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Neapolitan Mastiff
In American show rings, Neapolitan Mastiffs are often relegated to the sidelines because many judges are simply not knowledgeable or comfortable enough to reward them.

No Respect

Why the Neo is the Rodney Dangerfield of dogdom

 Jim Deppen and friends.Recently, we caught up with Neapolitan Mastiff breeder-judge Jim Deppen to talk about the breed. The former judges-education chair for the United States Neapolitan Mastiff Club, Deppen is arguably America’s most active breeder-owner-handler of Neos. And he’s got some strong opinions about how American judges perceive and treat this unusual breed.

 

Let’s talk about what it's like to show a Neapolitan Mastiff in the United States, and where the lack of respect for the breed comes from

Is this like an Aretha Franklin kind of story? “R-E-S-P-E-C-T? The Neo never gets any for you and me?” That kind of thing?  

Yes, basically.

I don’t like to use the word “respect.” I think there’s a lack of admiration for Molossers because there aren’t enough quality representations for judges to educate themselves on.  

With Neapolitan Mastiffs, judges don’t get to see them very often, and when they do see them, they’re constantly trying to compare the Neo with the other Working breeds. Instead, they should understand that these dogs are not going to be as cookie cutter as the other breeds. They’re going to have some inverted toplines, they’re going to have a little bit of cow-hockiness, they’re going to be a little bit floppy in the front end, they’re going to paddle from time to time. They’re probably not going to be showy because a lot of the exhibitors don’t spend the time to train them, nor do they bring them out enough. So with all that, you’ve just got a mindset that automatically makes judges think they’re not going to see a good one.  

It’s all about education, about getting good dogs out there. And they’re not all perfect – none of these dogs are. But what’s truly discouraging – and I think a lot of the Neo people feel this way – is that many judges can find a mediocre Samoyed, they can find a pet-quality Boxer and they can find a crippled Newfoundland with a terrible rear, but they can’t recognize a high-quality Mastino when it walks into their ring. They don’t have enough years of knowledge or experience seeing the breed to recognize that that dog is far superior to the other breeds they selected because of their familiarity.  

And I don’t think that’s just a Neo issue – I would say it’s a Molosser issue. I don’t think a lot of judges can wrap their brains around the Dogue de Bordeaux, either.  

What do judges have the most difficulty with when it comes to the Neo?

The long, elastic movement. Judges will find a shorter-coupled, squarer, boxier, harder-backed profile, a medium-sized dog, and put that up over correct dogs every time because it looks like it has some glue holding it together. It’s supposed to be a rectangular dog with a long, elastic stride, and they have a hard time with that.  

 

Quintiliana II di Ponzano, regarded as one of the best bitches in her era (the 1980s), demonstrates the desired rectangular outline of this breed.Quintiliana II di Ponzano, regarded as one of the best bitches in her era (the 1980s), demonstrates the desired rectangular outline of this breed.

 

Your breed is one that judges may not only not like, but one they may actively dislike.

I know judges that don’t even want to judge Neapolitan Mastiffs. They don’t say it directly to me, but they’ll say it to a show chair: “Don’t give me Neapolitans to judge.” I can think of one prominent judge who told a club, “Absolutely not. Not interested. I don’t want to get dirty. It’s a dirty breed.”   

They don’t want to be drooled on, or slopped on. They don’t think the Neo people are very professional.  

I’ve heard judges make comments like “Really, do I have to judge the Neo?” Another judge will say in defense, “Well, why would you say that? Then don’t go for the Working Group. They are part of the Working Group, and we don’t need you in the Working Group if you’re not going to take the whole group seriously.” Then they just shrug their shoulders.  

Is it even possible to judge Neapolitan Mastiffs and not get drooled on?

I can guarantee you, unequivocally, no one has ever gotten drool on them judging my dogs. Because you don’t feed them when they’re in the ring, and you wipe them down before the judge is coming up. And if you’re showing the mouth on the dog, there’s no reason for judges to get drool on them. Now, if it’s a hot summer day and the dog has its mouth open, there’s a very good chance that the dog is going to be panting, and there’s going to be some drool – as there would be with a Newfoundland, or a Saint Bernard or any other loose-flewed breed. But I can tell you for the most part that they’re drier mouthed than a Newf or a Saint any day of the week. There’s just this misconception because these dog-show announcers keep saying this stupid. And that doesn’t help our situation. It’s just another negative.  

When you're a Neapolitan Mastiff fancier, a sense of humor is mandatory.

 

Let’s talk about the sheer intimidation factor of the Neo. Some judges are just scared of them.  

That’s a very fair statement. A lot of people are intimidated by them, because they can’t tell what they’re thinking. And that’s part of the awe about the breed. It’s supposed to evoke emotion in you, but if that emotion is fear, then, honestly, you probably shouldn’t be judging them. I’ve only seen or heard in the last 12 years of two or three incidents of a dog being unruly in the ring. And that’s pretty good for a new breed.  

And then you have other judges that are just drawn to the Neo, like it’s a big teddy bear. They have no real fear of the dog, nor do they have a lot of sense about the dog, because they don’t realize how big a dog it is, and it can do a lot of damage. So they’re on the other side of the spectrum: A little too friendly, too happy.  

The Neo is supposed to evoke emotion in you, but if that emotion is fear, then, honestly, you probably shouldn’t be judging them.

Is there something stupid they can do to set off a Neo in the ring?

Yes – don’t get loud in front of the owner. Don’t wave your arms and hands. That might just be the way you gesture when you talk, but it comes across to the dog as threatening.  

