ABRUZZESE SHEPHERD'S HISTORY
Abruzzese Sheepdog, also called Abruzzese Mastiff, comes directly from the“canis pastoralis”, although it would be fair to say that he is the “canis pastoralis”, considering that he always been about the same for thousands. He is quoted in some Latin treatises concerning the agriculture (“De re rustica”) by Marcus Terentius Varro or “Varro Reatinus” (116 B. C. –27 B. C.), and by Columella Lucius Giunius Moderatus (4 A. D. -70 A. D.). His origins go back to time immemorial. According to the most accredited reconstructions, he would come from a big molossian white coated primitive dog, who had a bear head and did live in Asia and then spread in Europe. After had been tamed by sheep farming people, perhaps after the last glaciation, they spread in Europe because of the migrations of populations who brought dogs with them.
As a result of this, there are many typified bloodlines and many different big sheepdog breeds in many countries (Kuvaz, Tatra sheepdog, Pyrenean Mountain Dog, South Russian Ovtcharka and, of course, our Abruzzese mastiff).
There is no doubt at all that the primitive populations did choose him as guardian dog for several good reasons: among these, surely because of his extraordinary temperament and his physical skills.
So, it was very important that the sheepdogs could be at the same time mighty and agile, provided with endurance, adaptable in all weather, with an austere diet and, last but not least, white colored; in fact, on the one hand the white color got him similar to the sheep and made him pinpoint able even during the night; on the other, could be a clue of eventual “genetic contaminations”by other different breeds that were able to compromise the guarding aptitude .It was also important the texture of hair, which is waterproof still today because of the thick undercoat; it was essential in the bad weather so as to allow the dog to complete his assignment. Besides, the thick coat can be useful as a defence against fangs and claws.
He has got an uncontested courage; because of it, when he has to defend something, he is used to do it moving forward without never withdraw, even when it means fighting last ditch effort against predators bigger than him; even in these cases, it is not rare that he can win. Usually, the Abruzzese mastiffs work in a pack and once they get wind of danger, they circle the flock, as during the old times when they did it around the settlements .While the leader of the flock approaches the enemy so as to scare and desist him, all other members of the pack stand still barking. Bitches with puppies used to go into the circle among the sheep while the leader shows all his strength preparing himself for the battle.
This is indeed what a leader of the flock should do. Otherwise, all other members of the pack could not see him as the leader. He has the privilege to pass on the genetic heritage: he is used to eat before all other members of the pack (so, he eats better than anyone); he is used to conduct the pack and, in case of danger, he must face up to, but, among all members of the pack, he is the most suitable to do it; at the end of the day, this is a very balanced and working well system.
Often, among these dogs, the continuance of the breed is due to the inbreeding, sometimes very strong, until the shepherd decides to infuse new blood into the bloodline or until happens unplanned mating because of meeting among different packs. I have had the opportunity to see personally how strong, long lived and stable these dogs are, in spite of this strong inbreeding; I have asked to myself how this is possible. I was really impressed by the low mortality puppies rate, considering that they are the product of inbreeding, growing among the sheep, without no shelter from the weather and left aside by men.
I have often talked about this issue with some friends who are dog lovers too and we have wondered these very common questions concerning genetic improvement, health and breeding: Why the inbreeding planned by men get physical and behavioural troubles? Why on earth the unplanned and spontaneous inbreeding does not provoke any trouble at all in terms of health? After practical verifications, I have found that there is only one reason: usually, mating happens between the dominant male and the dominant female; in fact, the dominant male does not allow the dominant female mating with other males of the pack and the dominant female does the same thing with all other females of the pack. This is because the dominant subjects have got strongest and healthiest genetic heritage so they can pass on the best genetic features even in case of strong inbreeding, although inbreeding should be always avoidable. Everything else, it's up to the natural selection, especially if you consider that we are talking about a heterogeneous environment where there are the bad weather, a diet that is often insecure and sanitary conditions that are anything but salubrious.
Nowadays, the state of the breed is not so bad, not even the best. Considering that there is a split between the rustic Abruzzese mastiff (also called Abruzzes shepherd), which is a working dog, and the “show dog type” selected for beauty, which is that has been officially known as “The Maremma Sheepdog ”, it is far from smooth saying that there is only one homogeneous breed. After the agropastoral system was resized, the rustic Abruzzese mastiff, that is the working variety, has been reduced and the idea of the breed has been even more linked with the type selected for beauty whose subjects are less strong and less stable than those of the rustic variety, because they have been selected for beauty so as to achieve the perfect white, the ears perfectly set high on the head and nose totally black.
