Neapolitan Mastiffs: A Complete Guide on These Gentle Giants

With wrinkles for days and the strength of a bull, the Neapolitan Mastiff certainly commands a second look. But what makes this breed fascinating goes far beyond appearance.

Feb 9, 2024By Chelsea Pinkham
neapolitain mastiffs complete guide on these gentle giants

The Neapolitan Mastiff is an absolute monolith of a dog. Weighing between 110-150 pounds, with tremendous muscle mass and dramatic wrinkles, a Neapolitan Mastiff will always turn heads. They’ve done so for thousands of years.

Once guardians of ancient European civilizations, war dogs, and even gladiators during the Roman Empire, these mastiffs were historically known as dogs not to be meddled with. Easy-going at home and gentle with the family, Neapolitans still retain their strong guardian instincts. As awe-inspiring as they are, these dogs are certainly not for everyone.

From Humble Beginnings: The Breed’s History

molossus ancient depiction
Image Credit: American Kennel Club

As far as modern canine historians are aware, the Neapolitan Mastiff’s relationship with humankind began around 700 B.C. That’s well over 2,700 years ago! It was thought to be Alexander the Great who first crossed the now-extinct Great Molossus War Dog with shorthaired dogs from India. The Great Molossus War Dog was developed in ancient, tribal Greece. These tremendous canines often wouldn’t even need to engage in combat; the sheer sight of one was enough to send opponents running and trembling in fear.

While the Neapolitan Mastiff has traces of ancestry from throughout Europe, it’s one of many Italian dog breeds. “Mastino” is the Italian name for a Mastiff-type dog.

mastiff in snow
Image Credit: Canva

Neapolitan Mastiffs were used as war dogs, guardians, and even gladiators in ancient Rome. Sadly, many animals and humans alike were sacrificed for entertainment during this time, forced to duel before cheering audiences in the Roman Coliseum. Lions, tigers, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and even dogs like the Neapolitan Mastiff met their end in the Coliseum. What’s interesting about this is that despite humanity’s kinship with dogs, some breeds were viewed as being fierce and formidable enough to warrant such brutal treatment in the Coliseum.

Despite their fierce looks, Neapolitan Mastiffs can make loving companions. It’s clear that this was recognized by many people throughout history because the breed has been preserved for thousands of years by everyday dog owners.

The Neapolitan Mastiff was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 2004 and ranks 119 out of 201 club-recognized breeds. The breed is fairly uncommon. This is probably a good thing; these dogs have very specific needs and are not suitable pets for everyone.

Temperament and Behavior

tired  mastiff panting
Image Credit: Canva

Given the Neapolitan Mastiff’s history, one would imagine that these dogs are fiercely and brutally aggressive.

In reality, Neapolitan Mastiffs are not monsters, despite their intimidating looks. However, their original breeding purpose is still reflected in their temperament today; they tend to have a watchdog nature, avidly protecting the home from what they perceive as intruders. Remember, an “intruder” in a dog’s mind can be a food delivery service, postal officer, or the local Girl Scout troop selling cookies! In urban areas, a hypervigilant dog can be more of a liability than a source of safety.

mastiff shaking off water
Image Credit: Canva

This is a common trait in guardian-type breeds, whether livestock guardians, like the Great Pyrenees, or personal protection working dogs, like the Cane Corso. A dog with generalized aggression toward anyone and anything would not be bred by well-informed dog breeders. This would not be an effective working dog at all; a generally aggressive dog would be a danger to its handler, the very person it is supposed to be protecting.

Instead, like many other guardian breeds, the Neapolitan Mastiff was bred to be doting and affectionate toward its family, but ready to leap into action at the slightest hint of a threat. In the home, many Neapolitan Mastiffs actually tend to be couch potatoes. All dogs greatly benefit from daily exercise, enrichment, and training, but Neapolitans are happy to spend a large portion of their day simply lying around the house with their humans nearby.

blue mastini puppies
Image Credit: CM Mastini

This does not mean that Neapolitans are low-maintenance dogs. In fact, this guardian-type breed needs lots of active, positive socialization from a young age to help prevent hypervigilance in adulthood. Teaching boundaries–– such as not jumping up on guests––is essential for giant breeds.

What’s cute for an eight-week-old puppy can be downright dangerous behavior from a grown Neapolitan Mastiff. No breed needs a heavy hand, and all essential life skills can be taught through positive reinforcement-based dog training. In fact, Neapolitan Mastiffs respond particularly poorly to harsh or firm handling. Using high-value rewards to motivate these dogs to cooperate with us is crucial.

“Fang” in Harry Potter Was a Neapolitan Mastiff

fang harry potter
Image Credit: Wizarding World

Those who are not dog-breed-savvy but grew up reading the Harry Potter series may find some familiarity in the wrinkly face of the Neapolitan Mastiff.

