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existed between human and animal when animals were used for work, and almost all people knew how to control them, has been replaced by a different human-animal bond.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.
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.