Only a year ago, in the glare of the media spotlight, the Kennel Club in the U.K. introduced its “high-profile breed” veterinary checks at Crufts: Best of Breed winners of those targeted breeds – which had been identified by the Kennel Club as having type-related issues that impaired their wellness – were required to undergo a health exam. A failure led to the breed win being withdrawn, and no advancement to the Group competition.
As has been well documented, six dogs from the high-profile-breed list failed the 2012 veterinary checks, including the Neapolitan Mastiff, Ch. Ithani from Belgium. The worst fears of the Neapolitan Mastiff community had become a reality, with the whole canine world watching.
The guidelines had several gray areas, mostly involving eye health. Considering the traditional presence of haw in some breeds, it came as no surprise that the area of contention surrounding the failed dogs involved ophthalmology. Well-known detractors of the Neapolitan Mastiff crowed that no breed representative would be seen at Working Group level for the foreseeable future due to every Mastino in existence suffering ectropion and therefore earning an automatic failure.
The Neapolitan Mastiff community was left to ponder where to go from there. Should we withdraw from the show world with dignity intact? Or should we fight for our breed and attempt to engage with the veterinary professionals, risking further humiliation and disappointment? This would involve exhibitors putting their dogs on the line to discover if there was a Neapolitan Mastiff who could pass the vet check with clear, healthy eyes, despite the presence of haw (exposed conjuctiva), while seeking to promote greater understanding within the veterinary profession of this unusual and somewhat specialist breed of dog.
The first opportunity came four weeks after Crufts at the Working and Pastoral Breeds of Wales Championship Show, where a very nervous judge selected a young female, Nukualofa’s Vaiola, as her Best of Breed.
At the vet check, the dog was first required to jog and then run at pace; the vet stated that the movement was free, easy and very sound. The coat was examined, including the dewlap and folds to check for any sign of dermatitis, hair loss, infections or irritations. The paws were turned over and pads checked; ears folded back and checked for any inflammation, and, finally, attention turned to the eyes.
This was the moment of truth, since this particular female had very minimal exposed conjunctiva (see photo above). The vet stated that the eyes were clear, with no signs of any irritation or infection, and the dog passed.
Above, below and at beginning of this story: Nukualofa’s Vaiola, the first Mastino to pass a vet check at a U.K. dog show after the 2012 Crufts debacle.
It was just another twist on the rollercoaster ride that has defined being a Neapolitan Mastiff exhibitor since the now infamous “Parade of Mutants” outcry following Crufts 2011, when the breed became the focus of the “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” web blog and the call was made for the Kennel Club to de-register the breed on health and welfare grounds.
How did the Neapolitan Mastiff come to such dire straits? Until Crufts in 2012, the high-profile breed status had largely been ignored by the canine community. And there was a school of thought that the original 15 high-profile breeds deserved to be brought to task for not doing enough to ensure the health and well-being of their respective breeds, bringing less-than-ideal dogs into the media spotlight and thereby reflecting badly on the dog community as a whole. But after Crufts 2012, the realization set in that the six failed Best of Breeds had been awarded by judges of great experience and standing, and that the failures included well-known, highly regarded show specimens that failed on general conditions that can affect all breeds of dogs.
The reaction resulted in the formation of the Canine Alliance, with its immediate aim to negotiate with the Kennel Club and work together to promote health checks of all dogs and to end the bias that existed with the current vet-checking system. This promoted a better understanding of the plight of the high-profile breeds, which at last began to receive the kind of support and understanding they badly needed from within the purebred dog community.
Encouraged by the veterinary check pass of Nukualofa’s Vaiola, exhibitors turned out in greater numbers for Molosser specialist Bas Bosch of Belgium at the National Dog Show in May 2012. Another female was selected, Rayvonley Fabia, who went before an ophthalmologist vet and failed on conjunctivitis. Once again, exhibitors were plunged back into uncertainty.
The following month, at the Scottish Kennel Club Championship Show, a third female was awarded a Best of Breed. Verotipo Pandora received a pass, another cause for celebration, since she had more haw than the previous pass (but with clear, infection-free eyes), and so was more representative of a larger majority of dogs who potentially could also pass a vet check. Exhibitors were once again spurred on, and the championship shows throughout the rest of May and June 2012 resulted in a string of passes by the same two females.
