History and Theories Surrounding the Origin of the Presa Canario
In his book “Historia General Sobre Las Islas Canarias” (General History of The Canary Islands) historian Augustin Miralles Torres comments that the islands took their name from the big dogs that were found of them, it and of two of those animals taken to the king of Mauritania in the times of the expedition of Juba. Described are facts that dogs took place in myths and funeral customs and even were part of the diet of aborigines of the islands. Demons appeared to them as big fleecy dogs named “Tibicernas” on the island of Gran Canaria and “Irnene” on the island of La Palma. Mummified bodies of dogs have been found beside their masters as a guide to the great beyond. They also consumed the meat of castrated dogs in small percentages, and evidence of this has been found by archaeologists.
Following the conquest of the Canary Islands, the presence of dogs of a type typical to holding dogs has been well documented, particularly in the documents of the Municipal Council of Tenerife. First mention is from a document dated 1501 declaring “that it is allowed for any farmer of pigs to own “uno de las gandes” (one of the big)”. In the year 1516 there occurred an order for the extermination of wild dogs or strays because of the harm that they do to livestock. Appointing a pair of “Perros de Presa” owned by Don Pedro de Lugo, trained for such a task. Another historical date, January 5, 1526, where the death of the “Perros de Presa” is ordered for the damage that they do to the livestock, with the exception of dogs in the service of butchers and the pair owned by Don Pedro de Lugo. In the same year, in December, occurs an order for the extermination of all “Perros de Presa” with the exception of the four under the control of the town councilor. From the documents of the Municipal Council of Betancuria (Fuerteventura) it is noted that on August 25, 1617, given to the residents is the right to kill, without fear of punishment, any “Perros de Presa” that were loose and could produce harm. On February 19, 1618 it is ordered that all “Perros de Presa” be tied up. October 21, 1624, it is ordered that a dog may not be owned, except for the care of the home, and it is understood that it is of hunting or holding type. Later on, in the year 1630, it is ordered that every resident must declare all “Perros de Presa” to the court. In 1654 it was ordered that all dogs on the islands be killed for the harm that they produce to livestock, minus one that could be owned for the care of the home if it is of holding or cattle dog type. The last reference to the “Perros de Presa” occurs on March 13, 1737, where the killing of abandoned dogs at the ports for visitors from other islands is ordered and prohibiting the ownership of a dog for someone that was not a farmer or a cattleman. It is deduced from that order that the inhabitants of the islands sometimes moved accompanied by their dogs, while others were left behind at the ports and possibly began to breed into a bloodline.
As we have said previously, the presence of a type of Presa dog in the islands is perfectly documented. It likewise is true that we know nothing of their phenotype; neither we have the sufficient judgments of amount in order to discard any of the several theories that tend to define their origin.
Were there dogs of “indigenous magnitudes” in the islands before the conquest? Did the Presas arrive to Canaries with the conquerors? Is it be possible that in Canaries before the conquest dogs of great size existed and they merged with several types of Presas concluding the conquest? What we know with all clarity is the function which these animals developed. Functions of guard of country property, of struggle of the cattle, as assistant of butchers and even of extermination of wild dogs and/ or strays, trained for such effect. Based on this we could imagine a compact animal, proportionate, robust, something slighter and more functional, but definitely a molosoid of prey.
Several are the supposed genetic currents in the configuration of the Prey Canary. Being that the islands obliged resorts along the routes of the new world, it receives the blood of the Iberian Presas.
The conquest of the Americas also brought about other changes to the Canary Islands. The downfall of the single crop of sugar cane came due to Caribbean competition. At that time the islands embarked on the new scene of cultivation of grapevines. They produced some strains of excellent quality and it was being converted into wine by one of England’s main importers. This new market brought many English colonists, mostly traders and merchants of wine and island fruits, who resided on the islands either temporarily or permanently, starting from the end of the XV century and continuing throughout the XVIII century. In England these were the “golden years” of dog fighting and they of course arrived to the islands with their Bandogges and Tiedogs (predecessors of the Bulldogs and Mastiffs) for faithful guardians of their country properties. The Canary Island inhabitants, always open to new ideas, soon became enthusiastic participants of this new sport : the fighting of dogs. It should be noted that at this time this was not practiced on the peninsula.
