The Akbaş Dog is one of the dog breeds known as “white livestock guardians” so highly praised in many countries from North Africa to Western Europe. Morocco’s Chien D’Atlas/Aidi, Turkey’s Akbaş Dog, Greece’s Greek Sheepdog, Hungary’s Kuvasz, Poland’s Tatra, Slovakia’s Cuvac, Italy’s Maremma, France’s Great Pyrenees and Spain’s Pyrenean Mastiff are the white guardians of selective breeding for thousands of years. Their location forms a chain of thousands of kilometres.
White Livestock Guardians of the Past
The domestication of sheep (8000 B.C.) required strong canine guardians to protect the flocks on which nomads’ survival almost entirely depended. It is not necessary to ask why dogs were needed to protect flocks. Their devotion to what was entrusted to them in return for scant care from people is the clear answer.
We are unable to date when the first shepherding tribes had appeared, but the historical findings show us that there were not many sheep herders around BC3000. As a matter of fact, even some simple techniques such as horseback riding did not get spread until BC 900. It is believed that the first nomadic sheep herders appeared on the steppe-like pastures right below the mountains of Northern Asia. Shepherding developed as a variation of the Neolithic agricultural techniques in this region. As the first tribes began to move southwards from the forests of Asia they had to change their lifestyle from gathering and hunting to shepherding. As the steppes of the region offered less food, they had to adopt a nomadic life. From one pasture to another they travelled with their sheep and goat flocks since smaller animals were easier to keep in the extreme heat and scant food and water resources of the steppes. Their flocks were crucial to surviving as a whole tribe.
Time taught these people better ways of herding their flocks and taking better advantage of their flock guard dogs. They selectively bred larger and braver dogs. These dogs stayed around the flocks protecting them against predators and thieves, even to the extent of self‑sacrifice.
In time the colour of flocks played determining roles in the breeding of certain types of dogs. Columella, the Roman agricultural historian, in a work entitled “De Re Rustica” published in the second century A.D. tells us that, “Sheep herders insist on white guard dogs for their flocks, for otherwise a dog could be stuck during an attack through being mistaken for a wolf”. It appears that white livestock guardians have been known for two thousand years. The Romans also bred white sheep for purpose of wool dying.
The Dutch cynologist,Antal (1977) referring to Columella also confirms it. “ It is for this reason of old that a sharp contrasting colour was considered of enormous importance for those dogs whose real job was found in the fight. Therefore, one bred for that white colour, and maintain it carefully. The importance is the same everywhere, in Poland and Hungary, in the Pyrenees and the Balkans. And it is for this reason that everywhere one sought and found the same solution in tall, white, brave dogs.“
Although it does not seem possible to talk about the exact origin of the Akbaş Dog, some historical findings and references help us to build our theories. While discussing dog breeds like livestock guardians as old as the ancient times it is always extremely difficult, if not impossible, to trace their history.
Unfortunately, while it is possible to find pictures of hunting or war dogs, it is quite rare to find a picture or wall carving depicting flocks with their canine guardians. The reason for this could be that hunting was much more a recreation of the nobility, and therefore recreated by the artists of the time. More than likely, artists and the nobility who paid for their services would have considered the dryland flocks, the livestock guardians who lived with them and the villagers who owned them so commonplace that they were not represented in the art of the time.
Evliya Çelebi, the renowned traveller, of the 17th century mentions Angora (today’s Ankara) Tiftik Goat Dog along with Samson Dogs raised by the Jannissaries in his famous Travel Book: Seyahatname. Under the light of the information given by Columella there seems to be no reason why the Akbaş Dog should not be the coban köpegi of these „white“ Tiftik goats. When we remember how Kangal Dogs with their characteristic black mask match up with Akkaraman Sheep which also has a black face and ears the dogs Çelebi mentions must be the Akbaş Dog found in an area which includes cities like Ankara, Eskişehir and Kütahya.
