A rare breed, the Rafeiro do Alentejo is an almost completely unknown throughout the world, and even in its homeland of Portugal the breed enjoys minimal recognition. The Rafeiro do Alentejo is one of eight national breeds in Portugal , (the others being the Cao da Serra de Aires, Cao de Castro Laboreiro, Cao Fila de San Miguel, Estrela Mountain Dog, Portuguese Podengo, Portuguese Pointer and the Portuguese Water Dog) and is also known by the names Portuguese Mastiff, Alentejo Mastiff, and the Portuguese Watchdog. Originating in Alentejo, the historic region of Portugal that borders Spain in the south, the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed clearly takes its name from its homeland. Portugal has very differing climates from the North to the South regions, and because of this the breed was originally developed and used to move livestock back and forth from the Alentejo Plateau to the mountains of Portugal with the changing seasons. Roughly translated, Rafeiro do Alentejo can therefore, be understood to mean “the mongrel of/from Alentejo”.
In prehistoric times, a mighty race of canines was used by the ancients in many capacities. These impressively large and fierce dogs were known as Molossers, named for the Molossian people of western Greece, by whom the breed was first developed. So trusted, and so powerful were these dogs that the peoples of the ancient world would use them to supplement their armies, as guardians of their flocks and property, and even in hunting large game animals like lions and wild horses. The first records of a Molosser-type dog go back to the time of the Trojan War, approximately 2800 B.C. It is noted that the Greeks would bring these dogs along with them when they set their ships afloat upon the ancient seas.
As the Greeks spread their culture throughout the known world, they would also spread the genes of that ancient race of dog. From these archaic and noble beginnings, would evolve many large breed dogs that would over centuries, take on their own specific characteristics based on geography and the genetics available to them. From the Molossers, many well known breeds would be created; dogs like the St. Bernard, the Boxer, and most of the Mountain Dog breeds claim lineage with this ancient breed. The Mastiff breeds that have developed throughout the world are thought to be descended from the original Molosser-type, believed to have been traveling with Alexander the Great during his military campaigns. The popular Mastiff breeds would go on to populate all areas of the world, although how and when they specifically ended up in certain locations may always be lost to history and legend. Although many well known breeds would spring forth from this ancient gene-pool, from the Molosser-type an uncommon breed would also develop. The Rafeiro do Alentejo of Portugal also claims to descend from the grand Molosser breed.
The Rafeiro do Alentejo is as thus, a mixed-breed dog which developed genetically without any intended assistance from its human companions, as opposed to a cross-breed which occurs when two dogs are specifically bred with one another to produce a particular result. The true lineage of the breed is unknown and still being debated and many theories have been given to explain the origins of the Rafeiro do Alentejo. It is believed that the Rafeiro do Alentejo counts the Tibetan Mastiff in its ancestry. The breed may therefore, have had its genesis in the Tibetan Highlands and traveled west across Asia Minor and as far as the Atlantic during the time of the Roman conquests.
Other theories include the Anatolian Shepherd Dog as being in the ancestry of the breed and even the St. John’s Water Dog (the ancestor of today’s modern retriever breeds) has been mentioned as a possible ancestor. The Estrela Mountain Dog and the Mastin de Espanol are certainly probable ancestors to the Rafeiro do Alentejo. It is known that in the winter, the Estrela Mountain Dogs would travel south into Alentejo and mate with the local dog breeds. The Mastin de Espanol also traveled into Alentejo from the south with the changing seasons. Thus these two dog breeds likely lent their genes to the local stock of puppies being whelped in Alentejo.
Although the exact lineage and history of this breed is left to legend, guesswork, and speculation; what is known to be true is that the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed has been in Portugal since ancient times, and hundreds of years of evolution and development has created in this type, a dog breed with its own very specific and unique characteristics both physically and temperamentally as well; making the Rafeiro do Alentejo distinguishable from other similar types regionally.
Historical records indicate that the ancient tribes living on the Iberian Peninsula had as their main subsistence, livestock; mainly sheep and cattle. These tribes are therefore considered responsible for developing the Rafeiro do Alentejo into a livestock and guardian breed, known for being large, stocky, and having great strength and power. The dogs were used to protect the herds from neighboring tribes as well as wild predators. The geographical concerns and climactic difficulties of the region meant, from early times, that it was necessary to move the herds seasonally in order to have adequate land for the animals to graze on. Therefore, the Rafeiro do Alentejo was used to drive large herds of sheep and cattle to pasture and back annually. Because of their usefulness, the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed, along with other similar working dogs from neighboring regions, became greatly esteemed by the local people.
