Spanish Mastiff

Linda Simon
Dr Linda Simon (MVB MRCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Spanish Mastiff

A giant Molosser type dog, the Spanish Mastiff has shepherded and guarded flocks of sheep within Spain for over two thousand years. Their remarkable stature and sheer strength has meant that they have been worthy challengers to the flocks’ predators over the years. Never hesitant when challenged on the field, their bravery and loyalty are renowned all over Spain.

More often seen as companion animals nowadays, owners appreciate the calm soul and noble personality of the Spanish Mastiff. They dedicate themselves to their family, willing to protect them at all costs. Despite their size, this breed does not need excessive amounts of exercise, making it a good match for the less active household.

About & History

The Spanish Mastiff, or Mastín Español, is a dog of uncertain origin, though one who is certainly native to Spain and who has likely existed for over a thousand years. It is assumed that this breed is a distant relative of the ancient Molosser dog of southern Europe, with written records from 2,000 years ago referencing "Mastiffs… white in colour… distinguish them better from wolves with which they have to fight."

For centuries, the Spanish Mastiff has been used as a guardian of livestock and property, as well as a herding dog. The shepherds would use roughly one dog per one hundred sheep (typically Merino sheep), and the canines would blend in nicely with the flock thanks to their light coloured coat. These Merino sheep were extremely valuable to the Spanish and would be shepherded en masse from south to north each year.

In a nod to the local importance of the breed, in Diego Velázquez’s famed painting Las Meninas, produced in 1656, a brown Spanish Mastiff type dog can be seen at the front of the children, lying peacefully, though alert of its surroundings. You can find the painting today in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Given their huge contribution to history, it is no surprise that the Spanish Mastiff remains popular within Spain today and has even been named the national dog breed. What is surprising, however, is the rarity of the breed outside of its homeland. Within Spain, the Spanish Mastiff is still kept as a working dog by many farmers and can also be seen at dog shows and within family homes as a pet and guard dog.

While there are records of the Spanish Mastiff dating back for many years, it was only in 1946 that their breed standard was eventually written. They are currently recognised by the AKC within their Foundation Stock Service.

Appearance

Spanish Mastiff Large Photo

Best known for its sheer size, the Spanish Mastiff is a large and visibly impressive dog. Males reach heights of between 70 and 85cm and can weigh as much as 70kg. Females tend to be about 15% shorter and lighter.

Their muscular body is robust and long with an expansive chest. They have a characteristic dew lap of skin at their neck. Possibly their most striking feature is their colossal head; similar to other Mastiff breeds. Their relatively small ears drop to the side of their head and their droopy lips house a powerful jaw. Their small, brown, almond-shaped eyes should have a calm expression at all times.

Their skin is loose and falls in wrinkles around them, though is often less wrinkly than in other Mastiff breeds, such as the English Mastiff. Their fur is dense and straight and slightly longer over their back and tail. While a fawn coat colour is most common, accepted coat colours include:

  • Yellow
  • Red
  • Black
  • Grey
  • Brindle

Regional variants of the breed do exist within Spain, with a larger, more visibly impressive dog being used most often in dog shows, and a smaller, more agile dog being used to work on the mountains. These dogs are known as the Mastín Pesado and the Mastín Ligero, respectively.

Character & Temperament

Having fought off fearsome predators successfully for so many years, the Spanish Mastiff remains a courageous and loyal dog today. They bond strongly with their families, who they are always keen to protect. While generally aloof with strangers, they can be taught to willingly accept new people if socialised well from a young age. They are known to be tolerant of, and affectionate towards, children within the family home, but due to their size, should always be accompanied by an adult when around youngsters.

Noble and calm, they are typically a content breed, though are always alert and watchful, and can react surprisingly quickly when they sense the need. They make superb watch dogs and will bark loudly at the first sign of any threat. If an intruder does not retreat, the Spanish Mastiff is very likely to attack. They can become bored easily, so need stimulating activities and plenty of attention to keep them occupied.

Trainability

Photo of Spanish Mastiff puppy

As the Spanish Mastiff can have a tendency to show aggression towards other dogs, they need to be socialised with all types of dogs from puppyhood to avoid the development of confrontational or defensive behaviours.

They are an intelligent breed, and in the right hands, can become trained to a high standard. However, they are also independent and need a steady and firm trainer who has experience with similar breeds. They have a tendency to understand and then happily ignore commands.

When it comes to the tasks of herding and guarding, they need little direction and will instinctively know how to perform these jobs from a young age.

Health

The Spanish Mastiff is known to suffer from many of the health conditions common to giant breeds, including:

  • Bloat – A life-threatening swelling of the stomach that may require surgical correction if it twists over on itself. Some sources state that feeding small, regular meals rather than one large daily meal can help to prevent the condition. It is also not advised to exercise a Spanish Mastiff directly after eating, as anecdotally, this can lead to bloating.
  • Hip Dysplasia – A painful condition affecting hips that have failed to form correctly and resulting in chronic lameness in the Spanish Mastiff. Parents should be hip scored to ensure the condition becomes less prevalent in future generations.
  • Elbow Dysplasia – Malformed elbow joints that result in fore limb lameness can be a real issue for the Spanish Mastiff, particularly those that are working. Affected animals should not be bred from.
  • Entropion – Failure of the eyelids to form correctly in the Spanish Mastiff means that they fold inwards and rub the surface of the eye, causing discomfort and ocular ulcers. Affected dogs may need a temporary tacking procedure when they are young, and a permanent restorative surgery once they are old enough.
  • Panosteitis – Painful bones in fast-growing dogs, such as the Spanish Mastiff, can be a common complaint, though luckily the condition is self-limiting.
  • Cardiac Disease – Dilated Cardiomyopathy is a concern within the Spanish Mastiff population. The heart will enlarge to the point that it cannot function efficiently, resulting in heart failure. Affected dogs can be managed with daily medication but have a poor overall prognosis.

Exercise and Activity Levels

While not quite the Usain Bolt of the canine world, the Spanish Mastiff does appreciate long daily walks and access to the outdoors when possible. While they can be playful when young, once mature, they are less willing to exercise vigorously or partake in any sports.

Though referred to as ‘lazy’ by some, when the Spanish Mastiff wants to move, they are surprisingly reactive and agile. Additionally, if there is a possibility to provide the dog with a task, such as flock herding, they will relish the opportunity.

Grooming

Brushing through the short coat once or twice a week is often sufficient to keep it in good condition. The floppy ears of the Spanish Mastiff must be routinely checked for any signs of redness or waxy build up and may need to be cleaned every week or so. Getting the Spanish Mastiff accustomed to regular ear checks from a young age is essential to ensure they do not refuse to comply when older and stronger.

Their double dew claws will need regular trimming and, in a select number of cases, may be surgically removed if causing issues. Unfortunately, the Spanish Mastiff is known to excessively drool, so owners should be prepared for lots of cleaning up within the home.

Famous Spanish Mastiffs

As mentioned above, the most famous Spanish Mastiff is the one featured in the popular painting Las Meninas by Válazquez, which can be found in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Cross-Breeds

While it is not unusual for owners to cross their Spanish Mastiff with other breeds, there are no particularly popular or well-established cross-breeds to date.

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