The Early Dogs of the Islands
The domestic animals in the Canarian Archipelago before it was conquered by the Castilian Crown, were part of the aboriginal culture of the inhabitants of the islands. The dog was part of that culture and had many functions. They were used to watch over and heard goats and sheep, which were an important part of the economy for the natives: they were also used as a defense against the many raids made by invading forces: to guard property: or consumed as food, in many cases: and were a mythic and religious symbol. For a mainly pastoral people, as were the natives of the islands, the dog was a fundamental element in the economy.
There are a number of references to the dog, and to the goat, the pig and the sheep in popular folklore and in the writings of various authors mentioning the small, wild dogs, wolf-like in appearance, “but smaller”, which were very primitive and lives with the natives.
Although there are few descriptions of its appearance, there are references to this primitive dog describing it as a medium-sized animal of some similarity to the Australian Dingo and to others, also medium-sized, but of better build and wider forehead.
Various authors reach the conclusion that there were two types of dog which were different, especially in size: on was small or stocky and the other was bigger in size and had a wider head.
The invaders and conquerors that came successively to the islands found the native dogs to be ardent, brave animals of great stamina.
The many lines of argumentation regarding the dogs in the Canaries, some more plausible than others, are positive in that the very existence of the dogs is unquestionable that is, that there really were dogs in the islands, and that these were the basis of the crossbreeding which start later with the introduction of different breeds by the Spanish colonizers.
We can say that the most valuable historical reference is that made by F.E. Zeuner in his work “Some Domesticated Animals from the Prehistoric Site of Guayadeque, Gran Canaria”, when he refers to a medium-sized animal, with a wider head, which brings to mind something molosser in appearance ad, in a w way, a “gripping” type of dog.
According to the record of the time, in the centuries following the conquest of the Canaries, and in particular the XVI and XVII, various breeds of dog, gun dogs, bulldogs and sheepdogs, were, of course, brought into the islands along with other domesticated animals.
The references in these records are of great value; although they do not describe the morphology of the dog, they do name each dog in accordance with it’s function: dogs used for hunting; to watch and herd livestock and as guard dogs – specifying in these cases their condition as “gripping or seizing dogs”, which proves their existence indisputably since the times of the conquest.
So, we think it a good idea to include some of those references, showing the existence of animals with characteristics like those of the “Dogo”, probably the result of the aforementioned crossbreeding; i.e. the prehispanic dog crossed with the dog introduced by the new colonizers of the archipelago.
Historical News on the Existence of the Dogo in the Canary Islands
From throughout the 16th century, and according to the “Cedularios del Cabildo de Tenerife” ( The Island Government Records Office, Tenerife), we would like to underline the following:
In agreement with the Island Government of Tenerife, as from 5th February, 1516, butchers will be allowed to have, at their service, a pair of ‘gripping dogs’, like the two trained dogs, property of Don Pedro de Lugo, to get rid of dogs gone wild, in view of the damage done to livestock herds, as has been seen in areas of Adeje and Abona.
The Island Government forbids, from 3rd September, 1515, the ownership of dogs of any breed, with the exception of pig farmers, who may have one dog, on the condition that this not be a ‘gripper’. The slaying of wild dogs by Don Pedro de Lugo with his pair of ‘gripping’ dogs, proved by the presenting of the skins of the heads of the animals, and fair payment to the privileged man are on record, as agreed with the Island Government of Tenerife, dated 9th April, 1518. The Island Government, on 4th December, 1525, makes it compulsory to register the ownership of ‘gripping’ dogs and mongrels within six days. The Island Government reiterates, on 5th January, 1526, that, by agreement and in view of the damage done to livestock herds by large ‘gripping’ dogs, these dogs should be killed, and that only livestock owners may keep these dogs in their service, and with the exception of those dogs used by Don Pedro de Lugo, who had enjoyed the privilege for many years, of eliminating those dogs gone wild. In spite of the previous agreement, the Island Government of Tenerife, on 10th December, 1526, forbids cowhands to own ‘gripping’ dogs and allows only four specimens of large ‘gripping’ dogs to subdue cattle, and these controlled by four handlers, each of whom will hold his own dog on a rope.
Looking at the agreements reached by the Island Government of Fuerteventura during the 17th century, we came across some of great relevance:
On 25th August, 1617, the Island Government allows any person, without risk of punishment, to kill all ‘gripping’ dogs, owned by neighbors, and which are loose and unchained. A year later, on 19th February in the town of Betancuria, the Island Government recommends that the population not let ‘gripping’ dogs loose, to avoid damage to livestock. According to the agreement reached on 21st October, 1624, each inhabitant can have a maximum of one gun dog or ‘gripping’. In view of the danger to livestock entailed, it was decided, on 16th August, 1630, that no inhabitant should have more than one gun dog, which should be chained up; the rest will be put down; in case of failure to comply with the law, offenders will be sentenced to ten days in prison and fined the sum of six hundred “maravedíes” (a coin of the time). Possession of a ‘gripping’ dog should be reported to the authorities.
