Portuguese Mastiff

Linda Simon
Dr Linda Simon (MVB MRCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Portuguese Mastiff
Jerzy E Henisz / Wikipedia.org

A big dog with an immense head and powerful jaw, the Portuguese Mastiff is quite an intimidating animal to look at. Couple this appearance with their defensive and courageous nature, and it is not surprising that this breed has been used as a livestock protector over the years and is now often employed as a guard dog.

Stoic by nature, the Portuguese Mastiff is hard-working and will toll in the field for many hours without questioning the task set to them. They can, however, be stubborn and independent, so will not give their trainer an easy time of things. Winning themselves a reputation as ‘gentle giants’ in recent years, the Portuguese Mastiff is known to be kind towards children, and despite their size, can make a good family pet with the correct training.

About & History

The Portuguese Mastiff is also known as the Rafeiro do Alentejo. ‘Rafeiro’ is the Portuguese word for mongrel, while the Alentejo is a region in southern Portugal. While referred to as a ‘mongrel’, the Portuguese Mastiff is most certainly a purebred, and is recognised by both the UKC and the AKC (within their foundation stock service), as well as the Portuguese Kennel Club.

Thought to have descended from ancient Molosser type dogs that originated in central Asia thousands of years ago, it is unknown when or how the breed was brought to the Iberian Peninsula. Some sources state that the breed is descended from the Tibetan Mastiff, though proof for this is lacking. Certainly, more local breeds, such as the Estrela Mountain Dog and the Spanish Mastiff are likely to have contributed to their genetics over the years.

Traditionally, the Portuguese Mastiff was used as a shepherding dog, driving livestock from the north to the south of the country, and back again, ensuring they had plenty of grazing land to sustain them. They would also act as a lookout and defend the herds from predators and human hunters. With the modernisation of the agricultural industry, the use of working dogs on farms within Portugal fell out of favour, and the Portuguese Mastiff became an exceedingly rare breed. Described as a ‘vulnerable’ breed, a Portuguese Mastiff can be hard to track down, even in their native country.


Portuguese Mastiff Large Photo
Jerzy E Henisz / Wikipedia.org

The most noticeable thing about the Portuguese Mastiff is its sheer size and impressively large, bear-like head. Their skull is broad and they have strong jaws and thin lips. Their small eyes are brown and portray an expression of sincerity and peace. Their triangular ears are relatively small and flop over to the side of their face. Their limbs are long and strong, supporting their wide and deep chest. Their tail reaches past their hocks and the tip of the tail curves upwards.

Their large and study bodies should move slowly and with purpose with a gait that is described as ‘rolling’. Males measure between 66cm and 73cm, while the females of the breed reach heights of 63cm to 70cm. The males will reach weights of between 40kg and 50kg, while the females will weigh 35kg to 45kg.

Their coat is medium in length and quite dense. It can be black, yellow, grey or fawn with white markings, or white with markings of any of the previously mentioned colours. Brindling may or may not be present.

Character & Temperament

The Portuguese Mastiff has retained the character of its ancestors. Independent and loyal, they remain good guard dogs and responsible workers. Often described as being ‘sober’, they take both themselves and their role within the family very seriously.

Their dominant nature and individuality make them a breed that will put you through your paces and mean that they are not recommended for an inexperienced owner, or one unable to put sufficient time into their training.

Highly alert to any changes in their environment, they will quickly pick up on any new activity or arrival and will react with surprising pace. Territorial, they will defend their owners and property in the face of any perceived danger. Typically, they will not be aggressive unless the situation calls for it, rather warning away any threat with their deep bark and intimidating appearance. They are wary of new people and will rarely welcome them warmly.

When socialised appropriately, the Portuguese Mastiff gets on unexpectedly well with the household children, often playing gently with them. Similarly, they can be trained to accept other pets. Despite their tolerance, all activity with children and animals should be under the supervision of adults, purely due to their large size and potential strength.


Early and lifelong training is absolutely essential if an owner wants to have a well-balanced and sensible Portuguese Mastiff. Without dedicated training, their willful attitude and headstrong behavior is a recipe for disaster. They like to dominate and take control of situations and need to be taught to accept that they are not in charge.

They can be slow to learn new instructions and will not willingly respond to commands. However, they can be well trained to perform work, such as guarding and shepherding. A patient trainer will be rewarded in the long run, with the help of plenty of positive reinforcement techniques and vocal praise.


While generally a hardy dog that will live more than a decade, there are a couple of health conditions that should be on the radar of any breeder or owner of the Portuguese Mastiff.

Hip Dysplasia

When a dog has dysplastic hips, the heads of their leg bones do not sit comfortably within the hip sockets. This abnormal positioning results in a chronic grating, which leads to localised inflammation and pain. While Hip Dysplasia is known to be passed on genetically, the condition can also be influenced by environmental factors.

Responsible breeders will only use breeding animals that have had a good result on their hip scoring. While animals will live with this disease, the mobility issues and chronic pain that they suffer from will inevitably result in a reduced quality of life.


A word that can send shivers up the spine of any large dog owner, bloat is an acute, life-threatening condition that can occur seemingly out of the blue. A dog’s stomach will ‘bloat’ up, trapping gas and fluid inside. In some cases, the stomach will actually twist over, blocking off the local blood supply and potentially leading to shock. At the first sign of bloating, a dog should be brought to a vet for immediate attention.

Ear Infections

As there is not good air flow through the floppy ears of the Portuguese Mastiff, they can be prone to developing otitis. Owners should feel comfortable checking and cleaning the ears – tasks that should be introduced to the dog from a young age.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Owners must be aware that a growing Portuguese Mastiff should not be over-exercised, as this can damage their developing joints and lead to lifelong mobility issues and pain. Instead, regular but controlled exercise should be gradually introduced.

More of a tortoise than a hare, the Portuguese Mastiff takes everything at its own slow and steady pace and is not one to go full throttle for a sprint around the park. They enjoy long and slow walks, and one outing a day is often enough to keep them content.

Due to their size, a small house or apartment would not make a very suitable home for this gentle giant. They do like to be outdoors, and should have access to a fenced garden, which they can roam around in. In the ideal world, they would live in a rural setting.


The straight, medium-length coat of the Portuguese Mastiff does not need much in the way of grooming. A quick brush every week or so will be plenty to keep their skin and coat healthy. Brushing should begin from day one and many dogs will learn to love this weekly chore, often viewing it as a bonding experience. They are not known to shed excessively.

Checking the pendulous ears of the Portuguese Mastiff should be done regularly, as they can be prone to ear infections. If there is a lot of waxy build up, an ear cleaning product should be used every one to two weeks to remove the debris.

Famous Portuguese Mastiffs

Unsurprisingly, this very rare breed has no famous breed members as of yet. There are a fair few quasi "famous" Portuguese Mastiffs on Instagram, however, should you wish to see some examples!


No popular examples of Portuguese Mastiff cross-breeds exist today.

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