Evidence of this breed’s ancestors can be traced back to at least 7,000 and possibly as far as 15,000 B.C. Ancient petroglyphs (carvings or engravings on rocks), especially prevalent in the Geghama and Syuniq Mountains of Armenia (known today as the Republic of Armenia), trace the breeds development over time. By 1,000 B.C. the petroglyphs show a preponderance of carvings of Gamprs, compared to other types of dogs; from this information, archaeologists have gleaned that Gamprs had fully emerged as a breed by this time in history and enjoyed preferential status in the ancient culture.
Other indications of this breed’s ancient existence are found in cultural references as well as other archaeological artifacts. Ancient myths and folklore regarding the Gampr are well known among the Armenian people and date back to the end of the last ice age. For instance, many stories surround the Armenian deity Aralez, a Gampr like dog who supposedly licked the wounds of warriors on the battle field, bringing them back to life. Pictographs, skeletons, and pottery also lend credence to their early existence and importance in Armenian culture. Tombs in the basin of Lake Sevan, dating back to 1,000 B.C. were unearthed in the 1950s, and in one of these a full dog skeleton was found as well as numerous dog skulls. Archaelogists compared them to those of the modern Gampr and found them almost identical. Also, images of dogs resembling the breed have been found on ancient pieces of pottery located in Lori Fortess.
The Armenian Gampr is closely related to Caucasian Ovcharkas, Central Asian Shepherds, Kars, Kangals, and Anatolians, all of which share similar characteristics. In their history, these now standardized breeds may have been crossed with Armenian Gamprs; in fact the modern version of the Caucasian Ovcharkas are believed to be about eighty percent Armenian Gampr. However unlike its standardized “cousins”, the Gampr retains all the genetic variations with which it originated. Up until about three hundred years ago, Gamprs continued to be occasionally crossed with native wolves. Gamprs are extremely rare today, in part because they are not standardized; therefore they do not enjoy the recognition and clout given breeds registered with and recognized by internationally known dog breed associations.
Armenian Gamprs are a landrace breed, as opposed to the more familiar and common standardized ones. Within each landrace breed individuals vary more in appearance than those within standardized ones. Landraces consist of local populations whose development depends less on humans and more on natural selection and geography. Landrace breeds such as the Armenian Gampr are the result of the interplay of three factors: the founder effect, isolation, and environmental adaptation. Founders are the particular types of animals that ended up in a certain location by some accident of history; these founders form the entire genetic basis of a landrace breed. When groups composed of the same type of founding animals are isolated from each other, they diverge over time, even though they share common genetic roots. They develop differently due to natural selection and geography, which combine to create a genetic consistency as the breed adapts to its local environment. They also develop a resistance to parasites and diseases in their locale, as well as longevity and reproductive efficiency. The usual progression is for landrace breeds to eventually become standardized.
Standardized breeds conform to particular physical characteristics, colors, and types, which are decided upon by humans, and laid out as specifications to be used in focused breeding practices. This set standard prescribes what dogs of a particular breed should look and behave like. In contrast, the Armenian Gampr has a breed standard, but it describes the breed as it is, rather than determining what it should be.
While the Armenian Gampr has been a companion and protector of the Armenian people and of their primary livelihood since ancient times, surviving natural disasters and invasions; the last one hundred years of Armenia’s political turmoil have threatened the breed’s existence. In addition to the sheer loss in numbers, most of the Gamprs well renowned bloodlines have disappeared, as well.
Three-quarters of the Armenian people were slaughtered between 1915 and 1923 by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks pushed Armenians northward and annexed the Armenian Plateau, renaming it the Anatolian Plateau, and at the same time they co-opted the Gamprs residing in this region. These dogs became foundation stock for several varieties of Turkish breeds, including the Akbash, Kars, Kangal-Sivas, and the Anatolian breeds, while diminishing the number of true Armenian Gamprs. Even though much of northeastern Turkey was historically Armenia, the country of Turkey is attempting to claim Gamprs as theirs, renaming them to “prove” they are a native Turkish breed.
