Though it is a true Molosser, the Cane Corso needs to be athletic in order to do the jobs it was bred to do, from hunting to droving livestock.
Life on the farm was varied, depending on the region’s socioeconomics. With pigs, the Corso assisted with breeding and castration. He was sent into the thicket to incapacitate the semi-wild sow after she delivered so the farmer could collect the piglets harmlessly and bring them onto the farm. In the same manner, using his immovable bite the Cane Corso would seize the boar by the ear to immobilize him for castration. With cattle, he was used to drive the herd to the butcher for slaughter. (Interesting enough, I have had many of my dogs “herding instinct tested” and all received the same comments: “Would excel as a driver of cattle.” Some of those gifts are still being passed down!)
The bull was castrated in the same manner as the boar: The Cane Corso grabbed him by the ear or snout with his cast-iron jaws and serrated bite. This was quite a spectacle and evolved into an almost circus-like atmosphere, as villagers would come to watch and applaud the agile and robust Corso as he avoided the horns of the angry bull and conquered him. This scenario is not exclusive to the Cane Corso or Italy, as it was practiced by many breeds in many different parts of the world.
The breed’s role as a flock guardian was similar to that of his ancient forefathers; he was used to prevent poaching from brigands and cattle thieves as well as his natural enemy, the wolf. Not being “born in the net,” the Cane Corso did not have a profound attachment to sheep; his primary love is and was humans. In some cases a cross breeding was necessary, which was referred to as a mezzo-Corso. A cross between a male Corso and a female Abruzze Mastiff (Italian sheep dog, or Maremma) created a dog capable of fighting the wolf but with an attachment to the sheep. The puppies were born among the herd and lived out their days there.
The breed’s guardian duties also included accompanying merchants or butchers by cart so they would not be robbed on the trail as they sold their wares. During the off season, lone wardens guarded the vine land with all the workers gone due to fear of malaria, which was rampant in the Italian south; their sole companion was the Cane Corso. These “teams” would develop an almost telepathic relationship due to their close bond.
The Cane Corso was so prized by the people of these regions that there are several metaphors and phrases associated with his name. Can corso referred to a man of proud aspect and attitude. Je’nu cors is what an elderly peasant would say to describe a young man who was the essence of moral and physical virtue, according to a book of Sicilian proverbs by Emma Alaima. The saying A cani corsi nun ci diri’ngirri roughly translates as “Don’t incite one who is already irascible.”
So ingrained was the Cane Corso in the rural southern Italian landscape, and so tied was he to those whom he served, that this question from Dr. Flavio Bruno, an early champion of the recovery of the breed, immediately comes to mind: “Do qualities of the man describe the dog, or do those of the dog describe the man?”
While Cane Corsos do not have a slavish devotion to their people, they are responsive to their wishes and generally will not challenge them.
During the breed’s recovery period in Italy, its physical measurements and morphological characteristics were of course evaluated, but so was its temperament. The parameters used were:
DOCILITY – This indicates the dog’s natural tendency of accepting humans as its hierarchical superiors. This does not mean that the Corso has to be a human’s slave, but instead that it simply accepts human guidance. Docility should not be confused with shyness or fear.
SOCIABILITY – A sociable dog fits in any environment without any problem, with naturalness and spontaneity, and is capable of communicating without hesitation. The absence of sociability shows up with fear and with an anxious and worried attitude.
TEMPERAMENT – This corresponds to the intensity and quickness of the dog’s reaction to external stimuli of every kind.
CURIOSITY – This reflects the dog’s will, pleasure and capability of being interested in everything that surrounds him in a very natural way. Exploring new territories and environments is at the basis of his attitude. Associated with docility and sociability, curiosity sometimes can impact an individual’s ability to learn by imitation.
WATCHFULNESS – This represents the dog’s sensitivity in perceiving an external danger capable of menacing himself and his pack, which, in a domestic situation, is the human family. Sometimes, watchfulness tied to his peculiar olfactory and auditory sensitivity allows the dog to anticipate a natural event like a thunderstorm or earthquake.
FIBER – This gives the measure of an individual’s attitude in resisting every external action of an unpleasant nature. Fiber is inversely proportional to docility.
POSSESSIVENESS – A possessive dog is predisposed to become the owner of something or someone. It derives from predatory behavior, which is still present in wild dogs but absent in domestic ones. Possessiveness shows up in puppies as an expression of their competitiveness.
COMBATIVENESS – This corresponds to the capability of fighting vigorously against an unpleasant external stimulus. It is often associated to possessiveness, particularly in the puppy.
AGGRESSIVENESS – This is a physical reaction against a danger that threatens the integrity of the dog’s territory, his own safety or his fellow dogs’ safety. In wild dogs, this behavior is also useful for providing food, and so is bound to a predatory behavior no longer present in domestic dogs.
COURAGE – A courageous dog is willing to confront unknown situations he could avoid in the interest of his own integrity. Courage is directly proportional to sociability and temperament without being in contrast to docility or being necessarily bound to aggressiveness.
