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Move over, Godzilla and Kong: It's Cane Corso vs. Neapolitan Mastiff

Will the original Italian Molosser please stand up?

Chill out, Godzilla and Kong.

When it comes to great rivals in the dog world, the historic arm-wrestling match is between the Neapolitan Mastiff and the Cane Corso.

(Wait … Italians in a contentious dispute? We’re shocked … shocked!)

At the core of this rivalry is the most basic chicken-or-egg question: Which of these two came first? And, by extension, which can lay stake to the claim that it is the original Italian Molosser?

The answer, I’ve come to conclude, is neither of them. Or, if you’re a glass-half-full type — both.


Fantasy League


I’ve heard more times than I can count the argument about the debasement of the Cane Corso at the hands of Mastino fanciers, which goes something like this:

Modern Cane Corso type resulted from pressure from Neapolitan Mastiff fanciers, who were first to the table when it came to recognition, and whose proponents are among the most respected Italian judges and personalities. It was they who decreed that, in order to preserve the Neo’s pride of place as the true Italian mastino, the Corso should be everything that the Neapolitan Mastiff is not, especially in terms of mass and head type. And so the Italian kennel club — insert evil cackle — reduced the Cane Corso into a lighter-boned shadow of its former self.

The corollary to this is the theory that the Corso is just a drier version of the Mastino — in other words, breed for a Neo that is “less than” in every aspect, and you will get a Corso.

After careful consideration of the above theories, I have come to a one-word conclusion:



Debunking 101


I’ve never felt that the Corso-as-Neo-stepchild theory was very plausible. After all, it doesn’t take superhuman powers of observation to note that the Corso is described in all the world’s standards as a much more athletic, streamlined type of dog with a decidedly different head structure.

Years ago, in the AKC library, I came across photos of Rudolph Valentino’s own Corsos, which the movie-star heartthrob imported from Puglia, a homeland he had in common with the breed. Despite the graininess of the images, they didn’t look like undercooked Neos, but rather a distinct type all their own.


Movie-star Rudolph Valentino and one of the Corsos he imported from his native Puglia pose in front of his home in the Hollywood Hills in the mid-1920s.


And even a glance at their respective AKC standards shows just how different the two breeds really are.

Let’s start with general appearance. While the Corso is described as “large boned,” it also needs to be “muscular and athletic.” By contrast, the Neo is “bestial,” with “massive structure.”


The massiveness of the Neo differentiates it from the more athletic Corso.


The difference in just one part of their anatomy — the relationship and proportions of the bones in the rear legs — illustrates this markedly. The Neapolitan Mastiff has a longer first thigh — a requirement for all the heavy Molossers, as that long, strong, almost vertical bone supports their great weight. But in the Corso, the upper and lower thighs are of almost equal proportions — reflecting its relatively more moderate weight and structure, and its athleticism.

Years ago, my friend and fellow judge Bas Bosch wrote a brilliant essay on wrinkles, describing them as a barometer of type. Wrinkles in a Neo are mandatory — without them, a dog simply cannot be a Neo, which is why their absence is a disqualification in every breed standard. But in a Corso, the skin is “firm and smooth,” says the AKC standard. Sure, it continues, “some wrinkling on [the] forehead occurs when [the Corso is] alert.” But since you can’t have wrinkles on top of wrinkles, that means a clean, dry head when in repose.


Facial wrinkle is not a Corso quality.


Unsurprisingly, these two very different body types — one athletic, the other ponderous — produce very different movement. The Corso “moves with considerable ease and elegance,” while the Neo is “rolling and lumbering, not elegant or showy,” and is even permitted to pace, the ultimate energy-conserving gait.

This differential in energy level even extends to the expression, which in the Corso is “very alert and attentive.” The Neo is instead “wistful,” or pensive, which makes perfect sense: Much of the Neapolitan Mastiff’s activity is internal, as it watches and waits and eventually, if pushed too far, reacts in an explosive fusillade.

