The East-European Shepherd is a breed of working dog developed in the Soviet Union. The result of Soviet desire to develop a breed of working dog capable of surviving the freezing temperatures of Russia, the East-European Shepherd was created by crossing German Shepherd Dogs and native Russian breeds, primarily Laika and Owtcharka-type dogs. Famed for its silent guarding, intimidating black coat, and very high level of protection drive, the East-European Shepherd was the preferred breed of the KGB. The East-European Shepherd is also known as the Byelorussian Shepherd, Belarusian Shepherd, Eastern European Shepherd, Byelorussian Owtcharka, Belarusian Owtcharka, East-European Owtcharka, Eastern European Owtcharka, Owczarek Wschodnioeuropejski, Vostochnoevropejskaya Ovcharka, and the VEO.
The history of the East-European Shepherd begins with World War I. In 1914, the heir to the Austrian Throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by the Serbian independence activist Gavrilo Princip, leading the Austro-Hungarian Empire to declare on Serbia. The Russian Empire, whose Slavic Tsars had long considered themselves to be the protectors of the Orthodox Slavs of the Balkans, subsequently declared war on Austria-Hungary. The German Empire declared war on Russia in order to protect its ally Austria, which led to a massive global conflagration which increasing numbers of countries joined. Prior to World War I, Russia was considered to be one of the most powerful empires on Earth, with a military which was thought to be one of the world’s best.
Although World War I is best remembered for the Western Front, which ended in a trench warfare fought stalemate, the Eastern Front quickly turned into a German rout. The forces of the Russian Empire were easily defeated by the German army, and the Tsar’s army was driven back hundreds of miles. Although the German army had many technological and organizational advantages, one that was most noticed by the Russians was German military dogs. Up until that point, the Russian military made very little use of dogs. Although the Russian Empire and its people made very extensive use of fierce hunting and livestock guarding dogs, most of the breeds available to them were not trainable enough be used effectively by a modern military. The German Empire, however, utilized a number of highly-trainable breeds including the Standard Schnauzer, Boxer, and Doberman Pinscher. The most impressive of these dogs by far was the German Shepherd Dog, developed in the late 1800’s by the renowned breeder Max Von Stephanitz. The versatile, driven, and highly skilled German Shepherd Dog proved to be of great use to the German military and greatly impressed the Kaiser’s foes. During the war, thousands of German military dogs traveled through the country now known as Belarus, which was under German occupation for much of the conflict. Local Belarusians became very enamored of these dogs and acquired a number of them during the war and its aftermath. They began to breed these dogs, although they did not keep them as pure as their German counterparts did.
During the War, German spies smuggled the banished communist fugitive Vladimir Lenin back into Russia in order to create chaos behind enemy lines. Lenin and his Bolshevik Revolution later took control on most of the former Russian Empire, founding the Soviet Union. Soviet Military leadership sought to develop new breeds of dog which would function as working animals for the new global power. As most of these men had recently fought against the Germans, they had been greatly impressed by the German Shepherd Dog. Unfortunately, the breed proved incapable of working in much of the Soviet Union. Although Germany gets very cold, especially in the mountains of Bavaria where the German Shepherd Dog’s ancestors were bred, nowhere in the country are there temperatures like those commonly found in regions such as Karelia, Siberia, Mongolia, or Kamchatka. Many German Shepherd Dogs either froze to death or became so cold that they could no longer do their jobs.
Despite the breed’s limitations, the German Shepherd Dog was well-established throughout those parts of the Soviet Union where it could survive by the end of the 1920’s. The breed was initially called the Byelorussian Owtcharka, or Belarusian Shepherd, due both to its popularity in Belarus and to avoid associating the breed with the much disliked Germans. In order to acclimatize the breed to Soviet weather, the Byelorussian Owtcharka was crossed with a number of other breeds, both Soviet and Foreign. Molosser/Mastiff-type dogs from across Europe were used to increase the breed’s size, power, and protective instincts. South Russian Owtcharkas and Central Asian Owtcharkas were used for the same reasons, but also to help the breed withstand the freezing winters of its new homeland. Various types of Laika likely including the East Siberian and West Siberian Laikas were the most preferred breed to use in these mixes. Not only are Laikas among the most cold-tolerant of any dog breeds, they are also quite similar to the German Shepherd Dog in terms of size, build, and wolf-like appearance. The Laikas also had the benefit of being virtually silent hunters, as Soviet’s preferred quiet guard dogs.
