The Estrela Mountain Dog is a breed of livestock and property guarding dog native to the Serra de Estrela Mountains of central Portugal. The Estrela Mountain Dog is famous for its great power and protective instincts. Almost certainly the most popular of Portugal’s native livestock guarding breeds, the Estrela Mountain Dog has become increasingly popular as a show dog and companion animal around the world. The Estrela Mountain Dog is also known as the Portuguese Estrela Mountain Dog, Cao de Serra Estrela, and Cao Serra Estrela.
As is the case with most Portuguese breeds, the ancestry of the Estrela Mountain Dog is shrouded in mystery. This dog was developed centuries before written records were kept of dog breeding, and in any case the breed was owned almost exclusively by poor farmers in one of the remotest regions of Western Europe. All that is known for sure is that the Estrela Mountain Dog is one of the oldest breeds native to the Iberian Peninsula, that it has likely been present in its homeland since at least the end of the Roman Empire, and that it has always been found primarily in the Estrela Mountains of central Portugal.
There are three major competing theories as to how the Estrela Mountain Dog first arrived in Portugal. One group holds that the dog’s first ancestors arrived with the very first Iberian farmers. Agriculture originated in the Middle East around 14,000 years ago, and progressively spread westwards across Europe. The earliest farmers are known to have possessed massive livestock guarding dogs which they used to protect their herds from wolves, bears, and other predators. Based on surviving breeds, it is thought that these ancient dogs were long-coated and primarily white in coloration. Now commonly referred to as Lupomolossoids, surviving examples of these breeds include the Great Pyrenees and Hungarian Kuvasz. Although the Estrela Mountain Dog does not possess the typical coloration of a Lupomolossoid, the breed is very similar to this group in all other aspects including its protective nature, longish coat, and comparatively long, wolf-like muzzle. If the Estrela Mountain Dog is in fact a Lupomolossoid, its ancestors may have been present in Portugal for more than 8,000 years. Unfortunately, essentially no evidence has survived from this ancient time, meaning this theory is virtually impossible to confirm or deny.
The two other major theories regarding the ancestry of the Estrela Mountain Dog hold that it was first introduced to the region during the Roman Era. The Romans were perhaps the greatest dog breeders of the Ancient World, and specialized in livestock and property guarding dogs. The Romans kept a number of breeds devoted to the purpose, including the Molossus (the primary war dog of the Greek and Roman armies), the Roman Cattle Droving Dog (which may or may not have been a variety of the Molossus), and the Pugnaces Britanniae, the gargantuan war dog of the Celtic tribes of Britain which has been alternately identified as either the English Mastiff or the Irish Wolfhound. The Romans ruled what is now Portugal for many centuries and had a long-lasting and major influence on its culture and history. It is almost certain that the Romans did introduce their dogs to Portugal, which is the basis for a Roman origin theory. However, there is substantial dispute as to the nature of Roman guarding breeds. Some claim that they were Mastiff-type dogs while others believe that they were actually more similar to the Sarplaninac of the Balkans or the Cur-type dogs of the United States. Judging by the modern day appearance of the Estrela Mountain Dog, it is probably not descended from Mastiffs, but a Roman origin is much more likely if the Roman dogs were of either the Sarplaninac or Cur types.
Some have theorized that the Estrela Mountain Dog first arrived in Portugal during the final years of the Roman Empire. Proponents of this theory claim that the breed is descended from war dogs kept by the Germanic and Caucasian tribes which conquered and settled in Iberia, specifically the Vandals, Visigoths, and Alans. Although there is not much evidence to suggest that the Vandals or Visigoths kept war dogs, the Alans are known to have kept a massive war dog known to history as the Alaunt. Almost certainly a type of Owtcharka from the Caucasus Mountains, the Alaunt was feared across Roman lands for its extreme ferocity in battle. The Alaunt is known to have been extremely influential in later European dog breeding, and greatly influenced the development of Mastiff-type dogs across Spain and France. However, the Alaunt seems to have been a type of Mastiff, and therefore unlike the Estrela Mountain Dog.
