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Kangal dogs in Turkey
The homeland of the Kangal Dog

Most visitors to Turkey see little more than the fringes of the country, where the land meets the sea. The Aegean coast to the west and the Mediterranean towns to the south are famous for their classical history, and bustle with the thriving international trade they have enjoyed for centuries as well as the more recently acquired tourist trade. The temperate Black Sea coast, with its links northwards to the Balkans, has its own busy ports and industries. And then of course there is Istanbul, sprawling across the Bosphorus where Europe meets Asia: with its domed palaces, its minarets and markets, this cosmopolitan city is the most likely image that non-Turks have of Turkey.

Generally speaking, for a western European to venture into the heartland of Asiatic Turkey there would have to be good archaeological or diplomatic reasons: it is not a place for the casual tourist. The central Anatolian plateau is a vast, inhospitable expanse of mountain and steppe, embracing the modern capital, Ankara, and stretching eastwards. It is large enough to accommodate the British Isles three times over, penetrated by few modern roads and only sparsely populated. The climate is continental, ranging from 40C in summer to -30C in winter, or even lower in the eastern mountains. This is the real Anatolia. In the dry central plains, crops can only be grown in the valleys along the line of rivers which dwindle to a trickle in summer. Grazing is too sparse and the terrain and weather too harsh for cattle, and so the mainstay of the economy and village life is sheep rearing. Wool plays a vital part in Turkey’s textiles industry and is of course the raw material for one of the country’s most famous products – carpets.

It has been estimated that Turkey has over 36 million sheep, and most of them are reared on these vast open plains. The flocks range over huge areas browsing on the scrubby grass and at nightfall, if the grazing is not too far distant from the shepherd’s village, they are brought back to the area around the settlements, where they are less likely to attack by predators. If they are further away, then they have to be guarded overnight on the mountainside. In many regions shepherds employ the ancient system of transhumance, whereby whole flocks, and often most of the population of the village to which theybelong, migrate to summer pastures (yaylalar) and back with the changing seasons. Life is hard for the Turkish shepherd, and his livelihood depends to a great extent on one valuable asset – his dog.

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A working breed

All over Asiatic Turkey, large, strong dogs are used by the shepherds to protect their sheep. The dogs’ role is to watch for the approach of danger, which can be in the form of predatory wolves, jackals, eagles or even bears and wildcats, and to place themselves between that threat and the flock. The dogs are also used to escort the sheep on their frequent treks to and from water and pasture, a task that an experienced dog will sometimes perform without human supervision.

The dogs that perform these tasks are called çoban köpekleri – shepherd dogs. This is not the name of a breed: it simply describes the work they do. Under this broad heading are a number of specific types of dog which could reasonably be regarded as breeds, since over the centuries they have developed into uniform populations breeding to type, assisted both by human intervention selecting for particular working characteristics, and by geographical isolation protecting them from outside influences. The Kangal Dog of central Turkey is one of these breeds, the Akbas Dog of western Turkey is another, and other regional breeds have been identified.

A Western parallel to this situation would be the use of the term ‘collie’ or ‘setter’ to describe a work-related type of dog rather than a specific breed: a Welsh Collie, for example, is different from a Border Collie; a Gordon Setter is different from an English Setter; yet their working characteristics are similar.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that there are a great many Turkish shepherd dogs of no particular type, working effectively as livestock guardians (again, just as there are efficient collie-cross dogs working for Western farmers). In the east and south-east of the country in particular, there are still populations of nomadic herdsmen using dogs (yürük or göcebe köpekleri) which, although usually tall and strong, are very mixed in type and whose ancestors may have come from, for example, Syria, Georgia or Afghanistan.

For anyone wishing to make a study of Turkish dogs, this rather complex situation is not helped by the fact that until recently Turkey had no official body for the registration of breeds of dog. There has been no real tradition there of keeping pets; dogs were and still are kept primarily as working animals for hunting or protection. However, Turkish people who work with dogs recognize the value of good type, steady temperament and predictable behaviour, and have maintained their own unofficial standards for centuries.

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Turkey's most famous breed

There can be no doubt about the identity of Turkey’s ‘national’ dog or the esteem in which it is held. The Kangal or Sivas-Kangal Dog is known throughout the country, to city dwellers and country folk alike, as a treasured part of the national heritage, so much so that it has twice featured on Turkish postage stamps, once in 1973 with its generic title of çoban köpegi and again in 1996 as Kangal köpegi.

Identity of the Kangal Dog

Ask a Turk to describe the shepherd dog of Anatolia and – with great pride and enthusiasm, usually accompanied by accounts of superior strength and prowess against the wolf – he or she will describe the Kangal Dog. Even the youngest Turkish children have a clear image of the Kangal Dog!