Captain A.F. Townshend, Military Consul for Great Britain in Turkey during the period 1903-1906 also witnesses the Akbaş Dog in various locations in western Turkey and notes that “ in the mountain villages, the breed usually found there are very like whitish collies (sic) … very savage to a stranger, they will attack a caravan, and even try to pull men off thier horses…„.
More recently, M. Bernard Senac‑Lagrande, the father of the modern Pyrenean Mountain Dog, in his monograph on the Pyrenean in 1927 pointed out that there is a dog in Turkey astonishingly like the Great Pyrenees. It has, he wrote, the same powerful build and the same deep, but muted, voice.
Hubbard (1947), writing about the sheepdogs of our neighbour, Greece, says „The only true Greek Sheepdogs are those all white dogs used by the shepherds of the Balkan Mountains, Albania, Epirus, Macedonia, Southern Greece, and the Parnassus Ranges… The white dogs have been bred true to type for centuries and, although they have no cynological bodies protecting their interests, nor any written pedigrees, they are never any other colour than white… dogs born any other shade than white are promptly eliminated as in the case of the (Hungarian) Komondor… „
Strang (1982) discussing the Akbaş Dog breed in the USA, also comments that „Perhaps the Akbaş Dog represents the specialized dual-porpuse type I had heard of that was developed both for guarding the flock and for hunting down wolves and other predetors as well.“ .
The Akbaş Dog meets the world
It is a surprise to learn that the Akbaş Dog made his debut in the US long before the Kangal Dog of Sivas, our national pride in the world of the international livestock guardians. The first Akbaş in whelp was taken to the US by David and Judith Nelson in 1978. This first import was the result of around 5 year long field study in Turkey. They had noticed white flock guardians workings in large numbers in western Turkey which led them to believe that these dogs were the Turkish version of many contemporary white flock guardians known in most European countries. In 1979 The Akbaş Dog Association International (ADAI) was found. The Akbaş Dog is a working dog, so most of the first dogs were placed into working situations. During that time, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was in the process of evaluating livestock guardians used for predator control. In 1986 the results of the USDA Guard Dog Programme were published. The Akbaş Dog was one of the three most successful white flock guardians along with the Great Pyrenees and the Maremma Sheepdog.
Rediscovery of the Akbaş Dog in Turkey
The year 1996 was when the International Symposium on the Turkish Shepherd Dogs was held in Selçuk University, Konya. As a result of this symposium a star was re‑born. During the speech on importation and introduction to the United States of the Akbaş Dog, the pictures of the American‑bred dogs attracted a great deal of attention among us. Since sheep herding has lost its significance in western Turkey it is getting harder and harder to find good specimens of the breed today. In regard to agriculture, this part of Turkey is heavily urbanised and industrialisation has made sheep herding an activity of the past. Mongrelization of the breed has been inevitable, so seeing what we were rapidly losing for decades excited us all. As the name gets widespread we begin to hear our countrymen speaking about their family Akbaş Dogs in various parts of Turkey. In 1992 the first official breeding scheme for the Akbaş Dog was started by Mustafa Velioğlu in TIGEM, Bursa. Then in the late 1990’s, Selçuk University in Konya acquired their first Akbaş Dogs. While TIGEM has more smooth-coated dogs in its breeding kennels, Selçuk University breeds more rough-coated Akbaş Dogs. Nevertheless, both coat types are acceptable and any type is possible to breed in the near future in these two places.
References: (1)International Symposium Book on Turkish Shepherd Dogs/1996,(2) Akbas Dog, A Breed for home and Agriculture by David and Judith Nelson (3) Kuvasz, A Complete and Reliable Handbook by Dana I. Alvi and Leslie Benis, (4) The Kuvasz by Kuvasz Club of America, (5) The New Complete Great Pyrenees by Paul Strang, (6) The Pyrenean Mountain Dog by the Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club of Great Britain, (7) A World History by William H. McNeill