Images of dogs resembling the Neapolitan Mastiff have been found on Assyrian reliefs and Persian plaques from the 7th century B.C. Throughout ancient civilizations, the ancestors of the Neo were prized as fighting dogs of early courts, palaces and warrior leaders. It is said that they “fought anything, guarded everything and, in suitable armour, even went to war.” The Neapolitan Mastiff’s predecessors were bred for performance and ability rather than consistency in looks. Alexander the Great was instrumental in creating the Neapolitan Mastiff that we know today. In the 4th century B.C., he apparently crossed his giant Macedonian and Epirian war dogs with short-haired Indian dogs to create a breed called the Molossus, which he used to fight lions, tigers, elephants and men. The Romans later adopted the Molossus for their own use in battle, hunting and Coliseum competition. The Roman’s conquest of Britain in 54 B.C. gave them access to other enormous breeds, which they crossed with the Molossus.
Over the ensuing centuries, Neapolitan farmers in southern Italy selectively bred the Mastino dog (descending from the Roman Molossus crosses) to retain the huge size, loose skin and heavy dewlap of its ancestors, but to be more of a stay-at-home dog that blended well with families while still being proficient at deterring intruders. Many reports suggest that the Neapolitan Mastiff was purposely developed to be alarmingly ugly, with looks alone sufficient to repulse and repel unwelcome visitors. One author has described the Neo as the only dog that looks like a hippopotamus.
Italians began to seriously focus on the breed after the Second World War. The Mastini became a national treasure. Six Neapolitan Mastiffs were shown in the first dog show held in Naples, in 1946. The breed standard was drafted by the Italian painter and so-called father of the modern Neapolitan Mastiff, Piero Scanziani, in 1948. The Neo was officially recognized in Italy in 1949, by both the Italian Kennel Club (Ente Nazionale della Cinafilia Italiana) and the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI). The Italian standard was revised in 1971 for greater precision. Neapolitan Mastiffs were widespread in Europe by the 1970s and had significant footholds in Germany and America as well. The Neapolitan Mastiff Club of America was founded in 1973. In the early 1990s, two clubs were formed: the American Neapolitan Mastiff Club and the United States Neapolitan Mastiff Club. In the mid-1990s, the United States Neapolitan Mastiff Club became the primary registry for this breed. The Neapolitan Mastiff was accepted into the American Kennel Club’s Working Group in 2004.
The Neo’s type and unique appearance were created in the Neapolitan countryside by years of inbreeding. As a result, the traits that make the Mastino an unusual dog - its wrinkles, dewlap, loose skin, enormous bone and distinctive rolling gait - are created by an accumulation of recessive genes. To breed a sound dog with these attributes is truly an art...and a challenge.
The modern Neapolitan Mastiff is a calm and steady companion, as well as an imposing (but not flashy) competitor in the conformation ring. Neos have been used as police dogs and draught dogs (cart-pullers). They are natural guard dogs, despite their sometimes lazy appearance. If his owner is threatened, a Neapolitan Mastiff can react with alarming swiftness and ferocity. It is said that where a “normal” guard dog may bite an intruder’s arm, a Neapolitan Mastiff may remove the arm entirely.
The average life span of the Neapolitan Mastiff is 8 to 10 years. Breed health concerns may include entropion, ectropion, cranial cruciate ligament rupture (CCL or ACL), eversion of the cartilage of the nictitating membrane, cataracts, vaginal hyperplasia, hypothyroidism, hip dysplasia, panosteitis, prolapse of the gland of the third eyelid (“cherry eye”) and halitosis (bad breath). This breed is especially sensitive to halothane gas anesthesia; owners should discuss this with their veterinarian and suggest that isoflurane be used if their Neapolitan Mastiff needs to be put under general anesthesia. This breed does not tolerate hot weather well.