The breed commonly referred to as the "Mastiff" in English-speaking countries is more accurately called the English Mastiff or the Old English Mastiff. Also known as the Mestyf and the Mastie, this is a giant breed known for its grandeur and good nature. Originally bred as a guard and watch dog, it is also well-known for its docile disposition, despite a somewhat ferocious appearance. The Mastiff is naturally aloof toward strangers and does not take kindly to intruders, who would be foolish to challenge this enormous animal. The Mastiff's one-time reputation as a vicious fighting dog is an undeserved and inaccurate description of this kind, calm breed. The Mastiff was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1885, as a member of the Working Group.
The mature male English Mastiff should stand at least 30 inches at the withers, with bitches standing at least 27½ inches measured at the same place. Mastiffs have no upper height limitation, but animals below the standard are severely penalized. The average Mastiff weighs from 175 to 200 pounds. Mastiffs have a coarse outer coat that is straight and moderately short. Their undercoat is dense, also short, and largely unapparent to the eye. Mastiffs can be fawn, apricot or brindle, with varying acceptable shades within each color. Excessive white on the chest is not preferred.
The word "Mastiff" describes a group of giant dogs rather than a single breed. All Mastiffs supposedly originated in Asia many thousands of years ago. The Old English Mastiff ancestors of today's Mastiff breed were bred as watch and guard dogs in England for over two thousand years. Mastiffs were favored by peasants and poor farmers to control wolves and other savage predators and to protect sheep and other livestock. These dogs also were trusted guardians of home and family, and they eventually became valued companions in addition to their working traits. The Mastiff was also prized by English nobility for its excellent pack hunting skills, protective nature and loyalty.
Records of Mastiff ancestry are not reliable before the 19th century. In earlier times, every fancier seemed to claim the greatest age and most admirable history for his particular Mastiff-type dogs. Nonetheless, there are ancient Egyptian drawings of typical Mastiffs dating back to 3000 B. C. One of the earliest Chinese references to the Mastiff dates to 1121 B.C. Obviously, modern Mastiffs come from ancient ancestral lines. Herodotus told of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, receiving a Mastiff as a gift from the King of Albania in about 550 B.C. Cyrus apparently set this dog against another and also against a bull, but his Mastiff was "meek," so Cyrus had it destroyed. Legend has it that news of this came back to the King of Albania, who sent a Mastiff bitch to Cyrus, telling him that "a Mastiff was no ordinary cur and that it scorned to notice such common creatures as a Persian dog or a bull." According to legend, the King of Albania urged Cyrus to select a more worthy opponent for his new Mastiff, such as a lion or perhaps an elephant, and ended his communication by saying that Mastiffs "were rare and royal," and that he would not send Cyrus another. Reports from the time indicate that Cyrus' Mastiff bitch was set upon an elephant and fought with such fury and efficiency that she took the elephant to ground.
In his account of invading Britain in 55 B.C., Julius Caesar describes Mastiffs as having fought gallantly beside their English owners. Shortly thereafter, stories surfaced about giant British fighting dogs brought back to Rome, where they were used in public combat competitions matched against bulls, bears, lions, tigers and human gladiators. The use of Mastiffs in the Colosseum explains their name. "Mastiff" is a corruption of the Roman word "mansuetus," meaning "tame." The Mastiffs were the only "tame" animals fighting for their lives in the Roman arena. All other competitors were wild. While today it is easier to pretend that these cruel spectacles were only popular in ancient times, that is far from the truth. Bull-baiting, bear-baiting and dog-fighting were respectable "gentlemen's sports" in both England and America during the last two centuries, patronized by royalty, clergy and commoners. Organized underground dog-fighting, although illegal in the United States and many other countries, unfortunately continues to this day.
Another well-known story about the Mastiff involves Sir Peers Legh, Knight of Lyme Hall (near Stockport, Cheshire). He brought a favorite Mastiff bitch to the Battle of Agincourt in France, which took place in October of 1415. When Sir Legh fell during battle, she stood over him and defended him for relentlessly. Days later, he was picked up by English soldiers and carried to Paris, where he died of his wounds. The faithful Mastiff was returned to the Lyme Hall Kennels in Cheshire, England, where she became the foundation for the famous Lyme Hall line of Old English Mastiffs. The modern Mastiff descends from the lines of Lyme Hall and those of the Duke of Devonshire's Kennels at Chatsworth, Chaucer.
