Caucasian Ovcharka

Champion Caucasian Ovtcharka
Study of the Dogs of the Caucasus Region in 1913

by Prof. Dr. Conrad Keller, translated by Thomas Schoke


In the Caucasus, like in most countries at the Mediterranean sea, exists a large variety of dog breeds most of them with clearly defined appearance and character. Many breeds and mutts can be found in the lower locations of the Caucasus but the dogs found in the mountain areas appear to be homogenous and unique. Along the east coast of the Black sea we meet pedigreed individuals as well as a very large number of mutts which do not play a role in my research. The breed mostly seen are Spitze. As in most other Mediterranean countries they are of small, often dwarf size. I saw a specially large number of Pinchers in Suchum Kale, but a minor population can be found anywhere in the Caucasus. They are wire-haired, sometimes longhaired, and of gray and brown color. The short haired Foxhounds are pretty small and their body is noticeable long. Their coloration differs greatly, often they are reddish brown or black spotted. The common, long-haired, Spitz comes in different colors. In Eriwan most Spitzes are pure black, but they are almost exclusively yellow and white in the region of Baku. In Wladikawkas you can see noticeable heavy coated Spitzes with plume tails and long coated faces. I saw erect ears only once, all other Caucasian Spitzes have floppy ears. This points to early domestication and might confirm my previous theory that the tame Spitz evolved from this region. As I proved, the scull of the wild, principal form of the Caucasian jackals has the most similarity to the ancient, primitive Spitz of Central Europe.

I never saw German Shepherd dogs in the Caucasus countries, this most likely results from the fact, that the Caucasian shepherds have a far better breed to guard their livestock. Poodles are very rare, I saw some small, black haired examples in Tiflis and Suchumi. Well-boned, strong hunting dogs appeared to be very popular in all regions, the number of hunting dogs is in no relation to the number of available game. Only boars and bears play an important role. I was told that the dogs were often brought by foreigners for hunting and then left behind. The smooth coated, not overly tall hunting dogs come in very different colors. They are often pure black or pure white, more often black/white spotted or red brown or dark brown with light brown legs and sometimes with a white blaze on the chest and with white feet. Longhaired dogs without a pedigree are very common on the farms. Most of them are of brown color or black with brown markings. Dachshounds are rarely seen.

Noticeable is the small number of sighthounds, even in the wide, large steppe areas. The for Russia so characteristic big sighthound with the name Barzoi is almost non existent. I saw some poor owned examples in Teberdatal at Teberdinsk and in Wladikawkas.

I want to turn to a breed almost unknown in Europe while being very common in the countries of the Caucasus. This fact lead me to thoroughly study the Caucasian mountain dog, also referred to as the Tatra shepherd dog in his native land.

It was Rodde, the deserving founder of the Caucasian museum in Tiflis, who brought interest to the big dogs of the Caucasus. Even the Russian canine researchers do not know much about this breed. Richard Strebel endeavored to get detailed information from Russian experts and received, as he wrote in his book about dogs, the following answer : "It is hard to make a statement about the breed characteristics of the Russian shepherd dogs because there are less and less pure blooded examples. Their size is 60 - 75 cm [24" - 29"] for dogs and the height of bitches is between 50 - 65 cm [20 - 25"]. The color is pure white, reddish brown or gray. Unfortunately all Russian breeds, except the Barzoi, are very poorly bred, worst of all are the shepherd dogs".

Richard Strebel tries to outline his own version of a breed standard : "The dogs appear to be lively and agile, only the heavy coat causes their massive build and their somewhat grim facial expression. The shepherd dog serves as a herder and flockguard against wolves. His well developed bite and thick skin shell make them well suited for their tasks. The Russian shepherds attach great importance, as we already learned from old Roman writers, that the dogs coats must be of different color than the wolves to avoid confusion during attacks in twilight or at night. The top of the scull is slightly rounded but looks more rounded as the result of the hair. The slightly off standing hair makes the head looking bigger and more massive than it actually is. The stop is gently defined but not abrupt. The eyes are pretty big, dark and give an intelligent expression. The lower eyelids do not close well and often show a haw. The scull and tapering muzzle form a one piece blunt wedge shape. The broad, always black nose has big nostrils, the lips are tight and steadily falling towards the corner of the muzzle, never overlapping. The ears are of intermediate length and covered with shorter hair than the body. The tail is slightly curved and carried low when relaxed but carried high in excitement, it never forms a ring". To his description, which is not correct in all points, Richard Strebel added an illustration that can not stem from nature. It must be regarded as a combination of a picture of an existing dog with strong influence of artistic fantasy of an artist. The illustration shows a poodle like dog, way off the real breed character.