On the heels of the Ottoman invasion, the Soviet Union took many of the best remaining Armenian Gamprs as foundation stock for their Red Star breeding program. The Soviets intended to create a police dog, more willing to do humans’ bidding and attack on command. They crossed the Gampr with a variety of dogs, including Rottweillers, St. Bernards, German Shepherds, Newfoundlands, and Great Danes. The Caucasian Ovcharka, the latter part of the name meaning sheepdog, came out of this experiment. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, countries that were formerly part of it have bred the Caucasian Ovcharka to be a larger, more aggressive breed which has resulted in serious genetic issues for these dogs to include bad hips and unstable temperaments.
In the 1990s Armenian Gamprs were introduced to the United States through the efforts of two men, Grigor Chatalyan and Tigran Nazaryan, unacquainted with each other and working separately, Chatalyan in the U.S. and Nazaryan in Armenia. Mr. Grigor Chatalyan, a resident of California, acquired his first Gampr puppy, named King in 1991. While King was a U.S. born Gampr, his parents had been imported from Armenia by a man named Pailak. A few years later, Mr. Chatalyan began to import Armenian Gamprs to America; his first import was Fernando who, coincidentally, was the son of one of Tigran Nazaryan’s dogs. Next he imported two dogs named Simba and Nala, who now have numerous descendents in Los Angeles and the surrounding area of Southern California. Mr. Chatalyan continues to import Armenian Gamprs to U.S. citizens, as well as to people in Guadalajara, Jalisco, and Chihuahua, Mexico, where the dogs are used to guard sheep.
Tigran Nazaryan attended college at U.C. Berkeley before returning to his homeland of Armenia. He became interested in the Armenian Gamprs and concerned about the decline of good bloodlines in the country, so he teamed up with a veterinarian named Avetik. Together they located the best Armenian breed specimens and gathered information on them. Mr. Nazaryan wrote the software for a database, entered the Gamprs’ information into it, and created a website (gampr.net) in 1998. On his website, he posted one hundred of the three hundred dogs shown; these dogs are ancestors and relatives of the most reputable of Armenia’s Gamprs.
Tigran Nazaryan also wanted to establish the Armenian Gampr in the United States. To that end, he began to export personally selected puppies to the U.S. During the long transit, the dogs had to be moved to several different locations. One of the pups made a fortuitous stop at the home of Rohana Mayer. Intrigued by the breed and its story, she did more research into their history, and became inspired to start the Armenian Gampr Club of America (AGCA). Ms. Mayer created the clubs website and began working with Tigran Nazaryan to maintain the safety and integrity of the Armenian Gampr, when imported into this country, as well as in other parts of the world. One of the stated goals of the AGCA is to preserve the Armenian Gampr in the United States. Today the U.S. is home to more than one hundred Gamprs, most of them in California.
However, as of 2008, regulations began to be enacted requiring dogs be spayed or neutered who do not meet certain specifications. To avoid sterilization dogs must be registered by a recognized canine club as breeders and dogs must be actively shown. The first county to adopt such a regulation was Los Angeles County, where most of the United States based Armenian Gamprs are located. The AGCA is opposed to breeding dogs according to a show dog standard because this often sets off inflated prices for dogs possessing physical traits deemed attractive by the public. Such lucrative situations lead to breeding for these physical characteristics at the expense of the breed’s utilitarian traits. According to the AGCA, “the Gampr is uniquely shaped by nature and necessity, not fashion or vanity or pocketbooks, and should remain so.” In other words, the AGCA recognizes that the Armenian Gampr risks losing its most valued traits if it becomes a standardized, rather than a landrace, breed.
