The Giant Caucasian Sheepdog

by Stefano Bolognini

This chapter is from Like Wind, Like Wave: Fables From the Land of the Repressed by Stefano Bolognini (New York: Other Press, 1999)

The books we read when ill or convalescing seem destined to remain deeply impressed on the memory. Perhaps this can be put down to the situation of partial, but pensive isolation, the sense of timelessness, and the lack of real stimuli available; who knows? But somehow we end up investing much more in the imaginative representation of things.

Many years ago, following a physical mishap, I was forced to rest up for a couple of weeks and came across a book by a British mountaineer of the late nineteenth century. There were accounts of all his endeavors on half the world’s mountain peaks and I completely immersed myself in them with effects of intense suggestion.

I now realize that the choice of volume was far from casual: bedridden by my illness and unable even to get to the bathroom without a huge effort, I unconsciously defended myself from a sense of powerlessness and forced immobility by identifying with a funambulatory mountain-climber. Above all, that fin-de-siècle adventurer (whose name unfortunately escapes me) gradually emerged through the reading as a well-educated, complex character and a keen observer, worthy of much more than the term ‘climber’ implied. He was, in fact, an English gentleman commissioned by the National Geographic Institute to explore in depth certain mountainous zones which were still uncharted at the time and report back to that prestigious institution which had generously funded the undertaking, as was current usage. Hence the book.

There was a long account of his journey through the Caucasian mountains, a virtually unknown area of sullen wilderness, thinly populated and consisting of high upland plateaus, punctuated with craggy valleys and blackish peaks over fifteen thousand feet in height. While traversing these remote (and reading between the lines, sinister) places, every now and then our explorer made contact with the diffident local population, which consisted mainly of sheep-farmers. His account of one such encounter fired my interest and above all my imagination. In order to protect their flocks from their natural predators, the Caucasian shepherds use an extraordinary dog, which according to the explorer was lion-like in appearance, of majestic dimensions, and incredibly bellicose in temperament. This enthusiastic description – the English have always been very keen on dogs – made no mention of closer, more personal encounters with this mighty beast; indeed, reading between the lines, it was clear that the writer had prudently avoided such meetings. But his account was sufficient to render the idea of a powerful animal with an air of great authority, capable of striking terror into the heart of even the boldest, a product of natural selection able to face extreme conditions and accustomed to the fellowship of the inhabitants of that lost corner of the world.

I was absolutely fascinated and my imagination set off at a gallop. What were these giant canines really like? Did they still exist? Would it be possible to see one? Perhaps even approach one and make friendly contact?

Here again, my interest in those dogs was a compensatory move with respect to my real possibilities and inclinations. I had always been afraid of dogs and had never got on with them. Whenever they approached me (the possibility of my approaching them could be definitely ruled out), I went stiff with fright, as many do; rarely do people feel a spontaneous sense of interest and understanding at their first meeting with a strange dog of medium to large dimensions. I also recalled a couple of unfortunate experiences as a child, and I especially noticed the great divide between the potential for physical movement of dog and man. We are no match for our canine friends as regards reflexes, rapidity of movement and running speed; if it wanted to, any dog could attack and get the better of a human being with relative ease.

At the time, I was even afraid of poodles; just imagine what would have happened if I had really come across a giant Caucasian sheepdog, more fearsome than a St. Bernard and more powerful than a Molossian mastiff! At the very least, I would have been frozen to the spot with fear. Yet, I was fascinated by the idea of this animal.

Many years later, when I had really learnt about dogs and was fond of them, I was reminded of that legendary breed and searched my parents’ bookshelves for the volume in question. Unfortunately, my search was in vain and so I can not cite the author. However, in an encyclopedia of dogs I did find a mention of the giant Caucasian sheepdog which enriched my baggage of suggestions on the subject. It appears that at the beginning of the nineteenth century Czar Nicholas II had two specimens brought to St. Petersburg. Of extraordinary weight and size, it took four strong men with ropes to hold them. They were defined as sheepdogs, but not because they worked with the shepherds to keep the flocks together or discipline individual sheep. The poor sheep would probably have died of a heart attack at just one growl from such a beast. Rather, it was because they kept large predators at bay. These giant sheepdogs, it seems, had one supreme aspiration: to do battle with their natural enemy, the black Russian bear. Wolves posed no problem; they could make mincemeat of them in less than no time.

