FRIEND AND GUARD
The endless sands of the Karakum desert and a grazing flock of sheep. This is a scene that everyone living in Turkmenistan is well familiar with. Yet, on a closer look, one will see a big dog lying on the nearest hill or any other natural elevation as if resting and not noticing anything around.
However, this assumed imposingness is deceptive. Half-closed eyes carefully watch everything around and sensitive ears flinch and react to the smallest rustle of the desert, while large black nostrils barely move, scenting through various smells the once that may tell of an approaching stranger.
And then, be it a steppe lynx (caracal) or the desert's most dangerous predator such as wolf, the dog will fearlessly engage in a fight that will have only one victor. It simply cannot be otherwise, because the dog is instructed by his master to protect animals, property, his family and children.
One may ask, what is the breed of this dog? I am pleased to introduce it to you. Meet a Central Asian shepherd or Turkmen Alabay. The history of this breed dates back over four thousand years. There is a legend that the Tibetan mastiff, appearing first in China and then in Central Asia, began to interbreed with local dog breeds, thus producing the present day Alabay. Nobody knows for sure if this is really so, but the first written mention of the breed dates back to the 11th century.
Caucasian shepherd, Spanish mastiff, Italian maremma - all of them can be the closest relatives of Alabay. Dog breeders note not only the similarity of appearance but also the similarity of habits. It is possible that they descend from the individuals exported to Europe along with herds of livestock. There is also a notion that they descended from Alabay dogs that guarded caravans on the Great Silk Road.
Nowadays, the state authorities pay close attention to breeding the purebred Turkmen Alabay and preserving all the qualities inherent in this particular breed. In October 2019, by the Decree of President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, Turkmen Alabay dogs company was established to speed up the work on selection and breeding of the Central Asian shepherd dogs. A month earlier, at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, the head of state presented his new book on Turkmen Alabay. The book "Turkmen Alabay" is a summary of the huge amount of research and scientific material. It not only talks about the origin and development of the famous, one of the world oldest dog breeds, but also describes the cultural phenomenon of the Turkmen shepherd.
What is the modern Alabay like? What are the standards for this breed?
All who are familiar with these dogs note their beauty and masculinity, powerful physique, noble movements, confidence and calmness. Over centuries, Turkmen shepherds have conducted a kind of natural selection, leaving for themselves the most daring and brave dogs that proved to be victorious in battles. After all, the main task of Alabay is to protect the flock and drive away or ideally to bite to death any predator that dared to approach his master's property.
Everything matters here - foot placement, chest width, lung volume and strong neck. According to experts, Alabay should have a massive heavy head with a smooth junction between the forehead and muzzle, resembling the head of a polar bear.
Despite the formidable appearance, the Central Asian shepherd has a sensitive heart and ability to appreciate a caring attitude. If you make friends with Turkmen Alabay, you will not find a more devoted and loyal friend and guardian. Alabay is kind to children and often becomes a true "family member". Alabay has a very stable psyche and patience. Nevertheless, one should not make the dog angry. Alabay is quite capable of standing up for himself and his master. The dog easily adapts to new conditions and never barks to no purpose.
The coat of the Turkmen shepherd is coarse and straight, with a thick undercoat. The height at the withers should not be less than 65 cm, and some representatives of the breed may weigh up to 100 kg.
This breed of dogs has always been treated in a special way in the territory of modern Turkmenistan, and there is a lot of historical evidence of this, including the finds from Altyn-depe and Gonur-depe, such as terracotta figurines of dogs with cropped ears and tail, and the Alabay ritual burial found in Margiana in Mary province. There are images of huge dogs on one of the Parthian rhytons, horn-shaped drinking vessels from Old Nisa.
Shepherds know that a real Turkmen Alabay can feel on a subconscious level that one of the ewes in the herd gave birth to a lamb, and then the dog stays with her and a newborn lamb all night, protecting them from a possible attack. In the morning, the dog escorts them to the herd, fulfilling his ancient mission - to guard and protect - inherent in his genes for centuries and millennia.
The present day Alabay is one of the most popular dog breeds in the world, and it was Turkmenistan that preserved its original qualities and appearance to the greatest extent, despite the fact that many other countries have farms for breeding the Central Asian shepherd.
The Turkmen shepherd breeding standards were introduced back in 1976. They were refined and finalized in Turkmenistan in 1990 in accordance with modern standards.
Alabay is indeed the national pride of the Turkmen people. This is evidenced by the legends and traditions passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation, many of which are cited in the book "Turkmen Alabay." One of the Turkmen proverbs says, "a husband must be strong, cattle must be well fed and Alabay must be brave."