The current breed standard puts him at a disadvantage, limiting him within a type that depreciates him because removes many features that has been proper to him for thousands of years. I can quote some that I personally had the opportunity to see: the size bigger than the max size in line with the standard, semi erected ears whenever the dog is alerted, the noise liver coloured, pink coloured, purple coloured or purple and black coloured. But also the hair, that can be longer that the standard max length and sometimes even on the muzzle, that is actually a very rare feature caused by a recessive gene that sometimes makes the shape of the skull and of the muzzle more longer than usual (this is a particular variety of the Abruzzese sheepdog called “baffo”).
Besides, I have had the opportunity to see a high number of puppies provided with fifth dewclaw which is an ancient breed sign. I can also add the colour of the hair that is not always completely white, but can be also provided with yellow shades and in the puppies pink shades that will turn into white as long as they growing. Last but not least, I would add the pink and black pigmentation of the palate. All these features don't involve any trouble at all in terms of health and functionality. On the contrary, they get the Abruzzese sheepdog breed more heterogeneous and get the genetic makeup better.
In the old days, shepherds used to clip dog's ears rounded shape - when the puppies are three weeks old - in order to avoid that could be vulnerable in case of fight against predators and in case of competitions within the pack. The head reminds of the bear's head. The range of the weight is from 40kg to 80kg; he has got scissor bite and sometimes pincer bite. His neck hair seems a mane and makes him similar to a lion. Surely because of his wary and free standing nature, many used to talk about this dog as a catlike dog. He tends to be in a loyal and collaborative relationship with his owner, but this is an equal bond without mawkishness by him.
Nowadays, the official world of dog lovers includes only the Maremman Shepherd, that got a big dog show “stuffed animal”; many times they are resized in terms of weight and when they are not, they don't show being stable and seem to be damaged in nature, perhaps because of the over breeding:
They are too nervous dogs with the tendency to bark too much and provided with unpredictable nature, no more suitable for bad weather. Their working aptitude has not been tested for many generations. As a consequence of this, when they are tested (used as sheepdog) don't show affection towards sheep and this bring the real breed (Abruzzese Mastiff or Abruzzese Sheepdog) into disrepute. Although the most part of people don't know anything about it, this breed still survives, in a quiet way, in the rural world, particularly in Abruzzi region and regions that are close, preserved by people who are not interested in dog shows at all; they are so pleased with tasks made by their dog indeed that this makes them satisfied.
During the decades, the genetic heritage of Abruzzese sheepdog got lessened because many ancient bloodlines are gone missing. This is because they were too much different from the standard of beauty decided by the dog show judges or by the breeders who got a lot of influence, who used to breed a variety of dogs very different from them. So.. All subjects provided with the dewclaw, double dewclawed, yellow eyes coloured or pink nose coloured, provided with hair longer than 10 cm, too much big or too much thin, they all were excluded; although they were very good in some working circumstances, they were too much different from...the standard of beauty decided by ”The Masters of dog shows”. Unfortunately, people who write the standard breeds rarely use them as working dogs. Where there is still the need using this type of dog, there are many different bloodlines of genuine Abruzzese mastiff provided with all features that we have just quoted. They are delimited in the world of sheep farming and safeguarded by breeders who are not bucking for the glory of dog shows: They get more pleased in having subjects that are big and useful at the same time and equipped with physical and behavioural features proper to achieve their purposes.
We are talking about dogs equipped with very pronounced heads and with a big bone structure, a very thick hair, a solid muzzle and strong jawbone. Some subjects belong to the “baffo” type, some others to the molossian type and there are also some that are wolfish appearance.
Although they are different from each other in size and morphology, it depends on the place, the environment and the liking of the shepherd who uses the dog, they all share the unmistakable and typical features of the genuine Italian "canis pastoralis": the strong mental and emotional stability, the affection towards the flock, the courage and the relaxed walk. They are “poised dogs”, never edgy, equipped with a strong rustic nature, a good health and a distinct look got by every dog that belongs to this breed, regardless of the size and the hair.
They still, to this day, take care of the flock with their unflappable way, whatever the weather: under the rain, the snow, without no shelter and, in case of need, able to fight against the boars, the wolves, even the bears, albeit rarely, with the same strength and loyalty. He has always been distinguished by this and this is the reason why he has always been appreciated around the world.