Some very large, solemn dogs are helping to put an end to at least one of the bitter battles between environmentalists and businessmen. In this case the businessmen are sheep and goat raisers. For decades the stockmen, losing ruinous numbers of lambs and kids to coyotes and other predators, have tried poisons, explosive devices and other grim gadgets against the marauders. But these things kill harmless animals as well, and some are dangerous to humans.
The big dogs, on the other hand, rarely kill anything. They spend nearly their entire lives with the flock. Their massive presence—they weigh from 70 to 125 pounds—is so intimidating that coyotes, bobcats and feral dogs leave the sheep or goats alone. This boosts the ranchers' profits and pleases environmentalists.
The dogs are descendants of livestock-guarding dogs that shepherds in southern Europe and the Near East have used for centuries. Their job is quite different from that of sheep dogs—border collies, for example—which herd sheep by chasing and barking at them. These dogs don't do that. They're just guardians.
They come in several breeds, most of them little known in this country: Great Pyrenees, maremma, Shar Planinetz, Anatolian shepherd, Komondor, etc. But there is a basic resemblance: All are large, flop-eared and puppylike in shape and behavior, even when they weigh 120 pounds. They are, in short, big lovable lunks. But you can't pet them much. If you do, they may follow you and leave your sheep or goats to the predators.
May 27, 1984
The first of these dogs I encountered were guarding goats for Benton Walter near Oglesby, Texas. "Last year I had 75 kids born and lost 50 of them to coyotes and bobcats," Walter told me. "This year, with the dogs, I had 100 born and haven't lost any to the varmints."
The dogs, Matt and Kitty, came up to his pickup truck. They are Great Pyrenees—long-haired, handsome, mostly white, with boxy muzzles and long plumed tails. "I put them with the goats when they were six weeks old," said Walter. "They've been here, ever since." Though less than nine months old, Matt and Kitty weighed around 75 pounds. Panting (it was August), they looked up at us, politely waiting for whatever we might provide—food, or maybe a pat on the head. Getting neither, they ambled off and lay down under shade trees among the goats, where they dripped a little saliva and gazed with dignity off into the hills.
In Walter's pasture it looks simple and easy. Actually it hasn't been. At least seven years of experimentation were required, years of hard work, some bad luck, various misconceptions and failures, and dogs that didn't pan out. The people who did much of the work are a husband-and-wife team of biologists, Ray and Lorna Coppinger, of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. For years they had been interested in dogs of another kind. Dr. Coppinger won the New England Dog Sled championship in 1973, racing a team of crossbred huskies and border collies. Mrs. Coppinger is the author of a book titled The World of Sled Dogs.
In 1976 some prominent livestock men asked the Coppingers to try to adapt European guarding dogs to protecting American flocks. The experiment seemed urgently worth trying. The technological war against predators was costing $30 million a year, and yet was being lost. Predators were killing more than a million sheen annually.
Financed by grants from the Department of Agriculture and the Rockefeller Brothers' Fund, the Coppingers went to France, Italy, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Turkey to watch guarding dogs at work. Their children, Karyn and Tim, 23 and 14, helped out. They persuaded a former student, Jay Lorenz, to join them and later to take charge of the kennels at the New England Farm Center, which is operated by Hampshire College. They shipped pups home for breeding stock, studied their behavior, tried different methods of raising them, and sent the young dogs out on a lend-lease arrangement to sheep and goat men all over the country. And, slowly, with many hitches and halts, the experiment began to work.
The Coppingers found that the dogs have to meet three requirements. They must not harm the sheep or goats. They must stay with the flock and not wander off on doggy projects of their own. And they must protect the flock against predators. This seems a lot to ask of animals which are themselves meat-eaters, predators, relatives of the coyote and the wolf. But hundreds of dogs are now doing these things satisfactorily.
They do them in part because their Old World ancestors did them. But it's important to put the pups with sheep or goats when they're no more than eight weeks old. The flock then becomes their family. They move with it in daytime and bed down with it at night. A complex mixture of instinct, environment, training and habit enables them to live placidly like sheep, yet when challenged, they fight. Predators can see, hear and smell that they are not sheep but very large canines that had better be left alone. In fact, what happens in a well-guarded pasture is, anticlimactically, nothing. The marauders just stay away.
At first the young pups may be bullied and butted. Soon they are as big as sheep themselves, and in their high-energy juvenile stage, on rare occasions, may play too roughly with their charges, especially the lambs and kids. They need watching and correcting. By the time they are a year old, the dogs are approaching maturity. They know their job and will do it dependably season after season. The ranchers feed them dry dog food, which they buy in 50-pound bags.
All newborn pups, of whatever breed, start out looking very much alike, with floppy ears, rounded heads and blunt muzzles. This is true even of wild canines—wolves, jackals, coyotes. And it's these that develop farthest from their roly-poly puppyhood. They end up with shallow skulls, pricked ears and long muzzles—good equipment for predators.
The Coppingers believe that all the domestic breeds of dogs have been produced by arresting this developmental process at one stage or another. Such breeds as the husky and spitz come closest, in both physical shape and behavior, to their ancestor the wolf. Arrested in still earlier juvenile stages, with shorter muzzles and less pricked-up ears, are collies, hounds, spaniels and retrievers. And least developed of all, still puppy-shaped when they're full grown, are the Saint Bernards and the various livestock-guarding breeds.
Their behavior is puplike, too. They may lick a ewe's face as if she were their mother, begging her to regurgitate some food. Their relation to the flock is that of a pup to the litter, and there have been instances when they have, puppylike, retreated from predators to the protection of the center of the flock.
