FROM ANCIENT MOLOSSER TO MODERN MASTIFF
By Laurie Ackerman
The Mastiff is one of the original canine breeds from which many modern working dogs were derived. Before Stonehenge or the first dynasty of Egypt, the Celts (native people of England, prior to the Roman & Anglo-Saxon arrivals) were using Mastiffs as guard dogs and for bear/wolf hunting.
Since "mastiff type" dogs known as Molossers existed in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (simultaneously) thousands of years ago, it may be impossible to determine which region of the world was responsible for their original development. Most researchers agree, however, that Phoenician traders brought Molossers to Britain during the 6th century BC.
Between 500 BC (BCE) and 200 AD (ACE), various tribes/clans in the region (including the Cimbri) helped ‘mold’ the northern Molosser into an impressive breed, and the resulting “Northern European Molosser” was a lot like the English Mastiff we have today. Noble, brave, and extremely loyal to their owners, these northern Molossers were excellent protectors and hunters, and later, of course, became highly cherished family members.
When the Romans invaded England in 55 BC, one of the first ‘spoils’ taken back to Italy by the victors were 100+ individually selected English Molossers, which even the Roman warriors admitted were ‘superior’ to Italy’s Molosser. These English ‘Mastiffs’ were mixed with the Italian Molossers to create powerful lion and bear fighters for the Roman Circus.
As Mastiffs became bigger (via selective breeding), the fights grew larger, and there is even one story of a Mastiff fighting (and believe it or not, killing) a Bull Elephant in the arena. (A few centuries later, this new Italian canine creation would become the Neapolitan Mastiff.)
English Mastiffs remained popular guarding and hunting dogs over the next 1,500 years, and wealthy estate owners used them to guard their castles. The monarchy loved the breed, as well, and King Henry VIII even gave 400 Mastiffs to Spain’s King Charles V and claimed them to be highly trained, valiant warrior dogs.
As Mastiffs entered the modern age, however, their popularity waned and their numbers rapidly decreased. By the early 20th century, only a small number of Mastiffs still existed. The English had to rebuild the breed by mixing in shorthaired St. Bernards, and by 1935, the Mastiff population was on the rise.
A mere 15 years later, though, the breed would once again be in crisis. The Mastiff nearly became extinct during WWII because food was very scarce, and feeding giant dogs (when people could barely feed themselves) was simply too impractical. By 1947, only 7 Mastiffs were alive in England, but luckily, a few Mastiffs in the US and Canada, in addition to a few Great Danes and St. Bernards, were bred into the group to bring the number up to 48 by the end of 1950. The Mastiff’s genetic makeup was altered only slightly, since Great Danes and St. Bernards are close relatives.
The modern Mastiff is no longer a warrior or hunter, but is still fiercely loyal and devoted to the family. Most are also easy-going and gentle, and their favorite activity is cuddling with you on the couch. (Yes, it takes a big couch! –lol) They are usually very good with children and other animals, and will often assume the role of protective ‘babysitter.’ Mastiffs are very funny, as well, and their silly antics will make you laugh…a lot! Once you become a Mastiff owner, you’ll understand why we always say, “You’ll never want to live without one again!” J
Written by Laurie Ackerman (You have my permission to copy and repost!)
The History & Management of the Mastiff, Author(s): Baxter, Elizabeth J; Hoffman, Patricia B., Dogwise 2004 ISBN 1-929242-11-5.
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Sydenham Edwards, Cynographia Britannica, 1800 London: C. Whittingham.
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"American Kennel Club - Mastiff". The American Kennel Club. http://www.akc.org/breeds/mastiff/. Retrieved July, 2012.