The Bullmastiff’s nickname is “The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog,” and this pretty much sums up the breed’s early history.
During the mid- to late 19th century, the vast country estates and game preserves of the English aristocracy were the irresistible targets of poachers. “Penalties were severe,” wrote a breed historian, “yet poaching seemed impossible to eradicate by mere laws.” Because a poacher might face the death penalty if captured, they had nothing to lose when encountering an estate’s gamekeeper. They might choose to shoot it out with the gamekeeper when cornered, rather than face the gallows.
Gamekeepers responded by breeding dogs big, swift, and brave enough to pursue and pin a man prowling the grounds in the dead of night. Eventually they hit upon just the right combination of breeding stock by crossing Mastiffs to Bulldogs at a ratio of 60 percent Mastiff and 40 percent Bulldog. The new breed was smart enough to work on command, tractable enough to hold but not maul a poacher, a big enough to scare the bejesus out of any intruder.
Inevitably, rivalries developed among Britain’s gamekeepers over who had the best-quality Bullmastiffs. Competitions and exhibitions of the best specimens were staged, and from there it was but a short leap for the Bullmastiff into the show ring. Dog shows in England were gaining in popularity just as Bullmastiff fanciers were standardizing their breed. By 1924, the Bullmastiff as we now know it was ready to join the ranks of the Kennel Club (England). The AKC granted the breed full recognition in 1933.
When I was recently asked to write for the DVBC website, the request was for a piece on the historical significance of the breed. I wanted to utilize my written word along with the video created by Libbrani Bullmastiffs that depicts the gamekeeper and the bullmastiff dog. After watching the video again to refresh my memory, I had so many thoughts and ideas that I wished to express.
After the whirlwind in my mind settled down, I realized that the video drove home beliefs of mine that the bullmastiff was a purpose created and a purpose driven dog in its design. When the breed was developed, it was to suit a particular function.
A dark eye color prevented reflection or glare from the eye in the moonlight, whereas a light or yellow eye would capture and flash back light indicating the location of the dog to the poacher. Silence was golden as the dog moved about stealthily, not belying its position to the poacher by crashing heavily through the forest. The wrinkling over the top skull had a particular role in the evolution of this breed and in its everyday occupation as the gamekeepers’ night dog. When the breed alerts, this wrinkling intensifies and becomes more prominent. This feature assisted the gamekeeper in becoming aware that danger might be lurking. The height of the dog would have the head and shoulders at his finger tips and as he felt the wrinkles grow and the dogs body language stiffen and his attention fixate, the gamekeeper and dog would be on high alert for the approach and illegal activities of the poacher. The color of the breed in the early days of its inception was of particular importance. The brindle pattern was especially essential since this dark and stripped body color blended well and virtually disappeared into the brush and undergrowth of the wooded areas on the estates. Any white markings were undesirable. Large areas of white on the chest would be more evident even on a dark night and indeed on a moonlit night would be a roving target.
A touch of dog aggression was more than acceptable because of the knowledge that the poacher often brought along a dog on his nightly forays poaching game. With a swift attack from the gamekeepers dog and while the dogs were otherwise involved in their own battle, the poacher then only had to deal with the gamekeeper. But a swift dispatch of the poachers’ dog was a good thing and it was also mandatory that the bullmastiff dog be controlled. When he found and leaped upon the poacher he was only to stand over him, not bite or savage the man. When the dog was told to release or get off the poacher, it did. I shiver even today when there are 20 plus adult males cramed into a holding area at a dog show awaiting their turn in the ring. My first dog shows were 50 years ago. Adult males were separated by large distances. One dog and handler I remember well, went to a nearby hilltop at an outdoor show. The owner handler was signaled when the pair was due in the ring. The two ran down the hill, showed, got the ribbon and that was that. We have come a long way. This intense dominant character is not feasible or needed in today’s society.
One old story I was always drawn too was that of the gamekeeper always keeping a female bullmastiff in the house with the wife and children so that when an angry family member of the jailed poacher came after the gamekeepers family, he meets the guard dog from hell. The parents felt safe with their guardian dog sleeping with the children and warning away intruders. I certainly have seen these traits in my own Dogs. My daughter has had a bullmastiff by or in her bed since birth until she left home for college
The factual part of the history of the bullmastiff is well documented. The oldest reference I can find is in the last half of the 1700’s. It was an advertisement for a lost bull and mastiff cross with a reward offered due to how valuable the owner felt the dog was to his family.
The books I enjoyed reviewing the most for this articule are;
Guard Dogs by J. Watson Mac Innes F.Z.S 1949
This book has a section on the bullmastiff
The bull-mastiff as I know it by Arthur Craven FZS. 1937
The Bullmastiff by Clifford L. B. Hubbard 1957
We all wonder about aspects of this breed that have often been ‘hush/Hush’ such as long hairs and dudleys . There is a comment by Arthur Craven on how “UNETHICAL BREEDERS introduced Newfoundlands, Saint Bernards and other breeds to increase head size or other traits that they felt were important. The full statement is on page 32 of Mr Craven’s book.
THE LONG Hair is still cropping up in breeding programs and can be a concern especially for those unaware of its possibility. Before there was a genetic marker you proved a dog by breeding to a long hair producer. If no long hair pups, your dog was considered “clean”. I have produced both long hairs and dudleys. And both can be beautiful dogs that are prized as pets but not incorporated into a responsible breeding program since both are considered detrimental faults according to the breed standard.
To see what our breed was meant to be, attend a current day agility runs. In your mind’s eye, translate the various obstacles into a tree, a log, a berm, a creek, a woodland. Now take this ideal to your breeding program.