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Change my view- No such thing as "mastiffs"

First of all, the site looks great Gary. This is Tonedog from back in the day. I decided to just randomly see if molosserdogs was still around, fearing the worst, but wow, looks good. 

Maybe some controversial debate will help liven the place up a bit? lol

Over the last few years I've been continuing my recreational research into dogs and dog history (which has now spanned many decades), and I've stumbled onto a realization that "mastiffs" basically don't exist and never did.  

Hear me out... 

I believe the mastiff category is merely comprised of retired dogs from various other functional types. They have no real genetic foundation making them a group and no real ancestral function. If you name a mastiff I can tell you how it isn't one and never was, and what it really is. 

English mastiff- Boarhound. Essentially a breed created at Lyme Hall by the descendants of Sir Piers Legh to pay homage to the legend of Sir Piers being saved by a mastiff in a battle with the french in 1415. The thing is, before the recreation, the dogs of lyme park were clearly boarhounds. As boars were depleted from the english countryside they continued to keep these boarhounds for a while as "chamber dogs" that would hang around inside and play with the kids. 

But they were simply england's great danes, really. Retired boarhounds, which initially were created by crossing bulldogs with large sighthounds. Any image of a mastiff in england from before the 1800s looks like a long legged mongrel boar hound, and only rarely won't be referred to as such. I'm rather convinced that's all they were, while they were working functional animals. The modern english mastiff is a recreation based on the legend of these boarhounds, and they made them more bulky and sluggish, but not for any real functional reason.  Big for bigness' sake, with total amnesia about their boar hunting origins. 

Neapolitan mastiff -  Bulldog. The neapolitan mastiff and cane corso were assuredly one in the same dog before the early 1900s, and this dog was simply italy's answer to the alano espanol. A bull catching dog. It likely was rarely 100 lbs, usually less. Even in the usa in the 1970s the italian immigrants in new york still called them bulldogs. 

Cane corso - Bulldog. see above. 

Boerboel -  Bulldog. See above. Photos of boerboels from as recently as the 1970s show them to be around 60 lbs, and the name literally translates to farmers bulldog. The giant boerboel is an extremely recent fabrication. 

Dogue de Bordeax - Bulldog. See above. Same story. We even have photos of the working dogue de bordeaxs from around 1900. 



This legendary individual was considered freakishly large at 105 lbs. And in fact it probably got larger as a result of no longer being a bull catching dog (it was a fighting dog, and this probably allowed it to balloon out of the usual size limitations). 

Presa canario - bulldog. See above. Find any old photo of a presa canario and it is a small bulldog, and many are even photographed with cattle and working cattle. There was a revolution to turn all these bulldogs into "mastiffs" at some point, probably in all of our lifetimes for most of them. 

Fila brasileiro - Boarhound. Or a bloodhound, if you will. Bloodhounds though were merely boarhounds with the job of hunting humans rather than boars. Once again just the result of crossing bulldogs with hounds, large sighthounds and in some cases like with the fila some scenthound thrown in too. I mean it's a bit of a free for all, as it still is with boar hunting dogs. 

Bullmastiff - Bulldog x boarhound. Notoriously a bulldog cross mastiff, but by mastiff as established they just meant boarhound. And this was before lyme hall decided to establish the modern english mastiff. Boarhounds had been used to "hunt humans" extensively already, but they found crossing these bulldog based boarhounds back to the bulldog again was handy to get them more compact and specialised for close combat with an armed man (long legs to run down a slow man were redundant, and also they actually wanted to breed them AWAY from an ability to run down the king's deer).

St Bernard - Boarhound. Known to descend from "the alpine mastiff" along with the other "sennenhunds" (bernese and greater swiss), it seems to me the alpine mastiff was really just another european boarhound they took up a mountain, found it had nothing much to do up there, retired it from hunting and gave it other niche duties like pulling milk carts or rescuing people lost in the snow.  Long retired, and modified to be heavy and bulky (and in fact may have been used to help make other mastiffs bulky as well in their recreations), but a retired boarhound all the same. A bulldog/hound mongrel hybrid at it's roots. 

Kangal - Livestock guardian. As we all know of course, but we need to acknowledge livestock guardians and the above mastiffs have no genetic connection at all, in fact are extremely disconnected on the phylogenetic chart. No relation. See chart below.  

Volkodav - Livestock guardian. See above. 

Tibetan mastiff - ahhh spitz? The tibetan mastiff actually isn't a mastiff or even a livestock guardian. It's an ancient spitz breed, essentially. Modified to be big and scary. No connection to livestock guardians or bulldogs. 


None of this is necessarily new or revolutionary info, however it paints a bigger IMO overlooked picture, an elephant in the room that there's really no such thing as mastiffs. It's not a type of dog. All the mastiffs are really something else, and more importantly aren't all the same thing. Should one of these groups lay claim to the mastiff moniker? Which one? I'd argue none, what does mastiff even mean? "Big" is the closest thing to a definition I can find, and I don't think breeding dogs to be big has done anyone any favours. If you break dogs down to their working roots you can more clearly keep in perspective what they SHOULD be like. Maybe your mastiff SHOULD be able to catch a boar or swing on the nose of a bull, or guard livestock. And if it's not built to do any of those things? Maybe it shouldn't even be. 

