The Dogo Cubano was a Mastiff-type dog originating in Cuba. The dog was the descendant of Spanish war dogs that were later crossed with English Mastiffs and scent hounds. The breed had several different purposes including livestock guarding, hunting down runaway slaves, and dog fighting. The breed supposedly became extinct after the abolishment of slavery in Cuba. Not much is known for sure about the breed, but there are a number of records of its existence. The Dogo Cubano was also known as the Cuban Mastiff, Cuba Mastiff, Mastin Cubano, and the Mastin de Cuba. There is some confusion as to the breed’s relationship with the Cuban Bloodhound with some sources treating them as the same breed and others treating them differently.
The Dogo Cubano was a member of a large family of dogs collectively known as the Mastiffs, Molossers, Dogues, or Alaunts. This family is one of the oldest groups of domestic dogs, although their history is incredibly disputed. Some claim that they are descended from the ancient war dogs of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and were later spread across the Mediterranean by Phoenician and Greek traders. The most common story for their origin is that they are the descendants of the Molossus, feared war dog of the Greek and Roman armies. Others believe that they are descended from the Tibetan Mastiff and introduced to Europe by the Roman Empire. Many other researchers believe that they are descended from the Pugnaces Britanniae, the massive war dog of the Pre-Roman Celts of Britain, which is traditionally associated with the English Mastiff. It is also commonly claimed that the Mastiffs are in fact descended from the Alaunt, a type of Caucasian Owtcharka kept by the Alan tribe of the Caucasus Mountains.
However the Mastiffs were introduced into Western Europe, they became widespread. These dogs became especially common in England and Spain. Both countries bred Mastiffs as war dogs, property guardians, and combatants in blood sports. There were at least two major varieties of Mastiff-type dog in Spain, the Mastin and the Alano. The Mastin was larger and slower moving. This breed was most commonly used as a livestock and property guardian, but also as a war dog. The Alano was smaller, faster, and more aggressive. This type was primarily used as a catch-dog and combatant in blood sports, although it too was a formidable beast of war. Both of these breeds were present in Spain since at least Roman times, and possibly earlier. In 711, most of the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain was conquered by Islamic Moors from North Africa leaving a few pockets of resistance in the Northwest and Pyrenees Mountains. Shortly thereafter, a small number of Christian kingdoms led by Asturias began the Reconquista, a series of Crusades with the aim of driving the last Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. The Christian kingdoms made extensive use of Mastins, Alaunts, and Galgos Espanoles (Spanish Greyhounds) during the Reconquista. These breeds were extremely effective combatants before gun powder was in common use. They were used to attack enemy foot soldiers, and all three dogs earned a reputation for extreme courage and ferocity. The Reconquista took more than 700 years to complete, and didn’t end until the last Islamic stronghold of the Kingdom of Granada surrendered on January 2, 1492. This meant that the Spanish war dogs were still extremely aggressive when the first missions of explorations discovered the New World.
While the Spanish were busy fighting the near constant wars of the Reconquista, the rest of Western Europe was engaged in fighting other Crusades in the Middle East. European nobility living in the Holy Land became familiar with Asiatic trade goods such as spices and silk for the first time. Their appetite for such luxuries did not diminish in the slightest when they returned to the homelands, and a thriving trade industry began. Portuguese and Spanish traders began sailing around the coasts of Africa and making tepid journeys far out into the Atlantic Ocean trying to discover a new route to the Orient. One such explorer was the Genoan merchantman Cristobol Colon, known in English as Christopher Columbus. After a number of failed attempts to gain funding for his expedition, Columbus convinced Ferdinand and Isabella, the first rulers of a United Spain (comprised of the former kingdoms of Castille and Aragon), to provide him with three vessels. As did every educated person of his day, Columbus knew that the world was round and he intended to reach the Far East by sailing due West.
Although he died believing that he had reached Indonesia, Columbus became the first European to discover the Caribbean. He discovered Cuba on his first voyage to the New World, reaching the island sometime in October of 1492, less than a year after the last Moors had been driven from Iberia. Believing that the island possessed a great amount of gold, Spanish soldiers and settlers began flooding the island. Cuba had a very large native population, although exact estimate of its size range from the hundreds of thousands into the millions. These natives possessed Stone Age technology, which was no match for that of the Spaniards, who not only possessed the most advanced technology of the time but were also battle hardened after 700 years of war. Just as they had in Spain, the Spaniards brought their Mastins and Alanos with them to Cuba, where they proved even more devastating. The ferocious war dogs of Spain had been bred to fight armored men with steel blades and horses. The Cuban natives possessed none of this technology leaving them nearly helpless against these ferocious beasts. The dogs were also an extreme psychological advantage for the Spaniards, as the natives had never encountered war dogs before, or any dog larger than a medium-sized Pariah Dog. Columbus himself was the first Spaniard to order a “dogging” in the Caribbean, in 1492 on the island of Jamaica. The large dog was able to single-handedly kill a dozen native Jamaicans without major injury to itself.
