Meet Archer, BHF’s newest livestock guardian dog
Sometimes, life drops napalm on best-laid plans. At least, it feels that way. Even before our 5-year-old Akbash cross, Houdini — or Houdi, as he was known — went down for good, the situation with the farm’s livestock guardian dog pack was tenuous. I had planned to bring in another pup from Farei Kennels late in 2020. But, then, Houdi got hurt in the fall of 2019 and had one of his back legs amputated.
My goal is to reach a baseline LGD pack of four dogs, maybe five, and then, evaluate. We spent so many years at the mercy of opportunistic coyotes that it’s hard to tell what we do or don’t need. One dog was not enough. Two is not either. I think four to five will be ample for our setting. Even with the open land around us — and our history of attacks — we don’t have the predator pressure some parts of the country, even further south in Ohio, experience. Time will tell though.
But I am doing my best to be methodical. To build a pack that’s cohesive, nimble, discerning, athletic and dialed in. Dogs that can be one place one second and a half mile away the next, if need be. Dogs that can be trusted to discern the intent of humans that come and go, since we have hunters and the like who frequent the property. So, I’m looking for the right dogs. Not because they’re first or the most convenient or the prettiest, or whatever it is that seems to drive most LGD sales.
Also, I have no desire to train two puppies at once. As I’ve shared previously, I do not work with LGDs the way most people do. The shepherd-dog bond is the foundation. It is very hard to accomplish that with two at once. So, pack building is happening, one at a time.
I am also not breeding dogs to reach the desired threshold. There are many reasons, ones I may detail in future posts. But for this discussion, one reason is that livestock guardian dog bitches can have large litters. That could potentially saddle me with up to or more than 12 more LGDs. No, thank you.
I know Houdi felt valued, loved and purposeful in those last days. That he was finally happy again. I am at peace. And so is he.
Houdi was a wonderful guardian. I plan to share more stories in this space about how he changed my perspective on LGDs. But the vet told me the last time he went in that he had arthritis in his remaining back leg already. It was not surprising. He had already had some hip and nerve issues, even before his amputation.
Some folks might not have considered letting him go on after the catastrophic break, and maybe I was a pushover. But he’d earned the right to try to make to work. He was a tough son of a gun. If any dog could make a go of it, he could. But the fact of the matter is, even if he had completely healed and bounced back, he was still on three legs, with almost 200 acres of pasture to cover, including strip mine high walls and other rough terrain.
My timetable was shot to heck. But I was in a bind too. Even with a new pup planned for the end of 2020, I would still be at the equivalent of 3.25 LGDs. That still left me short.
I’ve had some weeks to look back at what happened and evaluate. The big lug had floundered for months. He had just gotten his sense of humor back. He was playing with his pack mates again and doing his best to back them up. In the end, he spent his nights in close with the sheep, anchoring them, while the girls posted up strategically along the valley.
I know Houdi felt valued, loved and purposeful in those last days. That he was finally happy again. I am at peace. And so is he. Anyway, I need another LGD yesterday. And, so, I introduce Archer, a 12 week old Armenian Gampr cross.
I am really excited about his potential. It will be just about the only time you hear me cheer on crossbreeding in LGDs.
A what now?
Archer is from Washington state, the second from his breeder. But he has the makings of being a very different dog from Jael, the 16 month old Turkish Boz I already have from there. He is the product of Vienna, an Armenian Gampr, and Black, a stud of the breeder’s own breeding.
I am really excited about his potential. It will be just about the only time you hear me cheer on crossbreeding in LGDs. Most LGD crossing is dumb, most of the time, because people don’t really know what they’re doing. Genetics doesn’t work like a math equation. It can be messy and unpredictable, especially in a working dog such as an LGD. There are, however, exceptions.
I began tracking the U.S. Armenian Gampr project a while ago, because I am always on the lookout for the kind of dog that would fit in my setting, regardless of breed. Gampr were promised to be the perfect LGD, especially at first. I spent a copious amount of time reading, comparing literature and feedback from owners and those who were advocating for the establishment of the gene pool here.
The story is that the Gampr is a dwindling landrace in Armenia. So, folks were going to import a bunch of dogs and help “preserve” it in the U.S. and, now, Canada. After much observation, both from afar and in person, however, of Gampr in the context of a working LGD pack, I decided a full Gampr was not desirable for my needs.
I think Gampr have the potential to fit well into some settings. Most of the time, they are good with stock and very loyal to their shepherd. Much needs to be done to prove that Gampr can stand up to a well-bed working LGD of any other type though, in other areas that are hard to describe but very important to me. I would link to a website with information, but rhetoric behind these dogs is of a fairly singular origin. They — along with a couple of other breeds, amusingly — take credit for starting all other LGDs. Throw in some historic references to preserving genetics destroyed by the genocide, and, wham, people are hooked.
