Guard dogs: a sheep's best friend
Meet Charpar. He is rude to strangers and overly defensive about his friends. He works all day and most of the night. He has the appetite of the Oakland Raiders, and the breath to match their locker room.
Actually, these are endearing qualities.
Charpar is a black-snouted, vanilla-colored guard dog. At 110 feisty pounds, the Turkish Anatolian shepherd dog doesn't make the most cuddly playmate. But his bulk serves to ward intruders away from a flock of sheep in a bewhiskered western Massachusetts pasture.
From the wind-stroked ranges of Colorado to the shrub- studded pastures of Vermont, guard dogs are being used more and more to stand sentry over livestock. It's all part of a new experiment in this country to try to solve an ancient and costly riddle: How to reduce the loss of lamb to predators, mainly coyotes.
Guard dogs have been used successfully for centuries in parts of predator-prone Europe and Asia. But only in the last few years has the idea started to catch on in this country, which inherited its farming tradition from predator-free Britain. If successful -- and early results show that it is -- it could help erase a major reason that many sheep ranchers bolt from the business.
"Some ranchers feel that if they had a way to fight them [predators] effectively, they would be willing to stay in business," says Richard Biglin, executive director of the Denver- based American Sheep Producers Council Inc.
By one estimate, more than 1 million sheep -- and many more million dollars in revenues -- are lost each year to predators. A sheep rancher may lose from 2 to 20 percent of his flock every year.
Losses have been the highest in the West, where coyotes are more prevalent and open-range areas less defensible. Bears, mountain lions, and wolves have also clipped sheep populations. Marauding dogs are the chief culprits in the East.
With demand for both wool and lamb soaring, the search for new predator controls has taken on fresh urgency. A potpourri of home-grown and research-spawned methods have been devised to ward off the unwanted visitors.
Besides aerial shooting, trapping, and electric fencing, some ranchers have placed strobe lights and tape recordings of sirens among the sheep. They periodically go off, sending the bewildered predators scurrying for more tranquil surroundings, but not perturbing the placid sheep. Other ranchers have parked cantankerous burrors or, in a few cases, even llams with the flocks to glare down any hungry passers-by.
Still others have dangled bells from the sheeps' necks, designed to alert ranchers to any unusual activity. One farmer in Ontario, Canada, is said to have burned rubber tires at night to keep wolves away.
Federal efforts to curb plundering by coyotes also have been stepped up in recent years, particularly since the poison 1080 was banned by the federal government in 1972. The Denver Wildlife Research Center, part of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, has been experimenting with toxic collars placed around lambs' necks.
Other methods have included spraying lambs with bitter- tasting repellents and using antifertility agents to control coyote populations in localized areas.
Guard dogs are emerging as another ingredient of the hoped-for elixir. Much of the research into canine patrols is The New England Farm Center, an offshoot of Hampshire College, has been breeding dogs for guard duty for three years. The program is one part of the center's attempt to prop up the flagging sheep farmers in New England, once the backbone of the industry. More than 150 dogs from the Amherst center alone are now at work on farms in 25 states, and many of the dogs already have earned their red badge of courage.
Just ask Clifford Thayer. The square-jawed western Massachusetts farmer first became suspicious about his sheep losses in late 1977. He didn't think much of it until he actually saw two dogs enter his pasture one night. Next day , 27 of his sheep had been killed or badly chewed. In came three guard dogs from the farm center. His losses have been virtually nil ever since.
"Until I see something better than dogs, I think it's the way to go," he says.
The center has had no easy task cultivating an elite corps of canine protectors. Over the past three years, Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, as well as other farm center members, have trudged from Portugal to Tibet looking at different guard breeds.
They are currently working with three general breeds: the Anatolian shepherd, a stout breed from the plains of Turkey; the Yugoslavian shepherd (Shar Planinetz), a rough- coated dog; and the Maremma, an Italian breed. Others being watched include the Great Pyrenees, a heavy-boned dog that lumbers about with a roling gait, and the Hungarian komondor, whose corded coat gives it the look of a walking mop.
The dogs are being crossbred and tried out in different locales. The farm center rents dogs to ranchers for $1, and then records the results. After the first year, if the rancher still wants the dog, the center charges an additional instructional programs to help farmers learn about the dogs.
Guard dogs are the plow horses of the canine group. They are much different than herd dogs, which are small, quick, and tireless as the scurry around keeping strays in line. A herd dog must always be accompanied by a shepherd; otherwise it can run the sheep to exhauston. Guard dogs, on the other hand, prefer -- even demand -- solitude. Unruffled and strong, they are large and lumbering (usually 80 to 110 pounds), more than enough to bluff a 30-pound coyote out of the pasture with a mere growl. Bears require a little louder growl, if not help from the farmer.
"When a coyote comes up to a flock of sheep and a 100- pound dog walks out, it doesn't know if the dog is going to bite it or not," says Dr. Coppinger, a biology professor at Hampshire College and director of the farm center's guard-dog project. "They usually don't take the chance."
The lanky researcher knows only too well. To test what a guard dog would do to a stranger, he once tried to steal a sheep in Yugoslavia. "The dog kept getting between me and the sheep," he recalls. "I finally chickened out. I asked the shepherd if the dog would have bitten me. He just laughed. So I still don't know."
He also found out (the hard way) that a dog's bark isn't always worse than its bite. In Colorado, he once tried to kick a guard dog that had strayed away from the flock. Provoked, the dog's sister retaliated against the probing researcher by nipping him in the stomach.
A guard dog is not a good Lassie. If you try to coax one into fetching a Frisbee, he is likely to roll over. If you tell him to roll over, he might chase the Frisbee.
When on the job, they look like the Secret Service at work, minus the mirrored sunglasses. They mingle with the flock, snapping to attention anytime something unusual happens.
Little training, if any, is needed. The dogs are put out with the flock when only a few months old, but generally don't one their policing tactics until after a year old. A good guard dog can watch as many as 2,000 sheep. if the flock stays bunched together and the predators are few.
Some of the dogs seem to have an identity problem. In a few cases they have become so attached to certain members of the flock that the refused to guard the other sheep after their favorites left. One Wisconsin farmer has found that his dog, "Bob," frequently exchanges licks with a member of the flock.
"In some cases it looks as though the younger dogs treat the sheep as they would another dog," Jay Lorenz, research associate at the farm center, says.
Not all guard dogs, of course, are cut out to be protectors. One Massachusetts farmer found his dog got along well with the sleep, but spurned the chickens. Still another dog was removed when it took a bite out of the farmer's ram.
"I am very heartened by the response so far," Dr. Coppinger says. "But not all dogs work out."
Guard-dog research is also going on at the US Department of Agriculture's Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho. Researchers there have placed about 20 dogs on ranches throughout the region. Others are watching over the station's own flock.
"Most of the dogs have worked out very well," Jeffrey Green, a wildlife biologist at the station, says. "We view the dogs as another tool to protect flocks; we don't see them as a panacea."
Montana rancher Rodney Madsen used to be skeptical about the idea of a guard dog. After losing almost one sheep a day to coyotes, however, he decided to try one out. His losses were cut by 80 percent in the first two months.
"If was a little skeptical at first," Mr. Madsen says. "But now I'm a great promoter of guard dogs. My friends get sick of hearing about them."