Mario Perricone, one of the judges involved in the breed’s recovery and former president of the ENCI judges committee, wrote an interesting article on what the Cane Corso’s psychological map should be based on these behaviors as well on as on Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz’s theories on neotenia, or the retention of juvenile traits in adults.
“The Corso has been a defense dog, therefore characterized by great docility and sociability. In fact, these dogs must love man very much to defend him and move among people without any fear,” Perricone surmised. “Reaction times to external stimuli are limited to the moments when they are together with man. Curiosity is a little more accentuated, while watchfulness is less, since it only has a protective function toward man and not toward the entire territory. Fiber is at the same level as watchfulness and, if it is accentuated, leads to an inadmissible independence for a defense dog. On the contrary, combativeness is at the highest degree, while aggressiveness is moderate because man must be able in any case to stop his own dog when it throws itself on another person to defend its owner. They are competitive in any circumstance; their courage is proverbial.”
Perricone then gave the Cane Corso’s character map:
I am in complete agreement with Perricone. I also feel that the breed that was on the southern-Italian farm is fully capable of existing in this day and age. These “gifts” – docility, sociability, temperament, curiosity, watchfulness and fiber – are crucial to a psychologically balanced dog.
Using these definitions, ENCI judge Dr. Danillo Georgio expanded on the breed’s virtues in his article “Nature of the Cane Corso.” “The best qualities or character components typifying the race of the Corsican dog are: combativeness, docility, sociability and general nervous balance. These endowments make the Corsican a staid, quiet, reflective dog,” he writes. “The Corsican dog’s nervous balance and its own firmness of nerves represent the breed’s true force and mental power born from an interior balance and therefore from a very good genetic substrate. This substrate needs to be increased more and more, checked by a proper breeding and balanced by the proper relationship Corso owner.” In the same article he describes the Corso as having “a quite vivacious nature, character with a tendency to hard, fairly good obedience but in close relation with the capabilities of its guide, marked sociability, aggressiveness towards its fellow dogs but relatively scarce towards man, very high fighting spirit, good watch, high curiosity as well as possessive character.”
When giving breed seminars, I have been asked many times, “What do you love about this breed? Why the Cane Corso?” My answer has always been the unconditional love this breed gives its owner. To a Corso, its people are the sun and the moon. He is particularly sensitive to their moods and emotions. Corsos are not like Rottweilers, who would be inclined to challenge you for alpha status. The Cane Corso recognizes his master as the pack leader and will never challenge that; like a high-ranking wolf, he will defend his pack with vigor and tenacity while remaining subordinate to his family and leader.
The Cane Corso has a particular affinity for the smallest members of the household. Photo courtesy of Shauna DeMoss.
There is an inherent difference in the way a Cane Corso loves you, or at least that has been my experience. The breed has a profound attachment to humans, another one of its inherent gifts. A Corso suffers without the presence of his family, particularly the youngsters; he seems to know to change his tact when around them, instantly becoming gentler and calm. The Cane Corso is not a breed that can be just left out in the yard and forgotten about – that is the cruelest form of punishment.
“The Corso is a particularly pliable dog and it feels the relationship with its owner very much. Its close following of man in every movement is characteristic, and it is always ready near his legs and alert to his voice,” wrote Dr. Paolo Breber, the man credited with starting the recovery of the Cane Corso. “Differently from other breeds, which accept to spend most of the day alone or with other dogs, content with only one or two hours of company, our dog suffers when it is separated from man; the conditions of a dog kennel are definitely adverse to it. This extraordinary harmony with its owner, together with its easy learning, combativeness and physical appearance, make it the ideal dog for whoever needs to defend himself and/or attack both men and dangerous animals.”
The Cane Corso is not a typical Molosser in the sense that he is not exclusively defensive; while the 10-foot circumference around his humans is of paramount importance to him, he is also very environmental – in other words, he is also in tune with what is going on a hundred yards away on the horizon. Perhaps this behavior harkens back to his days of war with the wolf. He is not the finisher that a terrier can be; he will stop his attack if his adversary is beaten, content in taking just enough measure as needed to get the situation in hand.
The Cane Corso is an extremely intelligent dog, easily trained. However, he is intelligent enough to understand when to overcome his training – what measure to take and to what extent. “His method of guarding is to remain near the house or his own quarters, leaving this space only for an occasional round. If his owner is not there, he will only rarely go to the fence or enclosure, even though strangers might be there; this makes it almost impossible for him to be harmed from the outside,” wrote Stefano Gandolfi and Gianantonio Sereni, who were involved in the early reconstitution of the breed. “He makes himself heard, with a low bark, but not seen. He waits for the intruder to violate his territory so that he can surprise him, arriving suddenly and rapidly like a shadow in the night, and he means trouble. If the intruder remains calm and motionless, the Cane Corso will call his owner with a rhythmic bark; if he make suspicious movements or tries to run the dog will immobilize him, becoming ever more aggressive in relation to the escape attempts of his victim.”
