The Devil Is in The Details
A friend who judges Molossers likes to say that sometimes, faced with a painfully weak entry, she wishes for a bottle of holy water, in the hopes that a good, old-fashioned exorcism might drive out the spirits of the different breeds she sees looking up at her.
Indeed, many handlers — and, sadly, breeders — seem blissfully unaware of the foreign type at the other end of their leash. This obliviousness often results from a lack of knowledge about any breed other than their own. And that’s understandable: It’s a natural tendency to immerse ourselves in our chosen breed, to the exclusion of all others.
Why should a Boerboel breeder care about Bullmastiffs? Why should a Cane Corso fancier understand the finer points of the Neapolitan Mastiff standard?
Answer: Because without that knowledge, they deprive themselves of the opportunity to deeply understand their breed’s own type.
Mix and Match
It’s no secret that over the centuries, right up to modern times, purebred dogs were hardly pure. Breeders crossed to other breeds for any number of motives: to restore soundness, to cement a desirable trait, to maintain the breed during difficult times when enough breeding stock simply did not exist, to create a brand-new breed out of an amalgamation of unrelated ancestors, and, sometimes, to paper over an “oops.”
Whatever the motivation, the end result is the same: Those crosses never go away. They lurk beneath the surface, waiting for just the right breeding combination to materialize again.
And with respect to some traits, breeders want their presence felt. When British breeders crossed the Mastiff with the Bulldog to create the Bullmastiff, they sought the broad jaw of the latter, all the better to hold a poacher until police arrived to haul him off to prison.
But what they didn’t want was the Bulldog’s low-set eye, or its roached wheelback, or its dramatically wide-set elbows.
These unwanted traits from an earlier ancestor, dragged along in the gene pool together with the virtues that the cross contributed, are known as the “drag” of a breed.
When a breed relies heavily on another breed as its foundation, its standard often attempts to steer away from the drags of that influential ancestor, without coming out and naming it. (The American Kennel Club does not permit the mention of other breeds in its standards — with the exception of those grandfathered in — for the simple reason that the appearance of breeds can change over time.) The most obvious place to look for these flashing-red-light characteristics are in the breed disqualifications, if there are any.
Consider, for example, the Boerboel. That breed contains an inordinate amount of Bullmastiff blood, thanks to early imports brought in to patrol South African diamond mines. As a result, the AKC Boerboel standard takes pains to emphasize where the two breeds diverge.
The Bullmastiff has an undershot mouth, which allows it to hold intruders without savaging them, or a level bite. The Boerboel, by contrast, ideally has a scissors bite — which is used for slashing and is the most punishing bite of all — and its standard disqualifies any bite that is undershot more than a quarter of an inch — an effort to keep Bullmastiff type at bay.
A breed’s drag doesn’t have to be made into a disqualification for a standard to actively discourage it. Whenever a standard goes out of its way to say what a trait should not be, odds are that’s because it is a persistent drag whose undesirability needs to be emphasized.
Returning to the AKC Boerboel standard, the stop is described as “gradually sloping.” “It should not be steep,” the standard continues pointedly — a direct contrast to the Bullmastiff’s comparatively more defined stop.
The Boerboel above has the minimal stop required of the breed. Contrast it to the male below, whose more defined stop is more evocative of a Bullmastiff.
Sometimes, the drag of another breed become so embedded it threatens to overtake breed type. Length of leg in Mastiffs is a perfect example of this.
In the most open secret in dogdom, starting in the 1970s, Mastiff breeder Tobin Jackson set forth to add soundness to a breed that had degenerated into a population of beautiful heads atop virtually crippled bodies. The rumor mongers allege that he crossed to Great Danes to achieve this, although no definitive proof exists.
Nonetheless, leggy Mastiffs can be found in abundance today — despite the fact that the Mastiff standard is very clear about how important a deep chest is to this breed’s silhouette. “The height of the dog should come from depth of body rather than from length of leg,” the AKC standard states. This Dane influence results in a relatively tall dog, compared to the correctly deep dog.
Indeed, long-legged Mastiffs are so common that when a deep-bodied Mastiff does turn up in the ring, it is often so different from the rest of the entry that all but the most secure judges are often reluctant to award it.
BIS BISS Ch. Southports Sherman, the winningest Mastiff in America and a superlative example of correct proportions in the breed.
