Kangal Dog Temperament: Conceptions and Misconceptions
By Sue Kocher
Originally published in UKC Bloodlines, Sept-Oct 2000
Germany has until now been known as a dog-loving nation where beloved and well-behaved pets are frequently seen accompanying their owners in shops and even restaurants. However, this image is rapidly changing with recent tragedies that have led to some of the most severe anti-dog legislation in the world. The situation has reached hysterical proportions, with owners of "dangerous dogs" and their pets being accosted in the streets of German cities, spat upon, and stoned; in one case, a dog was snatched and torched with kerosene. The specific laws vary from state to state and, depending on the breed, aim to force anything from muzzling in public, to mandatory "temperament tests" of questionable validity, to forced sterilization and even euthanasia by the "competent authority"--whoever that is.
More information on the German breed bans and euthanasia campaigns can be found on the S.C.A.N. page in this issue of Bloodlines. Websites and discussion lists on the subject are springing up everywhere. Members of the Kangal Dog Club of America are of course concerned about all the breeds that are targeted by new legislation as "dangerous dogs" in Germany. In particular, we are struggling to understand why Turkish Kangal Dogs are categorized as "dangerous dogs" or "fighting dogs" in many German states and are subject to muzzling laws, sterilization, and possibly even euthanasia. What is behind this gross misconception of the breed? The issues are complex and evolving, and have ultimately much more to do with demographics, social problems, and political opportunism than with the dogs themselves. Within the limited space here, any attempt to summarize these issues is likely to confuse more than clarify, but you can visit this site to learn more about the specific factors behind the targeting of Kangal Dogs in Germany: www.mindspring.com/~skocher/GermanKangals.htm.
What I would like to talk about is the true nature of Turkey's famed Kangal Dogs, the temperament that they are bred for, and to touch upon how the unique characteristics of the Kangal Dog are cherished and put to use in the U.S. as well as in its native Turkey.
Should Kangal Dogs be labeled "fighting dogs"? Well, the Kangal Dog is one of the livestock guardian breeds, and so it was of course selected for centuries to be aggressive against marauding jackals and wolves. Both male and female Kangal Dogs are equally effective in protecting their flocks against wolves and other canines that "don't belong." And in situations where the predator chooses to fight, the protective instincts of the Kangal Dog demand that it does not back down. It will stand and fight, although few canines -- wild or domestic -- will confront a dog on its own territory.
In seeming contradiction to that canine aggression is a set of behaviors that are often described as nurturing or maternal--though again both males and females share these behaviors. These behaviors are the result of a strong drive to bond with a flock, to become part of the flock, and to behave respectfully and quietly around sheep. Kangal Dogs in Turkey travel with the sheep and the shepherd, and the sheep generally accept the Kangal as "one of the flock"-- so much so that they instinctively gather behind the dogs when threatened. The Kangal Dogs weave in and out among the sheep, head, and tail down, tolerating rambunctious lambs and even helping to clean and nurse newborns. Even when they are stepped on or butted, they do not retaliate, but move submissively out of the way. In the heat of the day, they find a high point and keep silent watch over their territory. At night, they patrol around the flock, alert and ready to defend against any danger. The Kangal Dog's instinct, then, is to be defensive rather than to be an aggressor. Does this make them "fighting dogs" as most people think of the term? I think not.
It is possible, of course, to encourage a Kangal Dog to be even more dog aggressive and to suppress their nurturing behaviors through abuse and neglect. This can be "accomplished" with a great many breeds, and unfortunately, there are a few people who seem to take pride in owning a dog that they've warped into being the "baddest dog on the block." This is not the fault of the poor dogs, whatever the breed. It is the fault of the owners.
Kangal Dogs are still very rare in the U.S., and the KCDA breeders involved in stewarding this wonderful breed are in agreement as to the importance of the careful placement of puppies and dogs. We hope it will always be so. People who have vague notions of owning a "big, powerful, scary dog" can be found out through questioning and politely dropped from consideration. People who are interested mainly in making money by breeding a rare and beautiful dog that they know little about are easily discovered--and they tend to drop out voluntarily when they find that their new puppy will arrive spayed or neutered. But when Kangal Dog owners are well educated as to the historical function and temperament of the Kangal Dog, and when they are determined to train their dog so as to channel its protective and nurturing instincts appropriately, the dog/owner relationship is likely to be a successful one.
Kangal Dogs are of course fine partners to have on the farm. Some Kangal Dogs are being used successfully on the open range, some are on commercial sheep or goat farms, and others thrive on small hobby farms guarding prized show hoofstock, exotics, and other animals.
But then we also have Kangal Dogs that are admirably filling roles as family companions and guardians. When trained by owners who are knowledgeable and committed, they can become gentle, well-adjusted family members. The KDCA shares a discussion list for owners of Kangal and Akbash Dogs, and there we get to know one another, share stories, and get advice (a healthy variety!) about training problems, health issues, diet, and other topics. Through the internet we are able to exchange and learn a great deal about our breed, a breed still less than 20 years in this country, and we are finding out more about the roles they can fill beyond the Turkish village. We learn that a Kangal Dog bitch in Boston has grown to huge proportions, and is as devoted to her 6-year-old little girl as Nana was to the children in Peter Pan. We hear about Kelebek in Florida who bonds with everything on her farm from pigs to puppies to kittens, and who is becoming more of a typical bossy bitch with other dogs as she matures. We know that Salim has two Kangal Dogs in California who have been his beloved companions for some nine years now, still going strong. We know that some Kangal Dogs play with the family cats, some love to chase them; some don't take kindly to any other dogs, some play in dog parks; some steal tomatoes from the garden, but some guard the vegetables from rabbits -- and most will dig cavernous holes in nicely landscaped yards if given the opportunity.
There are caveats to owning a large livestock guardian, but there are many success stories with our breed and we are proud of them! In future KDCA club columns, we'll take a closer look at some of our individual Kangal Dog characters, and at what they tell us about the temperament and abilities of the breed. Also, the number of Turkish and American websites and publications devoted to the Kangal Dog breed is growing, and we'll share these new resources in future club columns. Such publications offer great opportunities for us to educate potential owners about the true nature and fascinating history of Turkey's national treasure, the Kangal Dog.