The Sarplaninac is a medium to larger sized livestock guardian dog (LGD) breed that may look bigger than it actually is because of its heavy bone and long coat. Though slightly smaller in weight than many other types of LGDs, the Sarplaninac is well muscled and is noted for having extraordinary strength. This combined with its notorious territorial aggression to other unfamiliar canines make it a very formidable and dangerous opponent in any fight. Its reputation as a protector in its Eastern European homeland is legendary. An adult Sar is noted for its capability of being able to take on and kill wolves and even defend against fully grown Brown Bears. They make superb livestock protectors and their intelligent nature, coupled with adequate training and socialization, allows them to guard stock independently of their owner. It has a very strong protection instinct that is just as equal though when guarding livestock as it is for keeping watch over one’s family and property. It is a versatile breed that has been used for many purposes over the years and it will excel at any task that it has been properly taught. It is also an ancient breed thought to have been around on the Balkan Peninsula for several thousand years.
It should be noted now that the Sarplaninac is not for everyone as these dogs really are bred to work. Individuals of this breed seldom adjust well to a life in the city and when left confined in a house or small yard all day they may become bored and difficult to manage. Puppies and juveniles are prone to digging and socialization with unfamiliar people is absolutely essential in ensuring that they will mature into well balanced animals. Given the right setting and upbringing though, this dog is often very gentle and loving with children, livestock, and its human masters and can become a powerful protector to all of those it considers to be a part of its family.
The Sarplaninac has a very thick, double-layer, weather resistant coat which makes them especially well adapted in temperate and colder climates. The fur can be medium to longer in length and almost any color is permissible so long as it is solid over the entire body and only fades from one color to the next. The wolf-iron gray is increasingly the most common color and is named so because of its striking similarity to the coat of a wolf. Unfortunately the popularity of the wolf-iron gray in the show ring seems to be at the exclusion of many of the other more traditional colors which don’t seem to be favored as much in breeding currently. The other colors that do still exist in some of the more aboriginal Sar populations include: Tan karabash, golden-yellow karabash, black masked-fawn, dark brown, ghost gray, pearl and ivory white, and nearly all black dogs. The rare brindle, Tigar mutation can also be found in some older pure strains. White marks on the chest or toes are normally allowable but not to be encouraged in breeding and irregularly large patches of white are strictly forbidden.
When walking or running, the tail is carried over the back much like that of a Spitz, but is normally carried down behind the rear legs when standing at rest. Males often have a densely furred, almost mane-like neck that is very difficult for predators to grasp and bite into. Their withers are moderately developed, their back is strong and level, the top line is slightly sloping, and they have a deep chest which extends to their elbows. Their skull is slightly domed and broad between the ears. The muzzle is thick and deep at the base, tapering slightly toward the nose. The fuzzy ears hang down to the sides of the head and their eyes are normally chestnut brown in color.
HEIGHT AND WEIGHT
The height often ranges from 22-28 inches (56-72 cm) at the shoulder and the weight is usually between 70-130 lbs. (32-59 kg). Much larger dogs can and do exist but with larger size, health problems may become more apparent. The question of a dog’s genetic purity also becomes questionable when they approach 150+ lbs. (68 kg) as these robust sizes seem to be more in tune with a Newfoundland or Caucasian Ovcharka outcross.
The sexual dimorphism between males and females within the breed can also be very pronounced. In some lines it is very subtle, but in others the males are heavier in bone and their body mass can be 15-20% greater than a female’s. They may also produce a much larger head with a thicker, broader muzzle. Though this difference in physical appearance is relatively common in many large dog breeds and is probably related to the dog’s testosterone levels during development, it seems to be a bit more extreme in Sars and it’s possible that natural selection may also have a part to play in it. In aboriginal livestock guardian breeds of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, males were often bred to be the toughest, fiercest fighters throughout the ages. Unfortunately “testing” like this still occurs to this day but was probably much more common in the past when the sole purpose of these dogs was to guard livestock and the ability to defend against a wolf attack would have been crucial. By only giving the strongest males access to breeding females though, it wouldn’t take long for physical differences between the genders to become more pronounced and the robust size and strength of some of today’s male Sarplaninacs may be a product of this.
