This Betrayed, but Faithful, Companion of Man
The shaman’s hymn reflects everything precisely, namely, the dog’s role, its typical behavior, and its appearance: a splendid shaggy tail, velvety hair usually black, with a white collar and front (in the original, ‘Bay dog’– ‘kaldar’ – means white spots on a black background), flocks of hair behind the ears that turn into thick felt (‘the earrings’). It can only be added that the Tuvinian dogs have hanging ears closely pressed to the head. When some European dogs with standing ears were brought to Tuva, probably by Soviet military men, the local people were surprised. They pointed at them and said, “Look: that dog has ears like a horse!”
A Tuvinian shepherd dog, from an ancient breed of dogs, has been found in central Asia
“… You are faithful to your master.
You lie on the doorstep, standing guard over the yurt.
You, dog, a faithful keeper of the camp of nomads,
Are on guard over the herd of domestic cattle.
You lie low in hiding where a wolf could approach by path.
Once you perceive a rustle, you nod your head and bark.
You lie there soundly, blocking the way of misfortune with your body …
The shaggy nest of your tail stands in magnificent splendor,
The earrings in your ears are marvelous and good to look at.
Bay dog, your hair is dark and velvety.
I am searching for your soul and calling your soul, leading my song of algyshi.
I am standing and singing, summoning the dog’s soul by my algyshi.”
(From the collection of shaman’s hymns, compiled and translated by M. Kenni-Lopsan)
It is common knowledge that the destruction of the habitat by Man has caused great damage to biological diversity. Up to 25 thousand species of higher plants and more than one thousand vertebrates are assumed to have disappeared from the Earth’s surface during the last century. The process of the reduction of biological diversity is not limited to natural flora and fauna. According to expert estimates, three species of domestic animals disappear every other week in the world. In Russia, 35 % out of 63 registered breeds of cattle and horses were considered endangered a mere decade ago; nowadays many of them are not in existence any more.
To discover an indigenous breed that by some miracle has survived in these conditions, and which has not been described, would seem incredible.
So you can imagine our astonishment at having encountered dogs of an unknown breed, or, to be more precise, a breed group or indigenous population in the mountainous areas of Tuva that have difficult access. Since this encounter evoked our interest, we set about gathering information on the Tuvinian dog. Since it appeared that a literally numbered amount of this breed of animals has been preserved to the present day, we did everything we could to preserve its gene pool. We created a breeding nursery, Mongun –Taiga, at our Institute in Moscow in the hopes of returning the Tuvinian shepherd dog to its natural habitat, provided the conditions in Tuva prove to be suitable, and some enthusiasts volunteer their help.
How could it have happened that an animal sung of in sacred hymns, a patrol dog, without which a shepherd’s life would be inconceivable became all of a sudden of no use to anyone and disappeared from the Tuvinian settlements?
“…The dog is bold, massive, and strong. It is noted by its proportional frame. It is highly active and capable of great endurance. Cleanly and unpretentious, the dog is well adapted to abrupt changes in temperature, from fifty degrees below zero C in winter to forty degrees above in summer. It is not accustomed to coming into the yurt. Cubs appear in the winter period and live either in snow pits or in earth holes. In character the dog is firm, calm, but distrustful of strangers. With respect to its master, the dog is unobtrusive. The dog is sure of itself, it is independent in a calm way. In its indigenous areas of habitat it was used in guarding the yurt and the herds against wolves. On the guarded territory, the dog is constantly watching and monitoring all movement; in peaceful conditions the dog relaxes easily.”
(From the scientific report on the expedition to Tuva by the team of the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics of RAS)
At this point it is time to interrupt our lesson in natural science with a lesson in history. Up to 1944 Tuva was an independent state though it was under the influence of the USSR. The Tuvinians kept on leading their traditional nomadic way of life and engaged mainly in cattle breeding. In the 1950s, there began a forcible resettlement of cattle-breeders into settlements. Each shepherd’s family had several dogs that tended the cattle, guarded the territory around the yurta, a nomad’s tent. It was not possible to gather all the dogs into the settlements; so some were left in the former camps, or else were shot. Despite this, up until the 1980s, there were numerous Tuvinian shepherd dogs. The fact that they have almost disappeared by now can be accounted for by several reasons. The first and foremost is indifference. We have not met a single amateur who would be interested in deliberately breeding the Tuvinian shepherd dogs. Yet another reason is that poison was deposited in different places against wolves, whose numbers have greatly increased in the absence of dogs (incidentally, during one of our trips, some local residents showed us a Tuvinian shepherd dog who had a clash with a wolf and tore it to pieces).
