Move Over, Marlboro Man
When it comes to the most athletic Molossers — Cane Corsos and Dogo Argentinos, in particular — the word “rusticity” gets used a lot.
But what does it mean, exactly?
Good question, and one to which I didn’t have a very good answer — until I heard Dogo Argentino fancier Daniel D’Hulst compare his breed to the Marlboro Man.
“The Dogo has an air of confidence — you can see it when they walk in the ring,” he explained, comparing canine to cowboy. “He’s rustic and humble, but just by looking at him, you know he can knock your head off. He’s not looking for a fight, but if he needs to, he can throw down with no problem. And he has the confidence to do it.”
The more I considered D’Hulst’s metaphor, the more it helped me understand rusticity in his breed as well as the Corso.
I’ve always had a good grasp on what “rusticity” is not, as it’s a phrase popular among apologists across the spectrum of dogdom: For some, “rustic” has become a catchphrase to excuse coarseness or commonness: “My dog isn’t overdone — he’s rustic!” It’s even used with some Sighthound imports from African or Arab countries of origin to justify wedge-shaped heads and lack of fineness in breeds that by definition should be lithe and aerodynamic. In Molossers, D’Hulst agrees, “people often use ‘rustic’ as an excuse to have ugly, dirty, poorly constructed dogs.”
Rustic is a far more subtle concept than that, as the Marlboro Man attests. But before we turn to Philip Morris’ macho man amid the sagebrush, let’s look at the origins of the word, which provide insight into its deeper meaning.
Uturunco of Santa Isabel, directly descended from the dogs of breed founder Antonio Nores Martinez, late 1950s. A peerless example of the Dogo's intrinsic rusticity.
Just a Country Boy
“Rustic” comes from the Latin words rusticus, which means “of the country or open land, rural.” In fact, “rural” and “rustic” pretty much have the same meaning, except “rural” is mainly used to describe places, while “rustic” often refers to the people or customs found there.
This is our first hint of the shared characteristics of rustic Molosser breeds: They come from the countryside, always in close association with rural populations.
Vittoria, Sicily, 1960. Don Turiddu Lilo with his Corso Furiusu. Note that the cart is being pulled by a mule, not a horse — more rusticity.
Certainly, this is the case with the Cane Corso, which evolved in southern Italy’s Meridione as the indispensable, multi-talented companion of impoverished farmers who could not afford to feed multiple dogs that had specialized functions. The Dogo Argentino, too, has this indelible association with the countryside: While the breed’s founder was a decidedly upper-class surgeon, and its inspiration, the Fighting Dog of Cordoba, battled for entertainment in that city’s narrow alleys, it is the vast plains of the Pampas that the Dogo calls home, as do the wild boar and big cats that it hunts without mercy.
It's no coincidence that the Marlboro Man, too, is a creature of such wild and often inhospitable terrain, living by his wits and weather-worn athleticism.
One of the most brilliant advertising campaigns ever created, spanning five decades, the Marlboro Man appeared in the mid-1950s in an effort to get men to try filtered cigarettes, which originally had been marketed to women. Early ads showed male cigarette smokers with a variety of professions and hobbies, from airline pilots to tennis players. To underscore their machismo, many had a tattoo clumsily visible on the back of their hand.
Early attempts at using manly models to promote the Marlboro brand.
Eventually, the ad men hit on the idea of a cowboy, and the Marlboro Man was born. Never mind that real wranglers preferred chewing tobacco to cigarettes — kind of hard to wield your lasso with a cloud of smoke in your eyes. Within months, Marlboro’s market share began to nudge upward, and by the early 1970s, it had become the country’s most-purchased cigarette brand.
Now that's more like it: By the late 1960s, Philp Morris had settled on using cowboy iconography to market its filtered cigarettes. All advertising images courtesy of Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising (SRITA).
Tellingly, most Marlboro Men were working cowboys themselves, and so weren’t necessarily handsome in the traditional sense of the word. They were, however, authentic, posing unself-consciously in front of grain bins or walking their mounts across mesas suffused with the purples and pinks of a sunset.
When adman Leo Burnett discovered Darrell Winfield — the best-known Marlboro Man model, with a 20-year run in TV commercials and magazine ads — his creative director described the long-time ranch hand this way: "I had seen cowboys, but I had never seen one that just really, like, he sort of scared the hell out of me [as he was so much a real cowboy]."
Compare that to D’Hulst’s description of your first glance at a Dogo Argentino — pretty much identical.
Individualism on Overdrive
But the Marlboro Man wasn’t just intimidating: He was also self-sufficient. The message was that these men could handle themselves in any scenario, whether roping a runaway stallion or brewing a cup of joe on a prairie campfire. Their steady gazes communicated that self-assurance with wordless eloquence, and their weathered faces and calloused hands told the story of the unforgiving landscape in which they worked — and thrived.
