A rusty sign on the east bank of the Alligator River in Arnhem Land, Australia, welcomes the intrepid few that penetrate inside, in the aboriginal land of the island-continent, with this sentence:
It is a clear reference to the troubled history of Aboriginal Australians.
"Ab origin" means "from the beginning" and it is a term used for the natives of Australia. It is closely linked to the history of that country and its people.
The meaning is exactly the same as the word "indigenous".
In a similar way, Russian fans and enthusiasts have adopted this word when talking about sheepdogs of Central Asia. In this reference, the "aboriginals" would be those individuals born and raised through the succession of many generations, in their place of origin.
The “aboriginality,” or the degree of belonging to a particular environment, (open ecosystem), is understood as a development over a very long span of time. Time is measured as the interval between one species migration and another, and of the acclimitazation of a species on a territory. A long stay in a particular area would see the birth of aborigines.
In June of 2010, at dawn, the valleys of some of the highest pastures of the world were immersed in the morning haze. One could see only a small part of the path that was taking us higher up …
a bark broke the silence and a fast herdsman’s dog came out from the misty light …
Here we were, in the heart of Asia, not in Australia.
The immediate comment was that the fast animal had "sprung out of nowhere."
If you travel all the way to Central Asia in search of the big mastiff dogs described and bred in Europe and in Eastern Europe, you are most likely to remain disappointed. Yet Central Asia is a veritable zoo at the end of the world … Snow leopards, bears, wolves, antelopes, wild camels, eagles and saighe: there are hundreds of species that inhabit these places "between the steppe and mountains that touch the sky. "
The aboriginal dogs of Central Asia, the ones who live beside the shepherds, in countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, are primitive guardians, and here they have well-known enemies such as a variety of predators, parasites and marauders.
When compared with the European Club dogs or the FCI recognized breed, the “aboriginals” are smaller and more compact in size, they do not show many mastiff type characteristics (allowed by the breed standard drawn up from the Russian Kennel Federation ). They have instead some features in common with the wild dogs, and at first glance they may seem very heterogeneous.
As has already happened before, we are now facing a dividing point of considerable importance between the selected type from the “show world,” which is a Russian breed, and a quite different shepherd's flock guardian, which is the native dog to those Central Asian areas.
The problem of determining wich is the “right” type depends on who is asking the question.
"So you wanted to see how hard this life is, of those who work in the fields?" said Mansur Tanokov, the Tajikistan shepherd who brought me up here. We were waiting for his friend Uzbek, who had gone down with Elena and Nikita on a cliff looking for a den of wolves to show us.
Here, wolves are the first enemy, and often the boundaries between dogs and the "king of canidaes" is very thin. When you move the sheep from the steppe to the mountains during the summer, they also move in search of prey and could target the livestock.
The animals who return to the coshara in autumn are the strongest!
While a standard written by cynologists tries to describe the allowable limits you need to follow to get the 'functional' dogs, true natural selection does not need competitions or socially acceptable improvement. This artificial standardization creates a breeding strategy which becomes more like a police officer than an engineer.
In Europe the term “selection” in breeding is used as a code word for saying "creating perfection." It is a term that should be used with caution. Some see it as a biological arrow of time, an inexorable tendency to improve and define … type, subtype, etc…narrowing the genetic variability.
In my opinion, this is a far too optimistic way of thinking: the majority of life, in natural selection needs to fight to keep its position, rather than merely fit a prescription more perfectly than the others of it’s kind.
Most modern breeders employ a sort of controlled selection; mating is calculated, mainly considering aesthetic factors. Some aboriginal dogs have been used to increase the heterozygosity in some bloodlines, or just for a different coat color, following the fad of the moment.
Order is thus maintained in a very rigid, dogmatic and homogeneous way, by the interpretation of a written standard that considers only an average phenotype based on a certain degree of equality, the beloved yardstick of the exhibition ring’s judges.
We often hear about functional beauty, and this term is used as a justification for that selection that goes towards an exhausting search of some distinctive morphological characteristics which are more apt to make a breed commercially desirable than to forge a real working dog .
In my opinion and verified by my experience, functional beauty can be admired when "function" means the achievement of a real purpose.
