We spent about 8 months looking for a suitable dog before we acquired Mac the Marshmallow last month. Until a little over a year ago, we had two American Working Farmcollies, half siblings. Rufus, our senior dog was an unusually large dog for his breed – half again the size of either parent or his sister, Mistress Quickly, and he died suddenly at 7 of a hidden heart condition that our vet says sometimes affects unusually large dogs.
We knew that we did not want another farmcollie – or rather we did, we had loved Rufus, but that what we needed in working dog for our family was slightly different than what we’d had. In both the case of Rufus and Mistress Quickly, their strong herding instincts had reduced their utility has guardian dogs – both were wonderful at driving off strange predators, but had difficulty letting the livestock be in normal circumstances. They both had a tendency to respond excessively to normal situations, and to try and herd the animals back to the barn if they ranged too far or even minor abnormalities occurred. Despite a lot of work, we were never able to fully curb these practices, so the dogs couldn’t be out entirely unattended with the livestock.
We decided we needed a dog that would be primarily a guardian, whose instincts would be protective, but more mellow. Because our barnyard is within a few meters of the house, however, we wanted the dog to be both protective of our livestock and also part of our family. We were given a mix of information about whether this was possible – if we selected a guarding breed, we were told, they might or might not be able to bond to both humans and animals, but enough people reported success this way that we decided we’d attempt it. We were looking for a dog of mixed or single ancestry that would have the livestock guarding instincts that we wanted.
No dog is perfect, and the expression of what they have been bred for is only part of knowing what they will do. We ruled out adult dogs for two reasons. The first is that we have younger children, and many adult dogs have endured some kind of trauma that could have made them unsafe around kids. The second is that it is impossible to know whether an older dog will have the instinct to chase and kill small livestock – we could do the best guessing we could, picking dogs who genetic heritage inclined them to be protective, but a dog who has had experience killing poultry or rabbits was not an acceptable option for us, and there’s simply no way to know. Many shelters cat and other dog test their dogs, but “chicken testing” is less common ;-).
We looked at rescue dogs for months, and found that we really couldn’t meet our needs there, which was disappointing. Several of the breed rescues we contacted required us to sign papers permitting them to come at any time to our property to inspect the dogs – that just wasn’t going to happen – this is a working farm, and giving up legal right to our privacy wasn’t something we would do. A number of the shelters we contacted didn’t want to place LGD breeds on working farms – their policy was that they only wanted the animals to be household pets. Others would have required we sign a contract keeping the animals in a fenced yard all the time – which sort of defeats the purpose of a working animal. The cost of adopting a rescue puppy was as high as purchasing an animal bred for working (I don’t blame the rescue organizations who use the more desirable puppies to fund the care of older dogs for this at all), without the assurances that a breeder would be able to offer us that the animal wouldn’t be disabled by hip displasia.
One of the things our search taught us was this – that the culture of animal rights and love of animals (some of which has been a very good thing) has become profoundly suspicious of the idea of using animals to work – even when they have been bred to work. For example, we inquired about a litter of Great Pyrenees/Old English Sheepdog cross puppies that were available at a shelter in an affluent suburb of Boston. I wrote that we were looking for a dog with the characteristics that these were likely to have, and described our farm, room to roam on a quiet street and the fact that the dogs would be doing what they had been bred for. The respondent told me that they thought that the puppies should be placed locally, in community where they could be pets. I actually know this suburb fairly well – I didn’t grow up very far from it, and what fascinated me was the idea that dogs who genetic history is pushing them to master a fairly large territory and work with other animals will mostly be put in small suburban backyards by people who will not give them any work to do. This was deemed to be preferrable. I admit, I find this hard to understand.
