Meeting a Neapolitan Mastiff is an experience you won’t soon forget. These giants rarely bark but will stare at strangers with an intense gaze that makes you understand they would be a formidable opponent should you threaten the person or people they choose to protect. Yet those soulful eyes, pendulous dewlaps, and massive wrinkles add a certain softness to the large head.
If you have the fortune of getting close to one of these incredible dogs, who can weigh anywhere from 110 to 200 pounds, you soon learn that they are gentle giants who have come a long way from the fighting dogs they originally descended from. As we explore their history, we see many of the traits they originally possessed have been kept intact. These include their devotion and protective nature as well as their suspicion of strangers and strong-willed demeanor. Let’s take a journey into the history of the Neapolitan Mastiff.
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There is some controversy as to the actual origins of this breed. It is definite that it took many years of cross-breeding in order to come to the version we see today. Some people believe the original ancestors existed over 5000 years ago, although they can’t decide whether this was in Tibet or Egypt. There have been pictographs on Egyptian artifacts that resemble this breed. Other breeds that appear to be similar include:
- Macedonian Dog
- Assyrian Dog
- Sumerian Molossians
- Roman Molossus
What we do know is that the first real mention of these dogs on a regular basis started around the period of Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great and the Romans
Alexander the Great was always looking for new and unusual things and he took a great liking to the war dogs of the Middle East and brought one back with him on one of his adventures. Eventually, he cross-bred this giant war dog with a short-haired Indian dog. This was the creation of the Molossus. These dogs were used to guard his home. While some say he also used the dogs in war, there is no proof of this that we have found.
The Romans felt that the Molossus could be made to appear more intimidating and they cross-bred it with other large breeds. This created the Mastino. The Mastino had a hard life. In addition to being personal guard dogs, this large breed was used in the arena for sporting purposes. They were forced to fight lions, elephants, other dogs, and even man. This created the perception that these dogs were vicious. Eventually, the Mastino became scarce until it appeared in an entirely new role in Italy.
Italy saw the Mastino, or “Italian Bulldog” as it was often called, start to thrive. Italy fell in love with it’s dedication, protective nature, and ability to learn quickly. Most fields saw this giant watching over herds of cattle and goats. When not doing this, they were protecting the hearth of the family. It was in Italy that they were started to be selectively bred to enhance these necessary traits and to be family-friendly. This Neapolitan Mastiff was named after Naples, the city at the heart of Italy.
It is in Italy that we first begin to see this dog pictured with tightly cropped ears and wearing a spiked collar. At that time, both had practical reasons. While most predators were intimidated by this giant dog, wolves were often brave enough to try and grab a cow or goat. The Neapolitan Mastiff would jump in to protect. By having its ears cropped, this didn’t allow the wolves to get a good grip on the ears, which is often their first line of attack. The spiked collar protected the vulnerable throat area.
Many of these dogs fell victim to predators, especially when Italy started to fall economically. The dogs were left to roam the hillsides, often starving. By 1945, the Neapolitan Mastiff had become nearly extinct. That is when a painter named Piero Scanziani stepped in to save them.
Saving the Breed
In 1945, Italian painter, Piero Scanzani fell in love with the Neapolitan Mastiff. He gathered a few from the countryside of Naples and took them to the Rome Zoo where he bred them. By 1946, these animals had become a national treasure. Scanziani himself had a beloved companion he named Guaglione. The breed underwent one more cross-breeding, with the English Mastiff, which shortened its legs somewhat. This dog would go on to become the first registered Neapolitan Mastiff when the Italian Kennel Club officially recognized the breed in 1949. The first showing of these animals took place when six were shown at the Naples dog show in 1946. Dr. Scanzani drafted the first breed standard in 1948.
At a textile maker named Mario Querci thought this version of the Neapolitan Mastiff would look better with deeper folds. He took his knowledge of drapery and helped with the breeding efforts to standardize the deep folds we now recognize as an essential feature. His efforts paid off when one of the offspring, Caligola di Ponzano made history at the World Dog Show in Valencia, Spain in 1992. He won Best of Show above over 6600 other dogs of all breeds.
Coming to America
By now, the Neapolitan Mastiff had gained a great deal of attention throughout Europe. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that it made its way to the United States. Travelers from Europe gradually introduced this gentle giant into American homes, where it came to find its place as a family protector and show dog. In some cases, they are used as guard dogs. They have no problem using their large head to knock over an intruder they feel is threatening their territory. In the 1990s, the American Neapolitan Mastiff Association and United States Neapolitan Mastiff Club were both formed. It took until 2004 before the American Kennel Club finally recognized this breed.
Today’s version of the Neapolitan Mastiff still resembles the original from back in Egypt. The wide head, massive folds, and silently staring eyes are all reminiscent of the dogs of old. The life these dogs now lead, however, has come a long way. They are still protectors, but now it is humans, rather than cattle and goats that are the subject of their devotion. Instead of fighting in a battle or coliseum, they get to bed down on softer material and enjoy plenty of food and attention. These gentle giants are a true testament to the fact that even the most intimidating of looks can be a vessel for a devoted, kind, and slightly stubborn heart.
The Neapolitan Mastiff Today
Today, these gentle giants are living a different existence than their ancestors. They are divided into personal protection members of families or living on the dog show circuit. The Neapolitan Mastiff ranks 102 out of 197 breeds. They have proven to be gentle, devoted dogs that are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect those they care for. The distrust of strangers makes them a breed you won’t find frolicking at a dog park, but they much prefer curling up and sleeping for as much as 22 hours a day anyway. These gentle giants aren’t for everyone. Patience is something you definitely need when dealing with them. Those who share their lives with a Neapolitan Mastiff are lucky indeed.