Crafting the Dogo Argentino Standard
Messing with a breed standard all too often results in just that — a mess.
And the reasons are about as numerous as the breeds the American Kennel Club recognizes.
Sometimes a breed community is simply too green, comprised mostly of ardent admirers who lack the knowledge to match their passion. Not knowing what they don’t know, and unfamiliar with the conventions of the purebred dog world, inexperienced dog people can unwittingly introduce errors — or at least unintended consequences — into the official description of their breed.
Then there is the opposite scenario: A subset of savvy fanciers — or sometimes, just one very determined breeder or kennel — works to enshrine their style of dog in the standard, all the better to win ribbons and break records, even if their interpretation is incorrect or at best subjective.
No matter the impetus, ill-advised changes to breed standards have the potential of seriously damaging a breed, as they are not easily corrected: Once a standard has been either initially approved or amended, it cannot be opened again for another five years — an eternity in dog breeding. (Just ask the Cane Corso people about the fallout from their overly broad yellow-eye disqualification.)
Happily, the newest Molosser breeds in the American Kennel Club fold have largely avoided these pitfalls, for one reason: They committed to staying as close as possible to the breed’s FCI standard. (New breeds to the AKC can’t simply copy another standard wholesale: The American Kennel Club has its own format, as well as a dislike for complicated technical terms and too many disqualifications, which in some FCI standards can number as high as a dozen.) Often this reverence for a breed’s country of origin results from the close relationships and mentorships that Americans have cultivated with their overseas counterparts. Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome trend.
This sensitivity to the history that predates a breed’s arrival on American shores certainly was the case with the Dogue de Bordeaux, whose AKC standard was written with the invaluable input of Professor Raymond Triquet, author of the first modern breed standard. (Being the chair of the FCI Standards Committee for decades, Triquet is responsible for some of the tongue-tripping terms in those standards, notable among them “typical brachycephlic molossoid type,” which was omitted from the AKC Dogue standard.)
Continuing this use of iconic breed figures as guide stars, the most recent AKC Molosser standard, that of the Dogo Argentino, focused on the work of Dr. Antonio Nores Martinez, who created the Dogo out of the ashes of the now extinct Fighting Dog of Cordoba.
Daniel D’Hulst of Texas, who drafted the current standard for the Dogo Argentino Club of America in 2012, encountered his first Dogo six years earlier, when he and his Argentine-born wife were walking through a local shelter in Hawaii and came upon one of these striking white dogs. Relocating to Texas a year later, D’Hulst started assembling a pack of Dogos and Black Mouth Curs to hunt the boar that have overrun that state.
D'Hulst was the hunting chair for the Dogo Argentino Club of America from 2011 to 2017, after which he was its president for two years. As a hunting judge, he has seen hundreds of Dogos tested on hogs, both in corrals and in the field. Having hunted in the breed’s native land of Argentina, D’Hulst has taken hunters from places as far flung as Serbia, Croatia, Puerto Rico and Mexico along with him on hunts in Texas.
Daniel D'Hulst and friend.
For D’Hulst — who is fluent in Spanish — there is no purer source of Dogo wisdom and inspiration Martinez, who wrote the original standard in 1947. And because he approached writing the AKC Dogo standard with such reverence for that founding document, D’Hulst thinks it’s “pretty bad ass” — not unlike the fearless dog it describes.
Martinez’s original standard changed, sometimes quite dramatically, after his unexpected murder while bird hunting less than a decade after writing it. (Ironically, had Martinez taken one of his Dogos on that ill-fated trip, he might very well have returned from it.) After taking over the reins of the breed, his younger brother Agustin added more detail, and in the 1980s and ’90s a group of Argentine fanciers made revisions that eliminated some important facets of type and muddled others.
“Then a lot of the family of Antonio — his nephews and grandkids and other family members — moved up in positions in the breed club in Argentina and the FCI, and got the standard moved back much closer to the original,” D’Hulst explains. Because the FCI standard had restored virtually all the contents of the original standard, with a few small exceptions, D’Hulst used that the basis for the AKC version.
While the description of the head is important for any breed, for the Dogo — whose job it is to latch on to dangerous prey, hanging on until one emerges the victor — head type can literally be a matter of life and death.
Of particular importance to D’Hulse was the description of the lips, which the FCI standard describes as “tight.” For the AKC standard, however, he opted for the phrase in the original 1947 standard, “very tight lips,” noting that the importance of that “very” cannot be overstated.
