Bankhar are back on the beat as Mongolian herders

There’s a new khan in town. Scientists are working to re-establish a Mongolian flock-guarding dog called the bankhar, whose powerful demeanor could be said to be reminiscent of the Great Khan, Genghis, the famed and feared 13th-century conqueror.

Their goal? To not only protect the goats, sheep, horses, camels and yaks belonging to Mongolia’s nomadic herders, but also to protect endangered snow leopards and other predators such as wolves and bears from being shot, trapped or poisoned for killing livestock. By warding off predators and forcing them to seek wild prey, the bankhar performs double duty as a protection dog, saving lives on both sides.

“More often than not, the physical presence of the dog would be enough of a deterrent to the predator,” says Greg Goodfellow, project scientist for the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project. “Predators might just view the cost/benefit ratio as not significant enough and just move on.”

The MBDP is a nongovernmental environmental conservation organization founded in 2011 by Bruce Elfstrom, a biologist by training and CEO of a company that does frequent business in Mongolia. It seeks to bring back the historic use of the dogs as livestock guardians. The practice faded away in the mid-20th century when the government sought to introduce more-modern methods of livestock care.

Elfstrom was familiar with the use of livestock guardian dogs in other countries and wondered why they weren’t being used in Mongolia, where predator-livestock interactions were a problem. When he discovered that some people in remote areas still kept dogs for that purpose, he became interested in learning more about them.

Bankhars go way back in Mongolia. When I asked wildlife ecologist and MBDP national project coordinator Batbataar Tumurbataar how long the bankhar has existed, he said, “It’s the first dog, which means 15,000 years.”

“Is that what the stories say?” I asked.

“It’s what DNA says,” he replied.

Although there’s no way of knowing what early dogs looked like or when bankhars took the form they have today, DNA indeed shows that bankhars, along with other Central Asian dogs such as Tibetan mastiffs, have much more genetic diversity than dogs elsewhere, says Adam Boyko, Ph.D., a geneticist at Cornell University who is studying the evolution and genetics of village dogs around the world.

“It is consistent with these being ancient groups of dogs,” he says.

Bankhar are big and athletic, giving the impression that they can move quickly if the need arises. They don’t typically bark unless provoked, but when they do, it sends a menacing message. Bankhar have a playful, curious side as well, Goodfellow says, and can be clever escape artists from their kennels at the training facility near Mongolia’s Hustai National Park.

Their job is to stay with livestock 24/7, whether they are in pastures or barns. They are fed and watered with the animals they guard to ensure that they don’t have any need to leave their charges.

Q: My vet says my 9-month-old Rottweiler is in good shape and not too skinny, but the breeder wants me to put more weight on him. What should I do?

Via email

A: I’m with your veterinarian. Large-breed dogs such as Rottweilers need to grow slowly to help prevent development of orthopedic problems such as hip dysplasia. Forcing the still-developing musculoskeletal system to carry too much weight can cause serious problems.

There are a couple of different feeding options for puppies who will be super-size at maturity. You can feed a puppy or adult food formulated specifically for large dogs. These diets tend to be lower in energy and calcium, allowing for slower growth. You can also feed a regular puppy food, but give a little bit less of it.

It’s also important not to add vitamin or mineral supplements to your Rottweiler’s diet. That can throw off the balance of his food and cause orthopedic problems.

Dr. Marty Becker

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton.