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Bullmastiff from a 1952 French magazine cover, which referred to it as “the dog of the future.” But in breeding for the time and place in which they live, are breeders irrevocably changing the breed’s fundamental character?

A Delicate Balance

Is today's Bullmastiff temperament too tepid? Does the Presa or Dogo Canario offer a viable alternative?

While I was at school, I had two burning ambitions: One was to own a Bullmastiff and the other was to have a Bull Terrier with my own affix. For as long as I can remember, we had show dogs in our home, and to us, there was only one type of Bull Terrier: the white, dome-faced, very jaunty creature evolved by James Hinks in Birmingham, England, more than a century ago. Many of them were deaf, in common with the now extinct English White Terrier, and there had been a move to breed “colored” English Bull Terriers using their close cousin, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. But the fact remained: English Bull Terriers were show dogs, and Staffords were designed for the very brutal job of pit fighting. 


The intermediate step between the old Bull & Mastiff cross and today’s Bullmastiff was the Gamekeeper’s Dog. Thorneywood Terror was famous for never failing to catch and hold his man, and was undefeated at work-dog trials of the day.


Being younger and a painfully shy child, I was never allowed to handle our dogs under a judge, but I used to watch my brother and was always struck with awe by the dogs’ ring presence. Their feet never seemed to touch the ground simultaneously when they moved round the ring. Their eyes shone, every muscle rippled, and they whimpered a continuous high-pitched war cry. Yes, these were show dogs, yet they possessed the old flame of their ancestors.  

So should we compare working dogs to show dogs? The danger is that if we don’t, we may be producing overgrown lapdogs.  

Going to dog shows, I grew up knowing a lot of the breeders well, and I loved nothing better than to spend a Saturday morning on a tour of their kennels, admiring their dogs, hearing stories of great wins, looking at photos of past champions. This is where I first saw a photo of a Bullmastiff and listened intently about why they were created and for what purpose. But, coming from a Wire Fox and English Bull Terrier household, I was told that I could not have a Bullmastiff until I was earning enough money to pay for the damage it did, and that there would be no Bull Terrier in my name until I was able to handle it.  


It is a fair, if uncomfortable, question for our modern age: Can we make our Molossers so tractable that they lose the “spark” that defines them?


I had to wait until I was in my 20s to get my first Bullmastiff, and £500 was never better spent. “Bess” was bred by the late Sue Reynolds of Tartuffe; her sire was Ch. Tartuffe Revelry in conjunction with her sister-in-law’s untried bitch Tartuffe Heather. Even though she was descended from a long line of champions, history tells us her ancestors were bred from two very specialized types of dog: the original mix of 40 percent Bulldog and 60 percent Mastiff.  

In medieval times, bull-baiting had been a lawful, even compulsory pastime. A very specialized breed of dog was produced for baiting, more like a modern-day Bull Terrier than a present-day Bulldog: broad chested and powerful, with well-laid-back nostrils so that it did not suffocate when it did catch hold, longer on leg and more agile. The Mastiff, in contrast, was a much larger dog developed for use at war and was a guard dog par excellence.


The author draws comparisons between the Presa Canario of today and the Bullmastiff’s progenitor, the Bull & Mastiff cross. Gameness is of prime importance in both. Dileas of Ranald (above) was an early Bullmastiff from the late 1920s and early ’30s who was frequently advertised at stud in the Kennel Gazette (U.K.) Modern fanciers would likely agree that he looks more Presa than Bullmastiff.


These working Bull & Mastiff dogs became obsolete in the first half of the 1800s and were integrated into the show world. That is, until the gamekeepers developed another breed for their protection. They crossed what was left of the old working Bulldogs that still had the right gameness with various types of Mastiffs. These dogs were used to prevent poaching on the large estates that covered England. They were designed to be able to cover a short distance at great speed, jump a gate and, once trained, pin a man to the ground for as long as the gamekeeper required. Make no mistake: It takes a fit, game dog to do that. Many breeds will bite if provoked, but the keepers knew they needed more than just a bite or a display of threat, and because the penalties were so severe for poaching, the likelihood was that if stopped by a keeper’s dog, a poacher would kill rather than be caught.  

