Bruce Elfström – As I sit here in my office overlooking our Bankhar, Baavgia, tending sheep in -10F conditions while buffeted by 30mph winds blowing heavy snow, I’m reminded of how well Baagvia is prepared for these conditions. As I watch him, I see our other dogs, an Akbash and an Estrella Mountain dog, also out there working. While the Bankhar is out in the shade exposed to the full frontal weather attack, the other two are less than happy and shelter from the wind in a patch of sun behind the barn. Perhaps these other two are smarter, you say? Or perhaps not, and the Bankhar is just better “dressed” and better prepared. Out of curiosity I tap my hated iPhone and ask Siri what the temperature will be in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia for the next ten days. She tells me, “Some bad weather coming up in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia. Down to -35 degrees and snowing.” By the way, Siri never says there will be “good or pleasant” weather in Mongolia- not surprising I guess for a city with an average temperature of 29F, a high of 100F, and a low of -50F.
Many people believe most livestock guarding dogs (LGD) are very similar. This is true by and large. Their general conformation, size, and behavior all fit within a fairly narrow range. However, like anything looked at closely, this is not really true. Not all golf clubs are the same, but they are all doing something very much the same. LDG range from Portugal to Mongolia and while they are, in my opinion, a collection of landraces and not separate breeds, they do have differences when viewed across their ranges and when compared to one another. Recently this is becoming especially true as some of the landraces are now becoming more isolated and could be considered “dog breeds” unto themselves.
So what makes the Akbash, a breed from Turkey, less suited for winter than the Bankhar? They are both landraces (or landrace breeds), so why aren’t they the same?
What IS the difference between a landrace dog and a dog breed and why is it important?
I have spoken often about a landrace vs. a breed. As a general rule a breed is one bred isolated genetically from individuals that do not match the look (or some other human chosen aspect(s)) of the representative group. An example is the Labrador retriever. This dog, developed from a landrace called the Saint Johns water dog, which came into existence from the mixing of dogs brought to Newfoundland by Basque and Portuguese fishermen (it is now thought to be extinct), also gave raise to all other retrievers (curly coated, Chesapeake Bay, flat coated, etc). At the point these various dog types were starting to diverge from the founder landrace and become part of the greater landrace. Humans, based mostly on looks, chose to make these “new” dogs look a certain way and then named them as a new breed. These individual dogs were then only bred with each other – thus narrowing the breed (a drastic genetic bottleneck) and its variation in looks (or behavior, size, etc). Labrador retrievers with long hair were now (and are still) not true Labrador retrieves and pups with long hair were either killed or not bred back to the group of individuals that their human owners felt constituted the breed, or were even just called something else – anyone heard of the a Golden Retriever? Of course the genetic information that the longhaired Labradors held, connected to the genes for long hair or randomly within the genome, were lost to the breed’s gene pool. By the way, these longhair labs still exist and crop up in litters all the time.
We know now that this type of breed creation leads to many deleterious genetic aspects, often hidden, becoming more common – the genetic info is reduced and concentrated by the choices of humans and these rare genes become a larger relative proportion of the gene pool as a whole.
Breeds were not just created based on looks – conformation, size, behaviors, might also be factors for selection. But what was not part of the choice on the same level as in the past, were aspects needed to handle the greater forces of nature. These bred dogs were cared for closely and not left to the full brunt of nature. It can be said that the main forces shaping the dog type soon to be breed were not nature, but the whim of men and women, not those of natural selection. Humans are subject to the creation of fashionable trends. Dog breeds are by definition shaped by fads in human wants.
A landrace breed is one that was certainly heavily shaped and is still shaped by natural conditions as well as human cultural aspects. If this dog type is allowed to continue to be shaped by natural forces over human fads and especially over human whim, it will retain a higher genetic diversity – diversity in looks, physiology, behavior, and so on. Does this mean that landraces are mutts in the classic sense? Not really. They can be defined better as ‘village working dogs’. In other words, they are expected to do a job to earn their living, but what they look like is not as important as how well they do their job. They are companions to man, yes, but they are co-workers too, even tools, and need to care for themselves much more than the average modern dog breed is capable of doing. Most importantly they need to survive the forces of nature first, and the amount of food given to them second. They also need to be able to breed under these conditions. They must be able to do a job that earns them the food and allows them to live long enough to breed, have young that will continue the genetic line, and retain energy to continue working.
These dogs are cared for by humans, but they are cared for only as much as the human is able to care for them after caring for themselves and their family members. Mongolian nomads and other shepherds that use LGDs traditionally and in their original ranges value their dogs immensely for the job they do. They would not be able to live without them in many cases. But they also love these dogs and find them to be “brothers or sisters in arms.” This working relationship created very tight bonds. Still, one must recall that if push comes to shove, a dog will not be fed before ones own human children. So some of you may reflect now that that is a hard bill to fill. You are asking for a very active strong large dog to chase and fight wolves, live at -50F, grow hair to stay warm, understand your wants, –all the while eating very little and still producing and raising young. How can a dog fit all these needs?
The solution is not to think about it, but to let nature and culture of women and men coincide to shape the dogs. May the fittest win. The Bankhar and many LGDs have a rather lazy way of living and sleep long hours, but if you look at the criteria to survive this make sense. They sleep to conserve energy for their bursts of highly aggressive battle-mode reactions. They eat little for their size – again just enough and no more since if they need more food they will not survive to breed or survive at all. A dog like this will not be chosen to get food over another dog that works as well but needs less food. This dog would be large enough, but if it is too large it cannot run as fast, it cannot jump as high, it cannot fight with high speed and dexterity, it cannot cool off when hot, and so on.
So what does this mean and why bring it up? Bankhar are a landrace as most LGD today still are. However, this is not so true for those LGD types that are or have been subject to “popular pet” forces. The selective forces become human-driven right away and the traits selected for are often traits that very quickly create dogs that are not capable of their original jobs. The Great Pyrenees is often used as an example of a LGD landrace that is now a breed which has been selected for a friendly disposition, greater size, heavier build, lower dog aggression, etc. The Great Pyrenees is now being passed over by farmers and herders who need a working LGD to survive – See this .pdf: Carnivore Prevention News . It is not aggressive enough to keep apex predators away, it is too large and too hungry, and it is prone to genetic complications such as hip dysplasia.
Look out for Part II on this subject post where I will highlight what this means for a LGD and its ability to work traditionally in the modern world and how it is or is not adapted to its environment. Through comparative pictures and bullet points I will compare the Bankhar to the Akbash as a means to illustrate LGD landrace variability, suitability, and why variation and the retention or broadening of genetic variability in a landrace is of importance.
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