While most fanciers know that the African Boerboel's name comes from the Afrikaans translation for "farmer's dog," there are those that call the breed the South African Mastiff. Mastiffs, or Molassers, as they are sometimes called, are a group of large breeds that share a common ancestry. Here we'll take a look at a brief history of the mastiff family and how the Boerboel stacks up against other mastiffs that are perhaps better known outside of the dog's native South Africa.
While there are dozens of breeds that are considered to be a part of the mastiff family today, the true origins of the Molosser family have unfortunately been lost to the mists of time. Some claim that they are descended from Tibetan Mastiffs, but this has been shown to be largely unsupported by evidence. There are, however, bas-relief images of a large sturdy dog that have been found in Assyria that date back to the sixth century BC that some claim are the first Molossers, while others support the idea that they come from Asia, where there is a long history of large dogs being used as guardians. No matter where they originated, we can trace their first appearance in present day Great Britain as early as the sixth century BC.
The English Mastiff can claim the title of the first recognized Molosser breed. The word Mastiff is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon word "masty," which meant "powerful," which the breed certainly is. Heavily boned with a short, well muscled neck and pendulant ears, the English Mastiff is a large, intimidating dog that was traditionally used for fighting, whether it was against other dogs, bears, or in the long gone practice of bull-baiting.
The English Mastiff was often crossbred to create dogs for different uses - an early example is the Old English Bulldog, which was created in order to be more effective at bull-baiting, hence its name. These mastiffs eventually spread out all over Europe and were used for fighting or for protection. Dutch mastiffs such as the Broholmer and the Boarhound followed the colonists to South Africa in the 17th century, where they would become the ancestors of the present day Boerboel.
Because these mastiffs left Europe so early, they did not develop in the same way as many other European mastiffs have, which is why there are some differences when compared with other Molosser breeds. Even today, the Boerboel breeding programs throughout the world have been more performance driven than for good looks, as these dogs are still thought of as effective working dogs. When compared to the Bullmastiff, which many find to be similar to the Boerboel, there are several structural points that can be pointed out as different, such as the shape and size of the head, the pasterns, or the toplines. Today, the English Mastiff, the granddaddy of the present day mastiff, is bred more for sheer bulk than performance. Other popular mastiffs, such as bulldogs, are reputed to prefer relaxing on the couch with their master, as opposed to the dynamic Boerboel, which needs plenty of room to run and play in order to be happy.