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Yal
The Traditional Dog Food In Anatolia by Guvener Isik
(first published in
Choban Chatter , Spring, 2009 Vol 19, Issue 1)

It was 1990 when I visited Scotland for the first time. I stayed with my Scottish friend Jill, and her family, for a week. One morning, they served me hot porridge for breakfast.. They sprinkled salt in the porridge and I told them it tasted great and added, “I did not know that the dog food could taste so good!” Years later, I realized what I said and was embarrassed by my comment. It was too late to apologize for my comment, but I did not consider my comment offensive at the time it was said. I hope the family forgave me and now I wish Turks would eat porridge too.

Yal is the basic dog food for the shepherd dogs in Anatolia. The basic ingredient is either flaked or broken barley; oats, wheat or it could the combination of these grains. In some regions, broken corn is also used. Barley is the most common grain used since it is cheaper and works better than the other grains. Alternatively, only bran can be used. Either one of the above-mentioned grains or bran is mixed with hot water and some salt. If the above grains are only available in flour form, then cold water is added to the flour and heated until it comes to a boil. The flour or grain must be boiled in order to be digested by the dogs. The salt adds taste to the mush and protects the teeth. It is served to the dogs when the mixture cools off enough to be eaten. Whey, milk, yogurt, various left overs, oil, tomato and/or pepper sauce can also be added to the yal. Whey works great when it is added after Yal gets cooler. Whey proteins fortify grain-based products. Whey by itself is also given to the dogs and reason is its protein structure, which is the best feed. Whey proteins include beta lactoglobulin, alpha lactalbumin, bovine serum albumin, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase, proteose peptones. Whey may work better than other forms of protein for the Anatolian.

In some regions, bread biscuits are made for the dogs as it is done in Central Asia. The dough is baked and dried for future use. I recently learned from a shepherd in Denizli, who is in his sixties, that his family used to prepare dried dog bread before they move to the highlands. Dough could also be given, but it is not well digested. Yal is the basic dog food in Central Anatolia more so than it is in the Taurus Mountain range. In the Taurus Mountains, dogs receive milk products in addition to Yal, yet Yal is still the main diet in traditional shepherding.

The texture of Yal should be that of a thick soup. Yal should not be watery. It should have the consistency of melted ice cream when poured. City dwellers that want to prepare Yal must not use white bleached flour, as all the protein and the fat of the wheat are removed from the flour. In addition to the loss of nutrients in bleached flour, the shells of the whole grains contain B vitamins that are essential for protein synthesis. Whole flour must be used. If whole flour is not available, white flour should be mixed wheat bran. This mixture should be half flour and half wheat bran.

When I prepare the above-described Yal, I occasionally use raw eggs and any type of left overs. I also add any vegetable that I did not eat into the yal. Dogs can eat old or spoiled food. Dogs know what is or is not edible. Adding animal protein in terms of milk and milk’s by products is the best of proteins. Adult dogs can live a long life with just eating basic Yal. I have seen 10-year-old dogs in the villages whose food rations consist of 95% Yal.

Anatolians have been built by several factors. The Anatolian is a semi-natural dog, bred and managed with minimal human intervention. Feeding is one of the few human interventions reflecting the mindset of the owner and his overall raw material production for a living. Yal feeding is one of many factors of Anatolian conservation. As grass-fed cows build a different meat structure than corn fed ones, an Anatolian will grow differently when fed with various nutrients from different sources. Anatolians that have been raised with Yal for hundreds of years may continue eating Yal. Accordance with its past will help maintaining Anatolian’s original raising methods. In a fast pace society, it may not be easy to create all the traditional Anatolian raising conditions, but whatever is accomplished is a gain for the Anatolian. Every drop of ancient practice will help fill the level of quality in the Anatolian bucket. The price is so low and the benefits for the dog are great.

I avoid dog food as I avoid fast food for myself. Only good quality bread and water will do for shepherd dogs. These dogs are not Nordic dogs; Anatolians have been raised on cooked grains for several centuries. These dogs are not meant to go after a hare but to defend a flock; they do not have to have animal-based protein although scientists and dog food companies may advocate so. There is a living outcome in Turkey and it works. My own dogs’ ration is 90% yal; the rest is raw meaty bones and then dog food only when I am lazy. I like to feed raw meaty bones whether it is chicken, beef, or lamb as they clean the dogs’ teeth better than anything else does. Goat or sheep heads could also be substituted for bones. When I fed my dogs Yal in Texas, several people made fun of this practice. Once one of them said, “These are dogs not horses.” I did not respond to his comment since he did not know what he was talking about. If I tried to correct him by comparing sheep or mules eating meat, he would have thought I was insane but it is the same premise for the dogs to eat grains (Yal).

