By Ine Dorresteijn
When I first came to Lueneburg, I was warned by my colleagues to be careful with aggressive sheep dogs while doing fieldwork in Romania. My first reaction was, Yeah yeah you are overreacting, I grew up with dogs and I am not afraid of them and probably will not be in Romania either. Well my view on sheepdogs changed the first time I met them, and since that moment they do scare me. In fact when we see sheep in the distance, which can be several hundred meters away, we already start plotting how to get to our site and at the same time avoid running into the dogs.
To give you a better understanding on the different types of sheepdogs we encounter we started categorizing the dogs in the field. Among many, we created 4 new main subspecies of Canis lupus familiaris and classified them by the IUCN Red List as we saw fit: Canis lupus familiaris barkius (least concern), C. l. familiaris non-barkius (endangered), C. l. familiaris on roadius (least concern), and C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie (critically endangered). As you can see barking dogs are still very common. Now this can be a good thing as barking dogs don’t bite right. On the other hand it is quite a frightening sound when there are many dogs barking and they show their big teeth and give you the vibe that all they want to do is eat you. The on roadius type is a special character on its own, although maybe a little suicidal. In brief, they wait for you on the road and than they attack the car with the determination as if the car is a big monster that has to be eliminated (see video). Luckily, the car protects us against the dogs but the fear still exists that you might hit a dog and have to explain it to the shepherd. Or, just imagine you are making a nice bike-ride instead, that would change the feeling of encountering C. l. familiaris on roadius. On the positive side, the best dogs to encounter are the one of the pookie-pookie type. Basically they look big and angry when you meet them at first but than talking to them in a soft voice and calling them pookie-pookie changes the dog’s entire behavior (see picture). Suddenly he remembers he is also just a dog and starts wiggling the tail, rolling around and begging with big eyes to be petted. After some playing time and being covered in dog slobber you can happily move on without any further problems. These are really the best dog moments but unfortunately most of the time the dogs did not respond to pookie-pookie but rather to some harsh yelling and waving of the stick.
Now back to the question whether these dogs are a blessing or a curse, and what does this mean for biodiversity in the region. There is no doubt that they protect sheep from carnivores, which in turn might protect carnivores at the same time, as it is a way for shepherds to coexist with carnivores. On the other hand, hunters have complained that dogs hunt in the forests on deer, which could have negative impacts on their populations. This problem however could be mitigated by feeding dogs enough good quality food and train them to stay with the sheep or at the sheep camp. A second problem could arise that the presence of sheep dogs could hamper development strategies such as eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is often suggested as a sustainable viable option for rural development. Sheepdogs like barkius and on roadius, however, make hiking, biking, or outdoor activities difficult or an unpleasant experience for tourists. Instead biodiversity might benefit from low tourism as certain development, like the replacement of dirt roads into gravel/asphalt roads could reduce important habitat for (threatened) amphibians. Thus, whether dogs are more guardians of biodiversity or a threat to biodiversity to me is still an open question.
Overall, I still think that dogs in Romania are still a blessing although we should minimize the chances of them becoming a curse. For this to happen it will be necessary to find pro-active conservation strategies to maintain and increase the population of well-fed critically endangered C. l. familiaris pookie-pookie!