Docile Yet Courageous
To most not intimately involved, Molosser temperaments seem very one note — a guardian distrusting of strangers, fairly independent, obstinate and loyal.
Unless time is spent around them really observing their own unique brand of guardianship, it can be hard to appreciate the differences and nuances of each breed: the fierce loyalty of the Fila, the goofiness of the Bullmastiff, the snap intuition of the Corso, the courage of the Neo and, in my breed, the discernment of the Mastiff.
Mastiffs are unique from the rest of the Molosser family in that they are meant to be both docile and courageous, which can seem a bit like an oxymoron: How can one be docile yet a courageous guardian at the same time?
The short answer is discernment and the ability to “turn on” as well as they “turn off.” Mastiffs are meant to be evaluative, fairly aloof dogs who think before they act. Snap judgments, unless absolutely necessary, are not their method of guarding. When approaching a possible issue or entering into a situation that could pose a threat, Mastiffs are very watchful. You’ll often hear stories of faithful Mastiffs placing themselves in between their owner and strangers they don’t completely trust, and even doing the same when their person is arguing with friends or family and it gets particularly heated.
It’s subtle, and, if you aren’t paying attention, easy to overlook, but a very good example of that discernment at work. With their long history as companions and guardians to the upper echelon, you couldn’t have a guard dog terrifying a member of court over a small tiff, nor a dog easily provoked to violence. No, to be useful you needed a discerning, subtle guardian who could “read the room” and react accordingly. A correctly tempered Mastiff, in my opinion and understanding of the breed, is not a loose cannon nor one that is particularly showy in its display of a guardian work most times. Instead, it is a good-natured, unassuming, level-headed dog that can be trusted to make sound decisions.
One of my favorite stories showing this temperament is with one of my own Mastiffs, Charli. I was pumping gas one day and had her in my car with me.
In a case of mistaken identity, a man came up behind me and picked me up, thinking I was his girlfriend. I, of course, screamed bloody murder and started panicking.
Inside the car, Charli was throwing herself at the window, snarling and barking, trying her hardest to get to me and the man. Once he realized I was not in fact his girlfriend and he put me down, we laughed it off and joked and I asked if he would mind me bringing her out so that she can truly see that everything was fine. He agreed, I brought her out of the car and just as quickly she went from a foaming, growling, hell beast to sniffing the man, accepting a pet, and sitting calmly at my feet. She didn’t hold a grudge and accepted that the situation was once more fine and didn’t require her help.
Charli, the discriminating Mastiff.
My anecdote is not a unique one: The legendary story of Sir Piers Legh and his faithful Mastiff bitch who came to his aid during the Battle of Agincourt comes to mind. He lay injured on the battlefield, and she protected her injured master from rival troops until help in the form of his squire and servants could rescue him. This very early tale shows that same odd mix of courage and docility coupled with discernment. Ask just about any Mastiff owner with a long enough history and you will likely hear their own story of a similar incident in which they witnessed that same odd mix which makes a Mastiff a Mastiff.
“A combination of grandeur and good nature, courage and docility. Dignity, rather than gaiety, is the Mastiff’s correct demeanor” is what the standard states for a correct Mastiff temperament. With such a long, fairly tumultuous history riddled with many grand stories of heroism and great feats of courage, the Mastiff temperament has always held true and is one of the big ways in which they stand apart from their other Molosser cousins. Correct temperament is immensely important for the breed and has stood as a hallmark in their identity for centuries.
Without it, I’m not sure one can truly claim the identity of being a Mastiff.