However the Estrela Mountain Dog first arrived in its homeland, the breed became an invaluable part of the local economy. The Serra Estrela Mountains have long remained one of the remotest and least developed parts of Portugal, home to the highest peaks in the country outside of the Azores. Until well into the 20th Century, these mountains served as one of the last refuges of Europe’s great predators, one of the final strongholds of the Iberian Lynx, Iberian Wolf, and Brown Bear. Although firearms and development have driven these beasts from the region, at one point they were a constant threat to the farmers of the Serra Estrela. Looking for an easy meal, large carnivores would attack sheep, goats, and cattle in their pens at night or during the day when they were put out to pasture. Not only were animal predators a major concern, but humans were also a constant danger. Prior to the advent of modern law enforcement agencies, bandits and thieves haunted the mountains of Portugal preying upon those trying to make an honest living. The Estrela Mountain Dog was bred to defend livestock from these threats. The dog kept an ever watchful eye on its charges, always on the alert for an intruder. When a threat was detected the Estrela Mountain Dog barked loudly, so that its masters could arrive with clubs and knives. Until aid came the Estrela Mountain Dog stood in between the threat and its herd blocking any potential attacks. In most cases, the sight of this massive dog was enough to convince any potential raider to find an easier meal elsewhere. When appearance alone was an insufficient deterrent, the Estrela Mountain Dog would defend its charges no matter the odds against it, unhesitatingly sacrificing its own life if necessary. The courage of the Estrela Mountain Dog meant that the region’s farmers suffered significantly less livestock loss, and therefore made it more likely that their own families would avoid starvation.
The Estrela Mountain Dog loyally served its Portuguese masters for many centuries, almost certainly since before Portugal even existed as a country. Its mountainous homeland was so remote that few foreign breeds entered the region. This meant that the Estrela Mountain Dog remained nearly purebred, much more so that other European breeds. Despite its great antiquity, the Estrela Mountain Dog was a very rare sight at early Portuguese Dog shows. Until the 1970’s, dog shows in Portugal were almost exclusively the domain of the nation’s wealthiest citizens, citizens who greatly preferred foreign breeds which they considered status symbols. The Estrela Mountain Dog, which had always been a working dog of the poor farmer, was almost entirely ignored. Despite its nearly non-existent following in the mainstream canine community, the Estrela Mountain Dog maintained a very loyal following in its native mountains. Local farmers began to put on their own dog shows dedicated to the breed in 1908, shows which became known as concursos. Concursos did not grade the appearance or conformation of the Estrela Mountain Dog, but rather its guarding ability. Trials consisted of dogs being placed with flocks of sheep. Judges observed whether the dog was capable of rounding up straying sheep and moving the entire flock. Apparently, an Estrela Mountain Dog registry was attempted at this time, but no records of it have survived. In 1922, the first written standard was published for the Estrela Mountain Dog, although it was almost entirely devoted to working features and temperament, not appearance. This early standard did mention that dew claws were considered ideal, though it made no mention of the rose ears or hooked tail which are essential features of the modern breed. By 1933, an official written standard was published which included all of the major appearance features of the modern breed. The major goal of this standard was to distinguish the Estrela Mountain Dog from Portugal’s other livestock guarding breeds. Breed fanciers also worked with farmers to change their traditional practices. Most farmers had neutered their dogs to prevent them from leaving their flocks to mate, but this practice was discouraged in an attempt to maintain breed quality.
Interest in the Estrela Mountain Dog faded during World War II, but had once again picked up by the 1950’s. It was during this time that the breed first began to make somewhat regular appearances in multi-breed dog shows. These shows greatly favored longer-coated Estrela Mountain Dogs, but breed members with shorter coats were greatly preferred as working dogs. However, by that point the Portuguese economy had begun to change and more traditional ways of life, such as that of the farmers of the Serra Estrela Mountains, were beginning to disappear. Additionally, hunting guns and law enforcement had driven out the predators and criminals which once made the Estrela Mountain Dog so invaluable. Interest in the breed began to drop off sharply and by the early 1970’s many local fanciers were worried that the Estrela Mountain Dog was in danger of extinction.
