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Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff

Understanding the Neapolitan Mastiff

An excerpt from the definitive book on the Italian Mastino demystifies this often misunderstood breed

The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff by Sherilyn Allen, newly revised in 2016. At left: The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff by Sherilyn Allen, newly revised in 2016.

 

When we think of breeds that project great antiquity, the Neapolitan Mastiff springs immediately to mind. These living, breathing relics are as misunderstood as they are imposing, and most of the authoritative works on them are written, not surprisingly, in Italian, the language of their homeland.   Two decades ago, veterinarian Sherilyn Allen wrote The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff. Considered to be the essential book on the breed, it is filled with hundreds of historical photographs of Mastini from every corner of the world, accompanied by Allen’s incisive commentary. In late 2016, the book was revised and updated, and is again available to the fancy.   What follows is the introductory chapter to this magnificent book, which respected Neo experts across the world have hailed, in the words of Christofer Habig of Germany, as “an absolute must-read … as nothing more educational has ever been written about the Neapolitan Mastiff.”   The 342-page hardbound book is available from Amazon.com, as well as from the publisher at www.revodanapublishing.com/books/official-neapolitan-mastiff.  

 

The Neapolitan Mastiff is different from other more familiar and “modernized” breeds of dogs. People who think they “know” dogs will find that they do not know the Neapolitan Mastiff. He is different in appearance, health requirements and personality from the normal “dog” with which people are familiar.  

It is of utmost importance that people know what they are getting into when they buy that cute little wrinkled Neapolitan Mastiff puppy. It is amazing to me how resistant people are to believing what I have to tell them about the Neo. But just let me say that in more than 35 years of intense experience with dogs, and more than 20 years of that as a veterinarian, I have never met a domesticated dog that behaves like a Neapolitan Mastiff.  

To comprehend the Neapolitan Mastiff, you must read the existent ancient descriptions of mastiffs. You will then understand that this breed has not changed materially for the past 2,000 to 5,000 years. When you understand what ancient instincts run in his genes, you will understand what the cute, wrinkly puppy is going to grow into. Then you will be more able to rationally decide whether the Neapolitan Mastiff is the animal for you and your lifestyle.  

 

Ch. D’Annunzio de Néropolis, 18-month-old male. Breeders and owners: M. et Mme. Beck. Photo: J.P. Beck. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.Ch. D’Annunzio de Néropolis, 18-month-old male. Breeders and owners: M. et Mme. Beck. Photo: J.P. Beck. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.

 

The earliest description I could find of the ancestors of the Neapolitan is by a Latin author of the first century AD, Lucio Giunio Mederato Columella. In his work De Re Rustica, Columella states that the house guard dog, which was the Roman Mastiff of that time, should be black, “because a black dog has a more terrifying appearance; and during the day, a prowler can see him and be frightened by his appearance. When night falls, the dog, lost in the shadows, can attack without being seen. The head is so massive that it seems to be the most important part of the body. The ears fall towards the front, the brilliant and penetrating eyes are black or grey, the chest is deep and hairy, the shoulder wide, the legs thick, the tail short, the hind-legs powerful, the toenails strong and great. His temperament must be neither too gentle nor too ferocious and cruel; whereas the first would make him too apt to welcome a thief, the second would predispose him to attack the people of the house. He should be of solemn and not merry character and must always react with rage against all intruders. Above all, these dogs must demonstrate not only vigilance in guarding without making a mistake, but must be guarding out of diligence and a questioning nature rather than because they are fearful. For the first type will give the warning only when they are sure something bad is happening, and the second type will get excited about every little noise or false suspect. It does not matter that house guard dogs have heavy bodies and are not swift of foot. They are meant to carry out their work from close quarters and do not need to run far. In fact, these dogs want to stay behind closed walls or at the house without even trying to run off. They do their work very well by their astute sense of smell, which informs them of who is coming, and they warn with their bark whomever is approaching not to come near. And if the person persists in approaching, they violently attack. Indeed, the most important quality in these dogs is that they are guards and do not permit an attack. The second quality is that if provoked, they will defend and fight with vigor and tenacity.”  