The life span of a Saplaninac usually ranges from about 11-13 years but this is dependent on many factors, the most prominent one being the dog’s weight. Like many large breed dogs, keeping your dog at a healthy weight level and exercising it regularly is critical in the prevention of arthritis, heart problems, and other associated health issues. Consulting with a veterinarian should allow you to calculate a target weight to try to keep your dog at by taking its height into account. Sarplaninacs, and most livestock guardian breeds in general, seem to have a much more efficient metabolism than many of the more modern breeds. Hence, it is not uncommon for a fully grown Sar to only eat the same amount of food in a day as say a Border Collie which may only be a third of its size.
We recommend NOT feeding adolescent Sars any types of standard puppy food as the heavy protein contents can contribute to an abnormal growth rate in still-developing dogs. This does have the potential of leading to long-term joint problems so as a rule we only feed large breed puppy foods or even just an all age dry dog food upon weaning. Many LGD breeders who have the means have reported great success by feeding raw all-meat diets to their dogs. Their digestive systems seem to be able to process all of the meat more efficiently and you’re not left with the unnatural overdose of nutrients.
ENERGY LEVEL/EXERCISE REQUIREMENTS
The exercise requirements of the Sarplaninac are fairly minimal. Throughout much of this dog’s evolution they were used chiefly as livestock guardians. A hyperactive dog, such as a German Shepherd or an Australian Cattle Dog, may excel at herding but would fair poorly as livestock protectors. Their excited, high intensity nature is certainly geared more toward scaring and chasing sheep and cattle and this would only add chaos and confusion to the dog’s task if left as a flock guard. A dog which is more calm in its demeanor though will be less likely to spook the herd and with long-term trust and bonding, may even be accepted as a sort of member by the stock. It is for this reason that even in puppyhood Sarplaninacs are generally very mellow in their energy level and normally quite placid and laid back dogs. It is, however, very important to remember that these dogs have also been bred to follow and stay close to the flock as they move around grazing throughout the day and may cover several miles in that timeframe. So although the Sarplaninac can safely be considered a fairly laid back breed of dog when it comes to its overall energy level, regular access to at least a medium to larger sized yard coupled with regular walks is highly essential for the contentment and long-term well being of these animals. It is also important to note that these dogs really are bred to work and guard and a bored Sarplaninac can also easily become a very destructive Sarplaninac.
Sarplaninacs of both sexes have a very pronounced tendency to become dog aggressive as they mature. They are generally very laid back and placid though with dogs they’ve been around since puppies. Early socialization around unfamiliar dogs is essential in order to minimize their natural territorial nature, especially if the dog is to be kept as more of a pet instead of a working animal. Similarly, they should also be accustomed to different people at a young age. Though one of the most loyal dogs around those that it knows, the Sarplaninac is traditionally untrusting of any strangers who come into their territory. The attitudes of individual dogs varies widely and ranges from those dogs which seem to love everyone and may only keep a watchful eye on newcomers to those that are HIGHLY protective of their family members against any and all strangers (and should be watched with great caution when someone new approaches them). This is most likely a result of its use as a livestock guardian and these traits were certainly encouraged to varying extents for many generations. Spaying/neutering dogs at 1-2 years of age seems to help curb some aggression issues and has become very common practice for working dogs. It is also highly recommended to keep these dogs confined in a fenced in yard/pasture at all times. We take it a step further and kennel all of our dogs in a 10’ x 10’ run when we are not around. The strength of a Sarplaninac, combined with their propensity for digging under fences along with their strong desire to protect their property, do have the potential to become a liability if the dog is not contained properly in areas where they are regularly exposed to strangers.