In the West, the changing fortunes of large predators and their prey over the last two centuries have seen an overwhelming victory of the species that fires the gun. The rifle has replaced, in most cases, the dog keeper as well as the mountain rescue helicopter. These modern developments have meant that the mountain dogs of S.Bernardo and others have become “pets.”
The aboriginal shepherd dogs of Central Asia are quite another thing. In order to comprehend their essence it is necessary to thoroughly understand their scope of lifestyle and purpose. In spite of what we believe, the ecosystem that creates their environment is present. It is still found today, in many ways still intact.
The problems arise when we lose contact with the environment, its prey and its predators.
In an excursion in Central Asia, during a walk "out of the cattle track" I conceived an idea of how they have felt, the prey and those flocks before the rise of guns: I was there at sunset, defenseless as a lamb in a place that I knew was full of danger …
Yet, nearby, a young Tajik boy along with his dogs and armed with nothing but a wooden stick was standing quietly, guarding a flock of sheep. Marauders knew it, they looked at him in a different way, and it was because those dogs and the boy and their ancestors had never lost contact, never forgotten the rules of the game.
These are what we now call the aborigines, these sheepdogs, the guardians who are still very familiar with these rules, which have never lost their contact with their environment.
Pastoral life in Central Asia is still host to the ancient process of eking a living from a vast territory. These places are remote, far from any settlement, even a small one, and the horse and donkey are the only mode of transport. Entire families and tribes of nomadic shepherds move between very high mountains. And it is here that the the caudal lipoma sheep grazes. Dogs are always around settlements, around the flocks, living almost like wild animals, as an integral part of a refined, balanced ecosystem. In this world, the bear and the wolf are the perennial enemies.
In any respectfully undertaken project of breeding these dogs, we should sense adeep connection to an ancient and enduring vitality. Additionally, if we want to maintain the vigor of these animals we must at least use them for guarding other animals on a daily basis and in an environment as suitable as possible.
Aborigines do not know what we now take for granted: their diet is not made of dog food and supplements, they eat what they can and when they can. They never had our veterinary care. In their place of origin they constantly struggle with internal and external parasites which are now more rare in the western countries.
The aboriginal dog of Central Asia, despite being physically smaller in size, is not any less challenging to manage …
It is very temperamental and does not fear those who it does not know. It’s aggression, if not induced by training, is more like an attack from wild dog that tends to bite several times, without fear. I do not find it appropriate to instigate these dogs for the classic "attack" tests as proof of defense drive, and it is not what the shepherds do.
While young, it often happens that puppies go through a little predatory phase towards the flock. Shouldn’t ontogenesis be recapitulating phylogenesis? If so, it is for this reason that such a primitive wild dog needs to be well imprinted with other animals. As an adult, it will than defend its flock with zeal.
A two-meter high back yard fence is not enough. The dog might jump it in a blink of an eye, given its structure and agility. Especially at dusk, he could decide to go out alone, hunting for food as his instincts tell him to do …
All that you gain by domestication implies some loss of one or the other characteristic, in an inevitable "flip side" …A native dog still retains many natural instincts of this “coin” while a dog bred and selected in a breeding program certainly will stand out for size and beauty. The latter, visually more striking, inevitably has lost many useful attributes which are necessary for its primary function as a self-sufficient, athletic guardian.
With the aim to preserve the original features of our dogs, I invite all to a deeper reflection.
I hope there will soon be formed a collective consciousness, especially among more open-minded breeders, that goes beyond the call of "just selling" or a leash ornament. More courageous, willing to dare mating with, and selecting for, truly functional subjects. I hope we do not settle for "outcrossings" in order to create a show champion on the one hand, and an imported native dog on the other, with radically different characteristics.
The "Aboriginal" dog derives his character and physique from his environment and his parents, who have lived together with their flocks and the shepherds in his native ecosystem.
The animals who will return to the coshara in autumn will be the stronger ones, the survivors …
Canine primitive guardians, sons of a population that existed for thousands of years.
Sons of the aboriginal dogs of nomadic shepherds, survivors of their arduous journey through the ages.
Text and photographs by Francesco Spiaggia