A Special Dog Story (written 9/27/22)
Most of the time, I like to keep these updates personal and close to home. But every once in a while, a program or a news item comes along that I feel it’s inappropriate not to share. So to kick off this series of autumn postings, I want to introduce you to the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project.
After our awesome weekend at the Topeka dog show, I lived in an odd state of euphoric depression. Even as I floated through the next couple of weeks with my metaphorical shoes about eighteen inches off the floor, and even as I reveled in our success and made excited plans for the future, I could feel shadows tugging at me.
For one thing, there is always a letdown after any dog show. All that anxiety and anticipation and adrenaline has to go somewhere. You’ve been planning and praying and working and training for weeks, and the show is done and over in about two days, and then for me, at least, everything just comes crashing down around me. It’s tricky returning to normal life.
For another thing, I hadn’t bargained on how tough it would be to settle back in with my geriatric dogs. My assumption had been that the good times with the younger dogs would translate to more patience and understanding toward my older dogs. But instead, the opposite was almost true. The triumphs with the young blood got me dredging up memories of the old guard and their glory days. How good it used to be, how good they used to be, etc. etc.
I was inching toward a dark place, and I wouldn’t let myself go there. So, as I always do in stressful moments, I turned to reading. A good book can pull me through anything. The one I had on hand was a docu-book called Birds of Heaven.
It was, of all things, a book about cranes. As in the really tall birds with the really long legs. Kind of pathetic, but it was all I had, and so, I read. But in the course of the narrative, an entire chapter was devoted to the cranes of Mongolia, and that changed everything.
Mongolia is a special country to me. I have been drawn to its horses, its herders, and its harsh topography for years. But I had never heard anything about its dogs, until reading this book.
The nomadic herding culture, still widely practiced across the steppes of Mongolia, doesn’t just rely on rugged ponies and shaggy livestock. With wolves being very prevalent throughout the region, it also relies on fierce livestock guardian dogs. These capable protectors travel with the herders and live with them and their sheep and goats 24/7. It has been estimated that the presence of guardian dogs in a group of livestock cuts predation losses by as much as 80 to 100 percent.
These are not the heavy-boned mastiffs from nearby Tibet. These are rangy, long-legged dogs with wiry, rough coats and lighter bone structure. They are called Bankhar dogs, and an ingenious program has been established to increase their numbers and restore them to the herders who have relied on them for centuries.
Under the brutal thumb of the Soviet Union, the nomadic way of life was restricted and repressed. Anything associated with the herding culture was belittled and eliminated, and this included the dogs. They and their people were rounded up and shut down. Many of the dogs were exterminated. Quite a few of them were turned into fur coats, worn by the wealthy city set of Moscow.
Later, another problem emerged. As the Tibetan mastiff became more and more popular in Chinese society, the Bankhar who were left interbred with them and began to lose their own distinct style and characteristics.
There are more politics in this story than I want to get into, but the bottom line is that the remaining Mongolian herders were losing their dogs. As a result, with no buffer against the predators, they were losing their livestock.
The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project was launched with the goal of saving the breed. Careful searching tracked down a few pure specimens, and males and females were paired up. The puppies are raised with sheep, monitored and evaluated, given veterinary care, and then placed with qualified herding families who will use them as working guardian dogs. Besides serving as very effective flock protectors, the dogs have also become a symbol of cultural pride to these ancient people, and many families have applied to received dogs as they become available.
To make things even better, quite a few wildlife conservation programs have partnered with the MBDP. Everything from snow leopards to the land itself are feeling the benefits, all thanks to one, special strain of dog.
My heart is totally behind projects like this one. Working dogs to help working people; a unique breed not found anywhere else which adds identity to a unique culture; both an ancient breed and an ancient way of life preserved.
There are lots of informational links and videos on the project’s website. I encourage you to check them out, and to share and spread the word! These dogs and their people both deserve a major steppe forward!
"Spork" - image from the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project website.