This new breed evolved from the old Bull & Mastiff was a strong, agile, leggy dog. The Game Keeper’s dogs, as they were known, were agile as weasels, staunch as bull-dogs, and as fond of fighting as their ancestors. My friend Gordon, who is head keeper in the Irish estate of Lord Dunleith, now uses a German Shepherd as a watch dog. His opinion is that today’s Bullmastiff has become a plaything of those who show dogs and has lost its gameness, and because of that, the breed has now become a show dog rather than a working dog. “Nothing spoils a dog like dog shows,” he says. “Too many breeders have overexaggerated appearance at the expense of brains and guts.”  

In essence, I agree with his point of view: Fashion is as fickle with dog breeds as ladies are about hats. But no doubt it is a social necessity, even responsibility, to own a dog that is calm around people and livestock. I can only liken these old Bull & Mastiffs to the new generation of Presa Canarios, but also wonder why anyone would want a dog that ferocious. Gordon’s job necessitates a more vicious guard than most breeds, but then his attitude is “fit for purpose.”  


Ad from 1987 placed by the Club Español del Presa Canario promoting “the hitherto unknown Molosser.” But for the head, the morphology evokes a Bullmastiff.


Presas were first introduced to the world outside of Spain’s Canary Islands in the 1980s by Dr. Carl Semencic in an article for Dog World magazine and in his books on the subject of rare breeds of dogs. They were bred to conform to a standard, and ruthlessly culled at any sign of weakness. I was so intrigued by them and the similarities with our Bullmastiffs that I visited the source of the breed in the Canary Islands, making my comparisons and meeting two breeders who have had a major impact on the Presa: Manuel Curto at Irema Curto Kennels in Tenerife and Jose Granado Guerra in Gran Canaria.  

There has long been a debate raging about what is the true Presa and to whom it belongs. A quick synopsis of the argument: The Dogo Canario that is recognized by the FCI and AKC is claimed to be the original Presa, but opposing this are those breeders whose dogs are not recognised by the FCI or simply do not wish to have their dogs in a kennel club. Both say their lines are the true working dogs, and that the Dogo is merely a show dog. 

I wanted to see the type of breed that was classed as a true working dog, and compare what I knew about the original Bull & Mastiff to our modern Bullmastiff. 

Manuel, like Gordon, explained that his dogs were there for a purpose, and by breeding inferior temperaments, their strength of mind would be weakened and thus not be suitable. “It is only by testing the working ability of every generation that the strong working characteristics of the Presa have been maintained,” he says. He also told me that at an early age all the pups are selected by lifting them up by the tail; if they squeak or even make a noise, then they are culled: “Only pups that keep silent make the grade.” From our conversation I realized it was not their silence Manuel was striving to breed, but a deep gameness with a high pain threshold, and a devotion to their owner above all else.  


Modern-day Presa in its home country.


To him it seemed effective; to me it seemed a very cruel way of deciding on the fate of a dog, considering we in the show world do everything to keep our pups alive. But who am I to judge, considering in Ireland we had similar tests, albeit not with pups but with adult dogs, called the Teastas Mor.  

Teastas Mor was a certificate of gameness issued to a dog by the Irish Kennel Club. Working terriers had to draw a badger within five minutes from its hole or point out the position of the badger, so it could be dug out. Strict rules governed the Teastas Mor. It was considered that the discipline ensured contests between dog and badger were fair. In the past, to become an Irish Kennel Club terrier champion, it was necessary for a terrier to be in possession of a Teastas Mor. Irish native breeds the Soft Coated Wheaten, Irish Terrier and Kerry Blue were the principle dogs used. Thankfully, this barbaric practice ceased in 1966. I saw dozens of demonstrations of Schutzhund work with Jose’s dogs – dogs that we were warned not to touch; in fact, dogs that we could not touch because of their sheer aggression. I witnessed a level of voice control that made me speechless – one word and the dogs would become as savage as I’ve ever seen, and then, once commanded again, relaxed as if they were curled up on the mat in front of my fire. This level of training was an inspiration to me, but also brought with it a level of responsibility that I would not wish to bear. The same thought kept running through my mind: What if? What if these dogs attacked my wife or family, what if they got out and ran amok in the village where we live? What if they got one of our beloved family pets?  