As devastating as World War I was for the Russian Empire and its people, World War II proved to be incalculably worse. Countless millions perished in the conflict, which saw incredibly heavy fighting between the Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Third Reich. The conflict did, however, have a tremendous effect on the development of the Byelorussian Owtcharka. Not only was there a massively renewed interest in developing new military dog breeds as a result of the conflict, but many thousands of new German Shepherd Dogs were captured by the Soviet military as trophies of war to be used in breeding efforts. State-sponsored breeding efforts were conducted in earnest, and the Soviet Military and the Secret Police (KGB) led them. The resulting dog was primarily descended from the German Shepherd Dog, but with very heavy influence from Laika and Owtcharka breeds, and smaller influence from other dogs. Soviet thinking held that large dogs were both more intimidating and cold tolerant than smaller ones, so the Belarusian Shepherd became larger than the German Shepherd Dog. Colder climates required longer and thicker coats, so those were fostered in the breed. Soviet’s preferred black dogs not only because they were thought to be scarier looking, but also because they blended in with the night allowing the KGB to conduct secretive night operations. Dogs which worked silently were also preferred, because it was more important for enemies, criminals, spies, and other undesirables to be captured and interrogated than scared away.
By the end of the 1940’s, development had largely concluded for the Belarusian Shepherd, which by that point was breeding true. No longer limited to Belarus, by that point the breed was commonly found throughout the Soviet Union. The breed became known as the Vostochnoevropejskaya Ovcharka, or East-European Shepherd in English, due to its more widespread distribution. By 1964, Cynologic Council of the Soviet Union, a division of the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture, published a formal breed standard for the East-European Shepherd and began keeping pedigrees.
The East-European Shepherd became one of the most commonly used working dogs in the Soviet Union, and also achieved some popularity as a private guard and working dog as well. The breed also established itself in a number of other Communist countries of Eastern Europe, although it was not as popular outside of Soviet borders. The popularity of the East-European Shepherd steadily rose until the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The fall of Communism greatly decreased the breed’s popularity. Much looser border restrictions allowed greater numbers of foreign dogs to enter the Soviet Union than ever before, many of which were seen as more desirable or better workers than the East-European Shepherd. In particular, the German Shepherd Dog saw a major resurgence in the region. Carefully bred by state run kennels, the East-European Shepherd began to be heavily crossed with other dogs. By the end of the first decade of the 20th Century, many fanciers believed that the East-European Shepherd was in serious trouble as a pure-bred dog.
Although the East-European Shepherd maintains a sizable population and widespread distribution, its numbers continue to fall every year. The breed continues to be used by the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian militaries, as well as those of several Central Asian republics, but it is not as ubiquitous as it once was. Although likely still more numerous than the South Russian Owtcharka, the East-European Shepherd is widely considered to be the most at-risk of the three Russian sheepdog breeds. Perhaps the greatest threat to the breed is the indifference of many fanciers. There is currently little organized effort being made to preserve the breed, especially in a pure-bred form. Although the immediate future of the East-European Shepherd is probably secure, the breed’s long-term survival is at serious risk unless more efforts are made to save it.
Part of the East-European Shepherd’s problem lie in the fact that the breed has yet to become established outside of former Soviet Countries. The fall of the Soviet Union has seen a number of Russian breeds become increasingly popular outside of their homeland including the Central Asian Owtcharka and the East Siberian Laika, the East-European Shepherd has not had the same success. A large part of the breed’s problems likely stem from the fact that it is incredibly similar to the German Shepherd Dog, which remains extremely popular around the world. It is unclear whether any East-European Shepherds have been imported to the United States, but if any have it is a very small number of individual dogs. Currently, the only major kennel club to grant full recognition to the East-European Shepherd is the Russian Kennel Club, although the breed is recognized by a number of rare breed registries in the United States such as the Dog Registry of America and the Continental Kennel Club.