Over time, as populations began to give up their nomadic ways and settle into more permanent living situations, the job of the livestock dogs would change. No longer needed for driving and guarding the herds, the Rafeiro do Alentejo became a guardian of property. The wealthy citizens of Portugal began to make use of the breed as guard dogs on their large rural estates. With this change in profession, the implication of the breed’s name would also change. Originally understood to imply a “mongrel”, the word rafeiro evolved to mean things like big, strong, brave, and protector. Both the original meaning and the later translation when combined give the most accurate description of the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed; a big, strong, protective dog developed out of a mix of local breeds.
As the Rafeiro do Alentejo continued to develop as a guard dog to the wealthy Portuguese landowners, Portugal itself would also continue to develop successfully and become an important world power in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Rafeiro do Alentejo breed would become a symbol of the power of the Portuguese aristocracy at this time. A multifunctional dog, the Rafeiro do Alentejo was used by the nobility of Portugal to protect their large estates, to hunt large game such as wild boar, and were kept as loyal companions. Various Portuguese Kings were known to fancy the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed, and would keep them in packs as hunting companions. At this time, Portugal was involved in the colonization of non-European lands. The Rafeiro do Alentejo was consequently exported to the Azore Islands and even as far as South America.
For many decades Portugal would enjoy wealth, power, and status among the European monarchies. However, Portugal, like so many world powers, would see its own demise. The loss of status as a powerful European monarchy would occur with the destruction of the capital city of Lisbon in 1755 during an earthquake experienced there. The following centuries would bring the Napoleonic Wars, and the gaining of independent status of Portugal’s most important colony in the New World, Brazil, in 1822. The difficulties for Portugal would continue, and a revolution in the early part of the 20th century would dissolve the monarchy there completely. Many of the wealthy landowners of Portugal were murdered during the revolution. The Rafeiro do Alentejo, being a symbol of the royal monarchy and its wealth and power, experienced a similar fate as their unfortunate masters. Seeing the sad fate of the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed, two cynologists, Antonio Cabral and Filipe Romeiras, became interested in the breed and its future. The two began to document the breed and its present circumstance. From their work, the first breed standard was developed for the Rafeiro do Alentejo in 1953.
After the first revolution, Portugal would be controlled for the following decades by oppressive governments, leading to another revolution in 1974. The working class of Portugal revolted against the landowners once again. They created an occupation and attempted to prevent the landowners from entering their estates. As the Rafeiro do Alentejo was a natural guardian and developed to be a loyal and protective companion to those who care for it, the breed was loyal to the workers who were employed as their caregivers by the wealthy owners of the estates. The landowners were sadly forced to kill their own dogs just to gain access to their properties. The political circumstances of Portugal as well as the revolutions that the country experienced contributed to a dramatic decline in the population of the majestic Rafeiro do Alentejo breed during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
By the 1980’s, it was probable that the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed would not survive for much longer. The efforts of The Faculty of Veterinaries in Evora, and the dedicated work of some lovers of the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed would prove to be enough to prevent the extinction of the breed. The development of the Rafeiro do Alentejo continues today, and the breed is no longer in danger of disappearing. The Rafeiro do Alentejo currently has two dog clubs dedicated to the breed, in Portugal. They are the Association de Criadores do Rafeiro do Alentejo and the Clube Portuguese do Rafeiro do Alentejo. The current breed standard used by these clubs for the Rafeiro do Alentejo was rewritten in 1996.
The Rafeiro do Alentejo was one of the first dog breeds recognized by the Federation Cynologique Internationale. In 2005, the Rafeiro do Alentejo was recorded in the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Foundation Stock Service, being assigned to the Working Group. The breed has been given full recognition as the Alentejo Mastiff by the United Kennel Club (UKC) operating out of the United States, in the Guardian Dog Group. The breed is allowed to be sold under the name Rafeiro do Alentejo as well as the name Portuguese Mastiff, and is promoted as a rare breed. Although generally valued more recently as a watchdog or guard-dog, the Rafeiro do Alentejo is sometimes still used as a superb hunting companion.
The Rafeiro do Alentejo is a large breed dog, pastoral in appearance and strong. Males average between 26 and 29 inches in height with females falling just below that with an average of 25 to 27½ inches. The average weight for the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed can range from 77 to 110 lbs. The Rafeiro do Alentejo moves with a weighty, leisurely, and rolling gait.
