Interview with Paolo Breber
By Michael Etaskiran
To say that we owe the very existence of the Cane Corso today to DR Breber would not be far from the truth. It was upon the urging of Giovanni Bonnetti that Breber began the search for this elusive and maybe mythical piece of Italy’s past. Breber was the man who laid the ground work and scoured the southern Italian country side for not only valid subjects but to seek out information on its morphology and utilizations from the native Foggiani who might have some recollection of the breed. As a matter of fact many of the pictures that now appear in the flood of books to hit the market these days (both in Italian and English) belong to him. These are pictures he had to pay the families that owned the dogs for the use of. He add’s that they have been used without his permission; also many chapters in these books are like carbon copies of articles he has written. It was an article written by DR Breber on the Abruzzi mastino that aroused the interested of a then 16 yr old Stefano Gandolfi, in this article there was a picture of a Cane Corso that Breber explained was a mollosar native to the south that was near extinct He also wrote that he had begun a breeding program to try and preserve the breed. Breber in collaboration with Gandolfi and the Malavasi brothers began the reselection of the breed and formed a breed club (SACC). In 1986 Breber decided to leave SACC in a dispute over what is the correct bite, he remained semi-involved with the breed for a couple of years and arranged the conference of the Civitella Alfedina in 1990. This is a gathering of all the important passionates of the day to speak about the breed. Breber eventually withdraws even more from an active role in the breed, so much so that he did not know that the FCI had changed to official name of the breed to Cane Corso Italiano. As time goes by those with selfish reasons are able to marginalize his role in the breeds recovery to the point were most people outside of Italy don’t even know he was involved.
DR Breber’s beliefs on not only the Cane Corso but also the Abruzzi Mastiff make him not exactly a popular figure when it comes to the ENCI; he has in the past been highly critical of the directions the organization has taken both breeds. He also detests dog shows and what he calls “dog fanciers” he feels they dilute the dogs ability to perform what it was truly intended and developed for. It seems there is a division in the old-time Corso community between the people who bred the dog for its historical uses on the Masseria and the people who did the selection for conformation shows and used a rigid standard. Dr Breber is firmly entrenched in the formers camp with the likes of Flavio Bruno, Matteo Prencipe and Alfonso Comer. As opposed to the latter group consisting of Giancarlo and Lucano Malavasi, Stefano Gandolfi and Fernando Cassalino. It seems that these divisions are geographically predisposed, as the ancient resentments between the north and south manifest itself in the history of the Cane Corso. DR Brebers beliefs about the Cane Corso are diametrically opposed to what is now considered conventional wisdom surrounding the breed. For example one of DR Brebers strongest convictions is that an essential characteristic of the breed is a scissor bite, a completely opposite point of view from Stefano Gandolfi and company. I recited some quotes to DR Breber I had gleaned on prior trips to Italy from old-time corstisi to see what his reaction would be “In the south we had all kinds of mollosans, all that were cropped and docked were called Cane Corso”- Verdino, old time breeder of Rio Nerro kennels. “In the old days there were many types of Cane Corso’s, each province had it’s own type of Cane Corso. The type chosen by the group from Mantova was certainly very nice, but not the only one”-Accrniche, president of southern Italian breeds assoc. Breber emphatically agrees with these statements in discussions with DR Breber he conveys to me the breed should have a scissors bite, parallel axis of the skull, 60 to 40 head to muzzle ratio and a heavy undercoat. For the record these are the characteristics described by Michael Sottile when he drafted the original FIC Cane Corso standard, what a shame the people who criticized him all those years for what they perceived to be an incorrect description of the breed did not choose to ask DR Breber what his opinion was. DR Breber offers us an insight to the breed probably not explored as much as it should be, probably because what he say’s fly’s in the face of what we have been told about the breed and who played major roles in it’s recovery. Breber himself should also be faulted for this, had he not decided to just walk away it would have been much harder to minimalize his role and efforts.
Q-Tell us about the name, and the different connotations?
