons x Criska Des Coteaux De L’Autan), whelped 1989.  


A more recent Dogue, Cetje van’t Bulscampvelt (Ch. Brando Dospilos x Zoraya Garde D’Honneur Du Monde).  


Cetje son Payk Z’Orisku.


An equally impressive Cetje daughter, Brandoux Black Velvet Blackx.     



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