Estrela Mountain Dog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Estrela Mountain Dog
Tom Woodward /

Widely regarded as one of Portugal’s oldest native breeds, the Estrela Mountain Dog has a long heritage as a protector of livestock and property, and it remains a courageous and fearsome guardian today. It is generally a calm and steady dog when in familiar company, but it is aloof (at best) with strangers, and is quick to react when it senses danger. Its protective instincts are particularly noticeable around children, with whom it is also patient and gentle. However, this is not a breed for the inexperienced; like many pastoral breeds, it needs strong leadership and firm discipline. Without these essential ingredients, the Estrela Mountain Dog can become domineering and disobedient. Early, persistent training is essential to bring its better qualities to the fore.

As might be expected of a breed that evolved to live on a mountainside, the Estrela’s coat is easy to care for, and needs only weekly attention, but it does shed reasonably heavily. This fact, coupled with its need for plenty of exercise and outdoor space, means that it is not the best choice for apartment or urban living. It is a very healthy breed, although joint disorders, such as hip and elbow dysplasia, are quite common, as they are in many large dogs. Though they are difficult to come by in the United Kingdom – anyone that does manage to acquire an Estrela Mountain Dog can expect it to have a lifespan of 12 to 14 years.

About & History

Although it is suspected that the Estrela Mountain Dog descended from large molosser dogs introduced to Portugal by the invading Romans, its history is uncertain. An almost complete lack of written records of the breed prior to the twentieth century means that cynologists have been left to rely on archaeological evidence to trace its lineage. However, that it is an ancient breed, and one of the oldest in Portugal, is not in dispute, and large numbers of Portuguese sheep and goat farmers have relied on these brave dogs to protect their livelihoods for many centuries. The large size, fearsome attitude, and thick skin and coat of the Estrela Mountain Dog allowed it to deter and repel attacks from wolves, while it also evolved to trust only its master, and to also drive away any would-be rustlers.

Unfortunately, while the Serra da Estrela mountains were once home to a great number of these dogs, they gradually fell out of favour, with the local farmers developing a preference for other, imported breeds in the nineteenth century. In addition, it seems that many male dogs were castrated in order to prevent them wandering from their home range. As a result, Estrela Mountain Dog numbers dropped drastically, and it took a concerted effort through the organisation of dog shows and breeding programmes in the early twentieth century to turn its fortunes around. The first official Portuguese breed standard was published in 1933, although there are no records of Estrela Mountain Dogs being registered outside their homeland until 1972. This remains a rare breed throughout the world, although it has now gained international recognition.


Estrela Mountain Dog Large Photo
Traceywashere /

This is a large, powerful dog, with the physique and attitude to handle a threat from any quarter. Its long, heavy head has a gently rounded skull, and a moderately pronounced stop between this and its slightly tapering muzzle. The eyelids, nose, lips, and roof of the mouth all exhibit dense black pigmentation, and the strongly boned jaw houses a set of large, well-formed teeth. The Estrela’s oval-shaped eyes are medium in size, and usually a dark brown colour, with a serene and intelligent expression. The small ears are set reasonably high on the skull, and are often described as rose-like for the fact that they fall backwards against the side of the head, allowing some of the inside of the ear flap to show. When straightened, they have a triangular outline, with rounded edges.

The thick neck is relatively short in proportion to the rest of the body. It has a slight dewlap, with a thick mane of hair, features that protect the dog from being immobilised by an opponent in combat. It is set well into the muscular shoulders, and the back then slopes slightly from the withers to the loin. The long tail is well adorned with hair, and forms a scimitar shape with its tip, which reaches to the hock joints. The Estrela has a deep and well-sprung chest, and a strong abdomen that rises gradually from the sternum to the pubic bone. The limbs are heavily muscled, with the joints having moderate angulation. The strong bones of the lower limbs lead to large oval-shaped paws, and many Estrela Mountain Dogs have a set of double dew claws on the hindlimbs. Though these were customarily removed in the past, they should be left intact.