I love dogs, and I find it equally hard to understand why people so often choose dogs inappropriate to the environment they live in. I do grasp that many inappropriate dogs are beautiful and wonderful, but I also think that dogs, like everything else biological, have appropriate and inappropriate placements in sustainable systems. I’ve seen Newfies and Komondors in South Florida in agony from the heat, and keep high energy dog breeds alone for 10 hours a day in an apartment. I’ve seen families with young children and no experience with dogs choose dogs that are difficult to control and require strong alpha behavior, with the inevitable results. In today’s New York Times, there’s an article about the practice of cutting the vocal cords of dogs, making them unable to bark. I tend to agree with the article that the practice is probably more humane than euthanizing a dog because of its barking, but I also tend to think that in many cases, the problem arises because we are trying to make dogs live in ways deeply unsuitable to them – that the people with the barking problems may have chosen their dogs without regard to their environment.
I think dogs have an important role in the future – yes, they are another creature to feed, but they also provide a measure of security for many people. Even a smaller dog with a decent bark can be the difference between getting a good night’s sleep and being terrified for many people. A dog as companion for a walk for an older person in neighborhood with rising crime dramatically increases their safety. As we use less energy, dogs often detect fire quickly – an important supplement to (not replacement for) smoke detectors in tightly built neighborhoods where more people are using space heaters or other risky techniques to keep warm and cook. For the elderly, disabled and alone, dogs and cats provide comfort, companionship, warmth and a reason to get up in the morning.
And for those of us on farms, for hunters, for those in icy climates who can travel by dogsled at least part of the year, for the disabled with assistance dogs, dogs are a major part of sustainable systems – they allow us to live better. Coyotes den across the road from us – if we didn’t have dogs, the choice would be a major economic loss of livestock, giving up livestock keeping, or killing the coyotes. I don’t want to see harm come to the coyotes – we have an insufficiency of larger predators in my region, and coyotes have in some respects moved into the ecological niche that was once occupied by wolves. My dogs mean that we can listen to the coyotes sing and also keep them away from our animals – achieve a kind of detente.
Our working dogs are beloved by us – they get attention and brushing and good food. They also have jobs to do, and my observation is that the signs of dog happiness are never more in evidence than when the dogs are doing their job and doing it well – Mistress Quickly’s tail is flying with joy when she rounds up the goats, and when Mac and MQ drove off a fox, they were manifestly pleased with themselves. They did good – and of course, we let them know that too. Dogs are not humans, but the signs of pride are unmistakable.
There are a lot of issues around pets – the biggest one may be the meat that they eat and the way that the pet food market subsidizes and supports the industrial food system – but I don’t think pets are going away anytime soon. But what we do need to do is to think hard about the animals we raise and care for – just as we need to live lives appropriate to our place and climate, so should our pets. That is, they need to be well adapted to the lives. Picking a dog should take some thought and serious consideration. Ideally, one will be able to adopt a rescue – we weren’t able to do that, but that doesn’t mean we won’t ever go that route – we made a serious attempt at it, and when the kids are older will have more options.
In the end, we found a wonderful couple who breed Great Pyrenees dogs. Mac was a 7 month old puppy who had been raised with goats and horses, had the mellow temprament we were looking for, and also strong abilities to bond with the family. We were impressed immediately by him – he was nervous taken out of his familiar environment to meet us, but he expressed his nervousness gently, and gravitated towards the children, who he treated with consummate gentleness. We saw him around the animals, and he was calm, and the goats came right up to him. We watched a 6lb pomeranian take food out of his brother’s mouth.
So Mac came home with us, and after a few days, settled in comfortably. He’s a warm, affectionate sweet dog, and while there have been some adjustments (having a dog on eye-level with the kitchen counters was a new thing!), he’s been wonderful. So we’re currently working on teaching him his new role. This is a slow process – the goats are still afraid of him, although he’s in no way aggressive to them, and because he’d never seen poultry before, he’s not really clear on what these things are yet. He’s not aggressive at all with them, just puzzled. Our job is to show him what we expect from him, to praise him lavishly when he does well, and to show alternatives when he makes a mistake. He’s a good student, and we’re working on good teaching.
For us, a gentle, mellow but serious guardian dog the size of a small pony (he weighs 84lbs now, but will probably top out near 150) is a good thing – but he’d be out of place in a lot of places. It has been a long process for us, figuring out what kind of dog suited our place, and I hope that most people, when choosing their dog, will also be thinking about their local conditions and how their dog fits into their attempts to adapt in their place.