A few weeks ago, a friend by the name of Rohana Mayer took a trip to Armenia to gather DNA samples of the working LGDs native to there, also known as gamprs. Rohana is the head of the Armenian Gampr Club of America, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Armenian Gampr landrace. We were in contact through some of her trip, and I greatly enjoyed the updates she provided on the Armenian Gampr group on Facebook. Rohana has graciously agreed to allow me to post some of the pictures she took as well as to sit for an interview, which I will post soon.
First, some context.
Armenia is a small (approximately 30,000 square km, or roughly the size of Maryland in the US) landlocked country in Southwestern Asia, between Turkey and Azerbaijan to the west and east respectively and Georgia and Iran to the north and south.
Like other small countries in Europe, Armenia has struggled with retaining its autonomy over the centuries. External control and the effort of resisting that control left Armenia in never ending turmoil and culminated in a genocide of at least 1 million citizens between 1915 and 1922 by neighboring Turkey during the tail end of Ottoman rule. Between political unrest and set backs from natural disasters like the earthquake in 1988 that killed 25,000 and left hundreds of thousands more homeless, Armenia naturally became a nation of extreme resilience and creativity. Now independent, Armenians battle against internal corruption and a difficult economy that has left them with a high rate of poverty. Despite this, Armenia continues its’ long history of reinvention, ever striving to thrive out from under the shadow of the much larger and more influential countries nearby.
Nearly 60% of Armenia’s land base is devoted to agriculture, divided as 15.8% arable land, 1.9% permanent crops and 42% permanent pasture. The largest section of the Armenian labor force, at 39%, is in agriculture. This high level of permanent pasture land and weighted importance of agriculture in the economy translates into a very long history of pastoralism for Armenians. Forests make up a further 9% of the land, adding to the available area for grazing livestock. Transhumance, the ancient method of moving stock from low lands to higher pastures seasonally, is still practiced there today. Whether in more contained systems closer to urban centers, or found in more remote areas of this beautiful country, Armenian shepherds have long relied on the gampr dog to protect them and their livelihood.
The Armenian Gampr, like many dogs used for personal and livestock guardian work in different countries, are required to be defensively confrontational with intruders and predators while remaining soft and affectionate with their family. They must be large enough to be imposing and tough enough to follow through on their threats if need be, but not so big as to impede athleticism or be unthrifty. Being a true landrace even in modern times means that the gampr is an extremely rich well of genetic diversity. Furthermore, it means that the phenotypic expression of this diversity resists the development of a show-type or Kennel Club standard. There are still parameters to judge by, however, and some of the macro points are as follows (from the AGCA website):
“The breed evolved for a rigorous lifestyle requiring independent intelligence, strong survival instincts, reliable livestock guardianship, and a dependable, efficient physique.”
“Gamprs have been bred for function more than appearance. Any color is permissible, except merle, liver or blue, and blue eyes or eyes lacking dark eyeliner, and pink noses.”
“The thick coat of the gampr is excellent protection in all weather extremes. Typically, longer-haired dogs were from the snowy highlands, and shorter-haired dogs were from the lowlands. The outer hairs tend to be darker than the dense, downy undercoat. They shed their coat once or twice a year, in great amounts. Puppies often are born slightly darker than they grow to be as an adult.
Gamprs have strong, muscular bodies with large bone structure. It is often surprising how large their heads are when compared other modern ‘pet’ dogs.”rica
As the Armenian people have struggled for so long, so too have their beloved dogs. At various points in its’ history, the Armenian Gampr has been used to bolster non-working breeds outside their borders, as a part of fighting dog breeding, exported at high rates along with livestock, taken as the spoils of war, lost to inappropriate external expectations and wounded by inappropriate breeding practices both within and outside of the country’s bounds. True gamprs, those who structurally and temperamentally qualify as guardians, are worth a great deal to breeders and buyers alike.
This sets the backdrop for Rohana Mayer’s recent trip to western Armenia. Armed with buccal swabs and aided by a team of dedicated indigenous shepherds and breeders, she traveled through a third of the unpretentious country looking for examples of the gampr for DNA testing. Some dogs had inappropriate temperaments or were overly mixed, and still others showed the ravages of long term inbreeding (done in a misapplied effort to ensure purity). Perseverance of a high standard of behavior and morphology paid off, though, and Rohana managed to find some beautiful examples of working gamprs. I’ll leave you with some pictures of these dogs, as well as some links for further reading about the Armenian Gampr. Look for my interview with Rohana in an upcoming post. If you have any interest in aiding Rohana and the Armenian Gampr Club of America’s preservation project, please contact Rohana at firstname.lastname@example.org or me through this site.
Timeline of the last century in Armenia: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1108274.stm
“A Brief History of the Armenian Gampr” (AGCA): http://www.gampr.org/History.html
Overview of the history of the Armenian Gampr, with a slant towards registering a standard: http://www.tacentral.com/nature/fauna_story.asp?story_no=2