The Encyclopedia of Dogs, published at the end of the seventies, was stylistically inclined to emphasis and mythicization. It reported some rather fanciful genetic hypotheses which had it that the Caucasian sheepdog was the result of repeated crossbreeding with St. Bernards, Tibetan mastiffs and Siberian huskies; the ultimate cocktail of bulk, power and ferocity.

I worked on the theme for a few more years in my imagination and would sometimes mention the Caucasian sheepdog to some friends of mine, referring to it as a sort of mythical object which perhaps one day – you never know – we might go in search of, if we ever had enough wealth and leisure to indulge in an adventure of many months in the footsteps of the British explorer, as an alternative to our humdrum daily existence. We imagined a journey fraught with difficulty across the Soviet Union in its state of disintegration, among marauders, corrupt bureaucrats, peasant populations etc. and then up and up, across wild canyons, toward the remote pastures of the upland pastures below Mount Elbrus, where no westerner had set foot for many a year, fearful of the dangers and anyway there being no earthly reason to go there. But we would have had an excellent reason for such an endeavor: the quest for the legendary beast. It would have been well worth the price of the ticket just to hear its cavernous, awesome baying. By contrast, it was less clear what would have been the effect of coming face to face with the animal, with foreseeable problems of mutual incomprehension, given its terrible temperament. But of this we took no account in our collective fable-weaving, convinced as we were of the intense idealization of the whole affair.

And then one day, one stupidly disappointing day four years ago, I was leafing through the newspaper, when my eye fell on the small ads. Under the heading “Animals for sale”, I saw the publicity for some kennels breeding Caucasian sheepdogs in Gallarate, not far from Milan. (1)
Gallarate?! How can that be?! I could not believe my eyes; my myth had ended at Gallarate. If that dog really had been the monster fabled by my friends and I, and if just one specimen had reached Italian soil (even in Gallarate), then the news would have been splashed right across the front pages of all the newspapers as well as on television and the radio, no doubt about it. My disappointment was immense; I felt really let down. It was yet another myth debunked, another piece of childhood and adolescent omnipotence which dissolved at the harsh contact with reality.

In the meantime, as I mentioned earlier, my experience with dogs had undergone a profound transformation, due to personal matters which I will not go into here. Suffice it to say that I had learnt to love and respect them without fearing them, and even went as far as to bring home an Airedale puppy, which gladdened our family life from the first day it arrived.

It is a wonderful experience to build a relationship of familiarity with a dog, if one is really interested and willing to observe all that develops in that relationship. Today, if I try to define what I feel toward my dog, the first thing that comes to mind is that I feel honored by his friendship and affection, and that I am happy to see him so evidently happy to – as it were – ‘run with the pack’ together with my children. They live like older or younger brothers and sisters according to evaluations which are anything but casual, indeed they are highly meaningful. In short, dogs are another world and if you enter that world in the right spirit, it will tend never to abandon you.

I remember a man of about forty who used to come to the park where I and other dog-owners would gather and observe with a satisfied air our protégés as they played on the grass. This man would join us and watch and make his comments on the development, interrelations, and progress of our animals. He would spend some time there and then move on, turning up again the following day. I could not figure out which was his dog and so I decided to ask him. He told me that his dog had died the year before, that he still suffered deeply for its loss and could not even contemplate the idea of replacing it with another. The only thing that brought him some comfort was to be there with the other dogs and their owners, until the wound eventually healed.

So the dog, for me, had changed from being a mythical object to being a real object, with a wealth of affective implications. And it was in this spirit (which could be termed more realistic and ‘resolved’) that last May I entered the pavilions of Bologna’s Trade Fair where the International Dog Show was taking place. I was intrigued by the presence of a particularly well-stocked Airedale section, since I was thinking of showing my dog the following year and the judges at another show had proclaimed it a fine specimen.

