The Sarplaninac: (Pronounced Shar-Pla-Nee-Natz), also known as the “Yugoslavian Shepherd dog of Sharplanina”, is a breed of Antiquity, believed by many to be one of the oldest true Molossers in the World. The breed has taken its name after the Sharplanina mountain range from where it originated.
This mountain range borders on a region of the former Yugoslavia now known as Southern Serbia (Kosovo), Northern Macedonia as well as Northern Albania.
The Sarplanina mountain range is still the ancestral home of this breed and here the Sarplaninac is still used to protect flocks of sheep, goats and even cattle from mountain predators. Legends and folklore surround the breed and tell of its supernatural strength and bravery. Up here it is know as the "Planinski Duh" or "Mountain ghost".
Left: a rare picture of Sarplaninac engaging a wolf. Renowned for his incorruptible courage, the Sarplaninac will not hesitate to lay down his own life in defense of family, flock or master. The Sarplaninac is a peerless flock guardian and family protector with an undiluted spirit and a noble heart. These are the characteristics that have also made the Sarplaninac a valuable service dog with a number of K9 units within the countries than now comprise the Former Yugoslavia.
Today this area is geographically divided by three nations (Serbia, Macedonia & Albania) and unfortunately is still a volatile war prone region. The Sarplanina mountain range itself is only around 80km long and 12km wide and today runs along the southern borders of Serbia known as Kosovo and NW borders of Macedonia as well as a small section of the Albanian border. This mountain range has a highest peak of 2760 meters above sea level and is covered with snow from November to March. There are extreme climate variances from extremely cold below freezing winters to scorching hot summers so the dogs are very well adapted to handling extreme weather conditions.
During the summer months the Sarplanina mountain range can be described as a ‘Sea of Grass’, in fact it is the largest compact area covered in pastures on the European Continent.
The family of mastiff breeds are commonly referred to as Molossers, named after those dogs that were originally found in the geographic region that we refer to today as the Balkans. Prior to the Turkish conquest of the area, all of the shepherd dogs of the Balkans were believed to be subgroups of a primary type of large broad headed, pendulant eared, shepherd-dog known as a “Molossian Dog”, named after the fierce tribe that once inhabited the region and kept such dogs as flock guards in their fields and guard dogs for their homes. These were ancient Illyrian Tribes who lived in an area on the Balkan Peninsula known as Molossi.
Today the livestock guardian breeds of Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Greece, Rumania and other Balkan countries are a result of the geographic and selective breeding practices followed by the native peoples of the area. Never the less, they all have the same ancestral roots in the original Alaunt and Epirian Moloss stock, once called Molossian dogs by the ancients. Indeed the Sarplaninac Mountain range is but a couple of hundred kilometres from the original Molossi kingdom of Epirus now located on the edge of the Balkan Peninsula in North West Greece.
ANCIENT ORIGINS OF THE BREED
Left: Molossi "Dog of Alchibaides " Right : a Modern Sarplaninac .
The Molossian Theory: The Mother of Alexander the Great was Olympia who was herself a Molossian Queen from the Epirus Kingdom. It is widely believed that the Sarplaninac is directly descended from these original ‘Molossian’ sheep dogs of ancient Epirus. Some scholars believe the Sarplaninac (or it’s direct ancestors) to be the palace dog of Alexander the Great. More over, this geographic area, now know on the Serbian side as Kosovo, was once the heart of the Serbian Empire and civilization which flourished in the middle ages during the time of the Nemanja Kings. It is believed by many that this dog was at the side of King Lazar in his great battles with the invading Turks.
Aristotle, who lived in 384-322 B.C, even wrote about these famous dogs of Epirus. In his "Historia Animalium" he tells us about, among several other dog breeds, the dog from Molossia in Epirus. Aristotle praises the Molossis dogs and tells us that they served as guardians of the herds, and distinguished themselves from all other dogs through there size and indomitable courage against wild animals.
The Roman chronicler Varro, writing in 37 BC in his "De Re Rustica", gives us a sort of breed standard for the Molossian dog:
“ They must be comely in face, of great size, with eyes either darkish or yellowish. Large symmetrical nostrils, lips black with the upper lip neither raised to high or drooping too low. Stubby jaws with large teeth covered by lips, large head and drooping ears. Thick shoulders and neck with thighs long and straight with large wide paws that spread when he walks. A deep bark and wide gape. The backbone neither projecting or swayed, thick coated and of leonine (lion like)appearance.”
Interestingly, Varro’s description could describe today’s Sarplaninac “point for point.
The Assyrian Theory: Although many pieces of this puzzle are still missing, there is evidence that the origin of this large muscular, short-muzzled “type” of dog goes back even further to the Assyrians ( see wall relief below) and perhaps even before that to the region now known as Tibet.
The Tibetan Theory: suggests that the progenitor of all Mastiff dogs was the Tibetan Mastiff. It is believed that these dogs came with the nomadic Asiatic tribes that migrated into Asia Minor and Europe along the ancient “silk roads”.
This turn of the century Tibetan Mastiff does not look as much like today's Tibetan mastifs as he looks more like today’s Sarplaninac (right & below).
Male Sarplaninac (courtesy of Heike Diikstra)
Female Sarplaninac -(Shara's Ambra)
All three of these theories have seem to have as many supporters as it has detractors. Based on the nomadic and migratory nature of ancient and prehistoric Europe, I personally believe that the truth is probably a mixtures of all three theories as I don't think that there theory are at all mutually exclusive.
What we do know is that there is a distinct resemblance between all of the great Molosser breeds such as the Tibet Mastiff, the Caucasian Ovtcharka, Sarplaninac, the Central Asian, and the Kangal dog. For me this only confirms the ancient and primary origins of breed. I could be said that the area now known as Kosovo seems to have been a crossing point for all of the major invasions and migrations from Asia into Europe. The white shepherd dogs Western Europe such as the Maremma and the Great Pyrenees are also clearly a part of this ancient family tree and these ancient breeds can be found scattered all over Europe and Eurasia.
Left to Right: Caucasian shepherd, Central Asian, Kangal, Maremma.