That’s cool. I love a good story. But I’m also a farmer, with hundreds of sheep that were preyed upon by coyotes for decades, prior to establishing an LGD pack. Those sheep are a large part of my livelihood and my family’s legacy. A good story is enough to pique my interest, but that’s not going to sell me a dog. I need to see things with my own eyes. To talk with breeders who are willing to cull, even a pricey import, to find the right balance of traits to meet the needs of their environment. Hopefully, one that mimics mine.
What I need are dogs that are athletic, loyal, loving, versatile and work well with others. While Gampr may tick off some of those things, there seemed to be a propensity for, um, twitchiness, for lack of a better word, in quite a few. Especially in regards to how they relate to other dogs, even dogs in their own pack.
One page calls livestock types of Gampr “slightly more volatile.” There are some lines that are more than just slightly volatile, in my own observations. The unfortunate thing is that lines exhibiting volatility — which seems to be code speak for lack of bite inhibition, high energy until they’re 3 and less discernment — continue to be bred. One Armenian breeder talks about how the shepherds have to play fetch to wear young dogs out, morning and night. Playing fetch is one thing. It’s another if you’re expecting an LGD type temperament that doesn’t need that kind of mental stimulation to stay even keel — and you get a Gampr instead.
Instead of glossy websites telling us all of the things we want to hear about working dogs, I wish we had more honest conversations about the good and the bad. Not just for Gampr, but all LGDs. It would be very beneficial, I think.
What I need
I have so many stories about how my dogs interact with hunters and others who come through our property. Even random dogs that aren’t out for trouble; they just took a wrong turn. My LGDs are watchful, but they’re not prone to “reactivity,” as some would call it. The other day, a hunter got a female coyote. Maya and Jael showed up the minute he came onto the property, as he was taking the coyote to the truck. He was worried they’d fight him for it. They merely walked up, sniffed it and walked away. “Confirmed it’s dead. There’s no threat. Carry on, human.”
That’s important. I need behavior that doesn’t get me sued. Discernment is crucial.
Anyway, enter Vienna. I met her when I was visiting BTA in early 2019. Out of all of the Gampr run by BTA, she stood out for her poise, athleticism and considerably less twitchiness. Overall, she is a phenomenal LGD. I had talked with the breeder considerably about the pros and cons of the Gampr. There were things we liked and things we didn’t.
Even then, I looked at Black, who had already distinguished himself as a loyal, loving, self-possessed, athletic, capable and driven LGD. The breeder and I debated how that pairing might work. Both were incredibly natural with stock. And have proved to be extremely loyal to their shepherd and easy to work with.
Over the past year or so, I’ve watched as his progeny have excelled. Bitches make a litter. It says something when a male leaves his stamp on it. Black has proved he is strong. Other breeds crossed with Gampr have still yielded Gampr twitchiness, so it’s not just any cross that will do the trick.
The breeder is ruthless in selecting for temperament, health and working ability as she makes plans for future breedings, so she is tracking the pups carefully. So far, Black seems to have smoothed the edges, with a resulting baseline temperament that, for the most part, is alert, loyal, discerning and keen. The potential athleticism is unquestionable.
The timing is right for our farm. I think this kind of cross is what might save some of what makes Gampr interesting. We will see.
I am sharing this journey with you, because I don’t have any reason not to. We learn from our experiences and from others. Instead of glossy websites telling us all of the things we want to hear about working dogs, I wish we had more honest conversations about the good and the bad. Not just for Gampr, but all LGDs. It would be very beneficial, I think.
Archer has a lot of joy for life, but at that moment, he was a statue, perched on a little hill, watching the sheep …
Learning as we go
Archer is a lovely little dude, with a sweet spirit and a keen intellect. He’s fitting into the pack already and learning the way of things around the farm as he follows me on chores. He’s proving easy to house train. He’s quick to learn and retain lessons from corrections, from the other dogs and me, but doesn’t hold a grudge. Good thing too. A ewe butted him yesterday. He rolled but didn’t run away or freak out. Maya, my 2-year-old Kangal, punched the ewe for me, since the ewe was being a jerk.
Later on, we sat out in the yard and watched the main flock meander its way to the old barns to bed down. Archer has a lot of joy for life, but at that moment, he was a statue, perched on a little hill, watching the sheep and everything else around him calmly, even as cats flitted around him and the sheep gave him the side eye.
Winter decided to come back, uninvited, over the past couple of days. So, we’re doing outdoors works sparingly now. But he’s rolling with the schedule. Hanging out inside and exploring the barnyards when we’re outside. He’s a good pup.
Welcome home, Archer.