The East-European Shepherd is nearly identical to the German Shepherd and would almost certainly be mistaken for that breed in the United States. There are a number of differences between the breeds than familiar experts can easily tell, however, including the larger size, thicker coat, and more limited range of colors found in the East-European Shepherd. Because some lines of East-European Shepherd have recently been crossed with other dogs, this breed exhibits greater variability in terms of appearance than many other purebred dogs.
The East-European Shepherd is a medium-large to large breed. Most males stand between 26 and 30 inches tall at the shoulder while most females stand between 24 and 28 inches. Taller dogs are greatly preferred by breeders and in the show ring and many examples stand taller than this range. Although weight is heavily influenced by height, gender, and condition, most breed members weigh between 70 and 130 pounds. This is a dog that is known for obesity, and many examples weigh substantially more than this average. The East-European Shepherd tends to be more heavily constructed than American German Shepherds, looking more like Czech and East German line dogs. However, this breed should always appear fit and muscular rather than stocky. Some East-European Shepherds have the sloping back found in most German Shepherds, but it is more common for them to have straight backs. The tail of the East-European Shepherd is long and generally held down with a curve.
The head and face of the East-European Shepherd are proportional to the size of the dog’s body, although they tend to be on the larger side. These features are virtually indistinguishable from those of the German Shepherd, even when viewed from up close. When viewed from above, the skull and muzzle form a wedge shape which narrows towards the tip of the muzzle. The muzzle and skull are more distinguished on some breed members than others, leaving some dogs with very pronounced stops and others with almost no stops at all. The muzzle itself is at least as long as the skull, and both quite wide and quite deep. The muzzle tapers substantially from base to end. The forehead of this breed should be slightly rounded and sloping. The ears of the East-European Shepherd are medium-in-size, pointed-at-the-tips, and turned forwards. These ears should always stand naturally erect like those of the German Shepherd. The eyes of the East-European Shepherd are medium-in-size, oval-in-shape, and may be amber, brown, or hazel in color. The overall expression of most breed members is serious, self-assured, and intimidating.
The East-European Shepherd has been bred to be primarily a black dog, and the vast majority of breed members are mainly black. Solid black dogs are very frequently seen, although most breed members also have light tan markings on the face, tail, belly, and legs, and sometimes on the sides, back, and neck as well. The East-European Shepherd is also found in solid blue, blue and tan, silver, sable, solid white, and agouti (gray and red). These colors are acceptable but greatly disfavored. The coat of the East-European Shepherd is slightly longer than that of most German Shepherd Dogs, but is substantially thicker. This denser and longer coat allows the breed to function in climates which would seriously impair or potentially kill German Shepherd Dogs.
The East European Shepherd has been bred almost exclusively as a working military and police dog, and has the temperament one would expect of such a breed. In general, the East-European Shepherd’s temperament is a combination of that of the German Shepherd Dog and Laika-type dogs.
This breed is very well-known for its loyalty and devotion. East-European Shepherds form an intensely close bond with their owners, a bond which is so intense that this breed can be nearly impossible to re-home. East-European Shepherds are very strongly one-person dogs. This breed tends to attach itself to a single individual, even when raised in a family setting, and ignore all others. Although this breed can be occasionally affectionate with its preferred person, it would not be described as fawning. Most fanciers do not recommend the East-European Shepherd as a family pet. This breed will usually not form close bonds with children (unless one becomes their single master), and often becomes intolerant of them. Although socialization will greatly help an East-European Shepherd adapt to children, this is not a breed that learns to play more gently with children than adults. Perhaps of greatest concern is the fact that East-European Shepherds will not tolerate rough play, and may snap if they feel that their limits have been exceeded.
