The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is a breed of cattle-working dog native to the Azores, an island chain belonging to the nation of Portugal. This breed is known for its strong work drive and protective instincts. The breed has earned a reputation for aggressiveness, but this may have to do more with training and socialization than the breed’s natural tendencies. The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel has only recently been internationally recognized, although it has probably been found in the Azores for centuries. This breed remains very rare outside of Portugal but has recently been increasing in numbers. The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is also known as the Sao Miguel Cattle Dog, Saint Miguel Cattle Dog, Saint Michael Cattle Dog, Azores Cattle Dog, and Azorean Cattle Dog.
Most of the history of the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is unknown. This is because the breed developed long before written records were kept of dog breeding and that it was exclusively kept by working farmers in remote areas. Anything said about its origins is therefore little more than speculation and conjecture. All that is known for sure is that the breed was developed on the islands of Sao Miguel in the Azores, and that it has been present in its homeland since the start of the 19th Century. Despite the lack of evidence, some of the breed’s history can be pieced together.
It appears that European sailors may have had some knowledge of the Azores for centuries, although they were probably mostly mythological. In the 1420’s, Portuguese sailors officially discovered the islands and claimed them for Portugal. At the time of their discovery, the Azores were completely uninhabited by humans, and in fact had no native terrestrial mammals of any kind. In order to provide food for future sailors and colonists, the Azores’ first discoverers released cattle, pigs, sheep, and other livestock on the islands. Because the islands were home to rich vegetation and were completely devoid of predators, the released livestock multiplied rapidly, forming large herds within a few decades.
Portuguese settlers began to arrive from mainland Europe and the island of Madeira in the 1440’s. The technology of the time was much less than what is available today, and the only way for settlers to round up and capture the wild herds of cattle was through the use of dogs. Feral cattle are very large, extremely powerful, and exceedingly dangerous, and very few breeds are capable of working with them. Since at least Roman times, Western Europeans have chosen to use Molosser-type dogs for this purpose. Molossers, also known as Mastiffs, Matins, Alaunts, and Dogues, are one of the most ancient of all dog groups. Although each breed is different, Molossers are typified by large size, strong protective instincts, and a brachycephalic (pushed in) face. The reason that Molossers were used to work with feral cattle is that they were strong enough to hold even the largest bulls, aggressive enough to attack a beast many times their size, smart enough to avoid being gored or trampled, and possessed short, wide jaws that provided a large bite area. The Molossers of the Iberian Peninsula, especially those of Portugal, tend to be smaller and less brachycephalic than those found in the rest of Europe. However, many Iberian Molossers have been employed as cattle workers for centuries, and have earned worldwide fame and renown doing so.
Because the Azores were primarily settled by the Portuguese, most of the dogs which were brought to the islands were likely Portuguese as well. This means that the Cao de Fila Sao Miguel is probably most closely related to breeds such as the Rafeiro de Alentejo, Cao de Castro Laboreiro, and the Cao da Serra de Aires. Some settlers did come from elsewhere in Europe, including Spain, England, France, and Scandinavia, and these colonists may have brought their own dogs with them as well. When the Azores were first settled, travel across the seas was both very expensive and very dangerous. This meant that very few individual dogs would have arrived in the islands. Since there were so few animals available for breeding, those that were available were all crossed with each other. These crossbred dogs came to have a unique appearance and temperament, different from those of their ancestors. After a number of generations, these crossbred dogs began to breed true.
Initially, cattle production on the Azores was centered on the island of Terceira, which quickly became famous for its bullfighting. A breed of cattle working dog developed on Terceira from the Azores’ first canine inhabitants. Known as the Cao de Terceira, Cao Fila de Terceira, or the Terceira Dog, this breed has subsequently become extinct. It is thought that the Cao de Terceira was imported to the nearby island of Sao Miguel, where it gave rise to the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel. However, without better documentation or other evidence, this theory is impossible to prove. Even if it is true, it is not clear whether the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is entirely descended from the Cao de Terceira or whether that breed was crossed with animals already living on Sao Miguel. However the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel was developed, it is not clear when the breed first appeared. The breed first enters the historical record in the early 19th Century, which means that it has been in existence since at least that time. However, Portuguese writers very rarely discussed local dogs before that time meaning that the breed’s absence from literature is far from conclusive. Based on what historical evidence remains about the island, the breed was probably developed sometime between the 1430’s and the late 1700’s, but it is impossible to say for sure.
The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel became famous throughout the Azores for its great skill in herding, driving, and catching cattle, as well as its excellent guarding abilities. Local farmers used the breed to work with their livestock during the day and to protect their homes and families at night. Until the 1970’s, the breed was kept almost exclusively as a working dog. Breeders focused only on those traits which impacted the breed’s ability to work such as intelligence, athleticism, and a strong protective instinct. Appearance mattered little to breeders but because the island’s canine population was so small the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel came to be a very standardized breed.
