The instinct to protect runs strong in the blood of the Cane Corso. After all, this breed’s ancestry stretches back centuries, all the way to when giant war dogs marched into battle alongside Roman legions. But don’t expect a great roaring display of fangs at the slightest threat. Cane Corso history has taken this dog down a unique path, from warrior to companion.
A Cool Customer
Cane Corsi are subtle in their warnings. Breeder Janet Gigante observed this when a man interested in buying a puppy came to her home in upstate New York. Rocky, one of her favorites, took a shine to the visitor, and leaned against him, happy to be petted. “The guy was in heaven,” Gigante recalls.
After a while, the 130-pound dog ambled over to another part of the room and settled down, apparently unaware of everything else in the world. Rocky didn’t seem to notice when the visitor stood up. And it looked as if he was snoozing as the man took a few steps toward 5-foot, 2-inch Gigante.
All was fine, until the stranger began musing on his ideal dog. “This guy was a big man, and he was talking with his hands, raising them over his head, describing how he likes the big dogs,” Gigante says. “Rocky sees this out of the corner of his eye, and ran to me, then ran to the guy, and just started leaning on him a bit, and pushing him a little bit away, a little bit away. And the guy was like, ‘My God, look at this dog. He keeps wanting me to pet him.’”
Gigante almost didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. “I said, ‘You don’t know what happened. Rocky was watching from afar, and he saw you raise your hands, and he came back to protect me … by pushing you away.’ ”
An understated air of cool competence, the kind of demeanor you’d expect from a professional bodyguard, is the breed’s trademark. In fact, one way to translate the name Cane Corso is bodyguard dog, derived from the Latin words canis (dog) and cohors (military guard).
This attitude is what draws many people to the Cane Corso, and it’s impossible to understand unless you’ve seen the breed up close. Some of today’s fanciers will even admit that they had not given much thought to these dogs — until they had the chance to meet one face-to-face.
“I found him to be a very noble-looking animal,” breeder Diane Connors says when describing “Prince,” the first Corso she saw. She spotted him back in the early 1990s at a rare-breed show. “He was very confident, approachable, and stable. Not a tail-wagging kind of howdy dog. … Not the kind who’s going to jump in your lap.”
The dog was DiGuardia’s Prince del Cerberus, one of the foundation studs in the U.S. One look was all it took for Connors, who had previously owned Rottweilers. In 1995, she got an 11-week-old puppy from one of Prince’s litters — a brindle bitch whom she named Francesca — and has owned Corsi ever since. Today, Connors shares her home with 10 of them. “She was everything I ever wanted. She was wonderful— smart, sensitive, loved kids, a very kind heart, just a very kindhearted dog.”
Prince and Francesca typified the Cane Corso ideal. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, since Prince was imported straight from the mother country. He came from Cerberus Kennels in Italy, the land where these dogs originated.
Dogs of Ancient Italy
Italy’s native mastiffs, the Neapolitan and the Cane Corso (pronounced KAH-neh-KOR-soh), descended from Roman war dogs, the canis pugnaces. These dogs were thought to have come from the original Molossers, giant dogs originating from the ancient Greek state of Epirus (located in what’s now Albania), according to breed historian Michael S. Ertaskiran, past president of the Cane Corso Association of America (CCAA).
Roman troops brought the dogs back to their homeland during wars with Macedonia. They began the breeding that would eventually result in two unique warriors — the lighter Cane Corso and the heavier Neapolitan Mastiff. By all accounts, these canine soldiers were fearless. Many were used as piriferi, dogs who charged across enemy lines with buckets of flaming oil strapped to their backs.
Rome fell in 476 A.D., leaving all these fire-bearing fighting dogs with nothing much to do. Luckily, skills honed during empire-building translated well to peacetime. Cane Corsi carved out vital roles as guards, hunters, and all-around four-legged farmhands. No task was too difficult, dangerous, or even dull, whether it was guarding homes and livestock, chasing wild boar, flushing badger and porcupine, or hauling heavy carts.
The Corso did it all, including some difficult animal-husbandry tasks. Sows are known to hide in thickets when giving birth and, like all mothers, become fiercely protective of their offspring. The Corso’s job was to distract the sow by grabbing her snout or ear, giving the farmer a chance to sneak in and gather up the piglets.
As the centuries passed, the Cane Corso settled into life on the farm. They became as much a part of the Italian landscape as olive trees. And like olives, the Corso evolved into several regional varieties and became an essential part of Italy’s identity.
Then they vanished. It’s not clear what happened, but changes in farming practices in the 19th and early 20th centuries pushed them out of work. Two world wars hastened their decline, and by the middle of the century the Cane Corso was all but extinct.
Back From the Brink of Extinction
There were, however, places where these dogs lived on — the hearts and memories of children who had grown up in areas where Cane Corsi continued to perform centuries-old tasks in the days before the wars. In the 1970s, a small group of these men decided to revive the dogs of their ancestors. One of them, Vito Indiveri, was a traveling salesman. He came from a family of carters and horse merchants, occupations where these strong, agile mastiffs were essential — until machines took over.
“The first time I rediscovered them was on a farm … back in ’77 or ’78. … I recognized them and was surprised: They were really them, my grandfather’s dogs,” Indiveri said in an interview with Ertaskiran. Indiveri’s work took him to dairy farms all over Italy. “As a traveling salesman, I never went into the cities, but I always traveled through the countryside, in the most remote areas of all of Puglia, Molise, Calabria, Lucania, and all the way to Sicily, Umbria, and Abruzzo. I began to realize, as I worked, that many of my clients had Corsi.”
Around the same time, other Italians (most notably Giovanni Bonnetti, Dr. Paolo Breber, and Stefano Gandolfi) had started an active effort to bring the Cane Corso back. In 1980, the Malavasi brothers, German Shepherd Dog breeders in Mantova, bred the litter that would produce the model for the first standard — Basir and Babak. By 1983, Italy had its first club — Society Amorati Cane Corso (Society of Cane Corso Lovers) — and 13 years later the breed had Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) recognition.
Cane Corsi eventually made their way to America. In fact, a Sicilian wedding was the first step in their journey. One of the guests at that wedding was Michael Sottile, a Neapolitan Mastiff aficionado from the States. In a scene worthy of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, Sottile was on his way to the ceremony, dressed in a tux, when he noticed a large, athletic dog herding cows along a back road. Regardless of his formal wear, Sottile got out to talk dogs with the farmer. That conversation led to the importation, in 1988, of the first Cane Corsi to America.