Then came a memorable day for all the right reasons at Leeds Championship Show in July 2012, the largest in the show calendar after Crufts. Breeder-judge Sean Platts (Vallino) awarded Best of Breed to a large, heavy-type male, Doowneerg Usi, who had been the top Neapolitan Mastiff in 2011, Best Dog at Crufts in 2012, and Best Dog at most of the subsequent championship shows following Crufts. Judges had been reluctant to award him a Best of Breed, unsure if he would pass the veterinary check. Much debate took place over which side of the “tipping point” he would fall.
Doowneerg Usi (above at a show and below with the author’s mother) is proof that a Neapolitan Mastiff can be heavy and sound – the two are not mutually exclusive.
In the interests of full disclosure, I own Doowneerg Usi. As the breed health coordinator for the Neapolitan Mastiff, I felt I was in the best position to really put the vet-check process to the test with this rather beautiful dog of heavy type. To some he may appear to be a “poster child” for “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” but I knew he was extremely sound and healthy in all areas, particularly one of heightened concern – eyes.
I felt such a dog was an important part of this journey of discovery, as he deserved to be presented at the highest level of competition for judges to appreciate and consider. While some might prefer a more moderate example, it would be wrong to exclude a heavy-type dog on the basis of health when he was completely sound. Here was an opportunity to show that it is possible to have heavy type and soundness, and that a breed with such a historically wide range of diversity in appearance needs to retain this element, to prevent a dilution of type to the point that the breed would no longer be recognizable. In all breeds, a heavy-type animal in its purest, soundest, health-screened form is extremely valuable. And there is certainly a line that Mastinari will never wish to cross in the name of health – and that is the point at which the breed is in danger of being confused with its Italian cousin, the Cane Corso.
Sean Platts awarded Usi Best of Breed at Leeds. And the vet gave him a resounding pass, remarking that it was nice to see a typical, happy dog with no health problems.
With much celebration, Usi progressed to the Group, where the totally unexpected happened: He was awarded a history-making Working Group 4 under respected judge Margaret Wildman, amid scenes of near jubilation. We had triumphed, and had evidence that we did not have to dilute breed type in order to achieve good health, and that the Kennel Club and vets appreciated this and would support heavier-type dogs, as long as they were healthy.
Vallino Reverand Wrinkle at the Kennel Club’s High Profile Breed event, where health information and sound dogs were showcased.
But, of course, in the world of the Neapolitan Mastiff in the U.K., nothing stays the same for too long. Emboldened by the success at Leeds, judges held up Doowneerg Usi as a Best of Breed at a further two championship shows with two more vet-check passes before his next ended in a failure at the Welsh Kennel Club. The reasons given by the vet were hotly disputed on the day by myself and the breed judge. A complaint was lodged on the grounds that “eye conformation leading to tears draining laterally and scar to jowl” did not constitute pain, suffering or discomfort to the dog, who was being penalized simply on appearance. This revealed another problem with the veterinary check process: There is simply no process of appeal.
The Kennel Club did issue a revised set of guidelines to vets shortly afterward, in August 2012, containing the following: “A Championship Show veterinary surgeon is not expected to evaluate the dogs for conformational characteristics which are of an aesthetic nature only, and therefore extreme conformation that is not associated with a clinical symptom capable of affecting health or welfare does not form a basis for preventing a dog from entering the group competition.”
The remaining three months of the 2012 championship-show season concluded without further incident: more veterinary passes for Nukualofa’s Vaiola; one for the Doowneerg Usi son Vallino Reverand Wrinkle; and a Best of Any Variety Working win for littermate Vallino Kings of Leon under Ronnie Irving, former Kennel Club chairman and a well-known former critic of the Neapolitan Mastiff.
Vallino Kings of Leon, whose Best of Any Variety Working win under Ronnie Irving, a well-known former critic of the Neapolitan Mastiff, ended 2012 on a high note for the U.K.’s Mastino fanciers.