All of this is still lacks one final ingredient that completes the explosive cocktail of the Presa Canario- the Bardino Majorero, originating on the island of Fuerteventura, valued and extended throughout the islands, appreciated for its intelligence (easily trainable), of great physical resistance, an excellent guardian, dedicated mostly to the management of goat herds, of little bark, extraordinary set of teeth and an incorruptible courage, their rustic coat brindled in tones of greenish, they contributed to the Presa Canario a great part of their expression. This combination of Presas of the land and Presas of the continent, incorporated with the blood of the temperamental and rustic Bardino majorero, began an ethnic grouping of Presas of intermediate and predominant type, of burning temperament. To the traditional functions of guarding and struggle with the livestock, was added a new and exciting mission, to the delight of most breeders: The Fights.
Verbal history of the old fans testifies to how they took place, how the challenges arose, and even to who the participants were, etc. According to these old accounts the owners would come to an agreement as to whether they would witness the fight in silence or if they would incite the animals. Any spectator could touch or bother the dogs during the battle. The fight could be in one of two forms, with or without collars. Although the general idea was that the animals were placed inside a circle drawn in the ground, faced front to front and loosened, the collar often began the matches. It was not an excessively blood spectacle since the Presa grabs and pushes and doesn’t nibble. Rarely were their deaths between contestants because when humbled, their owners would guide them to draw back from the war. These were not public organized acts, but rather sporadic as the challenges of their owners arose. Although when a celebration of a fight was know, practically the whole neighborhood participated in the show.
In the 1940’s the prohibition of dog fighting was ordered although this practice continued discreetly, but only for about a decade. Beginning at that time and due to the hardening of the authorities to eradicating the fighting of the Presa Canario, its numbers decreased and it remained relegated to very few breeders. Fortunately their stock was maintained, preventing the total disappearance of the Presa Canario. This situation was worsened by the introduction of new and strange breeds to the islands. The German Shepherd (with all of its glory of hero of WWII and it’s world wide recognition), the Doberman Pinscher, the Great Dane, the Neapolitan Mastiff, etc. One important part of the so few breeders it that it allowed the temptations for the incorporation of the blood of these “new” breeds into the Presa Canario, that would create a crossbreeding that would leave the Presa Canario practically unrecognizable. The birth of any “pure” litter prevented the disappearance of the Presa Canario for good.
The Recovery of the Presa Canario
This situation changed radically in the beginning of the 1970’s. It was a time that adopted the social attitudes of reunion to traditions of nearly lost cultures. The attitudes changed from “everything we can get out of it the better” to “conservation, respect and impregnation of the earth”. The Presa Canario was no exception and with being relegated only to rural areas and cattlemen, it became the fashion for guardians in the urban areas. This began a slow but continuous recovery of the breed. The few breeders of those years began contact between them given the shortage of animals available for breeding. The necessity arose to control the crossings and attack as a team. That produced quickly, constituting the Club Espańol del Presa Canario, in which most breeders of Tenerife, who were responsible for most of the remaining population, took refuge. They also incorporated to their project, fans of the breed from Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and La Palma, establishing delegations on those islands. The official record signature was November 12, 1982 and in January 1983, they were recognized by the Real Sociedad Central as the only official representative for the recovery of the breed.
Popularization of the breed in the hands of the CEPRC could not have been more qualifying, but was spectacular through their numerous popular shows that reintroduced the islanders with the legendary dogs that they had heard their parents and grandparents tell of. As reward of this management of breeding, the demand for information reached unthinkable limits. The Club Espańol del Presa Canario negotiated and participated outside of competition of similar breeds on the road to recovery in the year 1985 at the National Exposition of Tenerife and the years 85 and 86 in the International of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. On October 19, 1986 and June 6, 1987 the first and second specialties for the Presa Canario took place. Reported entries were of 140 and 80 respectively, because of the presence of Don Valentine Alvarez, president in that time of the Real Central Society, and the delegate of the Commission of Spanish Races, Don Carlos Salas.
On November 1, 1987 a pair of Presa Canario ,a brindle male “Facian” from the island of Tenerife and a female of the same color “Marquise” from the island of Gran Canaria, in order to be presented at the International Exposition of Otono in Madrid, as the official presentation of the Presa Canario to the national authorities and to international circles.
On January 24, 1989, the official standard of the breed was approved. A historical moment that guaranteed the permanent position of the Presa Canario as a Spanish dog originating from the Canary Islands.
Manuel Martin Betherncourt, CEPRC
Judge and Breeder