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The mastiff, also known as the English mastiff or Old English mastiff, is one of the oldest dog breeds known to man. They are famous for their extra-large size and have historically played an important role in protecting humans as a guard and even a wartime aid.
While the dog is not especially common in the U.S., those owners who do adopt a mastiff quickly realize he's a gentle and calm family addition—and perfectly content to laze on the couch. A yard is a bonus for mastiff owners, but not a necessity. And while the mastiff's grooming needs are minimal, they're not exactly tidy animals: The dog's drooling is excessive—and can even end up on your ceiling.
"Extra-large" is practically an understatement for these dogs when it comes to mass—especially with the English mastiff male.
"The largest dog I've ever seen, in terms of weight, was a mastiff—[he] was over 200 pounds," says Scott Neabore, DVM, who owns Neabore Veterinary Clinic in Haddonfield, N.J. "And that's not an overweight dog. They're just an enormous dog."
The mastiff is so big, in fact, that the official breed standard doesn't share the maximum for the dog's height, only the minimum: A female English mastiff's height is at least 27.5 inches at the shoulder, while the male is at least 30 inches. Weight can span 120–170 pounds for females and 160–230 pounds for males.
Even with his extra-large size and muscular build, there's a natural cuteness to the mastiff, with his wrinkled brow, droopy jowls, and propensity for drooling. The mastiff's colors can be fawn, apricot, or brindle; his muzzle, ears, and nose are dark, and eyes are brown. The dog's coat is short and sheds occasionally, but is easy to maintain.
These dogs have served as guardians to man since ancient times, and with that dutiful DNA comes an English mastiff temperament that is deeply loyal, good-natured, and eager-to-please. The mastiff, by nature, is courageous yet docile and makes an excellent family pet. Mastiffs are gentle with children, but make sure to supervise them around little kiddos—because of their large size, someone might accidentally be stepped on!
The mastiff tends to get along with cats and other dogs, especially if they're introduced while young.
"They're usually pretty good-natured," Neabore says. "I think at this point, most people breeding mastiffs who are responsible breeders … try to breed for temperament in a lot of cases, and they end up being pretty nice dogs."
Mastiffs are intelligent and sensitive. When training, mastiff puppies, as with all breeds, respond best to kindness, consistency, and positive reinforcement—never harsh words or corrections.
Mastiffs can be couch potatoes. While they benefit from walks, they're also perfectly content to curl up on the furniture, within view of their owner.
Because they are prone to developing joint issues, the ideal living space has limited or no stairs, Neabore says. In fact, in the mastiff's early years, it's important they avoid excessive running, jumping, and even long walks, as those workouts can overburden their rapidly growing bodies. Even in later years, they can be quite willful on walks, and when they're done, they're done. Good luck getting them to keep moving once they've decided to plop down in the grass!
This isn't a breed that enjoys time spent alone. The mastiff prefers to be with his family, and he also enjoys time spent with other household pets. A family of homebodies would make this lazy boy happy.
Neabore says mastiff owners should keep plenty of towels nearby, and steel themselves for a deluge of drool. "People that are uncomfortable with all the drooling and all the slobber are not going to like having a mastiff," Neabore says, adding that the spit will, indeed, cover the floors and even wind up on the walls and ceilings whenever your mastiff shakes his head. "They are big, drooly dogs," he says.
Like all dogs of imposing size, the mastiff should be trained and socialized early so he's well-behaved as he grows into his large—and sometimes willful—frame. Mastiffs learn best through short training sessions filled with positivity, praise, and treats. If the session goes too long, he may get bored and distracted, or could even fall asleep!
Grooming needs are minimal when it comes to mastiffs. Throughout the year, his short coat should be brushed a couple of times a week, and more so during twice-a-year shedding seasons. The wrinkles around his head and face may need cleaning, and, as with all dogs, he'll need regular nail trims and teeth cleanings.
Mastiffs, because of their size, are prone to a number of health conditions, including joint and musculoskeletal conditions such as elbow and hip dysplasia. They can also suffer from heart disease, hypothyroidism, eye problems, certain cancers, and neurological problems including epilepsy.
As an extra-large breed, mastiffs are prone to gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV) complex, or bloat, which is a stomach condition that happens when air accumulates in the stomach, causing it to twist. It can be life-threatening. A definitive cause of bloat hasn't been identified, but you can speak with your veterinarian about how to reduce the risk.
When Neabore speaks with owners of large-breed puppies, including mastiffs, he recommends a procedure called a gastropexy. This can be performed when the pup is being spayed or neutered. A doctor sutures the outer wall of the stomach to the body wall, preventing it from moving.
Because of their size and medical challenges, mastiffs have a shorter lifespan than many dogs, averaging 6–10 years. "People need to be prepared that they're not going to live as long as a dog that's smaller," Neabore says. "Giant breed dogs, in general, tend to have a shorter lifespan, so for a mastiff, seven, eight, or nine years would be really good."
Mastiffs are prone to obesity, which can further shorten their life by exacerbating other health conditions, Neabore says. "You cannot let them be overweight, or their life is going to be significantly shorter," he says.
There's evidence of mastiff ancestors as far back as 2500 B.C., where they're depicted on ancient murals hunting lions near the Tigris river. They were also trained for use in war, and kept by famous generals such as Hannibal.
In 55 B.C., these enormous creatures helped defend Great Britain when Julius Caesar led an invasion of their homeland, according to the Mastiff Club of Florida. Caesar was so impressed by their abilities that he took them back to Rome with him, where they were trained to battle gladiators in the Colosseum.
At least one mastiff is thought to have come to the U.S. on the Mayflower. The breed gained popularity in the New World for their working and guarding abilities (they were first recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1885, just a year after the organization was founded). And centuries after their first arrival, when the mastiff population in England was nearly extinct, U.S. breeders played a vital role in rebuilding the breed when they exported them to the motherland.
- While “mastiff” refers to the English mastiff, there are a number of different types of mastiff, including Italian mastiffs (also called the cane corso), French mastiffs, Tibetan mastiffs, and Neapolitan mastiffs.
- The bullmastiff was bred by crossing the English mastiff with a bulldog.
- The Guinness Record for Longest (and Heaviest) dog goes to Old English mastiff, Aicama Zorba of La-Susa in the late 1980s. Nose-to-tail, the dog measured a whopping 8 feet 3 inches.
- Dignified and incredibly photogenic, mastiffs have graced screens through the years. There’s Hercules in The Sandlot and Lenny in Hotel for Dogs. In Rocky, the dog Butkus is a bullmastiff.