Shahbazin Anatolian Shepherds Breed Debate

When researching livestock guardian dog breeds, many people are confronted with conflicting opinions regarding the guardian breeds of Turkish origin. This confusion is further exacerbated by the fact that some countries have registrations for Anatolian Shepherds, Kangals, and Akbash, and others register them all as Anatolian Shepherds. Are these big, long legged, curly tailed, drop eared flock guards one breed, or three? I believe that the answer can be found by studying some of the research done on domestic breeds of animals by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

In determining which breeds of animals are most in need of conservation, the ALBC has needed to define precisely what characteristics and methods of selection constitute a "breed", as well as defining different categories of "breed" status.

From A Conservation Breeding Handbook, by D. Phillip Sponenberg and Carolyn J. Christman, (pub. by ALBC, 1995), pp.6-9:

"Types of breeds......

Landrace breeds - Landraces....are local populations of animals that are consistent enough to be considered breeds, but are more variable in appearance than are standardized breeds. They also lack the formal definition and organization that is typical of standardized breeds.....A combination of natural and human selection has shaped the evolution of landrace breeds. Natural selection and geographical isolation have created genetic consistency and adaptation to the local environment. Traits such as parasite and disease resistance, reproductive efficiency, and longevity have also resulted. Human selection is of somewhat less importance. In fact, human selection in one part of a landrace population may be counteracted by different human selection in another part. Color is one example. The Holt line of Piney Woods cattle is usually white park or colorsided roan with black ears, while the Conway line is red and white in various combinations. Both individual herds have lost some color variants (gaining uniformity of color in the process), but the landrace breed has not.

Landrace breeds generally lack the formal support of a breed association, and they survive as distinct populations due to geographical and cultural isolation. If communication among breeders increases, and a network of breeders is organized, the landrace may benefit by greater geographical distribution and more secure numerical status. This process can, however, result in selection for greater uniformity across the population and diminish the presence of some of the original variants. If, instead, there is careful cultivation of the diversity within breed parameters, the genetic integrity of the landrace is protected even as it becomes a standardized breed.

Standardized breeds - Historically, most livestock breeds began as landraces and then became standardized breeds. As breeders organized, they agreed upon a description (or "standard") of the breed and then began to select their animals towards this ideal. In practice, this means greater uniformity in behavior and performance. Genetic diversity may have been reduced, but predictability was gained....

Standardized breeds are what most people think of when they consider purebred livestock. Human selection has played the primary role in the development of standardized breeds, though natural selection has sometimes played a part as well. The breed standard defines the breed, and it is this criterion by which individual animals are evaluated. Breeding to a standard emphasizes a relatively narrow range of variation, usually less than the variation found in a landrace. Genetic isolation of the standardized breed is thus established by breeding practices rather than by the geographic or cultural isolation typical of landraces. For example, most standardized breeds limit inclusion to those animals with two registered parents.....Conservation of standardized breeds (as well as landraces) requires that the purity of the breed be protected from crossbreeding. The diversity within the breed’s genetic parameters must also be conserved. The two forces of predictability and variability tug against one another, and striking a balance between them is the goal of breed conservation.....A group of animals must breed true to a distinguishing type to be a true breed."

The book goes on to discuss industrial stocks (not found in dogs) and feral breeds, neither of which pertains to the issue here.

Based on the evidence of travelers, importers, breeders, and my own experience and research on the breed, my conclusion is that the reason for the confusion surrounding the Turkish livestock guardian dogs, from around the area of the Anatolian plateau, is that the Çoban Köpegi (the most basic description of the dogs from which the Anatolian Shepherd has been bred), is a landrace. Some types of animals, in the transition from landrace to breed, have more variation lost than others; some breeds have a standard that encompasses more variability and genetic diversity. For instance, the Shetland sheep, a breed that has recent ties to landrace origins, has a great deal of diversity in color, markings, and fleece types. This allows more adaptability in the breed, as well as preserving many unique and primitive traits.

Those dogs of the Turkish landrace exported to other countries and renamed "Anatolian Shepherd Dog" are now a breed by definition, being bred to a defined standard under human selection. This standard is written to preserve the breed’s strengths and allow for healthy diversity, while instituting some limits on variability. The Kangal and the Akbash are also breeds, by definition; animals being bred to a specific standard in order to encourage predictability of the offspring, and select for certain favorable traits. However, these breeds can all be seen as subsets of a larger group, the Turkish (or Anatolian) landrace of guardian dogs.

Until quite recently (during the last 5-25 years), there has often been interchange of genetic material between these sub-groups - the landrace, and the three budding breeds. In fact, some importation from Turkey is still being done. The Anatolian Shepherd breed retains the most characteristics of the type of origin, and the breeds of Kangal and Akbash are further restricted, in the limitation of their breeds to one color (and in the Kangal, one coat length as well). So, are these dogs the same, or different?

They have many similarities, and a few minor differences. These dogs are all of the same origin, and rather recently, at that. As a result of this, individuals of the type adhering to the norm for their standard are pretty much indistinguishable (without resorting to examination of registration papers). As with any breed, some dogs deviate to some extreme or other, and debates are full of people pointing fingers at non-typical dogs as examples. We may eventually see more divergence in the Anatolian, Kangal, and Akbash, but at this time, they are all very similar, with the Anatolian Shepherd being closest to the landrace, having the most diversity (not unlike Border collies, another breed selected primarily for performance). The Akbash has a bit less diversity, being restricted to one color, but allowing variations in coat length, and the Kangal has the least diversity, allowing only one coat color and length (similar to the Rottweiler breed).

What is the future for the Anatolian Shepherd and its cousins? It depends on whether the breeders and owners are responsible caretakers and are successful in adapting and promoting their chosen types. Those dogs who are healthy, good flockguards, pleasant companions, and whose breeders are careful in both placement and follow-up, will encourage people to beget others of their kind. There is evidence that genetic bottlenecks can result in a breed’s lower performance, increase in heritable problems being expressed, and to result in a lack of adaptability. The Anatolian Shepherd dog today is in an excellent position to take advantage of the healthy variation allowed by its standard, and to continue as a useful companion and working dog into the foreseeable future.

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