The Spanish earned a reputation for extreme cruelty towards the natives, especially when it came to their dogs. The Spanish not only used their dogs against armed native resistance movements, but also loosed them on unarmed civilians. There are many accounts of the ferociousness of these dogs. The famed clergymen and native advocate Bartoleme de las Casas was present on Hispaniola in 1495 when the first pitched battle between Spaniards of Caribbean natives took place. The Spanish released 20 dogs, which killed their victims by ripping out their throats and disemboweling them. The Spanish trained their dogs for extreme viciousness, and it was rumored that they were fled human flesh to increase their desire to kill. Las Casas claimed that there were markets where Spaniards could by human body parts to feed their dogs, but that account is very likely to have been one of his exaggerations. After Cuba was fully subjugated, most of the natives were enslaved. Those natives who fled to the woods to continue the resistance were hunted down with dogs and then killed. If the Spanish suspected that villagers were providing support to the resistance, they would often order their dogs to slaughter them as punishment. The Spaniards continued to use their Mastins and Alanos after active resistance had ceased. Every family was required to pay a tribute of gold and crops. If they could not pay, dogs were used to punish them. Sometimes, dogs would be ordered to chase down and attack innocent natives, on the theory that it would help them maintain their killer instinct. Dogs were also used to track down and punish those accused of committing crimes against God and the Catholic Church. Interestingly, the same dogs that brutally slaughtered natives were usually extremely friendly and affectionate with their Spanish masters. Many Spaniards came to believe that individual dogs were, “Perros Sabios,” or, “Learned Dogs.” Perros Sabios were allegedly able to tell the difference between a Spaniard and a native, and some could supposedly tell the difference between a Christian and a pagan. Some dogs were said to even be able to tell the difference between a devout Christian and a sinner.
Eventually, most of the native inhabitants of Cuba had been Christianized and enslaved. As has been the case throughout history anywhere with large slave populations, a sizable number of Cuban slaves escaped. Such slaves became known as Cimarrones, and independent communities in the Cuban interior. The Cimarrones became infamous for raiding Spanish settlements, killing livestock and stealing crops to feed themselves. The Spanish began to employ their Mastins and Alanos against the Cimarrones. These dogs were used to track down and capture individual slaves, as well as in battle against Cimarron communities. Used in Spain to guard cattle and other livestock from bears and wolves, these dogs also served to prevent Cimarron raids. Largely due to introduced disease, the native population of Cuba plummeted. In need of new slaves to work their growing plantations, Spanish colonists began importing enslaved Africans from East Africa and captured Muslims from North Africa. Although less familiar with the territory than the native Cubans, they were no less likely to escape and added to the Cimarron population.
Because of the great cost of shipping such large dogs across the Atlantic, and the fact than many dogs perished on the journey, a fairly small number of Spanish dogs arrived on Cuba. Out of necessity, these dogs were all bred together on the island. The distinction between the Alano and the Mastin began to disappear on the island. It appears that individual dogs may have been considered one variety or the other, but they were not in any sense pure bred. The resulting crosses between the Alano and Mastin became known as the Dogo Cubano. The Dogo Cubano was intermediate in size between the Mastin and Alano, but maintained the ferocity and aggression of both its forebears. As time went on, the dog’s ability to track down Cimarrones became increasingly important. Scent hounds were imported into Cuba for their keen noses and dedication to tracking. These dogs were crossed with the Dogo Cubano to increase its sense of smell and tracking instincts. As a result, the Dogo Cubano became somewhat hound-like, with a longer muzzle than most Mastiffs and somewhat longer ears. There is substantial disagreement as to what types of scent hounds were used. English sources usually claim that Bloodhounds, a breed extremely familiar to the English, was the primary breed used. However, there doesn’t seem to be any records of such imports. Other sources claim that Spanish scent hounds were used, and in fact this is much more likely.
It is unclear as to what became of these imported scent hounds. Although almost all sources agree that they were extensively interbred with the Dogo Cubano, many also claim that at least some were kept pure. These purebred scent hounds became known in English as Cuban Bloodhounds. Some sources treat the Cuban Bloodhound as a unique breed which became extinct at roughly the same time as the Dogo Cubano. Other sources seem to imply that all of the scent hounds were crossed with Dogo Cubanos. These sources imply that either the term Cuban Bloodhound was just a way to describe those Dogo Cubanos with the most pronounced scent hound characteristics, or that it was just another name for the entire breed.
Although the British got a much later start than their Spanish counterparts, they eventually came to have a major presence in the Caribbean as well. British traders and privateers made regular visits to Cuba where they first came into contact with the Dogo Cubano, which they called the Cuban Mastiff. These men were very impressed by the ferocity of the Dogo Cubano, and the breed began to make regular appearances in English language books written about dog breeds. The Cuban Mastiff is mentioned in the works of renowned canine authors Stonehenge and George Wood, as well as in several encyclopedias. At some point, the Cuban aristocracy imported English Mastiffs to cross with their existing Dogo Cubanos. It is unclear exactly when this occurred, but some sources claim that it occurred during the reign of Philip II which took place between 1556 and 1598.
