Posts Tagged ‘Neapolitan mastiff’

(Source for image)

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Much hay is made about these dogs being the Roman gladiator dogs, and they may have a bit of that blood in them. In not a single genetic study do these dogs group with the very ancient breeds.

The breed as we know it today isn’t that old. A painter named Piero Scanziani went through southern Italy after the Second World War in search of working mastiffs. The breed was then standardized and then selectively bred into its current form, which, in case you haven’t noticed, is quite different.

The working mastiff on Sicily never experienced this selective breeding, and it remained very similar to this old type.  The cane corso still has the athletic frame and less exaggerated features of the southern Italian working mastiff.

I don’t know what happened the southern Italian working mastiff on the Italian mainland. I think people just gradually lost their minds. Breeding for extremes was always rewarded in the ring, never mind the consequences.

In the 1970’s, the Italians tried to turn the Neo into a police dog, but it wasn’t all that successive. The dogs aren’t as biddable as German shepherds, and they have so many conformation issues that they can’t really work as hard.

But so many people like to live with the fantasy that the Neapolitan mastiff as it exists right now was the Roman war dog or the dog used in the Colosseum against gladiators and lions. It’s actually quite humorous.

And with an exaggerated history comes an exaggerated conformation. If the dog is nothing more than a symbol of some bogus history, then its conformation cannot be based upon any kind of empirically defined reality. It becomes nothing more than capricious fantasy, exaggerated to fit the romance.

In this way, the Neapolitan mastiff has become a caricature of itself. It is designed for nothing but human vanity. Where once it was bred to guard estates and work on Italian farms, it is now bred solely for what it looks like. The symbolism those looks impart onto its owners and breeders connects them to the fantasy romance, and it is that connection to the fantasy that drives most Neapolitan mastiff breeding choices. The standard enshrines the fantasy and the exaggeration, and those who come to the breed as novices accept the distortion as reality.

And thus the breed goes down the well-worn road to ruin. The road that starts when people lose sense of what a dog is and start to believe absurdities.


I always thought Neapolitan mastiffs would be nicer if they came in vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate flavors.

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Neapolitan mastiff skull on top. Wolf skull on the bottom.

Dogs have much smaller skulls in proportion to body size than  northern wolves do. This wolf is likely from one of the big game hunting wolves that lives in Alaska or Canada.

This wolf likely weighed around a hundred pounds, which is about average for one of the large northern wolves, but this mastiff was probably at least 120 pounds.

Wolf skull on the left. Neapolitan mastiff skull on right.

Both animals have evolved to grapple with large animals in close combat, but their skulls are still quit different. Indeed, the Neo’s skull looks more like that of a bear or lion than that of a wolf, yet we know that Neapolitan mastiffs and northern wolves belong to the same species.

Because the two animals have had similar selection pressures for strong bites, one would think that the skulls would be very similar. They aren’t.

The northern wolves evolved from generalist southern wolves that specialize din hunting large ungulates.

Neapolitan mastiffs, like all European mastiffs, are derived from Middle Eastern wolves, which have retained the ancient southern wolf phenotype.  Most modern dogs are essentially modified Middle Eastern wolves, representing the subspecies arabs and pallipes.

Not only are the bulk of dogs derived from smaller wolves, small size was one of the first traits that humans bred for in domestic dogs.  Small size is actually quite a common trait in domestic dogs throughout the world and has been for a long time. It is very likely that these mastiffs were at least partially derived from much smaller ancestors that were in no way adapted to fighting large animals or people.

So Neapolitan mastiff’s skull and size are built upon the relatively smaller size of its ancestors. They have left an historical legacy of those features, and upon that legacy, its phenotype been built.

This evolution likely took several hundred years, and Neapolitan mastiffs likely crossbred with other Italian dogs that didn’t have these features following Rome’s defeat. Then this breed became “improved” for the show ring after the Second World War, and whatever features it had were greatly exaggerated by selective breeding. Although these dogs had to fight as part of their work, they did not have to fight every time it wanted to eat.