Shortly before Crufts, we had an opportunity to display our efforts at the Kennel Club’s High Profile Breed event at Stoneleigh Park on February 9. Each of the 14 breeds (the Chinese Crested had since been removed from the list) was given a display booth and asked to present the work undertaken to improve health, as well as bring along dogs to take part in a movement presentation.
There was a great deal of positiveness around the Neapolitan Mastiff display, and from the animated debates taking place, the overriding impression was that the gaps in some areas had been or were now well in the process of being bridged. This was reflected in the subsequent scoring for the Neapolitan Mastiff in the 2013 Karlton Index, which issues biannual breed scores on health initiatives and information made available to the general public. In 2011, the Neapolitan Mastiff had scored a woeful 7/100, one of the lowest across all breeds. In 2013, this has increased to a huge 32/100, scoring particularly well in the areas of leadership (14/20) and communication (12/20). The breed placed third in the list of most-improved breeds and catapulted into the top 25 of all breeds in the Kennel Club registry.
From the dogs that were presented on that day, to the information disseminated, the Neapolitan Mastiff community could demonstrate the strides forward we had made, all with the objective to prove ourselves no longer deserving of our high-profile-breed status. The removal criteria is currently under discussion with the Kennel Club, and a meeting with High Profile Breed Coordinator Charlotte McNamara in April will hopefully set measurable and achievable targets that will allow the Neapolitan Mastiff to work toward that aim. I would like to believe this could be achieved in the next two years.
Best of Breed-winning bitch Verotipos Pandora is proof that Neapolitan Mastiffs who show a little haw can still have healthy eyes.
However, with Crufts 2013 looming and following some well-documented failures among other high-profile breeds – including a Mastiff at Working and Pastoral Breeds of Scotland with a protein speck on the eye and a Dogue de Bordeaux at Midland Counties Championship Show with a “slightly reddened ear” – thoughts soon turned back to Crufts 2012. Were we once again doomed to fail, despite all the successes to date?
This year’s Crufts attracted a Mastino entry of only 20. One of the most noticeable impacts of the high-profile-breed status and subsequent veterinary checks for all 14 breeds has been the drastic reduction in exhibit numbers, and the 2013 Neapolitan Mastiff entry typified this.
Judge Jill Peak selected her Best Bitch, Nukualofa’s Vaiola, and Best Dog and BOB, King Louie from Belgium. “King Louie” is the son of last year’s failed bitch, Ch. Ithani, and, being from outside the U.K., he had no previous history of veterinary checks. So, once again, it was a heart-stopping wait before owner and breeder Sonja Smidova returned triumphantly waving her Best of Breed award. What a wonderful moment for Sonja after last year’s disappointment: It took great courage to return, putting her faith in advice that there was a greater understanding between all parties now.
The Belgian-born King Louie was Best of Breed at Crufts in 2013, and he passed his health check with flying colors. His mother, Ch. Ithani, was the previous year’s winner, but she was not as fortunate with the vet check.
To add to the success in the ring, our Discover Dogs display was awarded Best Working Breed Stand due to the quality of the information on health displayed there. Another breed first, and what marvelous recognition for the Neapolitan Mastiff Club, particularly secretary Denise Bucknall, who put together the presentation.
I remained at the National Exhibition Centre to watch the Working Group at Crufts, and I cannot describe the emotion and sense of pride I felt as King Louie took to the ring, seeing him striding out confidently with his handler Gabriela Pavlickolva and hearing the applause ringing out. We were there, taking our rightful place among the elite. That place had been achieved by the hard work and efforts of many committed to continued education, making the slow but well-thought-out steps forward.
Although the Neapolitan Mastiff has travelled a long, sometimes rocky road to reach this point, I firmly believe we are on the right path and heading in the right direction. The breed now needs more travellers both here and around the world to join us on our journey so that the Neapolitan Mastiff can continue to find his way back to being, once again, the king of the canine world.
About the Author
Kim Slater has been the breed health coordinator for the Neapolitan Mastiff Club in the U.K. since 2008, and has owned, bred and exhibited the breed since 1994. She is pictured here with Two the Sud, the United Kingdom’s top Neapolitan Mastiff in 2010 and sire of the top Neapolitan Mastiff in 2012, Nukualofa’s Vaiola.