Difficulties in defining its current attitudes
Mario Perricone
President of ENCI Committee of Judges

Defining the character profile of a pure dog race, describing its attitudes, surveying its cultural store is never simple or easy. In fact, the analysis of its behaviors must involve a study of its morphological and character evolution as a basis through an evaluation of environmental and human selective pressure. Its evolution is subjected to this pressure.

Difficulties increase out of all proportion if the study subject is not a pure, well-defined race; instead, the Corso is a dog, despite its age-long history, which is not capable to tell us today, neither by its aspect not its attitudes, which its evolutionary lines were to reach our times.

Unfortunately, cinology, i.e., the study on dogs on scientific and cultural aspects, does not have ancient traditions in Italy, differently from Great Britain and France; therefore, we only have ancient but occasional evidence of Cane Corso. We know that it has been a dog for herd, a hunter, a guardian, sometimes a defender; we also know it had characteristics of a molossoid dog, but its iconography is very rare and as a consequence, it is extremely difficult for us to define the transformation of these characteristics in the course of time and their adjustment to uses sometimes antithetic.

What are the basic characteristics of a molossoid dog? The successful and almost unanimously accepted classification drawn up by the French Pierre Mιgnin at the end of last century explains: the Molossoid has a massive, roundish or cube-shaped head, a rather short snout with lateral parallel sides, fleshy (lit. transl. = thick) lips and abundant volute, marked stop, parallel or converging cranio-facial axes, a bull neck or the like, a massive trunk with important transverse diameters if compared to the longitudinal ones, vaulted limbs with short forearms in proportion to the height to the withers, mild angulations, and a thick integument, i.e., rich in connective tissue.

A large number of races have characteristics of molossoid dogs with a very differentiated physical development. They also have such different behaviors that the various races appear in some cases to be absolutely in contrast among themselves. In fact, the numerous family of molossoids counts gigantic dogs such as: mountain dogs with a rich fur, the Pyrenean, the Leonberger, the Caucasian Shepherd, the Tibetan Mastiff, with watch attitudes; the St. Bernard and the Newfoundland dog, respectively used for rescuing in Alpine valleys and in the sea. Others, less gigantic but also big dogs with short hair, such as the Mastiff, the Bullmastiff, the Dogue from Bordeaux, the Neapolitan Mastiff, are watchdogs too. The Boxer and the Rottweiler, medium sized dogs with short hair, are instead for defense. The so called Bull type Terriers, almost medium sized, e.g., the English and American Staffordshires and the Bullterrier descending from old fighting dogs, have to be considered exclusively for company today, as the smallest Molossoids are, after all, like the French Bouledogue and the English Carlino.

Two American biologists, Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, who are well-known in the Abruzzi region for their analysis on the Abruzzi Shepherd or Mastiff, advanced a very interesting theory on the behavioral evolution of a pure dog. I feel like fully supporting their theory, since their studies strengthened my surveys during a differentiated character analysis of the various dog races. Within the limits of a project, the Coppingers came to the conclusion that behavior is determined and conditioned by physical structure. This project was intended to provide American farms for sheep farming with dogs which would oppose wild predators responsible for a damage of fifty million Dollars a year to American flocks. The genes, the Coppingers add, control behavior indirectly. Instead, direct responsible for behavior is the anatomical form inherited from a generation to the other and therefore under genetic control. In short, through the preservation of well-defined anatomical forms, behaviors are also protected, so that acquire themselves a genetic basis. This basis (the history of various races where the dog species is subdivided confirms it) has been object of study among biologists and selection, at least on an intuitive level, among farmers for a very long time, even before characteristics of the main races had been defined in the last century.

Today, if we could describe, by looking with an analytical eye at a Cane Corso, its morphological characteristics with the absolute certainty that these were the characteristics of its parents and its other ancestors; if we were also certain that, through its coupling with another very similar Cane Corso, these physical characteristics could be handed down to its offspring and future generations; in these cases, we would be in a position to easily draw a behavioral map of the race because we would have a pure dog already well set with no doubt in front of us. Therefore this analysis, together with suitable character tests, would allow us to establish which behaviors are more and which are less marked, and how they go together to finally come to the point to define its attitudes.

Unfortunately, it is not like that because the Cane Corso cannot be considered a set race but a race in course of restoration for the passionate efforts and sacrifices of a not numerous group of breeders who set themselves an ambitious and difficult goal. For this reason, they deserve respect and every assistance.

