The Neapolitan mastiff is an ancient Italian dog breed known for its huge size and profoundly wrinkled fur. Protective of its family and wary of strangers, the Neapolitan mastiff is suited to experienced dog owners who are able to provide the training he needs to become a sweet and affectionate companion.
Well-trained and socialized adult dogs are calm and need low levels of exercise. Their short coats require little grooming, but these dogs are heavy droolers so they leave their marks on furniture, walls, and even ceilings. The Neapolitan mastiff is an awe-inspiring rare breed that isn’t for everyone, but those willing to put the work in will be rewarded with a laid-back and loyal adult dog.
Weighing in at up to 150 pounds, the Neapolitan mastiff is a huge and powerful beast with a massive head (the breed is affectionately referred to as “knuckleheads” by fans and breeders). Neapolitan mastiff colors include blue, black, mahogany, or tawny brown, and may be brindle patterned. What’s special about their fur is that it hangs in loose folds, with a concentration of wrinkles on the face. Neapolitan mastiffs are born with blue eyes, but these change to amber or brown as they mature.
While they were reputedly originally bred to be as ugly and intimidating as possible, the folds and wrinkles of the Neapolitan mastiff serve as an adorable characteristic of this unique breed. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but nobody can deny this is one striking looking animal.
Neapolitan mastiffs have long droopy jowls and are often seen with trails of saliva hanging from them. “Though some drool more than others, the levels of drool you have to deal with can get nasty, and if they see something that makes them salivate it's like turning on a faucet,” says Shanna Jones, owner of Knuckleheads Neapolitan Mastiffs in Clarence, Mo., and American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized breeder of merit.
Neapolitan mastiffs are smart dogs who love their families and give out plenty of love and affection. As with any giant breed, they require consistent training and socialization from an early age and may be best suited to experienced owners. “Because of their size, you can never let these dogs think that they are running the show, as that can end really badly for the owner,” Jones says. “This is why it's important to know if you have what it takes before you get involved with this breed.”
Jones suggests potential owners do their research ahead of time and find out what it takes to live with a Neo by carrying a hundred-pound sack of wet sand up and down the stairs and in their car, and smearing hair gel all over their walls and windows, where they’ll inevitably end up slobbering. Clearly, the Neapolitan mastiff size alone means this is not a dog who fits seamlessly into everyone’s life.
But despite the drool factor, the appeal for Jones and other owners is strong. "They're the most loyal breed of dog I think you could ever own,” she says. “They're very loyal and loving to family in general, and they tend to have one person that they love more than anybody else—they're that person’s shadow dog.” Not surprisingly, they make excellent guard dogs with a high intimidation factor. Suspicious of strangers, these dogs don’t let anybody threaten their home or family.
Early socialization with other animals is important, and because Neapolitan mastiffs can be highly territorial they may not do well with other animals being introduced to the home. Jones suggests that simply because of their massive size, this may not be a breed for homes with small children. She suggests that even families with older children may do better with a female Neapolitan, since they are usually smaller (and therefore easier to handle), and can be less stubborn (so easier to train). “The same goes for first time Neo owners in general,” she says.
While Neapolitan mastiff puppies and juveniles have higher energy levels, adult dogs are calm. “They can be active for two hours and then sleep 22 hours,” Jones says, who adds that some people compare them to cats in that respect. “Also, there’s something about the way they move that is almost feline.”
You might think a dog the size of a Neapolitan mastiff would need plenty of living space, but that isn’t necessarily true—because adult dogs don’t need a lot of exercise and spend most of their time snoozing, they don’t need much space at all so long as you’re willing to take them for a good long walk a couple of times a day. Jones has kennels inside her house for each of her five Neos, and says these dogs like having a space of their own to retire to when they want a bit of peace from the family.
Separation anxiety can be an issue with these dogs, but in general, they are fine being left alone for reasonable lengths of time, as long as the owner has put the time into training and socializing them. If proper socialization takes place, they can coexist with other animals in the house, too.
This is a breed that loves to lay around and bask in the presence of their beloved owner. Because of their territorial nature and size, this is probably not a dog you’d want to take to the off-leash dog park.
Neapolitan mastiffs are minimal shedders, and when it comes to grooming, their short coat requires a weekly brush and the occasional bath to keep it looking good. Neapolitan mastiff skin problems can be common. “They may harbor yeast and bacteria in those skin folds,” Jones explains. “So you’ll want to clean in between them with a damp rag, then a dry one, to minimize the possibility of any skin issues.”
Every dog needs exercise for their physical health, and although adult Neapolitan mastiffs can be lethargic, you’ll need to give them a couple of good walks a day if you don’t have a fenced-off space for them to roam. Because of their huge size, tugging and wrestling games should be discouraged, as once your puppy grows up, they’ll easily be able to overpower most people—and that’s not a game you want a 150-pound dog to win!
As they are a highly loyal breed, Neapolitan mastiff’s social needs are mostly to be around their families. How well they get on with other pets in the home all comes down to how they are socialized and trained as puppies.
Though early training is essential in making any dog a great companion, this is especially important with giant breeds such as the Neapolitan mastiffs as it is going to be a lot harder to train them when they are fully grown adult dogs. Jones advises Neos can be stubborn and need a lot of commitment to training despite the fact they are very smart dogs. Consistency in your approach to these mighty dogs is key. Training should be positive reinforcement-based, with plenty of encouragement and praise when they succeed.
Despite the fact Neapolitan mastiffs have a short expected lifespan of just seven to nine years, they are considered hardy dogs. However, all giant breeds are more predisposed to orthopedic issues such as shoulder, elbow, and hip dysplasia, and arthritis is a common issue. There are several ways owners can help their Neo deal with these issues through diet and dietary supplements, Ali Mason, DVM, a medical coach with Pathway Vet Alliance, says. “Talk to your vet about what diet is best suited to the breed, or what works best for joint health. This might include joint supplements with chondroitin, or omega 3 fish oil. Monitoring your dog’s weight and consistent exercise are also important.”
Omega 3 supplements may help with skin issues Neos can be prone to thanks to their wrinkles and loose skin. Mason recommends discussing medicated wipes with your vet as these may be helpful in combating issues like bacterial infections in their skin folds. “Neapolitan mastiffs are prone to allergies that cause infections, so make sure you get pet insurance and talk to a vet early on about managing skin/ear infections from allergies,” she says.
Cherry eye is a common condition where part of the dog’s third eyelid covers part of the eye, appearing as a pink triangle. “Some cherry eyes that are mild can be managed medically with a vet,” Mason says. “However, if not controlled, a lot of dogs need cherry eye surgery. Sometimes these surgeries need to be repeated.”
Bloat, where the stomach twists in large barrel-chested dogs, is a very serious condition that can happen to even healthy dogs and can kill in hours—it is very important that Neo owners educate themselves on the signs and know when to get their dog to a vet in order to save their life.
Few breeds have such a long history as the Neapolitan mastiff. Used as war dogs, gladiators, and guard dogs by the Roman Empire, images depicting similar-looking dogs have been found in ancient artworks going back to 3000 BC. Rediscovered in Southern Italy in the 1940s, the dogs were bred as estate guard dogs, and have been steadily gaining popularity in North America in recent years.