The head of the Rafeiro do Alentejo has been described as bear-like; it is wide and round, but proportionate to the size of the body. The head is heavy, with an unpronounced stop and a moderate furrow between the brows. The muzzle is of a medium size and possessing a nasal bridge that is straight, with a black nose that is oval in shape. The dark lips are firm and lean, faintly round and overlapping. The jaws are solid and powerful, giving way to strong white teeth that display a complete scissors bite. The dark eyes are small in size and set level on the face; they give the Rafeiro do Alentejo a sober and calm expression. The ears are small and triangular, they display little mobility as they are carried folded over and held moderately high on the head.
The neck is strong and short. It gives way to well-muscled shoulders that are slightly angled. The forelegs are set well apart; powerful and long, the forelegs are straight with a slight slope at the pasterns. The body of the Rafeiro do Alentejo is husky; longer than it is tall, with a deep and broad chest. The back is straight and leads into a wide loin, slightly arched and well covered in powerful muscles. The hindquarters are set well apart; the upper thigh is wide and it is long, with a slight angle. The feet display long toes that are tight and only moderately arched, with thick and hearty pads and multi-colored nails. Dewclaws may be present. The tail of the Rafeiro do Alentejo curves just a bit at the base and is long and substantial.
The skin is thick and fits tightly around the dog’s musculature. The coat should be moderate in length, without evidence of a wave or curl, and dense. The coat should cover the body of the Rafeiro do Alentejo fairly evenly and may be black, fawn, or yellow (wolf-like) with white markings, or it may be white with any combination of these colors as markings. The coat markings can be of any style including dappled, brindled, or streaked.
The Rafeiro do Alentejo is a quiet, somber, serious dog. Not well suited for an inexperienced dog owner, the breed is large, dominant, intelligent, and possesses a strong will. The Rafeiro do Alentejo can be a handful for an owner that is passive or meek. If obedience training and socialization are begun early in the dog’s life the Rafeiro do Alentejo will become an excellent companion and a considerate housemate. The training for a Rafeiro do Alentejo should be extensive and consistent, performed by an experienced and highly competent owner. If the training is not precise and the trainer is not confident, the Rafeiro do Alentejo can be difficult to control. The breed’s strong temperament can only be properly handled by someone who is patient and exudes a quality of leadership naturally, as the dog will pick up on this and will look up to the right owner as its pack leader.
The Rafeiro do Alentejo was bred to be a guard dog; responsible for keeping livestock safe from both dangerous animal predators as well as clever human predators; therefore, the Rafeiro do Alentejo developed into a superb watchdog and guardian over time. Known to be a keen and alert watchdog by day, the Rafeiro do Alentejo’s talents as guardian are particularly evident in its watchdog tactics performed at night. The breed is highly territorial and will take ownership of the people and things in its perceived territory, protecting anything it considers to be under its watch faithfully and confidently. Being a well bred guard dog, the Rafeiro do Alentejo is naturally suspicious of strangers. The breed possesses a low, deep bark; combined with the Rafeiro do Alentejo’s impressive stature and powerful jaws, the dog’s appearance and sound are a deterrent to anyone or anything contemplating a confrontation with such a guardian. Although the breed may appear threatening, the Rafeiro do Alentejo displays a calm and courageous temperament; its peaceful demeanor makes it a dog of defense rather than one of offense, meaning it is in no way considered to be an attack dog. The Rafeiro do Alentejo will however, when provoked, aggressively defend itself, its territory, and its loved ones.
While the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed is untrusting of strangers, the dog behaves surprisingly well with children. They are a docile and gentle companion for little ones, due to their breeding as a flock protector making them naturally inclined to protect children like they would sheep. They are considered to be “gentle giants’ around their flocks, and the Rafeiro do Alentejo will be such with the little ones living in its home. The breed enjoys being included in activities with children as often as possible. As with all dogs, the Rafeiro should be supervised when playing with young children, not for fear that the dog may become aggressive toward the child, but because of the dog’s large size, accidental injuries are possible. The Rafeiro do Alentejo will also tolerate most other animals and pets, but must be introduced to these other animals at a young age for their tolerance of them to be firmly established.
Due to the Rafeiro do Alentejo’s general inclination to be dominant, it is extremely important for socialization to begin early and to continue long into the dog’s development. Early exposure to new people, places, and things will assist the dog in understanding its place in the world and what is proper behavior in varying situations that it will encounter. Extensive socialization will also correct any overly dominant tendencies that the dog may display. Once fully grown, a Rafeiro do Alentejo that has been allowed to cultivate a dominant personality may become too powerful and too big to be properly corrected. When this occurs, the dog may believe it is in charge and will ignore any commands from their owners. This can easily develop into a problem because of the size and strength of the breed. The Rafeiro do Alentejo breed is slow to mature, generally not reaching adulthood until about 4 years of age. A strong and experienced owner is necessary to help the Rafeiro do Alentejo to become a well-adjusted adult dog.