Dogs on livestock farms or in the Turkish villages eat fresh goat and sheep feces. The feces contain minerals and some undigested protein. This may be the main reason why these dogs can live a healthy life by mostly consuming Yal. I have observed my dog Gandolf gorging on deer manure in New Mexico even when he was not hungry. Yoruk nomads who do not produce grains but only livestock and by-products of livestock cannot always feed their dogs Yal. This is especially true when they are on the move. Dogs scavenge on camel, horse, sheep, goat, and even human feces.

I have not tried this, but it is a belief in Anatolia that dogs fed only with meat will not grow. The term that is used for this is “burned.” This happens when a city person acquires a dog and feeds it only meat. The scientific explanation might be protein poisoning if the meat contains no fat.

An old gentleman that I know has bred Dobermans, GSDs and Anatolians and wrestling dogs for over 30 years. Currently, he only keeps shepherd dogs. According to his experience, the meat/bread ratio should be 1/3 for Anatolians and 3/1 for Dobermans and GSDs. His smallest shepherd dog was 31” at the shoulder and his average shepherd dog is about 33” at the shoulder. He has bread and dog cake cooked for the shepherd dogs and they eat meat on special occasions.

I know another man, who is a veterinarian and a GSD person, and he started breeding Kangals recently. His observation was that unlike GSD puppies, his Kangal puppies preferred barley Yal to kibbles. Last year he made a move towards barley Yal and he told me that Kangals loved Yal and it made them calmer. I can confirm this observation. Whenever I fed my dogs kibbles, I have observed more nervous activity in them. It was like feeding a five-year-old chocolate.

A third person that keeps about fifteen dogs, uses rice pilaf as the main course with salt and olive oil or lard added to the mixture. He uses boiled eggs as treats and his dogs receive weekly raw bones. A fourth person, who is a veterinarian, uses mainly broken corn and corn and barley flour mix. He serves this Yal to shepherd dogs and St. Bernards.

Puppies fed with Yal will grow very slowly and might not get very big, but they will have better skeletons and temperament. A slower growing dog is generally stronger and physically more resistant than a faster growing, larger dog. A shepherd dog needs strength and stamina not only size. I know modern LGD owners who advocate a high protein diet for the working shepherd dogs, but no Turkish shepherd would advocate such a diet. Anatolians must be tested for whether they are fuel-efficient or not, because they must be able to live with meager food rations. Overfeeding an Anatolian is abusing what the Anatolian inherited from its ancestors. Anatolians have been selected and evolved over time to thrive on low calorie, low protein diets. . High protein food causes an Anatolian to grow too fast and then it ends up with hip problems. Feeding Yal helps slow growth and development without negatively impacting the overall development.

One of my own dogs, Gandolf, 31” at the shoulder, has been fed with Yal and his father, who is nine years old, is healthy and looks like he has at least five years to go. Another dog of mine, who lived for eight years, his main diet consisted of Yal. He did not die due to old age, but because of a dogfight. He was badly injured by two younger dogs. He was about 29” on the shoulder and he was a superb jumper. A 7’ fence was not a problem for him to fly over while the other larger dogs could only watch him. I have seen village dogs as tall as 34” on the shoulder.
Several breeders in Turkey expressed that dogs they collected from the villages were initially not as large as the ones they have currently. The bitches they collected used to be an average weight of 35 kg (77 lbs) and the dogs were 50 kg (111 lbs). At the present, these breeders’ bitches now weight over 50 kg (111 lbs) and the dogs weight over 70 kg (150 lbs). The change in weight indicates the effect of the recently introduced diet on the size of the dogs. Lack of internal parasites and an easier life are additional positives, because I know that some city breeders who have the same size dogs are fed a basic Yal diet and these dogs are free from parasites too. Additionally, the prenatal development can have an impact on the later development of the dogs. No matter how well they are fed after birth, the dogs will carry the scars of malnourishment from the embryonic stage. The parents, especially the mother, should be in perfect shape before breeding takes place for maximum growth and development of the embryos. However, maximum growth is not necessarily healthy growth.

