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This chapter's title refers to the "shepherd's dog" and not to the “sheepdog” in order to consider it in greater scope. We take shepherd’s dog to mean any working dog regardless of whether its owner is a shepherd or herdsman, while the concept of sheepdog would have a more restrictive meaning as it refers to the breed or breeds of dogs used to herd and look after flocks of sheep.

The shepherds themselves protected and drove the sheep in the past until they resorted to the help of dogs. They initially began to use them as a means to protect the flocks of sheep from dangerous animals, mainly wolves. The dogs therefore had to be strong and ferocious, such as mastiffs, capable of dealing with the attacks. They wore a collar with sharp iron spikes to protect them. As wolves began to be driven out by humans in the early 20th century, mastiffs and other catch dogs gradually became less useful. This meant a drop in numbers and their progressive replacement by smaller dogs with a new role. The latter, now known as sheepdogs, are mainly used to drive and herd the flock and are commonplace nowadays. In some shepherding areas, their introduction replaced the young shepherd boys whose work was more efficiently carried out by those dogs.

In the 1990s, wolves reappeared in some shepherding areas where they had not been seen for decades and the mastiff was reintroduced to defend the flocks.

The mastiff

The most common mastiff breed in the studied area, according to the information gathered in our surveys, was the Navarra or Pyrenean mastiff. It is a strong and muscular, well-proportioned large dog. It is loyal, docile and noble, yet brave and a good guardian when faced with strangers. The head is big, strong and quite long. Strong, wide skull, with a subconvex profile. Small, almond-shaped eyes, hazelnut in colour and preferably dark. Medium-sized triangular hanging ears. Strong and robust body, but the dog is flexible and agile. Strong and flexible tail, densely covered with soft long hair, forming a striking plume. Moderately long, thick and coarse coat. Mainly white in colour and always with well-defined head markings. Markings of the same colour as the head can sometimes be seen irregularly but clearly distributed over the body. Ears always marked. The most appreciated colour are as follows in order of preference: pure white or snow white with medium grey, deep golden, brown, black, silvery grey, light brown, sandy or mottled markings. Reddish markings or yellowish white main coat are not desirable. The minimum height is 77 cm for males and 72 cm for females, even though the ideal is that they stand at around 81 and 75 cm, respectively[1].

Introduction of the sheepdog

In many areas, the introduction of the sheepdog was relatively recently as it took place in the first half and in some areas as late as the middle of the 20th century. Those shepherds always explain that the use of dogs to work with the sheep was always unthinkable in those areas as it was thought that they would frighten them and it was only after their usefulness was established that they began to bring dogs in from other territories.

Types of sheepdogs

In the past, the situation found in Ezkio (G) was typical, where no pure breed sheepdogs were used and the majority of them were mixed-breeds. Even so, they worked really well.

With the passing of time, the mixed-breeds were gradually replaced by pedigrees, mainly the so-called Basque shepherd dog or euskal ardi-txakurra (also known as artzain-txakurra). This has two recognised varieties: iletsua and Gorbeakoa. The first can be found throughout the territory and its coat is golden and tawny, with long hair on its back and back legs, and its ears always hang close to its head. The second is found in the Gorbea area, its coat is fox red and its head is longer[2].

Nowadays, the so-called Basque Shepherd is most widely used, even though other breeds of dog are also worked, though to a lesser extent, including the small Pyrenean Shepherd dog, the gos d’atura catalá, the border collie, the collie, el labrit, the German Shepherd and mixed breeds. They are often widely confused[3].

Uses of the sheepdog

There has been the widespread belief among shepherds that dogs are less necessary in the uplands during the summer than in the valleys, as the ewes had to graze among animals belonging to different owners during the winter.

In the cases, the majority nowadays, that the shepherd has trained his dog to drive the flock, he has seen his daily work reduced considerably.

The shepherds of the Northern Basque Country explained that the training of the labrit begins when the dog is six months old. The first thing it has to be learn is to bark on command, then to heel alongside the shepherd and to go around when told to. The dog has to be called by its name and addressed using the formal you, zuka, except when the owner does not want to and uses the informal form, hika. If the dog makes a mistake, it is told off but never hit. It has to learn to obey its owner’s verbal commands[4].

  1. Taken from the official standard for the Pyrenean mastiff.
  2. Mariano GÓMEZ. Euskal Herriko bertako arrazak. Katalogo etnologikoa. Razas autóctonas vascas. Catálogo etnológico. Vitoria-Gasteiz: 1997, p. 35.
  3. Mariano GÓMEZ. “Perros de pastor en Bizkaia” in Bizkaiko Gaiak-Temas Vizcaínos. Nº 213 (1992) p. 9.
  4. Jean PEILLEN. “Lehenagoko artzaiñen jakitatia: arresen altxatzia, minak, eritarzünak” in Bulletin du Musée Basque. Nº 38 (1967) p. 161.