At least 600 years ago, Mastiffs were hunted in packs in England on lion, deer and other large game. White and piebald Mastiffs, some with long coats, are well-documented in the breed history. Dog-fighting and animal-baiting were made illegal in England in 1835, but the blood-sport continued for twenty years or more with participants openly flaunting the law. The Mastiff-type dogs were always front and foremost in the underground fights. Nonetheless, the breed's numbers dwindled when pit-fights became forbidden. There were 63 Mastiffs entered at an English dog show in 1871; by 1908, none were entered in the same show, and only 35 Mastiffs were registered with the Kennel Club (England). In 1945, there were only 8 Mastiffs of breeding age in all of Great Britain.
The American Mastiff Club was founded in 1879, and for some reason thereafter disbanded. The present club was re-established in 1929. The American Kennel Club recognized the Mastiff in 1885, as a member of the Working Group. Mastiffs nearly died out during World War II, but today they have recovered in number and are extremely popular world-wide, both as companions and as strong competitors in the conformation show ring.
Like other giant breeds, the Mastiff is not long-lived. Its average life span is 9 to 10 years. Breed health concerns may include bloat (gastric dilitation and volvulus), elbow and hip dysplasia, cystine urolithiasis, entropion, ectropion, eversion of the cartilage of the nictitating membrane, prolapse of the gland of the nictitating membrane ("cherry eye"), corneal dystrophy, pulmonic stenosis, mitral dysplasia, osteosarcoma, persistent papillary membrane, progressive retinal atrophy, vaginal hyperplasia and seizures.
The Mastiff has undergone quite a change over the last 500 years. They were originally bred to be combat dogs, both guarding troops and fighting alongside them. Then they were used in the Roman Coliseum to fight human and animal opponents. In modern times, these massive dogs are wonderful companion animals. They are excellent with children – patient, nurturing, protective, but always up for a romp in the yard, and attach themselves deeply to the people they love. Mastiff owners claim their dogs have no idea just how large they are, and often (hilariously) try climb on couches and even into the bed for a snuggle. They still make excellent guard dogs, protecting their homes and people with great vigilance, but they are not aggressive. Should they encounter a ne'er-do-well they will hold that person at bay until backup arrives. For families with plenty of room and lots of love to give, the Mastiff makes an excellent family pet.
Mastiffs are not apartment dogs, by any means, and houses should be large enough to accommodate these giants, as they can weigh up to 200 pounds. Mastiffs need regular daily exercise which should include walks and the opportunity to run. If this large, naturally rowdy breed doesn't get enough exercise, he will burn off his excess energy in other ways, which usually means destructive chewing.
A Mastiff's yard should always be fenced. They aren't likely to wander too far off, but they will chase away other dogs, cats, squirrels and possibly people, so it's best to keep them safe with a sturdy fencing system. Electrical fences aren't recommended, as this breed has a high tolerance for pain, and is likely to be completely unphased by the shock.
Training a Mastiff can be challenging and should begin as early as possible in order to keep the process as simple as possible. The larger a Mastiff gets, the harder it is to get bad habits under control. Training needs to be conducted by a strong leader, as they will walk all over a softie whose rules are not always consistent.
Socialization should take place early and often, to prevent their natural protectiveness from getting out of hand. Mastiffs need to be taught to accept visitors as welcome guests, and they need to understand that if children are playing rough-and-tumble with neighbors, that the kids are not in immediate danger. Training and socialization are the most key factors in determining the temperament of your adult Mastiff.
Mastiffs are fine with other household pets, when raised alongside them from puppyhood. Once a Mastiff hits adolescence, he will not tolerate new animals coming into his territory. Proper training and socialization is required to keep their protectiveness from turning into animal aggression.
Mastiffs make a lot of noise. They aren't excessive barkers, but their bark is loud and booming, so they need to learn to obey commands to stop barking. They also snore, grunt, wheese, snort and slobber. Some people find these traits to be endearing, while others find them to be intolerable.
The Mastiff is a large, massive, symmetrical dog with a well-knit frame. The impression is one of grandeur and dignity. Dogs are more massive throughout. Bitches should not be faulted for being somewhat smaller in all dimensions while maintaining a proportionally powerful structure. A good evaluation considers positive qualities of type and soundness with equal weight.
Size, Proposition, Substance
Size--Dogs, minimum, 30 inches at the shoulder. Bitches, minimum, 27½ inches at the shoulder. Fault--Dogs or bitches below the minimum standard. The farther below standard, the greater the fault. Proportion--Rectangular, the length of the dog from forechest to rump is somewhat longer than the height at the withers. The height of the dog should come from depth of body rather than from length of leg. Substance--Massive, heavy boned, with a powerful muscle structure. Great depth and breadth desirable. Fault--Lack of substance or slab sided.