The Estrela Mountain Dog was very likely saved by the Portuguese Revolution of 1974, which brought down one of the last remaining totalitarian regimes in Western Europe. Sweeping social change occurred throughout Portugal, including in the dog show fancy. Now open to all segments of Portuguese society, working class dog breeders and fanciers began to regularly exhibit at Portuguese shows. Many of these new exhibitors greatly favored the native Portuguese breeds which they and their families had kept for generations rather than the foreign breeds which had previously been so popular. At the same time, the Portuguese Revolution ushered in a period of social unrest which led to a major crime wave. There was a massive increase in interest in large guard dogs, and the Estrela Mountain Dog greatly benefitted. Suburban Portuguese families discovered that this dog made an excellent family guardian which would fearlessly not only defend flocks of sheep, but their children and homes. The Estrela Mountain Dog achieved greater levels of popularity than Portugal’s other two native guard dogs, the Cao de Castro Laboreiro and the Rafeiro de Alentejo, because it generally proved to be softer tempered.
For the last forty years, the Estrela Mountain Dog has continued to grow in popularity in its homeland. Once on the verge of extinction, the Estrela Mountain Dog is now consistently one of the most popular breeds in Portugal, and is perhaps the most popular native Portuguese breed after the Podengo Portugueso. The Estrela Mountain Dog routinely ranks in the top 10 in terms of registrations with the Portuguese Kennel Club and a number of other purebred breed members are not registered. The Portuguese Marines have even begun using the breed as a patrol dog on military bases, although its military role remains limited.
The popularity of the Estrela Mountain Dog has led to its introduction to a number of foreign countries. Although this breed likely was spread around the world with Portuguese mariners beginning in the 15th Century, the first definitive records of Estrela Mountain Dogs leaving Portugal date from 1972. In that year, pairs were exported to both the United States and the United Kingdom, followed by an additional pair being exported to the United States the following year. These first dogs did not become established in the United States, but they did in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom, which through England has had an alliance with Portugal since 1373 (the oldest functional alliance in the world), became the first foreign country to establish a purebred population of Estrela Mountain Dogs. Since the 1970’s, the Estrela Mountain Dog has become established in the United States, most European nations, and several other countries as well. In 1996, the United Kennel Club (UKC) granted full recognition to the Estrela Mountain Dog as a member of the Guardian Dog Group. In 2001, the Estrela Mountain Dog Association of America (EMDAA) was founded to protect and promote the breed in the United States. The American Kennel Club (AKC) has subsequently added the Estrela Mountain Dog to its Foundation Stock Service (AKC-FSS), the first step towards full recognition with that organization. If the Estrela Mountain Dog and the EMDAA can meet a series of benchmarks in the United States, the breed will eventually be moved into the Miscellaneous Class and then on to full AKC recognition.
Unlike most modern breeds, the Estrela Mountain Dog remains primarily a working dog. A very large percentage of breed members are still primarily kept for the work that they provide. Many breed members are still actively protecting livestock in the Serra Estrela Mountains of Portugal, and a few have taken up the task elsewhere in the world. However, the breed is now primarily a property and personal protection dog, responsible for guarding homes and families rather than livestock. In recent years, increasing numbers of Estrela Mountain Dogs are being kept primarily as companion animals and show dogs, roles at which the breed excels if provided proper training and exercise. It is very likely that the majority of Estrela Mountain Dogs are now companion dogs first and foremost, although most serve a secondary role as guard dogs, and it appears likely that the future of this dog will no longer be as a working animal.
The Estrela Mountain Dog is one of the most unique looking of all guardian breeds, and would almost certainly never be mistaken for another dog by those with experience with the breed. This is definitely a large breed, but it should absolutely never be massive. The average male Estrela Mountain Dog stands between 24 and 30 inches tall at the shoulders and weighs between 80 and 115 pounds. The average female Estrela Mountain Dog stands between 23 and 28 inches tall at the shoulder and weighs between 60 and 95 pounds. This breed is usually slightly longer from chest to rump than it is tall from floor to shoulder, but it is relatively compactly built. The Estrela Mountain Dog is quite powerfully built, with thick legs and a deep chest, but it is much more lithely constructed than a Mastiff-type breed. Although most of the breed’s body is obscured by its coat, underneath is a very muscular and extremely athletic animal. The tail of the Estrela Mountain Dog is one of the breed’s most important features. It must be thick at the base and taper substantially towards the tip. The end of the tail must be curved into a hook which resembles a shepherd’s crook. When at rest, the tail should be held low but it may rise to a level horizontal with the back when the dog is in motion.
