South Russian Ovtcharka History
Historians and kinologists have different versions about the South Russian Ovcharka's breed origin. Some believe, South Russian Ovcharka is developed from pra-slavics - arias dogs. Those resided at South Russian Ovcharka place of origin at 4 millennium BC and used the original pre-historic bearded (“broudasti” in Russian) dogs as herd dogs and guard dogs. Those were described by L. P Sabaneev as 'Russian Shepherd' or 'Russian wolf-killers'. As arias moved west and north, and those tribes were named Slavic; the bearded dogs were referred as Russian Shepherds. Dogs were kept in quantity by Russian aristocracy. This is a Russian Native Breed, completely developed by 1790.
By another version, South Russian Ovcharkas originated from European herding dogs of the same hair type known as Austrian Shepherd. South Russian Ovcharka and European herding dogs of similar hair type look alike and have the same ancestors. Several herding dogs with long, woolly hair were imported to Russia from Europe. In Russian Imperial Law Books (XXVI volume, 1830) mentioned a special breed of dogs imported at 1797 from Spain with merino sheep. Those dogs were used for both herding and protection against predators, highly praised for their abilities. Law books recommended to breed these dogs. Russian scientists specializing at southern steppes before 1797, wrote that local sheep herds are protected by wolf-looking dogs and hounds.
Small Austrian shepherds were not suitable for Russian steppes. Sizable territory and natural merino sheep's instinct, keeping the herd together, excluded the need for small herding dogs. There only was the great need to protect from predators. So Austrians were crossbred with “tatar” shepherds (similar to Caucasian) and sight hounds, the most common breed in the Crimea area at that time. Offspring selected were large, aggressive, hardy.
So, arguments about the South Russian Ovcharka's ancestry are endless. However, there are facts nobody can argue with. SRO definitely have wolf as the direct ancestor. A South Russian Ovcharka skull is built almost identical to wolf’s with only slight differences, what could be explained by domestication.
Starting in 1797, flocks of sheep were transported from Spain to Russia for sale. These sheep had to be brought to the steppe so they were driven over land, all the way on foot; sometimes up to 2500 or 8000 sheep. Transports like these could take two years and were accompanied by shaggy haired sheepdogs. Once the sheep arrived in Russia most of them were brought to Askania Nova, a large area in Crimea. The small sheepdogs were crossed with local dogs such as the Tartar (Caucasian) Ovcharka, the Crimean Greyhound and the Hungarian Komondor, because there was a strong need for larger dogs which were suitable to guard and protect the herds against wolves and other predators. The ability to drive sheep wasn't as relevant anymore.
Askania Nova was the largest and best-known "sheep colony" in Russia. For a long time the breeding of SRO was in the hands of the Falz-Fein family that owned Askania Nova. By 1850 the SRO was already settled and widespread. Records show about 2000 Ovcharkas, permanently working, with 4 or 5 dogs for every 1000 sheep.
In the 1870s the South Russian Ovcharka reached its greatest numbers, after which a decline set in, due to steppe reclamation for agriculture, growing grains etc, and with a rather fast decline in the number of wolves, the need for dogs also reduced. When the Russian Revolution took place, Askania Nova was almost completely plundered and destroyed. Most of the dogs were killed or stolen, and many were shot because they did not accept new masters. Thanks to the famous biologist Prof. A. Brauner the SRO still exists. When he came to Askania Nova in 1923 he only found a few young Ovcharkas. With the help of military kennels, shepherds and other enthusiasts he collected them. In 1928, after the foundation of a state breeding center in Dzhankoi (Crimea), a successful resurrection of the breed took place. The number of dogs increased and they even found their way to other cities like Moscow. In 1930 there were some official Russian entries at a German dog show and in 1939 there was a special breed exhibition in Simferopol.
When WW II started, the main kennels including the one in Dzhankoi were fully destroyed. Only a few South Russian Ovcharkas were left in state kennels, in Crimea and in Moscow. In Leningrad just 5 South Russian Ovcharkas remained. To maintain some semblance of breed and bloodline, these pure-breds were crossed with dogs of SRO-type but unknown heritage. In 1947 the Komondor was used to acquire fresh blood; in the 70's another Komondor cross was made. South Russian Ovcharka numbers have once again decreased drastically in the last decades due to the bad economic situation in Russia and also by fashion. Lots of dogs died because of a lack of medication and food. Lots of people can't afford a South Russian Ovcharka; people who can want to have a fashionable breed of non-Russian origin. Recently some new clubs in and around Moscow are trying to popularize the South Russian Ovcharka in Russia. In 1994 100 South Russian Ovcharkas were entered in one Moscow show.