The former Spanish explorer Juan de Bethencourt arrived in Gran Canaria, one of the twelve Canary Islands, off the North coast of Africa in 1402 and found there many wild dogs which looked like wolves but smaller. The blood of some of these dogs would supply genes to an evolutionary pool that would find representation in the modern day Dogo Canario which is a beautiful and powerful animal that is bidable, confident and has eye-catching color of brindle (atigrado), fawn (Leonardo), reverse brindle and amazingly fawn with stripes (although rare). All colors of the animal have a big head with black mask.
The Dogo possesses a severe look – one of power, confidence, and alertness. His bark is deep, his manner with strangers is suspicion. He is a dog for the few, not the many. His weight may range from 88 pounds for females and over 120 for males.
The animal is still being bred in the islands and Spain for the purpose of companionship and protection as well as for show.
This ancient and formerly mysterious animal has evolved and is still evolving in the islands and has suffered an ebb and tide in population density due to many political factors as well as an introduction of competitive breeds of dogs catching the attention of the Canary Islanders. Islanders whose ancestors from the earliest of the 1300 and 1400’s excelled in strength and prowess in pugilism and wrestling, and prided themselves in their ability to defend their home wanted extraordinary dogs to alert them to thieves and also able to deter and repel intruders.
Circumstances and fate ordained four critical components to further develop this curious animal. They were the Spanish conquest in the 1400’s, geographical location of the islands, the Canarians’ own “large” aggressive dogs, and new blood from England.
As a geographic matter, after the Spanish conquest of the Islands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all of the world’s trade courses streamed through the world’s seven major Canary Islands. Canarian wine was much in demand in England and the Treaty of London in 1604 enabled mutual importation. There was constant movement between islands and England and the Americas.
The “new” Spanish Canarians already possessed farm dogs that were tough and were persistent in their duties. The conquering Spaniards were developing in the 1400’s their own courageous breeds with their indigenous old world dogs and their mohorero dogs and their alano dogs. To prove the dogs worth the Spanish Canarians, who had already developed bull fighting in Spain and cock fighting would, without wagering, match a dog against a dog.
What was in place was a trade coursing through the islands, a gene-pool of refined stock used for combat, cattle herding, and as a catch-dog for pigs. The dogs were specialized and tough but would become more so due to a Treaty.
The Treaty of London in 1604 coincided with the golden-age of dog fighting in England when mastiff-like and bulldog types were even pitted against the bear and the bull. To guard their cargoes and to bring their contents to the Canaries, the English transported their tough animals to the islands where their blood was mixed with the dogs of the islands. The result was the Canarian Dog which now has led to the development of the creation of the Dogo Canario, an extremely athletic and strong willed dog of medium to large build.
Now before I relate some relevant experiences in the Islands themselves and give anyone interested further sources of information on and/or for acquiring the dog, let me say that I used many sources for the historical introduction including Jerusalem Freed, and Manuel Bethencourt. However, the renowned Manuel Curto Garcia says the origin is impossible to find. What we have has developed and evolved from the 1980’s and is a re-creation using modern breeds that did not exist many years before. Probably the best place to see these animals would be at a dog show. A good place was the Mollossara Stock Dog Show in the Pocono Mountains last fail with dogs like Tosas and featuring the Dogo Canario and Cane Corso.
Interestingly, you would see Dogo Canario compete in Conformation and although completely untrained besides obedience, go to another level and demonstrate their protection ability against trainers in protection suits in a separate ring.
My experience on the Canary Islands took place in 1997 at three different areas. One time at a dog show in the Islands, one time at a farm in the Islands, and one time at the home of Antonio Ramirez, President of the Club Espanol Del Dogo Canario and his wife, Joyceln.
A Dog Show in Tenerife
(The Monographia) – A Display of Power
It is not unusual for the spectator of a dog exhibition where “guardian-type’ breeds are exhibited to see a demonstration where one very powerful man or two men hold a wooden pole which a dog grabs in his jaws and clamps down and holds (the stick or tube) while it is lifted off the ground, suspending the animal which maintains its secure grip in the air off the ground for over 30 seconds so that the utter power of the neck and jaws can be seen. I have seen a 90 pound German shepherd suspended as well as an American Bull Dog to prove the dog’s raw gripping power. What I had never seen before was performed by a 135 pound dog named Vertigo in the Canary Islands as part of a personal and property protection demonstration. The dog, “Verdugo,” was baited with a wooden stick which he instantly grabbed without an iota of an idea of perhaps ever letting go of it. What happened next with a dog that weighed almost 140 pounds, I had never seen before and would never forget. The exceptionally strong trainer used his strength to start the animal that was holding the stick in a circular direction as the dog held and pulled. Providing sufficient torque, the trainer a la airplane-spin style managed to lift the dog off all four of his feet and spin it around and around and (well, you get the picture) until the huge animal was moving like a slow propeller on a B-25 bomber – again with no intention of letting go. As trainer, fatigue set in, the dog was soft-landed and the trainer managed to get the stick back. I knew then why this dog is sometimes called the gripping dog of the Canaries.
