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Indigenous Types Of Sarplaninac - Can We Still Find Them On Balkan Mountains?

Many would argue immediately after reading the headline of this article, and they’ll say that there is only one type of Sarplaninac, the pureblooded one. However, the reality is much different. There is a distinct difference that divides the Sarplaninac dogs into two main sub-categories – urban and indigenous. 

You may be able to see this difference yourself after you’ve finished reading this article. The differences between these dogs are indeed in the details. And that is the case with the Sarplaninac and its sub-categories. 

If you are a person that is looking into the breed and is looking to buy a puppy, you are most probably looking to buy it from a registered breeder. Also, you are most probably looking at the bloodline of the dog, checking the dog exhibition records of its ancestors. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the natural process if you are looking for a typical Sarplaninac dog that will serve you as a pet, companion, or even livestock guardian. However, there is more to it. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are Sarplaninac dogs that are as capable to win 1st place in an exhibition as they are capable of guarding a place or a flock of sheep. However, the extensive selection over the past 8 decades created a pool of genes that could be divided into two groups – exhibition dog show Sarplaninacs and indigenous livestock guardian Sarplaninacs. Or simply, urban, and indigenous dogs. 

The Sarplaninac breed has some history behind it. It is not a ‘fabricated’ breed that is produced by crossing different breeds to create a new one, it is a breed that basically ‘created itself’ during a period of centuries on the cliffs and heights of the Macedonian mountains. They are centuries-long companions to the shepherds in the southern and central Balkan Peninsula area. The process of their ‘creation’ and ‘development’ started long before cynology was introduced to the world. 

Having this in your mind, what would your guess be? Did shepherds care that much about the external characteristics of their dogs? Or rather, what the character and the strength of the dogs were in the first place? 

That’s right. The shepherds needed fierce and brave dogs that were able to defend the flock with their life if necessary. That’s why they did not pay attention to the external looks of the dogs, they especially did not care that much about the color and type of fur. 

Photo of a flock of sheep on Korab mountain, Macedonia

This process of breeding only dogs that have guarding instincts placed the foundations of the Sarplaninac breed as we know it these days. However, their external characteristics were more ‘colorful’ than what we are used to seeing today. Luckily, in the Macedonian mountains, we are still able to find these dogs in their purest form. Below, we will go through some of the variations and colors that indigenous Sarplaninac dogs come with. 

Photo of indigenous Sarplaninac puppies born in the same litter, all with different color types. (one ear is cut on all of them since birth, as some shepherds believe that makes them hear better and be more alert)

Macedonia is the cradle of indigenous Sarplaninac dogs. After exploring the history of the breed, and visiting many places throughout the territory of today’s Macedonia, I found out that we can distinguish six main color types of the indigenous Sarplaninac. 

First, we will start with the one that is taken as the basis for the modern-day Sarplaninac – The Iron Gray Sarplaninec 


This is the color variation on which the modern-day, urban Sarplaninac has been based. It shares the external characteristics with modern-day dogs, but usually, its character is what makes it special. You can even notice in the photo above that the transitioning of colors on the dog’s body is much more subtle than what we usually see in today’s dogs. Indigenous Sarplaninac dogs could come in this specific color variation as well; however, the length of their coat may differ. We have iron grey Sarplaninac dogs that are long-coated (approx. 5cm) and short-coated (below 5cm). The shepherds also believe that the short-haired one is more dangerous for predators, as it is usually more aggressive and stronger.

The iron grey Sarplaninac is most probably the type that made up about 50% of the breed’s population when the breed standard was made. The remaining 50% is divided among the remaining color variations that you’ll find below. 

Karabash – Yellow(ish) body with a black muzzle

The term, Karabash, comes from the Turkish word which means “black muzzle”. That is the characteristic that trademarks this type of Sarplaninac. Looking at the constitution of these dogs, they are quite similar to the iron grey ones, with one difference in that they are usually bigger. According to the stories of the shepherds across the country, Karabash types of Sarplaninac could reach withers height of as much as 90cm (~35.5in). 

The coat of the Karabash also differs in length. Some samples might have an overall shorter coat on their body, however, typically, the coat length around their neck is still long. This helps them stay warm during the cold winter days and makes them more resistant to predator attacks. 

What you can notice in the photo above is a Karabash dog that is in the ‘normal’ height range and has that ‘rustic’ look and expression on its face. Another characteristic of many of these indigenous types is that they may be born with 5 or more fingers on the rear legs. This dog, pictured above, has a 5th finger on the inside of its legs.

The White Sarplaninac

The beautiful clean look of the white Sarplaninac makes it one of the favorites among Sarplaninac enthusiasts. This is a color that was quite common in dog litters in the past. In Macedonia, there are still people that only breed white Sarplaninac dogs. Families that are in the livestock business have their ‘own’ lines of dogs that are kept in their families for generations. Having only one line of Sarplaninac dogs in their family for generations makes it easier to narrow the breeding selection and get dogs that are of proven genetics and desirable color. 

Last year, I had the luck of visiting one sheep farm in the region of western Macedonia. I wasn’t there to see the sheep, I was there to see the dogs and take some photos. To my great surprise, the farm only had completely white Sarplaninac dogs. I asked about the process of selection, and the shepherd was kind enough to explain. 