The real shepherd dogs do not eat more than once a day and it is not abnormal if they skip Yal for a day. My grandmother, who kept shepherd dogs, told me recently that they used to feed the dogs once every two days but feed the bitches every day. The reason behind this practice has nothing to do with health. It is about guarding. This practice ensures the dogs stay awake by giving them less time to relax. This practice may contradict with the need for strength, but it works. We do not have to rationalize every practice, but if we have to we can try: dogs should be able to imitate the behavior of sheep grazing. If the dogs’ behavior blends in with the sheep’s behavior, then the dog does not have spend more energy than it needs to guard the flocks. Low energy food helps the dog scale its energy level down to the sheep’s energy level. The dog should mirror the pace of the sheep and, if necessary, be able to sprint from one end of the flock to the other end for a quick patrol. This pattern of behavior is economizing energy. When the flock is an area where wolf attacks are abundant, the shepherd knows that there will be a constant chase all night and then he feeds the dogs accordingly, because they will need the extra food. Feeding rich food when it is not justified will cause roaming or hyperactivity among the dogs.

The point here is not letting the dog go hungry and suffer. Dogs must be fed well and properly. . My grandmothers’ dogs were fed well once they returned from herding. Her dogs always had energy reserves. An empty stomach is not equal to lack of reserves. Dogs without protein and fat reserves may end up with a weak immune system. A dog can eat un-boiled Yal all day long and it will not benefit form it. This dog will have diarrhea and it will not guard well. A well-fed dog is not a fat dog; it is lean and athletic. An Anatolian in its traditional land, working with a flock is 20-30% lighter than an average American or European Anatolian. Puppies with excess weight are prone to degenerative hip disease. Pushing puppies with rich feed in order to produce larger dogs is greedy. An Anatolian will grow well with the same quality and 30-40% less food then what a Labrador of the same weight receives daily.

If the dog is kept in a small yard, that is another reason to feed it Yal, because Yal feces do not stink like dog food feces and, if it is stepped on by mistake, it breaks down and disappears if it contains 50% bran. Whereas feces composed of dog food will remain unspoiled for several months without fungi, bacteria and bugs touching it. Chickens love Yal feces. They literally line up behind the dog. One needs to taste their eggs!

The word Yal is similar to the word “yalamak,” which means licking in Turkish. Yal eating dogs are not attack dogs. Interestingly, they are not biters. Yal may be making them peaceful and confident guardians. After all, shepherd dogs are not there to eat the lamb but to protect it. If a sheep dies for any reason, including for an illness the carcass is given to the dogs, Anatolians should not eat it right away if they are in the village. This shows the dogs reliability. I have seen this occur on various occasions in Denizli and Konya villages. The carcass is punctured after it is offered to the dog. After the blood runs out of the carcass, the dog eats the entire sheep, including the skin. Then he is full for about a week. The dog will still not refuse Yal a week later. Skin eating may be part of their guarding instincts. Anatolians does not want to attract predators to the rotting carcass. Therefore, their behavior in the pasture is different towards dead lambs.

From the Author:
     I have owned shepherd dogs since I was 8 years old. My grandparents had them for guarding their properties and animals. I grew up hearing stories about them from my father and my grandmother. My grandmother still talks about her dogs. I have always been attracted to their primitive looks but more importantly to see them in action as working dogs.
      Writing something about these dogs occurred to me in 1993, but I really didn't have the knowledge required to fill a book. I had to wait until 1997 with a clear intention to collect data about them. When I research them I research a life style. These dogs are one of the windows that one can see and analyze the circumstances of the rural people and nature. I had to learn about sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, cattle, bees, cats, wheat, carpets, forests and wolves along with history and genetics in order to have a multifaceted perspective about these dogs or about everything surrounds them. The main motivator behind studying these dogs is my uneasiness about the disappearing rural life styles in Turkey. I know that we need native sheep and goat flocks and wolves in order to preserve these dogs. Without these we can only preserve dogs with diminishing quality at every generation. We cannot choose and preserve them without the combined interaction of the flocks, shepherd and the wolf with these dogs. It feels like we are trying to keep water from running through our fingers. It will disappear in the end

------  Visit Guvener Isik's website at http://yorukanatolian.com/


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