El Pastor Leonés – The Shepherd Dog of Leon

by José Luis Prieto Morán – http://carealeones.blogspot.com/

Carea leones Spanish Mastiff and types of  livestock in Spain_edited-1

The Léones Shepherd Dog, or as it is popularly known, the “Carea Leonés,” is a herding dog native to the Old Kingdom of Léon, in northwestern Spain. It is 100% a working dog, with a great disposition for handling grazing flocks and herds. The breed is noted for intelligence, strength and strong-mindedness, features that allow the full development of their working ability during the long and exhausting days with the herd, often in the most adverse weather conditions.

These dogs are used for working with the sheep but adapt to any type of livestock. In some places they also are used for herding cows and mares. The Carea Leonés is a brave and stubborn dog with cattle, qualities that win the respect of livestock and keep it controlled. The shepherds of Léon valued and preferred dogs “that had a good mouth” and would not hesitate to grip the cattle when needed, a trait that began to be part of the genetics of the Léon Shepherd Dog. All of this is better understood when we understand the Spartan selection process to which this breed was subjected by the shepherds. We can affirm that the Carea Leonés is a dog whose morphology and character have been molded over the years by its environment, its functionality and the human factor (the shepherds).

History of the Breed – Origin, Roots and Adaptation

The dog that has come down to us cannot be understood without knowing the circumstances (geographical, social and economic) related to the world of livestock that occurred in the country and the impact of which influenced the development of the breed.

The exact time of the appearance of the Carea Leonés in the flocks in the country of Léon is not clear, but most likely its emergence coincides with the expulsion of the French and the reorganization Spain in the early 19th century. This caused the dissolution of the Royal Council of the Mesta 1836) and involves the progressive decline of the transhumancia, seasonal long-distance migration.

drovers roads of spain canadas reales

Drover’s Roads of Spain

We should note that three of the most important “drove roads” of the merino sheep (Cañadas Reales), had their head in the mountains of Léon, an important factor for livestock development in this region and the Léon Shepherd Dog. Many large groups of livestock belonging to the aristocracy and clergy traveling between Léon and Extremadura had on their staff a great majority of shepherds from Léon, native to the mountains. The owners of migratory flocks preferred hiring people from the mountains because of their knowledge of the terrain and because they better endured the hard conditions in the mountains than the people of the South. When transhumance began to decline, many of these shepherds decided to create their own farms. These new herds no longer spent the winter in Extremadura and began to stay closer to home, in the provinces of León and Zamora. The new grazing system is called transterminancia, remaining in a region. This system consists of a small transhumancia inside the Kingdom of Léon and covered about 100km in a week or less, from the plain to the mountain.

The herds that moved from Léon to Extremadura had no shepherd dogs.[*1] They were not necessary because the Mesta granted passage privileges to the flocks of Merino sheep. These privileges led to the creation of Cañadas (very wide roads along which the sheep walked while eating) and cordeles (branches narrower than the Cañadas) for transiting sheep. These flocks had no problems with the grass because their owners were owners of large tracts of grass in Extremadura, where the sheep grazed at their ease and posed no danger to any crops or arable land. When the flocks went up into the mountains of the North, the large owners rented exclusive pasturage for their livestock.

Spanish Mastiffs (Mastín Español) – guardians of the flock

We can say that the most likely origin of the Léon Shepherd Dog as we know it today can be placed in the post-migration period around the middle of the 19th century. Nonetheless, it was during the 1940s of the 20th century, due to scarcity of labor caused by the numerous casualties of the Spanish Civil War, when these shepherd dogs became more necessary, causing an explosion of breed. Although there were already many in the area, they were more clearly defined by their profile which made them recognizable among the shepherds and caused them to proliferate in the provinces of the Kingdom of León.

Diario de un Viaje Trashumante by author and illistrator Eduardo Saíz.

A page from Diario de un Viaje Trashumante by author and illistrator Eduardo Saíz.

Roots: “Dogs of Vecera”

The roots of this rustic breed were the dogs that belonged to ranchers and farmers who kept small herds in a community grazing regime called “Vecera.” This was basically subsistence livestock grazing among the agricultural lands near the villages. The Vecera system was used by the villagers of Léon and the north of the Iberian Peninsula from the pre-Roman era when it was used by northern indigenous tribes (Celts and Astures). With these small herds was a sheepdog to help the small farmer with his livestock. This dog is the predecessor of the Léon Shepherd Dog which emerged in the mid-19th century.