Another description of only 400 years ago is by Conrad Heresbach as written by Conrad Heresbach in Foure Books of Husbandrie in 1586.  

In choosing a mastie that keepeth the house, you must provide such a one as hath a large, mightie body, a great shrill voice, that both with his barking he may discover and with his sight dismay the thief – yea, being not seen, with the horror of his voice, put him to flight. His stature must neither be long nor short, but well set. His head great, his eyes sharp and fierce, either brown or grey; his lips blackish neither turning up nor hanging too much down. His mouth blacke and wide, his .neather jaw far, and coming out of it on either side a fang appearing more outward than his other teeth; his upper teeth even with his neather, not hanging too much over, sharpe, and hidden with his lips. His countenance like a lion’s, his breast great and shag haired, his shoulders broad, his legs big, his tail short, his feet very great. His disposition must neither be too gentle nor too curst, that he neither fawn upon a thief, nor fly upon his friends. Very waking, no gadder about, nor lavish of his mouth, barking without cause. It maketh no matter that he be not swift, for he is but to fight at home and give warning of the enemy. A black dog is best, because of the hurt he may do to the thief by reason of not being seen.”  

The two passages, one from first-century Rome AD, and the other from 16th-century England, are practically identical in their descriptions of the home guard dog. If we analyze both descriptions, we understand that the Neapolitan Mastiff of today is exactly what these people were describing 400 and 2,000 years ago.  

 

Caption: Each Neapolitan puppy has the possibility of being that one chef-d’oeuvre. Marlena, seven-week-old female. Breeder: R. Evans. Owner: C. Kemp. Photo: S. Allen. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.Each Neapolitan puppy has the possibility of being that one chef-d’oeuvre. Marlena, seven-week-old female. Breeder: R. Evans. Owner: C. Kemp. Photo: S. Allen. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.  

 

The Neapolitan Mastiff of today is categorized by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) as a dog bred for protection and guarding. Its distinguishing trademark is its terrifying countenance so that “a prowler by day can see him and be frightened by his appearance.” His typical color is black or gray, so that “when night falls, the dog, lost in the shadows, can attack without being seen.” “The head is so massive that it seems to be the most important part of the body.”

The body is thick, with a “short” tail, powerful feet and strong claws. “He is of solemn and not merry character,” and the important point for all to remember is that it is bred into him to “always react with rage against all intruders.” The dogs’ bodies are heavy, so that they are big enough to bring down a man or other beast, and “it does not matter that they are not swift of foot. They are meant to carry out their work from close quarters and do not need to run far. In fact, these dogs want to stay behind closed walls without even trying to run off.” They are not dogs bred for running. They are actually bred so that they will not run away. Therein may lie the reasons why their conformation is so different from that of other dogs seen and admired in show rings. If the dogs had been bred for running and beautiful movement, and therefore the conformation that goes along with “beautiful movers,” the dogs would have run off.  

Actually, in ancient days, proprietors used to purposely cripple their dogs by cutting off their toes so that they could not run off and catch game. This expeditating (also called lawing) forced their giant-bodied dogs to stay home and do the job of defending, instead of wandering off.  

Neapolitan Mastiffs are not noted for their correctness of conformation, and they often have orthopedic problems. But you will always notice that even the most cumbersome and apparently ungainly Neapolitan Mastiff can instantaneously jump up when aroused, and attack and hit its mark before a human being even has time to react.  

Never touch a sleeping Neapolitan Mastiff. That was the first lesson I learned after getting Neapolitan puppies. One night in winter, I wanted to see if the dogs were warm enough in their dog houses outside. I stuck my hand inside the box where I could hear a snoring puppy. Luckily for me, it was only a puppy. If you want to wake a sleeping Neo, stand back and call to it.  

 

Another great Mastino companion of the author, Orso, in 1999. His expression is iconic. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.A great Mastino companion of the author, Orso, in 1999. His expression is iconic. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.

 

Back to the original topic – a Neapolitan Mastiff is heavy and lumbering because it was bred to be that. There was a reason for it. To compare it with light-boned, swiftly moving dogs that we consider to be elegant is wrong.  

