The jaws and bite of the cane corso – written by Paolo Breber
The focal feature of the Cane Corso, as with the rest of molossus dogs, is the holding bite (in Italian this category of dogs is called “cani da presa”, i.e. catch dogs) with which it fastens onto its adversary, tires and overcomes it. The holding bite is different from the ordinary bite in that the grip becomes locked and the animal shuts its mind off, quite oblivious to external stimuli. The paradigm of this behavioural trait is to be found in an episode from the saga of Alexander the Great. Having crossed the Hydaspes River (the present Jehlam River in Punjab) and beaten King Porus, the conqueror was then met and entertained by king Sophites. In the course of ensuing festivities, the king, wanting to impress Alexander with the valour of his catch dogs, unleashed four onto a lion which was duly attacked and held. One of the king’s archers then entered the pit and cut a leg off one of the dogs. But the dog did not let go. The other legs were also severed but the dog died with its jaws locked. Today, after more than two thousand years and many turns of history, this remains the same prized behavioural trait when the work of a catch dog is described. An example for all is the Pit Bull Terrier, a dog which still has the good fortune of being bred for work. Those that use this breed say you must look for the “holding dog”; the one that will hang on to its adversary (boar, razorback, steer) even at the cost of its life. How did this behavioural trait arise? One explanation could be that it is the same instinct that makes a puppy hang on for dear life to its mother’s dug. The number of puppies in a litter is often in excess of the available dugs and it is a grim battle for survival that is fought for the source of nourishment because the losers are doomed to weaken and die. Once a puppy has fastened onto a dug it is in a state of bliss and nothing will detach it before it is gorged, and this is much the same mental state of a Cane Corso with a hold. At this point it is significant to recall how the old-timers of the Cane Corso proceed to choose those puppies to keep and those to cull soon after birth. The man first waits for the litter to begin suckling in earnest and then calls the bitch to him. As the bitch gets up and walks a few steps, he notices which of the puppies stays hanging from the dugs. These will be the best.
If a powerful holding bite (“presa”) is the very essence of the Cane Corso then it follows that its jaws should be mechanically perfect. The upper and lower jaws should be of the same length and the teeth should be completely developed and interlock without fault. This is the condition dictated by nature, as may be observed in the skull of a wolf, and is therefore the most functional. In molossus-type dogs undershot jaws appear frequently but it is an error to interpret this condition as a functional adaptation, as is often done, because it is really just a malformation caused by a misfunction of the growth hormones. In any case, a powerful bite is not obtained by breeding for big, short muzzles but by breeding dogs that have powerful bites. It is the spirit that commands the body and not vice versa. If I want race horses, I am not going to breed horses with long legs but horses that win races. Of course, in practice the two matters tend to meet but one should never confuse causes and effects. Where the Cane Corso is bred for work the undershot jaw stays away.
The undershot condition is not caused by the lengthening of the lower jaw but by the shortening of the upper jaw and nose. It determines a loss of efficiency not only in the holding bite but also in mastication and in the care of the epidermis. There are those who insist in seeing a functional adaptation in a jutting lower jaw. According to this school of thought, when a dog grabs a sow or a bull, it is supposed not inflict damage by cutting the flesh because the upper and lower teeth do not shut. Another idea is that a receding nose helps the dog breathe when, during a fight, its muzzle is pressed against the body of its adversary. I think this is all nonsense. As a matter of fact a short nose causes problems in breathing and ventilation as any owner of an English Bulldog, Pug, Pekinese, etc. will tell you. The canine brain requires a lower temperature than the rest of the body and it is cooled by air inhaled into the nasal cavity. Thus dogs with short noses have little resistance to protracted physical exercise because they quickly become overheated.
The Italian Kennel Club (Ente Nazionale per la Cinofilia Italiana) has recently recognised the Cane Corso as a true breed but has unfortunately made the mistake of defining it prognathous (with undershot jaw). The purpose of the conference of Civitella Alfedena (1990), the proceedings of which have been published, was to ensure that the old-timers, those countrymen from the south of Italy who, during obscure times, had kept the Cane Corso in life simply out of attachment for their culture, could transmit the authentic traditional Standard of Points to the E.N.C.I. before this organisation proceeded to official recognition. The official standard that followed turned out fairly well with regards to the physical aspect although there are a few omissions and a couple of mistakes, the more serious of which is the point about the undershot jaw. The dynamic and moral features of the breed, i.e. work and temperament, are very unsatisfactorily described in the document.
As a concluding thought I would like to reflect on the way a standard of points is conceived. It is wrong to think it is the mean of the characteristics of the population that constitutes the breed because it is not an expression of the majority. The standard is an ideal of perfection which may show up in varying portions of the population according to the historical moment in which the breed finds itself. Some fashionable breeds of today, where there has been good breeding work, are presently at a high level of quality and the majority certainly conforms to the ideal standard. But when I discovered the Cane Corso in the ’70s, the breed was really in a bad shape and the average characteristics of those few dozen specimens I had managed to scrape up certainly did not represent the ideal standard. Only four dogs of all those that I had seen were truly up to the mark. How did I know these were the right ones? The answer is that I interviewed the old-timers and did my best to interpret the tradition, avoiding as best as I could any personal bias. A domestic breed is not an independent biological entity, like in the case of a wild species, but it is inseparable from the human social group that is its traditional depositary. In other words, to understand the Cane Corso it is not sufficient to observe as many specimens as possible but it is also necessary to have the breed described by those who use and breed it. Among the original unregistered Cani Corsi living in the country I have often come across those with the lower incisors overlapping the upper ones, even my old bitch Mirak, the matriarch of the kennel dogs and grandmother of Basir, had them, but this does not mean that irregular teeth are to be desired in a breed that essentially expresses itself through its bite.
This article is the improved translation of “La Presa e le Mascelle del Cane Corso” which recently appeared in “Canidapresa” magazine, the original Italian text of which I sent by Fax a few days ago. If you wish to publish it in your bulletin remember to ask permission to
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