The head of the Estrela Mountain Dog is large for the size of the dog’s body, but should still be proportional. The head and the muzzle are only marginally distinct and blend together very smoothly. The muzzle itself should be at least as long as the rest of the skull and taper gently towards the tip. The muzzle is almost straight but should be slightly convex at the tip. The lips are large and well developed, but should be tight-fitting and never pendulous. Ideally, the lips should be solidly black in color. This breed should always exhibit a scissors or even bite. The nose of the Estrela Mountain Dog is large, straight, and wide-nostriled. The nose should always be darker than the dog’s coat, with black greatly preferred. The ears of the Estrela Mountain Dog are rose, which means they fold backwards like those of an English or American Bulldog. The ears should be small for the size of the dog. The eyes of the Estrela Mountain Dog are oval-in-shape, medium-in-size, and dark amber in color. The overall expression of most breed members is keen and calm.
The Estrela Mountain Dog comes in two coat types, short and long. The texture of both should be coarse and resemble the texture of goat hair. Both coat types are double, although the undercoat of the long coated variety is usually somewhat denser and differently colored from the outer coat. The Long coated variety has a very thick, long, outer coat which may be either flat or slightly wavy, but never curly. The hair on the head, face, and front sides of all four legs should be shorter than that on the rest of the body, while that on the neck, buttocks, tail, and back sides of all four legs should be longer. Ideally, the dog should look as though it has a ruff on the neck, breeches on the backs of the legs and buttocks, and feathering on the tail. The short coated variety is identically coated only that the longer portions of the coat are between 1/3 and ½ has long as that of the long coated variety. Any feathering on the short-coated variety should be proportional to the length of the coat. At one point, all colors were acceptable for the Estrela Mountain Dog, but these have been limited in recent standard revisions. Currently, fawn, wolf grey, yellow, and brindle are all considered acceptable colors. Any of these colors may or may not have limited white markings and black shading anywhere on the coat. Regardless of color, all breed members should have a dark facial mask, preferably a black one. Blue coloration is permissible but highly undesirable. Occasionally, an Estrela Mountain Dog will be born in an alternative color, such as solid black or lacking the facial mask. Such dogs are penalized in the show ring but otherwise make just as excellent companion and guardians as other breed members.
The Estrela Mountain Dog has been bred as a guardian for hundreds of years, and has the temperament one would expect of such a breed. However, this dog tends to be somewhat less aggressive and hard tempered than many other guardian breeds. The Estrela Mountain Dog is famous for its intense loyalty, and this breed is incredibly devoted to its family. When raised by a single individual, most breed members will become one person dogs, although they usually bond equally with all family members when raised in a multi-person household. This breed can be quite affectionate with its family, but most are relatively reserved with their affections. These dogs want to be in the constant company of their families and may suffer from separation anxiety when left alone for long periods. However, this breed is quite independent, and most want to be in the same room with their owners rather than on top of them. When properly trained and socialized, most breed members are excellent with children, with whom they tend to be very gentle. Some breed members may become overly protective of their children, however, and may react negatively to rough play with other children. Estrela Mountain Dog puppies would probably not be the best choice for families with very small children because they may bowl them over accidentally in their exuberance. Because the Estrela Mountain Dog tends be dominant and independent, it would be a very poor choice for a first time dog owner.
A dedicated guardian for untold centuries, the Estrela Mountain Dog is naturally protective. This breed is generally very suspicious of strangers, and always wary around them. Proper training and socialization is of the utmost importance with an Estrela Mountain Dog, so that they may properly distinguish between real and imagined threats. When raised properly, most breed members will be tolerant of strangers, although they will remain aloof from them. Without proper training, human aggression issues can develop, which are greatly magnified by the breed’s large size and immense power. Highly territorial, extremely protective, and constantly vigilant, the Estrela Mountain Dog makes a peerless watch dog whose loud barks will deter all but the most determined intruders. This breed also makes an excellent guard dog. Most breed members greatly prefer to threaten first, but they will not back down from violence if necessary. These dogs would also be an excellent choice for personal protection as they will not allow physical harm to come to family members and will attack if they deem necessary.
