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The Croatian Sheepdog

The Croatian Sheepdog is a native Croatian breed and is descended from dogs which the Croats brought with them from their original native land into the region they occupy today, and which has been continually bred in Croatia, mostly in the fertile plains of Slavonia, since their arrival.

The Croatian Sheepdog is an alert, agile, keen and intelligent dog with enormous energy and with a strong need for human companionship. It is healthy, resistant to disease and not expensive to keep. It possesses a well developed herding instinct and is an excellent watchdog.

Appearance

This breed is of lower medium height and its base colour is always black. The short hairs on its somewhat fox-like head and legs are a characteristic of the breed. The remainder of the coat is longer, wavy or curly. Height at the withers in both sexes is between 16 to 21 inches and length exceeds the height by approximately 10%. Nowadays, some dogs are even taller, which is probably due to better nutrition and an easier life - they grow to their full genetic potential.

Traditionally, the tail is docked very short, but if undocked it is more or less curled over the dog’s back.

History of breed

According to written documents, the appearance of this breed has not changed greatly from the 14th century to the present day. Probably because it possesses an excellent hereditary instinct for working sheep and cattle, selection on the basis of usability was being carried out spontaneously, which has resulted also in the balance of its look.

The earliest written document about Croatian Sheepdogs, Canis pastoralis croaticus, found in the archives of the diocese of Djakovo by "father of the breed" - veterinarian Prof Dr Stjepan Romic - dates from 1374. In this document, Petar, Bishop of Djakovo, says, "The dog is about 18 inches high, with a medium-long black curly coat; the hair on the head is short; ears are pricked or semi-pricked, and it is very good for keeping flocks of all farm animals." He also mentions that the Croats brought the dog with them during the period of the Great Migrations, when migrating from their original homeland to Croatia in the 7th century.

Romic also found important information in the archives of the Djakovo diocese from the years 1719, 1737, 1742 and 1752. In all of these documents the description of the Croatian Sheepdog completely matches its appearance today, and in all of them the dog is named Canis pastoralis croaticus, or Croatian Sheepdog.

A systematic selection breeding programme was started by the same Prof Romic in 1935 with dogs on the territory of Djakovo. After 34 years of work the breed was finally recognised by the FCI in 1969.

The master of stock

The Croatian Sheepdog is a lithe, caring and modest shepherd’s dog, loyal to his master to the point of self-destruction, brave and fearless and a reliable sheepdog. It is the master of its sheep, often running on their backs in order to arrive as quickly as possible to the point needed for control. The breed also possesses an hereditary predisposition for working cattle. It is fearless in its approach, tames the beasts and brings back any that run away, obeying every order of the herdsman. Some farmers affirm that their Croatian Sheepdog knows and will single out every head of cattle by hearing its name. When driving cattle, this little dog throws itself with great courage at the most dangerous bull and forces it into obedience.

In the past, the dog was often used to drive herds of pigs to the oak woods in autumn, and, in one ancient document, it states that this versatile breed even herded horses from Djakovo’s stables. It is both a driving and gathering dog and, depending on background (show or working lines), its desire to work stock varies. Its approach to the flock may be closer and harder than some other breeds, but is very effective. It may grip but seldom causes any damage thereby. Nevertheless, it requires firm but sensitive handling and it is easy to overcome these aggressive tendencies through training.

The breed is very intense and may bark a lot during the early stages of training, but, with experience, it will usually only bark at the right time - mostly when working in yards. This dog usually obeys only one person and it takes time for a good older sheepdog to start working with a new master. If not socialised early, it can be wary of strangers.

The Croatian Sheepdog responds well to obedience training, but as a pet without any work it can became very noisy, even destructive. It is, however, a very docile breed and quickly comprehends its tasks, which it accomplishes with pleasure. At around 3 or 4 months the pup is usually taken to the flock. In most cases, beside an older dog, the pup learns its job and at around 6 months is useful for work.

In my experience, Croatian Sheepdog are mostly used to turn stock in the required direction, or to run stock out of a crop field, but they will also bring in runaways and help in yards with shedding and penning. On word or crook/hand signal, even just a head signal from the shepherd, the dog will carry out a task quickly and willingly.

It is always behind its master’s heels, waiting for the next move and often looks into its master’s eyes as it asks ” What’s next?” If there is nothing to do, it will lie beside its master or on the far side of the flock.

Nowadays, less and less Croatian Sheepdogs earn their keep by working with stock in native Slavonia, because many open plains are being replaced with crops, and stock is tied up in the barns. The future is not so bad, however, as the breed is settling in other parts of Croatia.