The Cane Corso for Personal Defense
Paolo Breber

The Corso is a particularly pliable dog and it feels the relationship with its owner very much. Its close following of man in every movement is characteristic, and it is always ready near his legs and alert to his voice. Differently from other races, which accept to spend most of the day alone or with other dogs, content with only one hour or two of company, our dog is suffering when it is separated from man; the conditions of a dog shelter are definitely adverse to it. This extraordinary harmony with its owner, together with its easy learning, combativeness, and physical appearance, make it as the ideal dog for whoever needs to defend himself and/or attack both men and dangerous animals.

The ENCI Standard (1995), written out by Morsiani, expresses itself concerning the use of this race as follows: "Watchdog, defense dog, police dog, tracking dog." The first two directions are right, but we do not understand where the notions of Corso as a police dog or tracking dog come from. These two tasks can, at the most, be considered as possible future uses, but the corso’s vocation has still to be verified. In any case, it is exemplary that the ENCI Standard expends one line about the use of a race for work and pages on pages about its morphology. In any case, however, since the standards do not foresee work tests, it is implied that, according to ENCI, the Cane Corso can be easily added to the series of dog for beauty and company. Perricone, in his contribution to the 1st National Convention on Cane Corso (Civitella Alfedena, 1990) is more precise in defining the race’s various uses: "watchdog of rural type," "defense dog," "dog for herd and hunting," "fighting dog." After he gave us this correct piece of information, the Author unfortunately keeps on with an essay of his scientific thought. By applying the concept of neotenia [phenomenon among animals maintaining their larval characteristics after sexual maturity and reproduction] in a macaronic way, he maintains that a different morphological type must necessarily correspond to each of these functions. That is to say, in a few words, the subject I use, for example, for protecting cows, cannot be suitable for keeping watch over my house; according to Perricone, the two functions would require two different morphological types. This is such a crooked thesis that is not worth to further dwell upon it.

Although the corso is certainly suitable for keeping watch over a house, I am not convinced this is its real vocation. It is true that in the past we could find it chained at the entrance-hall where the dog was blocking the entrance to strangers. Indeed, we have good reasons to believe that a classic door-knocker in the shape of a lion’s head placed as an admonition in the front gates, was originally modeled on the Corso’s head. However, we have to say that any dog becomes aggressive if it is chained. A normal reaction towards strangers approaching is alarm and caution. Caution would suggest the dog to maintain distances by going away. However, if this is not possible because of a chain, the only defensive reaction becomes attack. This ethological mechanism is not particularly peculiar to this or another race. A good warden is not so the big and strong dog as the one with alert senses, distrustful, and reserved towards everybody but its owner. The Pumetto is for example an exceptional guard with its ever-awake temperament and ready to be alarmed. Its senses are very sharp, and its sight is especially much developed, capable of distinguishing also motionless profiles, thing that turns out to be very difficult to other dogs. As for the Corso, it tends to remain confident and good-natured, unless one acts intentionally on its temperament. In Capitanata [ancient region of Apulia, corresponding to the actual province of Foggia] people prepare it for watching by keeping it completely isolated from everybody in a secluded place until its complete growth. Another way to make the dog wicked is to have it beaten by a stranger while it is chained. The stranger who consents to this training wears a large cloak with folds and tails the dog is allowed to wildly bite them.

Many people are convinced that keeping big dogs in the garden is an efficacious defense system. This can be true towards a scoundrel or a generic ill-intentioned person, but a professional thief does not give a hang about it. Outdoors, the dog is vulnerable to all tricks going from poisoned food to a bitch on heat. It is much more difficult to render inoffensive the dog which remains at home. At the first suspicious movement around a window or a door, the indoor dog is already fully alarmed. When the thief has almost made a hole, he finds himself face to face to a furious beast which is very little susceptible to distractions such as tricks and swindles. However that may be, the dog is really efficacious against man only when it is at its owner’s side.

