Since the most ancient times, the Canary Islands, have been closely linked to the dogs that used to live on them, so much that they owe their own name to them and a part of their history.
However, when trying to gather and collect data about these animals, there are several problems which the investigator has to face, and the answers obtained are elusive and confusing. In concrete terms, focusing on the Perro de Presa (“catch dog”), the theories about his origin are based, mostly, on conjecture and on little data coming from our written history or from the scarce archeological ruins.
About the prehispanic dogs very little is known. There are, for example, some notes by Plinio in “Memories of king Juba”: “…at scarce distance it was possible to see the island of Canaria, so named because of the many dogs of considerable size, of that two were brought to Juba”. Bonitier e Le Verrier talked about dogs, but not of that size: “…on the island there were some wild dogs similar to wolves, but smaller…” and in the same age Tomàs Nichols named the dog as food for the aboriginals: “The food of the inhabitants of the Canaries was goat milk and meat of neutered dogs”.
But is in the “Agreements and Laws of the Cabildo of Tenerife and Fuerteventura (unfortunately the ones of Gran Canaria were destroyed) where the fighting dogs and the catch dog are named as “Perro de Presa”. In 1511 in these documents it is written: “…and those that keep the pigs must not have more than one dog, with his muzzle…and that twelve purebred dogs must be kept in order to kill wild dogs”.
Clearly these twelve dogs could not be other than fighting dogs, that for their combativeness were able to put to death their own fellow creatures. These dogs were used also by butchers of the same era, in order to hold the cattle tight for their sacrifice, habit that both on the Spanish peninsula and on the islands was pretty common, and so there is the news that when it was ordered to put an end to the wild dogs because of the damages caused to the cattle, the following clarification was made: “..but that this law must not be intended against the butcher that must, for their job, cut and weigh the meat, and that everyone of them can have two dogs for the service of the butchers, keeping them tied at night and day, and that they be set free only to catch the cattle”. Once upon a time Pedro de Lugo imported, from his trip in Spain, catch dogs that were bred on the peninsula in that age (catch dog of Bordeaux, alanos, dogs for hunting big animals, etc.) as it is said in one law of the Cabildo of Tenerife in 1516: “Moreover, because there are in this island some dogs that kill wild dogs, in order to preserve some specimen to hunt down wild dogs, it is permitted that two dogs of this type be saved, so they can be trained, as it was already seen in Adexe and Abona, where they are kept by Pedro de Lugo, commander”. The hard measures to which these dogs were forced to, in order to prevent them to become alley, are described in the designation of the persons in charge ot their elimination: “…and lays on Castellano and Gallinato to point out the dogs they want, in order to kill the wild dogs”. “It is reminded to every person that own a catch-dog set free or without chain, that he can be killed by any persons without being punished”. “For the damages caused to the cattle, domesticated and wild, it is ordered that everyone kill the cattle dog, remaining with only one dog or hunt dog and if it is a catch dog, it must be with the license of the Governor”.
What previously said leads to a primitive and aboriginal dog, that should not have been of great size nor of great weight, and to a catch dog that was probably introduced by the spanish conquerors at their arrival on the islands. It must be taken into account that at that age, in Spain, there were several catch dog types that were used for the big hunt and for the bull biting in the arenas, and that they were successfully used for the conquest of America. The spanish explorers were forced to lay over the islands during their trips to the american continent, and is logical that remained, in the Canarian harbours, some specimens of the dogs used for military tasks.
This is confirmed by Victor Grau Bassas in 1885: “Since before of the conquest the dogs are known in the Canaries, as the conquerors brought with them a lot of these dogs when they arrived to the islands, and after that a lot of breed varieties has been introduced, that crossed between them gave birth to the actual dogs”.
