The painting above shows a piebald ("pied") Mastiff by Gilpin, dated 1780. Pied Mastiffs were common at the time and, indeed, the colour featured in the first, 1880 breed standard for the Mastiff (or what's known as the English Mastiff outside of the UK).
But the colour was dropped with the formation of the Old English Mastiff Club in 1883, just three years later. Today, the only admissible colours are apricot, fawn and brindle.
The "problem", however, is that pied Mastiffs have continued to be born, despite breeders' best efforts to get rid of them. For years, these pied pariahs have been quietly culled or sold off to pet homes; same as so many other "mismarks" in so many other breeds.
But now there's a campaign to have piebald re-admitted into the Mastiff breed standard. It is being led by Simon and Jen Willshire of Gammonwood Mastiffs in New South Wales, who believe it is a madness to continue to deny - and decry- their existence.
It has, predictably, prompted a storm of protest within the breed.
Here are some of the comments out there on Mastiff internet groups.
"The breeders of the past were much more responsible. They were put down at birth. Many breeds are put down at birth when they are not correct."
"The pied 'mastiff' is nothing more than a mongrel with a designer price tag. They are nothing more than the offspring of BYBs."
"I have never had a pied and never want it to happen. Breeders today are too soft in the heart, they want to save everything. Are we that sure that these genes just mutated on pieds or could a fox have gotten in the Hen House ...so to speak."No one knows exactly why pied was dropped from the breed standard. It might have been that it was an attempt to differentiate the breed from the St Bernard. Or it's possible it was connected to an awareness that white is linked with deafness in some breeds (not, of course, that this prevented the embracing of very white dogs in other breeds). But there may have been something else at work too. And that's because piebald/parti-coloured* dogs began to disappear from other breeds (and art) in the late 1800s/early 1990s, possibly fuelled by a belief that solid colours were somehow "stronger" and "more pure".
Note the wording in the excerpt from the 1880 breed standard above..."pieds are admissible and equal for purity". It was clearly designed to reassure that pied mastiffs were, indeed, purebred. And that's because at the time "piebald" didn't just refer to a colour - it was a term widely used to describe mongrels (etymology here).
The Mastiff wasn't the only breed to lose its piebalds around this time. Until 1880, Irish Setters comprised both solid red dogs and red-and-whites. They were considered all one breed and were shown in the same ring. But the founding of the Irish Red Setter Club in 1880 specifically excluded red-and-whites. Segregated from the rest of the breed, the IRWS very nearly died out.
Gordon Setters too, often black + white, or tricolour in the 19th century, became solid black with tan points - somewhat ironically given that the Duke of Gordon favoured the parti-coloured dogs. Interestingly black, white + tan is still considered a registerable colour by the Kennel Club and they do appear in litters from time to time. This picture is of an accomplished working tricolour Gordon Setter, but you would never see one in the showring. Today, the breed standard demands that Gordons are black and tan.
|FTCH Freebirch Vincent with Bob Truman, circa 1980|
Of course, piebald/parti-colour dogs remain an integral and valued part of other breeds but it should be remembered that the late 1800s/early 1900s was a time when much of the (white) world was being swept up in unapologetic and unfettered racism; when any hint of "mongrelisation" was viewed with revulsion. The term "piebald" was often used pejoratively.
Look at this reference from Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History by Dirk Moses.
And I found this, also from Australia, dated 1909.
And how about this, from the same period?
In Mastiffs, the piebald gene is recessive and can be passed down silently for generations. And so pied dogs continue to be born - and show breeders continue to cast them out, very often dismissed as evidence of crossbreeding back in the pedigree. (This despite, of course, their apricot, fawn or brindle siblings being accepted as purebred Mastiffs). Some kennel clubs won't allow them at all; others only allow pieds limited registration or with their true colour mis-described. You will certainly never see one in the show-ring. The UK Kennel Club standard effectively bans pied dogs by stating: "Excessive white on body, chest or feet is unacceptable."
But this is being challenged by Jennifer and Simon Willshire, of Gammonwood Mastiffs, who were startled when one of their Mastiffs (a brindle bitch mated to a fawn) unexpectedly gave birth to these three pied pups in June 2012.
The Willshires already knew that the recessive piebald gene - although rare - has always been in the breed. Long before their own pieds were born, they had made a film which explored the issue. See here (about 26 minutes in).
Consequently, the Willshires felt that their pied pups had every right to be recognised as Mastiffs. As the Wisdom Panel result below shows, their pups were indubitably purebred. So instead of culling them, as some suggested, they have started a campaign to have the colour accepted in the breed.