These regulations reached an extreme on 22nd March, 1632, when they imposed a license to be issued by the Governor for the ownership of a ‘gripping’ dog, on pain of six “reales” ( a coin of the time).
In January, 1645, in the aforementioned town of Betancuria, which was, at that time, the seat of the Island Government of Fuerteventura, it was made compulsory to keep dogs, and in particular ‘grippers’ and gun dogs, tied up.
The list of references to ‘gripping’ dogs found in historical documents in the archipelago in the centuries following the conquest would be endless, but there is, at no time, in those cold, precise official documents, a description of the morphology of this dog; neither is there any distinction made between breeds, they are simply referred to as ‘grippers’.
We cannot, therefore, establish a hypothesis about the breed or variety referred to as these ‘grippers’ dogs, nor experiment nor speculate about whether it is one type or another. Neither can we check in drawings from the references listed, whether these dogs in the Canaries fitted the description of a particular kind of mastiff, dogo or alano, but it seems evident that they were extremely useful animals for the inhabitants of islands, whose economy, essentially peasant and rural, was based not only on agriculture, but also on livestock of seasonal pasturage, and later, on cattle used for plowing, so important to cereal growers.
Under such circumstances, the dog’s living and sustenance would have been, without a doubt, an extremely hard and even cruel process of natural selection, which, in reference to ‘gripping’ type dogs, would be taken to the limit.
The Canarian Archipelago, made up of a chain of volcanic islands and about 500 km. in length, lies between 27° – 29° latitude North and 13° – 18° longitude West, very near the north-western edge of Africa. The proximity of the almost uninhabited, desert continent and the differences in culture and economy have meant a certain isolation, which has been offset by full integration with the western world in Europe, through its relationship with Spain since the 15th century.
Once the slow, hard conquest of the archipelago was over, the dividing up and allotting of land started at the same time as colonists began arriving from mainland Spain and many other parts of Europe. The process of settling the islands had barely begun when the Canary Islands became an almost obligatory stopover for Spanish ships sailing to America from the ports of Cadiz and Seville. The inclusion of the archipelago in shipping routes and its being a colonial settlement would mark its future, as very soon it would draw pioneers from many parts.
This strategic position in the Atlantic, which was vital to Spanish ships en route to America, was also a priority for Dutch and, more especially, English corsairs.
Relations with England were established quite soon and, although there were less friendly times as a result of the almost constant state of war existing between Spain and England, in particular the numerous pirate attacks on island coasts, such as those carried out by Drake on La Palma in 1585, by Raleigh on Lanzarote and La Gomera in 1617, by Blake on Tenerife in 1657, and even the attack by Nelson himself on Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, a number of English traders settled in the islands from early on, from where they exported local crops and imported all kinds of manufactured goods. In this trade there was particular control over wines produced in the islands, especially the malmsey, which was the highest in quality. English firms from Bristol, such as Hikman, Castelin and Lok, or Thomas Colin and Eduard Fallier, represented the old, and peaceable, presence of that nation in our islands.
The Canaries, as one of the archipelagos in the Macaronesia, could not escape the curiosity of travelers and explorers who landed on the islands in search of the secrets of the Neolithic culture which had existed in the archipelago until the 15th century.
The observation and study of the islands, the theories about their origins, which were linked to the myth of Atlantis at that time, their singular nature and geography all led to a series of tales, descriptions and travel memoirs, which, since the 18th century, have been published in Europe, although particularly in England, as the country with most bonds with the archipelago. There was a well established English colony in the archipelago, which, in spite of distance, maintained strong ties with England through trade.
The large British colony, based mainly on Gran Canaria and Tenerife, was a stable part of the population, although with some singular and different characteristics. Their culture, customs and religion contrasted with that of the Canarian population, especially with that of the popular classes, who lacked almost everything.
They were not only active in trade, but also in agriculture. The British acquired large pieces of rural land and built their homes in urban groups, with architectural styles, which were really British, but adapted to their adopted country.
The British citizens based in the colony returned to their country regularly and kept their environment on the islands within the essentially British style and tradition. From their country, to which they could travel directly from the Canarian Archipelago, they brought their culture, their possessions, animals to guard their property, their pets, their customs and their traditions.
Looking back into the rich history of English cynofiles we find that in that country dogs were bred for all their uses; as guard dogs, gun dogs, herd dogs and as pets, and that, from early times, great care was taken with the training of dogs to fight other dogs and other animals, such as bears, bulls, lions and badgers. This was a popular sport for many.
In the first centuries after the Spanish conquest of the islands, the English dog considered the archetypal fighter was called the old English bulldog, which was a medium-sized, compact animal with a powerful build and with all the requirements for relentless pursuit.
This dog had inherited the best of the traditional bandage and of the Spanish ‘gripping’ dogs, also known as the Spanish bulldog, which was sometimes used to liven the blood of the English dogs.
This kind of dog, which was ideal as a guard dog, was part of the English environment in the Canaries. Later, moving on in time to the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, another kind of fighting dog appeared in England as a result of crossing the old English bulldog and the old English terrier, and which was called the bull and terrier. The result of this cross was smaller in size, lighter, faster and hot-tempered, and was better suited to the sports of that country.