Also F.E. Zeuner, in 1958, after having realized one of the poor scientific studies on the matter, deducted, about the several canine skulls recovered in Guayadeque: “they were in first place, a primitive dog that recalls the Australian Dingo and it used to exist also another type of dog, of the same size of the previous one, but with a wider forehead region” and deeper into the article he points out: “When the Spaniards arrived, their dogs were crossed with the wild ones that used to live on the islands. It is possible that this wild breed be one of actual existence, a dog of medium size with falling ears and very similar to a boxer, that often had a brindle coat”.
It is clear, therefore, the influence of the iberian breeds in the origin of our actual Presas, even if it is harder to understand the magnitude of this relation.
Later, during the XVI and XVII centuries, several British merchants and dealers moved to the Canaries, coming from a country where there was a great passion for fighting sports.
There are news of crosses with Bulldog and, already in our century, with the Bullterrier, even if there are not written evidences and other typical british breed like the Mastiff and the Bullmastiff are not mentioned.
It is certain that, traditionally, the old ships of the empire were watched by ancient bulldogs, that were very common among traders, in order to guard the freight. However the Bulldog of that age was very different from the actual one, as he had great reputation as a guardian, had a much stronger temperament, more powerful and of greater height, and also close to the level bite and much lighter in the movements. The expansion of our free harbours contributed to the mercantile growth and the arrival of ship with british flags was very frequent. Therefore it is certain the influence of those dogs in the catch dog already present on the islands..
There is some theories for which the Perro Majorero (Majorero Cattle Dog – the name refers to the island of Fuerteventura) would be the father of the breed. But the Majorero pertains to another canine branch, that of the cattle and guardian dog, which is different, in a morphological point of view, from the family of the catch molossers, in which the Presa Canario is included. A thing clearly different is to state that during the age of the fightings there were crosses made with some specimens of that breed in order to obtain certain qualities, like agility and temperament.
Anyhow in Gran Canaria is named also the “perro de la tierra”, whose characteristics are different from those of the Majorero Cattle Dog, and that the farmer described as a more tough animal, very prone to the guard and the driving of the cattle, being a very territorial and fighting dog. At the present time still are kept some specimen of this type, even if yet very crossed, but that conserve some different characteristics from that of the Majorero.
It is important to stress that, the perro de la tierra, had a proclivity to the attack and submission of the cattle, quality for which he was much appreciated by the cattle owners; this detail leads us to their progenitors, the Spanish catch dogs, very used for the gripping of the bulls. The intervention of this dog into the formation of the Presa Canario is clear and with any probability it is the missing link between the actual Presa Canario and the dog that were introduced after the conquest of the Canaries.
The tasks of the dog, besides to guard of the properties and the cattle was, primarily, fighting. And dogs were not the only ones used for fighting as the passion for these types of competitions, in the Canaries, was so spread that they never lacked during every party (in some cases also at the present times) and this practice was extended to the rams and to the bloody cock fights. When we add the desire of the farmer to compete with his own neighbours and the predisposition of their dogs to fight, we understand the reason that this habit has been so much deep-rooted into the inhabitants of the islands for many years.
All these elements, through time, ended up in a mostly gladiator dog, very widespread in our countryside. The selection of that dog was centered on his skills, fighting, guarding and cattling, but the first one always prevailed. This characteristic, stressed by the geographical isolation, contributed to the formation of a fighting dog with various utility skills, of considerable physical structure, and with other well defined characteristics, while at other latitudes (Spain) other breeds that laid the foundation of the presa canario were progressively disappearing or altered.
For many years it was a very popular dog among countrymen, cattle owners and guards. It was absolutely normal to encounter him as a sentinel, guarding houses and lands, and on the contrary of what has been said ad far as the passion for bets during fighting is concerned, it is necessary to set it clear that the fights were, in the great majority, ad-libbed and it was very rare to see bets.
Even if it did not exist an out-and-out “breed”, it can be stated that there was a morphological and temperamental type that was very similar and well spread through the island. It was in the small towns of the inland where the characteristics were fixed at best, as a matter of fact thanks to their isolation their dogs were less crossed with imported breeds, to the contrary of what it happened in the area of the capital, enclave, of Puerto de La Luz.