Basically, polar opposites.


The Truth Hurts


Of course, no one can dispute the fact that there is Neapolitan Mastiff blood in the Corso. DNA studies show that the Mastino is one of the Corso’s most significant genetic contributors. But that is the result of more modern crosses. (Not to mention Frankenstein breeding, if you buy the theory that some American-line Corsos are the result of Neo/Rottweiler crosses, with no authentic Italian Corso blood to speak of.) The Corso is not derivative, as Paolo Berber, who was involved in the breed's early recovery (and later parted ways with his Corso contemporaries), has written.

"There are people who still do not believe that the Cane Corso is a historic breed saved from extinction but one that has been 'constructed' by crossing different existing breeds," he wrote in a Facebook post. "In the endless discussion of dog fanciers, the idea of creating new breeds by blending two or three existing ones is made to sound real easy: anyone can do it. You want to create the Cane Corso? Cross the Pit Bull and the Neo and you’re sure to get the perfect half-way measure, i.e., the Cane Corso. I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way."

Did the Corso and Neo have a common ancestor? Certainly, but you would need to go back into time-misted history to find out where the two truly diverged. The Romans did not invent the giant Molossers that fought inside their coliseums — they only inherited them. The massive Molossers of Mesopotamia are the grandfathers of all our large molossoid dogs.

But what about all those websites with images of Game of Thrones Corsi in full metal jackets with gladiator handlers? Ungird your loins, centurion: The Corso was not a war dog, as the Neapolitan’s distant ancestors likely were. Instead, for centuries the Corso was an honest, sturdy, discerning, near indestructible general-purpose worker, critical to the survival of hard-scrabble Southern Italian farmers. To be sure, the breed served on the front lines, too. But the lethal threat that the historical Corso combatted was not the arrows of barbarian hordes: It was the abject poverty of its own homeland.


Virtually every Molosser breed attempts to lay claim to ancestry that goes back to the war dogs of ancient Rome, without much thought to historical accuracy.


The Corso was never intended to be a ponderous breed, draped in wrinkle and devoid of agility. There is nothing in its standard — or its history — to support that. To know the scarcity of resources that defined Italy’s agricultural meriodonale is to understand that no farmer would feed such excess when he had barely enough to feed himself.

In fact, to really understand what the Corso is, Google the word “Alaunt” or “Alano,” an ancient type that was known across the ancient world — including the Mediterranean. True, many modern Alaunts — there is an effort around the world, especially in Spain, to recreate the breed — have what Corso fanciers would consider hypotypical heads, with little brow or furrow. But regional variations have always existed, and it is the overall impression — a trotting dog with the body of a heavy hound and the head of a lighter Molosser — that matters. The Corso shares this ancient template with other modern Alaunt types like the Dogo Argentino, Great Dane (which is in fact called “Alano” in Italian) and Cimarron Uruguayo.

If they could be honest with themselves, many — far too many! — modern Corso fanciers really just want Mastino Lite. They crave that mass, that wrinkle, that stop-in-your-tracks wow factor — just in a more manageable package, please. Not everyone has a sense of humor about goobers dripping from the ceiling.


Image of a purported Cane Corso created with artificial intelligence. Artificial? Yes. Intelligent? Uh, no.


But in pursuing what they like — as opposed to what is correct — these misguided fanciers depart from breed type, and contribute to the degradation of the entire breed, which, if you’ve looked around lately, is already on the ambulance gurney and speeding toward the ER.

So perhaps, instead of trying to turn their breed into a Neo on Ozempic, Corso fanciers should read their owners manual — that is, any of the world’s Cane Corso standards. Even better, read the original 1987 standard, written by stratospherically respected judge and scholar Dr. Antonio Morsiani, whose commentary on the standard requires some study to understand, but is well worth the time investment. While they differ in some specifics, all those guiding documents describe a Molosser of moderation, engineered to perfection for the time, place and people it once served.

Why choose to breed a substandard Neo instead?



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