Spanish mastiffs

As many of you know, husband Jim and I recently traveled to Spain to interview livestock producers about their livestock protection dogs used in wolf country. Spain was one of three emphasis areas on our research trip, which was sponsored by the Wyoming Wool Growers Association and funded by the Wyoming Animal Damage Management board. We wanted to see working guardian dogs that are aggressive enough to be effective against wolves while not being aggressive to humans. I think we struck gold in the working Spanish mastiffs we encountered. The dogs we met had been proven against wolves, and we unintentionally provided the ultimate test of their human aggression (a story I share below). The photo above shows me with a yearling mastiff – that’s one big puppy.

First a little background. We were fortunate enough to have two wolf biologists as our guides in central Spain – including one whose job it was to ensure distribution of mastiffs to producers in wolf country, especially into areas where the wolf population was expanding. These two, Yolanda Cortes and Juan Carlos Blanco, organized all our interviews with producers, and got us to wherever we needed to be. I doubt our trip would have been so successful without their insights and assistance. I hope our first work together is only a start. We have plenty to learn from our Spanish comrades.

Ranches, farms and estates are called “exploitations” in Spain, which we noted with some humor. The mastiffs are not called livestock guardian dogs, protection dogs or simply dogs, but instead are always referred to as mastiffs. To the Spanish producer (sheep, goat or cattle) there is simply no other animal comparable to the mastiff.

Most of the grazing areas we visited are unfenced, so the herder must stay with the herd in order to keep the animals from entering grain/cereal fields in the area. The herder stays with the herd until he’s ready to eat lunch about 2 p.m. At that time, the herd is placed into a centrally located pen, which in some cases has been reinforced with electrical wire to keep wolves out. The herder goes away for lunch, and comes back to let the sheep back out after a few hours. The sheep continue to graze, with the herder alongside, until it’s nearly dark and they are most often penned again. Larger herds (we saw one with about 1,000 head of sheep and 11 mastiffs) are not night-penned, but stay out with their mastiffs. The herders are almost always the owners of the animals and the ranch (I believe we only saw one exception to that). We also saw herders with burros and cattle as well, again for the same reason. More cattle were kept in fenced areas, but most of the areas were unfenced.

The Spanish mastiffs are absolutely huge, and most producers allowed me to pet and handle their dogs. The dogs were very tolerant, but quickly went back to work. We met dogs that had actively fought wolves, including one female who was still healing up from a battle a few months prior, as well as a big male dog who had killed a wolf. Okay, so they work against wolves, and they seemed not to be human aggressive, but were they really no danger to humans? We were soon to find out.

Our last livestock producer visit one afternoon in Spain was with Paulino, who runs 448 goats and about 300 cows. There were six Spanish mastiff livestock protection dogs with his main herd of goats, but he had another 60 mother goats that were out grazing in a separate herd, away from their penned kids. Paulino reported there was one mastiff dog with this bunch that he thought we would like to see. We arrived at the pen in the evening, and the mother goats were nowhere to be found. We walked through thick brush “hara” covering the mountainside, trying to find the herd, but couldn’t even hear their bells. Paulino decided to drop down into the canyon below in attempt to find the herd and place the mothers back with their kids for the night in the safety of the 8-foot tall wire pen, so we were to wait.

As it started to get dark, and we could hear the goat bells coming in the distance, we (wolf researcher Juan Carlos Blanco, Jim and Cat) walked back to the kid pen, opened the gates to let the goats in, and stepped back out of the way. We realized that if the goats tried to approach the pen and saw strange figures in the darkness, they would never enter the pen. So Jim and I stood very still next to Paulino’s vehicle, while Juan Carlos stood on the other side. The goats began coming to the pen, but they approached from both sides, so Jim sat down on the ground so he couldn’t be seen. Afraid to move, I just stood frozen in place.

