Diversity of Conformation and Temperament in the Akbash Dog, a Landrace Breed

by Orysia Dawydiak

One of more interesting features of a rare breed like the Akbash Dog is the diversity of type. In fact, we can refer to Akbash Dogs as a landrace rather than a highly standardized breed. What this means is that Akbash Dogs exhibit more variety in physical features and temperaments than many other breeds. A breed standard has been established so we can define an Akbash Dog and differentiate this breed from others, but a greater degree of variation in type is accepted. In fact, some deviation is desirable, because it reflects a broader genetic base that provides useful traits to select from and combine in our breeding programs. A breed that is extremely uniform, sometimes referred to as ‘cookie-cutter’ dogs, results from a very narrow genetic base and can lead to serious problems as inbreeding continues to fix or ‘concentrate’ those traits. Highly inbred dogs tend to be less robust and are riddled with more health problems than dogs with a more varied genetic makeup. Mutts, at the other end of the range, may have more genetic diversity, but they are only healthy if they inherited good genes from their parents.

Variations in Conformation

In this article I’d like to describe the variations in both conformation and temperament that we find in Akbash Dogs in North America today, and discuss how such diversity relates to their function. We’ll look at conformation first because this is what most people notice right away when they see this spectacularly beautiful breed. Akbash Dogs are tall, elegant, all-white dogs typically weighing between 75 and 125 pounds. They are slightly longer than they are tall. They can be smooth or rough coated, with shorter or longer hair.

Based on their appearance and DNA research, Akbash Dogs display evidence of both gazehound and mastiff ancestry. As a result, we have dogs that can resemble either extreme, or show varying combinations of the two types. The gazehound variety has a narrower skull, longer face, is often narrower through the chest, has a high tuck-up in the waist and appears longer-legged and more refined. This type seems to suit bitches better than males since it gives a more feminine appearance overall. If the coat is smooth, laying flat along the body, the gazehound appearance is further reinforced. If the coat is long and rough, it will soften and thicken the outline and the head may appear out of balance with the body. Think of a modern collie with the refined head on a thick, heavily coated body.

The opposite type is the mastiff. The head is much more coarse, broad across the skull, wider through the muzzle, with more dewlap, possibly sagging eyelids. There is a less pronounced tuck up or none at all, they appear to be heavier in bone and perhaps not as leggy. To those unfamiliar with the breed, this type of dog can be confused with a very large, pale blonde Labrador retriever or perhaps a cross with a Lab and Great Dane. The tail is usually a giveaway since it tends to be curled over the back when alert, or in some dogs, curled permanently, not a retriever trait at all. The long-haired mastiff type may resemble the Great Pyrenees or Polish Tatra. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate long-haired Akbash Dogs from the other white livestock protection breeds such as Maremma. The smooth-coated types are most distinctive and are usually preferred in warmer climates.

Other features that offer variety within the breed are tails, feet, leg angulation, coat, pigmentation and height. Tails can vary from double curls to single curls to a sickle or very loose curve over the back. They can be long, hanging well below the hocks, or shorter to just above the hocks. They tend to be uncurled when the dog is relaxed, although some dogs have permanent curls.

Feet can be large and broad (hare foot) to small and compact (cat foot). Rear legs can be nearly straight up and down will little angulation (post-legged) to well angulated at the stifle, though not usually as exaggerated as we see in German Shepherd dogs. To date there has been no correlation between leg conformation and hip dysplasia, although there may be some additional stress on cruciate ligaments in dogs with little angulation.

Coats may be long, slightly wavy and bushy, or shorter and still bushy, or smooth, laying flat along the dog’s body. Long-haired dogs have more back leg and tail feathering and a larger mane around the neck. In the summer long-haired dogs may appear to be short haired after they have shed. Every combination of coat length and bushiness has been observed.

Pigmentation is often a source of much discussion because it is so visible, especially against the white coat. Dark pigmentation is considered ideal. In addition to its esthetic appeal, black skin offers better protection against sunburn, especially in hotter climates or at higher elevations. However, Akbash Dogs display a wide range of pigmentation, from all pink noses and lips, through spotting, to solid dark coloration. Beneath the coat there is also a wide range of skin pigmentation, with dark skin being considered desirable. Eyes can range from golden yellow to dark brown. Occasionally there are multi-colored eyes with the iris rimmed in a different color from the interior. Blue eyes are considered a fault, likely due to the link between blue eyes and deafness in certain breeds and species. Although blue eyes are rare, there does not seem to be any correlation with hearing ability in the Akbash Dog. The two deaf dogs on record both have brown eyes.

