Cysturnia is just one of the causes Newman has championed in the Mastiff world. He is a staunch proponent of parentage by DNA, and through his efforts any Mastiff entered in an MCOA national specialty must be DNA profiled. He advocated for – and saw passed – a code of ethics that parent-club members must sign and follow to maintain their membership. And he mounted a public-information campaign against crossbreeding to create “designer Mastiffs” such as the so-called American Mastiff, which is an Anatolian Shepherd cross.
Above all, Newman wishes owners and breeders would remember and honor the tremendous dedication and loyalty of the breed. “When a Mastiff is yours, he is yours until you die,” he says. And, since he plans on having Danny’s ashes buried with him when he goes, he’s yours for far longer than that.
A wood painting of Ch. Renrock’s Brian O’Dare and Willowledge’s Mary Kathryn. Photo: Denise Flaim
Bill Newman is nothing if not opinionated, and he has lots of opinions on all things Mastiff. He never feeds chicken, because of the meat’s high cystine content. He’s avoided bloat for the last 40 years, he says, because he does not permit any exercise for one to two hours after eating. “No water with dinner,” he continues. “And never feed anything that isn’t all natural – no soy, no grain.”
Growing Mastiffs should be lean, he continues. “Marie Moore had a weight chart – I’ll give the old girl her due – but so do I,” he says. “It’s 100 pounds at six months, 150 pounds at 12 months. Judges will say, ‘That’s not big enough,’ but Mastiffs are not mature until they are three or four years old. You don’t want to put a lot of weight on their growing skeletons. They should be lithe, like a swimmer.”
Rearing giant dogs like Mastiffs may be a challenge, but it’s a piece of cake compared to the current issues Newman wrestles with on the AKC board of directors. The sport is facing a paradigm shift in the way society perceives purebred dogs – and an aging fancy that is reluctant to change or compromise.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, we went to Levittown and got Oldsmobile 98s and an AKC purebred dog,” he says. “In 2011, we’re rescuing dogs from shelters and soccer moms are too busy to spend the whole day at a dog show.” Society and the way we live have changed dramatically, but the AKC business model has not.
As you can tell from the colors and the clothing, it was the 1970s, but this moment with Peach Farm Moira is timeless.
“The dog sport has been so driven by registrations, but today we’re not producing enough dogs or registering enough of them,” Newman continues. Either the fancy becomes more inclusive, with an eye toward drawing in the public and other dogs that are not necessarily purebred, or it circles the wagons, works within its ever-shrinking boundaries, and essentially becomes a closed society that caters to only an elitist sliver of dogfolk.
“It’s a sport – we have to make it fun. But most of our people in the dog game are ego driven,” Newman says. “Me, I love the dogs. I think they’re terrific.”
Today, Newman still shares his life with Mastiffs – two of them. Though they are light years away from the top winners that characterized his start in the breed, they are just as doted on.
Newman doesn’t know how old Billy and Dee Dee are. The best guess is 6 and 7, respectively, though he suspects they are older. Or perhaps their hard life before arriving at Renrock took its toll. Newman acquired the pair through rescue as a specials-needs case: Intensely bonded, they could not be separated.
Billy is blind, his clouded eyes the result of progressive retinal atrophy, or PRA. “He has a tail like a dinosaur, his hair’s too long, and he looks like Mr. Magoo,” says Newman. “All he wants to do is lie on my leg. I am his seeing-eye man.”
Billy’s companion, Dee Dee, never saw a veterinarian before rescue took her in. She had a long-running infection on her back that Newman’s daily ministrations have almost cleared up. She is the consummate Mastiff bitch, looking at Newman with a mix of amusement, disdain and affection.
This airbrushed Mastiff bears Newman’s kennel name, Renrock. Photo: Denise Flaim
It’s this supernatural sense of self that captivates Newman. Even in the ring, when an exhibit won’t cooperate, he sees it simply as evidence of depth of character.
“They’ll clamp their jowls shut, and they won’t let you in their mouths to check their bites,” he explains cheerily. “I just put my finger in their mouths, and rub back and forth like a toothbrush, so I can feel what I need to feel.”
Beneath their stoic glances and ponderous pauses, he knows the dogs are laughing – at their good fortune at finding such a compliant human to do their bidding, to keep them in the manner to which their kind should always be accustomed.
Mastiffs are the most beautiful breed of dog in the world, Newman thinks, and no one will persuade him otherwise. “What upsets me, when they lie on me and enfold me, is how people can use and abuse them for their financial gain, not knowing how loving, caring and sensitive they are,” he says. “When you are blessed with having the very best, how can you not feel the love and responsibility of protecting them and their offspring? In some respects, I feel as if I am honor bound to teach others the beauty of such a magnificent animal – and the responsibility we have to protect and nurture it.”
Horsing around with Billy and Dee Dee. Photo: Denise Flaim
But as he watches his fellow fanciers, he worries that he’s failed in his purpose. He’s not sure they’re focusing on ethics, or health testing, or taking responsibility for all the puppies they bring into the world. Or if they really understand how special the breed is, how magical it is that the majestic manor dog of old has survived the centuries to grace our subdivisions and split levels.
Shortly before her death, Newman says Patty Brill of Peach Farm told him, “Bill, when I am gone, please help save my dogs.” She wasn’t just talking about her breeding stock atop that Delaware hill, but, in a larger sense, the breed they both cherished, a protector who in this modern age needs protecting himself.
Today, at well beyond retirement age, Newman finds himself thinking the same thought. “I worry what will happen when I am gone,” he says. Maybe, he hopes, this story will “motivate some other zealot to act as I have for 50 years to protect, preserve and love my dogs.”
And by “my dogs” … he means them all.