The breed’s strength is its stability. Ideally, he should be like furniture, unnoticed and under control but ready to react if necessary. Here is a prime example: Several years ago at the Cane Corso Association of America national specialty, I was talking to my old friend Renzo Carosio. I was holding my bitch Diva; ironically, we were talking about her ideal temperament. Just then another friend of mine who is quite the jokester, Greg Weber, thought it would be funny to run up on me and put me in a bear hug. Well, Ms. Diva was having none of that, and reacted accordingly. A somewhat shaken Greg managed to get out of the way and looked at me as he said, “She was going to bite me!” Laughing, Renzo said, “Aaaahhh, Diva, this is very good!” That was the expected response to that situation; however, the true strength of the breed and of its temperament is that an hour later Greg was petting Diva and she was shaking paws with him.
In the 1990s, the Cane Corso standard used to say “aloof with strangers.” Some judges took this to mean “hands off,” which was not the case. Nature versus nurture comes into play; the breed when socialized is perfectly accepting of examination. The Cane Corso may not be that dog that runs up to you and jumps all over you, but that is not what he was bred to do. Carosio once said to someone, “If you want a Poodle, get a Poodle,” and I wholeheartedly agree. The breed does not indiscriminately give its love away; it has to be earned.
A Cane Corso is attuned to his owner's boundaries and physical space.
The Cane Corso can be belligerent toward other dogs, particularly of the same sex. A Corso is not likely to start a fight, but he is not likely to run from one, either. The breed also has a history as a combat dog. While the massaro did not participate in organized blood sport, the sight of two Cane Corsos locked in combat was not unheard of in the meridone. The spectacle has even been immortalized in the engravings of Bartolomeo Pinelli, the early-19th-Century Italian engraver who chronicled many of the breed’s exploits. The thinking was there was no better way to prove the merits of one’s line than through combat. The victor would display essential characteristics such as courage, resistance to pain, strength and aggression, which would validate the breeder’s work.
Old-time Cane Corso breeder Umberto Leone recalled that “at one time fights were allowed between Corsos, and I had a male that was invincible. They came from Bari, Campobasso and from all over Foggia, but there were none that could beat him. He has a trigger like a feline; the second he saw his adversary, he would take off like lightning and grab him between the throat and ear. As long as he could breathe, he would not release. One time, a flock of sheep from Abruzzi passed next to my masseria. My Corso would hide in the grass and would ambush the mastini that accompanied the sheep. It would not bother the sheep. The mastini were reduced to the point that they had to hide between the sheep to get by.”
As I mentioned earlier, these were not organized events: The spark might have been a quip or snide remark, or perhaps someone’s boast or challenge that would have to be put to the test. Whatever the reason, these fights were never to the death; the conquered was always spared.
As any old-timer will tell you, the Cane Corso is not a professional fighter; he is only an amateur. While combat serves as a legitimate assessment of his natural abilities, it is not what he was bred for.
I recall my first visit to Italy, during the international Associazione Italiana Cane Corso, or AICC, show in 2000. The final male class had 25 dogs, all proud and noble. Being stallions, there was more than one flare-up between contenders. Coming from American dog shows, where this type of behavior would never be tolerated, I was taken aback. “Is this normal?” I asked Alberto Cremonasi, who was on the AICC board of directors.
“Si!” he replied. “Yes – molto character!”
Correct character and temperament for the breed are easy to qualify. Then there is the age-old debate over what a breed was bred for versus the pressures modern society places on it to conform to a very litigious society, not to mention the restrictions of breed-specific legislation. Regarding temperament, the AKC standard says. “The Cane Corso as a protector of his property and owners is unequaled. Intelligent he is easily trained. Noble, majestic and powerful his presence is impressive. He is docile and affectionate to his owner, loving with children and family.”
The Cane Corso survives today when so many of his contemporaries have become extinct because he is so adaptable and versatile. He is as capable of running a half-marathon as he is lying around watching television or going to the beach. As we have discussed, the Cane Corso has been gifted with many natural psychological gifts, an inherited template. Environment plays a key role in his development: If he is raised to be a family dog, that is what he will be. And if he is raised to do protection or guard work, he will excel at that as well.
Unfortunately, sometimes our beloved breed’s gifts are wasted. The Cane Corso should never be fearful, timid or indiscriminately aggressive. Nor should he be unpredictable. Some of this breed’s original vocation required that he travel with salesmen and accompany butchers to towns and villages; he drove cattle to slaughter, requiring that he be under control at all times. Dogs that did not have the strictest fiber would have never been bred in the old south, and that rule should still apply today. It is inconceivable to think of a dog afraid of his own shadow or a danger to his family would have been bred or fed back then: The peasants who kept the spark of this breed alive didn’t have an abundance of food for themselves, much less waste it on a trembling reflection of the proud Cane Corso.
Let us never forget: If we lose the temperament, we lose the breed.