Perhaps even more controversial than degree of pigmentation is height. This trait is often focused on because of it’s visibility. People tend to be impressed with extremes in size and height. No question that Akbash Dogs are a tall breed, however, they are not meant to be as tall as Great Danes or Irish Wolfhounds. In their native country Turkey they are not particularly tall, averaging only 26 inches for bitches and 28.5 inches for males. In North America, with improved health care and nutrition, the average jumps to just under 28 inches for bitches and under 30 inches for males. There are individuals and lines of dogs that exceed these heights, but they are the exceptions. A breeder could select for extremely tall or indeed very short Akbash Dogs, and produce a more consistent height. However, whenever any extremes in ranges are selected for, there is a greater probability that other traits will suffer.

For the same reasons, highly refined heads or overly coarse heads are considered undesirable. Still, there is room for a variety of shapes and it is preferable that the head match the body when these traits are expressed. It is already apparent that some breeders prefer and produce certain types of Akbash Dogs. They become the ‘trademark’ of particular lines and breeders. Other breeders enjoy maintaining diversity in conformation or a perfect blend of the two extremes. Either way, the appearance is not nearly as important as the temperament in defining the function and success of this breed in the working or companion arenas.

Variations in Temperament

The breed standard defines the ideal temperament of an Akbash Dog as being intelligent, courageous, independent and loyal with a strong maternal instinct toward any animals in its charge. The latter trait distinguishes this breed from most other non-livestock guardian breeds. Over the years we have learned that many Akbash Dogs come short of the ideal temperament. Even breeders often do not recognize unstable dogs, especially when they live in a protected, non-challenging environment. What then constitutes a poor temperament?

The breed standard lists the non-ideal temperament as cowardly or inappropriately aggressive. From the genetic standpoint, these two traits are linked. Most dogs that are inappropriately aggressive are cowards. They are defensive biters, attacking in the belief that they are protecting themselves. These dogs lack self confidence. Some people call them shy or fearful, or shy-sharp.

All guard dogs display some degree of suspicion about anything new or unusual in their environment. They alert to new stimuli. How they react further is determined by their genetic makeup and their experience. A pup can be expected to be somewhat cautious and even fearful of anything new. An older dog should have learned what can be ignored as non-threatening, what needs to be investigated further, and what needs to be actively defended against. A dog with an overly sensitive temperament will react inappropriately to non-threatening stimuli. This type of dog does best in a stable, non-challenging environment. When threatened, the fearful dog will either run off, possibly barking as he does so, or may bite, especially in close quarters or when the intruder turns away and breaks eye contact.

There are also so-called ‘dominant’ dogs who may feel particularly threatened when stared at or pushed around by individuals they consider beneath them in hierarchical order. It is believed that this dominance is learned because the dog’s handlers have not maintained their positions as leaders over the dog. This seems to be the default condition of many Akbash Dogs which means that they naturally gravitate to the top of the pecking order if there is a vacuum. It also suggests a genetic component to this trait. This is why Akbash Dogs are not recommended for first-time dog owners, or owners who are ineffectual leaders or disciplinarians.

All Akbash Dog pups should be well socialized, even those guarding livestock. Why? Because whether they are the insecure, shy type or the dominant type, or your confident, people-submissive type, there will be occasions in the dog’s life where they must be handled by their owners or strangers, and these people should be able to do this safely without trauma or stress to the dog. All Akbash Dogs are born with some sense of suspicion of the unknown, and they must be taught very early on what is routine, who is trustworthy, and what is out of the ordinary and must be guarded against. Some of this happens with maturation, but much of it must be guided by their owners because dogs live in our artificially created worlds of domesticated herds, fences, neighbors and a host of dangers like traffic, traps, guns and poisons. The confidence that comes with maturity can be nurtured or destroyed by how we raise our dogs.

What we cannot teach an Akbash Dog is true intelligence and bravery. Whether a dog will stand up and face down a pack of wolves or a lone bear, using his natural wits and courage to keep his flock and himself safe from harm, is something he is born with. These are the traits that are most valued in this fine working breed, and must be preserved above all else. This is why our breed club is so concerned about recognition of Akbash Dogs and the effects of breeders selecting for the show ring on the basis of conformation alone. An Akbash Dog raised in a kennel or a companion home cannot have his temperament properly assessed for intelligence and courage, two vital traits that make this breed stand out in the world of exceptional livestock guarding dogs. The dilution of these traits would not necessarily come about in a generation or two or even three, but it would happen over time.

The Future

At the moment we have a wide spectrum of physical types and temperaments in Akbash Dogs. This is, in my opinion, an attribute of the breed, not a problem. Breeders must be knowledgeable and diligent in only breeding the most stable, confident and physically sound dogs to preserve the working ability of this breed. Today we can only test for a few physical traits, such as hip and elbow dysplasia, retinal atrophy and deafness. The only way to test for truly stable temperament is to maintain working environments where dogs can prove themselves. Then, only the proven working dogs with sound conformation should be bred. If we focus on the function of this fine, ancient breed, rest will fall into place.