There are many examples of such a reverent and special attitude of Turkmens to Alabay, in which the dog shows all his best, one can say "human" qualities. It is a fact that even in difficult times Alabay continued protecting livestock, sharing hunger and deprivation with people, not for a moment leaving their "place of service".
So, how can one get to know better this amazing breed of dogs, where can we learn of such facts and information, many of which are missing from the Internet and not covered by newspapers and magazines? They can be learned only from a professional Alabay breeder, a person who puts his soul into selecting and rearing this breed.
I went to Dovletmurad Kurrikov, who was Chairman of "Turkmen Iti" cynological club until 2016. Since 2017, he has been the head of the Alabay breeding section of "Buisanch" club of Turkmen cynologists and working simultaneously as a chief judge in testing of Turkmen wolfhounds.
"No, no, common, I'm not a hereditary dog expert at all, Dovletmurad laughs. My parents never kept dogs. It was only at the age of ten, in my third schooling year, that I could not overlook two puppies yelping plaintively in a sewer hatch, and I saved them."
Fearing that his father would not allow keeping them, little Dovletmurad secretly fed them with leftovers of his meals that his grandfather quickly noticed. Following the conversation with the little boy, an old and wise yashuli promised to speak to Dovletmurad's father and kept his word. Puppies moved to his house yard, and one of them lived for a long time and became a real friend and a cause of pride for Dovletmurad, although the dog was not a purebred Alabay. This is how it all began.
I had many questions for Dovletmurad, and I asked him to start his story with the very first thing that a dog trainer faces when Alabay gives birth to offspring.
It turns out that the Central Asian shepherd can give birth up to 17 puppies, and all of them, as a rule, grow up healthy. When puppies turn five days old, their ears and tail would be normally docked. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the tail and ears are the most vulnerable places of any dog that may give an upper hand to an uninvited predator who comes to pick up a sheep from the flock. Secondly, short ears sharpen Alabay's hearing, and a docked tail does not hamper Alabay's scent, as many dogs instinctively cover their nose with a tail in their sleep.
At the age of two months, a puppy should have all the necessary complex vaccinations, as their teeth change and the subsequent loss of calcium in the dog's body leads to a temporary stasis. From about four to six-seven months, a young dog practically stops growing. Then, until the age of eleven months, a dog grows every day at a fast pace and, by about two years of age, it is considered fully formed and matured to both reproduce offspring and participate in testing.
This is worth a closer look. We already know that the main task of Alabay is to guard and protect. These are the main qualities of the real Central Asian shepherd. Dogs that cannot repulse a two- or four-legged adversary are not considered the real Alabay and, whatever their titles, they are usually not involved in breeding.
The qualities of the Central Asian shepherd are checked through dogfights organized in the places of their original breeding. Fights are conducted according to clear rules, excluding injuries and especially the death of dogs. Such events are called "Alabay Testing."
"We test our shepherd dogs for their character, spirit of the breed and physical qualities, Dovletmurad Kurrikov said. Through such tests, we, as connoisseurs and supporters of these dogs, choose best of the best. There is a kind of selection to improve the pedigree qualities."
So, what are the criteria for selection? There are only four of them. A testing jury picks up those dogs who grab the opponents' head area exclusively with their teeth, which is correct for Alabay behavior in the fight. Moreover, a real wolfhound should not ease his grip early. A grip on the throat is preferable, as it is the most vulnerable part of the body of most wild predators. Wolves that inhabit the desert regions of Turkmenistan are no exception. And, finally, a competent jury carefully observes if Alabay can flunk his opponent on its side and, in no case, on its back. Otherwise, a frightened beast's claws can cause serious injury to the dog's abdomen.
Testing is considered passed only by those representatives of the breed who are least sensitive to pain and not inclined to give up, those who always pursue the victorious end. Such Alabay dogs form the foundation of the unique gene pool.
According to Dovletmurad, he has raised many worthy representatives of the breed in recent years. His dogs often participate in various exhibitions and competitions abroad, in particular in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, winning prizes and becoming champions in their categories.
To achieve all this, Alabay just needs to exercise daily, proper care and nutrition. With this approach, a Turkmen shepherd lives 12-14 years on average.
Dovletmurad now keeps fifteen (!) Alabay dogs. All of them are impressive representatives of this amazing and unique Turkmen breed of dogs. Leaving his hospitable house, I, who was born and lived my whole life in Turkmenistan, caught myself thinking that I had looked anew at the breed of dogs so familiar to me from childhood and that, to be honest, I really fell in love with them. It could not have been otherwise, because Turkmen Alabay is not just a breed of dogs, it is a powerful layer in the history of the Turkmen people, part of its original and unique culture.