These feelings of warmth and nostalgia come for good reason; it was this breed that played the role of “Fang” in the Harry Potter movies. Rubius Hagrid’s clumsy and loyal behemoth of a dog was described in the books as a Boarhound. This was an old-time umbrella term for any large breed used to hunt boars, including Great Danes, Mastiffs, Boerbels, and more. The movie’s producers chose to cast a Neapolitan Mastiff, whose outrageous and often intimidating looks suited the adored canine character well.

Fang is often described as being clumsy, affectionate, and laid-back at home, but quick to bark a warning when danger is near. His fictional temperament is pretty accurate for a typical Neapolitan.

fang harry potter hagrid hut
Image Credit: Wizarding World

Those who enjoyed the Harry Potter movies likely still picture a wrinkly, slobbery, Neapolitan Mastiff in this role. For the first three movies, a blue Neapolitan Mastiff named Hugo was used. When it was time for Hugo to retire, a rescued blue-brindle Neapolitan Mastiff named Monkey stepped in to take Hugo’s place. Monkey was underweight, neglected, and deemed “aggressive” by his former caregiver. It was clear to his rescuer and trainer that this was not the case.

Monkey passed away in 2013 but lives on in the hearts of those who remember him for this iconic role.

Special Care Considerations

sleepy neopolitan mastiff puppy
Image Credit: American Kennel Club

The Neapolitan Mastiff’s hypervigilant, guardian-type temperament means that these dogs are best suited for highly experienced canine caregivers. In addition to their temperament, there are a few special care considerations that apply to this breed.

Sourcing a puppy from a backyard breeder or puppy mill will lead to a slew of serious health issues. Neapolitan Mastiffs can be prone to cherry eye, which happens when the third eyelid gland prolapses. The condition can sometimes be managed through anti-inflammatory medication, but most often, reparative surgery is needed. Poorly-bred Neapolitan Mastiffs are susceptible to cancer and heart problems.

elderly neo mastiff dog
Image Credit: Canva

The National Breed Club recommends that ethical breeders should conduct the following tests on any dogs being considered for breeding:

  • Hip evaluations
  • Ophthalmologist exams
  • Elbow evaluations
  • Cardiac exams

Being giant dogs, Neapolitan Mastiffs are also prone to gastric turn, sometimes called bloat. This happens when a dog’s stomach twists on itself and rapidly fills with gas. Prospective caregivers should research this life-threatening issue thoroughly, learning how to prevent it. Restricting a mastiff’s exercise for 60-90 minutes after eating can significantly decrease the odds of this happening. Keeping a dog’s stress levels low also reduces the likelihood of bloat.

neapolitan mastiff strong
Image Credit: Canva

The last special care consideration is a bit less harrowing, but must be considered nonetheless: drool! As one would imagine at the sight of those huge wrinkles, Neapolitans are absolute drool machines. Caregivers must be okay with slobber touching virtually every surface in the home, and receiving a lap full of drool every time your pampered pooch rests their head affectionately on you.

Wiping down the Neapolitan Mastiff’s wrinkles and jowls with a damp cloth daily can both prevent skin issues and reduce drool. Some clever dog trainers have even taught drooly dogs to wipe their muzzles on a towel on cue. This type of innovation is needed when caring for these breeds!

Caring for Giant Breeds: What to Know

giant neapolitan mastiff
Image Credit: Canva

Giant breeds might be easy-going for the most part, but living with such dogs requires careful consideration. Many apartment complexes and landlords restrict tenants’ dogs by weight. Those with giant dogs should likely be fairly stable in their current housing situation, and financially able to endure a tougher housing search when moving.

Giant dogs can be tricky to bathe at home. If this is the case, using self-wash tubs at a grooming facility or hiring a dog grooming service should be included in your canine care budget. Even if your tub is large enough, you might not want a 150-pound, drooling mastiff in your bath at home!

mastiffs together
Image Credit: Canva

These colossal canines can also be tough to transport. They don’t fit comfortably in just any car, and injured or elderly dogs will not be able to jump into a vehicle. Mastiff owners should always carry a sturdy ramp for their cars, just in case such a situation arises. Using a ramp throughout a dog’s life can decrease the likelihood of arthritis and hip dysplasia at an older age.

Unless you’re of Herculean strength, you’re probably not going to be able to lift a mastiff without injuring the dog or yourself. If the entire family piles into the car for road trips, and you want to bring the dog along, you just might need a bigger car!

Caring for these giants can be tricky (and expensive), but for those who love them, the technicalities are worth it. These unique dogs are certainly not for everyone. But there is someone for every breed, and Neapolitan Mastiffs are no exception!

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!