They were, in a word, rugged.
Ruggedness is an important aspect of rusticity, as this Marlboro ad attests.
Joshua Faulkner of La Historia Dogo Argentinos in Long Island, New York, sees the beauty of his breed in this very resiliency —the ability “to thrive in unfavorable conditions.”
“When a Dogo is both visually and durably rustic, you find the beauty in an animal who needs little, while in return gives everything,” he writes. “The look of a Dogo that has visible rusticity tells the conditions of what it went through, and came out stronger.”
Faulkner ticks off various facets of Dogo conformation, reflecting on how they would be both the result of such environmental stresses, and the remedy to them.
“The eyes would not be big and round — they would look like you would after walking through a windstorm, or possibly dense vegetation, closed slightly to protect the eye from being damaged,” he explains. “There will be musculature that is defined, but not bulky enough to be a hindrance. The skin of an adult Dogo will likely have lots of black pigment, because it was out in the sun, maybe because it is housed that way, or maybe because it is a working animal, or both.
“Their movement will be determined and very deliberate,” he continues. “They do not waste energy where it can be conserved, because meals are not guaranteed every day at 5 o'clock. When they see the opportunity to capture their own meal, they take it. Their angulation both front and rear is medium to slightly moderate — again, because of efficiency. Their topline is neither too high nor too low, and their legs run perpendicular to the horizontal plane, because any drastic departure from normal proportions will take away from their ability to acclimate.”
Corso-type dog helping drive livestock through Naples, 1890.
Cane Corso with farmer, undated. Antonio Morsiani, who wrote the first standard, noted that dogs with white muzzle bands were prized in the breed's early years.
Rustic dogs of any breed are associated with society’s lower classes, albeit those in the country rather than cities — the peasantry, not the urban poor. In the 16th Century, English physician John Caius, in his book Of Englishe Dogges, distinguished between “generous” dogs and “country,” or "rustic," ones. In his canine hierarchy — which mirrored the human one of the time — “generous” breeds were those that, like their upper-class owners, were thoroughbred and did not have to worry about where their next meal was coming from. These included cultivated hunting dogs like hounds, setters and spaniels, and miniaturized versions (think Italian Greyhounds and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels) for their womenfolk.
Among the Molossers, such “generous” dogs would doubtless have included Mastiffs, which have been associated with royalty for centuries. Indeed, since large to giant size and extreme features such as wrinkling require time and resources to breed and perfect, such breeds could only be maintained by society’s elite.
“Rustic” dogs, by contrast, were those that herded or guarded. (He specifically mentions bandogs in this category.) Their mesomorphic, or middle-of-the-road morphology ensured that they could get by with less. One consolation was that they were a step above what Casius termed “degenerate” breeds, which were basically dispensable, used for the most unspecialized, menial jobs, like turning spits. Rustic breeds, at least, had valuable jobs that couldn’t be filled by just any dog.
While the “rustic” label fits Dogos and Coros quite snugly, there is one Molosser breed that could wear that mantle, earlier in its development at least: the Dogue de Bordeaux.
Surprising as it may seem, given France’s reputation for worldliness and sophistication, French breeds always contain a shot of rusticity: Even the incredibly rarified Poodle is built on the humble water dog. That great bastion of French style and fashion, Versailles, was at its core a hunting lodge, much to the dismay of the Parisian ton. And what else explains the French fascination with the slapstick of Jerry Lewis, other than to acknowledge that even its highest style contains a germ of earthiness?
The Dogue de Bordeaux wasn’t always as extreme as the breed we know today. There were several regional varieties, and the stuffed Bordeaux in the famous collection of taxidermied dogs in Britain’s Natural History Museum at Tring could very easily swap its body with today’s Dogo or Corso. Even the Dogue’s signature expression, the “sour mug” created by the upswept chin, would look infinitely at home on an old Frenchman sitting on a bench in a country village, pipe clenched between his teeth and wide forehead visible beneath his jaunty cap.
Turk the Dogue de Bordeux, born in 1894, is much closer to Dogo or Corso type than his modern counterparts. He is pictured in the Tring museum with some contemporary Bulldogs.
In the end, “rusticity” is, like so many Molosser breeds, a delicate balancing act. Rustic dogs like the Corso and Dogo must be ruggedly athletic, but never coarse; uncompromisingly resilient but still athletically pleasing. Like that iconic Marlboro Man who cups a gnarled hand around his smoke, hoping to strike the spark that will turn its tip gleaming orange, fanciers of these breeds must navigate the blustery disappointments that can bring all their efforts to a sputtering halt.
But when they persist and succeed?
In a word — smokin’!