Churras, Carea Leonés and Other Herding Breeds From a Common Root Contributed to the Australian Shepherd Dog


“When Spain colonized America, they introduced two kinds of sheep — Churras (Churros) and Merinos (known for their exceptionally fine wool and fleece). Spaniards brought Churras in large numbers to provide food and fiber. The flocks not only survived in their new environment, but they flourished and multiplied. The dogs, too, were hardy individuals, toughened by exposure, and they proved to be capable of withstanding many hardships in the rough, dangerous, and uncharted lands of the Southwest.

The Spanish Churra is an ancient indigenous breed raised throughout the plateaus and sierras of Castile and LeoÏn. This region in northwestern Spain is also where the enormous flocks of Merino sheep were trailed each spring to graze in the mountains during summer since the Middle Ages. In the autumn, around October—the shepherds began their trek back to their winter pastures in the south on the plains of Estremadura and Andalusia. It is estimated that thousands of dogs accompanied them, the smaller ones for tending the flock (Carea) and the larger for guarding (MastiÏn).

Each massive flock or cabaña numbered around 50,000 sheep would be divided into smaller bands averaging 1,000 head. The droves of sheep were tended by shepherds and their dogs. Traditionally, two herders, four dogs and a packhorse or mule were employed for every 1,000 sheep. The mules were used to pack salt for the sheep, cooking utensils, food for the shepherds and dogs, and any lamb born during the journey that was too young to endure the hardships of migration.

For hundreds of years, the quick and agile Carea LeonÈs has been used to tend flocks in the mountains of LeoÏn and bordering provinces. They were developed during the centuries old, cañadas (sheep walks to and from seasonal pastures) known in Spain as the trashumancia. They worked in alongside the Spanish Mastiff who protected the flocks against wolves and other predators. They also traveled the world with the Spanish sheep. However, as the immense flocks diminished with the decline of the trashumance on foot, so did large numbers of these dogs—many of them, including the Leon Shepherd Dog, becoming a rarity.

Recognizing they could be replaced or absorbed by other breeds and lost forever—the University of Leon in cooperation with the Leonese Canine Society put a recovery program in place. The Carea Leonés is making a comeback.

Careas are reserved with strangers. They are hardy, tough and versatile working dogs with strong herding and guardian instincts (a characteristic still seen in Australian Shepherds today). They are highly capable of handling sheep or cattle and are sought after by herdsmen. Their working style is based on the type of work needed when grazing livestock in cultivated areas, unlike when flocks and herds are allowed to graze freely on mountain zones. Careas help keep the animals in check in the same way shepherds in other parts of Europe do as they lead their flocks out to graze.

The Carea Leonés is approximately 18 inches (48cm) to 22 inches (55cm) tall. Their coat is either solid black, liver red or merle (arlequinados or “pintos”) with or without white and or tan trim (shepherds spots) and is moderate in length. The Spanish herding dogs in California and the Southwest have always been known and used by early Australian Shepherd breeders. For example, Maryland Little’s Honey Bun was considered “the Spanish type.” She was from the Graatz ranch in Colton, California, with several recorded generations preceding her. Maryland based her breeding program on both Basque and Spanish dogs.

While the Spanish Merino was developed in Spain—Saxony Merinos—the Ramboullet is a strain that originated from Merino sheep taken from Spain in the 1700s across the Pyrenees Mountains to Germany and then later on to Australia with German settlers.

Eliza Forlonge, who is considered to be the mother of the Australian Fine Wool Industry, made several walking journeys (averaging 10 to 12 miles a day) throughout Germany and one to the top Merino breeding farm in Rambouillet, France. On her journeys she purchased the finest sheep she could find. Later, she retraced her journey, collected the sheep and drove them to be shipped to New South Wales Australia.

In 1796, John and Elizabeth Macarthur, pioneers and founders of the Australian Wool Industry imported their first flock of Spanish Merino sheep.  The Merinos thrived in Australia because the dry, hot climate was very comparable to Spain’s. Records indicate in 1825, Elizabeth transported Joseph Pabts, a German, to New South Wales to care for her flocks. It has also been suggested that when he arrived he brought German herding dogs with him, very possibly a strain of Old German Shepherds (Altdeutscher Schaferhund) known as Tigers.

Tigers are primarily found in southern Germany and look like old foundation working Aussies. The shepherds (stockmen) referred to them simply as sheepdogs (no different than ranchers here who call their stock dogs either “cowdogs” or “sheepdogs.” regardless of the breed. Arbeitsgemeinschaft zur Zucht Altdeutsche Hutehunde (A-A-H) was developed by a group of shepherds for the preservation and registration of the old German herding strains that were in danger of extinction. And, yes, some of these dogs accompanied boatloads of sheep from Australia to America, hence the name by which we know the breed—Australian Shepherd.

