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Guard dog – St Mary’s Abbey, Dublin

Post by Paul Duffy

In medieval Dublin, dogs were used widely – for hunting, catching vermin and to guard premises and property. As well as guarding the households of the private individuals of the city, public institutions also employed guard dogs. In 1556 we have an example from the Dublin Assembly Roll that ‘The clerc of the commen haull of this cittie shall [...] keape watche hymselfe with a mastyve dogge nyghtlie’. This entry is interesting as it explicitly names the type of dog breed required as a guard dog – the mastiff. It is a safe assumption that such large dog breeds would have been used at the gates to the city and the castle to give the watchmen some extra bite when dealing with unwelcome visitors!

A mastiff-type ghunting dog in the Livre de la Chasse of Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix, c. 1380

In 2019 our excavations at Little Mary Street identified the Cemetery Gate of the medieval Cistercian Abbey of St Mary’s. When, after the dig, we were tasked with creating a reconstruction drawing showing an everyday scene the medieval gate, the idea of depicting a guard dog was suggested by the artist Matthew Ryan. While the 12th-century statutes of the austere Cistercian Order explicitly forbade the keeping of pets, Walter Daniel, a monk of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, wrote in the 1160s that the Cistercians were known to keep “good barkers” as guard dogs. So showing a guard dog at the Cemetery Gate that gave access into the inner abbey precinct and all of its high status buildings, burials and relics made a lot of sense.

This gave rise to some interesting questions about the type of breed and also what that breed would have looked like in the medieval period. Initially we based the dog on the familiar modern breed of British mastiff, however some reading and consulting with experts (particularly Mike Loades) suggested that, in the medieval period, a guard dog may have had prick ears like the English Mastiff depicted by Aldrovandus in the later 16th century, much like the modern Perro de Presa Canario. An old Spanish breed influenced by dogs arriving in the Canaries with British sailors, this provided the model for the striped colouring of the St Mary’s guard dog who watches over the scene of a merchant carting off baskets of apples to market in this beautifully rendered 16th century scene by the artist Matthew Ryan.

Early version of the St Mary’s dog with drooping ears and jowls.

‘Canis bellicosus Anglicus’ Aldrovandus (1522-1605)

Modern Perro de Presa Canario


Mike Loades 2020, Dogs: Working Origins and Traditional Tasks (White Owl, Barnesly).

Matthew Ryan Historical Illustrator:


We are running a Crowdfunding campaign until August 13th, please help and spread the word so we can radiocarbon date our archaeological dogs in our project. Lots of ways for you to be involved, from naming a archaeological dog which will use to label the bones throughout our analysis, lots of hoodies and T-shirts for all ages, eco drinking bottles and special Backer's online talks throughout the project for updates and exclusive previews of the results and discussions.

For Assistant Dogs' reward, for every 25 we give 5 to help other dogs in Dogs Trust Ireland and 5 to help horses and dogs rescues in My Lovely Horse rescue. How does your howl sound? You can record your own AWOOOO howl which we will use to announce our social media and outreach/conference talks, can you do better than our PI, Ruth's in the video?

Please help us discover more about these dogs and horses within human societies over a 1,000 years ago and let is gain insight into the wonderful human-dog/horse bonds that existed. Spread the word if you can, every little bit helps. Thank you!

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