The East-European Shepherd tends to be intensely suspicious of strangers. With proper training and socialization, this dog will usually not be openly aggressive with them, but it will always remain very aloof and distrustful in their presence. Without proper training and socialization, human aggression issues are very possible, including very severe ones. This is a breed that takes an extremely long time to warm up to a new person in their lives such as a spouse or roommate, and many never do even after years of living together. East-European Shepherds are extremely alert and highly protective, but they do not necessarily make the best watchdogs. This breed usually works in complete silence, and may not bark to let its owners know of the approach of a stranger. However, these dogs make excellent guard dogs that will unhesitatingly defend their territory to the death. Owners do have to be aware that this tends to be a bite first ask questions later guardian. East-European Shepherds also make peerless personal protection animals, and anyone attempting physical harm to their owners will have to go through a very determined, incredibly powerful, hundred pound dog to do so.
Bred to work alongside other dogs, most East-European Shepherds will get along fine with other dogs when properly trained and socialized. However, dog aggression issues are far from unheard of from this breed, even very severe ones. All forms of dog aggression have been identified in this breed, with same-sex, dominance, territorial, and possessiveness being the most common. The East-European Shepherd varies considerably when it comes to non-canine animal aggression. Some breed members are highly predatory and will attempt to attack virtually anything that moves, while others show next to no interest in doing so. Most breed members will be fine with individual pets such as cats which they have been properly trained and socialized with.
The East-European Shepherd is regarded as being a highly trainable breed, and has very successfully performed any complex task the Soviet military and KGB asked of it. This is one of the most intelligent of all dogs, and there is almost certainly nothing that any breed can learn that an East-European Shepherd cannot. However, this breed can be extremely challenging to train for novice owners. The East-European Shepherd is a very dominant breed, and it will absolutely not obey any commands by someone it considers lower than itself on the social totem pole. This means that owners must maintain a position of definite dominance at all times. Additionally, this breed will often completely ignore any commands given by someone other than its single person, creating difficulties in a family situation. Most expert trainers get extremely good results when working with this breed, although they consider this to be a very “hard” breed, to a much greater extent than even the “hardest” German Shepherd Dogs and Belgian Malinois.
Bred to work tirelessly for hours on end, the East-European Shepherd is a highly energetic breed. These dogs should receive a minimum of an hour of vigorous physical activity every day, although more would be much better. East-European Shepherds who are not provided proper outlets for their energy will almost surely develop behavioral problems such as extreme destructiveness, hyper activity, over excitability, house-breaking accidents, and aggression. This is a breed that not only requires physical activity but also craves mental stimulation for its keen mind. The East-European Shepherd is a breed that craves a job, and these dogs suffer greatly when not provided something to do such as herding, competitive obedience, or agility. Because of the East-European Shepherd’s high exercise requirements, most of these dogs adapt very poorly to apartment life and truly require homes with large yards (ideally with acreage).
The East-European Shepherd is a low maintenance breed. These dogs should never require professional grooming, only an occasional brushing. Bathing should be conducted as infrequently as possibly in order to preserve the dog’s natural skin oils. It is highly advisable for owners of these dogs to introduce their pets to regular maintenance procedures such as nail clipping and ear cleaning from as early an age and as carefully as possible since it is much easier to perform them on a willing 30 pound puppy than a resistant and scared 100 pound adult. East-European Shepherds do shed, and they usually shed incredibly heavily. If a list of dog breeds was made based on how much they shed, the East-European Shepherd would almost certainly rank close to the top. This breed will completely cover carpets, furniture, and clothing all year long, but becomes an incredibly intense shedder when the seasons change and it replaces its undercoat.
It does not appear that any health studies have been conducted dedicated to the East-European Shepherd, which makes it impossible to make any definitive statements on the breed’s health. The East-European Shepherd has a wider gene pool than most purebred dogs, and has also been bred almost exclusively as a working dog. This breed is generally considered to be in very good health, especially when compared to other modern pure-bred dogs, and most fanciers claim that it is very healthy. This does not mean that the East-European Shepherd is immune to genetically inherited health problems, only that it suffers from fewer of them and at lower rates than other breeds. Among those health problems which have been documented in the East-European Shepherd are hip dysplasia, Entropion, ectropion, bloat, and degenerative disc disease.
Because skeletal and visual problems are known to occur in this breed, it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring. It is highly advisable to request that breeders show any OFA and CERF documentation that they have on a puppy or its parents, which essentially all reputable breeders will have.
A full list of health problems which have been identified in East-European Shepherds would have to include: