“Where the Dogs Are, the Wolves Cannot Be” (A Turkish shepherd)
I grew up with hunting dogs, and I knew a few herding dogs. I knew about the world of little dogs riding in big motorhomes, the world of mutts who went everywhere, and the world of generic black-and-white farm collies who never sat paw in the main family house but still had full, purposeful dog lives.
But there is another dog world about which I knew little, and that is the world where dogs fight wolves.
Cat and Jim Urbigkit raise sheep on private land and public-land leases in western Wyoming. Living south of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, their flocks must contend not just with “mesopredators” such as foxes and coyotes, but “apex predators” as well: wolves, black bears, and grizzlies, all enjoying some degree of legal protection. Nor do Cat and Jim wish to exterminate those wolves and grizzlies, merely to keep them off the sheep.
Rena was there to meet them when the wolves leapt into the pasture. One hundred thirty pounds of determined Akbash sheep guardian dog, she met the wolves head-on, brawling in the distance from the herd, in the darkness, in the rain. When the wolves attacked, Rena could face one, as the other attacked her rear. The wolves sunk their teeth into her haunches, nearly severing her tail at its based and biting her tender underside. Fighting for both her own life as well as the lives on her sheep, Rena battled on, keeping the wolves from reaching the herd.Rena was the subject of her own book, The Guardian Team: On the Job With Rena and Roo, Roo being a guardian burro (effective against coyotes but not bears or wolves).
A few years ago the Urbigkits received funding from the state of Wyoming to study livestock guardian dogs in other countries, including Spain, Turkey, Bulgaria, Lesotho, and Central Asia — all places with long traditions of using guardian dogs in addition to herding dogs.
These dogs grow up alongside the sheep. They must guard the sheep against predators, yet not be too hostile to humans and other dogs. It is a difficult balance.
In her new book Brave and Loyal: An Illustrated Celebration of Livestock Guardian Dogs, Cat Urbigkit writes not just for the livestock producers who could use guardian dogs, but for anyone who might encounter them on the range — or for anyone who likes reading about dogs. You hear not from them, but from the herders and dog breeders (usually the same people) of Bulgaria, Turkey, etc.
She told one interviewer,
“The thing I liked most was that I got to meet Spanish mastiff dogs in Spain, and I wasn’t expecting how effective or large they are,” she says. “The dogs are very effective against wolves, and we visited ranches in central Spain that had bands of sheep living with packs of wolves on the same ranch. When you have 11 Spanish mastiff dogs with a thousand head of sheep and very few losses, that’s an amazing record.”Finally, if you are out on the range and encounter guardian dogs, keep your distance. If you are bicycling, dismount. The dogs (and wildlife) regard a bicycle as a predator — it is quiet, fast-moving, and has big eyes in front (sunglasses, goggles, and they may react appropriately.