Suddenly a large mastiff male approached the pen with the front of the herd, so the goats began to enter. The male stuck his nose to the ground and wheeled around looking in my direction. I warned Jim so he could get up off the ground, and began softly telling the very large dog what a “good puppy” he was. The dog barked loudly at me and came directly for me, but when he approached close, he simply sniffed my hands, which I quickly used to pet and praise him. He raked my hands with his teeth, and then passed behind the vehicle to meet Juan Carlos. I could hear Juan Carlos talk to the dog before the dog continued his circle to meet Jim. The dog raked Jim’s hands with his teeth as well, but did not bite.

That was a miracle. We had created the worst disaster scenario in which I was fully prepared to be attacked by a guardian dog, yet the dog did not bite anyone, and only showed mild aggression. He was very nervous, and although Paulino was talking to us, as we approached the goat pen, the dog continued to rake our hands with his teeth, taking our hands into his mouth in attempt to redirect our attention from the goats to him. Understanding his body language and what he was attempting, we walked away from the pen. This increased the dog’s comfort level and he went inside the pen to his goat herd, with we strangers safely locked out. Here’s a photo of Paulino at the kid pen, before he went after the herd that evening.

It was too dark for me to get a photo, but this was a typical massive mastiff, only one year and two months old. Paulino’s mastiffs were not friendly mastiffs like others we had met, and did not want to be touched by strangers. This is probably a reflection of Paulino’s belief that the dogs should not be petted while they are being bonded to livestock as pups. His largest and most valuable mastiff, Leon, was always nearby, but lurked in the brush where we could never even fully see him. Leon was the only dog wearing a spiked leather collar as a defense against wolves. The collars are often reserved for the best dogs.

I was extremely impressed with the working Spanish mastiffs we met in Spain, and will recommend that livestock producers in wolf country in the United States try this breed. My hope is that we can get support to bring pups from working lineages in Spain to the Northern Rockies. Our wolf biologist friend Yolanda would be a logical contact for such a project, and could bring both the dogs and the knowledge of their husbandry to share with us in the United States


  1. Very interesting!
    As I understand, the working conditions are very different in Spain and Wyoming. Spanish Mastiffs live and work much closer to their owners. It is intereting to see, how they will work in new environment.


  2. Eugene:
    Actually the conditions are not so different. Most range sheep herds in the West are herded also. What seems different is the training given to the dogs in Spain, since we do very little training here.

  3. Thanks for letting me post this article to my blog, Cat. Many years ago I started using the Great Pyrenees to protect my sheep from coyotes – a bit ahead of the times then. We didn't/don't have wolf problems in our area (Sierra foothills). Today, I've turned to the llama as a sheep guard. The one I have is very effective – he is a gelded 7 year old. Posted some photos of him on my blog – link below. Mimi Cary Drake

  4. Cat, I saw a fleeting minute on a cable TV program a night or 2 ago that had me quite awe struck. It was a show about meteor hunters (in colorado?)and their pickup is (time for a laugh) stopped on a highway with a flock of sheep crossing in front of them, and as the camera panned there were 3 or 4 huge white guard dogs standing some distnce apart from each other, facing the flock as it crossed, all dogs on the highway, and as the meteor hunter guys drove on past they said something to the dogs,,there were no people there,,those dogs knew exactly where the danger came from on that road. With great respect,,Maggie in SW WI

  5. Fascinating study. I have met a couple of dogs that do that raking thing with their teeth, and it truly is a "gentle" warning to "move on, nothing to see here." Interesting to hear of that behavior from livestock working dogs. The dogs I know to hae done that are guard/attack dogs, and at the time I thought I was just lucky they didn't decide to clamp down.

    Best Regards,
    Albert A Rasch
    The Range Reviews Tactical: How Terrorists Choose Their Targets

  6. Fascinating Cat.

    How do the Spanish wolves compare to US wolves in size and predatory behavior?

    A documentary I saw once on Italian wolves portrayed animals that were closer to coyotes or red wolves in their size and habits than to timber wolves.