Another thing you don’t want to do if you are a judge is you don’t want to pace back and forth in the ring. Some judges who are indecisive keep walking back and forth down the ring, sorting and trying to figure out in their minds what their placements will be. We had a situation like that once where the dogs were underneath the tent, and the judge was outside, and it was at such a time in the morning that he was casting a shadow and looked like one of those little duck decoys in the fair-ground games that you want to shoot when it comes up from the water. Finally, the first dog in line said that’s it, game over, and he wanted to go take him out.  

You have to remember that the peripheral vision of the Neo is not great because they have a big, heavy wrinkle on the side of their eye. This is really a head-on breed: You look at them head on, and it’s very important if you can’t get sight of the eye to ask the handler to lift the muzzle up a little bit from under the chin so you can see into the eye. 

And introduce yourself that way. A lot of Neos, if they’re not trained for the show ring, have their heads down. They’re looking down – they’re not looking at you.    

 

For every judge that seems the Neo as threatening, there is another that sees it as a cuddly teddy bear. Neither is accurate.For every judge that seems the Neo as threatening, there is another that sees it as a cuddly teddy bear. Neither is accurate.

 

What else do judges need in order to have the appropriate amount of appreciation for your breed, other than education? There’s something deeper. It’s not just that they don’t know the breed.

It’s called romance. They need to want to romance these breeds. But these are the big, scary, working dogs. And a lot of people don’t like it. Let’s face it, what’s 85 percent of the judges out there? Women, right? Most of them are grandmothers. They’re older. And most haven’t grown up with this breed around. It’s almost like teaching them how to use a computer – most are just going to get the basics of it, just enough to email their grandson a picture. Only a small percentage of them are going to master it and go out and buy a 17-inch MacBook Pro.  

It may be that Americans, when it comes to romance, are very straightforward, very corn fed, where Europeans can be a little more sophisticated. They know something can be dark and still be romantic, in the way that Dracula is … Not that I’m comparing your breed to a vampire.

Yes, there’s a much stronger romantic influence exerted by the Mastino – all the Molosser breeds, in fact. The Europeans look at them as the paternal and maternal grandparents of Working breeds as far as the Molossers go. They just really show a lot more admiration for them.  

Molossers fanciers are also a much tighter, more unified group of people overseas. Some of these judges were once Molosser breeders themselves, and they make it a point to always do whatever they can for worthy Molossers. Look at the World Dog Show last year – didn’t the Cane Corso win the Group?  

Are you saying that’s because a lot of influential European judges in those breeds were also once Molosser breeders?

Absolutely, and still are to this day. And the other side of that is that the European clubs don’t deliberately go out of their way to put Chihuahua judges on panels to judge Mastinos and do the group. I’ve had that happen at least a dozen times here in the United States. Just because a judge gets the group doesn’t mean he or she know how to judge the Neapolitan Mastiff.  

All-breed show chairs – even at the biggest and most prestigious shows – almost never ask specialists to come and judge. At the 2013 Eukanuba show, they invited Italian judge Claudio Giuliano – now, that’s a breed expert. He went over the dogs like he was literally in a math class with a protractor in his hand, to the nth degree.  

Was that good or bad?

It was very good because he was taking time to technically explain what he was looking at. He got down on one knee to study heads. He didn’t just go through the motions. He absolutely took the time to study the dogs, and pick up the feet and look at the skin and look into the eyes and measure the head with his hands. You could tell by the way the man was putting his hands on the dogs’ skull he was measuring and feeling the circumference, diameter and bone structure and the fact that the skin was attached to head, it wasn’t just a bunch of wrinkles out there. The minute I walked in the ring, I said this guy’s going to study the breed. He knows the breed. He didn’t pump-handle the tail like he working a cistern on the farm trying to get rainwater out.  

You’ve mentioned that to me before, about judges who insist on pumping the Neo’s tail. What’s that about?

I don’t know. I can’t tell you. I’ve seen judges do that – more than once. And I think to myself, “Do you want to get bitten? What are you doing?” I think some of them just do it because they are nervous.  

Almost anywhere else in the world, it is a sign of real connoisseurship and sophistication as a dog-show judge to appreciate and adjudicate the Mastino. Do those countries have more dogs to look at than we do?

Oh, yes. In South America, they have anywhere from 60 to 80 dogs at their raduni. We can have 50 at our national specialty. But I would say on average in the Midwest, where they’re kind of cooking – there’s almost no one breeding on the East Coast now – there are 12 to 15 dogs at a show. It takes four dogs for a major. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. Again, the majority of these people, once their dog is finished, they don’t bring it back out. Guess how many Neos there were at Westminster this year?  

How many?

Me.  

You? That’s it?

That’s it. Isn’t that pathetic? One entry.  

What’s happening?

People don’t want to show. They’re just tired of it. Then again, we’re on our second five-year cycle. We’ve been in the AKC for 12 years now. The second five-year cycle is terminating, and they’ve got new ones that aren’t quite ready yet.

 

Longevity isn’t just a concern with Neapolitan Mastiffs; the lifespan of many breeding programs is too short as well.Longevity isn’t just a concern with Neapolitan Mastiffs; the lifespan of many breeding programs is too short as well.
 
 
Are you saying that’s the average lifetime of a Neo breeder, five years?  
 
Dog people in general. They want to get immediate gratification, get their ribbons, and then they’re gone.  
 
Tell us a funny Neo story to send us on our way.  
 
The year that the breed was recognized, I was with my male Neo at the Ladies Kennel Association show on Long Island. All of a sudden there’s this announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, please be careful. We’ve had a bear sighting. Please check your cars.” I thought, “A bear? What the heck’s going on out here?” I walked back to my pickup truck, where Sirius was asleep, draped over the tailgate, snoring away.  I saw people pointing, and I realized what had happened. “That’s no bear, you morons,” I said. “That’s my black Neo.”

 

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