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Monge [?], Bullmastiff. 1963
Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

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 known today 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. Stealing a nest of pheasant eggs or bagging a hare might seem a trivial crime today. But 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.

Monge [?], Bullmastiff. 1963
Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

The poacher’s main adversary was the gamekeeper. Often living in a cottage on a nobleman’s estate, the gamekeeper was in charge of 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. The “formula” used to create it was said to be 60% Mastiff and 40% Bulldog. Regardless of the precise ratio, it resulted in a compact dog who could hurtle across short distances in a heartbeat. Their great substance allowed them to topple any human threat like a bowling pin. Plus, their 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 wasn’t bred to savage their opponent. Instead, the goal was to hold or sit on him 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 they could 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.”

Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

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. Employee Tom Pyle described the dogs in his 1964 memoir “Pocantico: Fifty Years on the Rockefeller Domain.” “They were big, biscuit-colored dogs, weighing around 140 pounds – about my own weight, but they had better teeth,” he recalls.

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. Then, 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, the Bullmastiff remains with us. Over the years, their job description has changed from a poacher’s worst nightmare to a beloved family companion. As a result, their flinty character has mellowed accordingly. But at their core, the Bullmastiff is still a tenacious and fearless defender of all whom they hold dear.

You can bet on that.

Curious about your 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.

Related article: Get to Know the Bully Breeds
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