The Coppingers have delivered the pups in person to stockmen in 35 states. They do this in vans fitted out as kennels, their compartments filled with dogs. Ray Coppinger drives one van, Lorenz the other. "They like to meet the stockmen, discuss problems, collect data and see how the dogs are doing.
No motel manager wants a van full of yapping pups in his parking lot, so the deliverers stop in rural places or truck stops and sleep in the vans. Smelling of dogs, they avoid restaurants and eat from cartons and cans. Highway rest stops abound with dog diseases and infections, so it's best just to keep moving and get the long hauls done. "When Jay gets here with a load of dogs," one ranch woman told me, "he's hungry, he's sleepy and he smells bad." The ranchers offer hot baths, spare bedrooms and good food.
Coryell County, Texas, 100 miles south of Fort Worth, is an austerely beautiful stretch of country with rocky pastures under a big sky. Its characteristic sounds—bawling cattle, humming pickup trucks—are just small flaws in a vast Western silence. Some 40 of the Coppingers' guarding dogs work there. Kermit and Tanya Miller have a pair of them—female Anatolian shepherds named Sugar and Spice. Sugar guards goats scattered among trees in a big pasture. Every half hour or so, in the daytime, she bounds about the pasture on patrol, making sure nobody's in trouble. When I visited her with the Millers, an impudent long-horned billy goat lowered its head, made a run at Sugar and butted her in the chest. Snarling in rage, she bared a set of teeth that could easily have killed the goat, and charged. He plunged into the herd, but she followed him, nipping his flanks and yelping angrily. The revolt was easily put down, with no harm done, and Sugar went on with her patrol.
In a pasture, miles from the ranch house, Spice guards sheep. Like nearly all the dogs I saw at work, she seemed pleased to have human visitors, but not particularly sorry to see us go. What looks like a lonely life to us, among bleating, boring sheep, is apparently, to the dogs, filled with interesting sights, sounds, smells and preoccupations.
"The SCS [Soil Conservation Service] man drove by here the other day," said Kermit Miller. "He saw Spice with the sheep and thought she was a sheep-killing dog. He told a neighbor that if he'd had his rifle, he would've shot her for me." Many stockmen put small signs on pasture fences: ATTENTION! SHEEP DOG ON DUTY. PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB. But a few dogs are shot every year by people who think they're doing the rancher a favor.
Before they got Sugar and Spice, the Millers tried several dogs that didn't work out. Their neighbors, Dick and Dixie Wallace, started out with an excellent" dog named Brownie. But Brownie was stolen, and the Wallaces' next six dogs were all, in various ways, failures. One of them took a liking to horses and hung around the barn. One made herself a household pet. Another wouldn't stay with the flock. Yet another chewed the hind legs of goats—playfully, but they died of the wounds. A dog called Yaz hanged himself by his own leash when he jumped a barn-lot fence. The Wallaces knew, from their beginner's luck with Brownie, that guarding dogs were the answer to their coyote problem. They kept trying, and now have five good Hampshire College dogs in five pastures.
The dogs work best in fenced pastures, where the flock makes a unit they can keep an eye on. Sheep scattered thinly over miles of open range, as they sometimes are in the Rockies, are hard to protect, and several dogs may be needed. But a dog pays for itself if it saves just one or two sheep a year, and in almost any situation the best ones do far better than that.
"Dogs are a good first line of defense," says Ray Coppinger. "They're cheap [about $600, on average], easy to try and need no special management. If you stick with them, you can make them work."
In populated areas domestic dogs—pets—are often the worst sheep killers. In the Rockies, bears kill them. Other predators include mountain lions, feral dogs, even ravens. But the stockman's prime enemy almost everywhere is the clever, lean-living coyote. Persistence was all it took to exterminate the passenger pigeon and nearly do in the bison and the red wolf. Neither persistence nor technology has killed off the coyote. He thrives, and a measure of the ranchers' hatred of him is the variety of methods with which they have tried to control him: traps, poisons, fancy fences, tranquilizers, sterilizing drugs. They've tried a device that fires cyanide into a coyote's (or any other animal's) mouth when it takes the bait. They've gassed coyote pups in their dens.
Several of these measures have angered environmentalists. Some are obviously dangerous to other creatures, including pets and people. Some are impractically expensive. None solved the basic problem. Coyotes survived and kept on killing livestock.
More and more stockmen are finding guarding dogs the best solution. There are plans to set up a branch of the Hampshire kennels in Oregon, where some 50 of the project's dogs are already at work. The demand for dogs exceeds the supply, and people around the country are beginning to breed the big animals and sell them directly to ranchers, which is exactly what the Coppingers and Lorenz hoped would happen.
Near Moody, Texas, T.R. Dean has seven Great Pyrenees guarding sheep in three widely separated pastures. "Without the dogs," he says, "the coyotes would have put me out of the wool business three years ago." He bought his dogs from a breeder in New Mexico before he ever heard of the Coppingers.
Dean thinks his dogs eventually put a squirt of urine on every fence post around a pasture, warning signs that say to coyote noses: DANGER, KEEP OUT. Other stockmen agree. It's possible that a dog's urine can tell a coyote, "I'm a hell of a lot bigger than you are, buster."
It's rare these days to solve any large-scale problem in a way that pleases everybody. The big dogs come close to doing this. Even the coyotes benefit—they live, and turn with new interest to one of the jobs that nature designed them for—keeping the rodent population in check.
There are holdouts, of course. Some stockmen still disdain all dogs as potential sheep killers. There is a "predacide" lobby, deeply committed to poisons for economic reasons. It's firmly against guarding dogs. But individual stockmen make the final choice. Many of them, fed up with the risks of chemical warfare and booby-trapped pastures, are concluding that when you get the right one, a lamb's best friend is a dog.