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Volume 54, Number 4July/August 2003

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Shepherd's Best Friend

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by Thorne Anderson

There are grey wolves in Turkey, thousands of them. There are also bears, jackals, and—recorded just last year for the first time in a quarter century—Anatolian leopards. All are the enemies of sheep and goats. As predators, they live at the expense of the prey animals, the meat-eaters against the grass-eaters. But on Turkey’s Anatolian plateau, the prey have a strong friend, more than a match for any predator; the kangal dog.

Kangals are livestock guardian dogs. They live with the flocks that are released from village pens to graze by night in summer and by day in winter. Like all livestock guardians, kangals exhibit a stolid disposition and a distant gaze that is forever sweeping the horizon. They are neither overly friendly nor aggressive toward humans. Most seem perfectly happy to trot off from camp, leaving behind a potential handout from a shepherd who prefers his tea fire to a windy lookout, to follow in the tracks of their ovine charges.

In Deliktaş village in central Anatolia, just south of the 1760-meter (5775') Yağdonduran Pass and north of the municipality of Kangal in Sivas Province, shepherd dogs outnumber shepherds by more than two to one. The mukhtar , or mayor, of Deliktaş, Osman Aldıkaçtı shows off his nine two-day-old pups, whelped by his prized dog Lassie. No movie star in this plain village of farmers and shepherds, Lassie will soon be back at her job, all but one or two of her young given away to others. "Making a profit on Lassie would be like taking black money," says Aldıkaçtı. "Here we make gifts of our dogs outside our village."

Dogs have guarded sheep for as long as sheep have been domesticated. As a working canine group, livestock guardians may be slightly more recent than varmint-chasing dogs, bred by the world’s first farmers to keep rats away from grain stocks. The bones of domesticated dogs dating back 9000 years have been found at Çatalhöyuk, Anatolia’s earliest known human settlement.

Since sheep were domesticated some 11,000 years ago in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, it is altogether conceivable that the present-day flock guardians of Turkey come from those very bloodlines. A carved relief of a dog from the palace of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who reigned more than 26 centuries ago, strongly resembles the morphology of a kangal.

The Roman farmer-turned-statesman Cato the Elder, in the oldest prose work in Latin, De Agricultura, wrote of the flock guardians of Italy more than 2000 years ago. This dog, he wrote, should be "handsome, of good size, with black or tawny eyes, a symmetrical nose, lips black or ruddy, other teeth covered by the lips are very sharp, …a large head, ears large, …a thick crest and neck, …a heavy tail, a deep bark and wide gaping chops."

While Cato preferred livestock guardian dogs to be white "because it gives the dog a lion-like aspect in the dark," kangals have tawny coats and black face masks. But in other respects they resemble the guardian dogs found throughout Europe and Asia, from the great pyrenees of Spain to the Hungarian komondors and kuvaszs, the Italian maremmas and Polish tatras, all the way to the Caucasian ovcharchas and Tibetan mastiffs. One Swiss organization has counted 48 livestock guardian breeds in 26 countries.

Deliktaş mukhtar Aldıkaçtı and his friends may know little of the kangal’s place in the pantheon of working canines, but they do take special pride in their own homegrown dogs. Kangals from their village place high in the dog show held every July in the town of Kangal, organized by the kaymakam , or district governor, and now attended by a growing international delegation of dog fanciers and breeders.

While the kaymakam works hard to promote breed standards dealing mostly with appearance and conformation, the shepherds of Deliktaş only want their dogs to be brave, faithful and strong. When Ibrahim Akdağ and Ahmet Tutar leave the village at sunrise, herding more than 400 sheep and goats on a daily 16-kilometer (10-mi) circuit, they must rely on their dogs’ eyes and ears as much as their own. This upcountry on the cold shoulders of Felhandaği mountain is home to countless wolves.

"One time," says Ibrahim during a tea break in a small gulley, "five wolves approached my flock, coming forward in a crescent formation. They stared at my dog, who stared right back at them. He did not attack, rather he held his ground and made the wolves back off. If he had gone after one, the others would have killed my sheep. So he did the right thing."

Akdağ and Tutar work as a team, as do their dogs Turaman and her six-month-old male pup Yaman. Yaman is an alabaş, literally "piebald head," meaning a dog of mixed color, while Turaman has the more common markings of a karabaş, literally "black head"—so called for the black ears and black mask. Shepherds frequently dock their dogs’ ears, saving them the trouble of doctoring wounds when they tangle with a wolf. But the heavy spiked collar they wear, called a çengel , or hook, seems enough to keep even the most determined enemy from biting their heads.

A shepherd’s typical workday in winter is dedicated mostly to keeping himself warm, so his pack donkey is always well equipped with a tea kettle and gas stove and provisioned with such edibles as cheese, honey, olives and stacks of flat and filo-dough breads. When it is not draped over his shoulders, a thick felt cloak called a kepenek is wrapped around the stove as a windbreak. Once the sheep settle into a place with open views and begin grazing, there is ample opportunity for dog talk, a shepherd’s favorite pastime.