“They do their work very well by their astute sense of smell, which informs them of who is coming.” This sentence sums up what every owner of Neapolitans has observed – most of them do not see very well at all. They appear to be near sighted. Many do not recognize a person they are supposed to know until they smell that person, or see the person up very close. The ramifications of an attack dog who cannot recognize by sight as well as he can by scent are obvious.  

“And if a person persists in approaching, they violently attack.” This is their nature, and it is what they always do. Do not expect them to recognize your mother-in-law coming to pay you a visit if they have never met her before and been socialized with her.  

For “indeed, the most important quality in these dogs is that they are guards, and do not permit an attack” by anyone onto their property. And if they are provoked, “they will defend and fight with vigor and tenacity.”  

Their heads are bigger than yours, their teeth are longer than yours, and their jaws open wider than yours. Their feet are as large as your hands, and their claws are like a bear’s. When they stand on their hind legs, they are taller than you, and they can jump off their hind legs while they are standing up on them to come down over a man six feet in height. Most of the time, they outweigh you, and if you weigh more than 175 pounds, they are still stronger than you. The only thing that can control them is for them to think that you are tougher and stronger than they are.  

 

Ramon del Bonrampino, one-year-old male. Breeder: G. Maja.Owner: S. Allen. Photo: S. Allen. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.Ramon del Bonrampino, one-year-old male. Breeder: G. Maja.Owner: S. Allen. Photo: S. Allen. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.

 

It is most important for people in today’s society to realize that the Neapolitan Mastiffs of today have not changed at all from those dogs of 400, 2,000 and even 5,000 years ago. People today want dogs for protection, but expect that the dogs will not actually hurt anyone. Then society is outraged when the dogs act like dogs and do actually bite or attack someone.  

People today also anthropomorphize animals and expect them to be able to reason like human beings. People think a dog has the ability to decide who is an enemy and who is a friend. Most times human beings cannot even tell which people are enemies and which are friends, as proved by spies and undercover FBI or other police agents. There is certainly no way a dog is going to be able to decide if he should or should not bite the meter reader, if he was bred for the past 2,000 years not to let anyone onto his designated property.  

It is important to realize that humans have succeeded in changing and developing some breeds of dogs to fit into the mold dictated by our present-day Western society. The close bond that existed between human and animal when animals were used for work, and almost all people knew how to control them, has been replaced by a different human-animal bond. People today seek animals primarily for companionship and love. Dogs and cats are now referred to as “companion animals.” People have forgotten how to properly “master” a pack animal.  

The Neapolitan Mastiff still retains a strong sense of social hierarchy and needs to know who is boss on the place. No matter how much some people may have tried in the past 20 years to modify the behavior of the Neo to make it a gentler, more sociable dog, genes cannot be erased. They can be modified, by adding to them, and it is well understood by those who know Mastini that some breeders in other countries introduced other blood into the breed in an attempt to get more size, conformational soundness or a gentler personality. This is not a criticism, but it is an explanation of why the Mastino in other countries differs somewhat from the “Made in Italy” Mastino. Once you understand what you are dealing with in the pure Italian Mastino, you can take the proper precautions to protect the public from the dog you have acquired to protect you.  

I am reminded of a recent incident in which a Neo owner had her two dogs in her car, and a person she was talking to reached through the open car window to pet them. The person was lucky to come away requiring only 30 stitches in his hand. The dogs were doing what they have been bred to do – protect their space. The owner was not aware enough of the personality of her dogs, or she would have told the person to stay away from the car.  

I believe Mastini make great companions for those adults who are animal oriented and can control as well as care for a very powerful animal whose basic instincts are to guard, defend and attack if necessary.   Now that the warnings are out of the way, let me get on with some of the experiences I have had that make me love the breed. I believe educated owners, knowing what their Neapolitan Mastiff is capable of, can also socialize and train their dog to behave in a way they would want them to behave. There are some individual dogs who are born just plain dear, and they are the ones for breeders to propagate if bringing some docility to the breed is a goal.  

 

Islero del Bonrampino with his robin buddy. Photo: S. Allen. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.Islero del Bonrampino with his robin buddy. Photo: S. Allen. Courtesy of The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff.
 
