Collars throughout the ages tell the story of the Mastiff's evolution
Dogs have worn collars since they became man’s best friend thousands of years ago. Initially, collars were for protection. Archaeological evidence indicates that early humans devised broad bands of metal, sometimes lined with leather, to shield both their own vulnerable throats and those of their canine companions from the fangs of wild beasts and the weapons of enemies.
Over the centuries, the dog collar’s function evolved. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Babylonian bas reliefs and Assyrian pottery show dogs wearing collars that, in addition to protecting their necks, served to restrain and control them, particularly guard dogs and hunting dogs. Dogs were valuable property, and collars often showed the name of the dog’s owner as insurance against theft. Favorite canines of royalty and the wealthy displayed the status of their privileged masters, and sported collars made of gold and silver, embellished with beads, tassels, bells and even gemstones.
Mastiff-like dogs were one of the world’s oldest breeds, and ancestors of today’s Mastiff undoubtedly wore some of the earliest dog collars. Large, strong, loyal and brave, the Mastiff was employed as a guard dog and a war dog from ancient times. When Roman legions invaded Britain in 55 B.C., they quickly saw the potential of Mastiffs as fighting dogs and exported them to do battle in fierce packs against bears, lions and human gladiators in the Coliseum in Rome. Mastiffs continued to be used in the cruel blood sports of animal baiting and dog fighting in England and on the Continent from the medieval period onward. Since the mid-19th Century, the Mastiff’s working days have waned, and the gentle, giant dogs are more likely to be found as family companions. In each of these roles – guard dog, war dog, fighting dog and pet – the Mastiff has worn a collar adapted to that purpose.
Well-known fancier Marie Antoinette Moore was passionate about Mastiffs, and her renowned Mooreleigh Kennels made a significant contribution to the development and preservation of the breed in the United States after the Second World War. Marie Moore was also an avid collector, particularly of art and books that featured her favorite breed. She gave a collection of more than 300 works of art, including some two dozen dog collars, to the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog in 1985. Marie Moore’s extraordinary collection allows us to see the various types of collars Mastiffs wore.
Figure 1: Abraham Hondius, Dutch, circa 1625-1691. Mastiff with Flayed Horse's Leg, 1686. Oil on canvas, 44 x 60 inches. Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Marie A. Moore.
Mastiffs used as guard dogs were tied up during the day and released at night to roam their master’s property. From Anglo Saxon times, Englishmen ranging from peasant farmers to landed aristocrats kept Mastiffs for protection. These fierce dogs typically wore broad leather or metal collars that were attached to a heavy chain, similar to that in the painting, Mastiff with Flayed Horse’s Leg (Figure 1) by 17th Century Dutch artist Abraham Hondius. These sturdy collars were strictly utilitarian and well crafted, since they needed to restrain a large, powerful canine. The collars most likely were used and reused until they broke or wore out and were discarded.
Figure 2: Spiked dog collar. Iron, 4 7/8 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches. Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Marie A. Moore
Mastiff collars fitted with sharp spikes or knife blades served as dangerous offensive and defensive weapons. Forged from links of iron with spikes of varying lengths (Figure 2), these tight-fitting collars sat high up on a dog’s neck and
made attacking the dog’s throat difficult. In the Middle Ages, courageous Mastiffs swathed in padded armor and wearing spiked collars like this one accompanied their masters into battle. The armor was too heavy and awkward for anything but war, but the spiked collar remained popular for protecting Mastiffs used for hunting. The ferocious Mastiff lunging at the lion in the painting, The Lion Hunt (Figure 3), by 16th Century Flemish artist Paul de Vos has the advantage of a spiked collar, an accessory that the less fortunate dogs in the foreground lacked.
Figure 3: Paul de Vos, Flemish, circa 1591-1678. Oil on canvas, 65 x 95 inches. The Lion Hunt, 1603. Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Marie A. Moore.
