Thursday, February 12, 2009

Living with livestock guardians

I have the pleasure of living with livestock guardian dogs. Ours is a working sheep and cattle ranch, so our dogs live with the sheep, but I generally raise a litter a year, so that means I am often living with puppies and socializing them to humans, buildings, etc. I raise the pups for other sheep producers in this region because our setup allows the pups to really bond well with young lambs, have their first predator encounters while they are young, and get big enough here before they go on the migratory sheep trail.

I team up with a friend who owns a large migratory range sheep outfit and needs to keep about 20-24 guard dogs guarding his herds at any one time. The toughest stud dogs win breeding rights to females, although every now and then we hand-pick pairings and move the pair to my place so they can be undisturbed. Once the female is pregnant, the male goes back to the sheep trail, while the female hangs out with my sheep, taking it easy. It’s guard dog vacation. The dogs are challenged by coyotes every day (and now and then a mountain lion, bear or wolf) but we have dead coyotes in our sheep pastures on a regular basis. We call coyote and red fox carcasses “puppy chewies” because they are scattered around puppy territory every summer. Most pups get their first ass-whipping, which makes them mad enough to make their first kill, before they lose their puppy teeth. From then on, they are pups with a mission.

We mostly raise Anatolians and Akbash, both Turkish breeds we love – we’ve even bred and raised the Kangal and Karabash types. We started with Great Pyrenees, but needed a more aggressive guardian breed here in western Wyoming, thus the move to Turkish breeds. The Turkish breeds don’t just hold the predator back from entering the sheep herd, but will run coyotes down and kill them.

My current puppies are 10-month olds from a breed we call Aziats. The dogs are officially Central Asian Ovtcharka or Central Asian Shepherds. In the countries of origin, the dogs are also called Alabai, Tobet, Sage Koochi, Sage Dahmarda, Aryan Dog, etc. Our pups are about 100 pounds currently, and still growing, so we’re betting they get in the 160-pound range, much larger than our other livestock guardian breeds.

Last summer, we purchased four Aziat pups – two for my migratory sheep buddy, and two for our ranch flock. We were told their pedigree six generations back by the breeder: In the early 1990's, an adult male was imported from Turkmenia to Russia and bred there to the dam, which was imported from Tajikistan (purchased as a pup from herder). A few years later, these dogs, with some of their progeny, were imported to the United States. The adult male involved in this story, Gjock, was tried as a fighting dog in Turkmenia, but apparently did not show much success.

The reason we agreed to try these dogs here in Wyoming is because they have been very successful in guarding sheep from wolves in other regions of the world. We’ve lost count, but we know six to eight of the livestock guard dog pups I’ve raised here on the ranch and then sent with other western producers ended up getting killed by wolves. We’ll see how well the Aziats work here.

The photos show the Aziats: Rant (the runt of the Aziat litter) with his sister Helga (dark face mask); as they play with the all-white Akbash, Rena (the runt of her litter two years ago).


Gregg Barrow said...

I’m green eyed envious of the opportunities and environment your pups receive and are reared in. It sounds like a working dog breeder’s heaven. I know it provides you with a ton of information as you watch them mature and their personalities develop.

While living in Florida I was blessed with orange groves on one side and Lake Okeechobee on the other. A perfect world for developing young coon and cat hounds. It’s was like having my own Fuller and Scott laboratory for hunting dogs at my back door.

A wonderful post.

Jo said...

I'm amazed at the number of dogs you run together. I've just purchased to pyrenees pups, brother and sister and have since been "warned" about littermate syndrome. I was told to keep them seperate for feeding, training, etc. What's your take on that? I got two thinking they would work as a team. I'd really appreciate your imput. I only have 25 acres and 160 alpacas. Nothing like your guys have to cope with!

thanks for the post!

Cat Urbigkit said...

The dogs are so individual, that it really varies. I tend to take the runt of the litter and put it with a special bunch of lambs (bums), so it won't get beat up by the other pups.

I think plenty of dogs, even young dogs, work together well, and will even split up with the herd in order to guard their own areas, but going to visit each other a few times during the day. I also believe pups are good for playing with each other and getting rid of energy that could be turned in an unhelpful way to young lambs. We never feed our dogs separately, but make sure there are enough food bowls (sometimes a sheep feeder in fact, for the entire litter) to take care of everyone. We wouldn't want to cause competition or turf battles over feed bowls. We also use automatic feeders that are kept full, and the dogs eat from that at their own pace.

So long as the dogs are properly attentive to their charges, there is no harm in having more than one or two with a bunch. I've had entire litters with a small flock of sheep until they are about four months old and ready to rock. By then, they need work to do, or they'll find trouble on their own.

When Pete has a band of 1,000 sheep on the move, there will be 5-7 dogs in each band. They spread out in the herd, and get the job done. They don't want to be together all the time. That's what guard dogs are all about - independent decision-making.
Good luck with your pups - I'll bet they are sweeties!

Neutrino Cannon said...

I remember vividly going on a ride near Oh-Be-Joyful early in the morning and running into a shepherd's tent and one of these dogs.

It looked to me like the dog was just about as tall as the tent. It was loudly vocalizing something about seeing us, and being willing and able to take all six should it come to that.

We found the dog's argument to be most persuasive and moved on.

Has anyone ever tried crossing these breeds?

Cat Urbigkit said...

These various guard dog breeds cross naturally on the range sheep outfits - that's really what I meant when I said the toughest stud dogs get to breed. Plenty of the working guardians here are crossbreds. My plan is to cross an Akbash female with an Aziat male, but we'll see.

Reid Farmer said...

IIRC Steve had a post here a couple of years ago talking about some friends of his who breed and train tobets in Kazakhstan.

I think I must have seen some of your dogs last summer with a flock at Emigrant Springs, down near Kemmerer

J said...

Do you ever sell the puppies? I am interested in buying a male Akbash mix.

Angelika's View said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angelika's View said...

I am the owner/publisher of Wallowa County is in the far north east corner of Eastern Oregon.
We just had our fourth calf kill by wolves confirmed by US Wildlife Services.
I am very interested if these awesome guard dogs would work protecting cattle, too.
We raise cattle ourselves but of course, up to now, have only used working dogs to help us run cattle.
You can get in contact with me at

Thanks so much in advance

Angelika Dietrich