Sunday Services in the Church of the Big Empty

Spring is here. It’s nearly 70 degrees F/21 C, and the wind is blowing. Services were quieter than they’ve been for more than a month because the largest part of the choir has moved on to points north leaving only the geese to make up the horn section. Otherwise, the meadowlark is leading the chorus with occasional interjections from red-winged blackbirds and frogs. We only had the opportunity to welcome one car, but the man and his wife were clearly VERY happy to be out though there isn’t a lot to see at the moment (outside of everything, of course).

Much to my amazement, Bear has learned to listen for bird songs and will stop when she hears a meadowlark. She’s incredibly attuned to my behavior. Still, her particular interest remains scat, and she alerted me to several different varieties today for which I’m unutterably grateful.

You can see from the featured photo that it doesn’t look a lot different from winter out there yet, but at the base of the little plants green is emerging. I’m looking forward to sunset walks services out there in the summer.

On our way out there, my heart gave a little leap to see hundreds of Angus cattle in the distance and MANY tiny puddles of black amongst them. Along with the little black puddles were a couple of white puddles; livestock guardian dogs. I remembered the first Great Pyrenees I ever met. He was in Descanso, CA, my little town in the mountains outside of San Diego. He was a working dog who would occasionally walk into “town” from the little farm where the people raised sheep and alpacas. Town in Descanso was a two pump gas station, convenience store, post office and deli all in one building. I was coming out of the post office and had just turned up the street toward home. An immense, incredibly filthy, very furry fluffy white dog came strolling up to me. I stopped. He leaned against me, and I thought, “This must be a Great Pyrenees. What a wonderful dog!”

When I started walking home after our “moment,” he strolled along with me until the fork in the road. His way was straight ahead and mine was to the right. Now that I know more about these dogs, I realize how incredibly honored I was.

Most people know the Great Pyrenees. Bear is an Akbash dog, a dog bred in Turkey for the same purpose as the Great Pyrenees in Europe. In Italy they have bred the Maremmano-Abruzzese, also a big white dog, to guard the sheep and goats. All of these wonderful beings have been friends to man for thousands of year. Top to bottom: Great Pyrenees, Maremmano, and Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog ❤

Trusting Bear

I brought Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog home from the shelter when she was four months old. I was apprehensive about adopting a young large dog, but I got lots of encouragement from blogging pals and 3D pals who’d had Great Pyrenees dogs themselves. Marilyn of Serendipity in particular was very encouraging telling me I’d have a big friend who’d lean against me. I did research on them and learned that they are low energy dogs.

I’d seen two at work at a farm near Del Norte and they were impressive dogs. They shared their duties with two llamas who took the day shift. My friend and I arrived at the farm at the moment the shifts were changed. The llamas went into the pen with the goats, and the Pyrenees went to sleep in the shade by a barn.

Even after seeing this, I didn’t fully appreciate the nature of a livestock guardian dog, but the moment I brought Bear home, I began my education.

When I adopted her, I thought Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog was a mix of Pyrenees and Husky because of her blue eyes. Later I learned that she is an Akbash, an ancient breed from Turkey. Like the Great Pyrenees, the Akbash is also a giant breed white dog, but one that can have blue eyes (considered a fault). Akbash and Pyrenees are bred to do the same job, live with and guard sheep, one of the planet’s dumbest and most easily upset mammals (other than humans). They are equally effective guarding one of the planet’s smartest and most, uh, capricious animals, the goat.

Generally the Akbash is more slender and long-legged than the Pyrenees, a more graceful and less cumbersome breed (not that I find the Great Pyrenees “cumbersome” and neither would a bear). The Akbash and the Pyrenees are both undaunted, courageous, fast and able to protect their fleecy charges from bears, cougars, wolves and coyotes. ❤

So here’s Bear. She set about making friends with Mindy and Dusty, the dogs who were already here. Mindy, my exceedingly sweet elderly Australian shepherd, was ready immediately to love Bear. Dusty, a dobie/Lab mix, wasn’t sure. He’d recently had his heart broken when his remaining Siberian husky sister/mother, Lily, had died at age 17. Dusty had known Lily all his life and loved her more than anyone, even me.

Bear observed Dusty and Mindy and did what they did. She was house-broken in four hours, almost without my teaching, and never made a “mistake” in the house. She never went for their food, deferred to Dusty if he wanted hers (that happened only once) and generally did everything she could to fit in and get along. She showed no signs of being the “wild thing” that huskies are. Having owned (or been a roommate to?) six huskies, I found it bewildering that this puppy was so completely calm.

Bed time approached and I began the formerly always easy task of enticing a new dog in and out of their new crate. Bear wasn’t having it. Mindy went in and out; Dusty went in and out; but Bear, no. No way. I was exasperated. I took her to my room so that if she needed out, I’d know. She wasn’t having that, either. Finally, I wanted to sleep more than I wanted to train this puppy. I put her in the living room with Dusty and Mindy. When I got up at 4 to let her out, I found her sound asleep on the floor, back-to-back with Dusty T. Dog.

I felt as if the words, “You have to trust me. I was bred to take care of things, not mess them up” hung in the air over Bear like a cartoon balloon.

The thing is, Bear is ALWAYS good within the realm of her breeding and understanding of me. When my wishes and her training conflict with her nature, though, I have no authority. A livestock guardian dog cooperates with her person until there is a threat or she perceives a threat — a barking dog, a barking person, a wild-beast (cat, raccoon, whatever) wandering the alley. Out in the big empty when we see ungulates, Bear is extraordinarily calm. She sits beside me and looks at them, watches them. That she makes these distinctions is really beautiful.

The one thing I cannot trust her to do is come back when she’s called if we’re out in the Big Empty. Her breed was not meant to live in a little house with an old lady and a yard. Their nature is to roam freely for miles and miles with their sheep or goats.

Bear THINKS that’s what we’re doing on a walk. She checks the environment for signs of change, animals who haven’t been there before or that are not where they’re supposed to be. Her mind holds an encyclopedia of information about each of the places in which we frequently walk. Taking her to a new place means she needs relative freedom to examine the territory and learn who and what make up that place consistently. This is how she learns what to expect so that next time, if something’s out of place, she can be on her guard. These animals recognize threats partly by noticing changes, so when I take her somewhere new — as I did when I decided to take her to walk at the Wildlife Refuge — she is eager to smell and inventory everything around us and she leaves copious markings of her own. It’s so interesting to me. Let’s say we walk a mile in one direction. On the way OUT Bear is 100% attentive to everything. We stop frequently so she can look around (well, me too) because Akbash dogs have, and use, keen vision. On our return, Bear walks close beside me, her discoveries completed, the inventory taken.

In a few days, Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog will be five years old. She’s sitting here now, leaning against me. She’s just brought in a rawhide pencil that has been buried out in her minefield and she’s brushing her teeth. It would be enough that she’s a good dog, but she’s more than that. She’s a good friend that I can — literally — trust with my life.

The featured photo looks to be a blue-eyed Akbash at work. ❤

Livestock Guardian Dogs

Soon after I got my Akbash dog, Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog, and began learning about livestock guardian dogs, I drove a friend to Albuquerque to get the plane to San Diego. On the way, I saw, on a barren hillside, far from any house, two Great Pyrenees — livestock guardian dogs — similar to Bear — and a herd of about 20 sheep. The dogs, though not technically herding dogs, were directing their flock gently from the rear.

It’s one of the loveliest things I’ve ever seen. I know Bear would like more work to do, but all she has are Dusty and me to take care of.



If Dusty T. Dog were a livestock guardian dog.