The Estrela Mountain Dog is part of a large family of livestock guardian dogs (LGD); from the Tibetan Mastiff in the East to the Pyrenean Mountain Dog – and possibly even the Navajo dog – in the west, the Caucasian Ovcharka in the North and the Aidi in the south. These dogs can be found all over Europe and Asia and other parts of the world as well.
Portugal itself has four distinct breeds of LGD; Castro Laboreiro and Cão de Gado Transmontano in the North, Serra da Estrela in the central West and the Rafeiro do Alentejo to the South of the Estrela.
Estrela Mountain Dog’s don’t ‘do’ their job, they are their job. It is a lifestyle and not a trained behaviour and therefore, Estrela Mountain Dog’s will:
It is your job as an owner to respect the dog’s innate desire to perform these actions whilst preventing them from becoming ‘problems’. You cannot expect to train an Estrela NOT to bark at all for example, to do so would be cruelty. Equally these behaviours can, be kept within acceptable boundaries (please see the pages on training) but before you acquire an Estrela you should seriously consider - do you really want a dog whose first response is often one of these three things? Can you provide an environment that allows him to express his instincts within reason? Please do contact me if you have any questions about this.
The LGD’s often fall foul to both the ‘nanny dog’ myth and the ‘well ‘ard dog’ myth. This is most likely for the following reasons: people meet the LGD and see a calm, intelligent ‘teddy’ that is ‘good with children’, but, without having any understanding of the lifestyle the dog requires, for it to establish and maintain that calm state (rather like people expecting Border Collies to be born ‘obedient’, without any appreciation of the training required). Or they see the LGD guarding, and are convinced by the dogs guarding display, that the LGD's are in fact a ‘hard’ dog. Actually the Estrela can be a sensitive breed that requires sympathetic handling.
To understand the mind of the Estrela, it is important to understand the life they were bred for and it helps to understand the evolution of the LGD.
We know that wolves and dog’s evolved from a common ancestor (current research suggests it seems unlikely that dog’s evolved from wolves, rather that each specialized but with some interbreeding) and this ancestor may have been a predator but was also a scavenger and that the dog was quite possibly domesticated in a number of places at a number of times! Some may have been kept for eating or beasts of burden. It is also possible that in some places whilst the wolf specialized into being an apex predator, the dog specialized in scavenging from humans and / or, found that their hunting for small animals and insects was more successful when they were around people and their livestock.
One theory suggests that as humans settled, the almost-dogs were faced with a problem. When they were opportunistic scavengers and hunters, food had been unpredictable, which meant they were unlikely to be challenged over food or, if they were, it was a case of ‘eat as much as you can before being forced to run’. Now that humans were making food predictable, challenges between packs and individuals, were becoming more common. If the almost-dog simply ran away every time he was challenged, he wouldn’t get to eat. He was in conflict between his old instincts to run away and avoid confrontation, and his new way of life that meant he needed to stay and protect his meal.
Howling encourages packing - or in this case 'mobbing' - which is useful in facing down a threat, so the internal conflict caused vocalization. But howling wouldn’t normally take place in the face of a threat and so the vocalization became broken by anxiety, more staccato, and evolved into an alarm signal – barking.
Another theory is that at this point dogs could still bark, like some other canids and it was wolves that lost the ability, not dogs that gained it.
Either way, as well as calling for back up, the bark had another advantage; combined with body language, it intimidated any rivals so the rivals would go elsewhere. Humans then recognised this as an advantage because predators were being driven away from their flocks, and so started to encourage the dogs by sharing their scraps with them.
Mobbing behaviour can be seen in wolves when they drive off larger predators from their kills. Livestock guardian dogs are even better at this because of their barking and posturing displays that they have evolved.
If you are thinking that the Estrela has not changed much since these original, stubborn barkers, you’d be right!
Humans would have created selection in three ways; 1) the dogs that were least afraid of (familiar) humans would get more food. 2) Humans would have killed or driven away any dogs that were a threat to them or their livestock. 3) The dogs most effective at discouraging predators would likely have been given preferential treatment with regard to food scraps.
Head to the Wakhi corridor or the steppes of Mongolia and you will still see shepherds and their dogs in communities living this lifestyles. For the Estrela Mountain Dog, the life style is slightly different in that dogs might well be expected to travel into towns and market places.
Herding, hunting, pointing, retrieving, sledding, baiting and personal protection work were all developed in dogs separately to and in most cases AFTER the Estrela was already the finished article. The Estrela is a piece of ancient history in our modern world of doggy play dates and games of fetch. This history must be respected so that unreasonable expectations are not put on the dog – or the owner!
The Estrela will never be a sycophant like some breeds, nor will he ever consider himself your slave. But if you can appreciate his qualities and take the right approach to his training and care, you will find yourself endlessly fascinated by his intelligence and intuition. When he gives you his respect and devotion - you will know you have truly earned it.