Shepherds boast fancifully of their dogs’ great intelligence, strength and bravery. One friend, they say, claims that his dog Macar, meaning "Hungarian," once killed a bear. Others claim that their dog understands three languages, that it knows how to cure a headache by eating grass, that it can smell a wolf from five kilometers (3 mi) away, and that dogs know how to de-tick and de-louse sheep.

"Our village was founded 850 years ago," says Ahmet, "and we’ve been giving pups away to others for that long. But some we would never part with." And here Ahmet names some of the best in Deliktaş: Gücey, meaning "faithful" (the Turkish equivalent of "Fido"); Sümbül, or "hyacinth"; Zalın, or "tyrant"; and Uçan, meaning "flier." They talk of their dogs fighting off vultures, snakes and eagles. They say a dog, if ordered by his master, will stay with the sheep for days at a time, staving off hunger by sucking his paw. One owner loved his dog so much he refused a foreigner’s purchase offer of $1500.

Mythmaking about dogs is nothing new in Anatolia. One story in the Book of Dede Korkut, a 13th-century collection of heroic tales about the Oğuz Turks, ancestors of both the Seljuks and the Ottomans, recounts how an enemy army destroyed the camp and attempted to steal the sheep of Salur Kazan, son-in-law of the Great Khan. Kazan sets out for revenge, encountering strange happenings along the way. "Then the shepherd Karaca’s black dog [presumably a karabaş ] came to meet him," begins the tale. "Kazan asked the black dog for news; let us see, my khan, how he asked:

You who bark when the gloomy shades of evening fall,

Who gulp the sour ayran as it is poured,

Who terrify the night-prowling thieves,

Putting them to flight with your uproar,

Have you news of my encampment? Tell me,

And so long as my head has life and health

I shall treat you kindly, dog."

The view from Felhandaği takes in the low-lying village of Kocakurt, whose name means "great wolf." Although urban migration and agricultural hard times—a region-wide phenomenon—have reduced Kocakurt’s sheep population from 10,000 to 1000 in just six years, the main occupation of the village is still grazing livestock. Ibrahim Gece is a 60-year-old shepherd whose daughter earns a good living working with computers in Istanbul, but here, he says, a kangal is "as valuable as gold." A good dog makes it that much easier to earn the equivalent of $4 per head that flock owners pay their shepherds each grazing season, and permits his master to spend most of the season sipping his tea.

Ibrahim’s dog Joe pushes the 200 head in a mixed flock of sheep and goats up into the foothills as man and donkey follow. Four other shepherds and their dogs have set out from Kocakurt at the same time this morning, all moving in roughly the same direction, but none of the flocks intermingle. The dogs act as buffers, their mere presence sufficient to send an interloping sheep back where it belongs.

The fine character of Anatolia’s sheepdogs has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the world. In a test conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the western Anatolian counterpart of the kangal, the akbaş, or "white head," placed highest among many different breeds for aggressiveness toward predators, trustworthiness among sheep and ease of keeping on the open range. The USDA has recommended that sheep ranchers in the western United States deploy akbaş as livestock guardians wherever coyote predation is a serious problem.

Kangals have become popular guardians in the eastern United States, where a few American breeders have started pedigreed bloodlines and registrations. While the American Kennel Club accepts only a generic breed they call the Anatolian shepherd dog, the kangal and the akbaş have been separately recognized by the United Kennel Club (UKC), an organization focused as much on each breed’s distinct temperament as on its physical characteristics. The kangal, for instance, is noted for preferring "to intimidate predators, but will take a physical stand and even attack if necessary."

The UKC's standard for the kangal describes it as a large, powerful, heavy-boned dog whose size and proportions have developed naturally as a result of its continued use in Turkey as a guardian against predators. The head is large and moderately wide with drop ears…. A properly proportioned dog is slightly longer than tall…. The tail is typically curled…. [The breed has] a double coat moderately short and quite dense,…a black mask and black velvety ears that contrast with a whole body color, which may range from light dun to gray. Honorable scars or other evidence of injury resulting from working in the field are not to be penalized."

Sue Kocher, the top kangal breeder in the United States, is determined to keep the bloodline from being subsumed under the catch-all "Anatolian shepherd dog" designation. At this year’s kangal festival, she made a strong appeal to protect the breed’s integrity. "Turks recognize them as unique in both conformation and temperament," she says, "and it would be a great loss if their identity were not maintained by breeders outside Turkey."

In the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, Anatolian livestock dogs stand guard over a herd of Peruvian alpacas owned by textile designer Otto Kuczynski. Because alpacas breed throughout the year, newborn animals are vulnerable year-round to coyotes, which are increasingly common in both urban and rural settings. Some 400,000 coyotes are killed each year in the United States through predator-control programs, and yet their numbers grow.