A Visit to a Canarian Farm
The President of Club Espanol del Dogo Canario, Antonio Ramirez, took me to a small farmhouse at night with a large fenced courtyard seemingly empty and unprotected. We unleashed the gate and walked into the moon-bathed yard whereupon two ancient looking dogs immediately charged directly at us to within 35 to 40 feet bellowing deep and chilling barks and then turned back toward the home. After a moment of silence and lack of visibility of the dogs, the two Dogo Canarios – like roaring dragons – charged and then circled back within a fifteen to twenty foot range of us. The pattern was all too painfully clear and I got the impression that these animals were not so much building their confidence to engage but using a protocol known only to them. I was cautioned not to stare into their severe stare or run away or advance on them (who me?). Sometimes motionlessness can mask almost involuntary paralysis and appear like confidence. Deus ex-achina style, the owner came from the hacienda and called off the mysterious canines that vanished into the darkness. “Who let the dogs out?” I thought but found out that they are always out but not clearly visible and will not accept strangers for the time that they decide is too long. What this means is only discovered by one who stays without permission for the unspecified time the dogs decide. This was not training, bite-suit exhibition or something unusual or rare on the Island. It was real and quite normal to the Islanders and natural to this Island bred dog. To run away once you’re in the courtyard only changes the allotted time the dogs give to mechanical zero. The dogs in the Island city were more lenient and accepting to a degree but firm with strangers, especially at night and those strangers whose gait was, well, cautious or too fast or too slow measured against the norm. Their code was not a red alert but more orange leaning toward yellow.
How Much is That Little Dog in the Vineyard?
The third most memorable experience was a visit to Senor Ramirez’s kennel at his home to visit his female, Uga’s, puppies for purchase. Seemed like the easiest trip so far. I gingerly unleashed the gate and walked into the yard that backed into a fenced vineyard. In the vineyard, under the dark shadow of trees, appeared what seemed to be a small young bull or steer and a fairly large dog. The “bull” was in essence as he came into the light a very large dog named Daute. I have seen mesomorphic bull mastiffs near Fort Erie in Canada but never an alert prancing animal whose legs, were they replaced by a track from a tank, would be somewhat in proportion. Both were amazingly quick in almost an unreal fashion. With the speed of a look and the barks of rerocity which I had only heard from mastiffs in the U.S. and bull mastiffs in Canada, they bolted up to the secure fence. I really at this point was seeing animals on these Islands that should be in a different age, time forgot or that, well, I might not be able to import and train with mastery. They were not politically correct. They were the uncut stuff you read only once existed. They were reality here.
The large dog at about 150 pounds moved in the manner of a cat and the smaller female at about 115 pounds was even faster, quicker and moved in a feline manner also. They were telling me that the six puppies at about 9 weeks of age and weighing over 20 pounds each were not my property. I now received great news. The fence held. I could play with the cute puppies.
The puppies acting almost on cue from an ancient signal rushed out of their pen to the new guy on the block and took his shoelaces and maybe a cuff of his jeans as a trophy. Of course after winning the first round, I began to enjoy my little fray with these cute pups and just to show them I was really at the top of the food chain. I reached for the hose and turned on the water to sprinkle them, as a little “broma” or joke. How they were prepared for this new strategy I’ll never know. Two of the pups ran for the stem of the hose about four feet from the nozzle which I controlled and was sprinkling the other four with and pierced the hose with their puppy teeth which reduced the velocity of the water stream and rendered my play weapon almost useless. My little battle was at least a draw.
Soon I was taken to another area by Sara, a daughter of the couple, to see Uga, the dam of the litter. Although Uga was suspicious with strangers because I was with a family member, she showed me acceptance and affection and tenderness to Sara. Tough but tender is my description of Uga.
I left the island with a beautiful male pup from Uga’s litter who has placed and won a show as well as protected the home for over six years. Many of the dogs in the U.S. today are much milder than the Island dogs of the 1990’s. The breeders have through selection created a companion and sport animal with I might add “protective” roots. Through their breed selection there are dogs used as therapy dogs in California and Europe. At first this surprised me until I realized that once suspicion and distrust are eliminated, the dog has a huge capacity for affection. The giving and receiving of affection are more pronounced in the female. Their beauty is unchanged and profound. Their natural power unmeasured to its upper limit. Their loyalty unquestioned.
Rare Breed Journal
March April May 2004