A-“Cane Corso” there have been various interpretations, it is very ancient they used this term “Corso” to indicate this kind of dog. You could find it in documents going back centuries so it is the authentic name of the dog. “Corso” maybe it has the same root as the English word Course, sort of a tough or rough dog. Other people have said other things but I think this is the most likely meaning.
Q-Can you tell us of any antidotes, traditions sayings or customs that involve the Cane Corso?
A-Historically? Yes, there is a saying “he is ugly like a Cane Corso” When I actually first met the breed it was one the verge of extinction, I managed to pick up a few things from the old-timers, but there was already very little information available at the time. One thing, which was often repeated, was that it was always very docile. The owners who were these people like game keepers or wardens of farm houses would live with the dog day and night as they worked the farm, this sort of very close relationship developed and they would really understand each other, without any kind of conventional training that we would think of today. These old-timers would train them, each man in his own way. Often the dog would obey some sort of secret signal from the man, like the raising of an eyebrow or the waving of a finger, this is what they would like to do. This is so different from the standardized way we train dogs these days, we think of police dogs or other types of dogs, we have manuals and we teach them to obey the same words and same commands, so for me this is rather interesting.
Q-Can you tell us how the Cane Corso’s morphological characteristics played a role in its utilizations, were different dogs used for different things?
A-The dog is sort of a compromise between strength and agility; he has to be not light and not heavy. He has to have more speed than say endurance, more quickness, and sort of short fast action, more than say being able to run for miles and miles. This is what the text say, as a matter of fact I have quotations from the 17th and 18th centuries that state the dog is strong, quick and fast, not much endurance but these are qualities you would need to tackle a bull who has run amuck. The dog would have to go in there and grab the bull and hold it until the men could intervene. So this is what you see in his conformation, he is strong boned and powerful but not heavy, he should be big but not heavy, he should move lightly. He is not resistant to living permanently out in the open air, in other words he is good for intense hard work, but then he needs periods of rest and shelter. You would take him out to work but then when you go back home you can’t keep him out in the rain and snow like you would other breeds of dog, like a sheepdog that would live his whole life out in the open air.
Q-Can you tell us about breeds called “Bucciriscu Calabrese” “Calabrien Cane Corso” U Bucciriscu”?
A-These are just regional expressions for the same dog. I don’t think there is any real difference. I don’t think there is enough to make them different breeds. These are just different expressions in different dialects for this type of dog in the different regions of Italy. The original stock in the 1970’s was found in the province of Foggia and in Bari, which is in Puglia, other dogs were found in Calabria and that’s it. These are the dogs in which all of today’s dogs stem from. They say that there were still a few still in Sicily, but I don’t know if they found them.
Q-Describe what the reasons were for pitting Cane Corso’s against each other?
A-These were people who would try and show who had the bigger stronger dog, it was never a full time hobby or sport, but they enjoyed this sort of activity, they would not only use Cane Corso but other breeds as well. It never really developed into a blood sport with particular rules and so on, it was never developed to the extent that it was in other countries.
Q-Describe in your mind what the ideal character of the Cane Corso is?
A-He is a dog in which a man could control completely, a very strong dog, afraid of nothing, easy to train. Basically when not in action a very friendly dog completely attached to man. Other dogs can be left on a chain and only see his master a couple of hours a day, or a dog that is content to live with the livestock it has to guard. The Corso is different; he suffers if he does not live in the company of man all the time. So he forms a very close association with his master.
Q-Could you tell me a little about yourself and how you became involved with the recovery of the Cane Corso?
A-I started getting interested in dogs when I was about sixteen or seventeen, for many years I studied the Abruzze mastiff which is the dog that guards the sheep against wolves in the south. I wrote an article and book about this breed. A man by the name of Giovanni Bonnetti read some one of my articles and wrote me a letter when he learned I was going to work in the south of Italy, the province of Foggia. He told me that there should be this breed of dog there, made in such a way, look for this kind of dog, I’ve never seen it myself but this friend of mine Ballotta who was an old-time dog judge had noticed them in those areas before the war. So I started looking for this dog and finally after a couple of years I managed to find the first specimens at a dog show in Foggia. This is when it all started. There was no information about them at least anything written, so I started interviewing the local country people. I slowly started to get an idea of this dog, the way it looked, and the king of things it used to do. What it was used for. I managed to buy the bitch from the show and I mated her with a dog, this other dog I found, that was the first litter born away from it’s original setting. Then the whole thing got started, slowly first then much faster later on, this was back in 1973-74.