This Rafeiro do Alentejo is not the kind of dog that like to learn little tricks that will be useful in pleasing and entertaining its owner. They are workers and anticipate hard work ahead; therefore they conserve their energy for useful purposes; like protecting their homes, the flock, and their family. The Rafeiro do Alentejo is said to learn at a moderate pace, with their competence in obedience training rated low and their problem solving skills rate low. This is due to the breed’s serious nature, it will work hard and does not waste its energy on cute little parlor tricks. The Rafeiro do Alentejo has been described as stubborn, hard-headed, and strong-willed and their early training should never focus on tricks, but on establishing proper pack leadership and the dog’s understanding of its place within the pack.
Motivational training works best for the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed, and training should be performed with love and care, by a calm and steady leader. The Rafeiro do Alentejo is a sensitive breed and they will respond poorly to harsh reprimands and forceful techniques. When these inappropriate types of training methods are used with the Rafeiro do Alentejo, the result can be a dog that is unpredictable and overly sensitive. The Rafeiro do Alentejo will only accept affection as a reward, and the breed is quick to respond to this type of motivation. Training using love and affection as a reward will also encourage bonding and loyalty between the Rafeiro do Alentejo and its owner.
Not only does the Rafeiro do Alentejo mature slowly emotionally, but the breed also matures slowly physically. Therefore, as a puppy, the breed should not be overexerted when it comes to trick such as running, jumping, and performing obstacles. The Rafeiro do Alentejo will grow quite large and heavy as it matures, and it needs adequate time to develop a strong and healthy body. Simple and basic obedience training will be sufficient to meet the Rafeiro do Alentejo’s exercise and leadership requirements in order for the dog to become a well-adjusted adult; extensive or complicated obedience training is not recommended for the breed.
The breed is not one for vigorous daily activity, as the breed naturally conserves its energy in the anticipation of hard work ahead. When fully grown, the Rafeiro do Alentejo requires low to average exercise, and a daily walk or short jog will be plenty to keep the dog healthy. Practically inactive when indoors, the Rafeiro do Alentejo prefers to be outdoors where it can guard its flock and territory. Apartment living is not recommended for this breed due to its desire to be outdoors and large size. The ideal home environment for a Rafeiro do Alentejo is rural, where there is a fenced yard and room for the dog to roam without being confronted with strangers. Fenced outdoor areas are recommended for the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed as they are extremely territorial and if obvious boundaries are not clearly defined, the dog will decided the boundaries on its own and guard them confidently. If allowed to determine its own boundaries, the Rafeiro do Alentejo can present a dangerous situation as the dog is the only one aware of such boundaries and strangers who happen to wonder onto the dog’s perceived property may be viewed as intruders.
Although large in size and possessing a naturally dominant personality, the Rafeiro do Alentejo is a loving breed, protective and caring. When properly developed, the Rafeiro do Alentejo can make a great guard dog and a loving companion to families and experienced dog owners. The breed is overall a pleasant housemate, requiring little activity to keep it happy and healthy. The Rafeiro do Alentejo can be wary of strangers but is moderately friendly and well behaved with other animals and endlessly patient and kind to children.
A low to average shedder with only a moderately long coat, the Rafeiro do Alentejo requires a minimal amount of care and grooming to keep it healthy and looking sharp. Brushing the dog occasionally should generally suffice to keep the coat free of debris and tangles. The breed does experience a heavy shedding period twice a year. During these times, the dog should be brushed daily to remove loose, dead hair.
As with all dog breeds, special attention should be paid to the eyes, ears, nose, teeth, and nails of the Rafeiro do Alentejo. These areas should be cleaned and checked regularly to ensure that infection or injury does not occur. The nails should naturally wear down, but if they do not then they should be trimmed as needed. The Rafeiro do Alentejo has hanging ears, and therefore should have its ear canals checked and cleaned regularly to prevent health concerns in this area.
The Rafeiro do Alentejo is a generally healthy breed, with an average lifespan of 12 years. A hearty dog, the average litter size for the Rafeiro do Alentejo is 9 – 13 puppies which is a relatively large litter. Little data for health issues exists for the Rafeiro do Alentejo breed, however Canine Hip Dysplasia (CHD) has been seen on rare occasion. Breeds with large, deep chests like the Rafeiro do Alentejo can sometimes experience bloat and stomach torsion (twisting) as well.