A better description wrote A. Hein in 1904 in the ‘Swiss pedigree’ in form of a short travel note : "At my travels through Russia in 1897 I met the usual mix of dogs. Only on the Hogland island and in the mountain regions of the Caucasus did I see pedigreed types. About the Caucasian shepherd dog I made the following notes :
While traveling on the road from Wladikawkas to Tiflis we met many flocks of sheep. All shepherds were accompanied by one, often two or three dogs which are hardly noticeable among the sheep. They are very beautiful and strong dogs, height at withers is about 70 - 75 cm [ 28 - 30"] partly with coats of intermediate length, partly long coated. Their color is pure white, light yellowish or fawn but never yellow, brown or reddish. They have black noses and black lips and often a distinguishable black mask. Their ears are very small, sometimes unfortunately cropped completely, back of the head is broad and very hairy, muzzle is short and evenly tapering but not thick and high like the St. Bernhards. Eyes are small and deep set, conjuctiva is not visible like in a Newfoundland. Their expression is noble and friendly, not aggressive. Their tail is plume, mostly drooping, in excitement carried up high and sickle shaped. The big, light colored dogs with proud postures give an impressive sight, exceeding the most beautiful Leonbergers he reminds of in some aspect."

It’s not difficult to see the key characteristics of the Caucasian mountain dog in this description. Only in reference of the friendly, non-aggressive nature of the dogs did I come to a different judgment. Like A. Hein I traveled the road from Wladikawkas to Tiflis and watched the so called shepherd dogs. I admit that they are more mannered there than elsewhere, the reason is obviously the high rate of tourism in this area. Usually the Caucasian mountain dogs are very fierce and dangerous, especially in areas where strangers are rarely seen. Therefore the most wild individuals are on heavy chains. More than once, I was attacked by those big dogs, I fed them meat and they usually stopped attacking me, some even let me pet them. Chained individuals should under no circumstances be approached. The Swiss canine research group published a picture of a deceased, so called shepherd dog recently in their magazine for hunt and dog lovers. In my opinion the picture does not show a pure blooded Caucasian mountain dog. Without a doubt the picture in question is showing a dog with a good dose of Caucasian blood, but his ears are too large and set too high for a Caucasian. I can not help it, but I believe this dog was a cross product between a Caucasian shepherd dog and a strong Poodle.

Out of the observations I made at various locations I will now create a comprehensive picture of the Tatra shepherd dog of the Caucasian mountains. The overall appearance is one of a large, very impressive dog, beautiful coat and pleasant proportions of all parts of the body. The head is extremely expressive, the back of the scull pretty wide and curved, heavily sloping towards the nose with almost invisible cheekbones. The muzzle tapers towards the nose fast and evenly, the back of the muzzle is pretty high but not very thick and falls off the sides vertically. The lips are tight and never hanging in folds. The eyes in comparison are rather small, deep set and in pure bred examples definitely slanted. The black frame around the eyes gives them a lively expression. The eyelids lay flat, never hanging and conjuctiva should not be visible. The floppy ears are always low set but slightly off standing giving the impression as they would be a loose piece of cardboard. Compared to the dogs size, the ears must be described as small. The neck is short and thick, the chest well developed, belly well tucked, the legs are well boned and muscular, front legs are straight. I never observed any dewclaws. The always heavily coated, plumy tail is carried low and sickle shaped. In excitement the tail is carried high and heavily bent, it always seems to be somewhat turned to the left. The coat length varies from extremely long hair to short hair. It should be emphasized that the hair of the face, the ears and of the front legs is under all circumstances short no matter of the coat length on the body of the dog. The dominant color is white, it is almost characteristic for the breed. It’s more a yellowish white, best described as creme color or fawn but other coloration is not rare. I added to my travel notes that the dogs in the Kodor valley show the distinguishable gray and brown of wolves with black hair tips, back and the upper side of the tail are black. All fawn colored dogs also have black markings, the face often shows a black mask. The nose and the lips are usually deep black, the back of the muzzle and the ears have black hair tips. The height at withers is 70 - 75 cm [ 28 - 30"], some males of the Armenian highlands are even 80 cm [ 32" ] tall. Their mentality is fierce and ferocious. The Caucasian shepherd dog has a sinister, not very trusting facial expression, towards strangers he is extremely aggressive.

Dr. Richard Schmidt of Tiflis confirmed my opinion when he wrote me that he was attacked by four dogs, which had ripped apart a Hyenas seven days before. He said: "In full attack, the best of them stalked their prey without making a noise from more than a kilometer away if the terrain was favorable. Also the Kurds at the Ararat mountain warned my travel companions not to get close to their dogs.