The bull and terrier was the basis of all the fighting breeds, known as pit dogs, such as the Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the white Bull Terrier.
All of these dogs, which were medium or small in size, of strong constitution and easy to transport, were brought to the Canaries to fulfill the requirements of the English colony – essentially, to guard British homes, factories and land, but also to carry on the sporting traditions of hunting and dog fighting, introduced to the islands by the English.
The appearance of these emerging English breeds led to inevitable crossbreeding with ‘gripping’ type dogs already existing on the islands, in view of the fact that the archipelago was isolated, under strict control and, at that time, scarcely inhabited.
At the same time as the ‘gripping’ dogs we have already spoken about, on the Canaries there had always been a dog used to herd goats in particular, and which was commonly bred on the island of Fuerteventura. Later, it spread to the other islands, where it was named, and is still known as “majorero” or “Dog of Fuerteventura”, after the island of its origin. It had a brindle-striped coat, was coarse and of incorruptible character.
The crosses between ‘gripping’ dogs and “majoreros” produced a medium sized animal, which was coarse and hard-working, and which was known in the country as the dog of the land.
The progressive blending of Canarian and English dogs, already mentioned, laid the genetic foundations for the ‘gripping’ dog that time formed through the 19th century until the beginning of the present century, from when we can confirm its existence through graphic documents.
The ‘Dogo Canario’ and the Legend
From the early years of this century we have had graphic documents, which show, for the first time, the existence of the ‘gripping’ dog in the Canaries.
Some of these old photographs, which we have been able to include in this book, show dogs that lived in the first half of the century, i.e. before the almost total extinction and later recovery of the breed. Well, in all of these photographs we can see animals with a common genetic background, although they are morphologically different. They are all the product of the foundations laid in the previous century, especially of the breeding and crossbreeding described in the previous chapter; i.e. the Canarian ‘grippers’ with the “majoreros”, and the product of this cross, known as the dog of the land, with the English bull and terrier dogs, product of the old bulldog and its variations.
This blend had beneficial consequences for the morphological-structural aspects of the ‘gripping’ dog and improved its condition as such. However, as there was no clear concept of the breed, people were only concerned with its functional qualities and so, there was not enough genetic control and the appearance of the population became heterogeneous in time.
We came across specimens that were very bulldog in appearance, stocky, compact, short in the face and whose coats often have large areas of white. Others are longer in the body, slimmer, with more of the “majorero” in them, emphasized by the striped brindle coats across the range, longer, more wiry and rougher hair. Still others, with less genetic variability, where both bloodlines are equally represented, producing medium sized specimens, which are large, but not excessively so, longer in the body, and often brindle coated, but with white paws and collars.
Naturally, this blend of breeds has made its mark on the personality and character of the dogs, and the ‘gripping’ dog is not only splendidly equipped for fighting and baiting, but also has all the requirements, as a cattle dog, to drive and work cattle and, of course, as a guard dog in all kinds of security and defense work.
In the first thirty years or so of this century, dog fighting was legal in this country and was very common practice in the islands, but once forbidden, as a result of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, they became even more popular, albeit clandestinely, and this prohibition caused the population of the ‘gripping’ dog to fall drastically.
The fights took place in the country or in urban areas of very low cultural level, and never matched the more sporting or sophisticated events brought to the islands by the English. However, they were not dark, murky spectacles, despite being hard, nor were they sinister or malicious on account of the betting, which was really almost non-existent.
The build of its adversaries contributed a great deal to this reduced situation. The ‘gripping’ dog of the Canary Islands is a multifunctional dog, it is not essentially a “gladiator”; i.e. the bull instinct of its ancestors, that made the dogs fight to the very end, is not so deeply etched on its genes. The Canarian Dogo always tries to get a good grip with the bite and will try to improve it and hold tight for a long time, which reminds us of the old bulldog. This is why the English crossed this dog with the terrier to achieve combats with more action, more blood and which would last longer.
However, it was in the first half of this century when the Canarian Dogo became really widespread, when its prestige as a dog of great courage crossed our frontiers as a result of the trend in the Canaries to emigrate, especially to South America.
A clear example of this influence can be seen in the dog used by the Nores Martínez brothers as the base of the Argentinean Dogo. We are talking about the old “Cordoba fighting dog”. At the same time, the exportation of specimens to mainland Spain to take part in hunts, as a gripping dog, also added to its prestige.
For all of these reasons, we can affirm that, for cynofile enthusiasts, the existence of the Canarian ‘gripping’ dog was always clear. It was, perhaps, shrouded in a certain air of myth, as the exploits of the ardent ‘gripping’ dogs from the Canary Islands, in gripping and in fighting, created an aura of legend. Dog fighting was what always came to the minds of enthusiasts whenever the Canarian Dogo came up in conversation, even when the enthusiast did not really know anything about the dogs or the geographical location of the archipelago.
Manuel Martin Bethencourt, CEPRC
Judge abd breeder
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