Known for their imposing size and unerring loyalty, mastiffs have a historic tradition as hunting, fighting and guard dogs. As a rule, these silent giants are devoted to their families, particularly children, but may be wary of newcomers and dislike other animals. Variances among mastiff breeds may be found in their color, rich background and dispositions.
Throughout history, mastiffs have served their human companions in many capacities. From the mountains of eastern Asia to the desert near the Tigris River, these mastiff ancestors were taller and leaner than today's dogs, but maintained many similarities over the passage of 4,500 years. Mastiffs were used for hunting and war by Kubla Khan and Hannibal, and their offspring produced notable breeds such as the St. Bernard, chow chow and pug, originally called a dwarf mastiff. Historians believe Phoenician traders introduced mastiffs to Great Britain, where they were discovered by Romans and employed in arena fighting. Neapolitan mastiffs are the descendants of Roman war dogs and mastiffs acquired from Great Britain. According to the Mastiff Club of America website, the English are most responsible for the mastiff of modern times. The dogs were charged with keeping game poachers away from estates; they would silently track intruders, sprint and hold the poacher at bay without biting him.
Though the coat of any mastiff should be short, straight and coarse in texture, their colors may vary. English mastiffs, simply called "mastiffs," may appear in fawn, apricot or brindle. Brindle coloring should have fawn or apricot as a background color, according to the AKC, and the stripes should be very dark. The dog's muzzle, ears and nose should be dark, although black is preferred. Small white patches on the chest are allowed. Neapolitan mastiffs may have a gray coat, often called "blue." Other possible colors include black, mahogany, tawny and lighter shades of these as well as some brindling. If the dog is brindled, the stripes must be tan, or reverse brindle. White marks are allowed in certain areas. The only colors allowed for bullmastiffs are red, fawn or brindle. Small white marks on the dog's chest are allowed.
Though the hallmark of these three mastiff varieties is loyalty to their human family, differences in their breed histories account for variations in temperament. The English mastiff, in existence in Great Britain for more than 2,000 years, is docile and dignified but courageous. Bullmastiffs, a cross between once-ferocious English bulldogs and standard mastiffs, were first bred around the year 1860 for their speed and tenacity when tracking poachers, according to Vet Street. Though docile in nature, they're fearless, reliable and willing to please their handlers. The powerful Neapolitan mastiff takes his role as protector very seriously and won't appreciate the presence of strangers. Though not a physically active dog, his need for companionship and territorial tendencies make him a good choice for experienced dog owners.
English mastiffs may reach up to 30 inches at the shoulder and weigh up to 230 pounds. Smaller bullmastiffs reach 27 inches at the shoulder, still weighing up to a considerable 130 pounds. Neapolitan mastiffs may reach heights of 31 inches and weigh in excess of 150 pounds, although the AKC notes that greater weights are desired as long as the dog's dimensions and movement are correct. Though still large, females tend to be smaller than males in all breeds.