MUCUCHIES, Venezuela – The Soviets made space dog Laika a national hero and Americans have fallen for presidential pets from Checkers to Bo. In Venezuela, a rare breed of shaggy sheepdog has come to symbolize the patriotic legacy of the late Hugo Chavez.
Venezuela's former president rescued the mucuchies, named for this Andean town where the breed originated 400 years ago, from near-extinction in 2008 by providing funding to breed the remaining 23 purebreds, and he used to delight in recalling how one early tail-wagger called Nevado fought at the side of his idol, 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"Every time Chavez hosted a foreign leader the president's office would call me up and make sure I brought the dogs," said Walter Demendoza, president of the Nevado Foundation, which works to rescue the breed. "He wanted the dog to be known around the world as a symbol of our country."
Chavez died from cancer last March, but interest in the dog in Latin America surged after ally Argentine President Cristina Fernandez reappeared in public in November after brain surgery doting on a fluffy, white puppy given to her by Chavez's brother.
Overnight the dog Simon, named after Bolivar, became a social media sensation. This month, Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, named a government campaign to rescue street dogs in honor of the The Liberator's best friend.
Thanks to Chavez's efforts, there are now almost 200 purebred mucuchies, and the dog is on its way to joining the group of 343 breeds officially recognized by the World Canine Organization.
The largest contingent, including the parents of Argentina's new "first dog," live in the high-altitude moorlands known as paramos, at the extreme northern edge of the Andes in Venezuela.
It was here in the village of Mucuchies, 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) above sea level, that the greatest canine encounter in Venezuela's history took place. Legend has it that in 1813 Bolivar's army was approaching a farm when the independence fighters were stopped in their tracks by a giant, barking guard dog. Weapons drawn, the rebels were about to kill the dog when Bolivar, marveling at its beauty and bravery, ordered them to back down.
"They were going to slaughter it like a beast but Bolivar stopped them," said Edgar Albarran, a breeder in Mucuchies who greets tourists dressed in a traditional red wool ruana and straw hat.
The pup was named Nevado, or Snowy, for its white coat resembling the Andes peaks, and was given to Bolivar by the farm's owner. The two became inseparable, except when Nevado was briefly nabbed by the loyalist Spanish army in a bid to entrap South America's Liberator.
The dog died in the final battle of Venezuela's independence war in 1821. Although honored by a statue in the central plaza of Mucuchies, the dog had largely faded from memory. Venezuelan tourists to the town were unaware of the dog's storied history or even the breed's existence, confusing it with a St. Bernard.
In fact, the mucuchies is more closely related to another mountain dog, the Pyrenean mastiff, which was brought to the New World by the Spanish conquistadores and used to herd sheep.
While Latin America is full of distinctive breeds, everything from Mexico's Chihuahua to the pre-Incan Peruvian hairless dog, none can compete with the mucuchies for historical significance, says Rafael Malo Alcrudo, a dog-show judge and prize-winning breeder in Spain of the heavier-set Pyrenean mastiff.
"It's an extremely noble breed," said Malo Alcrudo, who in 2012 visited the Nevado Foundation's kennels.
For Chavez, who was obsessed with all things Bolivarian and constantly invoked his idol's political thinking in speeches, there couldn't have been a more potent symbol of the nation's identity. Some say he even privately harbored the desire to honor Nevado in the National Pantheon in Caracas where Venezuela's founding fathers are buried.
Back in Mucuchies, far away from politics, stud dog Orinoco seems blissfully oblivious to its patriotic mission to procreate. Standing alongside Albarran, the breeder, he playfully stretches out his giant paw to children and anyone else willing to regale it with attention.
"How's your girlfriend?" teases Albarran, turning away from Orinoco's panting, outstretched tongue as the dog stands on its legs and reaches over its owner's neck. "He smells one of his girlfriends, that's why he's so excited."
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman
Associated Press writer Vicente Marquez contributed to this report.