The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel came to be found throughout the Azores, but was always primarily limited to Sao Miguel. Although a few individual breed members were probably exported to Brazil, mainland Portugal, Madeira, Cabo Verde, Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, and other regions where Portuguese traders regularly sailed, the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel did not become established outside of the Azores until late in the 20th Century.
Like many other Portuguese breeds, the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel has only recently achieved international recognition. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that the breed was essentially unknown outside of the Azores. Another is that breeders cared only for working ability, not kennel club recognition and appearance conformation shows. Perhaps most importantly, prior to the 1970’s, Portuguese dog shows were completely dominated by the very wealthy and politically powerful. Most participants preferred foreign breeds which were considered status symbols. Following the Portuguese Revolution of 1974, dog shows in the country became much more open to all classes. Large numbers of Portuguese farmers, sailors, and similar professions became involved in dog shows, most of whom preferred native Portuguese working breeds. The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel was one of the breed’s which most benefitted from this new openness. In 1984, the first written breed standard was published in Portugal, and the breed subsequently earned recognition with the Portuguese Kennel Club. The resulting fame increased interest in the breed in mainland Portugal, and several breed members were exported there. In 1995, the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) granted full recognition to the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel in a group alongside other Molossers, Pinschers, Schnauzers, and Swiss Cattle Dogs.
FCI recognition has greatly increased the global awareness of the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel. In recent years, a few breed members have been exported to other countries. Much of this interest has come from the rare pet market, but a number of new owners are interested in the breed’s protection and herding abilities. There is currently at least one breeder operating in the United States, the Acoriano Kennel. If interest in the breed continues to pick up, it is possible that the breed will eventually become established around the world for the first time. However, that will be a long time in the future as the breed’s population outside or Portugal is very tiny, and the Portuguese population itself is not very large. Unlike most modern breeds, the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is still used primarily as a working dog. The vast majority of breed members are either active or retired working dogs. Most breed members work as herding dogs although a few are used primarily for protection. In recent years, a growing number of fanciers are keeping this breed primarily as a companion, supposedly with great success.
The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is clearly a Molosser, but this breed is considerably less exaggerated than most members of its family, especially in terms of size, bulk, and the shortness of the face. Because this breed has only recently been pedigreed and recognized, it exhibits less standardization than is common in modern breeds. The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is a large breed, but not a massive one. The average male breed member stands between 19½ and 23½ inches tall at the shoulder, and the average female stands between 18½ and 23 inches. Although weight is heavily influenced by height and build, the average male in good condition weighs between 55 and 80 pounds, and the average female weighs between 44 and 66 pounds. The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is an incredibly muscular breed that should always appear extremely powerful and intimidating. This is an incredibly strong and athletic breed whose physical abilities are clearly visible through the dog’s appearance. Although this breed is powerful rather than lean, it is considerably less heavily built than most Molossers. The tail of the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is traditionally docked between at the 2nd or 3rd vertebrae, resulting in a short stump. In countries where the procedure remains legal, almost all breed members have docked tails. Tail docking is generally falling out of favor in is actually banned in some countries. The breed’s natural tail is thick, of medium length, and slightly curved.
The head and face of the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel are generally proportional to the size of the dog, although they tend to be somewhat large. The head is powerful, broad, and square shaped. The head and muzzle are quite distinct, connecting at a sharp angle. The muzzle itself is short, but not excessively so. The muzzle is broad and with overlapping lips, giving the mouth a square look. This breed has either a scissors or level bite, never an under bite. The nose of the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is large and should always be black. The ears of this breed are traditionally cropped and pricked so that they are shorter and stand erect. This breed has a unique traditional ear crop that is typified by rounded tips. Breed members in countries where ear cropping is still legal are almost entirely cropped. Much like tail docking, this practice continues to fall out of favor and is banned in some countries. The natural ears of this breed are medium-in-length, triangular-in-shape, and fold down but not especially close to the cheeks. The eyes of the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel are oval, expressive, medium-in-size, and brown in color. Most breed members have a confident and intense expression.
The coat of the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is short, smooth, dense, and harsh. The hair on the tail, on the thighs, and around the vent is slightly longer and may form a very slight fringe. Coloration is very important for this breed. The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel should always be brindled, meaning that its base color is interspersed with black stripes. So long as the dog is brindled, the color of the coat is not especially important, and breed members appear in fawn, pale fawn with black overlay, brown, reddish brown, and any shade of grey. This breed may exhibit white markings on the forehead, from the chest to the chin, and on the feet, but not all individuals do. For show purposes, dogs with white markings on the feet must have them on both front feet, both rear feet, or all four feet. Sometimes a Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is born in a different color such as a solid fawn or solid black. Such dogs are ineligible in the show ring and should not be bred but otherwise make just as good companions or working dogs as any other breed members.