These northern wolves likely began evolving their phenotype hundreds of thousands of years ago.  Their ancestors specialized in hunting large ungulates, and every time those wolves wanted to eat, they had to grapple with game that was both large and dangerous. Over time, those selection pressures would lead to wolves with very large heads and teeth and very powerful bites.

So on the surface, it would appear that a gladiator dog would have the same skull and power as a wolf that has to fight moose on a regular basis, the reality is that the Neapolitan mastiffs have not evolved anything like a wolf’s skull. It may be more powerful than the average domestic dog, but the northern wolf will still have the upper hand.

A northern wolf evolved to live in a much more intense environment than Rome’s gladiatorial circuses. And there is not a lot of good evidence that suggests that the Neopolitian mastiff is actually the same strain that the Romans used. The type may be old, but the strain most likely has very different genetics now. I’ve never seen any genetic study that finds this breed to be ancient, though the signatures of antiquity in its DNA could have been lost through regular crossbreeding after the fall of Rome.

We do know that much of the Neapolitan mastiff’s features have been exaggerated since it became a show dog, but the wolf can vary only so much in head structure before it becomes unable to take down a moose effectively.

So although it appears that Neapolitan mastiffs might be closer to wolves in their fighting abilities and phenotype, the two animals are quite different.

And if the two should ever get into a fight, my money would be on the northern wolf. I don’t know of any dogs that could be a northern wolf by itself. Maybe  the only exception I can think of is if an Irish wolfhound caught the  wolf on the run and killed it before it could stand and fight.

The only disadvantage the wolf would have in any encounter is its much thinner skin, and if the wolfhound got the wolf by the throat before it could engage in combat, it might be able to inflict mortal wounds.

But those are big ifs.

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It’s like a dog that became a lion.

Then its lips started to grow.

And it got really wrinkled.

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The history of this breed has always fascinated me.

They are believed to have derived the Roman Molossus, although its more immediate ancestors were guard dogs in southern Italy  A dog fancier named Piero Scanziani helped turn this local type into a breed in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The dogs are very extreme in conformation, and because of this, I think they are worthy of study.

They are built more along the lines of an African lion than any sort of wild dog.

I know of no studies that have looked into the comparative strength of this dog or its jaw strength.

I’m not saying that these are the most healthy dogs out there, but their extreme conformation is worth exploring. I think it’s a mistake to assume that they are like giant English bulldogs, although the analogy may fit in some cases.

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According to this video, this breed standard came from an oral tradition:


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Believe it or not I once thought retrievers were boring dogs. The ones I had were nice dogs, biddable and clever with gentle natures. I didn’t realize how unique they were.

I wanted a Neapolitan mastiff.

I wanted one badly.

Not because I thought they were great guard dogs.

I thought they looked cool.

I loved that they were the dogs of the Ancient Romans, Greeks, and Assyrians.

I liked the idea of a Neapolitan mastiff.

I didn’t know any of these dogs personally.

But some friends of the family got one.

They had always had goldens and Labs before.

Their dog was cute as a puppy.

But they can’t be raised as casually as some retrievers.

They must be socialized.

This dog bonded so closely to his family.

But he hated everyone else.

The reality of the dog began to set in.

These dogs aren’t easy to handle.

They might be nice in Harry Potter films.

But the truth is they are an image dog.

They are meant only for special owners– ones who really get dogs.

My advice to anyone wanting any dog of any breed is to really get to understand the dogs as they are. The images and lore bring about romantic thoughts. But the truth is as it always will be. Each dog is an organism with its own emotions, drives, and instincts. Each dog that was originally bred for a purpose is going to have some of these traits in different concentrations and permutations.

These differences in instinct, drive, and behavioral tendencies mean that different dog breeds often behave as differently as distinct species.

I can handle retrievers and herding breeds. I can’t handle an old-fashioned guardian mastiff. And recognizing one’s own abilities is really important in determining which dog breed you should get.

If everyone would just take the time to do the research before choosing a dog, both humans and dogs would be far better off.

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