Then, we have to try to intuit the fundamental behaviors of this dog, and which morphological characteristics these behaviors match in order to address the reconstruction of the race towards precise aims. These aims should be the result of a very reasonable, aware choice and not a result of more or less lucky attempts.

First of all, it is necessary to reach an understanding on the meaning of "behavior" by generally defining its content and effects.

The domestic dog, as on the other hand every animal included man, was born with an instinct from where impulses derive and which rule their behaviors. Also its wild cousins have impulses but with a difference. While in wild animals impulses evolve to assure survival in a completely natural habitat, impulses in the domestic dog will become more refined after birth but for a limited time because it lives in symbiosis with man who provides for all its necessities. Therefore, behaviors among wild dogs are influenced by the fellow dogs of the pack and territory. Behaviors of domestic dogs are influenced by men and their social organization.

The instinct transmitted from a generation to the other is complex so to have two interfaces: affectivity, which rules relations with other blood related fellows or relatives by coupling, as men living together with the dog; territoriality, which presides over relations with the external environment. Responsible impulses of various behaviors grow from instinct. These behaviors are, as for the rest, defined by experience, i.e., through maternal and environmental learning and imprinting.

Human selection was able to choose these behaviors also through the anatomic shape, by rendering behaviors more or less accentuated in order to be able to obtain a well defined character profile and therefore utilitarian to a familiar and individual level. Therefore, the whole of all behaviors, their combination, the more or less accentuated influence of one behavior rather than the other; all this allows us to define the character of a race and understand its attitudes. We can determine, at least on the basis of my research, ten behaviors in a dog. They have to be all present, since the absence of one of them would originate real psychological handicaps in the individual missing it.

These behaviors, defined with words which often have a different meaning in the human language are:
  • DOCILITY – It indicates the dog’s natural tendency of accepting man as its hierarchical superior. This does not mean that it has to be a man’s slave, but it simply accepts his guide without having to use repressive manners. Docility does not have to be confused with shyness or fear.
  • SOCIABILITY – A sociable dog fits in any environment without any problem with naturalness and spontaneity, and it is capable of communicating without hesitation. Absence of sociability shows up with fears and scares and with anxious and worried attitudes.
  • TEMPERAMENT – It corresponds to the intensity and quickness of the dog’s reaction to external stimuli of every nature.
  • CURIOSITY – It corresponds to the dog’s will, pleasure, and capability of being interested in everything that surrounds it in a very natural way. Exploring new territories and environments is at the basis of its attitude. Associated with docility and sociability, curiosity sometimes can be at the origin of individual mimetic capabilities.
  • WATCHFULNESS – It represents the dog’s particular sensitivity in perceiving an external danger capable of menacing itself and its pack which, in a domestic situation, is represented by the human family. Sometimes, watchfulness bound to its peculiar olfactory and auditory sensitivity allows the dog to feel a natural event like a thunderstorm or an earthquake in advance.
  • FIBER – It gives the measure of an individual’s attitude in resisting to every external action of unpleasant nature. Fiber is inversely proportional to docility.
  • POSSESSIVENESS – A possessive dog is predisposed to become the owner of something or someone. It derives from its predatory behavior, which is still present in wild dogs but absent in the domestic ones. Possessiveness shows up in puppies as an expression of their competitiveness.
  • COMBATIVENESS – It corresponds to the capability of fighting vigorously against an unpleasant external stimulus. It is often associated to possessiveness particularly in the puppy.
  • AGGRESSIVENESS – It is equivalent to a physical reaction against a danger menacing the integrity of the dog’s territory, its own safety, or its fellow dogs’ safety. Consequently, it is always motivated. In wild dogs, this behavior is also useful for providing food and therefore, it is bound to a predatory behavior no longer present in domestic dogs.
  • COURAGE – A courageous dog is willing to confront unknown situations it could avoid in the interest of its own integrity. Courage is directly proportional to sociability and temperament without being in contrast to docility or being necessarily bound to aggressiveness.
Each of these behaviors is more or less accentuated; it goes together with the others according to different schemes in relation to the utilization of various races up to forming a real identity card of their special attitudes. Since physical structure controls the dog’s behavioral map, the most various uses are influenced by morphology and behaviors in close connection with each other. For these uses, various families first and then races were formed throughout many centuries thanks to the environment and man.