We take great caution in ensuring that our dogs don’t derive from kennels that may encourage breeding from fighting stock. While there are a handful of Sarplaninacs which have been noted for being quite aggressive to strangers, the breed mostly has a gentle and loving personality when at home and even seems to possess a genuine love and fondness of children. Most of this predictability in temperament is probably very heavily dependent on the way the dog is raised though as these animals really do seem to be a unique product of their environment. A dog which has been loved and well cared for is certainly going to be easier to handle than one that has been mistreated its whole life. Dogs which have been raised around livestock since birth may become more attached with those animals that they’re guarding than to their human owners (especially in a larger scale or free-range ranching operation) and a little bit of skitishness around people is generally quite acceptable in this setting.
As stated earlier, human and dog socialization is absolutely essential from an early age for Sarplaninacs in order to ensure the predictability of their temperament. Intrinsically, the mentality of this breed could almost be likened to that of a feral dog and this is typical of many of the pastoral breeds that were bred to guard livestock for days, and even weeks, at a time completely independently of their owner. If socialized properly from puppyhood though, they generally get along well with other dogs and will rarely fight unprovoked. Ideally, this behavior should also be shared with new people that the dog encounters as well. Though they have a tendency to be a bit stubborn in training, they are actually extremely intelligent as is common with many LGD breeds which have been developed to work independently of their owners presence. Sarplaninacs have an excellent memory and seldom forget anything that you have trained them to do. Adults can be quite strong and powerful and are probably not advisable for the novice dog handler. However, with firm yet fair handling they can excel at almost any task that you introduce to them and can become excellent household companions.
HISTORY AND ORIGIN
The Sarplaninac undoubtedly derives from a very ancient lineage, though there is much discrepancy as to its exact origins. The breed is believed to date potentially as far back as 2-4,000 years. Most breed historians believe that it was developed in the Sarplaninac Mountain Range of Southern Kosovo and Northern Macedonia where, for many years, these dogs were the most common. During its existence they were given the distinction of being the national dog of the Former Yugoslavia and a moderately sized population is still extant throughout much of the Former Yugoslavian Region. Many different theories exist though so as to explain the ancestry of this breed. The Balkan Peninsula has been under the control of many different empires over the millennia and has been at the center of multiple ancient human migration waves. Most Eastern European breeders believe that they have always been a breed of the Balkan states and were bred down from earlier, local Molossoid strains by the ancient Illyrian Tribes that once inhabited the area, right up until their conquest by the Roman Empire. In fact, up until 1957, the breed was formerly known as the “Illyrian Shepherd Dog.” Other more physical clues point to genetic ties much further to the East. Because of their close resemblance to the Tibetan Mastiff, some believe that a few of the founders may have been brought over from the Himalayan Mountain Region of Asia by nomadic shepherds using the Silk Road. This ancient trade route ran from East Asia all the way to Eastern Europe starting in China’s Tang Dynasty and lasting up until the 12th Century A.D. Other theories point to the Molossoid sheepdogs of ancient Greece, specifically within the Epirus Kingdom, and some historians even believe with fairly great certainty that the Sarplaninac was actually the famous palace dog of Alexander the Great. Other experts yet believe the genealogy to have been influenced at least somewhat by livestock guardian breeds of the invading Turks later on in the 16th Century during the Ottoman Empire. This would tie at least part of their lineage in with breeds like Anatolian Shepherds or Turkish Kangals. These genetic traces seem to be especially apparent when looking at the color and texture of the karabash coat color within the breed. More than likely though, their descent probably derived from a culmination of all of these theories to varying extents which eventually led to the existence and appearance of the Sarplaninac as we know it today. As interest in the genome of this breed continues to pick up, it should be interesting to see which historical lineages are actually able to be proven by science in the future.
For many years the Sar was used as a capable war dog by the Royal Yugoslav Army during the years following WWII. The post-WWII president of Yugoslavia, Jozep Broz Tito, wanted to develop a better service dog than what had previously been used by the Germans and the Soviets. These so-called “Military Sars” are believed to have derived from some of the purest specimens available at the time in Macedonia and Serbia, although it’s believed that some German Shepherd and Caucasian Ovcharka blood was used to “improve” the working drive of these dogs as well. Many of these strains were maintained for several decades until the fall of Yugoslavia and then the Balkan Wars which followed shortly thereafter. Though many dogs were lost during the infamous NATO airstrikes on Serbia in the late 1990’s, it’s believed that a lot of the military bloodlines persisted and did manage to find their way into the modern Sarplaninac gene pool. Many law enforcement agencies within the Republic of Macedonia still use Sarplaninacs as effective police dogs and the Serbian Army still uses remnants of the military lines to this day.
