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Making Room for Mastiffs -- Saturday August 9th, 2008

Making room for mastiffs Published: August 9, 2008 Susan May poses with two of her Mastiffs, Bo, left and Jasmine, who tip the scales at 140 and 120 pounds, respectively. Marcus Larson/News-Register By STARLA POINTER Of the News-Register Susan May has a big heart for big dogs. Really big dogs - English mastiffs and variations on the breed, including bull mastiffs and Neopolitan mastiffs. "They're big, special dogs," the McMinnville woman said. "If I could keep them all, I would." Since she can't, she limits herself to three - Jasmine, a 120-pound diva who thinks she's in charge; Bo, a 140-pound male who, thanks to plenty of socialization by May, is friendly and gregarious; and Cosmo, a 194-pound youngster who can't get enough play time with a his favorite toy, an oversized soccer ball just right for his oversized mouth. Bessie, 160 pounds, is almost a family member. She lives at the McMinnville home of May's sister, Zoe. "When we walk all four, we almost cause accidents," she said, chuckling at the stares of passers-by. But those aren't the only mastiffs May and her husband, Gary, welcome into their home. They also provide foster care and placement services for dogs that have been abandoned by or removed from their owners. In the past five years, they've fostered about 80 mastiffs and transported or helped place about 120. May's family had a dog briefly when she was growing up. But as an adult, she opted for felines instead of canines. Then she met a mastiff. One summer, she noticed a big male dog in her neighborhood. Left alone for long periods, he had neither food nor water, and the temperature was hovering around the 100-degree mark. "I was mad," she said. "I had to step in." She cared for the dog for weeks, feeding him, walking him and taking him everywhere with her. Although he was huge, she said, "He was great." When she got to know more about the breed, she discovered his sweet temperament is typical. She cried when the owner reclaimed the mastiff. She knew then and there that she had to have one of her own. Mastiffs were bred in ancient Rome as fighting dogs. In Medieval England, they served as guardians of the castle. However, they really weren't very well suited to the job. "They're so friendly, they let people in," May said. That's where the related variety, the bull mastiff, came in. Mastiffs were interbred with bulldogs to produce a more aggressive guardian. Bull mastiffs are generally stockier and somewhat smaller than their English cousins, who typically produce 180-pound males and 150-pound females. Other types can be a little smaller. At a svelte 120 pounds, Jasmine, a English/Neapolitan mix, is a good example. Jasmine had been abused by a previous owner. So she had behavioral quirks when the Mays adopted her. As May worked with Jasmine to help the dog overcome its fears, she realized other mastiffs also needed assistance. She committed herself to being a rescue volunteer, and founded the nonprofit Mastiff Rescue Oregon. A former travel agent, she now travels all over the West and Midwest helping dogs. The Mays often pick up mastiffs that have been abandoned or forfeited due to owner financial problems. "Nationally, dog abandonment is becoming a problem, especially in areas where the economy is having trouble," she said. Other times, dogs are relinquished due to divorces, deaths, moves, eviction threats or simply lack of time. In some cases, May said, people give up mastiffs because they are expecting a child. That's not a good reason, she said, because the dogs are great with children. Mastiffs can be protective of their owners and their owners' children, she said, but are typically gentle rather than aggressive. "Their sheer size intimidates," May said, noting with a laugh, "We don't get a lot of solicitors at our house." During 2007, the Mays took in 10 mastiffs, giving them medical attention, spaying or neutering them and caring for them until new owners could be found. This year, they're already up to 15. They hold an annual rummage sale to support the rescue program. This year, it is scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 23-24. They also maintain a website,, for donors and potential owners. People who want to adopt a mastiff need to be prepared to live with the breed's characteristic drool, snoring and gas, May said. They also need to be prepared for vet bills, as mastiffs, like all large breeds, tend to have joint problems. On the plus side, food bills aren't as large as most people expect. "They really don't eat that much," May said. "They're couch potatoes." Her dogs each get three cups of dry food a day. Some of the rescue dogs need a lot more at first, while they are on the rebound, then go on a three-cup maintenance diet. Sometimes owners need specialized equipment, such as steps or a ramp for the dog to use getting out of the car. And they need huge collars, typically 28 inches long. And, of course, there are toys and bedding. May tosses a blanket over a twin mattress for a bed and favors basketballs for toys. She said mastiffs pick up basketballs the same way smaller dogs pick up tennis balls. When she is checking out a potential adoptive owner, May does an interview, then a home visit. "I look for the living conditions, the lifestyle, the care they can afford," she said. She would like for them to have a fenced yard, especially if they are adopting a puppy needing lots of room to run and play. She makes owners promise the dogs will get plenty of care and a place to sleep inside. Surprisingly, she said, mastiffs do well in small houses, even apartments, as long as they get two walks a day. Owners also need to commit themselves to training their new charges. Given their size, she said, "If not trained, they become a handful." May and her husband keep in touch with the owners of the mastiffs they place. Many owners send photos. As a result, May said, "We have about 2,500 dog pictures on our computer now." The mastiffs usually know her when she meets them again. Some, though, make it clear they don't want to go home with her. They are happy with their new owners, just as Bo, Jasmine and Cosmo are happy with the Mays. The Mays' mastiffs take walks or go for rides. They like to play in the yard or the park. "Mostly, they like me to lie down on the floor with them," May said. "And they like other people, if we like them." Bo, Jasmine and Cosmo also like their new companion, a kitten. "Oh, the kitten is fearless," she said with a laugh. "He's not intimidated by the dogs at all."