In reference of geographic dissemination, the talked about shepherd dogs of the Caucasus are definitely mountain dogs. They are very seldom met in the plains, at least not in a pedigreed existence. Between 1000 and 2300 meters [3000 - 6900 ft ] above sea level you see them with all Alp shepherds. Here he herds sheep and cattle and successfully guards them against attacks from wolves. The meal of the Alpdogs consists exclusively of stiff cooked barley mush out of ruff milled barley.

The word Tatar shepherd dog could lead to the opinion that they are preferred kept and bred by the Tatars. This is not the case, I found these beautiful breed with the Abchasen, Svaneten, Tatars, Ossetians, Gruisinians, Armenians and Kurds just as often. At the coast of the Black Sea, Russian dog enthusiasts told me the largest number and most beautiful shepherd dogs can be found in the Armenian highlands. I was able to confirm this later. I saw extremely nice pedigreed dogs in the Ararat region and in Jelenowka at the Goktscha lake, which is almost 2000 meters above sea level. Some individuals were the size of a strong St. Bernhard or Leonberger.

I will further try to proof that these Caucasian shepherd dogs are an autonomous breed having their roots in the Caucasus or in its vicinity. The expansion of the breed to adjacent areas like northern Greek or the Albanian highlands has to be evaluated by detailed investigations. There is no doubt that the breed was living in Asia minor in ancient times. Not long ago L. Hilzheimer pointed out the presence of these dog on the Pergamon relief with the following words :
"Which breeds were living and used for dog fights in Asia minor 200 before Christ is well known due to the Pergamon relief. It shows on three pictures mighty, long haired dogs with plume, high carried tails, upright ears, short but massive muzzles and short haired faces. This breed can hardly be compared with any other living breed, at least not in this form and has to be considered extinct." (From : Dr. L. Hilzheimer, "History of our pets ",Verlag T. Thomas, Leipzig 1912)

In a certain way, I agree with Hilzheimer’s opinion, but have to bring the pergamenien dogs in genetic relation to the Caucasian shepherd dogs. Who ever saw the these dogs recognizes them as the breed very well portrayed, and identical with the exception of the erect ears, on the Pergamon relief. The wide forehead, the short coated face, the fast tapering muzzle, the short coated legs and the way they carry their tail is just like the Caucasian shepherd dogs. Richard Strebel regards the Pergamon dog as on of the old Molosser breeds, but the whereabouts of the Molosser dogs is a pretty complicated question.

The fact that the dog portrayed on the Pergamon relief has erect ears is of interest from the point of pedigree history. My explanation is we are dealing with a primitive form of the Caucasian shepherd dog that has not been domesticated for long when the Pergamon relief was created. Nowadays all these dogs have floppy ears. The relation between the old and present form of the Caucasian dogs is very similar to the one of the sighthounds in ancient Egypt and the present day sighthound of some African regions. It is not impossible in my opinion that we will find descendants of the Pergamon dog at a remote place in the future, similar to the discovery of sighthounds with erect ears as a result of thorough researches. The sighthounds, which were extinct in their native land, can still be found on the Island of Crete and the Balearic Islands. I want to turn to the question of origin of the large Caucasian mountain dogs. It follows that after close examination, a genetic relation to the known large sized dog breeds has to be denied. Their use as guardians for sheep and cattle, as well as the name ‘Tatar shepherd dog’ could lead to the supposition that they fall into the ‘Canis matris’ group of common shepherd dogs. But there is no close relationship with the common shepherd dog, the background of the Caucasian mountain dogs is definitely a different source. Apart from the fact that the Caucasian shepherd dogs are a lot bigger than the common shepherd dog, his whole built is different. He is fuller and muscle stronger, the back of his head is wider, erect ears are missing and the muzzle is much shorter and more obtuse, the expression of the eyes is different. It makes more sense to think about a relation to the group of giant Mastiffs and to declare them as something in between our giant Mastiffs and the Asian Mastiffs from the Tibetan highlands. The size and overall body proportions, the type of coat, shows similarities with Mastiff breeds. Only the form of the scull is completely different from Mastiffs. The head of the Caucasian mountain dog is less heavy and massive, the muzzle is not as thick. Most of all the Caucasians do not have the excessive, fold forming head skin which is characteristic for the Mastiff breeds. The skin lays tight at the Caucasian’s head, their eyelids are flat instead of droopy and the conjuctiva is never visible, giving this breed a very different facial expression. The Caucasian dogs are missing the long, hanging flews of the Mastiffs, therefore even the biggest Caucasian never drools the Mastiff way. It appears reasonable to regard the big shepherd dogs of the Caucasus as an individual breed of domesticated dogs which have their roots in a living or extinct wild form - this wild form can only be searched under the wolves.