I looked at the things I was interested in and, half an hour later, tired and dazed by the din, went out for a breath of air. Outside numerous owners were giving their charges a breather: a docile Newfoundland was scratching in a flower bed, two bearded Scots terriers were chasing each other around in a playful simulation of a dog-fight, and a Doberman with his head lowered followed the scent of his master who was just five yards ahead of him. It was then that I saw it; twenty paces from me was a rather dainty girl sitting on a wall and beside her was a beast of lion-like appearance, very fierce with an impenetrable gaze. A mighty beast. I walked up to the girl to ask her what breed of dog it was.

“Stop right there, for goodness sake!” she said, clearly alarmed. “Don’t even dream about getting any closer; I wouldn’t be able to hold him back! And whatever you do, don’t look him in the eyes. He’d take it as a challenge!”

I stopped in my tracks, puzzled and intimidated, but insisted with my question: “What breed is it?”

“It’s a Caucasian sheepdog. I’m the only person he lets near him and since he weighs 160 pounds…I think you get my point!”

I got her point. Keeping my distance, I continued to peer out of the corner of my eye at this terrible great dog, whom I had no intention of challenging, especially since the girl had nothing like the strength of four of the czar’s stable lads. I went on my way in a happy mood; I had satisfied my longstanding curiosity and finally seen this legendary animal, more agile than a St. Bernard, bigger than a Siberian husky and more powerful than a Molossian mastiff.

I had seen it and – how shall I put it? – ‘objectified’ it once and for all. Perhaps this was more than could be accepted by certain parts of me, which were deep and permanently structured, and by my imagination, that necessary and irreducible companion of our limited human condition. Indeed, a few days later an unexpected thought began to occur to me: yes, it was true I had seen and admired the Caucasian sheepdog, and admittedly it was in many ways outstanding. But, when all’s said and done, that was quite a normal large-sized dog, albeit beefy and bad-tempered. Perhaps that particular one came from Gallarate; who knows what the original giant sheepdog of the high Caucasian mountains was like? Who knows what monstrous howls broke the long silences of the upland nights? Maybe, one day, together with my friends, we might set off in quest of it, some day, who knows?


Desirous to confer a little ‘psychoanalysisity’ to this tale, I offer the reader some brief reflections with the gift of hindsight:

  1. Sigmund Freud, through his work on phobias in childhood neurosis (such as that of little Hans for horses 1908) and his famous essay on the ‘wolf man’ (1914), has taught us a great deal about the close unconscious associations which may be established in our inner world between a symbol (for example, an animal) and the thing symbolized (such as a parent or one aspect of that parent); by so doing he opened a window on a dimension which until then had remained unknown.
  2. Without detracting from Freud’s discoveries, his successors have added others. Melanie Klein, for example, brilliantly described the processes of splitting of inner parts of the self which, being difficult to bear, become projected outside (but later attempt conflictually to re-enter the self through a process of reintegration). She thus helped us understand the otherwise inexplicable human need to make contact with something which may represent a lost part not only of the object (the parents) but also of ourselves. This item may be quite acceptable to us (‘ego-syntonic’ in psychoanalytic jargon), once we become adults; and the fierceness of the Caucasian sheepdog, as a psychological characteristic, was undoubtedly so. In other cases, it may be much less acceptable, for example when a secret and unconsciously denied ferocity is at stake.
  3. To Heinz Kohut we owe the surprising discovery, deep down on the ocean bed of our unconscious, of the remains of the archaic grandiose self, which was shipwrecked like the Titanic at the first hard impact with reality. But no, this allegory does not really do justice to the concept, since the formations of the grandiose self are not dead, according to Kohut’s clinical and conceptual descriptions, but simply frozen or segregated. Perhaps we should imagine a kind of Lost Valley where the dinosaurs have survived because of some form of topographical segregation. The giant Caucasian sheepdog, albeit on a far smaller scale, is something of this nature.
  4. The grandiose self has two characteristic features: 1) in part it becomes reduced in size if it is brought to the level of consciousness (my Airedale is only half as big as the real Caucasian sheepdog); and 2) in part it does not (the Giant Caucasian Sheepdog which existed only in my mind was twice as big as the real Caucasian sheepdog) (and somewhere, who knows where, there must really be one… etc. etc.).

(1)  Translator’s note: Gallarate is to Milan what New Jersey is to New York.