 
I have been lucky enough to own such a dog. It is in honor of him also that I write about his brethren. I bought him as a puppy from Giovanni Maja in Italy, then sold him twice in his life. (Everyone who sees him falls in love with him.) I bought him back again twice – the first time when he chewed his way out of his new owner’s chain-link dog kennel and carried the professionally installed, 200-pound, expensive rubber floor mats out with him in shreds; and the second time when he atomized his new owner’s MG top. He didn’t like being in kennels or garages. He never demolished anything at my house except for stainless-steel food dishes and plastic detergent bottles. But, then, he is older and wiser now, and his teeth are more than worn. Also, I have given up trying to keep him apart from me.  
 
He is the veterinary hospital mascot, and he spends his days as a watch dog – watching clients and their animals come in and out all day long. At 7 o’clock, he knows office hours are over, and he stops watching and realizes it is time to become ferocious. After 7 p.m., when someone comes onto the property, he races toward them, charging, his bass voice roaring. Some people have even been observed to jump for cover onto the trash dumpsters when they see him coming from 200 feet away. But when he finally reaches them, the tail starts wagging and he holds up his paw, which is his way of saying, “Pet me.” Those unerasable genes within him remind him that he is supposed to be a ferocious guard, but his desire for love and attention always gets the better of him.  
 
He is indeed the guardian – for puppies as well as other animals. He will sit for hours, just watching them, staying with them. A baby robin foundling I had to hand-feed adopted him as its mother. He sat with the bird vigilantly day after day, and protected it. Unfortunately, one day, it crawled under the fence into a pen with a French Bulldog, and was promptly eaten by that “little house dog.”  
 
When the children start screaming and racing around the yard like small prey, he does not run after them, pouncing on them and bringing them to the ground like most adult Neapolitan Mastiffs would do. He takes out his pent-up energy and frustration on the plastic detergent bottles, barking at them and chewing them to shreds. He teaches the puppies to travel well in automobiles (something most Neos hate), and he shows them how to behave in the house. He shows them how to fetch a ball. He keeps the puppies from wandering away, for he never leaves the immediate area around the house. He is the best dog trainer I ever had.  
 
He is always at my side. One soon learns that doors mean nothing to Neapolitan Mastiffs. Being with their owner means more to them than anything, and doors are only a small encumbrance to a Neo who wants to be with his person. He would rather be with me than eat – unless, of course, the horde of guinea chickens who roam free on tick patrol start sneaking over to his food dish. Then, in a superb display of ferocity, he charges them till they scatter away. He proudly marches back to his food and meticulously eats, one eye on the chickens as if to dare them to come near. He then shakes off all the slime he manufactured during his meal, and saunters off in search of me, to take up his position of watching.  
 
In the uncanny way of Neapolitan Mastiffs, he knows several days in advance if I am planning to leave on a trip. He becomes anxious, won’t eat, and chews up a greater than usual number of plastic detergent bottles. He also knows the day I am to arrive back, planting himself in front of the garage waiting for the car to return.  
 
He fathers wonderful babies, imparting to them his outgoing temperament and gentler nature. Some of his sons have been known to eat through garage walls or chew up hard-plastic crates to get closer to their owners. But I haven’t heard of any eating the hot tub like a nephew of his happened to do. As I said before, Neos are unbelievably strong. They are incredibly desirous of companionship. When they are separated from the object of their affection, they take matters into their own jaws to change their conditions. One can’t criticize them for this, and one mustn’t call them hardheaded. I would call them awesomely devoted.  
 
How many people do you know who would chew through a steel door just to be with you?  
 
Islero has been a great source of pleasure and company to me. He has taught me a lot about his breed. He is a Neo, but he is also different from most other Neos. He has contributed to a gentling of the breed in America, if one considers that an attribute. He taught me a lot about genetics and a lot of veterinary medicine. He is, in my estimation, a great dog. I owe him a lot. And all he asks of me is a constant supply of plastic detergent bottles and to be next to me 24 hours a day.  
 
Reprinted with permission from The Official Book of the Neapolitan Mastiff. www.revodanapublishing.com/books/official-neapolitan-mastiff.