Locating the Kangal Dog

The name is taken from the small town of Kangal, to the south-east of Sivas in central Turkey, the area where the most typical specimens of the breed are found. The town in turn is named after the Kangal family, for centuries landowners in the region and renowned for breeding excellent horses and fearless sheep-guarding dogs.

Despite the relative obscurity of its place of origin, it is astonishing to observe both how widespread and how uniform this breed of dog is throughout central Anatolia. A summer traveller taking the main road from west to east across Turkey (the ancient caravan route which runs through Ankara, Sivas and Erzurum towards Georgia and Iran) will pass countless flocks of sheep escorted by shepherd dogs. From Yozgat to Erzincan, a distance of around 250 miles (450 km) almost every working dog seen will be a Kangal Dog.

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Sightings

To an onlooker it may at first appear that there is no dog in attendance, but closer inspection will no doubt reveal that what looked at first like a sheep, behind and slightly apart from the rest, is in fact a Kangal Dog plodding steadily along in the dust behind its charges. The Kangal Dog is a large, powerfully-built animal, cream to greyish fawn in colour, with black mask and ears. Its coat is short, dense and weatherproof and an unmistakeable characteristic of the breed is its long, slightly bushy tail, carried in a circle above the back when the dog is alert and low with a slight curl at the tip when relaxed. From a distance, in the dog’s natural environment, the high tail-carriage is often the only way to distinguish the dog from the flock because a Kangal is quite likely to be standing among its sheep, which are of comparable size and – especially with a good coating of Anatolian dust – similar in colour. The sheep meanwhile will be completely unperturbed by the dog’s presence.

Appearance

An adult male stands about 30 inches (75 cm) high at the shoulder and weighs about 130 lb (60 kg); bitches are usually significantly smaller and less heavy in build. The Kangal Dog is somewhat finer in construction than the mastiff breeds with which it is commonly associated; this is an advantage for an animal that has to be capable of a good turn of speed in a working situation. These dogs, although content to watch quietly for hours on end, can give chase at speeds of up to 30 miles (50 km) per hour when necessary.The Kangal Dog has a double coat perfectly suited to the rigours of a working life spent out of doors in all conditions. It is short and close-lying, made up of a very dense soft undercoat covered by smooth, slightly longer and coarser hair that acts as a weatherproof jacket. The woolly under-layer provides insulation not only in the severe Anatolian winter but against the fierce summer sun, although a complete twice-yearly moult modifies the thickness needed for the coming season. The outer layer repels rain or snow, and mud, once dry, simply falls off the short, straight hair.

Like all the Turkish shepherd dogs, a working Kangal Dog will probably have had its ears cropped by the shepherd at the age of a few weeks. This is done for various reasons, not all of them plausible, it must be said. First of all, for appearance: the cropped ears give a fierce, bear-like expression to the animal. Secondly, for protection: in an encounter with a wolf or other predator, ear-flaps are easily bitten or torn, and so could be a site of infection. Associated with this is the wearing of spiked metal collars to protect the throat in an attack; as soon as the young dog begins is working life the shepherd will provide it with an iron collar fitted with very sharp, and sometimes quite long, spikes. The ear-flaps of a young Kangal could catch on a collar of this kind.

Finally there is the popular notion that cropping the ears enables the dog to hear better. A rather unpleasant story exists that when the ears are cropped the offcuts are cooked and fed back to the dog to increase his strength. It is certainly true that a cropped Anatolian looks very different from one with the ears intact. When the first imported specimen with cropped ears was brought to Britain, those who were called upon to inspect her found it difficult to recognize the breed they were familiar with.

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Lifestyle of rural Kangals

Turkey is almost entirely Muslim. Although Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introduced many measures to ‘westernize’ the country in the early part of the twentieth century, among them the replacement of Islamic law by a secular, European-style system, many of the religious traditions remain. One is the belief that the dog is an unclean animal that should not be allowed to enter a Turkish house. However, dogs are allowed around human habitations and Kangal dogs are a common sight within the villages of central Anatolia. Some are kept on running chains outside their master’s house; others, having learned the boundaries of their access, are allowed to wander about freely.

Many Anatolian villages consist of flat-roofed, often whitewashed houses made of clay bricks. Sometimes the dwellings are built into the hillside in such a way that you may well find yourself accidentally walking on the grassy roof of someone’s home, the only tell-tale sign being a small white chimney-stack on the ground! The owner’s dog will often dig himself a cave into the hillside near the house, out of the heat of the sun and the winter snow. In the severe winters roads are impassable and most villages completely cut off. Livestock are kept in low, mud-built barns and fodder is stored to quite a depth on the flat rooftops of these barns and of the houses – adding welcome insulation for the comfort of the occupants. Occasionally a black face will peep out from within a stack of fodder, betraying the fact that ‘Karabash’ has found a warm billet for the night.

