The Serra da Estrela or Estrela Mountain Dog is a unique indigenous breed originat

The Serra da Estrela Dog – also known as the Estrela Mountain Dog or Cão da Serra da Estrela – is a large, robust and majestic breed native to the Serra da Estrela mountains of Portugal.

A working dog first and foremost, it is known for its protective nature and innate ability to guard livestock – particularly sheep and goats – escorting them safely through the rugged terrain. The breed has strong protective instincts and is valued for its loyalty, intelligence, and resilience.

The Serra da Estrela Dog has become an integral part of the region’s pastoral heritage and is admired throughout Portugal both for its dedication and its beauty.

Physical Characteristics

The Serra da Estrela Dog is a large breed, standing between 62cm-72cm at the withers, with the males generally taller than the females. They can weigh between 30-50kg.

They are muscular and athletic with excellent stamina. They have long legs and a hooked tail which curves upwards. They have amber eyes, an intelligent gaze and rose ears set far back on the head.

Coat and colour

The coat, which is described as having the texture of goat hair, may be either long or short and comes in a variety of colours – mainly buff, brindle or black. Lighter coloured dogs often have black muzzles and underparts.

Short-hairs and Long-Hairs

The short-haired variety, originating from the mountain summits and Northern hillsides, was traditionally the more popular as a working dog. It is lower maintenance and better suited to working long days in hot summers.

In recent times, the breed’s growing popularity as a show dog has seen a strong preference emerge for the long-coated variety, which originated on Serra da Estrela’s southernmost slopes.

Due to the fantastic looks and higher value of long-haired dogs for the showing and pet industries, the number of short-haired dogs is now in rapid decline, even among working specimens. Short-haired Serra da Estrelas are facing extinction: only 8% of Serra da Estrela dogs registered with the Portuguese kennel club each year are short-hairs. This is a great shame, as the low-maintenance short coat makes for a more practical and functional working animal, helping to ensure the breed remains well-suited to the task for which it was originally bred.

Lifespan

Unusually for a large breed, they live between 12 and 14 years, sometimes up to 16 – a testament to their rusticity and excellent health.

Temperament

The Serra da Estrela is a calm, collected and confident dog that knows no fear. They are a livestock guardians, rather than a herding dogs or pets – selectively bred over hundreds of years to bond more closely to stock animals than to humans.

Originally, they protected the animals from wolves and bears but these days they serve more as a deterrent to human thieves and small predators, such as foxes. They will defend their herd to the death.

Attitude to strangers

The Serra da Estrela’s aloof and defensive nature makes it an excellent guard dog, wary of strangers but rarely aggressive unless property or livestock is threatened. It has a deep and powerful bark that sends a clear message.

When young and uncertain (up to the age of two), these dogs may bark at anything they perceive to be a threat. Once older and wiser, they generally calm down.

Attitude to other dogs

The Serra da Estrela is a calm dog that generally tolerates others so long as they are not threatening its property. Males will usually get along, but may scrap with one another if an in-season female is present. Bitches can sometimes show aggression to one another, as in most dogs.

Small dogs are generally of no concern to Serra da Estrelas, but they are said to strongly dislike larger, high energy breeds such as huskies, boxers, etc.

When kept as a pack, Serra da Estrelas often work cooperatively to defend the livestock and home.

Attitude to family

These dogs bond with their shepherd for life and will take his cue regarding who is friend and who is foe. They are said to be good with children, protecting them as dutifully as they protect their flocks. They are highly perceptive and can read their owners’ mood and intentions well.

Serra da Estrela dogs require ample space to roam and patrol. They were not bred to be household pets or apartment dogs and do not do well in such situations. They enjoy sleeping outside and having space to do their own thing. If not adequately fenced, they may ‘patrol’ the neighborhood, returning after a few hours.

Requirements

These dogs are strong-willed, having been selected for centuries for their ability to work independently. They require a patient and equally as strong-willed owner who is able to create firm boundaries.

The long-haired variety require weekly brushing to prevent matting, making them less convenient as working dogs.

History

An ancient breed

Statue of the a Molossus dog

The Serra da Estrela is an ancient breed – one of the oldest in the Iberian peninsula. While its history is not recorded, it is sometimes said to be descended from dogs brought by the Romans, which were interbred with the pre-existing local types.

One possible ancestor is the mighty Molossus – a mastiff-type breed originating in Ancient Greece.

Rise in popularity

The breed was little known outside of Serra da Estrela and completely unknown outside of Portugal until the early 20th century. The tendency of Portuguese dog enthusiasts to favour well-known foreign breeds, and of shepherds to castrate their male Estrelas to discourage roaming, eventually had a negative effect on the breed’s population.

