We have talked a great deal about horses in Smoke Signals. It's time to recognize the
of the San Juans
By Veryl Goodnight
These dogs are working, or as the one hiker noted, "They are on the clock." None of us would walk between a mother bear and her cubs, nor would we walk between a policeman and a police dog.
I am a dog lover. Period. I have owned many breeds and currently have a Jack Russell Terrier, a Rotweiller cross, and two Alaskan Huskies. Currently, I am attempting "minor" dog sledding with the huskies. The primal experience of sledding, while greatly limited by having only a two dog team, has peaked my interest in the many roles that dogs play in the lives of humans - for over 15,000 years.
Last summer, I encountered three herds of domestic sheep in the high Mountains of Colorado, between Lizard Head Pass and Silverton. The sheep themselves, moving like waves across the high country, were breathtaking. What really inspired me, however, was watching the great white dogs that accompanied the sheep herds.
Did you know that a Belgian Malaise dog assisted the Navy Seals in the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011? Since this headliner is a little known story, I shouldn't have been so surprised to learn that the Great White Dogs I found so extraordinary, were controversial! Attending a meeting in Durango, sponsored by the Forest Service to educate the public about guardian dogs, I expected to watch these dogs work sheep. Instead I sat listening to people's fears about encountering these dogs when hiking. The Forest Service representative emphasized that they supported the sheep ranchers' use of the guardian dogs, as it was a non-lethal method of predator control.
An excellent spokesman on behalf of the dogs was third generation sheep rancher, Ernie Etchart, and his dog, Joe. Ernie had begun to use the great white dogs (Akbash and Great Pyrenees) in the late 1980s. Once these dogs began accompanying the herds, the number of lost sheep to predators during the two months stay in the high country fell from as many as 200 head to virtually no losses at all.
The dogs were controversial because of the intimidating nature of a large dog barking at hikers not dog savvy. This saddened and concerned me and I realized how important educating the public is to the well being of both hikers and the dogs themselves. The Colorado Woolgrowers are now socializing the guardian dogs as puppies so they are less suspicious of hikers and bikers when they cut through the midst of herds that are straddling the trails. The Forest Service is also posting signs at the trailheads where hikers may encounter the guardian dogs.
I met Ernie and his great white dogs this Labor Day, as two of the herds were brought down to a lower elevation north of Silverton. Spending two days wrapped in the beauty of the high mountains, the peaceful sheep and their protective canine companions, I took 546 photos and did two plein air landscape paintings. My initial exposure last year resulted in a painting titled Guardian of the Meek. I have completed two other paintings of sheep and their diligent caretakers and plan to do many more. The cultural heritage of the sheepmen, the high country, the sheep and particularly the dogs doing their job are endless inspiration. I walked right into the middle of two different herds of sheep, both accompanied by two Akbash dogs. In both incidents, the dogs came toward me barking, with heads low and ruffs up. Each time I stopped, heeding their warning, spoke softly and let them smell me. And each time, I must have passed their test, for they either wagged their tails and came closer or simply lie down and let me continue taking photos.
Then I watched two hikers walk through one herd. They just kept going, looking over their shoulders, as the dog barked a warning. It got me to thinking that a big problem with people who are not familiar with dogs is that they tend to not give the dogs the respect they deserve. These dogs are working, or as the one hiker noted, "They are on the clock." None of us would walk between a mother bear and her cubs, nor would we walk between a policeman and a police dog. Understanding that the great white dogs are doing their job, and respecting them would go a long ways toward avoiding a serious conflict.
Another, even greater concern would be for an unaware hiker walking into the sheep herd with their own dog. That could be a serious problem, for the coyote is the number one predator of the sheep. These great white dogs are very smart, but don't expect them to accept that your pet won't hurt their sheep.
I hope my observations will help others to see the sheep and the dogs as part of the cultural heritage of the San Juans. Above all, I hope my comments will lead to giving these dogs the respect they deserve and to avoid conflicts. We live and play in some of the most extraordinary country in the world and both sheep and great white dogs are part of the whole story.