Both short and long-coated varieties are seen, with the shorter coat being more common in working strains that have not been modified for the show ring. In both types, the outer coat resembles goat hair, being thick and coarse, though it is softer around the face and ears. The undercoat is extremely dense, and is usually a slightly lighter colour. The predominant coat colours are:

  • Fawn (Ranging from a Dark Yellow to Deep Red)
  • Brindle
  • Wolf Grey

Patches of solid black or white markings are tolerated, but not encouraged by the breed standard. Male Estrela Mountain Dogs stand 65 to 72 cm tall at the top of the withers, and weigh 45 to 50 kg. Females measure 62 to 68 cm in height, and weigh 38 to 43 kg.

Character & Temperament

As a guardian breed, the Estrela Mountain Dog has a very strong protective instinct, and is also strong-willed and independent – a combination of traits that can be problematic without a confident, experienced owner and plenty of socialisation. With its family, it is loyal and loving, but will always be vigilant for any sign of danger. It is generally calm, placid, and gentle with children, but its size and strength can prove too much for the very young

It can mix well with smaller dogs that are unlikely to challenge its dominance, but inter-dog aggression can occur with individuals of the same sex, so care should be taken when introducing the Estrela Mountain Dog to new companions. Its watchful, wary nature means that it is known to be a dog that barks a lot, especially if under-stimulated or inadequately exercised.


This is an intelligent breed that will respond well to training from an assertive and confident handler, but its independence and strong character can manifest as stubbornness if it senses uncertainty or weakness. Experienced owners will find the Estrela Mountain Dog to be reasonably easy to train, but need to assert their dominance over the dog from a young age. Socialisation training is extremely important to ensure the natural suspicion of strangers seen throughout the breed does not develop into aggression in adulthood.


As this is a rare breed, few studies of inherited illness have been conducted in the Estrela Mountain Dog. However, there are several conditions thought to be more prevalent in the breed, and anyone thinking of purchasing an Estrela puppy should check that the parents have been screened for the following:

Dilated Cardiomyopathy

The most common cause of heart failure in large-breed dogs, with the Estrela being recognised as one of the breeds most prone. Signs generally appear in young to middle-aged adults, with exercise intolerance, shortness of breath, coughing, and abdominal swelling being the most common.

These arise secondary to a progressive weakening of the muscular walls of the heart, preventing the normal flow of blood around the body, and causing fluid congestion of the lungs and abdomen. Diagnosis is made by ultrasound scanning, x-ray, and electrocardiography. Although the condition is rarely curable, it can often be managed quite successfully with a combination of medications.

Elbow Dysplasia

Malformation of the elbow joints, causing lameness, stiffness, and pain in growing pups. Signs seen from as early as four months of age, with x-ray examination being required to confirm the diagnosis. Treatment involves weight management, pain relief, nutritional supplements, and possibly surgery, but severely affected dogs are usually restricted in their activity levels throughout life.

Hip Dysplasia

Like elbow dysplasia, this growth deformity is usually inherited, with parents with good hips being much less likely to produced pups suffering from this painful and debilitating condition. Scoring schemes exist for both hip and elbow dysplasia, and any Estrela Mountain Dog being considered for breeding should be subjected to x-ray examination. This means that anyone buying a pup should be shown certificates of joint health for both parents. If such certificates are not available, I would strongly advise against going ahead with the purchase.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Estrela Mountain Dogs don’t necessarily need a lot of planned exercise, with half an hour to an hour of lead walking often being enough – as long as they have access to a large, secure garden that they can patrol for several hours each day. Having been developed as outdoor, working dogs, they do not cope well with confined spaces, and should not be considered by anyone living in an apartment or in a dense urban setting.


Though dense and reasonably heavy-shedding, the coat does not need a lot of work – a thorough brushing once a week will easily detangle most knots. The only exception to this is the hair around the ears, which is prone to matting, and this should be briefly combed or brushed every two to three days. Those Estrela Mountain Dogs with intact dew claws will need these clipped regularly, as they do not wear on the ground, with the other nails being clipped as needed.

Famous Estrela Mountain Dogs

The breed’s rarity, possibly coupled with its strong personality, have kept it out of the public eye, and it boasts no celebrity members at this time.


The Estrela Mountain Dog does not produce any recognised cross-breeds.

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