This strapping Mastiff certainly had the height and breadth of skull that telegraphed the breed development to come. But, like all the Molossers in this display, this early-20th-Century fellow was decidedly undercooked compared to our modern dogs. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good thing – how much is too much.
Tibetan Mastiff at Tring.
The same applied to the museum's Tibetan Mastiff. Nearby, and quite a famous one at that: In the early 20th Century, this male was brought from Nepal for King George V, who then gave him to the London Zoo. Though he doesn’t have a great deal of size by modern standards, his headpiece is comparatively heavy and impressive: There is no doubt he would dissuade even the most foolhardy of intruders.
When I contacted breed expert Richard Eichhorn of Drakyi Tibetan Mastiffs, he was well aware of the Tring specimen of his breed.
“The dog on display at the Natural History Museum was typical of his time, and a representative of the mountain/flock type,” he replied. Though the dog is “correct in proportion, pigmentation, coat and overall breed type,” he was, at 58 centimeters (barely 23 inches), below the minimum height required of the breed today – he would be disqualified under the AKC standard, which stipulates males must be 25 inches or taller. “Still,” Eichhorn concludes, “he appears to be a dog that could do the job he was intended to do.”
One of the gnawing concerns at Tring is how much the taxidermist’s skill – or lack thereof – has changed the appearance of the dog before us. How accurate is the head, the substance, the overall impression of these dogs?
In the case of Turk the Dogue de Bordeaux, quite accurate indeed, though you’d be forgiven if you didn’t recognize him as a member of his tribe before reading the museum label. Turk was whelped in 1894 in Britain from two imported and accomplished French parents: His dam reportedly won a silver medal at the Paris dog show, and his sire was a celebrated fighting dog who batted his first bear at nine months old. This intriguing dog has unexpectedly cropped ears, a light fawn coat and a frame that does not have the depth of body that is so important for this breed. The fact that he is posed with two Bulldogs in the foreground only serves to underscore this even more.
For many, British-born Turk is not immediately identifiable as a Dogue de Bordeaux. Posed in front of him are 19th Century bulldogs.
But compared to a photograph taken of Turk in life, this taxidermied version is an honest approximation of who he was, though in perpetuity his painfully visible ribs have been plumped up, presumably with straw instead of fat. Turk is a reminder that in its infancy, the Dogue de Bordeaux had three regional types, with the Bordeaux type winning out in the end. Still, we can see important facets of breed type emerging: the well-developed brow, the beginnings of an upsweep to the chin and the resultant undershot jaw, nascent wrinkling on the muzzle and temples, the emerging dewlap, and the slight curve to the topline.
An image of Turk the Dogue taken in real life -- emphasis on the word "life."
Modern-day Victorian Bulldog, posed next to a decidedly older Old English Sheepdog.
Tring is home to a handful of modern dogs, too. One is Spike, a Victorian Bulldog whelped in 1992. Despite its name, the Victorian Bulldog is a modern breed, created by the late Kenneth Mollett to approximate a more active Bulldog type, abetted with the addition of Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Terrier and Bullmastiff blood.
Short or tall, bandy legged or lithe, spotted or brindled, lap warmer or guard dog, all of the dogs in the Tring gallery bespeak the very human impulses to categorize, to tinker, to improve and to evolve. The pleasure we get in seeing what they once looked like derives from our knowledge of where they are today. Our breeds can’t stay static any more than we can. It’s like that famous Woody Allen line from “Annie Hall” that compares a relationship to a shark: “It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
However much changed, the vast majority of the breeds at Tring – including, happily, all of its Molossers – have continued to tread water alongside us, dozens upon dozens of generations later.