With a highly poetic expression, people are used to saying that the dog for its love to man adapted itself to his numerous needs: from a wild predator of the steppe to a leader of flock and herds, guard, defender, and hunter. It seems the dog has chosen one job rather than another and has even become specialized in it. The dog has done that spontaneously and has understood almost immediately what an extraneous being like man was asking it. However, facts went on a little differently. Even if no historical evidence exists on the first times of its domestication, certainly there was not a yearning love in the dog at the beginning of its encounter with man. It would be nice, but science does not admit that.

On the basis of knowledge of man and his primitive social organization and the study on morphologic and behavioral evolution of dog, ethologists, Konrad Lorenz as first, inferred that puppies, which were born in the villages of our far ancestors, did not completely evolve. Instead, they preserved their puppyish signs because once they were adults, they did not need to conquer their territory in order to survive, they did not need to always have a den available where to take refuge, they did not need to have to prey upon for providing food. Man was taking care of their needs. With his protection, he determined, certainly without realizing it, a decrease in many evolutionary solicitations in the domesticated dog, which it would have received in its free and wild life.

Therefore, puppies living with man and no longer on his side as their half-wild ancestors, preserve their puppyish signs all their lives. In substance, as a consequence of its persistent condition, the dog transferred its natural inclination into recognizing the authority of its parents and relatives of the pack inside the human family. In the meantime, having bred it already for many thousands of years, man fixed step by step some morphologic modifications capable of influencing its language, i.e., its specific behaviors.

Preservation of their puppyish traits, recorded in all domestic animals and scientifically called "neotenia," has been put in relation to the morphologic aspect of various dog races, their behaviors, and uses by two American biologists, Lorna and Raymond Coppinger, professors at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. The two scholars subdivided the dog’s evolution in five phases pointing out that there are not well defined boundaries among them.

In the course of the first phase, "adolescence," the young dog strongly feels the union to the restricted environment where it conquered its autonomy from its parents, and it is likewise bound to men who undertook parental care. The evolution of molossoid dogs both for guard and defense stops at this level.

The hounds, i.e., gun dogs, from those stopping the animal, like the Setter, to those bringing the prey back, like the Retriever, and tracking dogs, like the Spaniels, all reach the second phase called "play with objects."

In the third phase, the dog assumes a different behavioral model, the ambush. It is waiting for a prey, even an imaginary one, by lying down with its head stretched out forward and a steady look. These are wolfish dogs used in sheep farming, particularly those that repeat the ritual of the ambush by holding the flock together.

Also the fourth phase, called "close pursuit" [tallonamento] because the dog is tracking the preys by observing their heels [talloni], groups other wolfish dogs. Among them there are some dogs for flock capable of retrieving missing animals, and dogs for defense, like the German Shepherd and the Doberman, the Spitz, for example Nordic dogs for sledges, and finally the Greyhounds. Also molossoids less stout than those for watch used as cowherds or rather for hunting big game are in this phase.

In the fifth phase, the dog has completely lost its puppyish signs, and it is fully autonomous; therefore, it does not need man. Only wild dogs, like the wolf, the coyote, and the jackal reach this phase.

In their long history, ancestors of those Cane Corsos, from which we retrieve an ancient race today, must have reached with no doubt many of those phases. In fact, if it is true that they carried on many tasks, the evolution of their physical structure was such to allow diversified behaviors in relation to their roles assigned by man.

Without having to enter into a complicated morpho-functional analysis, which is beyond the object analysis of my report, I will confine myself to describing the behavioral map of those dogs in relation to their attitudes expressed in various eras of their history by hypothesizing their physical constitution. A warning for those who follow my talk certainly a bit boring: in every character map, behaviors will be followed by an evaluation index from 2 to 5. Index 1 is not foreseen, since a behavior at this level can be considered void.

But let us go back to our Cane Corso.

We said that it was a watchdog of rural type, therefore capable of keeping away human plunderers and wild predators from farmhouses and farms entrusted to its custody. A dog destined to this function must possess limited docility and sociability because it is more bound to its territory than to man. Its reaction capability is always present; its curiosity is accentuated, but not up to the point to induce the dog to leave the property on which it exerts a high surveillance. Its temper, as well as possessiveness and aggressiveness, are very pronounced. Combativeness and courage are just under the maximum evaluation because dogs as keepers do not have to be dragged by their same ardor outside the space to protect.

