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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.
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.