The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is a working Molosser through and through and has the temperament one would expect of such a breed. Most sources on the breed claim that it is aggressive, although this may be the result of training and socialization rather than an inherent feature. This dog is known to form incredibly strong bonds with its owner, to whom it is intensely devoted. A Cao Fila de Sao Miguel will form a very close lifelong bond with its family, and can be extremely difficult to rehome. This breed has a very strong tendency to attach to a single individual, and many of these animals are definitely one-person dogs. Some breed members are more affectionate than others, but this is definitely not a fawningly affectionate breed. When raised with them from a young age and carefully socialized, most breed members will be fine with individual children with whom they are familiar. However, this breed is probably too dominant and rambunctious to make an ideal family dog, and many individuals are suspicious of strange children. Because this breed tends to be very dominant, an experienced owner is necessary to handle them.
This breed is known to be extremely protective of its owner, and most individuals are highly suspicious of strangers. Training and socialization are of the utmost importance for these dogs, otherwise they may not be able to properly distinguish which individuals pose real threats and develop aggression issues. Even the most tolerant breed members will probably always remain very aloof with and suspicious of strangers. This breed is extremely alert and very territorial making it an excellent watchdog that will deter all but the most determined intruders with its displays alone. The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel also makes a peerless guard dog that will not allow anyone to enter its home unchallenged. Although most breed members will display, bark, and growl to deter intruders, this is not a bite inhibited breed. The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel also makes an excellent personal protection dog that would unhesitatingly surrender its own life before it would allow harm to come to its family.
These dogs were bred to work with some of Europe’s most dangerous and least tame livestock. Animal aggression was absolutely necessary to their work. As a result, this breed tends to be highly animal aggressive. This is a dog that will attack and kill small animals with which it is not familiar, and possibly some that it is. When raised as a livestock working dog, the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel will not attack the livestock that it is tasked with working with, but it will bite them in order to do its job. This breed also tends to be quite dog aggressive, especially the males. Most breed members are probably better off as either an only dog or in a home with a single member of the opposite sex. Proper training and socialization will greatly reduce dog aggression issues, but some breed members are simply never trustworthy around other dogs.
The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is a very intelligent breed that is probably capable of learning anything that any breed can, especially advanced herding behaviors. This breed has competed with success at a number of canine sports including competitive obedience and agility. Most breed members seem very willing to please and are quite obedient to their masters’ commands. This obedience only extends to those whom the dog respects, however. This breed tends to be extremely challenging and dominant and under no circumstances will one obey the commands of someone it feels is lower than itself in the pack’s dominance hierarchy. This means that owners of these dogs absolutely must remain in a constant position of dominance.
The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel was bred to perform very vigorous activity for long hours. This is an extremely athletic and energetic breed that requires a very large amount of daily exercise. A Cao Fila de Sao Miguel should receive at least an hour of rigorous exercise every day, and preferably several more. Breed members that are not provided proper outlets for their energy will almost certainly develop behavioral problems such as destructiveness, hyperactivity, excessive barking, over excitability, and aggression. That being said, this breed is nowhere near as demanding as some other herding breeds such as Border Collies or Australian Cattle Dogs, and will usually relax in the home if provided sufficient activity. This intelligent breed is absolutely driven to work, and must be provided tasks that exercise its mind as well as its body. These dogs do best when given cattle to herd, but will also accept other complex tasks such as agility. Because of this breeds intense exercise needs and large size, the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel adapts very poorly to apartment life and does best with very large yards or on farms.
The Cao Fila de Sao Miguel is a very low maintenance breed that should never require professional grooming. This breed only requires a thorough brushing once or twice a week and those routine maintenance procedures necessary for all dogs such as nail clipping and occasional bathing. It is highly advisable for owners of these dogs to introduce them to baths, ear cleanings, and the like from as early an age and as carefully as possible. It is much easier to rinse of a ten pound and willing puppy than an 80 pound and resistant adult. Because this breed is rarely kept except as a working dog, there do not seem to be any reports on its shedding. However, it is fair to assume that this breed does shed and probably quite heavily.
It does not appear that any health studies have been conducted on the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel, which makes it impossible to make any definitive statements on the breed’s health. In the Azores, the breed is known to exhibit exceptional health. There are no known issues in Azorean dogs, and breed members from the islands often live to an incredibly advanced age of 15 or more. Dogs from elsewhere in the world are thought to be somewhat less healthy. The very small number of breed members outside of the Azores have an equally small gene pool and may be at risk for a number of conditions. Additionally, non-Azorean dogs are often bred to be significantly larger than the written standard, putting them at risk for shorter life expectancies and greater health problems.
Although skeletal and visual problems are not thought to occur at high rates in this breed it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
Even though health studies have not been conducted on the Cao Fila de Sao Miguel, they have been for similar and closely related breeds. Among the problems of greatest concern that have been discovered include: