Though we often don’t think about them in this way, dogs are really about people — those long-ago (or, sometimes, not so long-ago) figures who developed particular breeds for particular tasks. Some breeds — like the Doberman Pinscher, Teddy Roosevelt Terrier, and Cesky Terrier — owe their existence to just one visionary person. Other breeds were brought into being by specific cultures or classes of people.
If civilization is the intersection of a group of people with their environment, so too are their dogs: With coats that evolved to survive the local climate, body styles developed to navigate native terrains, and characters that fit into the social mores of the day, our purebred dogs are living, breathing moments of history, reflections of the far-flung cultures that developed and nurtured them. Through them, we rediscover our globe’s cultural diversity and heritage.
Each week, without even leaving our couches, we travel to a different place and time to meet the people who developed the snoozing bundles of fur at our sides.
The man arrived at a dog show in England with a muscular brindle dog, its broad head encased in a muzzle. He offered one pound – not an inconsequential sum in the early 1900s – to anyone who could escape from his dog.
Inevitably, a hand went up among the crowd of seasoned sportsmen and gamekeepers.
The volunteer got a long-running start, but no matter: Slipped from his lead, the muzzled dog overtook his quarry within seconds, knocking him to the ground. As soon as the man struggled to his feet, the dog brought him down.
Again. And again. And again.
Eventually, the unlucky wagerer surrendered. And the dog maintained his unbroken record of always getting – and holding – his man.
That owner who had so cockily proposed a bet he knew he would win was William Burton of the famous Thorneywood Kennels in Nottingham, England. And his unnamed dog was very likely Thorneywood Terror, famous not just for being undefeated in such contests, but because he was an early version of a breed that we today know as the Bullmastiff.
The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog
Nicknamed the Gamekeeper’s Night Dog, the Bullmastiff was developed in 19th-Century Great Britain to enforce the game laws that kept poachers off sprawling estates – a job more perilous than it might sound. Though stealing a nest of pheasant eggs or bagging a hare might seem a trivial crime today, at the time it was punishable by severe fines, imprisonment, or – in the heat of being discovered – death.
Whether they were illegally hunting game to feed their families, or satisfying their own urge for sport, poachers knew the stakes. As a result, they often came armed, and with a dog of their own.
The poacher’s main adversary was the gamekeeper. Often living in a cottage on a nobleman’s estate, the gamekeeper was charged with maintaining the local wildlife. That included eliminating predators, trapping vermin, hand-rearing game birds – and patrolling the land with a dog to prevent poaching.
As its name suggests, the Bullmastiff was a cross between two native British breeds, and the “formula” used to create it was said to be 60 percent Mastiff and 40 percent Bulldog. Regardless of the precise ratio, what resulted was a compact dog who could hurtle across short distances in a heartbeat. His great substance allowed him to topple any human threat like a bowling pin, and his powerful jaw and undershot bite provided a vise-like grip from which no assailant could wriggle free.
Tenacious and Fearless
Unlike other guarding breeds, the Bullmastiff was not bred to savage his opponent. Instead, the goal was to hold him – sit on him, even, if that was required – until the gamekeeper arrived.
On night-time patrols, the gamekeeper kept contact with the broad, flat head of the Bullmastiff walking dutifully at his side; when he felt the skin on the dog’s skull begin to wrinkle and furrow in concentration, he knew, wordlessly and instantly, that danger lay ahead.
“I would rather have one of these dogs with me in a night [fight] than three men,” Burton told a London newspaper in 1901.
The gamekeeper’s appreciation for the Bullmastiff wasn’t just due to his physical prowess. As Burton explained to “The Law” magazine in 1910, the terrier and sheepdog mixes used in Continental Europe as police dogs might have been able to detect and chase a burglar, perhaps even corner one until help arrived. “But I venture to say that nine out of ten of such dogs would run yelping away at the first stroke from a good stick,” he said. “Not so the British bullmastiff. He knows no fear, and is prepared to take his death, and will do so no matter how great the odds are against him.”
Today’s Bullmastiff: Beloved Family Companion
Some of the first Bullmastiffs in the United States were imported by the wealthy Rockefeller family to patrol their vast, unfenced Pocantico estate north of Manhattan.
The Rockefellers’ first two full-grown males arrived in 1934 – complete with leather muzzles. “They were big, biscuit-colored dogs, weighing around 140 pounds – about my own weight, but they had better teeth,” remembered employee Tom Pyle in his 1964 memoir “Pocantico: Fifty Years on the Rockefeller Domain.”
Pyle’s boss suggested he and Pyle try the dogs out on each other. In a sort of re-enactment of the Thorneywood Terror bet, Pyle hid first in a field, and the other man unleashed his dog. “Prince ran a few yards, stopped, hooked both feet over his muzzle, and, to my horror, ripped it off,” Pyle wrote, “then came at me full tilt.”
Pyle made his escape up the ladder of a nearby training platform. Not surprisingly, the two men never got around to switching places.
Today, more than a century after Burton made the rounds at gamekeepers’ shows, releasing Thorneywood Terror from his steel cage to triumph in yet another wager, the Bullmastiff remains with us. As his job description has changed from a poacher’s worst nightmare to a beloved family companion, his flinty character has mellowed accordingly. But at his core, the Bullmastiff is still a tenacious and fearless defender of all whom he holds dear.
You can bet on that.
Interested in your own dog’s history? Purchase an AKC Certified Pedigree to access your dog’s official family tree. Learn if they have a Champion bloodline, discover foreign ancestors, and see any recorded health certifications. Handsomely printed, our AKC Certified Pedigree is available for purchase online with up to four generations.