At the present status of our phylogenetic knowledge, the smaller dogs descend from the Jackals, the bigger ones descend from the wolves. [ That is the only point Prof. Dr. Keller is definitely proven wrong ! ] Of course the European wolf is not yet recognized as a progenitor of dog breeds although we assume that the ancestors of the shepherd dogs and Tibetan dogs are Asian wolves, the Old American Inkadogs were descendants of American wolves (lupus occidentalis).

To get evidence for this theory it is necessary to examine the sculls of Caucasian dogs which are difficult to obtain. The people of the Caucasus would not sell their dogs, unless for an extraordinarily high price. For that reason I went an unusual but successful way to obtain sculls. In the Armenian highlands, where I saw a significant number of beautiful dogs, I gathered the young guys of a village and asked them to search the area in all directions. For every found skull, I offered half a rouble. In consequence I got four very typical sculls. One was in perfect condition the other three were missing the lower jaw but this does not matter their usability for phylogenetic purposes. The scull shows a very solid bone structure, everything is strong and massive. Remarkable is the relatively small developed brain capsule in all skulls, the top of the scull appears to be thick. Cristae occipitalis and cristae sagitalis protrude especially in male individuals, those of bitches are significantly smaller. The cheekbones are very massive and strong protruding outwards, which causes in the wide heads. The cheekbones of bitches are less developed. The orbital part of the forehead seems wide and strong developed. The tapering from forehead to nose differs greatly and is overall steeper in the male scull. The bite is extremely strong. You can find the detailed measurements of a female scull and a male scull following below :


Data given as Male/Female
Basilar length of scull 19,6/20,2
Profile length of scull 23,7/22,7
Length of foramen magnum to the back edge of the palate 9,0/9,8
Length from cristae occipitalis to the root of the nasalia 13,5/12,7
Greatest width of the parietal region 6,5/6,5
Narrowest part of the forehead 4,2/4
Cheekbone width 13/11,7
Width between ear openings 6,8/6,8
Width of foramen magnum 2/2
Length of nasalia 7,8/8,1
Length of muzzle from nose to foramen infra orbitale 6,8/7,3
Width of muzzle 4,8/4
Length of the row of teeth from last molar to the eye tooth (upper jaw) 8/8,2

The differences we see in these figures are obviously related to the gender of the individual. The scull base shortened in the male animal, the profile length on the other hand is longer in the male, which can be connected to the stronger development of the cristae in the males. The scull capsule shows partly little differences, partly total identical measures, but the width of the cheekbones differs greatly. The males muzzle is thicker and shorter compared to the one of the females. Now it is time to connect the scull analysis with the appropriate wild form. From the beginnning I had an unmistakable feeling that the Caucasian mountain dog could be a descendant of the European wolf ( canis lupus ).

I found a female wolf scull in Zurich [ Switzerland ] most suitable for phylogenetic purposes. The scull came, for all we know, from Russia, the measurement of the wolf scull are as follows :

Data for Female Wolf
Basilar length of scull 20,4
Profile length of scull 23,3
Length of foramen magnum to the back edge of the palate 9
Length from cristae occipitalis to the root of the nasalia 12,3
Greatest width of the parietal region 6,4
Narrowest part of the forehead 4
Cheekbone width 12,6
Width between ear openings 6,9
Width of foramen magnum 2
Length of nasalia 9,4
Length of muzzle from nose to foramen infra orbitale 7,4
Width of muzzle 4,1
Length of the row of teeth from last molar to the eye tooth (upper jaw) 8,1

If we compare the measurements with those of the female mountain dog, we find a complete match on the scull parts that tend to stay constant. For example, the female wolf and the female CO show identical figures for the width of the foramen magnum, the forehead width, the parietal width, the basilar length of the scull, the muzzle length and width and the length of the teeth row of the upper jaw.

The osteologic findings are sufficient to conclude that the Caucasian mountain dog descends from the European Wolf. The reason why the profile length of the wolf is about 6 mm bigger is that the cristae sagittalis is slightly stronger in the wild form. The cheekbone width of the female wolf is closer to the one of the male mountain dog, since there is always a individual difference this fact is not important in phylogenetic questions. Further proof is the slanted position of the eyes in both, wolf and mountain dog. Also the coat coloration points out that the Caucasian dogs descends from the Rus