Kuczynski notes there seems to be a natural fit between his dogs and alpacas. "Anatolian breeders always attend our alpaca shows," he says, "and pups raised with alpacas from an early age really bond with them. When we rotate flocks in the pastures with the dogs, the new animals have a hard time accepting that the dogs think they are one of them."

Ironically, Peruvian llamas, heavier and more aggressive camelids than the alpaca, have also been tested as sheep guardians by the USDA. Even though the llamas are not as functional as dogs, Kuczynski also keeps a few penned with his flock. "The dogs and the llamas had a rocky start together," he says with a chuckle. "Each thought he should be the alpha male out there in the pasture. But now they work together, the llamas usually first sensing that a coyote is near, and the dogs then getting all riled up."

Ray Coppinger, a biologist at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, has studied livestock guardian dogs on four continents. His recent book Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution (2001, Scribners) devotes a chapter to various traditional breeds. He concludes that "breed shape and genetics are not as important as the developmental environment," and that "nurture" overrules "nature" in most working dogs. "Guardian dogs," he writes, "protect by being defensive, disruptive and noisy"—traits that can be taught to almost any breed if educated at a susceptible age.

Lately, Coppinger has been helping to introduce Anatolian dogs to goatherds in Namibia, in southern Africa, as part of a broader effort to promote wildlife survival in dwindling habitat. For example, he is working with Laurie Marker, director of Cheetah Conservation, a group helping the cheetah live in close quarters with man. Marker found that goatherds’ native dogs caused more harm than good when a cheetah was nearby, frightening and scattering the herd.

Coppinger helps Marker adapt her Turkish dogs to local conditions, teaching herders their care and training—so that dogs permit the approach of game animals such as kudu, oryx and warthog, for example, but warn against predators like cheetah, baboon and jackal. So far more than 100 pups have been born in Namibia. "These dogs have made a great difference for us," says Marker. "They are very aggressive and very alert to predators of any size."

The constant transience of sheep and shepherds across traditional pastureland might be expected to result in a constant mixing of genes among all sheepdogs. Physical traits such as long-leggedness and tolerance of low-calorie diets and cold weather are in fact common to most breeds. So are standard colors, which arise when large litters are culled for practical reasons, and pups with the commonly preferred color will be kept while others are killed.

But evidence to the contrary, indicating that there are in fact distinct and historically rooted livestock-guardian breeds, is emerging in a canine genetics study under way in Turkey. Graduate student Evren Koban at Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara has studied the DNA sequences in blood collected from akbaş , kangals, and village curs. Early results show clear distinctions between the first two breeds, distinctions which should be more blurred if there were in fact as much mixing as the transience assumption would predict. "Sentimentally, because I like them, I want to think that the kangal is a separate breed with a long history," says Koban, "but we cannot be sure until we broaden our study."

Even more surprising was the wide variability of microsatellite DNA—very short repeated pieces of DNA—found within the samples from the kangals, indicating they perhaps constituted a foundation of other sheepdog breeds. Another tack that Koban plans to take in her ongoing study is to compare the kangals’ DNA with DNA recovered from canine bones found at Çatalhöyuk. If there is a good match, then the kangal might be Turkey’s first domesticated breed of dog.

Far from the genetics lab in Ankara, an overgrown 10-month-old kangal named Palak—appropriately, the name means "huge"—plays outside the door of his master Suat Benli’s house in Kuşkayası village. Saut's two brothers and his father sit with him in the family tea room on this cold afternoon on the Anatolian plateau, laughing at his story of how the Turkish Army gave him 10 day's extra liberty because he brought two pups with him when he reported to his post on the Syrian border. "I trained them for patrol duty," says Suat with a grin, "and since then, the Army asks everyone from Kangal district to report with a pup or two. Believe me, the extra days off are worth it."

Suat's next kangal story is no laughing matter, however. It seems that last summer, during the night pasturage, a shepherd left his flock to join another shepherd making tea some 300 meters (975') away. He absentmindedly allowed his dogs to follow him, and while they were gone, his flock was attacked by a pack of wolves and 40 sheep were killed. Too ashamed to face the consequences, the shepherd has not been seen in Kuşkayası since. And he took his dogs with him.

Louis Werner is a New York-based writer and documentary filmmaker who has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East. His film Voice of the Whip, about a camel drive from Sudan to Egypt, is distributed by the Museum of Modern Art.

Thorne Anderson is an American free-lance photojournalist based in the Balkans who has worked in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq, and recently covered Saudi Arabia’s medical mission to Baghdad. He can be reached at [email protected].

Deliktaş     Aldıkaçtı    DNA

This article appeared on pages 38-43 of the July/August 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 2003 images.