In short, they are educated, articulate, passionate, persuasive - and unlikely to be fobbed off by lingering prejudice and arbitrary rules that make no good scientific sense.
They are supported in the UK by the great canine historian, Colonel David Hancock - a Mastiff man himself: Hancock maintains: "The exclusion of pieds wholly on colour grounds is irrational, unscientific and harmful to the breed."
But for pied to be fully-recognised, the two Mastiff clubs here in the UK would have to give their approval. Recently, the Willshires wrote to the Old English Mastiff Club with this plea:
"We know our piebald Mastiffs to be true Mastiffs, no matter their coat colours. They show this in character, form, mannerism and everything they do. They are kind, loyal,courageous friends. They are not the results of crossbreeding and they are able to produce solid standard coloured fawn, apricot and brindle offspring. We ask why should they not deserve the same recognition and acceptance as their parents and siblings?"They continued:
"We hope the OEMC will take a stand for piebald and provide registry departments with the necessary consent to record their colours accurately. We hope the club will review its stipulation that piebalds may not be bred from, shown or exported. Their genes are useful, their looks are beautiful and they deserve the opportunity to go to the very best homes possible, regardless of where they are on the globe."And here - brace yourself - is the response from Club Chairman Sian Hall, published in the OEMC Autumn/Winter newsletter.
"Some minor Antipodean breeder, whether by accident or design, have landed themselves with pied dogs and seeks to change our Breed standard to legitimise and justify their actions. Reliable sources say these dogs are being sold as "rare" Mastiffs. Is this to inflate the price? Our breed standard, drawn up by the greast Mastiff experts; Dr Sidney Turner, Mr Mark Beaufoy MP, Dr Forbes Winslow and Walter K Taunton in 1883, when they founded the OEMC, has been our lodestar in definiting the Mastiff is its grandest form. The black mask is indispensable. A white face or part coloured face doesn't bear thinking about. I know retro is cool, but not when it applies to our dogs!!"So where to now?
It is of course ludicrous to have a colour bar like this still in effect today now that we better understand the genetics. There is no evidence that pied Mastiffs carry a greater risk of deafness that can be associated with too much white (although this has been intimated by some). And it makes no sense to forbid breeding from dogs that may be superb examples of their breed, just the wrong colour.
At the end of the day, no one would be forced to breed or buy a pied mastiff - there's a DNA test available to identify carriers. The Clubs worry about Pieds becoming "fashionable" - but what was it other than fashion that led to them being dropped from the breed standard in the first place?
I hope that in my lifetime we will see this kind of discrimination end - and not least because some dogs continue to be killed just because they are born the wrong colour. It is a blot on the fancy's landscape; something has no place in a modern, welfare-savvy society.
But I confess I don't hold out much hope for the Mastiffs. The Old English Mastiff Club is still seething about the fact that they lost a 10-year battle with the Kennel Club to have a dog called Jengren Mr Milligan, born in 1999, struck from the register - something it felt so strongly about that it spent an estimated £18,000 in legal fees. The reason? Mr Milligan's pedigree lists his dam as "unknown". (Report here.) The Club claimed - and continues to intimate - that his dam wasn't a Mastiff. And never matter than Mr Milligan's sire was the Champion Jengren Pluto, that Mr Milligan himself did well in the show-ring and that he went on to sire the breed's record holder, Ch Lady Lavinia.
A current link on the OEMC website states:
"Due to the upsurge of interest and disbelief generated by the emergence and proliferation of an influx of 'mastiff dam unknown' lines and to fulfil our fundamental obligation to protect our noble breed, we are showing the following pedigree as guidance for the unwary and unknowledgeable."In the same newsletter that trashes the Willshire's plea for pieds, Chairman Sian Hall laments that 32 of the 50 Mastiffs registered in the third quarter of 2013 originate from the "dam unknown" line and concludes:
"All this, together with the farcical strictures imposed on us by the powers-that-be are the slow death knell of the Mastiff that you and I went out and bought, shared our lives with and shed copious tears over when that awful day arrived. Remember what it was that first attracted you to the Mastiff, hold on to it and fight for it.
"Our footprint in the history of our breed is not one to be proud of. Future generations of Mastiff fanciers may well look back and wonder we we did so little, and cared even less."The message is clear: the threat of pieds and a drop of mongrel blood will be the ruin of the breed.
The reality of course, is that it more likely to be its salvation.
Please sign the Willshire's petition.
The Gammonwod Pied Mastiffs Facebook page is here.