There is evidence of Mastiff-like giant dogs dating back as far as 2500 BC in the mountains of Asia. Bas-reliefs from the Babylonian palace of Ashurbanipal (now on display in the British Museum) depict Mastiff-type dogs hunting lions in the desert near the Tigris River.
Their coloration, of course, cannot be told, but other than being taller and leaner than current-day Mastiffs (as ours would be if raised in a desert and fed lightly), they are remarkably like our modern Mastiffs, despite the passing of nearly 4500 years.
After this clear visual evidence, we must rely on folklore and oral history. Phoenician traders are believed to have introduced the Mastiff to ancient Britain, where the Romans found them and brought them back to fight in the arena.
Marco Polo wrote of Kubla Khan, who kept a kennel of 5,000 Mastiffs used for hunting and war.
When Hannibal, ‘a great Carthaginian leader’, crossed the Alps, he took with him several battalions of trained war mastiffs, who, during their long travels, “fraternized” with local breeds to produce what became the St. Bernard, once called the Alpine Mastiff, as well as other giant breeds.
All of the massive mountain dogs of Spain, France, Turkey, and the Balkans can trace their size back to Mastiff blood in their ancestry.
Even the Chow Chow carries Mastiff blood, as does the Pug, which was originally a form of dwarf Mastiff.
Theories advanced by various authors have focused on one or more of the above to try to identify the *origin* of the breed. What should matter the most to us is what the breed is like now, and how it came to be that way.
Despite the differences of opinion on where the Mastiff originated, most agree that the British are the creators of the breed as we know it today.
Of all the countries who used the Mastiff, it was the British who kept him in his purest form, and it is to them that we owe the Mastiff of today.
They kept Mastiffs to guard their castles and estates, releasing them at night to ward off intruders. Henry VIII is said to have presented Charles V of Spain a gift of 400 Mastiffs to be used in battle.
The Legh family of Lyme Hall, Cheshire, who were given their estate by Richard II (1377-1399), kept and bred Mastiffs for many generations.
Stowe’s Annual, a reference book, shows that King James I (1603-1625) sent a gift of two Lyme Hall mastiffs to Phillip II of Spain. These, or their immediate descendants, are certainly the Mastiff-type dogs shown in famous portraits of the Spanish royal children.
Other sources indicate that Mastiffs were used as war dogs by the ancient Celts, and accompanied their masters into battle.
When the Romans invaded Britain, they took the dogs back to Italy and used them to guard property and prisoners, as well as using them to fight in the arena.
The Mastiff was one of the few breeds mentioned by name in The Forest Laws of King Canute, the first written laws of England.
There, Mastiffs were required to be checked by the tax collector, who would make sure the middle toes of each front foot were removed so the dog could not run fast enough to catch the deer (which traditionally belonged to royalty).
Tax collectors have not evolved much over the centuries; the penalties for failing to meet their requirements were extreme.
In the Forest Laws, Mastiffs were mentioned specifically as being kept for protection.
In the Elizabethan Era, the Mastiff was used to fight wild animals (e.g., bears, tigers, etc.), usually for the entertainment of the Queen. After the cessation of this cruel sport, Mastiffs continued to be bred by the Dukes of Devonshire and Sutherland, the Earl of Harrington, and other nobles.
According to the scanty records of the Pilgrim Fathers, two dogs, a Mastiff and a spaniel, accompanied the Plymouth colonists aboard the Mayflower on their journey to the new world.
In England, dog showing became popular in the mid-1800s. Wealthy people kept and bred Mastiffs and started the first recorded pedigrees.
These were registered with what was then the only kennel club in the world, The Kennel Club in England.
During the World Wars, Mastiffs were used to pull munitions carts on the fronts. In America, they were frequently found on plantations as property guards.
The size of the Mastiff and its need to eat about as much food per day as an adult human made a Mastiff too costly for most common folk to keep, except perhaps for butchers.
In England they were sometimes called “the Butcher’s Dog” because a butcher had enough meat scraps to feed a Mastiff well, and could therefore afford to keep one, even though he was not wealthy.
Mastiffs began to decline in popularity until the late 1800’s, when interest revived briefly, and Mastiffs started to be imported into America.
World War I saw their decline again in England, and by the 1920’s they were almost extinct in that country in their pure form. It was considered unpatriotic to keep dogs alive who ate as much in a day as a soldier; entire huge kennels were put down as a result.
World War II all but finished the breed in England. At the end of the war, fresh blood was imported from Canada and the United States to revive the breed.
Now, fortunately, Mastiffs are well established again, the United States having perhaps the greatest number.
Breeders today have bred the Mastiff for gentleness and have created an excellent companion, large enough to deter intruders and yet gentle enough to be dependable around children.