I believe dogs can be categorised as follows- 

Asiatic spitz/pariah

American pariah 

Toy breed


Middle eastern/Mediterranean sighthound

Livestock guardian


Gun dog - (with spaniel, retriever, setter, pointer subsects)

Euro Pastoral (herders)

British pastoral (collies, kelpies, corgis, and etc) 

British and diaspora sighthound

Gripping dog (bulldogs, boarhounds and the "retired" alpine mountain dogs - also the proto gripper which IMO is the rottweiler)

And I'd say that covers it? No mastiffs, no "guard dogs", no molossers (unless that means livestock guardian? Since it seems the molossian people only had a livestock guardian and a sighthound, according to my research). 

Am I missing something? 

#livestock #pariah #sighthound #volkodav #landrace

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Comments (21)
    • "But before kennel clubs I think all of the above were a mixture of colours, most often white with patches (of brindle, black, red or tan) and sometimes black, brindle, red or fawn. This is what we see with old paintings (and some old photos) depicting the working ancestors of these breeds regardless of country. "

      I have held this belief for many years now.  You are spot on in my opinion in that the show breeding and exhibitions drove the evolution of the colors as the clubs and judges expressed their preferences and anointed "champions'> Much the same way that some are trying to change the Caucasian Ovcharks and other of the LGDs where it is more about the size, color, and coat than about the ability to guard.

      I prefer a white masked dog but in my chosen breed that is not easy to find anymore. Maybe one day we will have a hard reset and go back to function over form.

      • For me....

        (Who came first the chicken or the egg.)

        None of it even matters, historically breeds are based on fantasies of the author. Far too many put value on names, purposely selecting towards variations is what has created Every breed and it doesn't matter what the original type was because they are far from the beginning. 

        The only thing that truly matters is the dog in front of you. 

        🤷‍♀️ mastiff, bulldog or a coyote...

        If it fulfills the expectations of the owner that is what matters most. 


        • As a dog owner I agree, but as a dog enthusiast/wannabe scholar I'm troubled by how misunderstood and poorly studied dogs are as an animal. The breed encyclopedia/kennel club stories are extremely unscientific and inaccurate to the point of being farcical, there should be some effort by someone to accurately classify and catalogue dog lineages and dog types and understand them. It's very odd that it isn't already thoroughly understood and easily searchable clear information. For any other species it would be, but dog info is monopolized by stuffy kennel clubs which are stuck in a cartoonishly ignorant 1800s state of mind. 

          If their official story is mastiffs are a family of large heavy dogs which were used to fight lions and soldiers in war, and it's total BS, I want to know and figure out what the real story is. I want to understand what the evolved dog lineages really are and why they are, what they actually arose to do before any BS tales were dreamed up by dog show people.

          Real dogs are real natural animals that fill a niche as role players in the social units of hominids, so that's the angle I like to approach their study. More recently people have taken some and made them into silly beauty pageant contestants for dog shows and given them breed names and wrote little fairy tales for them. I try my hardest to ignore all that or at least cut through it. 

          • Hi Jess, I do agree that from a practical standpoint the dog in front of you is the most important. From a scholarly Point of view the curiosity is in the understanding of why that dog in front of us in its current form.

            That is something that we have the luxury to question whereas historically if the dog could not do its job it was not needed.

            This is an awesome discussion.

            Thanks for stimulating it @Tony

          • What I find absolutely amazing is how scientists can say and write so much and still have no reasonable conclusion and get away with it. 

            "We find that the modern and ancient genomic data are consistent with a single origin for dogs, though a scenario involving multiple closely related wolf populations remains possible. However, in our view, the geographical origin of dogs remains unknown. Previously suggested points of origin based upon present-day patterns of genomic diversity (2, 8, 10) or affinities to modern wolf populations (12) are sensitive to the obscuring effects of more recent population dynamics and gene flow. Ultimately, integrating DNA from dogs and wolves even older than those analyzed here with archaeology, anthropology, ethology, and other disciplines is needed to determine where and in which environmental and cultural context the first dogs originated."

            Basically, they don't really know what happened.  However, on one of their Chart is something called the Tibetan Mastiff - which, if historically accurate, would indicate there were some form of heavy dogs that were adopted to the altitude already - giving rise to the TM or Dho Kyi.

            Anyhow - this is a very interesting topic.  Maybe if all participants share it on Social Networks it may get us some new participants


            • @Tony wrote "Real dogs are real natural animals that fill a niche as role players in the social units of hominids, so that's the angle I like to approach their study. More recently people have taken some and made them into silly beauty pageant contestants for dog shows and given them breed names and wrote little fairy tales for them. I try my hardest to ignore all that or at least cut through it. "

              This is a salient observation as often we the dog owner and fanciers have a difficult time looking at the creature laying at our feet and seeing them engaged in their actual work. I have posted an article about the Night Hunt of Racoons and its worth a read to tie back to this.

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