Serbian Sylvan Dog - Zmaj
The future of this ancient Molosser is uncertain. The Sumadinac, along with the Gampr, Sarplaninac, Kavkaz Volkodav, Tornjak, Epir Molossus, Tibetan Mastiff and other Eastern-European and Central Asian dogs is one of the founding blocks of the original Moloss stock. Thought by some to be the oldest dog of the region, this breed has been used throughout countless centuries as a capable livestock herder, personal guardian, property watchdog, large game hunter, war-dog and excellent sheep protector. Many view this Serbian breed as the Balkan variety of the Central Asian Shepherd, in whose population it is still very common to find a great number of Sylvan-like strains, both in terms of physical built and colourings. Some sources suggest that the Sylvanian Wolfdog might be descended from the Hyrcanian Mastiff of ancient Persia.
This is uncertain, but the Sumadinac bears striking similarity in appearance to the Siah Sag type of the modern Iranian Sage Mazandarani breed, which is seen by many as a direct descendant of the Hyrcanian Tiger Dog. Other researchers link this breed to the near-identical, although milder-tempered Tuvan Shepherd Dog of Siberia and the original Sarmatian Mastiff from Ural, but these theories, although quite reasonable, are yet to be proven, as is the claim that its primary ancestor is the Bakharwal of India. The extinct Bohemian Mastiff from the Czech Republic is also though to had been descended from the same stock. Another rare Molosser seen as a regional variety of the Sylvan is the Transylvanian Alps Sheepdog from Romania, but this variety, alongside the rare Ciobanesc Corb which is a true Romanian Sylvan, is considered to be nothing more than a subtype of the Ciobanesc Carpatin breed.
Many breed enthusiasts consider the ancient Sylvan to be the progenitor of quite a few European breeds, directly or indirectly, namely the Hovawart, the Beauceron and the Rottweiler, among others. It is also thought by some that the early writings about so-called Indian Dogs or Tibetan Mastiffs were actually descriptions of the original pre-Balkan Sylvan population, but while very probable, such claims aren't easily proven, if not for any other reason than due to the unwillingness of the western cynological establishment to accept the legitimacy of the theory.
Although the "Dragon Law" which served as a basic breed Standard has existed for many centuries, the Sylvan was never officially recognized, but a modern version of the Standard has been accepted by the fanciers of the breed, even though there are no intentions whatsoever of showing the Sylvan Dogs as of yet. Related to and often mistaken for a Sarplaninac (even though there are no black, black-n-tan or tricolour Sarplaninacs allowed), this magnificent dog named after the region of Sylvania has been introduced into many breeds, within and outside the Balkan Peninsula. Due to the well established trade routes, it was a popular export dog in the ancient times, as well as the Middle ages, reaching as far as Portugal to the West and Mongolia to the East.
Seeing how dog breeding in the past was mainly done for improved working qualities and not for looks, the shepherds, knights, noblemen and soldiers bred the Serbian Sylvan to Sarplaninacs, Tornjaks, Caucasians and other breeds throughout the region, which resulted in the numerous variants of both the Shumadinatz and those breeds we see today. Dogs of this type can be encountered in a vast area, from Tibet and Central Asia, over the Caucasus and Carpathian mountains all the way to the every corner of the Balkans, reaching the Adriatic Sea. Due to this, some believe the Sylvan to be more of a type, rather than a single breed of Molossers, with every regional variety belonging to the same greater Sylvan population, a few of them regarded as local breeds established as such during the nomadic migrations and further developed independently of their parent group through selection of preferred qualities and by allowing matings with other breeds indigenous to the areas in which some of those tribes settled.
While the Serbian, Macedonian, Greek and Bulgarian varieties (Sumadinac, Karaman, Drakontas and Karakatchan Dog, respectively) have attained the status of breeds in their communities, the rest of the dogs classifiable under the Sylvan type have become assimilated into the Central Asian, Caucasian and other populations as regional subtypes or simple colour varieties. Out of all of the Sylvan types, the Zmaj of Serbia has been bred following well-thought out and strict guidelines the longest, with the basic varieties of the breed believed to had been established over 7000 years ago and actively bred to a written standard since the 13th century.
