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For six thousand years, the fierce bark of shepherd dogs has echoed through the mountain cliffs of the Sharmountain as a warning to intruders and predators of all kinds and as a recognizable ancient sign of the survival of the human race on these unwelcoming cliffs. Defender, guardian and warrior, polished and hardened by the relentless hand of nature, transmitted and celebrated around the world, laid the foundation for a large number of shepherd dogs.

Sarplaninac walking along the mountaintops

Sarplaninec (pronounced shar-pla-NEE-netz) is an aboriginal shepherd dog breed which originally can be found all around the Balkan Peninsula. Over time, the Sarplaninec adapted to the fierce climate of the Macedonian mountains and after many centuries it still lives there, still magnificent as always, still fearless and still a true symbol of the area. It is named after the biggest mountain massif in the area, Sharmountain. And no, this is not a coincidence, it is named after the mountain because the greatest number of the aboriginal dogs from the breed could’ve been found mostly there. These aboriginal dogs are the first representative samples of the breed, and they are the foundation of the breed that we know today. 

Even though the breed’s features changed over the many years of its existence, there are still many dogs on the mountains preserved as they were, true representatives of the breed. These days, many breeders and lovers of this breed are putting their effort into breeding and raising such ‘old school’ dogs.

If you are a true canine lover, a cynophilist, the one main thing that can completely excite, overwhelm and forever conquer you is certainly the character of this four-legged, eternal man's friend, with two warm and clear eyes, two crystal mirrors in which one can see their fantastic attachment to their master and willingness to live and die for him. 

The Sarplaninec dogs have a tough and strong minded character which makes them a very popular breed. They are a very balanced and peaceful breed (if raised responsibly) and have exceptional intelligence. Although they look robust and fearsome, they are very kind and gentle to their owner. They are distrustful of strangers, however, they do not attack until they are commanded to do so.

In the following text, I won’t bother you with numbers, percentages, ratios and statistics; however, I will give a rough explanation on what a Sarplaninec dog should look like. 

When you think about your dear pet, regardless of the breed, the first image that pops in your mind is its head. The head is the first thing that you caress with your hand when your dog is near you, the head is the part that goes in your lap whenever you sit next to your dog and it is the thing that you remember until the end of your time, after your dog is not there anymore. 

A great example of the Sarplaninac head shape

The head is the main anatomical element which helps determine the precise breed type to which a dog belongs to. Together with the tail, both these elements are the ones that are different from one breed to another and the ones that give the recognizable look to one canine family. 

Even though all shepherd breeds look-alike, the Sarplaninec head has some nobility in it by which it is recognized. The head of a good representative of this breed should be large and strong, however, proportional to the rest of the body, with a broad black muzzle. The eyes are brown, almond shaped and the gaze that they give is fearless. When a sarplaninec is looking at you (as a stranger), you get a feeling like it’s penetrating through your physical appearance and it looks directly into your soul. 

The true ‘mental’ image of the Sarplaninec head can only be obtained by carefully looking at a number of representative breed specimens and observing the characteristic lines, the relationship between all variables and shapes which words often cannot describe so precisely. There are people that have been ‘around’ this breed for many years, for ex. shepherds, villagers from the mountainous region etc, and even though sometimes they do not know the exact wording of the standard – they will always be more able to recognize the breed type of a true Sarplaninec head than people who might know the standard by heart, or even some FCI judges. 

Usability and functionality of the dog above EVERYTHING

As you know, these modern times bring modern ‘uses’ of a dog, in many cases, even though this is a shepherd breed, these dogs are being used only as pets. And don’t get me wrong, they are perfect for pets as well, however, there is a big influence on the dogs’ characteristics over the years because we are doing exactly this. 

One of the main examples of how this breed is being shifted for worse because of this is - losing its character, losing its instinct, losing its identity. 

Yes, I am aware that most of us who breed these dogs do not have sheep, or goats or any king of livestock, however, we have us, the family that ‘needs’ guarding. At least that is the responsibility that it is our obligation to give to this dog. Without having something to guard, a Sarplaninec’s life takes a completely different path. It loses its meaning. 

By crossing dogs that for generations did not have anything to guard, that for generations have been used for dog shows and pets only, we simply cannot get a good quality litter, and even less a true sarplaninec dog.

Speaking strictly for me, I like my dogs with ‘temperament’. I don’t want my dogs to become these goofy, wooly creatures which are confused whether they are guardians or need to be guarded. That is why, the character of this breed comes first. 

