Guardian dogs spread into Europe

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Virtually all guardian dogs are larger than dog-average and they probably evolved in Central Asia. The Middle Eastern Assyrians depicted giant dogs in battle with lions while in India the massive Hyrcanian dog that came from the lands below the Caspian Sea in what is now northern Iran and Turkmenistan are also part of art and folklore. 

Asian mastiff guard dogs were probably brought by Xerxes from Persia when he invaded Greece almost 2500 years ago. Others were brought back to Greece by Alexander the Great when we expelled the Persians and went on to conquer their entire empire. These became the livestock guardian dogs of Epirus and Sparta.?Molossia, a region in Epirus, located on the Ionian Sea in what is now the northwest coast of Greece, gave rise to the term “Molosser,” a name given to the mastiffs of that region and which is still used to refer to members of the mastiff family.?From Greece, Phoenicians traders transported livestock guarding dogs to Italy, France and Spain, and from these regions they spread throughout the rest of Europe. By this time there were differences both in the looks and size of the ancient mastiffs. Some, the white, longer muzzled dogs, remained classical livestock guardians while darker, heavier dogs were used in war or in the absence of war for dog fighting.

The Tatra Mountain dogs I met evolved from the similar dogs that served as livestock guardians in what is today Turkey, Iran, and Southern Russia. These, in turn probably descend from Central Asia where Asian ancestors of the modern Tibetan Mastiff were found. As ancient nomadic peoples moved westward, they brought their flocks and their guard dogs. The sheep culture Sumerians took their sheep and dogs as far west as Hungary and perhaps even to what is now Estonia and Finland. The central Asian Turkomens brought their sheep and dogs west from the regions of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to what is now Turkey. The Ottomans brought their sheep, sheepdogs and coursing hounds deep into Europe, as far as Austria.

The very first book on European dogs, written 2000 year ago, says that livestock guarding dogs were preferably white because that color allowed the shepherd to distinguish them from wolves (or other predators). Ben Hart, a veterinarian at the University of California who has been investigating animal behaviour since the 1960s has a different opinion.?He says that sheep identify each other primarily by the colour of each other’s face and head. A dark spot painted around one eye on a lamb is enough to cause a white-faced lamb to be rejected by its mother. In the Sivas region of Turkey, the local Kangal-Karaman sheep are uniformly white with black markings on the head. So are the Kangal sheepdogs that guard them. In Italy the ancient indigenous sheep of Tuscany were all white, guarded by all white Maremma sheepdogs. Ben Hart says that it is the ancient colours of indigenous breeds of sheep that have influenced the colours of today’s sheepdogs.

Sheep and sheepdogs both contributed to Europe’s development and their histories are deeply intertwined.

The Mausoleum of Galla in Ravenna, Italy contains a detailed mosaic from the fifth century now entitled Christ the Good Shepherd and in that mosaic there are small, fine boned sheep with long legs, not unlike the modern Italian breed the Appenninica. A thousand years later and Italian art still shows similar sheep but suddenly, in 1580, a totally different type of sheep appears. The sheep of Leandro Bessanos’ Moses Striking the Rock have short ear, thick necks and wool covered dewlaps. These are, in fact, Merino sheep, originally brought to Spain by the Moors. Merinos were and probably still are the world’s best wool producers.?Merino sheep were a major source of Spain’s wealth and because of their economic value, the King of Spain banned the export of Merino sheep but by the 1500s there were over three and a half million of them in Spain and not enough land to graze them on. The king owned land in Italy so he sent flocks there, overland, accompanied by flock guarding dogs to graze on his Italian estates. Dogs accompanied these flocks as they traversed the Pyrenees into France, crossed France into Italy and moved south to regions including Tuscany. Merino sheep ‘lost’ during these migrations eventually lead to the breed being established elsewhere including England. As Merinos spread throughout Europe, so too did the livestock guardian dogs that accompanied them.

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