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Protective behaviour

Away from the village, a Kangal on duty out on the mountainside will usually station itself on a high vantage-point overlooking its flock and simply watch and listen. In the full heat of the day the dog will dig itself a cool hollow in the ground and settle into it, becoming almost invisible to anyone approaching. Many an unwary stranger has been taken by surprise by a great dusty Kangal Dog suddenly hauling itself to its feet to bark a warning.

Novice dogs are sent out in the company of older ones to learn their technique by experience; in the process the new recruit will also learn where it stands in the hierarchy of dogs. A steady, experienced Kangal Dog is the shepherd’s most valuable asset, for the job of training the new generation will largely be done by the dogs themselves. Very often the dogs will work in pairs, or teams for a larger flock, taking up positions around the sheep and changing shift from time to time. They do not waste energy by running around needlessly and in the daytime are content to lie still and quiet. The night watch however is a different matter, for it is then that they actively patrol along a wide perimeter, sounding their presence from time to time as they go.

The behaviour of the Kangal Dog when its suspicions are aroused is fascinating to watch. First of all it will stand full-square with tail up and ears erect, listening. Then there will been a quiet ‘wuff’, just enough to signal to the sheep that something is up, followed by the sharp bark that is the signal to the other dogs and the shepherd to get into position. The sheep, who have learned to trust the dog, will bunch together and – far from moving away, as would a flock used to being driven by a herding dog – they will tend to gather towards their protector.

The Kangal’s first instinct is to place itself between the perceived source of danger and its sheep or master, and will trot back and forth across the line of approach, gradually coming closer to them. (This is a very powerful instinct and one that can be observed in Kangal dogs that have never seen active service but live in a domestic setting in other countries: faced with a stranger, they will stand across their owner’s path until assured that all is well.) With the sheep safely behind it, the Kangal Dog can then go out to confront the intruder and the bark becomes a full-throated roar, an unmistakable threat.

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Kangals and wolves

Usually the dog need do no more than chase off the interloper, but a hungry or foolhardy wolf may stand its ground, in which case the Kangal dog will run forward at great speed and, using its substantial forehand weight, hurl a shoulder against the wolf to knock it to the ground. It will then attack the throat and the tendons of the hind legs. The villages and markets of Anatolia frequently display the skin of some unlucky wolf as a trophy or for sale.

Rearing Kangal Dogs in Turkey

Working dogs have to be very resourceful to survive. The shepherds feed them a plain barley mash (yal), supplemented with whatever food scraps and bones they have left over. Meat is normally available to dogs only in the form of what they can catch, usually rodents living in the desert or around the village, or the odd bird or hare. Male dogs tend to get preferential treatment and so the females have to learn to live by their wits.

Despite the apparent informality of the village environment, matings are usually planned, in the sense that a shepherd will have his eye on a particular stud dog for the next generation. Bitches tend to come into season only once a year – some would say out of self-preservation – with the alpha bitch in the village giving the lead to the others.

A Kangal bitch will usually do her best to give birth to her puppies underground, out of reach of other dogs and interlopers, so she will most likely dig herself a tunnel under a rock or building ending it in a round chamber which becomes the nest. It is astonishing, given their poor diet, that Kangal bitches are able to produce milk at all, but they generally succeed. They are often helped by other, usually related, bitches in the community who will come into milk despite having no pups of their own and act as welcome wet-nurses as the pups grow. Sadly, little human support is offered to the lactating bitch; her welfare is largely ignored and she is seen as simply a means to an end. The process of weaning starts at around three weeks, when the bitch begins to regurgitate her own meal to feed to the pups, who devour it ravenously. Small wonder, then, that by the time the pups are weaned the Kangal bitch is herself at quite a low ebb.

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Early Learning

Kangal litters are often large, averaging six to ten pups. There is no way that a shepherd and his family could afford to raise such large numbers to adulthood and the litters are culled to retain only the biggest and strongest specimens. Bitch puppies are kept only if there is thought to be a need for new breeding stock, although in fact females make excellent working shepherd dogs, being fast and alert. Promising puppies are fed well on a diet supplemented with offal, eggs and milk. They may be passed to friends or relatives in neighbouring villages as a valued gift or exchange.

The general strength, soundness and size of the adult dogs seen working in Anatolia must be attributable to this early rearing – and the generations of selection for robustness – for by the time they are a year old working Kangal Dogs are on subsistence rations.As the pup grows, its mother plays a major role in its character development. She will tease it to come forward and play-fight with her, often rolling it over and nipping its throat and then rolling over herself to let the pup imitate her. She will teach it to stalk and pounce, and not to take liberties with its elders – all part of the unique training of a good working dog. Later, the shepherd himself will take a hand in the learning process, encouraging the pup to worry a stuffed wolf-skin. It is at this point that he will single out the bravest of the litter for work; the less forthcoming will be discarded or stay as watchdogs around the village.

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