In general outline giving a massive appearance when viewed from any angle. Breadth greatly desired. Eyes set wide apart, medium in size, never too prominent. Expression alert but kindly. Color of eyes brown, the darker the better, and showing no haw. Light eyes or a predatory expression is undesirable. Ears small in proportion to the skull, V-shaped, rounded at the tips. Leather moderately thin, set widely apart at the highest points on the sides of the skull continuing the outline across the summit. They should lie close to the cheeks when in repose. Ears dark in color, the blacker the better, conforming to the color of the muzzle. Skull broad and somewhat flattened between the ears, forehead slightly curved, showing marked wrinkles which are particularly distinctive when at attention. Brows (superciliary ridges) moderately raised. Muscles of the temples well developed, those of the cheeks extremely powerful. Arch across the skull a flattened curve with a furrow up the center of the forehead. This extends from between the eyes to halfway up the skull. The stop between the eyes well marked but not too abrupt. Muzzle should be half the length of the skull, thus dividing the head into three parts-one for the foreface and two for the skull. In other words, the distance from the tip of the nose to stop is equal to one-half the distance between the stop and the occiput. Circumference of the muzzle (measured midway between the eyes and nose) to that of the head (measured before the ears) is as 3 is to 5. Muzzle short, broad under the eyes and running nearly equal in width to the end of the nose. Truncated, i.e. blunt and cut off square, thus forming a right angle with the upper line of the face. Of great depth from the point of the nose to the underjaw. Underjaw broad to the end and slightly rounded. Muzzle dark in color, the blacker the better. Fault snipiness of the muzzle. Nose broad and always dark in color, the blacker the better, with spread flat nostrils (not pointed or turned up) in profile. Lips diverging at obtuse angles with the septum and sufficiently pendulous so as to show a modified square profile. Canine Teeth healthy and wide apart. Jaws powerful. Scissors bite preferred, but a moderately undershot jaw should not be faulted providing the teeth are not visible when the mouth is closed.
Neck, Topline, Body
Neck powerful, very muscular, slightly arched, and of medium length. The neck gradually increases in circumference as it approaches the shoulder. Neck moderately "dry" (not showing an excess of loose skin). Topline--In profile the topline should be straight, level, and firm, not swaybacked, roached, or dropping off sharply behind the high point of the rump. Chest wide, deep, rounded, and well let down between the forelegs, extending at least to the elbow. Forechest should be deep and well defined with the breastbone extending in front of the foremost point of the shoulders. Ribs well rounded. False ribs deep and well set back. Underline--There should be a reasonable, but not exaggerated, tuck-up. Back muscular, powerful, and straight. When viewed from the rear, there should be a slight rounding over the rump. Loins wide and muscular.
Tail set on moderately high and reaching to the hocks or a little below. Wide at the root, tapering to the end, hanging straight in repose, forming a slight curve, but never over the back when the dog is in motion.
Shoulders moderately sloping, powerful and muscular, with no tendency to looseness. Degree of front angulation to match correct rear angulation. Legs straight, strong and set wide apart, heavy boned. Elbows parallel to body. Pasterns strong and bent only slightly. Feet large, round, and compact with well arched toes. Black nails preferred.
Hindquarters broad, wide and muscular. Second thighs well developed, leading to a strong hock joint. Stifle joint is moderately angulated matching the front. Rear legs are wide apart and parallel when viewed from the rear. When the portion of the leg below the hock is correctly "set back" and stands perpendicular to the ground, a plumb line dropped from the rearmost point of the hindquarters will pass in front of the foot. This rules out straight hocks, and since stifle angulation varies with hock angulation, it also rules out insufficiently angulated stifles. Fault--Straight stifles.
Outer coat straight, coarse, and of moderately short length. Undercoat dense, short, and close lying. Coat should not be so long as to produce "fringe" on the belly, tail, or hind legs. Fault Long or wavy coat.
Fawn, apricot, or brindle. Brindle should have fawn or apricot as a background color which should be completely covered with very dark stripes. Muzzle, ears, and nose must be dark in color, the blacker the better, with similar color tone around the eye orbits and extending upward between them. A small patch of white on the chest is permitted.
Faults--Excessive white on the chest or white on any other part of the body. Mask, ears, or nose lacking dark pigment.
The gait denotes power and strength. The rear legs should have drive, while the forelegs should track smoothly with good reach. In motion, the legs move straight forward; as the dog's speed increases from a walk to a trot, the feet move in toward the center line of the body to maintain balance.
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Sources: American Kennel Club