History of Sarplaninac

Origins

The Sarplaninac (pronounced shar-pla-nee-natz) originated in the southeastern mountainous regions of (former) Yugoslavia. These amazing working dogs were named after the Šar Mountains (Šar Planina), a mountain range within the Balkans that reaches from the NW regions of North Macedonia, parts of Kosovo, and NE regions of Albania. Sarplaninac translates literally to "(Dog) of the Šar Mountains" or "Šar Mountain Dog".

The Jennings Dog, sculpture of a Molossian Guard Dog
The Jennings Dog, sculpture of a Molossian Guard Dog,
2nd century AD Roman copy of a 2nd century BC original

Being an ancient breed, their exact origin is difficult to pinpoint; however, it is believed that the Sarplaninac descended from the ancient Molossian breeds of Greece and ancient LGDs of Turkey. It is also believed that migrating Asiatic people moving towards the Mediterranean also introduced additional breeds into the gene pool, such as the Tibetan Mastiff.

The Molossians were a group of ancient Greek tribes that inhabited these historic regions and were renowned for their fierce dogs, which were used by Molossian shepherds in the mountains to protect their flocks from predators. During the Ottoman Empire, Sarplaninacs would spend their summers with the flocks and shepherds in the grazing meadows of the Šar Mountains, and make a seasonal migration with their flocks to wintering grounds in Thessaly, Greece.

These dogs have been selected and bred over hundreds of years to evolve into what they are today. No matter where the Sarplaninac's official origins lie, it is undisputable that they have been well selected to be a superior livestock guardian type breed.

Name

As mentioned above, these dogs are named after the Šar Mountains (Šar Planina), a mountain range within the Balkans that reaches from the NW regions of North Macedonia, parts of Kosovo, and NE regions of Albania. Sarplaninac (pronounced shar-pla-nee-natz) translates literally to "(Dog) of the Šar Mountains" or "Šar Mountain Dog".

Working Sarplaninac guarding sheep in the Šar Mountains
Sarplaninac guarding sheep in the Šar Mountains
Photo by Nedih Limani

Although these dogs are officially known as Sarplaninacs now, they have held a few different names over the years. The Illyrian Shepherd Dog, the Macedonian Shepherd Dog Sharplanina, the Albanian Shepherd Dog, and the Sarplaninec to name a few. The region from which the Sarplaninac originated was historically known as Illyria in the time of the Romans, which led to them obtaining the name "Illyrian Shepherd Dog" earlier on. Some of these names have also been officially recognized through the FCI, an international federation of a number of national kennel clubs.

Officially standardized by the FCI in 1939, they were originally recognized as a Yugoslavian breed with two types. Both falling under the former official name "Illyrian Shepherd Dog" (Ilirski ovčar), the "Šarplaninac" and the "Karst Shepherd Dog" (Kraški ovčar) were considered to be a Type A and Type B of the breed.

Then, in 1957, the General Assembly of the FCI accepted a motion to change the name of the breed to Jugoslovenski ovčarski pas Šarplaninac ("Yugoslavian Shepherd Dog Sharplanina"). It was the Yugoslavian Federation of Cynology that submitted the proposal to change the name and this has remained the official name of the breed to this day, under the FCI-Standard N° 41 (pdf).

Despite the official name change in 1957, it was not until 1968 that the Type B was officially recognized as a separate breed, the Karst Shepherd Dog (Kraški ovčar) under the FCI-Standard N° 278 (pdf).

Historical Use

Sarplaninac have been bred and selected over centuries in the regions surrounding the Šar Mountains. Their original intended use was for them to be livestock guardian dogs. If you are unsure what that entails, a livestock guardian dog (LGD) is a dog type that is bred with the purpose of protecting a flock from predators. A key difference between LGD and herding dogs is that LGD do not control the movement of livestock. Instead, they will blend themselves within the flock and keep a watchful eye for threats and intruders.

Sarplaninac watching over newborn sheep
Sarplaninac watching over newborn sheep
Photo by Paul White

Showing so much promise in their ability to work as an effective guardian of sheep, Sarplaninac eventually made their way to protecting other types of animals. Today, they are also used for guarding cattle and goats, among other livestock, from predators in the Balkans.

Not only have Sarplaninac served their shepherds in the mountains by protecting their flocks, Sarplaninac have historically served for their nation in the armed forces. By protecting important military installations, they proved themselves as yet another useful tool to man.

Training of a Sarplaninac in the Yugoslav People's Army
Training of a Sarplaninac in the Yugoslav People's Army

They were first used as military dogs in 1928 by the Royal Yugoslav Army of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and later used under Josip Broz Tito in the Yugoslav People's Army of the Socialist Federation Republic of Yugoslavia.

It was apparent that they were also extremely effective at guarding military sites and barracks. During their time as military dogs, many Sarplaninac were cross bred with Caucasian Ovcharka (a slightly larger cousin of the Sarplaninac from Caucasus region) and GSD to try and improve them even more. The military favored darker coats for urban environments.

To this day, they are stilled used as guard dogs for the Military of Serbia in the mountainous regions.