“The Dogo is the dog with the most grip — its main job is to fight and not let go,” D’Hulst explains. “So everything about the head is about biting.”
Unacceptable as it is to today's fanciers, Nores Martinez often pitted his Dogo and pet puma against each other to showcase the breed's ferocity.
Antonio Martinez was acutely aware of this, D’Hulst reminds. “Right or wrong, this is a guy who used to fight his dogs. We have photos of him in a courtyard dressed in a suit having his dog fight his puma.” Martinez knew firsthand the disadvantage of long, pendulous lips — a drag from the Great Dane blood used in the breed’s development. “The dogs either bite themselves and start bleeding, or that long lip covers the corner of mouth where they do their breathing, and also where they release body heat,” D’Hulst explains.
In the latter scenario, he continues, the flapping lips act like a rubber stopper, impeding the flow of oxygen to the dog. “Then they bleed out of their nose and eyes, just like Antonio described, and asphyxiate and pass out.”
Above: The correct lip on a Dogo is not pendant nor hanging. Below: The Great Dane influence is obvious in this dog, whose hanging lips are a detriment in the field.
Unfortunately, some fanciers today prefer more lip, accompanied by droopy wrinkles on the head, which is supposed to have tight skin. This added fleshiness exposes the haws and gives a houndy look, creating what D’Hulst calls a “boo-boo face”— a decided departure from the expression of “marked hardness” called for in the standard.
Also contributing to that essential expression is a small, squinty eye, which is also functional. “Googly eyes are not good for fighting pumas,” D’Hulst says. “Antonio didn’t want them to be open, so there would be very little for the prey to scratch.”
The expression of "marked hardiness" is discernible even on this young puppy.
Even the black pigment around the eyes — giving the appearance of eyeliner against the snow-white coat — has a functional component.
“There are health benefits to the black lip and eye liner,” D’Hulst asserts. “My dogs here in Texas that don't have it get more sunburned. It helps during the day with the reflection of the sun, for the same reason football players put black under their eyes.”
Another area where breeders and educators go astray is in the description of head shape, he continues.
“There have been people over time trying to say a Dogo head is a block on a block, but all the language Antonio used describes circles and arcs. He never says the head is square — he even said that the head is round on top because of muscles,” D’Hulst explains. “Dogos shouldn't have flatness anywhere on the head, because those muscles are so big and well developed. Think of a bicep.”
Forget square: The Dogo head is a series of arcs and circles, accentuated with prominent cheek muscles.
It’s for this reason that a previous change to the FCI’s description of the masseter, or cheek muscles —from “large” and “well developed” to “flat” — was so problematic: Great strength is required here, as these muscles are crucial for a powerful bite. Flat cheeks might be more aesthetically pleasing — and lend to the incorrect “block” look that D’Hulst describes — but they lack strength.
Applying that quadrangle-obsessed geometry to the muzzle is equally problematic, he adds. “The Dogo muzzle is not a cube. While it shouldn’t be snipey, it does taper slightly as you come in toward the nose” — a kind of middle ground between the broadness and strength of the Bulldog’s jaw, and the length and slashing ability of a typical hound muzzle.
Another important aspect of Dogo head type is what the FCI standard calls the “orbital protrusion.” “For the AKC standard, the closest thing we could come up with is ‘brow bone,’” D’Hulst explains.
Martinez’s use of the Pointer — the only hunting breed used in the Dogo — contributed its tendency to lift up its nose and air-scent — what in Spanish is referred to as “winding.” Interestingly, the Dogo also inherited the configuration of its brow and stop (the area where the muzzle meets the face) from its Pointer ancestors.
“If you look at the silhouette of a Pointer muzzle, it looks like it has a strong stop — almost a 90-degree angle. But if you run your finger down the stop, it’s not so pronounced. It just looks like it is because the brow bone so strong,” D’Hulst notes, adding that the references to the Dogo head being convex and concave derives from this long-ago Pointer influence: The Dogo muzzle is slightly concave lengthwise, while the backskull is convex both length and widthwise, its rounded shape again deriving from the great development of the muscles swathing the head.
Body of Work
Moving on from the head, one area of the original standard that is often misconstrued is the back, which the original standard described as “sloping.” Martinez never used the word “topline,” which is a reference to the entire upper line of the dog, from the nape of the neck to the tail. Instead, the definition of “back,” which the original Dogo standard used correctly, is the part of the topline from behind the withers to the croup.