Dogs arrived together with ancient tribes that came to North America from Siberia via Beringia (part of the mainland in the place which is now the Bering Strait). It is difficult to say whether they were already domesticated or half savage. In any case this data is of indisputable interest. Archeologists found some bones of large mastiff-like dogs in Central Asia whose age was stated at about two thousand years. It may well be that “Tuvinian Moskovites”, Dozara and Kosh, are descendants of those helpmates of man of the distant past.
It would be very sad to lose the shepherd dog of the Altai-Sayan region irretrievably. Each breed of domestic animals not only possesses a unique gene pool that ensures its adaptability to sometimes difficult habitat conditions, but also is part of the culture. Local breeds are a live cultural heritage, living roots of the traditional household management of our ancestors. Their images nurtured folklore and still continue to be an expression of the people’s spirit, of its aesthetic partiality and disposition. Considering all this, it is clear that local breeds of domestic animals deserve careful attention to the same extent as other – material and spiritual monuments of olden times.
The Tuvinian shepherd dog was shown at the 2001 exhibition in Moscow as a new breed and was thereafter repeatedly shown at exhibitions of the Union of Cynological Organizations of Russia. Five of the dogs were rated ‘excellent’. A five-year old male dog, named Mugur, from the Mongun-Taiginskii district, was nominated the champion of Russia.
“… As a child I lived in the city, but every summer my parents used to take me to my mother’s relatives in Tes-Khem. We lived at my grandmother’s at a summer herder’s camp. I can recollect flocks of sheep, goats, and the dogs scurrying around the yurt. Among the dogs of different color that barked furiously, one was notable, a big-sized black dog named Kostuk. He had red-haired paws and reddish spots on his brows that made him look like a four-eyed clever boy. He was notable not only by his size, but also by his friendliness towards the members of the family.
I would sit on the grass in front of the dog and say in Russian, “Hello! Give me your paw!” Kostuk would smile in a dog fashion, stretching his mouth all the way to his ears, and hanging out his tongue, and would greet me willingly. He would extend his big, dirty paw, from which crumbs of dry manure would fall. He was ready to do it as often as once a minute, his moist, damp black eyes shyly blinking. My grandmother would look out of the doorway of the yurt, nod her head and say in Tuvinian with a smile, “Even the dogs in this place have started speaking in Russian! Well, I never!” Now I am sitting again in front of the dog of my childhood and am holding in my hand his big paw. Only now we are far from Tuva, in a Moscow apartment in Novo-Peredelkino, in the family of biologists Sergei and Svetlana Kashtanov, researchers at the Institute of General Genetics of the Russian Academy of Science …”
Almost all the dogs brought from Tuva live with families; their owners note their exceptional watchdog characteristics, unpretentiousness, unobtrusiveness, steady state of mind, and non-aggressiveness with respect to people and dogs outside the guarded territory.
Is there any future for the Tuvinian shepherd dog? We believe that there is. The experience of keeping dogs of that breed in the Moscow region has shown that this breed of dog is an excellent watchdog for guarding cottages and dachas. Besides, the Tuvinian shepherd dog differs greatly from other related breeds in its outward appearance and cannot but attract the attention of amateur dog-breeders by its charming exterior. Finally, a large portion of the population in its homeland, Tuva, is engaged and will be engaged in cattle breeding, which means that shepherd-patrol dogs well adapted to local conditions will always be in demand there.
The difficulties of access to the mountainous regions where the aboriginal dogs have still been preserved, as well as the complexity of transporting them to Moscow, hamper the task of saving the Tuvinian shepherd dogs in our dog nursery. But despite all this, and despite financial shortages, we nevertheless have managed, through people’s enthusiasm, to restore this magnificent breed of dog, which is as faithful to people as always. In doing so, the list of loss to cultural biodiversity will be reduced a little bit. And the world will become a bit more harmonious place.