The Dogo Cubano was an incredibly aggressive breed, and the Cuban populace began to pit the breed against itself in dog fights. It is unclear how popular these fights were, but they were certainly considerably less popular than cock fights. Since most dog fights were held to the death, a number of Dogo Cubanos began to perish in the ring. The Dogo Cubano was also pitted in fights to the death against bulls, in a similar manner to the Alano or the Old English Bulldog. The wide Mastiff jaws made the Dogo Cubano ideally suited for bull fighting, as they provided the dog the widest possible bite area to grab a hold of the bull with. The fact that the Dogo Cubano was substantially shorter than the Mastin gave it a lower center of gravity, which in turn made it better able to counteract the force of an enraged bull.
Slavery persisted in Cuba long after it had died out most other parts of the Western World. It was not until 1880 that the first anti-slavery legislation was passed in Cuba, and it was not until 1886 that the last vestiges of indentured servitude were officially eliminated. Prior to this time, slavery was very widespread across Cuba, and a very large percentage of the island’s population was comprised of slaves. Until the very end of slavery, there was a major need to track down and capture runaway slaves, and the Dogo Cubanos had plenty of work. However, once slavery ended there was very little need to keep these dogs around. There are no populations of large animal found on Cuba which the Dogo Cubano could have hunted. The breed was so extremely human aggressive that it was very difficult to keep as a companion dog. The same social changes that led to Cuban emancipation movement was going on, blood sports were becoming considerably less popular. Dog fighting and bull fighting became increasingly rare, and the practice of fighting bulls with dogs eventually disappeared altogether.
The Dogo Cubano was a dog without a purpose by the 1890’s, and even more it was a massive dog without a purpose. It was extremely expensive to keep such an animal, especially on an island that suffered from mass poverty. Breeding of Dogo Cubanos ceased almost entirely by 1900, and the last remaining breed members died out shortly thereafter. If the Cuban Bloodhound was a separate breed or a different variety of Dogo Cubano, it went extinct at around the same time for the same reasons. Although not nearly as popular as cock fighting, dog fighting continued to be practiced in some parts of Cuba. These dog fighters came to prefer smaller breeds such as Bull Terriers and American Pit Bull Terriers. It is quite possible, although somewhat unlikely, that they added in the blood of the last remaining Dogo Cubanos into their lines of fighting dog. If so, some trace of Dogo Cubano may live on across Cuba, albeit in a very diluted state.
The Dogo Cubano was generally similar to other Mastiffs, although it was still quite distinct. Most sources claim that the breed was intermediate in height between the Old English Bulldog and the English Mastiff, which means that the breed would have stood between 20 and 22 inches tall at the shoulder. The breed was said to be incredibly heavy for its height, and most sources claim that it was the heaviest of all dogs. The breed apparently weighed an average of 300 pounds or more. If so, this dog was probably the most massive breed in history. This weight was achieved largely through immense bulk and thickness, although the breed was also extremely muscular and powerful. Most drawings show a dog that had the thick, straight legs of a Mastiff, and a long, straight back. The tail of this breed was apparently quite variable. Some were very long and tapering, while others were quite short with a pronounced curve. The coat of the Dogo Cubano was quite short, as befits a dog native to balmy Cuba. The breed was said to come in a variety of colors, but the most common was probably a rusty brown.
The head of the Dogo Cubano was said to be intermediate between that of other Mastiffs and scent hounds. The appearance of each individual dog was probably quite distinct depending on the relative amounts of Mastiff and blood in its ancestry. The head was apparently relatively square, and possessed a massive musculature. The breed had a medium-length muzzle that was quite distinct from the rest of the breed’s face. The muzzle had a slight upwards curve and ended in a large nose. The muzzle was very wide, giving the dog an immensely powerful bite. The dog possessed very large teeth, but it is unclear if it had the under bite of a typical Molosser or the level bite of a hound. This breed possessed very pronounced jowls and its face was quite wrinkly, although apparently to a lesser extent than the English Mastiff. The ears of the Dogo Cubano were dropped down closely to its head, but were occasionally (although not typically) cropped.
The Dogo Cubano was known for being extremely courageous and aggressive. Dogo Cubanos were willing to face any enemy without fear, and some seemed to face challenges with great enjoyment. The dog was famed for its intense loyalty and protective instinct towards its master. The breed was said to be willing to follow its master anywhere, and to lay down its life for him without hesitation if necessary. However, the breed was extremely aggressive towards those it was not familiar. The dog was willing to attack ferociously if necessary, but most were trained to subdue with as little violence as necessary in order to avoid seriously injuring valuable slaves. The Dogo Cubano was known to be highly animal aggressive, willing and eager to fight bulls and other dogs to the death. The breed was apparently highly intelligent and quite trainable, at least when the goal was to teach the breed to track or fight. Based on what is known about the dog, it was likely extremely dominant, requiring a very firm hand. The Dogo Cubano possessed a keen sense of smell which allowed it to track Cimarrones through the Cuban wilds. The dog was also driven to follow a trail, dedicatedly pursuing it to its end.