by Doris Donnerman
(last updated April 6, 2009)
There seems to be more confusion about the origin of the famous breed known as the Mastiff than most any other breed. This arises out of the fact that in other centuries the term "mastiff" seems to have represented any very large dog of mongrel origin. At still other periods, size may not have been involved in the term, it then carrying merely the significance of "mongrel house dog."
At the same time, some authorities claim that at least four strains of Mastiff were kept pure-bred for 400 years. Our modem dogs are supposed to descend from these strains, one of which was kept at Lyme Hall from the time of the battle of Agincourt, Oct. twenty-five, 1415. This would mean that a pure-bred dog existed side by side with mongrels called Mastiffs for 400 years.
Other researchers believe the Mastiff to be a basic type of dog, which has maintained itself, despite occasional cross breeding, since at least 2,200 B.C. A bas relief of this period shows a dog of Mastiff type, according to these researchers.
The Assyrians had a habit of burying terra cotta dogs under their door steps to scare away evil spirits. Many of these, dating from the time of Assurbanipal, have been found. Researchers see in these a direct resemblance to the present-day Mastiff. Still other writers consider that the Mastiff actually had his origin in Tibet, spreading from there to Persia, Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, and finally into Greece. This would make the more or less legendary Tibetan Mastiff the ancestor of the present dog.
Probably about 400 B.C., an unknown Greek sculptor made a statue of a dog called Molossus, belonging to Olympias; daughter of King Pyrrhus. This dog is recognizable as a type common in Greece, Assyria, and to some extent in Egypt. It was sometimes called the Molossian dog, and it is supposed to be the direct ancestor of the Mastiff. According to this theory, the Great Dane is a cross between the Greyhound and the Mastiff.
Other writers have sternly rejected this origin for the Mastiff and Great Dane. According to them, the Mastiff is really a parent English type which spread about the world, perhaps via Phoenician shipping. One early writer states that Imperial Rome maintained a "Procurator Cynegii" at Winchester. It was this man's job to buy dogs for use in the Roman armies and in the Roman arenas.
A great American dog authority of the 1900'S, made a careful study of the Mastiff. He was inclined to throw out all the heroic tales about the Mastiff in favor of the theory that he was merely one form of the smooth-coated Collie. It was pointed out that in the Four Bookes of Husbandry, published in 1586, two types of farm dogs were listed, the "Shepherd's Masty," and the "House Masty." It conceives that the latter was merely an overly-heavy shepherd dog, used chiefly for guarding property.
In 1871, it was decided that the Mastiff was a mixture of Bulldog and Talbot Hound. It is believed by some that the Mastiff belongs to a basic type, which also includes the Bulldog, Pug, and St. Bernard.
Whatever the truth of this may be, there is little doubt that the British developed during the eighteenth century, a huge dog which could be recognized as a true breed. Some of these dogs were thirty-two and thirty-three inches at the shoulder, and they had correspondingly heavy bodies. Probably they were the largest dogs in the world at that time. These dogs were called Mastiffs, and there certainly were purebred strains of them.
As the nineteenth century began, bull and bear baiting were outlawed forever in England. Almost immediately the huge Mastiffs began to decline. There was no use for such a breed any longer, particularly those among the breed which were ferocious. In the next thirty years, the breed almost disappeared. By 1830, British sportsmen began to be alarmed about the situation. A concerted effort was made to save the breed. A well known game keeper at the time, began to breed Mastiffs to serve as gamekeepers' dogs.
During World War I, the breed almost disappeared again. This was due partly to lack of sufficient food for such large animals, and partly to the ending of that period of gracious and opulent living which, in England, stopped with World War 1. Once again, English fanciers came to the rescue of the breed.
In North America, Mastiffs, or so-called Mastiffs, have been known since earliest times. Columbus reported he saw dogs like Mastiffs on the Florida island of St. Mary. Again, early writers quote a passage from Sir Walter Raleigh which cannot now be found. According to this, the English soldiers cooked up their Mastiffs to ward off starvation.
A general description usually has the color of the Mastiff of an Apricot color with a silver fawn or dark fawn-brindle. The outer coat is moderately coarse, while the under coat is dense, short and close lying. Also, the male dog minimum height is thirty inches at the shoulder while the female's minimum is 27-1/2 inches at the shoulder.
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