Q-Could you describe your first encounter with the breed?
A-First of all nobody had told me exactly what it looked like. I more or less vaguely was told what kind of dog it was. Once I saw one dog that was obviously a mutt it was a cross between a German shepherd and something else, what struck me was the brindle coat of this cross breed. This was the first inkling, the first sort of suspicion. Obviously I was looking for a dog that was different from all the other dogs I knew. I wasn’t sure it was a pure type, like a pure mollosus type, pure hound type or a pure greyhound type. I didn’t know what basic type it was. It only slowly came out. Then finally I saw my first Cane Corso at this dog show in 1975 or 76.
Q-Could you give me a general outline of how the recovery was started?
A-As I said before I got this bitch “Mirak” she was black, she wasn’t very big. She had a very nice personality. When I bought her (she was already an adult dog) from this man from Lucera, which is in the province of Foggia. I had seen her first at this dog show then I asked him if he were willing to sell her, he was. I took her when she was in heat to this male I had also met at this show his name was “Aliot” and he was from Ortanova. They produced the first litter of seven pups, which turned out very well. There was a black dog and he was “Dauno” there was a brindle bitch and she was “Brina” and there were 5 slate gray puppies.
Q-How do you feel about the direction the breed has taken in recent years?
A-I am strongly against this business of the undershot jaw that is my main objection. My main criticism is the fact that there are so many of these undershot dogs. The breed is not undershot, he has a scissors bite, a regular strong bite. The traditional historic role of the dog was expressed through the bite, it was a catch dog, so if this was a catch dog the jaws have to be strong and perfect-big strong teeth fitting perfectly one into the other, so you don’t want a completely deformed jaw that can’t do the job as well. The undershot jaw is a defect. That is my main criticism. There is still a lot of nice dogs around, the old type is still there if you know where to look for it. The dog should not get to big because if he gets to big he gets to heavy and looses his agility, his nimbleness.
Q-What prompted your departure from the SACC?
A-I wanted to have a part in establishing the standard that was really the thing I cared for. I wasn’t interested in setting up a kennel or selling dogs that’s not my business. I really wanted to play a role in setting down the standard and when this was done without my participation, and I found out they put in this business of the undershot jaw this really got me cross. That was the end of my association with the SACC.
Q-Do you feel the Neapolitan Mastiff and the Cane Corso share a common ancestor?
A-Well…the Neapolitan Mastiff is something very different of course they are both mollosus dogs like the Boxer or Rottwieler, they all belong to the same category. I don’t think there is a very close relationship because the Neapolitan mastiff is such a highly specialized dog. Even the Neapolitan mastiff if you look at the dogs they had in the fifties, they weren’t so exaggerated in their characteristics; they didn’t have these very long flews and dewlap. Which I think is a hindrance to the capacity of the dog to move around and act normally. I once saw a Neapolitan mastiff snap at a person who came to close he didn’t touch the person, but he bit into his own lips, he was drooling blood. So I mean a dog trying to bite someone and only succeeding in biting himself obviously shows this business of breeding for all this skin has been overdone.
Q-Why was the recovery program centered in Mantova?
A-Well they were the first people who had a kennel to be interested in the dogs. They had the pens and the kennels to start a breeding program. They looked me up and offered to collaborate in a friendly way. I was glad to accept because I couldn’t handle the business by myself. I didn’t have the room, I wasn’t living in the country were one could keep say 15 or 20 dogs at the same time.
Q-Could you describe those original rustic dogs-Dauno, Brina, Aliot, Alke, Tipsi, Mirak, Picciut?
