Monday 27 January 2020

Thoughts and Concerns

I have been wanting to write this post for a long time, but it is always hard to gather my thoughts on this topic. Generally, I do not write much about people, I like to keep my stuff focused on the dogs and their behavior. However, lately some things have started to concern me, and I felt more and more the need to write some of this down. In part, as a cautionary tale, in part to share some of my concerns with you and of course to reflect on all things Sarplaninac.

As a breeder and a long time lover of the Sarplaninac breed, I have seen a trend over time that rather concerns me. When we moved to Alberta from Europe 11 years ago, we brought our Sarplaninac dogs with us. We raised sheep in Europe and used our dogs for livestock guardian dog work. It was back then, in 1992 very hard to find registered, working Sarplaninac dogs. Even then, despite breeders claims that they would work out because it is “in their blood”, in their line and simply because the breed standard says they are an LGD breed.  It was very hit and miss, we had some great dogs and others who were totally unreliable.

It became very apparent to me that not all Sarplaninac are created equally regarding LGD work. Looking at the history of the breed one can see how the breed evolved from a mountain working dog, tending to the flocks to the modern urban dog.  It did not have the fancy name “Sarplaninac” back then and was simply called a "sheepdog". The breed underwent multiple name changes and splits after recognition in the FCI.   The breed, and breeding, diverged and this split divided the breed (informally) into different jobs; the livestock guardian dog, the military dog and the urban/show/pet dog.

The Serbian army and their Sarplaninac dogs became quite famous. Breeding was controlled in the military kennels. The selection criteria were stringent, the military wanted one and the same type of dog, specific weight, size and colour. All peas in a pod.  Rumor has it, that to create a more biddable dog some other breeds were added into the original mountain dogs, including German Shepherd and Caucasian Ovcharka. Looking through these military pedigrees it is clear to see that line breeding and inbreeding was rife. It is also apparent that accuracy in registration was not always a high priority. Sometimes a male with a certain number would later appear as a female (with the same number) in another pedigree. Breeding litter mates was common, and the genetic diversity was low (high COI). The selection for the ideal military dog was based primarily on its suitability to do its job as a patrol dog, protection of structures and installations and a willingness to be human aggressive. A far cry of what was needed as an LGD. Personally, I have no issues with this type of dog been bred, IMO it is a different dog/breed to the mountain working sheepdog, however they do share a common name, and that is part of the problem in finding the dogs that can do their original LGD job. 

After the FCI recognised the breed and it went through multiple name changes, dog showing was the next best thing. Here selection was focussed solely on phenotypical properties. The dog had to match the breed standard in order to win ribbons. The standard is of course open to interpretation and an ideal vision is not always shared. It is like fashion; it is ever changing. Where, many years ago the steel gray dogs were regarded as the ideal, any other colour (despite the breed standard being quite diverse regarding colour) was dismissed.   In some of the breed standards “bigger is better”, in others very specific size parameters are laid out. Sadly, what we are seeing is a shift from the moderate working dog to oversized, “soggy” type of dogs. When people are proud that their dogs are larger than a Caucasian Ovcharka or heavier than 160lbs, then that is a reason to be concerned for the well being of the breed.

Breed Standards are subject to change, misinterpretation and, sometimes silly ideals. Some points slip into these standards that have no bearing on functionality and can be detrimental to a working breed.  That Sarplaninac should be double coated is a given, but to then state; “At the withers the hair should measure between 10 and12 cm; it should not be shorter than 7 cm” gives show breeders a singular focal point. Instead of the coat being efficient, waterproof, matt proof, protective, breeders selected for length only, it became too long, soft and flowy. Totally impractical and certainly not ideal for a working dog.  Similarly, the small white marking on the chest and toes, becomes a focal point for many breeders. They are proud that their dog has no white on its toes, but these same breeders do not mind if that same dog is cow hocked or has an unstable temperament! Instead of looking for a functional build that would suit the original LGD job, extremes become the focus, particularly in the show world.
More recently, we see more variation in colour in the show ring, which is good to keep the diversity within the breed. The latest trend now seems to be the focus on the “almond shaped eyes” and the lack of stop (supposedly wolf like) in show dogs. To the point, where some dogs look like they have malformed heads.
In the show ring the men parade around, and hopefully their dog will try to attack the other dog in the ring, thus showing “character”. These aggressive stand offs, the agitating of the dogs and sometimes even the dog fighting is proudly displayed on Facebook pages!  Once again, the selection is based on non-working sheepdog traits. 

