Polish Tatra Sheepdog

Pippa Elliott
Dr Pippa Elliott (BVMS MRCVS, University of Glasgow)
Photo of adult Polish Tatra Sheepdog

If you’ve never seen a Polish Tatra Sheepdog, he has the look about him of a white-coated, Golden retriever or a small polar bear. Considered amiable and gentle, this working breed is unusual in that he has a talent for both herding and guarding. This might not sound all that special but it is, because most working dog breeds are specialised as one or the other (no one expects a Border Collie to guard or a German Shepherd to herd).

The Polish Tatra is an old breed with roots going back to the 14th century. Raised in a region of Southern Poland, Podhale, the breed was notable for using his size and body to nudge the sheep in the right direction, rather than nipping at their heels. Then, at night, the Polish Tatra protectively patrols the pack using a loud bark to warn predators that he’s prepared to do what it takes to keep the flock safe. Indeed, the multi-tasking Polish Tatra has many facets to his character, including being a loyal and reliable family dog – provided, of course, that he gets plenty of exercise.

About & History

The origins of the Polish Tatra Sheepdog date back to the 14th century and at a time of little record keeping. One theory about the breed’s development is that they arose as a variant of the mighty Tibetan Mastiff, whilst another theory involves speculation that the breed is a white variation of another ancient breed, the Šarplaninac. Intriguingly, there are many similar types of dogs also to be found in Romania, the old Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

What is known is that the Polish Tatra (also known simply as the 'Tatra') developed in the Podhale region, in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains. At that time, people made a living as simple farmers, raising sheep on mountainous land. The Tatra proved his worth with a talent for herding and a natural protective instinct to remain close to the sheep.

This meant that when predators approached, instead of running towards the predator and leaving the sheep untended, the Tatra stayed with them. Only when the wolf got close enough did the dog attack. This tactic helped keep the flock together, rather than sending sheep scattering in panic, making them easier to pick off. This wisdom earned the Tatra the plaudit of being the "Thinking Dog".

Moving forward in time to the 19th century, and the start of tourism, mountain climbing became a vogue. As a large strong dog, the Tatra made a great companion for climbers, not least because they could use his tail as a steadying handle on a treacherous path! Indeed the talents of the Tatra know no limits, as in the off-season, farmers harnessed these four-legged powerhouses to carts and used them as a draught animal.

However, by World War II, the numbers of Tatra dogs dwindled dangerously low. Indeed, the Tatra soon earnt a less welcome plaudit as "the breed that refused to die". This was because the breed nearly became extinct and it was only the work of breed enthusiasts in the 1960s that saved it disappearing altogether. Indeed, to revive the breed it was necessary to outcross with the Kuvasz, another large white shepherding dog. By the 1970s, the numbers of Tatra dogs had stabilised, and although still considered rare, individuals can be found scattered in Europe and the United States.


Polish Tatra Sheepdog Large Photo

As you would expect from a working dog capable of herding and guarding, the Polish Tatra Sheepdog is well-built and well-muscled, with a long thick coat as protection against the elements. Apart from his size, the most striking thing about the Tatra’s appearance is that magnificent white coat. Snow white and shaggy, with a black nose and lips, he is truly eye-catching for all the right reasons.

A large dog, standing around well over half a meter to the shoulders, he has a rectangular body and sturdy head with a proper muzzle. He also has a straight tail, which he carries high when in a happy mood. Every line of this impressive dog suggests power and strength, which belies his gentle and affectionate nature.

Character & Temperament

A paragon amongst working dogs: how would a Polish Tatra fit into family life? Very well, as it happens. When raised well, the Tatra makes for a good family dog, as he takes the same level of care over children as he does over the sheep he is tasked to protect. His character is often described as even-tempered, with him being slow to anger and seldom biting, unless he is absolutely pressed to do so. Of course, any dog must be supervised when in the presence of children, but it’s helpful that the dog has a reliable temperament.

However, the Tatra’s instinct to guard can show through when he encounters strangers. He’s likely to bark heartily at people he doesn’t recognise in order to warn them off. Whilst he’s generally agreed to be a tolerant dog, be prepared for noise when exposed to strangers or unfamiliar animals.