  7. Great comments – I'm busy trying to transcribe our interviews and notes now, so I'll do more posts on what we learned a little later on, including items on husbandry and training, as well as various guarding behaviors.
    Maggie, the dogs will almost always stand broadside in the road while the sheep cross – many a guard dog have been killed by speeding trucks in such encounters, and many a sheep have thus been saved.
    Heather, the wolves in Spain are not as large as our wolves in the Northern Rockies, but they are still much closer in size than a to a western coyote. Average weight is about 90 pounds for an adult male, and average pack size is about seven. The write-up I'm working on includes information about the predator populations as well as the dogs and livestock. I did get a few photos of bears and wolves, which I'll post later with more info. Now back to transcribing …

  8. We run 7000 commercial ewes and we breed our own guard dogs. They are Marema, Ak bash, Anatolian, with a little Pyrenees. What ever works we breed. Our 3 guard dogs on the summer range grabbed a bear buy the butt and ran him out of the herd. I have never heard of the Mastiffs but it sounds like I should look into the breed. We had one litter that had a huge pup in it and he looked like one of your Mastiffs. We were trying to think of a guard dog breed with that coloring and now you have solved the mystery. At first we thought one of the Border collies got to the bitch, but there was only one black tri dog in the litter and he was huge. It did not look Border Collie, it was too big for a Border Collie cross. We have wolves, Puma, and coyotes to contend with and we loose very few sheep to predators. We run 3 guard dogs to the band. Anita Phillips J & A Phillips Ranch

  9. I am hoping to own a Spanish Mastiff in the very near future. We currently use Maremmas to guard our goat herds…but I really like the mastiff temperament. Please let me know when you get all your ppictures and writings finished..I'd love to see and read more about your trip. Very interesting. I think Livestock guardian DOGS are the best route for this ridiculous over population of wolves. The problem is having enough dogs to be able to combat against these LARGE packs that ranchers in the west are having to deal with. Luckily CA is not yet home to those giant predators….but who knows what the future holds.
    Faint-Hearted Ranch

  10. Excellent information on the working style and ability of the Spanish Mastiff! The ranchers I've been in communication with in Spain have all reported similar stories and I've found this to hold true in my experience with my Spanish Mastiff's on my own farm over the years. They have a close working style with the livestock and seem to do best with human interaction as well. They do not tend to be human aggressive, but are very savvy and intelligent and seem to read people (and their intentions) accurately and respond accordingly.
    Lois Jordan

  11. Im spanish boy, my family have mastin español, spanish mastif for guard of cows against the wolfs and bears in the mountains of north of spain, in other zones guard sheeps and horses.
    in other cases guard houses and gardens or enterprises.
    BUT THE 100per100 spanish mastif you cant find in shows of dogs, the sheper spanish mastif, is les fat, please dont buy dogs of shows because if you buy this you can give ok result about the work of dogs. you must find dogs in spanish countriside go out to shows and busines… this spanish mastifs are the original, looks like turkish kangal and other mastifs in your eviroment.

    sorry for my english

  12. Cat, at this time I own the only Abelgas bred Spanish Mastiffs in the USA. Gregorio Fidalgo Tejedor's dogs in Spain are considered by most to be the top working line in Spain upon which so many others based their breeding programs. There seems to be so many misconceptions about the breed here already in the US not helped any by those who have repeatedly marketed the breed as exotic expensive pets and promoted show conformation, rather than promoting and breeding for their working ability. Ironically, the imported ones I have (9 total) come from both working and show backgrounds and all have equally taken to guarding my sheep. I attribute some of this to being raised up here in a large pack of dogs – I run about 20 adult dogs on my ranch. I know some claim the show bred mastines cannot guard but this is not true; if raised up from young with sheep or stock, and brought up with older guard dogs, I have found they can also become very fierce protectors; I know mine sure are, and hold their own with the working bred Spanish Mastiffs just fine.

