CAUCASIAN SHEPHERD 101! Everything You Need To Know About The CAUCASIAN SHEPHERD
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Where does the Caucasian Shepherd come from?
As the name suggests, the Caucasian Shepherd originates in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. With their origins dating back approximately two thousand years, their main task throughout the ages was to protect flocks of sheep from dangerous predators, such as wolves, bears, lynx, Caucasian leopards – and humans. Hence the name “Caucasian Ovcharka”, which literally means “Caucasian Sheepdog”.
These giant livestock guardians have not changed too much over the course of the centuries. It is said that their teeth are longer than usual in dogs their size – which is connected to the breed having such a long history. Researchers have found that the Caucasian Shepherd has influenced many other dog breeds and is closely related to the Asian Mastiffs and the sheepdogs of the Balkans.
Intrigued by their strength in body and spirit, as well as by their versatility, the Soviet Army started using Caucasian Shepherds in the 1900st, mainly as service dogs and as prisoner guard dogs.
And even though Caucasian Ovcharkas are among the most popular dogs in their native Russia, selective breeding only started in the 1920s. Ten years later, the first Caucasian Shepherds were presented on a dog show in Germany. In the late 1960s, the Ovcharka became very popular as border patrol dog in East Germany, especially along the Berlin Wall. After the Wall came down in 1989, most of the 7’000 Caucasian Shepherds who had been used as border patrol dogs were re-homed with families throughout Germany.
Since then, the popularity of this stunning breed has spread far beyond Europe, and today, Caucasian Shepherds live and work all over the world. Sometimes in their original function as livestock guardians, but also as personal protection and guard dogs.
What is their temperament like?
In terms of temperament, Caucasian Shepherds range somewhere between the more sedentary Mastiff breeds (like the Bullmastiff or the English Mastiff) and smaller livestock guardian breeds like the Rottweiler or the Swiss Mountain Dogs.
They love to play and run around for quite a bit - but are fairly settled and calm in the home. Owners report that Ovcharkas love to cuddle and spend time in the house, together with their family. In general, they are confident, even-tempered, and gentle with their owners.
Whilst loyal and devoted to their entire family, Caucasian Shepherds form the deepest bond with one single person. This will usually be the person who acts as their leader – who trains them, feeds them, and plays with them. Such a bond is developed early on in the Ovcharka’s life – pretty much right from the day you bring your puppy home.
Of course, being formidable working dogs, Caucasian Shepherd are always “on duty” – they regard guarding you and your home as their job. And they take their job extremely seriously: Ovcharkas can often be seen looking out the window, scanning the surroundings for any suspicious activity. And should they discover any such activity, they will quickly jump into action and explode in a barrage of growls and barks. No would-be intruder is likely to see one of those bear-like giants in full defense-mode - and risk breaking into your house.
Interestingly enough, this pronounced protective instinct appears to kick in at an early age: Whereas other breeds display natural guarding-behaviour not before reaching approximately 9 – 12 months of age, Ovcharkas start guarding their home and family already as young puppies. Aside from growling and barking in the face of a perceived threat, they typically put themselves between their owners and the threat. This behavioural pattern is typical for large livestock guardian breeds.
How intelligent and trainable are Caucasian Shepherds?
These marvellous Russian dogs are very intelligent and naturally apt in interpreting situations - and acting accordingly. We must not forget that Ovcharkas were tasked with guarding their flock in the remote mountainous regions of Russia – and quite often, in the absence of their owners. Left to their own devices, the dogs had to think and act independently. Which, at first glance, seems like a big minus when it comes to the Caucasian Shepherd’s trainability. In other words, they can appear fairly stubborn.
However, Ovcharkas are in fact quite willing to follow the guidance of a canine leader whom they respect and trust – be that leader another dog or a human. In fact, owners who offer their Caucasian Shepherd strong and consistent leadership claim that their dogs are very eager to please.
This apparent contradiction can be explained by, once again, looking at the Ovcharka in their original role as livestock guardians in the Russian Mountains: To effectively defend flocks of sheep from packs of wolves and even the odd bear, one single dog would not have been sufficient: There had to be a small pack of dogs on duty at any given time. All the dogs of such a pack absolutely would follow the direction of their leader, or what is commonly called, “the Alpha”.
So, in other words: YES, the Ovcharka is a highly intelligent and decently trainable dog, BUT you absolutely must establish clear, strong and consistent leadership for it to follow your guidance. Slacking on the training- or socialization front is not an option if you want to be an Ovcharka-owner: These dogs possess high levels of natural aggression and readiness to strike, should they come to the conclusion that their home or family is in danger.
If you have additional dogs in your household, they will extend that same level of protection to them. Say you take both your canine companions out for a walk, and someone else’s dog comes running over to play. An Ovcharka without proper guidance and socialisation might interpret the situation as an attack on its pack-member’s life, and strike. Which can mean the end of that other dog’s life, because remember: Ovcharkas can and do kill wolves! They are certainly equipped with the boldness, courage, and self-confidence to do so. As well, their physique makes them extremely capable fighters: Ovcharkas can reach up to 77 cm of height at the withers (that is approximately 30 inches) and weigh up to 80 kilos (which is 176 pounds).