The Sylvan of Serbia is a reserved and independent dog, usually developing a strong bond with a single person and its property, while being wary of strangers. It is a very stable and level-headed Molosser, but it can be extremely aggressive toward strange and threatening dogs, while tolerating familiar dogs that don't question its dominance. Unlike most LGD breeds, the Shumadinatz is governed not only by its strong defense instincts, but also by a very intense prey drive and kill drive, due to a greater working standard and expectations placed on these dogs, which are much more than just livestock and property guardians.
Excellent scenting ability is another trademark of the breed and due to it the Serbian Dragon has long been employed to track stolen/escaped livestock, as well as various wild animals while hunting and humans during times of war. The Sylvan is also a tireless herder and drover of cattle, a serious personal protector, a tenacious small and large game hunter, an unforgiving combatant and occasional killer of predators like wolves and bears, a fierce wardog, as well as an all-around farm dog and companion.
An interesting characteristic of the breed is that the females are more active and driven workers than the male dogs, which generally stay close to the flock or property while their bitches are the first ones to confront the predators. Only if the female fails to chase the intruder away or the attackers get too close to the herd does the male dog engage in a conflict. The Sylvan breed is also known for having very small litters, usually only 2 or 3 pups per season, as well as the females coming into heat once a year. However, many modern bloodlines can produce larger litters, in no small part due to the introduction of other breeds into the strain.
Known as a silent warrior and a "mute" protector, the pure Sylvan rarely barks and actually requires training to give a vocal threat when guarding. Due to this breed peculiarity, Sylvans have been employed as ambush dogs in guerrilla warfare in almost every armed conflict in the Balkans over the centuries. While prized for not unnecessarily barking at everything that moves like almost every other high drive guard dog, the breed is, however, famous (or rather infamous) for a broad range of other vocalizations, which have been likened to anything from bird noises to somewhat disturbing human-like verbalization.
Indeed, some examples can be remarkably vocal, especially when communicating their joy or frustration and it has been said that the purer the blood, the more "talkative" the dog will be. Unfortunately, as with the rest of the traditional breed traits, the "talking" has been slowly disappearing from the Sylvan population over the last few decades as well. There is a handful of strains that have traditionally been the most valued and respected bloodlines in the Sumadinac breed, but they're very rarely encountered in their pure form today, since most surviving lines were developed by combining the aforementioned strains with one another, as well as with various regional "folk" lines.
Of special note is the multitude of old "family" strains of the breed, referred to as such due to the practice of many rural Serbian estates breeding their own specialized lines, most of which are rooted in the traditionally prized bloodlines and further developed by employing certain outcrosses which helped shape these individual "family" Sylvans and distinguish them from other lines in the breed. The breed as a whole, or rather the Sylvan type landrace is known for being anything but uniform in type and showing a great deal of variety in size and even phenotype, which is something that most fanciers see as something to be proud of, for various reasons.
Rare to find in its original form even in the Sumadija (Sylvania) region of Serbia, the Sylvan Watchdog is unfortunately on its way to extinction. Its blood, however, continues to flow through the veins of almost every Molosser of today. Fanciers of this breed are very protective of their dogs and rarely share any information with outsiders, some of them even deny having any knowledge about the Sumadijski Ovcar, oftentimes presenting their dogs as mongrels in order to be left alone. Most Sylvan enthusiasts blame the WW2 for the demise of their breed, in particular the introduction of its descendant, the German Shepherd Dog to the Balkans by the Nazi troops and its subsequent popularity with the Yugoslav Army.
