From “The Concept of an Aboriginal Breed’ by Vladimir Beregevoy (emphasis added by me):
“Some aboriginal breeds are highly variable morphologically and are even polytypical, which means they have more than one type in one population or several close sub-breeds. Understandably, their natural diversity cannot be preserved by breeding to a traditional breed standard that reduces variation as much as possible. The standard of an aboriginal breed must be more liberal, descriptive and include more than one type found in the home country of the breed. A. Sedefchev and S. Sedefchev (2007) already put it to work with the Karakachan Dog. The best dogs suitable for breeding should not be show champions, but rather best rated dogs. Entire dog show and trials of aboriginal breeds should be redesigned to emphasize field behavior and physical performance.
The preservation of maximal heterozygosis within breeding stock could be achieved beneficially by running several parallel lines with periodic subsequent crossbreeding. Breeders of productive agricultural animals commonly use this method.
Using and breeding aboriginal dogs for performing a different job that is new to them would change them, especially if they were selected for greater trainability. This would change them by making them more responsive to trainer’s commands, but this may come at the expense of their ability to work independently in their native countries.”
Beregevoy’s article is long and details the complexities of working with an aboriginal breed, much different than our modern definition of a breed. Modern breeding practices developed long after animals were domesticated. Prior to the efforts of just one man about 200 years ago, all breeds were either landrace or feral populations. There were no strict boundaries; borders were cultural or geological. Kennel clubs and registries are a very modern product, and the results of our ‘modern’ breeding practices are proving to be double-edged; we can create whole new breeds in just a couple decades, but also we can bring forth genetic health issues that never emerged in a landrace population.
Understanding the history of the Armenian gampr is critical to understanding of its present state, and how to best manage the current population.
The Armenian gampr is not just an aboriginal breed with a long history; it has had several varieties bred throughout the centuries. These all are relevant within Armenian culture, and relevant to the ongoing, ubiquitous argument over which dogs are gampr. It would be inconceivable, and currently incorrect, to stipulate that these varieties have all been completely separate. Some separation, enough to maintain specialized function, has been regularly reported to me by elderly people that have emigrated from remote villages. Their references have all been consistent with documented accounts of varieties bred for certain functions: Potorkashoon, for finding people lost in blizzards, Archashoon, for hunting bear, Gelkeght, for killing wolves both when hunting and guarding, and Hovashoon or chobani shoon, the shepherds guardian dog.
Wolfhound, or Gelkeght
Female Hovashoon Gampr
Furthermore, limiting the understanding of Armenian dog breeding to what is within the current borders of Armenia is short-sighted, as the domestication and breeding of dogs has been part of Armenian culture for thousands of years, in all of their historical homeland. Western Armenia is now part of Turkey, and lumped together with Anatolia. Areas within modern Azerbaijan have centuries old Armenian graveyards, churches, and even petroglyphs of dogs that predate the current Turkic people’s occupation. It was an Armenian dynasty that united the tribes of Georgia, sharing their culture and building styles over 1000 years ago. As sheep and dogs have been embedded in the lives of the Armenians since pre-history, it would be discordant to suggest that they lived without them along the very borders of their current republic.
Taking the long history of Armenian dog breeding into account with the different terrain, uses and cultural references strongly indicates that there is more than one variety of ‘gampr.’
The modern human tendency to define, segregate and control breeds and borders is not an appropriate management technique for a breed with such variable characteristics, itself predating such modern methods by millennia.
So-called ‘modern breeding practices’ can create new breeds and varieties within a very short time – one or two decades, even for cattle. This process was begun by Robert Bakewell, an Englishman of the 18th century, who experimented with confinement animal breeding; he selected for more extreme traits, put all the individuals with those extreme traits together, and voila! After 10-20 generations, a new breed was formed. He produced several new and specialized breeds from the local landrace stock, some of which are now considered ‘rare heritage breeds,’ such as the Leicester Longwool sheep.
Our adaptation of his principles, fueled further by the publication of Darwin’s Evolution of Species, has resulted in the formation of kennel clubs, pedigrees, written standards and closed stud books. Purity has taken on a whole new meaning. Now, over 100 years after the advent of such controlled breeding, including inbreeding/linebreeding, we have witnessed dramatic changes of type and function in nearly all registered dog breeds. Some have been ‘refined’ to the point of actual inability to perform their original function, and even as just pets they impose financial burdens on their owners to remedy all of their illnesses.
When dogs are bred to a written standard, and selection for breeding is limited (closed stud book/gene pool) eventually heterozygosis dwindles. Heterozygosis, or the state of having broad genetic variability, ensures that the alleles responsible for illness or weakness do not become prevalent. All of these alleles are recessive; if they were dominant, they would have been naturally eliminated. But when the genetic variability within a closed population becomes limited, there are fewer dominant alleles to hide the recessives, and these previously unseen traits have their chance to emerge. For genetic health, diversity is necessary.
The inherent variability in the Armenian gampr may be handled in two ways. By dividing types into different breeds, breeding them entirely separate from each other, standardizing them, and condemning them to the path that so many great breeds have been down; or, we can create a method of management that is inclusive of historic variety, that ensures heterozygosis for future health, that allows for periodic interchange/refreshing of genetics from each variety within the gene pool, and retains the health, full function and vitality that is historically correct for our breed.
Ideally, the argument over which type is truly gampr should not exist; to separate them reduces the genetic resources each variety may draw from. Gelkeght, Archashoon, Potorkashoon, Hovashoon, and perhaps others – all are gampr, and lived and bred in such close proximity for thousands of years it would be inappropriate to suddenly impose separation.
Each variety will need to be managed separately for accuracy and maintenance of type, to ensure continuity. But also, management must include careful consideration of heterozygosis, of when to include a breeding to another gampr variety for genetic health, and to maintain historically accurate relation to the rest of the gampr populations.
There is no breed that I know of which is managed in this way. It is much simpler to follow the beaten path of other breed management as we are taught by kennel clubs. But when we observe objectively how poorly it has served breeds such as greyhounds, basset hounds and dalmations, it becomes evident that breed management the old way is not going to help the gampr. The Armenian gampr would become a gampr only by name, not by function or aptitude. To maintain the gampr in its full function, historical accuracy and wide variety, we need to think outside the box.