Primarily responsible for protecting flocks of sheep and goats, Estrela Mountain Dogs are generally very tolerant of other animals when properly trained and socialized. This breed has a very low prey drive, and most breed members do very well with cats and other pets. Many breed members are somewhat territorial, though, and may attempt to drive away strange animals. This breed has a mixed reputation with other dogs. On the one hand, Estrela Mountain Dogs are generally considerably less dog aggressive than other guardian breeds and will generally live in peace with other canines once a proper pack hierarchy has been established. On the other hand, this breed is usually very dominant with other dogs and will absolutely not submit to an inferior pack position. This can result in dog fights, especially with other dominant dogs.
The Estrela Mountain Dog is regarded as being highly intelligent, especially when it comes to problem solving. This breed has been successfully trained for military work and has even competed at very high levels of dog sports such as agility and obedience. However, this breed can be very, very challenging to train. Definitely a breed that prefers to do its own thing rather than follow commands, most Estrela Mountain Dogs are extremely stubborn, and many are outright willful. This breed is incredibly pain tolerant and correction methods based on creating physical discomfort will be completely ignored. Rewards-based methods, especially those that emphasize food are much more effective, but still have their limits. Perhaps most importantly, an Estrela Mountain Dog will absolutely not obey anyone whom it considers lower than itself on the social totem pole, requiring owners to maintain a constant position of dominance.
Bred to wander the mountains of Portugal following its flocks for hours on end, The Estrela Mountain Dog requires a substantial amount of activity. Ideally, this breed should receive no less than 45 minutes of exercise every day, although more would be preferable. Estrela Mountain Dogs love going on walks or jogs, but truly crave the opportunity to freely wander a safely enclosed area. Breed members that are not provided sufficient outlets for their energy are likely to develop behavioral problems such as destructiveness, hyperactivity, excessive barking, nervousness, and over excitability. This breed certainly does not have excessive exercise needs, however, and most are very calm and relaxed in the home once they have received their daily activity. Because of this breed’s size and exercise needs, the Estrela Mountain Dog adapts very poorly to apartment life and truly requires a home with a yard, preferably a large one.
Owners need to be aware of the Estrela Mountain Dog’s tendency to bark. Although not an exceptionally vocal breed, these dogs do frequently bark at anything that comes to their attention. These barks can be extremely loud and deep, and this breed may result in noise complaints when kept in close quarters.
The Estrela Mountain Dog has a surprisingly low maintenance coat. This breed should never require professional grooming unless its owners want to shave it in warm weather. All Estrela Mountain Dogs regardless of coat type should be thoroughly brushed at least twice a week, although the long-coated variety may require three or four brushings. The Estrela Mountain Dog does shed, and most breed members shed very heavily. This is a breed that will cover carpets, furniture, and clothing with long hair all year long and probably drive allergy sufferers and neat freaks crazy.
It does not appear as though any health studies have been conducted on the Estrela Mountain Dog, which makes it impossible to make any definitive statements on the breed’s health. Most fanciers believe that the breed is in good health, and that it is much healthier than other purebred dogs of similar size. The Estrela Mountain Dog has benefitted from being bred primarily as a working dog and from being spared the worst commercial (puppy mill) breeding practices. However, the gene pool of the Estrela Mountain Dog, especially those in the United States, is relatively small and the breed may be at risk of genetically inherited health defects. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the life expectancy for this breed is between 10 and 12 years, but it is unclear how reliable this estimate is. Of those problems which have been encountered by fanciers, it is almost universally agreed that hip and elbow dysplasia are the most common, though their exact rates in the breed are unknown.
Because skeletal and visual problems have been 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.
A full list of health problems which have been identified in the Estrela Mountain Dog, even if they have only occurred in one or two individuals, would have to include: