July 2007
Featured Articles

Guard Dogs Are Reducing Livestock Losses Across AL

  Rafton Davis’s Great Pyrenees are fierce defenders of his goat herd. Little Red, an orphan goat, has bonded with one of the Pyrenees puppies.
Affectionately Known as the “Gentle Giant,” the Great Pyrenees Guard Dog is a Fierce Defender of Livestock

By Ben Norman

Visitors arriving at the home of Rafton and Jo Ann Davis of Route 1, Highland Home, do so under the watchful eyes of Bucky and Pretty Girl, the Davis’s two Great Pyrenees guard dogs. Get too close to the fence around Davis’s goat pasture and you will get a stern warning in the form of a deep growl from Bucky. It is in the best interest of one’s good health to heed his warning.

Davis said he was constantly having trouble with dogs harassing his goats.

"I was always uneasy when I had to leave home with my goats unprotected. Several times I came home to dogs trying to get to them. I was also worried about a growing coyote population around my house. I knew it was just a matter of time before I would lose some goats to dogs or coyotes, so I decided to get a Great Pyrenees to protect them. It was one of the best things I’ve done since we started raising goats."

The Davises purchased the male dog first and later acquired a female. "I had heard that you had to train them to guard livestock, but that wasn’t our experience. I just built them a small shelter and put them in the pasture. They immediately bonded with the goats. Basically all we do is feed and water them and they do the rest. We buy all our dog food, vet supplies and goat feed at Luverne Cooperative Services. Our dogs and goats really do well on Co-op products," said Davis.

Rafton Davis gives his goats a treat as his Great Pyrenees guard dogs watch.  
Guarding livestock with dogs is nothing new. The Great Pyrenees breed originated in the Pyrenees Mountains in France. They are believed to be relatives of the St. Bernard and Newfoundland breeds, and were first used by shepherds to guard sheep in the French Highlands. Considered one of the oldest guard breeds, remains of a dog similar to the Great Pyrenees has been dated to 1800 BC.

The Great Pyrenees remained a working dog until the Middle Ages when they became popular with the French nobility. Equipped with a collar with large protruding spikes and their double layer of thick hair, these dogs were ideal for guarding the nobility’s livestock from bears and wolves. They also did double duty as avalanche rescue dogs, sled and cart pullers, and as pack dogs for those journeying into the wilderness. The nobility also delegated some dogs for nothing but castle guards and protectors of the estate’s children.

Davis said it is almost unbelievable how devoted the Great Pyrenees is to the livestock it is guarding. "On numerous occasions we have actually had a dog assist a nanny giving birth. Not only do they stand guard while the nanny is giving birth, they help clean up the kid as soon as it is born. I’ve seen our male dog have the first of two kids completely cleaned up for the nanny by the time she had the second kid. They really hang close to a nanny with newborns, too. We once had a nanny die and leave a newborn orphan. Our female dog actually allowed the kid to nurse her until we could get the kid on a bottle. We fed the little orphan, named Little Red, with a bottle but Pretty Girl has otherwise taken on the role of her mother."

Jimmy and Truman Johnson of Goshen agree with Davis that it would be hard to find a dog more loyal to the livestock they are guarding than a Great Pyrenees. The Johnsons had one of the largest goat herds in the area until about a year ago when they liquidated it and began raising beef cattle.

  Raven Brown, the Davis’s granddaughter, gives Bucky and Pretty Girl a hug.
"We wondered if the dogs would convert from guarding goats to guarding calves. They took to guarding the calves immediately just like they had been guarding them for years. They help clean a calf after birthing just like they will with goats. They are extremely protective. We had a grown bull knock a young calf down and slightly injured him. One of our dogs immediately got between them and backed the big bull down. Even our big Angus bull didn’t want to tangle with that big dog," said Truman Johnson.

Johnson said it is important to start the dogs off right. "It’s important to provide food, water and shelter, but you don’t want to pet them too much. They are bred to guard livestock and that is where they are at home - in the pasture with goats, cows or other livestock.

"We just didn’t lose any goats after we got our dogs. Every now and then stray dogs would get near the fence and our Great Pyrenees would take off after them as soon as they were spotted. Recently, a fox ventured into the pasture but as soon as those dogs spotted it and gave chase, the fox scooted under the fence. We had a friend who had a pack of deerhounds run a deer into his goat pasture. He said he had never seen so much hair flying or heard such snarling and hollering in his life. When the scrap was finished, our friend had to help a couple of hounds back over the fence. He said he never had trouble with that pack of hounds again," laughed Johnson.

Old time livestock rustlers would have had a hard time making a living if early farms had had a Great Pyrenees on duty. About all the sheriff would have had to do was keep an eye pealed for a big white dog setting under a sweet gum tree with fingernail scratches on the bark – the rustler would probably be found near the top of the tree.

Both Davis and Johnson have Great Pyrenees pups for sale. You can reach Davis at 334-537-9585 and Johnson at 334-484-8636.

Ben Norman is a freelance writer from Highland Home.