This is their behavioral map:
  • Docility •••
  • Sociability •••
  • Temperament •••••
  • Curiosity ••••
  • Watchfulness •••••
  • Fiber •••••
  • Courage ••••
  • Aggressiveness •••••
  • Possessiveness •••••
  • Combativeness ••••
A rural watchdog’s constitution must be heavy. Its head is brachycephalic with powerful mandibular jaws. Therefore, let’s hypothesize its cranium as not much convex or even flat; its snout is short if compared to the length of its cranium with a very large nose. Its trunk, from brachymorphic to mesomorphic, with powerful bones and muscles, must have a constitution allowing it a movement which is not swift but very resistant so to allow the dog to keep very wide spaces under its control. The Corso has also been a defense dog, therefore characterized by great docility and sociability. In fact, these dogs, must love man very much to defend him and move among people without any fear. Reaction times to external stimuli are limited to the moments when they are together with man. Curiosity is a little more accentuated, while watchfulness is less, since it only has a protective function towards man and not towards the entire territory. Fiber is at the same level as watchfulness and, if it is accentuated, leads to an inadmissible independence for a defense dog. On the contrary, combativeness is at the highest degree, while aggressiveness is moderate because man must be able in any case to stop his own dog when it throws itself on another person to defend its owner. They are competitive in any circumstance, their courage is proverbial.

This is their character map:
  • Docility •••••
  • Sociability •••••
  • Temperament •••
  • Curiosity ••••
  • Watchfulness •••
  • Fiber •••
  • Courage •••••
  • Aggressiveness •••
  • Possessiveness ••••
  • Combativeness •••••
A defense Molossoid is just a brachycephal with a slightly convex cranium on its front side and quite flat on the upper side. Its snout is short with broad mandibular jaws and the lower jaw surpassing the upper jaw (prognathism). Its constitution is very compact and wide-awake, mesomorphic.

Both for watch and defense, the Cane Corso is a Molossoid the evolution of which stopped at the stage of "adolescence." Therefore, they maintain very strong puppyish signs through all their lives. Anyhow, the two character maps are quite differentiated, and selectors will have to keep into account this circumstance. In fact, it does not exist, and it cannot exist, a universal dog capable of being keeper and defender at the same time. In fact, within the two skills, behaviors of different levels are present.

Instead, to the third phase, the close pursuit, belong Corsos used, and some are still used, as dogs for herds or for hunting big game, for example the wild boar. Docility is rather reduced in these dogs but in limits which allow a good understanding with man. Sociability is even more reduced because they do not love going round people different than those with whom they live in the solitude of pasturelands or during wild animals shooting parties. Reaction times are quite swift and intense with one curiosity: watchfulness and fiber are pushed to the extreme. This means that they have the tendency to extend their territory very much and to consider everything, which is located in this vast environment as their propriety. They are endowed with much resistance to cold and bad weather. Combativeness and aggressiveness are very accentuated but not pushed to the maximum level, while courage is pushed to the extreme.

This is their character map:
  • Docility ••
  • Sociability ••
  • Temperament ••••
  • Curiosity •••••
  • Watchfulness •••••
  • Fiber •••••
  • Courage •••••
  • Aggressiveness •••••
  • Possessiveness •••••
  • Combativeness •••••
On the morphologic level, these dogs have molossoid characters but they are not very accentuated. Their conformation sometimes tends to the mesomorphic one; they remind, both in their heads and shape, the "Alan gentil" [the graceful Great Dane] described by Goston Phoebus in the 15th century.

Those who have set their goal to restore the ancient Cane Corso take the floor now. It is a gigantic enterprise, since nobody is able to foresee to which results the selective task can lead, they lead to molossoid dogs with strongly marked puppyish signs, i.e., those in the first phase hypothesized by the Coppingers, or to dogs from the fourth phase.

There is a circumstance negatively affecting the commitment of our friends which renders the problem more complicated. I am referring to the pressure exerted in the past on the Cane Corso to make it a fighting dog. To this purpose, in the dogs belonging to the fourth phase called close pursuit, behaviors like possessiveness and aggressiveness have been even more accentuated, and they were given a predatory behavior through bastardizing, which is peculiar to wild dogs from the fifth phase.

Therefore, using violence on the domestic dog, the familiar dog, to have it take back ancestral behaviors already blocked and placated, people transformed the Cane Corso in a shameful and indecorous death machine. Therefore, they had the Corso lose its morphologic and character features which people want to take back.

I can only conclude, Ladies and Gentlemen, with a recommendation: go on with very clear ideas fixing well defined goals with extreme severity.

our applause and our best wishes to you.

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