It has been, in effect, in the rural world where, the typical characteristics and the rusticity of the dog have been preserved at best. The isolation made it possible to preserve some bloodlines that even if not too much sophisticated from an aesthetic point of view, were very typical and had a very good predisposition for work. The dogs of the present days, with these origins, keep, despite a number of crosses, a good predisposition for guarding and above all a great temperament towards their own peers.
When it become the recuperation of the breed, some years ago, the existing population of Gran Canaria was scarce, because of various reasons:
- The first and most important one was the prohibition of dog fighting that, even if they were declared outlaw, for a certain period were celebrated thanks to the indifference of the authorities. A change of attitude towards this phenomenon lead to the gradual disappearance of the dogs, and with them, of a great part of their fanciers.
- A second reason was the ongoing importation of foreign breeds, that, more specialized or evolved in some tasks, took the place of the dog of the islands.
- A third factor was the general trend of choosing males instead of females, that, almost every times, were eliminated at few days from their birth. This because only the males were good for fighting and had not the natural inconvenients of their female counter part.
To these reasons should be added eras of indigence and scarcity of food, the gradual demographic defection of the countryside and of the cattle tasks, so the dog was cut off from to the task of guarding houses and lands, where it had to compete with other breeds like the German Shepherd.
Ten years ago, more or less, when we had the problem of thinking about the path to follow for the recuperation of the breed, there were two directions:
- The first one pretended to obtain the already lost type, by doing crosses with the dogs that had originated it.
- The other line of action was based upon the use of the existing specimens, removing from the selection process specimens that displayed a level of racial impurity.
The first option allowed to recreate the dog, giving him more corpulence, head, height, etc. by adding other breeds (Bullmastiff, Neapolitan Mastiff) but it made so that the dogs loose the similarity to the traditional presas. The time has demonstrated the soundness of this statement, as also in the islands these two trends were followed, and the products of these types of crosses are every day less typical in comparison of what was bred in the islands thirty, fourty or fifty years ago. The reason that confirm this point are clear: the origin of yet extinct or seriously altered breeds (so that they cannot be used for the recuperation work) makes it impossible the emulation of their type with predetermined crosses. Besides, the existing population, at that times, allowed with any effort to undertake the recuperation of the breed by preserving the typicality already present and by bettering many of his aspects, thanks to an appropriate selection.
After these first years in which the Presa Canario suffered a greater than suitable popularity – an endless number of breeders with many selection principles are born – and it become to make clear the products of one and the other line, upholding what has been said above. There are some dogs that, even if are not perfectly homogenous, show a great typicality and an enviable temperament. These specimen are nothing more than the result of years of work of selection and reproduction centered on bloodlines of considerable age.
The negative said of all this is that the easiness of selling puppies originated from crosses – for people that do not know the breed, and the lack of conscience of some breeders, slow down the achievement of a homogenous type, that is an already difficult task on its own, without any need to make it harder.
The character: the dogs there are bred on this island are, first and foremost, dogs of hard temperament. This is the essential condition for a dog to be used for reproduction: having much temperament. Dogs that do not meet this criteria should be discarded and generally shyness is considered a serious fault. Probably this is the most desired condition, both by breeders and fanciers – they look for dogs of much temperament – and it is maybe the virtue that better has been preserved in the actual presas. It should not be forgotten that the fighting task has deeply influenced these dogs, making them prone to guarding and, naturally, to the fights. Today people have been looking for a serious and noble dog, but arrogant and very self-confident. In many cases people work with dogs of great aggressiveness and with a bright tendency for combat with other dogs.
