10/10/2011 - There are two traditional breeds of dog which catch the eye on Lanzarote and the other Canary Islands. One is Podenco Canario, which is kept by the locals as a hunting dog. The other typical Canarian breed is the guard dog, Dogo Canario.
The Podenco and the Dogo Canario have been kept and bred by Canary islanders for centuries. The Podenco was bred as an outright hunting dog, and it is still an essential for every Canarian hunter today. They are usually used in packs to rustle up game animals - which on Lanzarote means rabbits. Then there is the Dogo Canario, a solidly-built animal reminiscent of the bulldog, which has been on the Canaries for almost as long as the Podenco, kept as a watchdog and family pet. It is currently enjoying rising popularity in Great Britain and many other European countries.
The first time I knowingly encountered this breed was at a Dogo Canario show. Impressed, I listened - admittedly from a respectful distance - as Laureano Álvarez, the chairman of "Guadeneth", the Lanzarotan Dogo Canario club based in the Complejo Agroindustrial in Teguise, told me all about the breed. My first impression was of a fighting dog, but according to Álvarez they are anything but.
Unfortunately, though, it is the dog’s intimidating appearance which accounts for the growing demand for it. The Dogo Canario has only been recognised by the FCI, the biggest international federation of kennel clubs (Fédération Cynologique Internationale; www.fci.be) as a separate breed since 2001 and is still only "provisionally" registered. This dog does not merely look powerful and imposing - it looks ominously like a fighting dog. However, the Dogo Canario is not a fighting dog and nor is it not classified as one in any country where there is legislation regarding dangerous dogs, a fact which naturally goes down well with everyone who likes this sort of dog - and I'm not being judgemental - and would like to own one without having to be bound by any stringent statutory requirements. At the same time it opens the door to people who, to put it politely, like to use their dog to "impress" others and enjoy it when someone almost wets himself at the sight of their four-legged friend.
This conflict also leads to a certain amount of disingenuousness on behalf of some breeders - whilst some insist that they are breeding a "sociable, stable family pet" and emphasise these characteristics, there are other breeders who repeatedly stress the Dogo Canario's duty to guard and protect, they praise its courage and might even occasionally decline to give a pedigree certificate to a dog which they see as being "cowardly".
The positions are clearly defined, the intent obvious. Whilst some are making an effort to keep this dog as far from the fighting dog image as possible - not least because it makes them more saleable - others are quite consciously attempting to breed a fearless, brave guard dog, accepting that they are steering the dog ever closer to the point where it is classed as a dangerous breed.
Another disputed issue is the dog's name. In Spain it used to be known (and sometimes still is) as "Dogo Canario", "Perro de Presa Español", "Spanish Bulldog", "Perro de Presa Canario" or "Alano". In Great Britain it has been called the "Canary Dog", "Canary Packer Dog", "Canarian Catch Dog", or "Canarian Molosser". In 2001 the FCI put an end to the confusion and gave it the official title of "Dogo Canario". Traditionalists among the Spanish breeders would have preferred the old name, "Perro de Presa Canario", but officially they sided with the FCI, which had chosen to omit the word "presa" from the dog's name. It is Spanish for quarry, or prey. In English "presa" can also be translated as "packer". Packers are also big strong hunting dogs bred to worry game animals, and they have enough fight in them to hang on to the quarry until the hunter arrives to finish it off.
The Dogo Canario's 15th century ancestors were indeed hunting dogs used by the Spanish aristocracy for hunting bears, stag and wild boar. It was a large, sturdy, molosser breed, which showed no fear of aggressive game animals and could hold them down tenaciously until its master came to administer the kill with his sword or spear.
It was brave enough, too, to go to war with its master and guard his tent as a so-called war dog, but also, clad in spiked armour, to charge the enemy and cause disarray, inflicting serious injuries on soldiers and horses. This was not a Spanish invention, by the way - the Romans would often send whole waves of dogs armed like this into battle.
When the Spanish Conquistadors set off for South America, using the Canaries as a staging post, these were the dogs they brought to the islands, thus beginning the gene pool for the Canary Dog of today.
As there was little to hunt on the Canaries and dogs weren't required for sending to war, the Dogo Canario was primarily used as a guard dog to protect the rural farmyards. There was no need for hunting or warfare here, and that is also the main reason the FCI chose to delete the aggressive word "presa" from the breed name - to disassociate it from the packer dogs.
There are Dogo Canario breeders all over Europe, and they say that demand for these dogs is increasing exponentially. Should you be interested in acquiring a Dogo Canario as a companion you would be well advised to look carefully at who reared the dog and in what manner. On no account should you buy a puppy if you haven't seen for yourself how it has been brought up and made sure that both its parents are calm and relaxed, and not stressed or aggressive.
A pure-bred Presa costs between 1,200 and 1,600 euros, and you can get a list of registered breeders from The Kennel Club (the UK’s largest organisation dedicated to the health and welfare of dogs: www.thekennelclub.org.uk) or from The United Perro de Presa Canario Club - United Kingdom (UPPCC-UK; www.uppcc.net). Here on Lanzarote you can go to Laureano Álvarez, the chairman of "Guadeneth", the Lanzarotan Dogo Canario association (www.presalanzarote.com), which is based in Teguise. Álvarez will be glad to provide addresses of "criaderos autorizados" (authorised breeders) on the island. You can contact him by phone on 0034-619 504 011, or go to the association's office in the Complejo Agroindustrial in Teguise, where friends of the Dogo Canario meet every Friday from 7 pm to 9 pm.