History of the Estrela Mountain Dog
The earliest of the Estrela’s ancestors were herd-guarding dogs in the Serra de Estrela, in what is now Portugal. Since there are no written records, it is not known for sure whether they were brought by the Romans when they colonized the Iberian Peninsula, or later by the invading Visigoths. Regardless, there is no disagreement that the Estrela is one of the oldest breeds in Portugal.
Those early guardian dogs were not the distinct breed we know today. Rather, the Estrela developed over a period of hundreds of years. Shepherds would have chosen to breed the dogs that had the characteristics necessary to survive in their mountain environment and to do their job: large size, strength, endurance, agility, a deep chest, ability to tolerate a marginal diet, the set of the legs, a powerful mouth, a tuft of hair around the neck, an easy, jog-like gait, a warm coat, and a watchful, mistrustful, yet loyal temperament. Other characteristics found in today’s Estrela, such as double dew claws, a hooked tail, and certain colors, were bred into the dogs. These had no functional purpose, but they reflected the traditions or fashions of their owners. Since the region was isolated, there was little breeding with non-native dogs, leading to the purity of the breed.
Life changed little for the people and dogs of the region, even into the 20th century. The isolation of the region meant the breed was relatively unknown outside it until the early 1900’s, and even then, they were mostly ignored in early dog shows. The Portuguese admired foreign breeds and disliked their own. Shepherds often castrated their dogs to prevent them from leaving their flocks to mate. These factors were having a negative effect on the Estrela. So from 1908 to 1919, special shows called concursos were held to promote and preserve the Estrela breed in the region. During this period there was some attempt at a registry (of which there is no surviving record). Working trials were included in the shows.
The first, tentative, recorded breed standard was published in 1922. This standard just reflected the functional features naturally found in the best dogs of the time, although it did mention the dew claws (which serve no function) as reflecting a “perfect” dog. The hooked tail and the turned-back ears, which later became part of the official standard, were not mentioned.
The first official breed standard was written in 1933. This standard attempted to differentiate the Estrela as a distinct breed. This led to the hooked tail and double dew claws becoming a requirement. All colors were allowed. The standard has undergone refinements since then. For example, dew claws became optional by 1955, and the allowed colors were limited to the current set in 1962.
Prior to World War II, the Estrela’s breeders were still primarily the shepherds and farmers of the region. Since they were mostly illiterate, they did not make any attempt to follow the official breed standard, if they even knew one existed. But by the early 1950’s, interest in the breed returned, and the annual concursos were reinstated. Again the intent was to stimulate interest among the Serra residents and to encourage them to adhere to the official standard. During this period, the long-haired variety was most popular at shows, but “show dogs” represented (and still do) only a small portion of the Estrela population in Portugal. Many of the working dogs were (and are) short-haired.
Early in the 1970’s, interest was steeply declining. There was some concern about the degeneration and even possible extinction of the breed. But the Portuguese revolution of 1974 helped save the Estrela. It led to changes both in dog shows in Portugal and in Portuguese dog breeds. Prior to the revolution, dog showing had largely been a pastime of the wealthy, with their preference for non-Portuguese breeds as status symbols. Now, working people could and did show the native dogs they preferred. Also, with the revolution came an increase in crime and thus more interest in guard dogs.
There is no record of Estrelas outside Portugal prior to 1972. While some undoubtedly did leave the country, they were probably interbred with no effort to maintain the breed. In 1972 and 1973, pairs were imported to the US. Others were probably imported into the US since then, but it was not until 1998 that the first EMDAA-recognized dog was brought over. The first litter born in the UK was in 1974; the EMDA (Britain’s breed club) was formed in 1977, and the breed has spread across the world since then. EMDUSA was formed in September of 2006 to meet the needs of owner outreach, education and support.
Today, the Estrela Mountain Dog remains true to its guardian heritage. It is still a working dog, guarding flocks in its native Portugal and elsewhere. It is also an ideal family pet because of its alertness, loyalty, and intelligence, features it needed in its earliest days.