Three are the Cane Corso’s historical roles in defending or attacking man: at the side of the keeper of a farm house, as a dog for brigand, and in the suite of carts. In Southern Italy, once the harvesting was over, country farms were deserted. Everybody was running away from the relentless sun, and in any case there was nothing more to do in the fields. The only thing alive remaining was the eel in the well, the turtle wandering through dark rooms, and the keeper with his cane corso. An isolated house in the country never has to remain completely uninhabited, otherwise it will be shortly plundered by criminals who are always present and invisible, ready to catch the first opportunity. Therefore, the keeper was and is mandatory. This task requires a contemplative man capable of spending long Summer months in a complete isolation with the only noise of cicadas in his ears. His only companion and indispensable ally was the faithful corso. One can imagine very well to which degree of harmony and reciprocal comprehension would the two arrive, since the keeper did not have anything else to do than interacting with his dog. Training and obedience were proceeding in an almost unconscious manner. There is nothing more different from it than the method which is applied today, a universal standard method for dogs and military instructors invented by Germans. Before performing various orders, the corso was learning since as a puppy to intimately know the character and moods of its owner. We have to remember that man and dog constantly used to live one next to the other, night and day; therefore, the animal was able to perceive almost telepathically the intentions of man and indeed, we can state that the dog knew better its owner rather than vice versa. How can you explain, otherwise, the following episode? Setting of the event is a typical rural village of Capitanata some decades ago. In the scene our character has been prey to a deep agitation tormenting him for days. He suffered a wrong and he does not surrender to peace. I do not remember the nature of this affront, but it was surely about the usual problems, which create inextinguishable grudges in such contexts: the dividing up of an inheritance, debts, trespassing of cattle and the like. The man does not sleep, is taken by a deep rage, and his face is dark. At a certain point, he cannot resist any longer, he gets up from his bed and walks clouded towards the store-room where his shotgun is hanging. He decided, there is no other way out than firing the double-barreled shotgun to his enemy’s chest. But now, what does Tigro’ do? The cane corso, which has been nearby since then, silent and thoughtful, staring at its owner’s face, now suddenly gets up and places itself between the man and his shotgun. Get out the way, Tigro’! But a dull growl and an admonishing glance are the answers. The man still does not understand, and the dog shows its teeth. The man hesitates, the agitation starts to dissipate, and it is almost over. The character got never tired of recounting how his Tigro’ kept him from committing the act that would have ruined his life forever. What did the dog understand? How is its behavior explained? Goodness knows.

The dog performs two irreplaceable and indispensable functions for the keeper. With its senses, the dog is able to perceive the presence of an hidden enemy, which the keeper would not otherwise feel and, in occasion of a violent confrontation, it attracts the enemy’s fire. Performing night patrolling when sight, the most developed sense in man, is of little or no use, is a quite unpleasant task full of distressing suggestions. However, if one has a big and courageous dog as a company, one acquires a great sense of safety. The warden knows he can avoid any surprises thanks to this companion, which is able to perceive, because of its hearing and smell, a hidden presence even at a certain distance. The corso is a calm race walking at the same pace as the man, and this allows man to let it free and avoids him the trouble he has with dogs, which always want to run ahead and terribly pull on their leashes. When it catches a thief, the Corso has to seize him and hold him tight until the keeper comes. Among many anecdotes, there is the one of a chicken thief caught while he was going to make his way through a hole made in the pen of the fowl-run. The thief was on all fours half inside and half outside, and the corso seized him tightly by the seat of his trousers, holding him very tight, indifferent to the man’s desperate cry until the keeper arrived. Then, if a delinquent has a fire-arm, the dog, by attacking, forces him to shoot on itself, and in so doing it saves its owner. In the past, when there were muzzle-loading guns and rifles and they only had max. two shots, in this way the criminal was remaining unarmed. For these very same endowments, the Corso was also the favorite dog of the rival faction, i.e., brigands, and we can very often find it portrayed in their picturesque companionship in nineteenth-century prints.

Apart from preventing ambushes, saving its owner from shots, and seizing the enemy with its catch, the corso had also to act as a messenger to ask for help. Prior to the telephone and radio, the keeper, besieged in the farm house by a gang of thieves, was not able to ask for help in the neighboring village in other way than sending a carrier pigeon or his dog. We often hear stories of dogs running in search of help when they see their owners in danger, but in reality it is an exercise requiring a specific training and preparation. Its intelligence is such that, when its owner was sending it in search of help, the corso knew it did not have to let itself be noticed by the enemy.

Another classic placing of the corso is in the suite of a cart. Before the internal-combustion engine, the mean to carry goods on surface was a big cart pulled by oxen. It was a slow mean, easily boardable by street thieves; therefore, cart drivers protected themselves by traveling in convoy and keeping strong and threatening cane corsos in their suites. During the Summer, it was customary to travel at night to avoid the heat; therefore, with the dark and the habit of cart drivers sleeping along the road, risks of being suddenly assaulted were particularly high. The intimate reciprocal understanding of such vital importance in solving dangerous situations has also playful implications. What about that man who taught his corso to steal pumpkins in his neighbor’s garden? His neighbor could not figure out about these mysterious disappearances, and more than once he started lying in wait to catch the thief red-handed, but alas, pumpkins kept on disappearing. The fact is that the corso had perfectly understood the spirit of the joke and penetrated the neighbor’s garden without showing itself, by flattening and crawling on its stomach among the furrows like a snake. Another gag someone told me goes like a real little comic scene. A man, accompanied by his dog, goes to the market to buy a little jar of terracotta. Having found a jar-seller with his goods exposed on a sidewalk, he negotiates the price of the article and pays his due. The jar-seller asks him to choose the piece he likes the most, but at this point the man turns the invitation to his dog: "Spezza, which one do you want?" The dog promptly gets going, and among the dozen of vases goes straight towards the one where the dealer was hiding the money of his sales. Here there is a funny moment in the reaction of the jar-seller.

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