Dog fights and the bloodthirsty sports of animal baiting were wildly popular entertainments among all social classes in England for nearly 1,000 years. Packs of three or four Mastiffs attacked a chained bull, bear, or even a lame horse, and the onlookers wagered on the outcome. New dogs were sent into the fray to replace those wounded or killed, and the contest continued until the animals expired or were too exhausted to go on. These cruel spectacles were finally outlawed in 1835, although they were practiced illegally for several more decades.
Figure 4: Adjustable bear-baiting collar with padlock. English, 18th Century. Brass with lead ring attachment. 1 3/4 x 6 1/2 x 5 3/4 inches. Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Jay and Mary Remer.
Mastiffs forced to engage in these brutal sports wore special collars. Animal baiting collars in the 18th Century were bands of copper with sharp serrated teeth along the top and bottom edges (Figure 4). This bear baiting collar has slits in the side, making it adjustable to fit different dogs, and it is secured with a padlock. This was a common practice because both a dog and its collar were valuable property. A statute enacted in 1770 in the reign of King George III made it a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or whipping to steal any dog. Since only the canine’s rightful owner had the key, a padlock deterred someone from removing the collar and taking the dog or merely stealing the collar. Collars themselves were expensive, particularly ones like this for a specialized purpose.
Figure 5: Richard Cosway, English, 1742-1821. Master Thomas Thornhill. Mixed media, 9 x 5 1/2 inches. Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Marie A. Moore.
Mastiffs who lived among aristocrats or kings had better lives. Although many of them still worked as guard dogs or hunting dogs, some of them were simply pets, and their collars reflected that status. Richard Cosway’s charming portrait of Master Thomas Thornhill (Figure 5) records one such privileged 18thcentury Mastiff. The dog’s finely made wide brass collar was intended as adornment rather than protection. It was probably lined with leather to make it more comfortable, and its elegant engraving, T. Thornhill, proudly identifies the dog’s owner.
One of the most beautiful collars in Marie Moore’s collection is of sterling silver and once belonged to another privileged Mastiff (Figure 6). The collar is inscribed with the words, “Duke of Lancaster’s Own,” and the ducal crest. The Duchy of Lancaster is one of England’s two royal duchies and is a landed inheritance belonging to the reigning sovereign. Since 1399, the title Duke of Lancaster has been personally inherited by the
monarch. For example, Britain’s reigning queen, Elizabeth II, is the Duke (not the Duchess) of Lancaster. The silver collar in the museum’s collection, therefore, was made for the king’s dog, and the hallmarks on it of an English silversmith demonstrate that the same skilled artisans who made the royal tea service might also have made the royal dog collar.
Figure 6: Dog collar with padlock and key, English, early to mid-19th Century. Silver with lead ring attachment, 2 1/8 x 10 1/8 x 9 inches. Engraved with coat of arms and inscribed: "Duke of Lancaster's Own." Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Marie A. Moore.
The inscription, “Duke of Lancaster’s Own,” refers to the troop of light horse cavalry from the county of Lancaster. The sovereign, as the Duke of Lancaster, has traditionally been Colonel-in-Chief. The collar dates from the first quarter of the 19th Century and quite likely was gift to King George IV from his regiment. The collar has a large lead ring and a silver padlock, complete with key. Small hooks around the top and bottom edges would have held a strip of soft leather or velvet to make the collar more comfortable. George IV received a Tibetan Mastiff as a gift in the 1820s and presented it to the London Zoo in 1828. The collar may have been created for that Tibetan Mastiff but was more likely designed for a pet in the king’s household.
The Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class in 19th-Century England ushered in the era of the pet. A large number of people could now afford to keep a dog simply as a companion. Many of these new pet owners found small breeds best suited to urban dwellings. Mastiffs continued to be used as guard dogs, but since they were no longer in such demand as fighting dogs or hunting dogs and their size precluded being kept as city pets, their numbers declined. Nonetheless, the breed was about to undergo a transformation and so were their collars.
Figure 7: George B. Cole, English, 1810-1833. Pluto, 1830. Oil on canvas, 9 1/4 x 12 inches. Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Marie A. Moore.
For centuries, the consistency of the Mastiff’s personality and qualities as a working dog had been more important than its appearance. This perhaps explains the piebald coats of the dogs in Figures 1 and 3. Organized breeding of Mastiffs began in the mid-19th Century and the advent of dog shows followed shortly thereafter. T.H.V. Lukey was one of the most successful early Mastiff breeders and produced many dog show winners. Lukey’s foundation dog, Pluto, a large black Mastiff belonging to the Marquis of Hertford, appears in a canvas by George B. Cole from 1830 (Figure 7). Pluto flaunts an elaborate brass collar whose grandeur is matched only by the haughtiness of the dog. The wide, showy collar includes every possible embellishment--a padlock, lead ring, brass studs, and the engraved name of Pluto’s owner. The purely ornamental collar speaks to the eminence of both the dog and his master.
Figure 8: Dog collar, English, 19th Century. Brass, 2 5/8 x 9 1/4 x 8 inches. Brass plate inscribed: "Inspector General Haran Royal Navy." Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Marie A. Moore.
Although not as grand as Pluto’s collar, another brass collar from the same period (Figure 8) has similar features. Brass mills were working in England by 1746, smelting raw materials into brass and turning out pans, pins, wire, and other items, which probably included dog collars. This collar’s rolled edges and round brass studs, benign reminders of the sharp spikes of earlier collars, have a regularity and precision that appear machine made. The leather lining made the heavy collar more comfortable for the dog. A brass plate bearing the name of Inspector General Haran of the Royal Navy, the dog’s owner, is integrated into the band, and the engraving most likely was done by hand after the collar was purchased. Like Pluto’s collar, this was strictly adornment for a well-loved pet.
Figure 9: Ignazio Spradoni from Canterbury, Italian working in England, 19th Century. Ch. Lion and Dido with Nelly, the property of Miss Hales, 1867. Oil on canvas, 36 x 53 inches. Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Marie A. Moore.
By the second half of the 19th Century, both Mastiffs and their collars more closely resembled those of today. Ignazio Spiradoni’s portrait, Ch. Lion and Dido with Nelly (Figure 9), from 1867 shows the pets of a Miss Hales, a well-regarded early Mastiff breeder. Lion had already earned his championship, and although he was noted to be of a “houndy” type, Miss Hales was commended for breeding dogs that followed Mr. Lukey’s example with regard to type and had mild temperaments. Lion and Dido wear handsome matching leather collars decorated with brass plates, studs and a plain brass lead ring. Both dogs probably have their owner’s name engraved on the brass plates on their collars, but only Dido’s is visible in the painting.
Figure 10: Dog collar, English, mid- to late 19th Century. Leather with brass studs, 1 3/8 x 8 x 8 inches. Brass plate inscribed: "Rev. R.W. Close." Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of the Oei Family.
Similar to Lion and Dido’s collars is a substantial leather collar with prominent brass studs and a brass plate inscribed Rev. W. Close (Figure 10). Collars like these were readily available from the thousands of Victorian street vendors who sold everything from fish, fruits and vegetables to razors, sand, stationery, toys, crockery, pails, brooms, salves, chairs, umbrellas, birds, dogs and dog collars. Dog collars ranged from simple copper bands to more expensive leather and brass ones. But relative to the annual incomes of some new pet owners, a dog collar could be a sizeable investment, often representing several days’ or even weeks’ pay.
Figure 11: Edwin Frederick Holt, English, 1830-1912. Monarch, 1868. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 12 inches. Collection of the AKC Museum of the Dog, gift of Marie A. Moore.
About this time, Mastiff collars also had only the dog’s name on the brass plate. Frederick Holt’s 1868 portrait captures one of the celebrated Mastiffs of M. B. Wynn, the distinguished early authority on the breed. The dog sits regally in a courtyard wearing a leather collar with a brass plate inscribed simply, Monarch (Figure 11). Dogs might still be property, but for the first time, in all levels of society, they had an individual identity and a special status within the household that they had never before enjoyed. The rise of the pet and the development of the purebred dog brought a new and honored role to man’s best friend, a position dogs still enjoy, and their collars continue to reflect the special place they have in our lives.
Susan Brown is a former director of The AKC Museum of the Dog in St. Louis.