Were it not for the Tatra’s need for space and exercise, he could rightfully claim a place in front of far more hearths than he currently does. But as a dog used to being active all day, it is a rare household that can provide sufficient exercise to satisfy the needs of this large dog.


Photo of Polish Tatra Sheepdog puppy

What makes for a good autonomous sheepdog capable of making swift decision on the go, doesn’t make for good obedience training. The Tatra’s trait of thinking for himself means he’s more likely to make his own mind up than listen to a trainer’s instructions.

This can make the Tatra wilful at times, and he’s considered a difficult dog to train. However, this doesn’t mean that owner’s shouldn’t try – just that they need to motivate the dog with appropriate reward-based training methods and to persist in the face of frustration.


In common with many rare breeds, there is little scientific data on their tendency to disease. However, those conditions that the Polish Tatra Sheepdog seem predisposed to include:

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia refers to poorly shaped hips that do not move smoothly as the dog moves. This causes inflammation, pain, and swelling. In the short term, this results in lameness and, in the long term, can cause crippling early arthritis.

The discomfort of hip dysplasia can be controlled using pain relieving medications. However, some cases are so sore that they require corrective surgery, such as a total hip replacement, in order to have a reasonable quality of life.

Gastric Torsion

The deep chest of the Tatra means that his stomach is relatively mobile within his abdomen. This can allow the stomach to flip over on itself, for example, if the dog exercises shortly after eating. This is extremely dangerous, as the stomach is then a sealed unit with the gases produced as a result of digestion having no way of escape.

The classic signs of gastric torsion include non-productive retching, distress, and a swollen stomach. Always seek emergency veterinary attention if you spot any of these signs, since prompt surgical correction of the twist is essential.


Epilepsy is a condition whereby the dog suffers seizures or fits, and there is no identifiable cause. Again, since there is no physical or biochemical trigger for the seizures, often the best that can be done is to control the severity of the fits using medication.

Happily, there are some excellent anti-seizure medications available, with minimal side effects. These allow the dog to have an excellent quality of life, although the cost of treating a large dog, such as a Tatra, can prove expensive.

Allergic Dermatitis

Allergic dermatitis or ‘atopy’ is a common problem for many dog breeds. The signs include itchy skin with excessive licking and chewing, especially of the paws or belly. As a result of the extreme itchiness, the dog may gnaw and cause physical damage to his own skin.

It’s not possible to cure skin allergies. However, where it’s known what allergen trigger the dog’s condition, it’s possible to avoid contact with them. Alternatively, there are a range of medications that will suppress the immune system and reduce the dog’s over-reaction to allergens in the environment.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Being outdoors in the open air is in the Polish Tatra’s blood. It is essential that he gets plenty of exercise – preferably of the slow sustained sort where he walks for hours at a time. He also loves being outdoors, so those considering a Tatra need to have ready access to a large back yard that is securely fenced.

When indoors, the Tatra will be on alert and guard. This means he’s liable to bark when he hears neighbours moving about, which along with his large size, makes him poorly suited to apartment life.


One of the Tatra’s most distinguishing features is that long thick snowy coat. This is a double layered coat, perfectly adapted to act as a shield against extremes of weather. Indeed, his coat is so thick and luxurious that in past times combings of it were carded together and spun to create upholstery fabric and fine woollen garments.

Bear in mind that this coat is designed for outdoor life. So, the good news is that it’s largely self-cleaning; he rarely needs bathing, and never needs professional grooming. But, the bad news is that when housed indoors, the Tatra sheds heavily and you’ll soon find yourself ankle deep in drifts of shed white hair. Your only option to limit this is to brush him daily and capture the shed hair on the brush.

Famous Polish Tatra Sheepdogs

Whilst no famous Tatras have really made front page news, you can max out on Polish Tatra cuteness with this board on Pinterest or by searching the hashtag #polishtatrasheepdog on Instagram.


The Polish Tatra Sheepdog is a rare breed and not used for out-crosses.

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