In the journey to seek out the original dogs of the Russian Mennonites, and whether or not any drop of blood made their way to the New World, there were many conflicting sources as dogs were seldom mentioned. The only canines worth noting belonged to European nobles or to strange, alien cultures. The farmers were neither.
The English of the 19th century often painted a bleak, grim, often crude picture of South Russia. Wolfhounds, presumably Borzois, were unleashed and oftentimes the nobility regarded any deaths of the villagers during the grand hunt as collateral damage in pursuit of their favourite game. Great wooly dogs were said to be foul, savage and ornery, who lived in the holes of the earth, attacking any peasants dared to venture near them; bones devoured. This reference is probably to the South Russian or Caucasian Ovcharkas. The method described of separating the sheep from the Ovcharkas is quite unusual– the landowners caged the beasts while tending to the flocks; and usually this required calling upon the mir [trans. "commune"] to entrap and hold them. However, it is important to note there is a strong cultural basis, as the early writers often paint the peasants of South Russia, nowadays Ukraine, as imbeciles who often fell victim to the wolfhounds and the great dogs of the earth; while the German farmers, assumingly Mennonites, were somehow untouched. Unfortunately, there seems to be a general conscience the Slavs were inferior in early modern English literatures.
Historically, the Mennonites had a close relationship with Khanates along the coastline of the Black Sea and into the Central Asian interior. However, in this context, the settlement of Molochna is intertwined with the Nogais. There the Mennonites and the Nogai Horde would engage in trade relations for six decades prior to the departure of the Khanate in 1860. The Khans did not particularly care for the Russians, and the Germans were isolationist pacifists. However since the pacifists and the nomads saw similarity in solitary life independent of Russian politics, they struck out a deal: in exchange for diary, grains and maintenance of the fields, the abandoned pastures would be rented out to the settlers during the seasonal migrations of the Khans.
What is really particular is the English revered the Khanates migrating to the Sea of Asov. The writers described three types of dogs: the greyhounds, most likely tazis, small pursue toy-like dogs which rode with the horse, and the livestock guardians; most likely Central Asian Ovcharkas. What is most intriguing is the pouch dogs were kept for good-luck; the hounds would kick up the rabbit or a wolf in conjunction with the killing blow of an eagle; and the cumbersome wolf-killing livestock guardians could actually herd horses and cattle.
Herd? The Ovcharka community considers herding as a fault. If dogs can herd, then it means they can’t guard. In fact, the easiest way to get on the nerves of enthusiasts is to suggest they can herd.
Confounded by the contradictions between historical texts and modern beliefs, an explanation was needed. Consulting with a few self-professed historians and behaviourists in the blogosphere, we came to the conclusion the livestock was bundling around the dogs and where the dogs move, the stock follows seeking refugee of the dogs. It is the most logical explanation: simple flocking behaviour. After all, this is what incomplete records tell us.
But what is this?
Brad Anderson was kind enough to share a YouTube channel maintained by TOBETKZ. The featured dogs are a type of Central Asian Ovcharkas from Kazakhstan called a Tobet. The ones in the videos shown above are actively herding cattle and horses.
The behaviours of the Tobet go against what experts tell us. Even though herding is a modification of a predatory sequence and it is theoretically a liability for livestock guardians, it is curious to see whether the results of these behaviours lie more in what people expect from them, not a byproduct of attempting to rationalize how a dog should behave from the armchair. The blatant disregard for the notion of a livestock guardian which could fight wolves and feral dogs while moonlighting as a herding dog seems to be a Westernized ideal imposed upon the dogs in the muddled mythology pioneered by people who have a hard-on for the concept of a big mastiff-like dog as repurposed New Age estate guardians. This what these dogs do in their native homelands. No ifs or buts.
However these videos only provide a limited insight into the history of livestock guardians and herding breeds. While Kazakhstan is one of the few places left in the world where people remains nomadic, they are merely only a shadow of a society which once existed 150 years ago. They do not tell us what life was like two centuries ago. On the other hand, these modern examples do give us clues.
Nevertheless, I got my answers. Unfortunately, it is not the one I was looking for.
Airunp. 2005. File:Kazakh shepard with dogs and horse.jpg Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kazakh_shepard_with_dogs_and_horse.jpg (accessed September 1, 2011). [Image: airunp, 2004]