My dogs, for the first two years of their life, have been living on a farm with goats. That’s what we had at the time, that’s what they were guarding. And to be honest, I am very proud of them because they proved to be very successful as guardians and shepherd dogs. Even though they were as young as 6-7 months their instincts were working. They spent the whole day with the herd on the mountain, walking along it, passing many kilometers, looking for possible threats, alarming when needed, attacking when needed etc. 

Our farm was at a very rural place in the south-west part of Macedonia, on the mountain Jablanica. The place is not well populated, there are only several houses that have people living in them, and most of the people living there are far over their 60s. My father and my grandfather had the role of shepherds and were the ones that were going out with the flock each day, choosing the terrain on which they would graze. Of course they were not alone. Each morning accompanying the flock were my 2 sarplaninec females, Mina and Luna. 

Lively and serious as always, they scattered among the goats and gave them the sense of security that they seek. However, this morning was not calm as usual. As soon as my father and the flock entered the mountainous area two stray dogs started barking and running towards the flock. Agile and brave as they are, both our Sars stroke back, encountered them, got into fight and returned victorious into the flock. They fulfilled they duty and defended the property that was given to them. This is one of the many situations that my dogs handled well during their ‘working’ days. 

After some period, due to financial reasons the farm needed to be shut down. My father decided to sell the goats and seek employment elsewhere. This meant that my dogs were left jobless. I knew immediately that there would be no chance whatsoever that I would give up or sell my beloved dogs. I got too attached to them, and was not getting rid of my furry friends. I took them in the city. I built big cages in my yard, upgraded the fence for a taller one and adapted the house and yard to be dog friendly. Ever since they are living with me in the city. 

Generally speaking they are not city dogs, so they need either a very big yard so they can run freely, or every-day long walks. Fortunately for them, even if I live in the city, I can provide both for my dogs. 

Marjan and his Sarplaninac at the peak of a mountain

Every now and then I put them in the back seat of my car and we wander off to the mountains where me and my friends, or family, hike and they accompany me. I like to take long routes at the mountain, ‘conquer’ a peak and return back to the city. One of my concerns when going out on the mountain are the flock of sheep and their dogs guarding them. I am entering their area now. 

My dogs are treating the hiking group as their flock. You can see the resemblance when they divide each other one to go in front and one on the back. When we stop to rest, they are circling the area and securing the parameter. When we encounter another ‘strangers’ hiking group they position themselves between us and them and calmly, but cautiously observe them. 

One time, the thing that I feared the most happened. We met directly with a flock of sheep and their dog. That time I had only one of my dogs with us, Mina. Luckily for us the flock was not large and had only 1, but fairly strong dog. As it should, the shepherd dog started barking and defended its flock. Mina noticed the flock early on, and the dog, and found herself in the position where the shepherd dog was presented as a threat to our group. Firstly when the dog started barking from a distance she was just observing it and did not attack. However, when it started approaching us and got too close even though we were walking away from the flock, she undoubtedly charged on it and confronted it. The shepherd and myself ran and divided the dogs. 

Imagine this contrary situation now, imagine what would have been in both situations if my dogs were not as they are, fearless and brave, if they had lost their guarding instinct. When attacked the flock would have lost some of its goats, and in the other situation maybe one of us would have gotten attacked or even worse – gotten hurt. 

I wrote about these two situations so you can correlate both, and get a sense, understand why it is important for this character that these dogs are born to be preserved and why they should be valued as they were given to us by nature. After all, this is an autochthonous breed.  And that is why the true knowers of this breed love it and are so passionate for it. 

As to why I love Sarplaninec dogs, it all comes down to their loyalty, strength, fearlessness and external beauty. I am proud to be from the region where the dogs originate from, so it seems natural for me to like them. 

There is a saying here, once you get a Sarplaninec dog – you forget all other breeds, you cannot live without one until your last day. They become a necessity to have, as guardians, as friends and as a reminder of how beautiful the untouched nature is. Reminder of how it can create something so beautiful and give it to you as a present. 

Summary:

Marjan, a passionate Sarplaninac owner, has had a wonderful journey in discovering and understanding these amazing dogs. He has used them working in their natural environment and also has experience with them in an urban setting. Staying true to their origin, he see's the breed shifting to be used in more companion settings as pets, versus their original intent as livestock guardians. His parting advice is to make sure any Sarplaninac has a job – whether that's guarding a flock, or the family. It's important for their mentality and for them to not be lost in this world without a purpose. Stay tuned for more stories from Marjan in the future.

Saplaninec walking on a mountain top in Serbia