Several different varieties and types of Sarplaninacs make up the breed in its native land. The Tetovac, Goranac, Karabeg, Karaman, and Turak are just a few of them. Crosses between types are generally quite common and most, if not all, probably contribute to the population now found in the U.S. and Western Europe. Interestingly enough, it’s also thought that Eurasian Gray Wolf blood may have been occasionally added into the gene pool by Serbian and Macedonian Shepherds right up until recent times. With the isolation and ruggedness that the Balkan Mountains can offer in certain areas, this out-crossing was probably necessary in maintaining a healthy gene pool within the breed. It also most likely reinforced the strength and prey-drive that these dogs are so notorious for. Traces of this ancestry can be very evident when looking at specimens that possess the wolf-iron gray coat color which has become so popular in recent times.
GENETIC INTERRELATEDNESS AMONGST MOLOSSOIDS
As previously mentioned, intentional outcrossing with other breeds may have occurred within some bloodlines in the years following WWII. The Sarplaninac itself is actually thought to have grown somewhat rare in Yugoslavia around this time frame and outcrossing with similar Molossoids would have been seen as a means of avoiding a genetic bottleneck as well as a way to create a more multi-purpose guard dog. With their physical appearance being so similar to Slovenia’s Karst Shepherd and Russia’s Caucasian Ovcharka, past genetic outcrossing was always suspected though not necessarily proven one way or another until very recently. Through the work of Ceh and Dovc (2014) the genome of the Sarplaninac was compared to that of the Karst Shepherd as well as the Tornjak (another Balkan LGD breed) and was also checked for any genetic infusions from the Caucasian Ovcharka and the Newfoundland.
The Karst Shepherd has long been considered to be an off-shoot of the Sarplaninac breed. Records of this dog on the Karst Plateau go back to the 17th Century but throughout this time these dogs were lumped together as simply being a sub-type of the Sar. The two breeds were officially split by the Yugoslavian Federation of Cynology in 1968 but it’s been unknown how much genetic exchange took place with the Sarplaninac either before or after this official recognition. Through Ceh and Dovc’s genetic analysis study it was proven that despite it’s close physical resemblance to the Sarplaninac, the Karst Shepherd is in fact it’s own genetically distinct breed and recent infusion of any Sarplaninac DNA appears to actually have been very minimal. In fact all three Balkan Molossoids seemed to have substantially different gene pools from one another thus proving that each is its own distinct breed
Regarding the Sarplaninac, it’s long been suspected that outcrossing with Caucasian Ovcharkas may have occurred at some point in its past. It was also proven through the same genetic analysis study that although Newfoundland DNA appeared to be very minimal, the Sarplaninac does in fact share a moderately sized portion of its DNA with the Caucasian Ovcharka; this indicates that crosses did indeed occur in recent history. It’s still unknown though if this crossing between the two breeds was only done after WWII in a necessary attempt at reviving the then declining Sarplaninac population, if it was done primarily by the Yugoslavian military to sharpen the breed’s temperament, or if this particular breed combination has always been common.
Despite the proven evidence of some outcrossing having occurred within the breed’s past, the positive points associated with genome analysis studies such as these is that the Sarplaninac has proven to have the most diverse gene pool amongst the three Western Balkan Molossoids as this ancient breed never underwent the same genetic bottleneck that the Karst Shepherd and the Tornjak did. Today the Sarplaninac is well established throughout Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzogovina and an established population in the U.S. and Canada (where they have found a niche as flock guards) seems to be thriving. The wide array of coat colors, sizes, conformations and unique individual personality traits coupled with their relatively sound health are all yet another thing that sets the Sarplaninac apart and causes them to stand out in a world otherwise dominated by newer, more standardized dog breeds.