Between 1908 to 1919 a series of ‘concursos’ (shows and contents) were held with the purpose of promoting and preserving the Estrela breed in its indigenous region. Some of the concursos involved working trials to assess dogs’ ability to gather and guard their flocks.

A breed standard was published in 1922 but, prior to World War II, Estrelas were primarily kept and bred by illiterate shepherds in their native mountains, favouring dogs that simply worked well, regardless of conformation.

Outside interest surged in the 1950 and the annual concursos were reinstated. The long-haired variety proved more popular at shows, while shepherds continued to favour the more functional short-hairs. The enthusiasm was short-lived and waned once again in the 1970s.

First foreign exports

Unlike many popular breeds, which had already become well established outside their homelands by the 1970s, there is no record of a Serra da Estrela dog outside of Portugal before 1972. Between 1972-73, several unregistered pairs were exported, establishing a small breeding population in the United Kingdom. In 1988, the first registered dog was exported to the United States.

Meanwhile, in their native country, rumours were circulating that the Estrela Mountain Dog was in danger of extinction.

Saved by the revolution

In 1974, the Serra da Estrela dog was inadvertently saved by the Portuguese revolution, overthrowing Europe’s longest dictatorship of four decades. It led to a reform in the culture of dog shows – formerly a past-time of the wealthy, who enjoyed showing off their imported foreign dogs breeds as status symbols. Dog shows were now open to everyone and the more easily accessible working native breeds began to make an appearance.

An increase in crime also led to an increase in guard dogs, and the Serra da Estrela was considered a fine specimen for such a role.

The Serra da Estrela Dog Today

Today the Serra da Estrela dog can still be found in its native mountains, doing what it was born to do – escorting flocks and accompanying shepherds through rugged valleys. It now also guards flocks and protects homesteads worldwide, from Europe to the USA.

The Serra da Estrela has been adopted by the Portuguese navy, who utilise the breed as guard and patrol dogs, in the same way that German Shepherds or Malinois are used by other forces.

Spotting the Serra da Estrela and Safety Around Livestock Guardian Dogs

The Serra da Estrela dog is not hard to find in its native mountains. Driving along the mountain roads, particularly in the Spring and Summer, you will encounter many shepherds driving their flocks along the tarmac. With them, either leading at the front or bringing up the rear, you will often see one or more large Estrela dogs.

In practice, shepherds may keep several types of dogs for different purposes. It’s common practice in Portugal to have a ‘big dog and a small dog’, and some shepherd choose to keep herding breeds such as collies, in addition to their livestock guardians.

You may also encounter Serra da Estrelas by themselves, as these dogs are high independent. You may see them patrolling villages, guarding the edges of farms, roaming footpaths through the mountains and even in the centres of towns, walking down the side of a busy main road.

If you encounter a Serra da Estrela, the best thing to do is give him a wide berth. While these dogs are rarely aggressive, they are naturally suspicious of strangers.

If the dog is with a flock, try to attract the attention of the shepherd, who will let the dog know that you pose no threat. If you cannot see a shepherd, give the flock and its guardians a wide berth. Do not run – it’s best to walk on with a steady pace, letting the dog see that you have no intention to harm its sheep or goats.

If the dog is defending a property margin, it may bark. As long as you do not cross onto the property, the dog will usually let you pass.

While dog attacks have never been reported in Serra da Estrela, working livestock guardian dogs are great at what they dog and can be intimidating if they are unsure of your intentions. Carrying a stick or walking pole may make you feel more safe.

Puppy Mills

There are sadly several places in the mountains where you may encounter ‘Serra da Estrela’ puppies for sale at roadside stalls. Kept in small cages with little shade, these puppies are bred as souvenirs for tourists. The parents are housed in small unsanitary kennels for the sole purpose of breeding more dogs.

Puppies unsold after a certain age are either kept for further breeding, or more often abandoned in the mountains.

Do not fall prey. The puppies are incredibly cute and fluffy, but every purchase only supports the continuation of these unethical puppy mills.

There are many Serra da Estrela dogs, including litters of puppies, available for free in local kennels. If you would like to purchase a Serra da Estrela as a livestock guardian, we encourage you to look for short-haired dogs from proven working stock in order to ensure the preservation of the functional qualities of this rare and unique Portuguese breed.

Breeders

For more information about breeders of the Estrela Mountain Dog, see: https://www.caodaserradaestrela.net/breeders

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