Meet Oakley, the friendly enforcer.
Don’t mess with the sheep on Arlette and Allen Seib’s ranch and everything will be all right.
In the distance, a huge coyote-coloured dog appears. Then a bear-shaped animal emerges from the snowy terrain. One by one the guardians materialize from the flock. In moments the dogs are running alongside the Ranger—and can they ever move!
The moment the vehicle stops, Oakley, a Great Pyrenees-Akbash cross, has his huge paws up on the running board. He gives me a big doggy grin and leans into me, all 130 pounds of him—just to make sure we understand one another. Two Anatolian shepherds, brothers Whiskey and Diesel, and another Great Pyrenees-Akbash cross, named Gloria, soon cluster around us. A fifth guardian, Lady, a Maremma, won’t approach us, but she seems happy to keep to the fringes of the little greeting party.
Four of the five dogs are friendly and pet-able—in spite of the fact they have never spent much time with people. These are the wolf-descendants that literally lie down with the lambs—except on the coldest days, when these might bed down in a hay-filled school bus a few miles from the farmyard.
Arlette and her husband, Allen, ranch in the Allan Hills, near Watrous. Depending on the time of year, they typically graze about 500 head of sheep. Their land is mixed pasture, bush and wetlands, a rolling terrain with a significant coyote and raptor bird population. The couple takes a holistic approach to ranching, and this includes natural predator control.
The need to control sheep predators is as old as shepherding itself. Guardian dogs evolved in a time when human shepherds followed the flock, far away from human activity. Even today, guardian dogs don’t work entirely without shepherds. A combination of sound sheep and pasture management and dog handling practices are necessary to use guardian dogs successfully.
Guardians spend their whole lives with the sheep. Many sheep producers have sheepdogs as part of operations, to herd and guard sheep, and these dogs tend to be more accepting of people and animals than range guardian dogs. Range guardians have relatively little contact with people; they’ve never been inside buildings, and the closest they come to human habitation is if they happen to wander through a farmyard while on duty.
Coming from a “dogs-in-the-house” kind of background, Arlette tells me she first struggled with having dogs outside in the extremes of winter. But, as she points out, it would be unkind to invite a dog inside for warmth and companionship and then turn him out again to work. The guardians’ thick heavy coats, their massive feet, and their proximity to the sheep—often, literally in the midst of the flock—protect them from the cold. On the hottest days of summer, they lie low when the predators do.
Check out Conservation Media's video documentary about working dogs.