A Little Sighthound Sumthin' Sumthin'
What’s the opposite of a Molosser?
A Sighthound, of course.
One can find traces of Molosser influence in many, if not most categories of dogs, including even Toy breeds — what’s a Pug, after all, but a mini-Molosser? But the sleek, refined Sighthounds have the least in common with the heavy-boned, thick-skinned, broad-headed family of dogs that we today call Molossers.
Or do they?
The connection between Molossers and Sighthounds goes back centuries. An oft-cited example is 18th-Century English nobleman Lord Orford, who famously improved his Greyhound stock by crossing his females to Bulldog studs in order to add tenacity as well as smooth coats. While those Bulldogs of the mid-1700s had longer legs and muzzles than their modern counterparts, they still had good bone, wide mouths and a low center of gravity, important traits when your job description involves hanging onto a bull’s nose for dear life. Reportedly, Lord Orford’s cross-breedings continued for seven generations, with the resulting offspring of such high quality that they were soon sought after by the rest of the nobility.
A detail of this engraving has been making the rounds on the Internet, with a caption that says it is Lord Orford's famous Bulldog. Instead, it dates to 1888, almost a century after Orford's death.
The opposite scenario — Sighthounds crossed into Molosser stock — existed as well. The late English author and dog expert Col. David Hancock noted that the medieval definition of a mastiff was a broad-mouthed hound that hunted alongside the speedier Greyhound. The implication was that the two were occasionally crossed, presumably once the mastiff became too heavy to efficiently follow its prey, or the Greyhound too light-boned to bring down the same.
Nineteenth-century lithograph on vellum paper of German prince Wolfgang Wilhelm von Pfalz-Neuburg (1599-1641), after an 1814 painting by Anthony van Dyck. Note the distinct Sighthound influences of the mastiff-type dog at his side.
It was this time-misted association between these two diametrically opposed canine archetypes that prompted the Gammonwood Mastiff kennel in Australia to embark on its controversial “Greydogge” breeding program, which crossed a track-bred Greyhound sire to a purebred Mastiff dam in the pursuit of genetic diversity. While the kennel is no longer breeding, its efforts continued across three generations, and the progression photos on its now-inactive Facebook page are an interesting example of how quickly type can be regained.
Proof in the Pudding
While the idea of Sighthound-influenced Molossers might sound outlandish to some, the clues are there if one only looks.
Consider, for example, the Great Dane. Despite its great size and mass, the Dane’s fluid lines and flat muscle hint strongly at a Sighthound ancestor.
And you needn’t look far to find one: Most Westerners are unaware of the existence of the now rare giant Sloughi of Algeria and other Bedouin-influenced parts of North Africa, which needed great size and strong bone to engage large antelope and ostrich, all the while radiating an innate elegance. And that is the essence of the Great Dane: the Sighthound always within eyeshot of the Molosser's front door, but never crossing the threshold. Without that Sighthound influence lingering in the vicinity, the Apollo of Dogs degenerates into a lippy, droolly, sloppy mess: the so-called Euro Dane.
In terms of color-related associations in the breed, some Great Dane breeders note that brindle Danes, which have acquired that pattern from a Sighthound forebearer, tend to be lighter-boned as a result.
Not coincidentally, when the American Kennel Club was contemplating realigning its variety groups and creating a Molosser Group, the Great Dane fancy was split, with a sizeable number of fanciers arguing that the Hound Group would make a much more appropriate home for a breed previously known as the German boarhound.
Another place where Sighthound influence can be glimpsed is in the more agile Molossers such as the Dogo Argentino and Cane Corso. In previous centuries, this type of dog was known in Spain as the Alano, or Alaunt. In the Libro de la Monteria ("The Hunting Book"), King Alfonso XI of Castile (1311-1350) described this "fierce hunting and war dog" as having "the body of a greyhound, a solid head with square jaws" and "narrow eyes and cropped ears." Sound familiar?
Both the Dogo and Corso had a hunting function, covering ground at a trot in order to pursue game, which in both cases included wild boar. While direct crosses to Sighthounds were not used in either breed’s modern development, that aerodynamic influence came through some first cousins, if you will.
The Pointer, which was documented in the creation of the Dogo, clearly had a Sighthound ancestor that contributed its curvaceous outline, chiseled head and tapering “bee-sting” tail.
Similarly, the Beauceron — which was almost certainly involved in the evolution of the Corso — likely also benefitted from an infusion of Sighthound blood. And the later introduction of the Boxer to Corso bloodlines — intended to fortify breadth of jaw — was also fortuitous in this regard, as the Boxer’s taut muscling, deep chest and elegant lines speak clearly of its Sighthound influences to those with a deeper understanding of breeds outside their own.
The Boxer contributed more than just upsweep of jaw to the Corso.
Sighthound blood entered both the Dogo and Corso through the back door, if you will, preventing these agile Molossers from becoming too massive and ponderous. This explains why one will occasionally see Dogos that look like supersized Whippets. In the Corso, the problem is usually the inverse: In a quest for more bone, more wrinkle, more of virtually everything, the breed in many parts of the world — and in the U.S. in particular — is in dire need of athleticism and agility, sometimes veering dangerously toward Neapolitan Mastiff type.
Recently, while discussing the epidemic of bad feet in many Molosser breeds — “dead-baby hands,” as some fanciers inelegantly but evocatively call them — a long-time Corso breeder only half-jokingly said to me, “It’s a pity we can’t cross to a Sighthound to get back some stronger feet.”
While completely unexpected, that observation resonated with me. Breeds that place a premium on wrinkle always run the risk of going overboard. Not only does the skin itself become looser and more pliant, but there is tendency for the connective tissue throughout the body to become increasingly more flaccid and toneless. Feet, which bear the brunt of carrying all that mass, are an inevitable weak point.
Black Forest carving for sale on eBay of a mastiff-type dog with Sighthound overtones. Some of the details — U-shaped foreface, wide-set eyes and rear dewclaws (remnants of the Beauceron?) — are suggestive of a Cane Corso. Note the lovely, functional feet.
All well and good, but what’s the point? Today’s breeders can’t color outside the lines by crossing to a Sighthound breed, or even a Sighthound-derived one.
While that’s certainly true, breeders can start by prioritizing strong connective tissue and tight feet in their breeding programs. Those virtues might very well be found in dogs that lack the absolute mass and impressive heads that breeders seek, but why bother if they are carried on a body that looks for all the world like a canine-sized Jell-O shot?
As in the examples cited above, when dissimilar dogs are crossed for a specific purpose, clever breeders soon find their way back to the type they seek. All that is required is a strong vision — and the discipline to follow it.