The head: another characteristic that is very important in every Perro de Presa is its head. It is square-shaped and of great volume, it is provided with powerful jawbones, dark eyes and slightly oval, with ears of medium size and of high insertion. The muzzle is medium sized but not short, as from his length it will depend the easiness of the catch during the bite, besides it must be wide and with lips only slightly hanging (the excess of lips was a fault at the moment of the fights, as the dog used to bite the lips on his own), the conformation of the lips allow him the respiration during the catch. The teeth must be perfectly inserted, with scissors or level bite, in any case it must not be admitted undershot bite (prognathism), that is considered as a defect and therefore must be avoided, and it must have strong canines, of good size and perfectly inserted. The nose must be black, not flat nor snipey, and the stop should be clear but not excessively pronounced. The forehead is flat and there is a clear separation in the correspondence of the frontal duct.
The structure: at simple sight, the Presa of Gran Canaria strike the eye for his powerful structure and bones. Of wide and deep chest, so that it descends to the elbow or lower. The elbows must be parallel with the trunk and slightly set apart from it, besides it has perfect aplombs due to wide and firm bones, paws of generous size and compact rounded feed, without being too bigs, it does not have dewclaws.
To his considerable length, it must be considered also a slightly “saddle-shape” that, along with his high and muscular croup, narrower than the powerful front train, give to the dog an athletic look, of great power and stability. The solidity and the plumpness of the Presa is a detail that can be appreciated at first sight. The dogs with thin paws, unparallel elbows, too short of trunk or too lightweight are not desirable for the breeders of the island.
The coat: there has never been a clear preference of a coat colour, apart the particular preferences of every breeder and fancier. This is due to the fact that the predominant characteristic must be temperament, the structure and the functionality, above any other aspect of the dog, the coat colour has never been a factor to be taken into consideration, just because people wanted a powerful dog and unrivaled in fighting. Because of this, in Gran Canaria can be found dogs of different coat colours, but not for that they should be considered lower quality Presas.
These colours go from the black to the light fawn. Also all brindle coats (“bardinos”) are admitted, from the lightest to the darkest shade. Also the fawns in the full range. A detail of these dogs, very typical for sure, is the white pigmentation. In the most remote past used to exist dogs that were almost entirely white and even if today that colour is not present in a so extensive way, it is very typical to find this colour in the chest, neck, head, belly, paws and end of the tail. It must be stressed the great indifference that has always existed in Gran Canaria towards the coat colours, as the first aspect to be considered was the fighting skill.
Actuality of the breed
As far as the islands are concerned, there are today two clearly defined and opposite trends.
On one hand, in Gran Canaria, where people work with dogs of great temperament and very prone to fighting and guarding, admitting brindle, fawn and black coats, all of them with the typical white markings. In addition to fighting instinct, people here look for Presas of perfect scissors or level bite, literally excluding those specimens with set of teeth problems like undershot bite, as it alters considerably the functionality of the dog.
Another aspect is that of the black coat, that in Tenerife cannot easily be found, and that however in Gran Canaria is preserved in specimens wich are very representative of the breed as they demonstrate their origin from ancient Presas of the same coat colour.
In Tenerife, anyhow, the functionality of the dog, both as guardian and fighter, is not taken into account as it is its “beauty”. In general, they bred dog with poor temperament and they look more for an exposition dog than for a functional animal, and for this reason it has been added a lot of different breeds like the Bulldog, Bullmastiff, English Mastiff and Dogue de Bordeaux. On that island the undershot bite is admitted, as it is a characteristic of the above named breeds, and they look for dogs of shorter muzzle, feature that jeopardizes the bite of the dog. Besides they prefer the brindle and fawn coats without any trace of white pigmentation.
We have, therefore, two trends that will have to define, basing themselves on their historical authenticity, the future of the Perro de Presa Canario. A responsibility that lays directly on the representative clubs of the breed, on the inhabitants of the Canaries and on all the fanciers of the breeds that have contributed and are still contributing to the preservation and to the recuperation of the breed.
Clemente Reyes Santana
Article published in the magazine Aguayro, September-October 1988
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