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The recovery of the Garafiano Shepherd, one step in the conservation of native breeds

The presence of dogs on the islands before colonization is a little discussed fact. They are part of the idiosyncrasy of a town linked until not so long ago to livestock and that has a hallmark in the native breeds. Its conservation and maintenance are a commitment to history itself.

Aware of this reality, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries of the Government of the Canary Islands approved last April a new standard for the Garafiano dog - the Pastor Garafiano a breed of sheep dog native to the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands - with which it guarantees the conservation of the breed, which has been threatened for years.

The initiative responded to the demands of the Spanish Association of the Pastor Garafiano, which in turn collects the concerns of farmers and breeders, and defends the presence of this breed as part of the genetic, cultural and ethnological heritage of the islands.

An historical breed

The ancient inhabitants of the islands lived with the ancestors of the Garafiano shepherd, who owes his name to La Palma municipality of Garafía. Before circumscribing it to this place, where its presence was numerous, it was known as a wolfdog and has traditionally been linked to working with cattle and herding.

If there is someone who knows its history and what it means for the Canarian heritage and biodiversity, it is Juan Capote. The biologist, veterinarian and researcher from La Palma, with a recognized career, is currently president of the Federation of Indigenous Breeds of the Canary Islands (FARACAN) and was behind the creation of the first prototype that was carried out in the 1980s. Capote appoints Antonio Manuel Díaz Rodríguez as a key figure in the process of recovery and control of the species. He says that it has been a long job, "between discouragement and effort", which has been developing since 1981 to establish an adequate and faithful standard "that respects the natural characteristics and its functionality as a herding dog with an exceptional ability on the mountain". As for character, an important trait in the recovery task, Capote is clear: "It is a sensitive, intelligent and kind dog, not aggressive, and when he bonds with a person, he establishes a very deep relationship with them." The researcher also highlights the beauty of the animal, “although what I like is his look".

In 2003 the breed was officially recognized by the Royal Spanish Canine Society, but to reach that reality, many hours of work and important awareness-raising efforts were needed to put an end to the threatening practice of crossbreeding. According to Capote “in the 50s and 60s the Garafians were dangerously crossed with German shepherds, which changed, among other things, their character. Sometimes they even cut off their fangs.” But the history of these crosses, he says, began much earlier: "With the arrival of the conquerors, some breeds from La Palma were crossed with others from outside, so it was easy to see Garafians with characteristics of the Celtic dog." Changes in diet and its deficit during times of crisis also influenced their genetics. "When they began to eat well, they grew and that aspect made them gain power, but now a good diet is pursued without changing their size, since the most important thing is not the power itself, but the power applied to the ground," he says.

All this work in favor of conservation has also been possible thanks to the support of the Canarian Institute of Agricultural Research (ICIA), attached to the Ministry, which has worked on the recognition of almost all the native breeds of the Canary Islands and has collaborated in taking of samples for the study of the Garafiano shepherd.

The importance of recognition

Before recovery is recognition. That is the previous and essential step today in any recovery process. The rest of the requirements are the existence of an adequate census, a genetic study, a morphological one and a historical one, which includes the evolution of animals. A proposal for a breed standard and a genetic management of the breed are also necessary. Right now, according to Capote, “the official census is very low because there was a long period of discouragement. There are more than 100 Garafians registered with a presence from all the islands and some places on the Peninsula, although their number is much higher”.

The commitment of professionals, breeders and institutions to the recovery of native breeds is solid and has its best example in the conservation of breeds as emblematic as the Presa Canario, which has maintained its standard since 1989 and has a record of 15,500 copies distributed all over the world. In fact, and according to the president of the Spanish Presa Canario Club, José Manuel López, "this breed is among the five with the highest projection and acceptance in the world”. “We calculate that 40% or a little more of the breed is outside the islands. Northern Europe is the place where there is more projection, but we also find many specimens in the United States, Mexico or Argentina, to name just a few places”, López points out.

True to origin standard

The new Garafiano standard seeks to maintain its original characteristics as a medium-sized lupoid dog, suitable for grazing in steep areas thanks to its rump, among other features. Its height is medium in size and varies depending on the sex (between 54 and 60 centimetres for males, and between 50 and 56 for females). The usual weight would be between 18 and 25 kilos in females and 24 to 31 kilos in males. Their eyes are slanted and they may have extra fingers on the back paws. As for the coat, it is indicated that it is long and of fawn or alobado (wolf-like, especially in hair colour) colours, mainly. 

In addition, they are highly appreciated for their character as pets.

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