Living Off Grid - Our Livestock Guardian Dog

http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/living-off-grid-our-livestock-guardian-dog.aspx

snow dogI saw an ad in the Spokane newspaper that read “Do you have trouble with raccoons, coyotes, bear, or cougar? We don’t.” 

That had my attention. We live fairly remote in the mountains. Even though we can see the highway from our place, we only have one neighbor about ½ mile away and we aren’t exactly on good terms with each other. There is no cell phone service except inside our home. We are on our own – completely.

We have two horses and chickens that run free inside twenty fenced acres. There is no one to watch the house or animals when we leave. Two years ago there was a bear breaking into homes and recreational trailers and cabins and really tearing things up and causing a lot of damage. The Game Department gave me permission to shoot it as a nuisance bear but someone else did first, just 2 miles down the road. It had previously broken into our next door neighbor’s recreational trailer twice! They live about 250 miles away and come here a few times a year to camp and relax. Imagine how they felt – twice! That bear just tore their trailer to pieces.
We have coyotes, owls, weasels, and hawks cruising through here on a daily basis. Friends of ours have seen two wolves within 5 miles. Bear, bobcats and cougar are common. In short, our home and animals are unprotected whenever we aren’t home.

We weren’t interested in a dog that was aggressive by nature but we didn’t want one that would run from danger either. We looked around and researched guard dogs, watchdogs, regular dogs and everything in between. Two breeds caught my eye. The Estrala Mountain dog which originates in Portugal and the Anatolian Shepherd which originated in Turkey. When someone local advertised dogs that were 7/8 Anatolian and 1/8 Pyrenees mountain dogs we responded right away.

When we arrived at the kennels, about 2 ½ hours away, we were greeted with a sign that read “Warning, livestock guardians dogs at work. Please do not disturb.” I wasn’t quite sure exactly what that meant so I just drove into the yard real slow. The breeder was dashing around tying up dogs. I didn’t get out until she had them all constrained. They were big and loud. Just a little intimidating. Good so far – sort of I guess.

We looked at all their dogs. One male they showed us was about 95 pounds and had a couple of scars on his face and one ear. He had apparently done battle with a cougar and won! These dogs will defend to the death. A confrontation usually results in the wild animal quitting first because they need to stay healthy in order to feed themselves. If they get hurt they will die.

We were told the sire (father) to the litter we were looking at was 150 pounds. He didn’t look like it. The breeder told me to try to pick him up to see for myself but I passed. He was still barking. The grandfather was over 200 pounds. All I could think about was the food bill.

snow puppyFinally we got to see the puppies. Way better. Not so intimidating. Clumsy, happy, and lovable, they were pretty cute. Laurie seemed to be drawn to the runt. I’ve had runts before and they have been really good natured so we finally made our minds up and took him home. His name was Turk.

Livestock Guardian dogs are domesticated and make wonderful pets but only under strict circumstances. They were bred to protect sheep and goats from wolves in the mountains of Turkey. They live with the herds 24/7, not in some hut or home.  They not only will defend to the death but also help with lambing and such. They do whatever they can to care for their wards. They are not herding dogs.

One of the biggest attractions to me is the way they guard. Like I said earlier, we didn’t want an aggressive dog. When these dogs first see a threat they will stand up. Most often their size is enough to intimidate whatever predator they are watching. If that doesn’t deter, they give a little woof. If that doesn’t work they start barking and that IS intimidating. If that doesn’t do it they will start moving towards the threat. They mean business and they are fast. These animals are almost as fast as a greyhound.

I am not a dog expert. I am only sharing our experiences and research. These dogs are independent thinkers and not easily controlled. They have to be that way. Often where they come from there aren’t any owners to consult or tell them what to do. We did a lot of homework before we got Turk. I am a fairly experienced trainer (of birddogs) and still have a little difficulty with him when he is in guard mode.

On the one hand this dog is the sweetest dog I have ever owned. You almost never have to raise your voice. When it is bedtime he either goes in by himself or one of us will just say the word bed and he immediately goes into his room and goes to bed. No exceptions. It’s very cute. But when he is on guard – when there is a threat, human or animal, it is a different story. We are working on it. We are walking a fine line here. We don’t want to deter him in any way from doing his job but if we determine there is no threat and want him to calm down then that is what he needs to do.

livestock guardianHe is progressing nicely. Turk was probably 6 months old before we heard him bark the first time. It scared me. I didn’t know that deep loud intimidating sound would come out of this ½ grown dog. Wow! That is another feature, they don’t bark unless there is something there. Nice. When company would come he used to bark and then run behind the house and pee. Now, at a little over one year old, he barks and goes toward the threat. Still a little nervous but not bad. They say this breed doesn’t get totally into guard mode until they are mature, 3-4 years old. It is also common to work them in pairs but Turk only has us to teach him. We are learning together and are both improving.

About that food bill? When they become mature they don’t eat hardly anything. They pick a high point and just lay there all day watching. You may even think they are sleeping but they’re not. Turk has learned to watch the road over a mile away. He lets a vehicle get to within about ½ mile and then lets us know they are coming. I love that feature. Plenty of time to either load my gun or make lemonade.

Recently Laurie and Turk were out walking and spooked a fawn. The fawn jumped up and they were off. Laurie ran after as fast as she could, horrified at the outcome. Finally the fawn stopped and lay down and Turk just danced around in circles, trying to get the little fawn to play – whew! They seem to instinctually know when something is a threat or not.

smiley turkThis dog loves to play and needs his exercise. He also loves to run. More than any dog I ever had. He runs for the sheer fun of running. He loves to go way up the hill and then CHARGE! Down the hill as fast as he can go, paws pounding the earth and at the last second he swerves away from you, missing by inches. When he was younger he didn’t always miss. For that matter he didn’t always even get to you without tumbling head over heels. It was pretty funny. He is older now, more coordinated and very very fast. I would not want him to be after me.

A funny story about one of Turks brothers – when he was about 4 or 5 months old he ran a bear up a tree in their backyard. The owner finally got him back inside the house and waited for the bear to leave. After the bear had gone the Owner tried to get the dog to go outside but he wouldn’t. He finally realized what he had done and got scared. Too funny. They need time to develop just like anything else.

spring guardOver all, we are very happy with this breed. Turk stays outside whenever we leave. He guards the house and animals. We haven’t lost one chick this year to predators. He never goes very far. He is always where we left him when we come home. Once he knows someone, they are his friend forever. He has already run several coyotes off and the occasional bird predator as well. He doesn’t mess around.  We feel way better leaving the house now than we used to. We know someone is coming to our house or in our area long before they get here. It doesn’t matter whether he is inside or outside. He always knows. Turk is always on the job and keeping his herd safe.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and offgridworks.com.