To protect this rare breed, thoughtful, carefully planned breeding practices are essential. The intention of the AGCA is to support only healthy breeding practices that will in no way compromise the genetic complexity of the Armenian Gampr. The AGCA is dedicated to maintaining “the Gampr breed in its most pure, original manifestation as the ideal livestock guardian and human companion, as physically and mentally sound as it was for the last several thousand years.”
In its home continent the continued existence of the Armenian Gampr dog as a landrace is in danger due to the geographic and cultural coexistence of the Caucasian Ovcharka and the Central Asian Ovcharka, and the use of them as a standard or blueprint for Gampr dogs. According to the AGCA website: “Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the trend has been to breed the ovcharka larger and more defensive[…] Even though there are some definite differences between the native dogs and the modern ovcharka, the ovcharka has the recognition of the Federacion Cynologue Internacional (FCI), an international dog breed club, and therefore the native breeds (like the Armenian Gampr) are not valued as such, but are pressured to prove themselves to be ovcharka. This poses a threat to the genetic soundness of the gampr, as the pressure to become a more widely recognized dog has the potential to disrupt the fine-tuning of thousands of years of natural development.” To that end the Armenian Gampr Club of America has stated clearly that “The gampr is not: An Alabai, a Caucasian Ovcharka, a Kangal, an Anatolian, an Akbash, a Karakatchan, a Central Asian Shepherd, a Koochee, a Tornjak, a Sharplaninatz, or a cross of these.”
The AGCA states that Armenian Gamprs in the United States are about seventy-five percent genetically pure; the Club wants to improve that percentage. One method of achieving their aim is through a mobile semen collection project. The procedure is to collect from the best male Gamprs in the Armenian mountain region and then import the semen to the U.S. to impregnate the best female Gamprs. The resulting litters will raise the genetic purity of the breed in America. This undertaking is a long term project that requires a great deal of research and funding to complete.
In 1991 through 1993, Armenia experienced a sudden drop in its Gampr population due to the country’s economic downturn, including an almost complete loss of electricity and gas during two of the coldest winters on record. The dogs that survived these years, were hungry and underdeveloped. In 1994, the economy and living conditions in Armenia improved and Gamprs showed a marked increase throughout the country. The undersized, seemingly deficient specimens began to give birth to healthy, strong Armenian Gamprs. This ancient and adaptable landrace dog, was able to genetically hunker down into a latent condition until its environment improved, thus preventing the complete extinction of the breed in its native land. When the situation improved, the strong gene pool reasserted itself, once again allowing the amazing traits for which the Armenian Gampr is known, to come forth. This phenomenon demonstrates the value of protecting and maintaining the genetic integrity of this landrace breed.
In April 2011 the International Kennel Union (IKU) recognized the Armenian Gampr as an official breed, as well as the national dog of Armenia. Despite the word “international” in its title, the IKU is located only in Moscow and consists almost exclusively of Central Asian countries, primarily those that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. However, Violetta Gabrielyan, President of the Cynological Union of Armenia, also known as the Armenian Kennel Union (AKU), considers this recognition “a great victory for Armenia” and for Armenia’s dog breeding community. The AKU has been engaged in ongoing efforts to thwart Turkey’s assertion in 1989 that the Armenian Gampr was their national dog breed. The Turks registered the breed as the “Anatolian Karabash” dog.
According to Ms. Gabrielyan this move by the IKU helps enhance the country’s dog breeding credentials throughout the world and such clout could help in another ongoing concern — that Georgians and Azerbaijans, whose countries border Armenia and were once part of it, will also try to claim the Gampr as their national breed.
Today Armenia is home to an estimated two thousand Armenian Gamprs. These dogs are used as they have been for thousands of years, as guarding and herding dogs for livestock and as companion dogs for their families. They are also used in rural and urban areas to guard property. It is unfortunate to note that this breed is sometimes used for the illegal and cruel sport of dog fighting, usually by crossing it with other more well known fighting breeds such as American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers or the Rottweiler.