But by knowing the origins and development of our beloved breed and experiencing the effect that a dog attack can cause, I feel we must applaud the lengths responsible breeders have gone too to maintain what the (U.K.) Kennel Club and FCI breed standards calls a “high spirited” temperament. (The AKC breed standard does not use the term in its description of Bullmastiff temperament.) But the term itself gives us the crux of this article. It can be argued that “high spirited” simply means alert, animated or – as I understand it to be, and a term commonly used – “on their toes.” At the same time, it can be interpreted as aggression either to animal or people. Breed standards are there for us to use as guidelines, and when a term like “high spirited” is included in it, its original interpretation can be lost, misinterpreted or at worst become, over the passage of time, gospel, depending on who is interpreting it.  

I have judged a lot of show dogs over the years both here and abroad, and have been concerned at times by the lacklustre attitude, even lackadaisical demeanor with some modern-day Molossers. I hark back to the Bull Terriers in my youth: I want enough evidence of the old flame of the Bull & Mastiff still burning, not so bright to be dangerous, but with enough spirit to catch the judge’s attention. That’s my interpretation of “high spirited.”  

At the same time I can recall with a chill, while judging the Schnauzer club show in Russia, seeing a Giant Schnauzer come into the ring muzzled. While his handler was taking off the muzzle, the dog slipped free and chased me around until the owner caught him. It seems laughable now, but I can assure you it was a very frightening situation to be in. Would I want a Bullmastiff like that, or are we better with the elegant show dog we have today?  

My journey made realize that there were three different stages of evolution in the modern Bullmastiff. First, the equivalent of the Presa, which to my understanding typifies what the breeders wanted in their Bull & Mastiff. Stage two was the Gamekeeper’s Dog, modified just enough to control the attack function and developed into an attack and hold role. Finally, there is the show Bullmastiff that we have today, where neither function is required.  

Man’s best friend has been artificially evolved into the most diverse animal on the planet. That’s a staggering achievement considering that we can breed a given trait into a dog in just seven generations. But what level of protection it is appropriate to breed for in our modern society? Fit for my purpose is a dog that is sociable, tractable, unflinchingly loyal and pleasing to my eye.  


The ideal is attainable: a Bullmastiff who is stable and loving around his family members, but willing to defend them if the need arises. Pictured is the author’s dog Roscoe with his niece Chloe. 


It is possible. We once had a Bullmastiff in partnership with Lynn McGrogarty of Ardhub Bullmastiffs named Ardhub Macalam with BallyTain. “Roscoe” was the best house dog we ever owned. I could have left my wife in our home in certain knowledge that it would have been a foolhardy intruder who entered it uninvited. He was unflinchingly faithful to me and our family, and the best baby sitter we ever had. In addition, he also showed like a dream, giving me the best of both worlds.  

My friend Gordon’s German Shepherd Dog would stand no chance of winning in the show ring, though she is bred from an impressive line of police dogs, with a formidable array of arrests to their credit. But she is there to do a job, and that job is to stop poaching. She is as game and brainy as her parents, and once Gordon has made her understand what it is he wants her to do, her single purpose is to comply.  

Manuel and Jose’s Presas are there for a very intense purpose: attack at all costs and, once commanded, release. To them, a prize-winning dog who could not commence a sustained attack on people would be as little use as a Pekinese at the Teastas Mor.  

The Bullmastiff is a show dog fitting of the honor of Best in Show, and a redoubtable bodyguard, too; the breed’s intelligent bravery should be admired all the more because they are not aggressive fools. But we must be vigilant with what we are breeding, for the future of the breed is in our hands. Perhaps we should follow the Danish Kennel Club’s example by having temperament tests for Bullmastiffs, and perhaps that discussion is best left to another article.   But as for bringing shy nervous dogs into the ring – don’t. They don’t represent the true temperament of the breed, and neither do aggressive ones. As for judges, we need to grade on temperament as much as looks, because for all the clever handlers kneeling reverently on one knee, holding heads and tails in the exact posture that delights the eye, our Bullmastiffs are more than just images. They are a whole package. The things that matter to me are that my breed has brains, guts and health, and that their temperament makes them good companions in a show ring or outside.


About the Author

Phil Boyd of BallyTain Bullmastiffs in Ballygowan County Down, Northern Ireland, is very active in Bullmastiff, Mastiff and Dogue de Bordeaux breed clubs and an active committee member for Newtownards Canine Club’s open and champion shows. He is an FCI-qualified judge, and prefers to specialize in Molossers.     


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