Careas from Zamora

Careas from Zamora

There are references that describe dogs very similar to the current León Shepherd Dog in a couple of religious carvings depicting a shepherd with a dog. One of them is in the Cathedral of Léon, dating from the fifteenth century and showing a specimen with long hair and a black-and-tan coat color. The other is a work of the artist Juan de Juni (1557) and presents an example of the harlequin color and short hair. Both show many of the characteristics of the present-day shepherd dogs of Léon. In reality they have not changed much.

When the shepherds from Léon, employed by the powerful owners, left the transhumant herds to start the stage of “transterminance” (19th century), they became the real developers and selectors of the breed from that moment on. These shepherds’ flocks no longer had royal privileges, 45and it was necessary to protect crops from their numerous sheep. For that they needed a dog. In their native villages there was the Vecera, and they thought that these dogs, which handled the grazing of these few sheep, might be able to help them with their herds in order to protect the crops.

Carea Leones in Cistierna Leon.

Carea Leones in Cistierna Leon.

From that time, these shepherd dogs were being converted little by little, under purely functional selection, into the great dog we have today in Léon. The dog that ate a lot was eliminated. The dog that frequently sought the shade was eliminated. The dog that could not handle scolding and punishment was eliminated. The dog that did not bite or that bit too much was eliminated. The dog that tired easily was eliminated. In the end, only the hardest, most austere and intelligent workers were left. Shepherds who depended on their working ability could not keep an ineffective dog.

Character and Morphology

rotten 1

The Carea Leonés is a dog closely bonded to its owner. Without adequate socialization it shows a lack of confidence and even surliness with strangers, something not seen with those raised among people, which show themselves to be more receptive and sociable, becoming a great pet. This dog is very alert and intelligent, with a great capacity for learning and willingness to work. It is a dog with personality that submits well to orders from its owner. The physical characteristics of the Carea Leonés arise from its specific function and adaptation to the environment in which it works. It is a medium-sized dog, harmonious, agile and strong. The breed standard states a height of between 48 and 55 cm (18.9 to 21.7 inches) tall at the withers and weighing ranging from 17 to 27 kg (approximately 37 to 59-1/2 pounds) for males. For females, the height ranges between 45 and 52 cm (17.7 to 20.5 inches) and weighing between 15 and 25 kg (33 to 55 pounds).

The ears should not fall excessively low, such as some hunting dogs (cocker or setter), or stay upright and pointed like those of a wolf or a German Shepherd. The ears should be folded about halfway up and fall in a triangular or rose shape. The tail is long and usually falls with a curve, saber fashion. There are two types of hair length, the first short and thick and the second semi-long, more or less smooth, being wavy in some cases. The coat color is summarized in three principles:

Carea careando provincia de zamora photo by l alberto ramos cropped not so short_edited-1

-Harlequin or “pinto” (merle): Black, gray and white mixed, sometimes with tan markings.

Villam black and tan carea leones

-Black and tan or “four eyes”: Black on most of the body, with tan markings on the chest, legs, nose and above the eyes (two characteristic spots).


-Black: As a whole, with a small white spot in some specimens.

Current Status of the Carea Leonés

The Leon Shepherd is not yet recognized by the FCI. According the latest studies of the University of León, there are about 500 pure specimens working in the lands of the Country of León. At present, and from mid-1980s, efforts are being made to avoid the disappearance of this breed, stabilize it and get official recognition by the Real Sociedad Spanish Canine and international agencies.

There a scientific study under the supervision of the University of León about the breed, which provides the standard, authored by Dr. Lorena De La Fuente. And of course there is the huge commitment and work of the Sociedad Canina Leonesa, with support from various breeders, fans of the breed and some shepherds, to maintain the breed’s characteristics and perpetuate its existence.


*1 – See Flocks of the Mesta: https://stockdogsavvy.wordpress.com/2014/08/14/flocks-of-the-mesta


See Carea Leonés:


See also Flocks of the Mesta: 


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