Sunday, June 21, 2015

Why More Farmers Should Choose a Spanish Mastiff

Some 20 years ago (some might say more, some less) as Livestock Guardian Dogs gained in use and popularity in the USA, three of the fastest rising breed "stars" were based out of Turkey: the Akbash, the Anatolian Shepherd, and more recently, the Kangal.  Many people on the Internet try to claim that the Anatolian and Kangal are one and the same; they are not. The Kangal Dog is the national dog of Turkey, and don't try to engage a Turk in an argument over that fact any time soon; you'll lose.

What these short haired Turkish breeds share in common is a penchant for ranging far from their flocks to either hunt down predators or do perimeter patrol.  Sometimes in many instances, that perimeter patrol put dogs miles away from their sheep or goats.  Although this type of guarding in Turkey is acceptable as most shepherds there do not run stock under fence, in America, it becomes something of a problem when dogs stray too far from where they are supposed to be.  

Kangals, a breed I once owned and raised, are extremely bright and sharp, sometimes more than their owners, and can be an extremely complex dog, prone to intensity (that is, the real working lines who have not been watered down by misguided and uber politically motivated Kangal Dog Club of American gentrification efforts).  They never have been a "beginner's" type of LGD, and sadly now, no thanks to wannabe-farmer types and elitist breeders trying to cash in on the dog's (once) rarity and mystique, are regularly showing up in rescues and shelters because they were a train wreck in the hands of an owner who didn't get prepped by the breeder, or overstepped his capacity to handle a dog like the Kangal.  Likewise, the Akbash can be a sharp dog, not fond of staying still for long periods of time.  Some people would even call them hyper.  They are a favorite of many large commercial sheepmen who run on public lands and use little if any fence, and depend on Peruvian herders to keep their sheep moving and grazing where they should be.

In those types of set ups the farther ranging breeds of LGDs are not an issue.  They can work well - and usually but not always, do. In that vein, its somewhat laughable that the USDA Wildlife Services is only now "testing" the Kangal breed on farms when savvier Kangal breeders can tell you there's no need to "test" a breed that's been proven for generations to work.  Oh, and by the way, has been already working here in the USA for well over a decade, thank you.  But you know those government types (insert your favorite snide remarks here).

But let's look at the explosion of "back to the farm" hobby ranchers, homesteaders and farmers, plying their organic veggies, slaving behind their plows, harvesting their eggs and lambs and goat kids on smaller acreage ranging from 2 to 100 acres, all usually fenced to some degree.  Not all of them come from an agriculture background, either; in fact many are first timers.  Here is where the rubber meets the road in terms of what worked in Turkey, may not fare so well here with these folks.  Smaller acreage means less land to roam over and patrol, and for many Turkish breeds, this adds up to instant boredom and frustration.

I peruse many LGD related forums and sites on the Internet and am continually struck by the recurring theme of many woe be gone farmers: their Kangal/Akbash/Anatolian won't stay put.  It gets out all the time.  It's down the road, five miles, checking on neighbor's sheep.  It's chasing a pack of coyotes back into the forest.  It's jumping the fence and going over to fight with the neighbor's dogs.  The problem with this is that the dogs are not staying put with their charges because they are really built for bigger, unfenced acreage.  

And predators pick up on that quickly, and soon steal in behind the long gone roving Turkish dervishes, and feast on goat or lamb that has been left unattended by roaming guardian dogs.  What worked in Turkey may work here on open range operations, but let's not pull any punches: a good percentage of people in the USA are running the wrong kinds of dogs on their operations.

I'm not inferring the Turkish breeds are a write off; not hardly.  But give it thought.  A breed that is inclined to want to not only patrol but explore vast acreage, is probably not the best choice for Joe Hobby Farmer on his ten acre spread.  Is it?

Enter the solution: the Spanish Mastiff. 

Right smack in the middle, where they belong: Gus and Clyde, two SM brothers I bred, guarding Debra Cumming's flock and avocado orchard in California.

Although capable of traveling for miles in Spain with massive flocks of sheep - transhumancia as it is referred to - what I continually note is that the Mastin Espanol is invariably where he is supposed to be: smack dab in the middle of the sheep.  And in Spain, there are typically somewhere between eight and twenty dogs traveling along guarding the sheep.  No one-dog operations there.  The wise saying from the Spaniards is, "You know you have enough dogs when you stop losing livestock".  Hardly the American theme where most people in the states, started off on the wrong foot by only using one dog instead of two, three or more, to begin with.

A much more lethargic, slower breed, yet probably one of the most powerful LGDs in the world, the Spanish Mastiff is more content to stay near its livestock, not two miles down the road.  Too many people mistake "big" for "lazy" and think this breed is incapable of sudden bursts of speed or agility.  Oh, so wrong!  They are more than capable of running at high speeds and are surprisingly agile for all that loose skin and weight.  Under all that skin is a lot of big bone and muscle.  If one of these big guys hits you while on the run, there will be no mistaking it for a light breeze.

He can run, but he can't hide: Gus and Clyde show off their form.

The Spanish Mastiff prefers to stick closer to his stock.  He's more of a wise, knowing, patient observer and assessor; he will lay there and size things up.  If it merits his going over there to check it out, he will; if not, he will bide his time.  Sleeping giants sometimes are best left alone; when a Spanish Mastiff DOES get up and go after a threat or predator, its all over but the crying.  Few breeds pack the wallop or power of these dogs.  But, they are not bloodthirsty fighters.  I had a Kangal who killed stray dogs and tried to kill - and almost did - one of my Pyrenees in a horrid fight.  She would practically blank out and go into overdrive mode - and was impossible or extremely difficult to stop.  Not exactly what you call low risk.

Not so the SM.  They will usually only take it as far as necessary, then back off.  I watched my huge red male Patron once pick up one of my 150 pound Maremma/Anatolian studs by the neck and just lay him flat on his back.  In a nano-second.  Patron had had enough of the pestering and decided right then to set the record straight; from that day on, the other male left him alone.  

So as you peruse the many LGD breeds out there, do some serious introspection on not just what you like in terms of looks, but what you are actually capable of responsibly owning AND handling.  SM are not high strung, hyperactive, edgy or intense.  They are devoted, aloof to some degree, but amicable and gracious - lion like in stature and movement.  They don't need to prove anything.  Look at your farm or ranch and your set up.  Do you really need hyper, high strung, pacing, lean, mean LGDs looking for an excuse to get out and go down the road? Do you really need to buy a liability in the making from the guy who is borderline dog fighter with his "killing machine" Turkish crosses?  Or is it time you owned up to what you really need is something that will stick around, be there when you need it, and be perhaps the most trustworthy, steadfast guardian you can ever own.  Something that doesn't need to bare its fangs or gnash teeth and froth as it charges the fence line to make a statement; usually all my Spanish Mastiffs need to do is stand up or enter an area or room, and they instantly command respect, awe and admiration…...

No worries, no hurries, Gus and Clyde bring up the rear.

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