Both random and planned crossings with the GSD and Sarplaninec breeds have decimated the Sumadinac population and there are very few, if any at all, pure Sylvans left in existence. It is worth mentioning that among many names the breed had in the past, the Sylvan's primary name for centuries was "Zmaj" (Dragon), but the breed was most widely known locally as the "Vucjak" before the 2nd World War, which today just happens to be a very common misnomer used for all German Shepherd Dogs in Yugoslavia. Another traditional name is "Garov", but it is nowadays applied to all black and dark-coloured dogs in the Balkans, regardless of breed.
It has been suggested that these name issues also played an important role in the Sylvanian Wolfdog's demise. However, there is also another powerful element to be considered, this being the so-called "dark side of the Sylvan coin", which has been a major obstacle in the salvation and popularization efforts for a number of years. By purposely spreading half-truths and proliferating fake photographs and in some cases, actual crossbred Sylvan lookalike dogs among the public, those that oppose the revival efforts hope to create as much confusion and division as possible, trivializing the dire situation the breed is in and influencing those who may be genuinely interested in the Dragon to walk away from it due to the petty, yet suspiciously orchestrated public conflicts between the supposed experts, the omnipresent threat of violence for the overly inquisitive fans of the breed, uncomfortable notions of class warfare, as well as constant counterproductive arguments between the honest, but misguided enthusiasts themselves.
To say that it is tragicomical at best and a travesty at its worst for that much politicization and ridicule to be successfully sabotaging the salvation of a breed of dog would be an understatement. Still, for those who truly care about this wonderful Molosser, no amount of unnecessary chaos created by the opposition will be enough to push them away from doing what is right and it is precisely the passion such individuals possess that is the only hope the mighty Zmaj can count on for its survival.
Deep-chested, muscular and athletic, the Sylvan is generally quite a bit taller and slightly leaner than a Sarplaninac, with a longer muzzle and narrower head. This breed is capable of great speeds and has fantastic jumping and climbing skills. The dogs most prized by the traditionalists are the massive longhaired mountain-type Sylvan Wolfdogs, which are presently extremely rare to find. The equally ancient short-haired type has always been and to this day still is more common, although it is not as valued as the richly coated mountain variety among certain purists.
The hard, thick coat is either uniform black or black-n-tan, but white markings of varying sizes are acceptable on the chest and feet, regardless of coat colour. White markings on the muzzle are permitted, but not favoured. The undercoat is thick and can be either black, grey, brindle, red or reddish-brown. Among the black-n-tan and tricolour dogs, the most valued specimens are the ones with strong tan markings above the eyes, which are said to give the dog super-natural powers to protect the village from evil spirits. Another distinction between the black-n-tan varieties of the Sylvan has traditionally been made based on the amount of tan markings on the dog's head, with the "Otvoren" and "Zatvoren" names literally meaning "open" and "closed", the first one being used for examples with more tan and the latter for the dogs with more black on the face.
There are three additional colourings still sometimes encountered in the breed, these being the red-coated "Crljen", the yellow/fawn "Zujan" and the brindled "Sarov" varieties, but they're not seen as desirable by most fanciers, even though they're just as pure and just as ancient as the black-based Sylvans, in whose litters they occasionally appear to this day. While the majority of the breed population exhibits flat coats of varying length, there is also a wire-haired bearded variant present in almost every Sylvan strain, but these rugged cattledogs are falsely considered impure by some authorities, even though this type has been around since ancient times and is greatly valued by most traditionalists. The ears are equally appreciated in any "drop" type and can be either cropped or left natural.
It is interesting to note that according to some breed historians, naturally erect-eared Sylvans existed in ancient times, but have become undesirable after WW2, most likely due to the trait being associated with the GSD influence. The tail is also accepted in any shape and can be unaltered or docked in either the very short fashion as associated with modern Rottweilers or slightly longer as commonly encountered on most Central Asian Ovtcharkas. As is the case with other old mountain Molossers, Sylvan males are usually much larger than their female counterparts.
The ideal height is said to be 33 inches, but most specimens today average 30 inches or less at the withers, with some "family" strains being even smaller.