As a 13 year veteran of the Army National Guard I had the privilege of traveling to numerous foreign countries abroad throughout the course of my career. It was back in 2004 though when I was sent to Kosovo, a former state of the small Eastern European country of Serbia, that I came across a sort of dog breed that I had never before experienced anything like. At the time these dogs seemed to be majestic, invincible, almost ghost-like to me. Even in their native land they were so rare and uncommon amongst Eastern Europe’s robust stray dog population that when you did see one you knew there was something about them which caused them to stand out from the rest.
As part of the NATO led peace-keeping operation in the Balkans, I was part of a joint task force which would regularly patrol the mountains that lie directly on the Kosovo-Macedonia border. I was just a young soldier at the time and I knew nothing about this terrain or the dispute between the two ethnic groups who were each trying to claim the land for themselves. The only thing that I was certain of was that it was some of the most beautiful country that I had ever laid my eyes on. I would later come to find out that locals referred to this area as the “Šar Mountain Range.” It was in this giant matrix of hills, villages, mountain peaks, alpine lakes, and valleys that we would occasionally see these dogs roaming around. They were a medium to larger sized, densely furred looking animal with the build and conformation somewhat resembling that of a Tibetan mastiff but with the long, gray coat of a wolf. Local Serbs referred to them as “Sar Mountain Dogs,” or Sarplaninacs.
Occasionally (and unfortunately) you’d see them being fought on the streets; sometimes you’d notice them running amongst the rest of the strays on the outskirts of the towns. More often than not though they’d be seen accompanying shepherds along with their sheep and goats that they’d graze up in the hills during the summer months. The Balkan Mountains could at times be an extremely dangerous and unforgiving landscape. The winter weather was very harsh and cold and the summers were long and hot. Not only was the country still on the verge of civil war but dogs deemed to be strays were often shot on site by the KPS (Kosovo Police Service). The Balkans also still had an amazing array of big-game wildlife left intact that may have grown quite rare elsewhere in the world in recent years. The best way to describe the Sarplaninac breed as we know it today is by summarizing it into one word: Survivor.
Unlike the United States where man has conveniently all but eradicated most large, native predators that may pose a threat to livestock, in the Balkans the land was still pretty wild and many humans just did what they’d done for the last thousand or so years to survive; the people there just had a different frame of mind than we do here in the West. Being members of the Former Yugoslavia, the smaller sub-countries like Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina were fairly poor. The economy in these areas is still a long ways away from recovering from the effects of communism and Kosovo alone had a whopping 35% unemployment rate at that time. Hence, there wasn’t a lot of extra money to use towards building new roads or paying for federal predator control programs to protect livestock like we have here in the states; most shepherds didn’t even have enough money to own a gun. This coupled with the widespread political instability of the entire Balkan Region as a whole seemed to provide for a high degree of remoteness in many areas which inadvertently offered a certain amount of protection to various carnivorous species from both recreational sport hunters and fur trappers alike. Animals like the Balkan Brown Bear, the European (Golden) Jackal, and the Eurasian Gray Wolf were still very abundant throughout Kosovo’s rugged landscape. It was literally a dog-eat-dog world out there and the only sure fire method a shepherd had for protecting his entire livelihood, which may have depended solely on a few head of goats or sheep, seemed to lie in the use of this ancient race of livestock guardian dog.
There was just something about this animal that captivated me right from the get-go and I realized that they were indeed very different from any other breed that I had ever encountered in my past. Sarplaninacs certainly weren’t the largest dogs I had ever seen; a mastiff or a Great Pyrenees would probably have a Sar beat in size. It seemed to be a combination of the sheer power as well as their cunning and intelligent nature though that I always admired. Our interpreters, who were all natives to the region, would tell us that for generations this breed of dog had been used as a “wolf killer” by shepherds and it was said that a well bred, adult Sarplaninac could by itself be entrusted to drive off up to 3 Eurasian Wolves when protecting the flock. Interestingly enough, it was also said that a large male had the power and drive to bring down and kill a fully grown Balkan Brown Bear. I have to say that I have never personally witnessed either of these two claims first hand so I can’t attest to their accuracy. Regardless of their exact authenticity though, it is evident that the Sarplaninac undoubtedly has a reputation in its native land for being a very brave and trustworthy guard dog and even seems to be legendary in its ability to win in a fight against any foe. Whatever the true reason was for my fascination with the breed, I knew from that point on that I had to try and take one of these dogs from the Balkans back home with me. Though my first attempt at bringing a puppy back from the town of Elez Han ended in failure, after 5 years of waiting I was finally able to have my first Sarplaninac pup imported into the United States.
Today our farm is home to three Sarplaninacs and my goals are very simple: To be able to offer farmers and ranchers of North America access to a type of livestock guardian dog that has been time tested throughout the ages in its native land and has proven to be highly effective to this day in protecting sheep, cattle, and goats from some of the fiercest predators that one could ever encounter in the entire European continent. Though Grizzly Bears and Timber Wolves have been largely eradicated from most parts of the United States, they are making a steady and deliberate comeback due to a variety of successful conservation initiatives. American Black Bears have also made a very significant comeback to many parts of North America and are now thought to in fact be more abundant than all of the other 7 global bear species put together. Coupled with this is the fact that the Coyote has taken over much of the North American landscape in the absence of wolves and is now thought to be present in every one of the lower 48 states as well as Alaska. As an avid conservationist, I have to stand by and try and help promote the return of all of these native predators. However, I also understand that with all of this added pressure now once again put on farmers and ranchers to protect their livestock from age-old rivals, conflicts are largely inevitable and nearly guaranteed to ensue. Trying to find solutions that help to ensure the protection of farm animals while at the same time not conflicting too much with wildlife conservation initiatives can be difficult though. Thus, access to efficient, time tested livestock guardian breeds couldn’t come at a better time. We have a saying here at the swamp, “If you want to step up the protection on your livestock then try fighting fire with fire, try a Sarplaninac!”