WHaM, Bam ... No Thank You, Ma'am?
When the Neapolitan Mastiff gained full AKC recognition in 2004, fanciers were faced with the daunting job of explaining this massive Molosser to judges who didn’t have much exposure to the breed – and some of whom didn’t want it.
“Back in those days, at the morning rare-breed show under an FCI judge or a breeder-judge, you would get one lineup of dogs, and at the afternoon show on the same weekend, under a ‘regular’ AKC judge, you would often get almost the complete reverse order,” remembers Peggy Wolfe of Princeton, Kentucky, who was president of the United States Neapolitan Mastiff Club at the time.
This lack of education among some AKC judges – and their trepidation about the breed based on what they had heard of its alleged temperament – was only one part of the problem. Mastino fanciers were worried that the AKC show ring’s obsession with tremendous reach and drive and effortless movement would morph the Neo into something more refined, elegant and profoundly incorrect – the “American-style” Neapolitan Mastiff.
Enter “WHaM.” A catchy acronym that stands for “wrinkles, head and mass,” it neatly summed up some of the most important points of Neapolitan Mastiff type. “WHaM” was coined by Wolfe after the late judge Dr. Theo Kjellstrom told her the breed needed “a hook,” a one-sentence phrase that judges could easily remember and discuss ringside.
But today, some Neo fanciers are questioning whether “WHaM” has run its course, and whether that handful of letters fails to convey the “big picture” of the breed – at the expense of functionality and soundness.
Sharon Costello of Stewartsville, New Jersey, who chairs the judges education committee of the United States Neapolitan Mastiff Club, concurs that “WHaM” was put into place to prevent the Neo from “instantly evaporating into a slimmer, trimmer style dog, like the Cane Corso.” Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But instead – like that old Ann Landers dictum, “Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it” – she says “WHaM” took the breed in the opposite direction.
“There were many judges back in 2004, when the Neo made its grand entrance into AKC headlights, that were less than happy to be judging this – in their opinion – big, sloppy, poor-moving dinosaur of a dog,” Costello remembers. “I personally listened to comments like ‘Just pick the one with the biggest, sloppiest head.’ Or, ‘They really don’t have to move – just look for the one with the most wrinkles.’ The best one was made by a very well-known judge when I stopped near her chair in a Group ring. She looked at the male I was handling and said, ‘How come that one doesn’t look like it is ready for the glue factory?’”
What “WHaM” fails to convey, Costello says, is that “there is a whole dog to be judged, not just a head. ‘WHaM’ unfortunately does not speak about balance and harmony – two things a Neapolitan Mastiff should have when discussing type.”
Jim Deppen of Ironwood Mastini in Columbia, New Jersey, notes that while “WHaM” did give judges a Cliff Notes understanding of the breed, its shortcomings were soon obvious. And today, he’d like to see it go the way of the short-lived British pop-music duo of the same name. (“Wake me up before you go-go,” he croons in his best George Michael imitation.)
“Those mastinari who are dedicated conservators of the breed came to quickly resent this branding,” he says. “First, there is no quantitative value or measure associated with how much wrinkle. What size should the head be in relationship to the body? And, finally, where does the mass come from? More wrinkle is better? A big, sloppy, unsound-moving beast is what characterizes ‘WHaM.’”
Another drawback to “WHaM,” he says, is that it does not take into consideration the adolescent Neapolitan Mastiff, which should not have fully developed wrinkle, head or mass at such a young age.
For her part, Wolfe says that “WHaM” was not only “easy, memorable, and, yes, cute,” but it provided a positive channel for the “ugh” feeling some judges had when seeing their first Mastino. “We started encouraging the word ‘WHaM!’ as a better way to express that initial emotion, and things began to change,” she says. “The use of ‘WHaM’ made judges chuckle, but it also allowed them to be curious about the breed. And curiosity allowed them to listen, and then to discuss, and finally, through their own discussions, to learn.”