My favorite running path is a hilly and treacherous two-mile loop that runs down my driveway, along a creek, past a development bordering our farm, and next to our pastures. Each day, as I run along the fence line where our sheep graze, I hear a deep-throated roar of a bark as a massive, white dog trots towards me. At this moment, the sheep glance at me before returning to their calm, methodical grazing as I yell to the white polar bear, “Good boy, Thor! Good man!”
Soon enough, Thor recognizes me and begins to run along the fence line with me, keeping pace and and hoping I might visit him. As I finish the last leg of the run and trot towards the house, he sometimes perches atop the final hill overlooking the house or climbs through the fence to come say hello. To any unsuspecting jogger, he must be a terrifying sight, but to me, he is a welcome and wonderful friend. Of course, as I enter the house, Thor must stay outside and wander back to the pastures to rejoin his flock of sheep and scare off the next potential predator.
Thor is a guard dog, specifically bred to protect livestock. He is a mix of Spanish “Ranch” Mastiff, Polish Tatra and Italian Maremma. Of course, you might think that a farm in Pennsylvania need not worry about predators large enough to threaten sheep and that buying a dog specifically for protection is unnecessary. About eight years ago, we would have agreed with this sentiment, but then we began finding our goats and sheep killed in a very specific manner: each carcass had been stripped bare with only the vertebrae and hide remaining. We had had no experience with coyotes and knew they had not been in our area for many years, so we could not guess what animal was killing our livestock. Luckily, my father caught a glimpse of a small, gray, canine-type animal running through one of our fields. It was too small to be a wolf and not the right color to be a large red-tailed fox, so we soon realized that we had a coyote problem.
Now, around this same time, we began to find deer carcasses stripped in a similar manner to our sheep. If I could name one animal that is an absolute nuisance in Pennsylvania, I would have to pick deer; we are overrun with them. You might think that it must be wonderful to see such wildlife, but our fields and forests are hurting due to this overpopulation. As our forests grow old, they struggle to regenerate because the deer strip the saplings bare each winter and spring, killing any young trees and understory growth. As for farmers, deer are downright wretched; in a single night, a herd might ruin an entire crop of greens or other vegetables. We soon realized that while the coyotes were attacking our livestock, these predators also served as a natural defense for our produce.
So, my ma began researching herding dogs and soon found a breeder in Wisconsin who had exactly what we needed: a large dog that could bond with our sheep and deter any coyotes. Soon enough, she had ordered one of the pups and he joined us at Broadwater Farm. Now, when you think of bringing a puppy home, you probably imagine holding the tiny tyke, playing with him or her and spending all of your time with this little bundle of fun. When Thor arrived, we certainly said hello, but our first priority was getting him used to our farm and integrated with our sheep; he had to bond with them immediately.
However, we could not put Thor with all of the sheep at once. The ewes, being protective mothers, view dogs as predators and will attack any that approached, so Thor spent his first few days in our barn with some of our younger sheep, getting to know the animals he would soon be protecting. Soon enough, we put him out with the rest of the sheep in the pasture and helped him learn the boundaries of the farm. We soon saw the value of his presence with no more sheep deaths after his arrival to our farm.
You might wonder how we can be sure that Thor is really doing his job and just how much of a guardian he can be. Generally we are not out there to see him deter predators, but one time I got to see him in action. On a hot summer day, Thor accompanied me as I trekked to the top of our hill to feed our chickens and collect eggs. He was clearly hoping for some extra attention and a few eggs, but as we reached the summit, he suddenly sprinted away, racing after a streaking red ball of fur. This massive white dog had almost caught the red-tailed fox before I realized what he was chasing.
Although he did not catch the lucky fox, Thor came prancing back, proud of his work, and I handsomely rewarded with him with eggs. Had he not been there, we might have lost some chickens to that fox that day, and we have certainly lost many chickens to all sorts of predators since, so of course we needed to get another dog. Now, we have a second white pup from the same breeder. He lives with the chickens and will soon be another massive white dog, ready to scare off an extensive list of predators, everything from red-tailed hawks and foxes, to weasels, opossums and raccoons; his name is Loki.