Now, take a second and imagine what would happen if you own one of these giants, and your dog mis-interprets a friend coming over as a threat. Just take a second and picture 80 kilos of bold, self-confident, naturally courageous mountain dog - charging someone you love. A dog with sufficient mass and fur to make it nearly impervious to any pain you could cause it, trying to prize it off of its victim.
In other words: Without extremely high levels of leadership skills and expertise in canine behaviour on your part, you would be well advised to choose another breed.
Are Caucasian Shepherds healthy dogs?
In general, the Ovcharka is a robust and healthy dog – however, being a giant breed, they can suffer from hip and elbow dysplasia, cataracts as well as a breed-specific heart condition called pulmonic stenosis. To reduce the likelihood of these health issues in your puppy, make sure to choose a professional breeder, who utilizes genetic testing on their breeding stock.
Of course, as a giant breed, Ovcharkas are also prone to bloat. Therefore, it is important to never feed them right after walks or play sessions. The rule of thumb is: Do not exercise them for at least 60 minutes before, and after, mealtimes. As well, avoid feeding them large portions. Instead, feed your Caucausian Shepherd twice a day in smaller portions.
The life-expectancy of Ovcharkas usually ranges from 10 and 12 years.
Because the Russian Bear Dog is such a huge, massive breed, you want to make sure you provide them with a diet appropriate for giant breed dogs. As a balanced raw food diet has the highest nutritional content, this may well be the perfect solution. If possible, ensure that all products you give to your dog are sourced from organic farming. In case feeding raw is not an option for you - a high quality grain-free kibble is the second-best solution.
Ovcharka puppies grow extremely fast, which is yet another reason not to settle for any medium quality food. But also, it is very important to avoid any undue stress to their joints until they are at least 12 months old. So, avoid any kind of heavy impact from jumping up and down furniture, or from running up and down hill sides: This can cause severe health problems later in your dog’s life. For the same reasons, they should not run up and down flights of stairs during the first year of their lives.
How much exercise does the Ovcharka need?
The glorious Russian Bear Dog is a fairly low-energy breed who does not require an elaborate exercise-schedule to stay healthy and happy. That said, they still need at least one nice run off leash a day as well as playtimes. Also, they should be taken for at least one extended walk per day. To keep your dog safe at all times, it is advisable to keep them on leash whilst in public, and to ensure that your backyard is surrounded with a tall, secure fence.
Whilst Ovcharkas – when well-socialized – can play well with other dogs and even allow strangers to pet them, accidents can happen. If, for example, your Russian wolf killer gets attacked by another dog, and subsequently kills that other dog, you might find yourself in a tricky situation legally – at least if you did not have your dog on a leash. So, you want to protect your Ovcharka from the worst-case scenario of being put down - because it killed an attacking dog whilst playing in the park off leash.
What are their grooming requirements?
The beautiful, dense double-coat of the Caucasian Shepherd consists of an extremely dense, fluffy undercoat and a thick, coarse overcoat. In the neck-area, the fur is particularly long and thick, giving the appearance of a lion’s mane. This abundance of fur serves a double purpose: In their role as flock guardians, the thick pelt protects the Ovcharka from bite-injuries caused by predators. Their bear-like fur also allows the dogs to withstand the frosty Russian winters - with night-time temperatures around minus 20 degrees Celsius.
One thing the Caucasian Shepherd’s coats was not designed for, however, is easy grooming! To keep those extra-thick coats clean and tidy, these dogs require diligent brushing on a daily basis. And whilst giving them a good, long brush every day is sufficient for maintenance, it is advisable to take them to a professional groomer at least twice a year.
Keep in mind that – by and large - this breed does not like being touched by strangers. Therefore, you should acquaint your dog with their groomer at an early age, preferably before the dog reaches the 12 months-mark. The same applies to your vet and any other person whom you need to take care of your Caucasian Ovcharka on a regular basis.
The Caucasian Shepherd is one of the most powerful dog breeds on the planet – and has the character to match its massive physique: Courageous, fearless, naturally dominant, and extremely protective, Ovcharkas are the ultimate guardians.
At the same time, they are affectionate and devoted gentle giants in a home environment and can make superb family dogs. For them to fit into a family setting without posing a danger to themselves and their humans, they need to be extremely well socialized and trained. This training absolutely has to start at an early age.
These dogs are massive. They are also more than capable and willing to protect you, your family, and your property. Due to their potential for doing serious damage when not under strong leadership, they are ABSOLUTELY NOT suited for first-time owners. However, in the hands of an experienced owner - who is also, ideally, an expert leader of large, powerful guardian breeds -, Ovcharkas make remarkably loving companions. Raised and trained in a balanced way, they are quite wonderful to live with.
All in all, words cannot adequately describe all the stunning features of this truly magnificent Russian guardian breed.