I understand why the shepherds do not even want to call their dogs “Sarplaninac”, it is an insult to their working dogs. In their opinion, Sarplaninac are the ribbon chasing dogs and not the original working dogs. The shepherds want no part of FCI registration as they know it will ruin their dogs.  

Breeding and importing

When I brought our original dogs with us to Canada, most people here had not even heard about the breed.  Those they did, took the time to learn about them and to understand their nature. Sadly, the same as what has happened to the good working great Pyrenees, is now happening to the Sarplaninac breed. Weekly, one can find crosses of “sarplanic” dogs (these breeders do not even know how to spell the breed they are selling puppies of) with German Shepherd, maremma, Great Pyrenees, Anatolian and a variety of other breeds. Of course, the owners of these dogs want to cash in on the rare breed, so the “sarplanic” are advertised and often the other part of the cross is rarely mentioned. Some are sold as purebred, despite them being crossed.  More and more they start popping up in shelters and with greater regularity I am called to ask if I can help rehome one. One breeder pumps out litter after litter and any pups not sold are headed to the shelter. Many are sold into inappropriate homes, in towns and apartments.  The breed is getting watered down with poor breeding, no selection and unscrupulous breeders wanting a cash cow. Sadly, buyers are fooled into believing they have something special, and many even think they are getting a purebred. They pay upwards of $800 for these crosses. Many of these breeders advertise them as LGD, but they themselves do not own livestock. It makes my toes curl. The same breeders will also happily refer their buyers to me to help them out when these dogs have issues.

It disheartens me to hear how many people want to buy a pup from a good breeder just to want to cross breed it again. I know I will simply not sell a pup into such a situation. I love the breed, it is perfect as it is, is does not need to be crossbred. It is bad for the breed and will ultimately be the demise of the breed.  I will decline to sell to people who intend to cross breed, I do this out of respect for my own breeding program, the careful selection I do and for the breed itself.

This of course leaves some people angry. So angry, that I am unwilling to sell them a pup that they then set out to try and ruin me. I have had people threaten to ruin my reputation, put me out of business( the dogs is not my business) and one person even went so far as to send me a handwritten letter threatening me and our ranch.  I am not sure why people feel the need to threaten me, it just highlights to me even more that it is a good thing I never sold them a pup. If they have this kind of mentality, then I am happy to have made the decision to not sell to them.

For some people, the next step they undertake is to then import. It is easy to find willing breeders who tout championship lineage and who will tell you exactly what you want to hear. These Balkan breeders can be easily found on the internet and post on all the Sarplaninac and livestock guardian dog pages. They have discovered that they can easily sell to “rich Americans”. They are adept at smooth talking and they will happily sell you an LGD pup, despite their lines not been selected for LGD work.
They will often show photos of their dog with a sheep just to pretend to you that they are working. The go on about their amazing Championship dogs, best in Macedonia, top quality and will make an easy sell this way. They will arrange shipping and you think you have hit the jackpot in breeders and dogs.

Sadly, these breeders are often nothing more than glorified puppy mills. The bitches are bred back to back, whelp on concrete and absolutely no care is given where these pups end up as long as a sale is made.  I have known multiple people who have imported dogs from these breeders who have ended up with dead and maimed stock, dogs who have unreliable temperaments and some with some glaring faults. These breeders are unable to provide any support for when things go wrong with the livestock as they live in the middle of a city and do not have any livestock. Quite frankly they do not even care, they have your money and now it is your problem.
The often lie about things such as health testing and do not guarantee anything, so when you your pup has a problem, there is no recourse. In some instances, these breeders will use the buyer to promote their dog dealing business. If you post a nice picture of your dog and someone comments, these breeders then go and stalk that person and try to sell them a dog. I have even had one, post his pups on a post of my pups. This is plain rude. 

Good breeders support and help other good breeders provided they share a similar vision on the dogs. I will happily refer people looking for a pup to a good breeder. If their buyers need help, I will try to assist them. These Balkan breeders do not do this, they will try and sell their pups through you.  They manipulate and use you for their advantage.