He explained that his family had been in the livestock business for many generations. All of his dogs were from an old line of dogs that were present in his family for a long time. He only breeds white dogs, as he subjectively finds them the most beautiful. In addition, there is a belief in his family that these are the best guardians from all the sub-categories of Sarplaninac.

This type of breeding was very common in the past when the people living in the Balkan region were more engaged in raising sheep, goats, and other livestock. Now, with careful selection, Sarplaninac breeders are starting to isolate these white Sarplaninac dogs again. 

The white Sarplaninac is very similar to other shepherd dog breeds in the world. Take, for example, the Italian Maremma dog, or the Hungarian Kuvasz. However, unlike most of them, the Sarplaninac has to have all of the following characteristics as well. White Sarplaninac dogs must have a completely black nose. In addition, all the visible mucosa, or visible inside skin, must be colored completely black, or very dark brown. This is a detail that has been kept through the generations with careful selection. It is a sign that a dog is purebred. Another thing is that the dog must have the body proportions of a Sarplaninac dog. Any abnormality may be a sign of mixed blood. 

Tiger Sarplaninac (Tigri) –black Sarplaninac with stripes on his body and legs

The tiger Sarplaninac has the same bodily constitution as the others. It’s just that in most cases, it has a ‘base’ color and is striped with countering color stripes – giving it a look resembling tiger’s colors. Usually, tiger Sarplaninac dogs have lighter spots appearing near the paws, on the muzzle, and on the back of the tail hair. 

The tiger Sarplaninac dogs are characteristic of the central and northern regions of Macedonia. There is a legend that shepherds have passed on for generations, that the tiger Sarplaninac dogs are best known for their ability to fight and for their ability to kill predators. 

There are several epic tiger Sarplaninac dogs recorded throughout the history of the shepherd dogs in Macedonia. 

Kaljosh Arif Aga - a legendary tiger Sarplaninac dog that known for being extremely brave and strong for fighting off predators and other dogs. 

Sharov, Sharko – Multicolored Sarplaninac 

This type of Sarplaninac dogs is most probably the rarest one. They are rare because when the breed was forming, and the first samples were taken from the mountains, these dogs were excluded from the selection. The reason was that cynologists believed they are very similar to the Caucasian and Central Asian Ovcharka, and as such, were very easy to cheat with. This meant that irresponsible breeders could cheat and mix them with the above-mentioned breeds, in order to get bigger and more robust dogs. 

These dogs, however, can still be found in the mountains of Macedonia. Some shepherds preserved the Sharko Sarplaninac dogs in their purest form even now, more than 80 years since the breed has been registered in FCI. Even though these dogs cannot be taken to a dog show, they still remain one of the trademarks of the Macedonian mountains. 

Sarija – Red(ish) Sarplaninac

Their story is very similar to the multicolored Sarplaninac, with one difference. These dogs were present in the mountains but were not taken into consideration for the breed standard because their numbers were limited, and the story has it that one very subjective variable played a big role – the person that made the standard didn’t like their color. There is absolutely no other reason for excluding them from breeding, except for this subjective reason. 

As for the previous variations, these dogs have the same body and head as their cousins; however, they have red, or reddish pigment all over their bodies. Genes from these types of dogs can still be seen in today’s Sarplaninac dogs. When in the sun, many dogs appear to have a reddish glow to their fur. 

There are people that believe these dogs should be standardized and recorded in some official documents as well. However, that has not happened yet. There is hope that their genes will not be lost over time, as they continue to live in the mountains and do their centuries-long work – to protect livestock.  

As you may have noticed from the photos above, these dogs are very similar to the Sarplaninac as we know it today. However, it must be said that they differ a lot. They have more muscular bodies, they are often not within the limits of the standardized height, and of course, they have some characteristics that are considered disqualification features according to today’s standards. 

Make no mistake. All of these things do not make them less desirable for the shepherds. Quite the contrary, they seek dogs that are not from urban breeding because, quite often, they are far better guardians. 

The decades of strict and aimed breeding have given us dogs that are unified in their looks, but in most cases, do not have any interaction with sheep or other livestock, or situations where they are fighting off predators. Bringing Sarplaninac dogs to the city made them better looking, but also could be destroying their primal characteristic. 

What historically have been guardian dogs that are able to fight off bears and wolves, are now becoming fluffy dogs that are running inside dog show rings and sleeping on couches. It will be interesting to see how the characteristics of this dog evolve over time now that it has been gaining popularity all over the world.

Summary:

As you can see, there are a variety of different types of Sarplaninac when they are inspected more closely. At their heart, they are all fiercely brave, loyal, and strong animals. To Marjan, the true nature of these dogs may potentially be at risk with their rise in popularity across the globe, as more dogs are bred as companions and pets, versus for their original job of guarding and protecting livestock from predators. Time will tell what will be the outcome of this rise to the spotlight, but there will still be dogs that are true to their roots found in their native mountains.

An iron gray colored Sarplaninac walks in the snow above the clouds on a mountain top.