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The History of the Mastiff

The mastiff has quite a violent past in the service of man. What purposes did this giant fulfill? Where did he come from? What other breeds descend from the Mastiff? What do people use this dog for in our time? Is the Mastiff rare in other parts of the world as well?

The History of the Mastiff.  A long time ago some giant dog-like beasts lived on the earth. These creatures were known under the name Molossus or simply Dogs. Ancient images of dogs like these can be seen on Babylonian relics from 2200 BC. Already at that time the Dogs were used (or misused) as war dogs. Sculptures from Assyria also show mastiff-alike drawings from about 650 BC. We don’t know for sure how these giants were bred, or whether they developed by their own effort. One thing is rather certain, though. The ancestors of the mastiffs came from Central-Asia, and the dogs were brought to Britain by Phoenician traders about 500 BC. At least this is the most common assumption, even if there do exist other theories. The British liked these dogs, simply because of their impressive size and brutal strength. Many a dog lost his life because of man’s bloody interest in organized fights between animals. Fights between different dogs and between dog and bear were among the most popular dog activities in those days.

The Romans also found the mastiff to be quite interesting, and as the Roman empire was at it’s most powerful, the mastiff also had a respected position as both war-dog and fighting dog. During the Roman occupation of Britain (55 BC – 415 AD) lots of Dogs were exported from Britain to Rome. The dogs had to fight for their lives against whatever the Romans brought back home from their long and numerous expeditions. African animals like lions were popular in the arenas. Animals didn’t have the law on their side, rather the opposite. But, despite these disturbing conditions the Romans also put the mastiff in the history book in a more positive way. Some roman officers had the honor to own a mastiff. They trained them for war and protection. With specially developed equipment and the “right” kind of training, an angry dog with 100 active kilos was a violent and feared warrior. One particular story is about a mastiff sacrificing his own life to save his master in a military battle. The dog was looked upon as a hero after that battle (not that he got much fun out of it, but most heroes don’t become heroes before they’re dead and buried anyway…) The mastiff is supposed to have been Cesar’s favorite dog.

In the fifteenth century a large part of the English population were desperately poor. Many people starved to death while the upper class (and the royalty) were enjoying a life in luxury. The common way to keep this system intact, was to have incredibly unfair tax-laws, and to take advantage of political and religious power. There was so little food for the common man, that the only way to survive was to hunt for animals. The upper classes also were the owners of the most important forest areas, and it was illegal to hunt there. Some landowners had their own popular rich-man’s hobby. They raised or caught deer and other desirable animals to hunt, and let them lose in the forest. A few days later they would trace them, and kill them, just for the “fun” of it. With all these animals running around in the forests, the temptation became too big for some of the poor. Illegal hunting often was a problem for the landowners, a problem they really wanted to solve, no matter what. So they used mastiffs! The mastiffs were trained to scare hungry hunters off the landowner’s property. A new law was also written in those days. The mastiff was the only dog that was allowed to be inside the properties of the landowners. These dogs were then, as now, someone you wouldn’t like to have as your enemy. In addition to this, the mastiff was used as a hunting dog for bigger animals during the middle ages.

As the modern interest for dogs awoke in the first part of the 20th century, only a very small number of mastiffs still existed. A few people in England decided to try as hard as they could to save the breed from disappearing for good. They started rebuilding the mastiff by mixing blood from shorthaired St. Bernards. This was necessary to produce enough healthy puppies. This gave some good results. Right before the second world war, the breed wasn’t that rare any longer. Dog shows with high quality mastiffs were not unusual. It looked like the crisis was over. Then the war started, a disaster for dogs, especially the big ones. They simply ate too much in a time when food was a luxury…


After the second world war the mastiff was almost gone again. In October 1946 fifteen enthusiastic mastiff-lovers gathered for the first time since 1939. The meeting took place in London, and was the beginning of an almost hopeless mission; to save the English mastiff from extinction. They promised each other to do all in their might to prevent this from happening. Their first task was tracing all living mastiffs in the country, and if possible making sure that puppies were born. This didn’t give the required results, basically because most of the twenty dogs that still were alive were too old to reproduce themselves. A male called Tarsus became the father of three litters with 18 puppies, but only one (!) of these survived. At the end of 1947 only seven dogs were still alive in England. This situation led to a visit to the USA in order to co-operate with the Americans. It turned out that the breed was so rare and of such poor quality in the US as well, that no dogs were brought back to England. In 1948 two promising puppies from British Columbia ( Canada ) were sent to England, and these two individuals created the foundation that prevented the breed from disappearing. In 1949 there were 15 mastiffs in the country, and in 1950 the number was approximately 50. The mastiff was saved! To achieve this

one had to make use of other breeds with familiar outlook, background and history: Great Dane, Bullmastiff and St. Bernard. These breeds were the most natural to use, since they are reckoned to be close relatives to the mastiff.

Boxer, Rottweiler, Bloodhound and the English Bulldog also are descendants from the old Molossus breeds. In addition to these we also have a number of different types of mastiffs which are breeds still going strong today. The most common are Neopolitan Mastiff, Pyrenean Mastiff and Spanish Mastiff. The English Mastiff is looked upon as the “main-mastiff”, and is therefore often simply called “the Mastiff”.

In our time the mastiff basically is a family dog, but he is also a fantastic watchdog. The home is his fortress, and he knows how to convince strangers that they don’t belong there. The mastiff will normally not attack an intruder unless it’s self-defense, but then again very few people have been brave or stupid enough to find out whether the dog is serious when he stands tall in front of you with a low bass sound coming from his throat. In England the mastiff still is being used as a watchdog outside pubs, according to an old tradition.

The mastiff also is a natural born talent when it comes to tasks that require great strength and musclepower. It is important to emphasis that such activities must be avoided until the dog is fully grown (at least two and a half years) and is in good physical shape. If not the chances are big that you will get a limping and suffering dog, that never will function as a happy, normal dog.

The breed is not common in any parts of the world, but at least the number of individuals is stabile. There are about 1000 dogs in the UK, and that number is the same in the rest of the western countries in comparison with the countries’ population. In Norway there are less than 100 English mastiffs.


The personality isn’t like it used to be. The mastiff is no longer a warrior. It’s a long time since he retired from those kind of activities. Nowadays he is a very relaxed and normally harmless dog, who loves his family. He is very dependent on being close to his owners, and appreciates (and demands!) being cuddled with. Strangers are not very popular with mastiffs. The average mastiff is friendly and patient with children, but it is of course important that the children are friendly with the mastiff in order to establish a good relationship between them.

A mastiff doesn’t have any particular interest in hunting. This means that the dog doesn’t run away when you let him loose in the forest. He also loves water, even though he isn’t a typical swimmer. He likes to wade, but can also swim to fetch whatever the owner throws in the water. This varies from dog to dog, depending on what he is used to doing in his “spare time”.

Many people think of mastiffs as slow and a bit clumsy, but this isn’t so. Some mastiffs are quite fast and can outrun any human being. Then again, others really are slow and lazy, doing not more than they have to in order to survive. If the mastiff sees something that catches his interest ( like A CAT ! ), he really wakes up! He has the ability to impress anyone with great power, strength and speed. The personality isn’t like it used to be. Today the mastiff is the ideal family dog for those with enough space, the wish for a loyal, large and good friend, and a good portion of tolerance for snoring and drooling.

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