Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fearing What We Don't Understand

A recent Denver Post article featured a woman who fears the Akbash livestock guardian dogs that have trailed with domestic sheep herds into the San Juan Mountains for the last three or four decades. The woman is now carrying a loaded Glock because of her fear the “aggressive dogs” will attack.

Any legitimate concern about hikers encountering livestock guardian dogs was ruined by the article’s closing statement: “ ‘I don’t want to be the Diane Whipple of the San Juans,’said Graham, referring to a woman fatally mauled in San Francisco in 2001 by two large herd guard dogs of another breed.”

Diane Whipple was killed by two vicious Presa Canario dogs in a California apartment complex. These were not livestock guardian dogs. This breed is not used to guard livestock herds in America. Sometimes called Canary Island mastiffs, this breed was developed as a livestock “catch” dog (used to catch and hold cattle!) and eventually bred to be fighting dogs. The New York Times reported that the owners of the dogs that killed Whipple had adopted the dogs – they came from a member of the Aryan Brotherhood who was breeding and fighting the dogs for guarding meth labs for the Mexican Mafia. The reference to Whipple’s tragic death “by two large herd guard dogs of another breed” in the Denver Post showed grossly irresponsible journalism.

Livestock producers using public lands do not want hikers being frightened by livestock guardian dogs. The best reaction is education.

For Dog Owners
For livestock producers, that means discarding those old traditions of not petting your guardian dogs. Instead, raise your dogs in a way that ensures they are well-socialized to humans. The dogs should be petted and fed by the dog owner, family members, and herders. No one outside the family and ranch workers should ever be allowed to feed the dogs. After receiving affection for a few minutes, the dogs should be directed to “Go to the sheep.” The dogs should be exposed to kids on bicycles, teenagers on motorcycles, etc. The dogs soon learn that humans are not a threat to the sheep.

Most livestock guardian dogs used in the American West do not perceive humans as a threat to the herd – that is, unless a strange human is approaching the herd. We’ve had people drive into the middle of our herd on our lambing ground and exit their vehicle with the family dog. Fortunately, I was there to intervene to prevent an intense encounter.

For Public Land Users
In most cases, when a strange human is encountered on the range, the guardian’s reaction is going to be an attempt to intimidate the intruder. That means raised hackles and tail, and loud barking as the dog rushes toward the intrusion. I’ve encountered dozens (if not hundreds) of working guardian dogs in my travels here and in many countries abroad, and I’ve always stood quietly, talking to the dogs until they realize I’m not a threat and go back to their sheep. I would never attempt to hike through the middle of a sheep herd I randomly encountered on the range. Skirting around the herd is appropriate.

Generally, if you are on foot, horseback, or an all-terrain vehicle and come close to sheep, a livestock protection dog should have time to see and/or hear you approach and recognize that you are not a threat to the livestock. But a rapidly approaching mountain biker, suddenly surprising the livestock protection dog, may appear to be a threat. Stop, get off the bike while keeping it between the dog and your body, and talk to the dog so it can recognize you are a human.

Hikers with domestic dogs may be perceived as a greater threat. An unleashed dog encountering sheep likely will be perceived as a predator, which could cause an aggressive confrontation with the livestock protection dog. Uncontrolled domestic dogs are the top killer of livestock in America, and a guardian dog's job is to keep these animals from harming the herd.

People hiking and biking on western rangelands are encouraged to carry pepper spray and be knowledgeable about how to use it. Pepper spray works on many animals that can be perceived as threatening – from bears and mountain lions, to dogs.

The Colorado Wool Growers Association provides the following recommendations for hikers and bikers:

• Keep your dog on a leash and never allow your dog to harass the sheep

• Watch for livestock protection dogs near sheep (usually large white or tan dogs)

• Remain calm if a livestock protection dog approaches

• Stop and get off of your bike, put your bike between you and the dog

• Tell the dog to “go back to the sheep”

• Walk your bike until well past the sheep

• Keep your distance from the sheep

• Choose the least disruptive route around the sheep

• If the sheep are trailing, wait for them to pass

• Chase or harass the sheep or dogs

• Try to outrun the dogs

• Throw things at the dogs

• Make quick movements

• Feed the dogs

• Take a dog with you

• Attempt to befriend or pet the dog

Shared Range
I wish I could meet the frightened woman in Colorado and take her out to meet some working livestock protection dogs so she could have a little different perspective on the dogs and how they work. These Western rangelands are big enough for a multitude of uses, and with a little common sense and understanding to other land users, we can happily continue to share this landscape.

A NOTE ON STEVE: Steve is still doing battle with trying to receive email. We'll keep you posted about a resolution – Cat.


Gregg Barrow said...

Super post!
As much as the woman’s Diane Whipple reference is a sensational, fear based reaction to a low occurrence incident (a five minute Google search on the psycho that raised those two canines and the couple that were there caretakers will paint a better picture then I could write), I don’t think the “Do Not: Attempt to befriend or pet the dog” can be overemphasized. That’s a problem that a variety of different breed owners that train for just about every discipline and use can find challenging.
If you think I’m exaggerating…...go to the opposite end of the working spectrum, find a conformation show in your area, and attempt to go up and pet and hug on one of the coated breeds as they are about to entire the ring. :-)

Cat Urbigkit said...

Great point Gregg, and thanks. Most of my guardian dogs will try to intimidate a stranger, but quickly calm down and wag their tails, while staying just out of reach, so petting them would be difficult for most people (unless we are present).

Anonymous said...

Well, Cat, I don't know; but--seems like you woulda picked a different photo to illustrate yer points here--I mean, it's OBVIOUS that dog is trying to GORE you in that picture!!!(ahem!)....L.B.