In the Serra da Estrela, in what is now Portugal, the earliest known descendants of the Estrela were herd-guarding dogs. It is unclear if the progenitors that gave rise to this breed were introduced by the Romans during their colonization of the Iberian Peninsula or later by the invading Visigoths because there are no written records. Whatever the case, there is no denying that the Estrela is one of Portugal’s oldest breeds.
The Estrela evolved over many centuries rather than becoming the separate breed we know today as the early guard dogs. Large-sized, strong, having endurance, agile, deep-chested, able to tolerate a marginal diet, a proper set of legs, a powerful mouth, a tuft of hair around its neck, an easy, jogging gait, a warm coat, and a watchful, mistrustful, yet loyal temperament are the qualities that shepherds would have chosen to breed in their dogs.
Even into the 20th century, little had changed for the local canines and humans. Due to the area’s seclusion, the breed wasn’t well-known outside of it until the early 1900s, and even then, they were largely disregarded at the first dog shows. The Portuguese much preferred foreign breeds to their own, and shepherds frequently castrated their dogs to keep them from wandering off to mate. Because of these causes, the Estrela Mountain Dog suffered, thus from 1908 to 1919, specialized competitions known as concursos were held to support and protect the breed in the area. These exhibitions also featured unique working challenges for livestock guardians. A dog’s owner entered a big field filled with numerous flocks of sheep for the trial. Judges watched the dog’s actions as it entered the field and when the shepherd was instructed to relocate the flock, which inevitability resulted in stragglers. In order to bring the lonesome sheep back, the dog was supposed to leave his post of guarding and move to the head of the herd. There may have been some attempt at a registry during this time, but there is no trace of it left behind.
In 1922, the first provisional breed standard was issued. Although it did identify dew claws as indicative of a “perfect” dog, this criteria simply reflected the practical characteristics naturally present in the greatest dogs of the period. There was no mention of the hooked tail or the turned-back ears, which later formed part of the official standard. In 1933, the first breed standard was published. This standard made an effort to identify Estrela as a unique breed. Due to this, the multiple dew claws and hooked tail became necessary. All shades were acceptable.
Breeders of the Estrela were still mostly local farmers and shepherds prior to World War II. They made no attempt to adhere to the official breed standard because they were largely illiterate, assuming they even knew one existed. But by the start of the 1950s, enthusiasm for the breed had revived, and the concursos were once again held annually. Once more, the goal was to pique the citizens of Serra’s curiosity and persuade them to follow the law. The long-haired variation was the most common at shows during this time, but only a tiny percentage of Estrelas lived in Portugal as show dogs and still do today. Many of the working canines had short hair and still do.
The Estrela Mountain Dog still honors its guarding legacy today. It continues to be a working dog, protecting flocks both domestically and abroad. It serves as a police dog for the Portuguese as well. Its vigilance, devotion, intelligence, and instinct to care for young—all qualities it required in its formative years—make it the perfect family companion at home.