A-Of all the dogs from these first litters, only Brina had an inverted scissors bite, Dauno and the rest had a scissors bite. Brina’s bite you couldn’t see it from the outside, you would have to open her lips to be able to tell. Aliot certainly didn’t have an undershot jaw. Aliot and Mirak were very different, Aliot was tall with a long muzzle, Mirak was a short dog, she has a long body but her lags weren’t very long. Her head was sort of shortish. The puppies came out very well, they were homogeneous, and they weren’t all different shapes and sizes. You would think that some would take after the father and some would take after the mother, but this wasn’t the case. Dauno was a very fine dog, Brina was also a very beautiful bitch, although her hind legs weren’t weak, but kind of out (cow hocked) I mean she could run and jump and everything, it didn’t actually stop her from moving smoothly. The rest of the dogs were also nice but I lost sight of them so I only saw the careers of these two, the brindle and the black. I crossed these dogs with other dogs I eventually found, like this very fine but very old dog named Picciut, from San Paolo. He was also a very fine dog. What I found interesting was the coat, this short but not very short coat, and this very thick hair almost like bristles. It was smooth along the body, it wouldn’t stick out at an angle. The dog had this wooly undercoat in winter. This was obviously an adaptation to outdoor life. It wasn’t this sort of fine velvety coat like a Boxer or Doberman.
Q-Can tell us about some of the methods employed in the training for the Cane Corso on the Masseria?
A-Well I don’t have that much information on the topic. With the hunting dogs they used to train them on young pigs, the idea to go out and grab is instinctive, the point is they have to learn how to grab it in the proper place otherwise they could get killed the same with steers. It is important that the dog would grab the ears or snout. With the boar they would have to grab either the ear or the back of the hind leg. Boars are sort of stiff and are unable to turn around on the dog. The reason the dog shouldn’t grab the boar by the snout is because he has the ability to push the dog to the ground and get at him, so the ear is fine, even better is the hind leg.
Q-Do you have a theory on how the Mollosan was developed and made it’s way to Italy?
A-I said before this type of dog has been in existence since the beginning of history. There are a lot of quotations in literature that talk the Phoenicians trading, importing and exporting dogs, certainly if not the Phoenician then the Romans who’s empire stretched across the ancient world certainly would have had access to these dogs. Obviously they originate from the Middle East, they originate from north Persia the areas around the Caspian and the Black sea’s. Those are also the area’s where all domestic breeds originated. This is not just someone’s theory that animals like the sheep, goat, horse and donkey they all came from that area-northern Iran, Caucus, and Caspian. I’m sure that’s where they originate. It’s those ancient civilizations, which did the original domestication. That is where these dogs were born; the original type was developed, starting from some kind of primitive wolf like dog. I don’t think they came from the Tibetan Mastiff, I don’t think there is a direct link, they are obviously related but I don’t think that these Mollosus dogs were bred from the Tibetan Mastiff. The Tibetan dog was just another of the variety’s
Q- Describe what became of the Cane Corso after the fall of the Roman Empire?
A-It was the dog that was needed for certain practices in animal husbandry. If you are raising cattle or raising pigs you’re going to need this kind of dog. Since it’s a catch dog it might have to tackle range-bred cattle, which is half wild. You may have trouble with managing the bulls, if you have a bull charging at you because it refuses to be held you send the dog after it. He will save your life because he will get in between the bull and yourself and he will take the charge except he is fast enough to dodge the horns and eventually he can grab the snout or ear and actually pull the bull down. They used to use this type of dog in the bullfights in Spain. I don’t think they use them any longer but up until a short while ago when the bull was no good, when he wouldn’t show fight with the actual men and they wanted to get ride of him, get him out they would send in the dog to hold him so the man could go in and dispatch him with a short knife. They would stab the bull in the place just behind the horns and kill him instantly.
Q-What do you believe the essential characteristics of the breed are?
A-The conformation suits of performance, it is a catch dog so it has to have strong jaws so it can hold the animal it is trying to control. It has strong bones; it is a strong muscular dog, quick in its movement, fast sort of has dash. He doesn’t necessarily have great resistance to long distance running. Of course he has a powerful head, which would corresponded to a powerful bite, certainly this would be a scissors bite. Not a very short coat, it should be longish but close to the body, it shouldn’t stick out. He is not a furry dog but he has a wooly undercoat in the winter, which is suitable to open air work.