“The Dogo should slope gently from the withers to the croup,” D’Hulst says, referring again to the Pointer and its backline. “At the same time, Dogos are supposed to have extremely muscular and very developed shoulders, but the standard says there shouldn't be any depression in the back, which you still see in a lot of Dogos. While we don't want a backline like a tabletop, the back shouldn’t sag, either.”
In a Dogo, there should be no slackness or weakness. This dog's straight pasterns are valued by old-time breeders, though the author wonders about their functionality.
Toplines that are as sloped as those of a Doberman are too extreme, he notes.
In terms of overall bone and substance, D’Hulst reminds that the Dogo standard describes a dog that, while not built for speed, still needs to chase down animals that are relatively fast.
“I see a lot of people in Dogos who want a big, massive barrel chest and these tree trunk legs,” he continues, likening this body style to that of an American Staffordshire Terrier. “When you see those dogs run, they have short, choppy movements,” in part because they lack correct length and layback of the upper arm.
Conversely, some Dogos are plagued with skinny, weak, long tails — a fault that haunted its Pointer ancestors as well.
“The tail should be thick at the base and tapering,” D’Hulst explains. “It’s supposed to be a counterbalance when the dog is fighting. It’s not supposed to be too long — the Dogo is not a cheetah.”
Improving on the Original
Despite his extreme reverence for Martinez’s original standard, there were some areas where D’Hulst had to rethink its requirements, because decades of the breed’s existence — or just the basics of good conformation — showed them to be less than ideal.
“The original standard said the dogs couldn't have any black on their skin, but time has shown having pigment on the skin is actually good,” D’Hulse says.
Similarly, the original standard asked for forearms and pasterns that were perpendicular to the ground — described by Martinez as “plumb.” Even today, D’Hulse says, “a lot of old-timers want the pastern to be at a right angle with those small cat feet — that’s how the original standard was written and it’s aesthetically pleasing to them.”
But from a functional perspective, a powerful dog that is expected to trot for miles would be at a disadvantage with stick-straight pasterns because of the wear and tear they exert on the front assembly. “I think it’s natural to need some shock absorbers,” which comes from a slightly angled front pastern, D’Hulst says. As a result, the AKC standard asks for a pastern that is “slightly inclined, without exaggeration.”
A lot to like about this muscular yet athletic female, including her good angles, strong head and powerful thighs.
Other areas where some quibbling could have been warranted were left alone. The AKC standard follows the original standard’s request for a chest that is quite deep: “… when viewed from the front and in profile it extends below the elbows.” D’Hulst notes that since too deep a chest can affect a dog’s ability to maneuver, requiring a chest that reaches only to the elbow is likely preferrable, but the below-the-elbow language was retained, following the logic that the breed’s creators wanted to emphasize how important heart and lung room are in a breed whose work requires great stamina.
Similarly, while the pincer bite was preferred by Antonio — who felt it inflicted more damage, though he did not specify that in his standard — D’Hulst notes that “for holding, the scissors bite is better.” A correct level bite is also more difficult to breed, and causes the teeth to wear down more quickly, so the FCI requirement for the scissors bite was retained over Antonio’s preference for a level, or pincer bite.
The AKC Dogo standard also keeps with tradition and disqualifies an undershot bite, even if D’Hulst had his reservations there as well. “Truth be told,” he says, based on his hunting experience, “an undershot Dogo holds just as well as one with a scissors or pincer bite.”
Proof in the Pudding
While Martinez put a great deal of thought and effort into the breed standard he wrote more than 75 years ago, D’Hulst reminds that for the creator, the Dogo’s ability to do the work for which it was bred was paramount.
But modern breeders obviously can’t test the breed’s all-important gameness as Martinez did. “We can’t be like Antonio, fighting all our breeding stock in 45-minute fights,” he concedes. “But I don't want to see the Dogo drift away from function into pure aesthetics.”
That means maintaining the breed’s strong temperament, while acknowledging that the breed is not for everyone.
“You have to give them an outlet” for their strong drive, he reminds. “I try to discourage people from getting the breed. Like a Lamborghini, most people do not need a Dogo.”
To be sure, adapting any standard for the American Kennel Club requires a great deal of time and effort. Martinez’s original Dogo standard presented its own challenges, from a great deal of technical language to terms that are difficult to translate, such as perro de presa, which D’Hulst eventually phrased as “gripping dog.”
“I can say on all those,” he says with not a little satisfaction, “I got it right.”