While we’re on the subject of Mastiffs, a more in-your-face drag in that breed are the “fluffs” resulting from St. Bernard crosses that have happened at various points of the breed’s history. In actuality, fluffs exist in many Molossers, including Dogues de Bordeaux and Bullmastiffs, but the Mastiff ring is the only place where I have seen them exhibited. Even shaved down, the difference is obvious, and while the disqualification-free Mastiff standard lists a long coat as merely a “fault,” it is not one that many judges — including this one — are willing to overlook.
St. Bernards are also, by the way, relatively long legged — “proportionately tall,” the AKC standard says — all the better to make their way through the high snow drifts. That doesn’t help with the aforementioned proportion problem, either, as it’s the inverse of what Mastiff proportions should be.
Saint Bernards have the opposite proportions of chest to leg as Mastiffs: Saints need leg under them, as this female demonstrates.
The Cane Corso is one Molosser in which various foreign interlopers can surface with alarming frequency. The tipped-back nose and generously sized eyes of the Boxer, the heavy facial wrinkling of the Neo, the narrow head and shallower stop of the Dane — all can be found in the show ring. Occasionally, one will even come across the Maremma’s dubious contribution — a color called “paglia,” meaning "straw," akin to the yellow of a Labrador Retriever, which genetically blocks any black hair from appearing in the coat.
Above: A correct Cane Corso head, BISS GCh. Fifty Shades of Grey. Contrast it to the dog below, identified as a Cane Corso on a stock-photo site, who all but screams Dogue de Bordeaux in his rounded backskull, excessive wrinkle and tipped-back nose, to say nothing of the color.
So far, we’ve been talking about individual traits that distract from breed type — some more glaringly than others. But if fanciers do not understand how those individual traits from another breed are interrelated, and how they come together to create that amorphous thing we call type, they run the very real risk of endangering their own breed’s very identity.
Recently, on a Facebook, I read a kennel’s announcement of its “Black Panther” strain of Corsos, with the intent to produce “the Black coloration and other Big Black Panther movement characteristics.”
Most of the reactions from reputable Corso fanciers were justifiably dismissive, noting that there is nothing unusual about a solid-black Corso. Black is a perfectly acceptable color in the breed: Indeed, not so long ago, it was almost all you saw overseas.
But surprisingly, no one zeroed in on the comment about “big cat” movement. Any Neapolitan Mastiff fancier would bolt upright at that reference, as that kind of elastic, leonine gait is the essence of Mastino type. Breeding for it inevitably results in a heavier, more lymphatic, more wrinkled, looser-jointed dog — basically, a Neo. And there is no greater sin in purebred dogs than blurring the lines between breeds — otherwise, what is the point?
The further afield fanciers go in terms of their knowledge, the better the vantage point they have in spotting seemingly unrelated connections. For example, the Pointer was used in the development of the Dogo Argentino. As in the Dogo, head type is fundamental in the Pointer, which has its nose “slightly higher at the tip than the muzzle at the stop” — the breed’s signature “dish.” Its skull, while not rounded, does give the impression of a gentle curve in profile.
Unlikely as it may seem, this is the source of the “concave” (curving inward, like a bowl) and “convex” (curving outward, like a contact lens) aspects of the Dogo head: Like the Pointer, the muzzle of the Dogo is concave, and the skull, conversely, is convex.
The unusual profile of the Dogo head (above) — slightly concave foreface and convex skull — comes from the infusion of Pointer blood (below). Pointer head study, American Pointer Club illustrated standard.
So when lighter-boned, racy, inordinately elegant Dogos turn up in a litter, knowledgeable breeders understand that the Pointer is to blame. (If your dog knowledge extends beyond Molossers, you can take this a level deeper, tracing the persistent elegance of the Pointer to Sighthound blood, likely resulting from crosses of Continental Sporting dogs to smooth Saluki or Sloughi.)
These are just a handful of examples of the intricate web that exists between all the Molosser breeds, and beyond.
Learning about the other breeds that went into the development of your own — intentionally or not — is more than just passing trivia. It is the best way to get the deepest understanding of your breed’s own type — that hard-to-describe meshing of traits that taken as a whole give a breed its identity and individuality. And, just as important, it’s the safety net you need to prevent you from unintentionally drifting into the type of another breed.
After all, it’s pretty hard to steer clear of something you don’t know exists.