    Brenda M. Negri
    Cinco Deseos Ranch LGD's
    Winnemucca, NV

  13. Hello,

    I am currently writing a book with respect to wolves and livestock guardians and was wondering if I could use some of your information in the area for Spanish Mastiffs.

    Pat Mallenby, B.A., B.Sc

  14. You really need to ask Cat Urbigkit, who should see this, but anything of MINE is fine with credit. If she doesn't see this soon, email me at "ebodio- at gilanet- dot- com" and I will forward her address.

  15. Hello, My name is David Vega,Now I am LA based. I am from a little village in Cantabria( North of Spain) , my family came from one of the most abrupt regions of my country: Picos de Europa. I have seen Spanish Mastiffs all my life, this is a unique breed. They are huge, powerful and fearless dogs. I have seen males up to 100kg they live more years than the common LGDs breeds, they can resist low and high temperatures.
    They will take a bullet from you, they don´t care if it´s a wolf or a bear, they will die defending your cattle. I have heard a lot of stories of these guys taking down wolves and scaring bears.
    The best Spanish Mastiffs I have seen in USA are Brenda M. Negri´s ones form Cinco Deseos Ranch:
    They are breed in unique conditions, they are around cattle, goat and sheep from the very beginning and they learn to work as a pack.

  16. congratulations, this is the first english language web where i get to see pictures of real working type spanish mastiffs as the ones my grandmother in el valle del jerte owns, not like those crappy show line dogs from cinco deseos ranch…

  17. I own a pair of yearling Spanish Mastiffs and live on a small farm with goats and poultry (chickens and geese). They are quite friendly with people, but have already deterred a pack of coyotes from setting up shop. Foxes no longer kill my birds. What was once a nuisance bear has moved on, leaving my livestock and bees alone for a change. My SMs are fantastic LGDs and all-around farm dogs: happy to protect their pasture, happy to hop in the truck and go!

  18. The " official " Spanish Mastiffs FCI or AEMPE ( like the Abelgas line )are Spanish Dogues ,products of extreme consanguinity and crossbreeds ,worthless as LGD's .There are existing proofs in Spain ,in France , that these showlines are not at all usefull as LGD's and lack completely efficiency .As they have exagerated skin they are for all useful in front of your entry door if you have air draught there.
    The authentic ,native Spanish Mastiff is hidden in hands of authentic shepherds and livestock breeders. These native ,authentic Mastiffs over generations constantly out of real working lines are the right ones as LGD's .Don't forget that a LGD has to be an atletic , agile ,natural,high resistant ,robust,persistent dog with a high grade of vigilance ,watchfulness and reaction speed . So fat ,obese ,short-legged,lymphatic dogs ( one hundred kilos dogs ? ) you can simply forget them as LGD's.
    If you buy take original ones from authentic shepherds not from official commercial breeders presenting you a lot of papers full of beauty champions FCI , top elements of unability !

  19. name is hasan and i am from South Korea. I want to buy a spanish mastiff one year puppy. So how much for one puppy and how much for sending a puppy to South Korea by air. Thanks

  20. We are experienced mountain walkers and this summer were in north west Spain in an area where there are wolves. Cattle in small herds of about 70 cows calves and a bull are free roaming . We had met a mastif which was very friendly but it was with a farmer and was elderly..
    A few days later we were on a mountain walk and saw about 5 separate herds of cows plus horses all free roaming. I noticed this white dog about 600 metres away coming towards us so was a bit cautious but he made it very clear he was pleased to see us. We did not make a fuss of him because we knew his responsibilities. He was properly equipped with a spiked collar as protection. He wanted to stay with us and walked back with us doing circuits round us in the scrub. We came upon a herd of cows scattered both sides of our path and we would normally not walk through the middle of them but had no option. The dog immediately changed his behaviour and walked to heel with us until we had cleared the herd when he went back to his original behaviour. When we got back to our car he then left us .
    We met other mastiffs and they I was vey impressed by the way they interacted with people and their herds

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