A Dog Named Bob – Additional History of Australian Shepherds in Colorado

After posting The Colorado Connection – Some Aussie Trivia, I received a fascinating e-mail from Col. Jon Eckert. He and his wife Elizabeth are Aussie fanciers living in Panama City, Florida.

After visiting and corresponding with him, I learned he was born in 1937 and raised in Western Colorado until after World War II. His mother was the 3rd generation who grew up in the ranching country near Paradox, Colorado – west of Montrose on the Colorado and Utah border. She had a shepherd as a child which later became the center of a great mystery.*

Jon’s grandfather, Harry Sanburg, was an experienced cowboy, ditch rider and the ranch manager for the Mormons in western Montrose County.** Later, in the mid-20s he bought a ranch near Cedaredge which was originally homesteaded by Ed Lavender.

Sanburg had cattle and a reputation for top herding dogs, some of the finest working dogs in the area. As Jon put it, he was “the man with the right dog.” The dogs they used were the type of dogs we identify as Australian Shepherds. “Now Bob may have been a little high in the rear end according to the Aussie standard but the head and ears are all Aussie. In addition Bob had a blue eye as can be seen as white in the black and white picture with my Grandfather,” writes Eckert.

You can see pictures of Bob on the Aussie Timeline (1938):

Interestingly, when you look at the photograph of Bob with Jon in 1938, he looks like he could have been a full brother to our Badger (Hartnagle’s Badger) pictured with Christine and I in 1957:

Jon’s uncle, Lynn, who currently runs the ranch, related a story about Bob. Apparently, a sheep owner came through the area and had heard of Bob’s reputation from some of his sheep herders who had seen the dog work cows. The guy immediately offered Harry Sanburg $75.00 for the dog. It was the middle of the Depression. In spite of the fact that was a significant amount of money – Sanburg refused. He “couldn’t let his buddy go,” said Eckert.

Lynn remembered Bob as always being right there when the horses were saddled up, ready to go. Eckert commented, “And when we say “go” we mean on foot all day; there were no trucks in the mountain or anything like that. I can also remember him and the other dogs going with Grandpa to irrigate every morning. They were always right there when you needed them and ready to work.”

When Jon got older, 8 to 10 years of age, he would go along on the rides in June taking the cattle to the Mesa. “It was Bob’s and my job to bring back the strays from the adjacent ridge as we worked the herd up the mountain. It kept me busy. Bob or Louie, (a light colored red merle that came after Bob), always took care of me and made me look good. Sometimes we would be a mile or so from the herd with some ornery cow that wanted to go her way. Bob or Louie took care of it for me and after a long absence we would finally end up back with the herd.”

The development of that type of dog in the region was facilitated by the annual cattle round up and sorting. Each year the cattle were pastured on Grand Mesa from June to October. “In the old days, the cattle were gathered and sorted in October and then driven home. It was a good opportunity for the dogs to show their stuff to the other ranchers and in the area there was always a demand for offspring of the best ones,” Jon related, and suggested the breed was refined based on performance and utility. He said, “I don’t know that Bob was in demand as a stud dog, but he certainly was one of the performing offspring.”

His uncle said in those days there were no other breeds but this type of dog in the ranch country at that time. The closest type would have been the Border Collie which was not introduced into that area until later on.

Jon also told me about one of his current dogs named Cory who has the characteristics of the old dogs. I asked him to describe him. “I guess the one word I would use is he is a teammate and always ready to work. I don’t think of him as a pet, but part of a team no matter what we are doing. I try to read his eyes, because that is how he communicates with me. He does bark and it is either out of frustration or joy depending on the situation. Yep, he is my teammate.”

The ranch is still going, run by Lynn and his sons. Even though Border Collies have taken over with the new generation of cattle ranchers, Jon still remains faithful to Australian Shepherds. At this time he has six Aussies. Although, he is out of the cattle business in Florida, he and his wife participate in Agility and Obedience with the breed. He says they are, “still the greatest dog.”

* When the dog died, she was ceremoniously buried in a Ute Burial Ground on the ranch.

“Later, in the 1970s, archeologists were excavating the site and were confused about the modern dog bones in the grounds. An article was published in the Grand Junction Sentinel about the find. Word got to his mother and she was glad to settle the mystery,” laughed Jon.

** Harry Sanburg was in the Colorado State Legislature in the 1930s and is responsible for many of the State’s original water laws.

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