Sadly, many of the dogs imported come from the same few breeders so, when these new buyers are all excited about introducing new genetics into Northern America, often, there are plenty of dogs with these lines already. 
When people ask me my opinion on a certain breeder, and I gently recommend looking elsewhere for a pup, then I am labelled as being jealous, or angry that I did not make a sale. I am not sure why they ask my opinion because ultimately, they will still buy a pup from that breeder. I am however always very sad when I see someone importing a pup from such a breeder and then a few years later you hear of the dogs mauling the livestock or the person been taken advantage of. 
I am not the Sarplaninac police and people can do what ever they want. Ultimately, it is a transaction between that buyer and that breeder. However, it is very much a buyer beware situation.

 Another thing that totally rubs me the wrong way is the secretive, underhand dealings. A lady on the East side (New England Region) of the USA, advertises her purebred Sarplaninac pups (they are crosses, depending on which advertisement you see), she “steals” photos of other people to make her own adverts. She uses a false name and false Facebook page. All very shady. 

Then, you have the puppy dealers, the ones who wholesale import 3 or 4 pups from a litter, get a little “cut” on the side for their business. It is plain and simple dog dealing. This of course leaves the future buyer in no-mans land. When they have problems or issues, who is responsible, the dealer, the seller?

Another category of dog breeders are the covert mis-truth tellers and "embellishers", the ones that make up stories, create a almost “new name” for the breed, the stories are so believable that the mis-truths are hidden in plain sight.

And, then some days I am just gobsmacked at the Facebook responses I sometimes get:

Luckily for me, I can handle it, I am not concerned whether they think I know how to raise a LGD or not. But, what does concern me is when this person has had to re-home a Anatolian because they could not handle it and, that they intend to cross breed their Great Pyrenees and Anatolian females to a sarplaninac male,

I run a Canadian Sarplaninac page, to be able to join some questions need to be answered first. This page is specific for purebred and registered Sarplaninac dogs, so one of the questions is who is the breeder of your dog? The number of people who either do not reply or cannot remember is astounding. How can you not know the breeders name? Surely, the breeder gave you the registration certificate, a vet document, you paid them so there must be a name somewhere.  Once again, if you are paying good money for a pup ($800 for a cross to $1500) then surely it is in the buyers’ best interest to know the name of the breeder? How can you ask for advise, or get more information about that line, or if your dog has health issues how will you contact them? Why the secretiveness? Surely, you should be proud to know your breeder and have a pup from that line. 

It is all very disheartening and I often wonder where this will go?

 One thing I know for sure, is that I will do what I feel is right. I will look for working dogs, select my breeding dogs on multiple criteria, I will screen the owners as best I can and will provide support to those people. Most importantly, I will do my best to help protect this breed that is so dear to my heart.  I cannot control what others do, and I do not want to either, I can only control what I do. I am not the perfect breeder, I have had an accidental breeding, my dogs are not perfect either and I know some owners have had issues with their dogs, I do however offer as much help, support, guidance and mentor-ship for these people. 

What I do know, is that I will always support and focus on the LGD working sarplaninac. That is “my” thing. If ribbon chasing is yours, then great. If you love the military type dog, also great.  However, please do not delude the LGD folks whose livelihood, and their livestock’s lives depend on good working dogs that your show champion or military bred sarplaninac is an LGD.  I know my dogs might not conform to the ideal breed standard when it comes to non-working qualities; a bit more white, a brindle colour, hair that is shorter than 8 cm etc. What I do care about is; coat quality, correct conformation, correct weight, agility, strength in bone and muscle structure, movement and the properties that allow the dog to do the job it was bred to do. Working temperament is important, the Sarplaninac should not be described as a sweet, soft, gentle, docile dog. His job is to ward off bears and wolves, he should be strong, bold, stubborn, determined, fearless, loyal and to be good in his job he is alert, active and a go getter! They should be aloof to strangers and loyal to their owner. They need to have a strong ability to discern threat from something benign.  I care for dogs who can do their job, that their working abilities are not watered down with cross breeding. That have been selected for this one job. 

I sincerely hope that the Sarplaninac will not go the way many other breeds have, but I think it might have started down that slippery slope, and that breaks my heart.

Thursday 2 January 2020


A January Blizzard rolled in today.
After wonderful, mild winter weather,
I woke up to the wind howling, snow drifts and a true winter storm.
The wind was biting, although not very cold,
it felt like it looked, wicked!
Roy and I made sure we fed extra roughage, bedded with straw and let the calves into the corral area to have some extra shelter.
The main cow herd were fed in the bush and out of the wind.
The dogs, seemed to find the weather delightful and the horses were rather frisky too.

The Barn was barely visible.

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