I recently spent two days wrapped in the beauty of the San Juans, photographing flocks of sheep and white guardian dogs north of Silverton. When in Silverton, however, I was told repeatedly that the dogs were controversial.
I walked right through two sheep herds, each accompanied by two Akbash dogs. In both incidents, the dogs came toward me barking, heads low and ruffs up. I stopped, heeding their warning, and let them smell me. After a few moments, they either wagged their tails or simply laid down and let me continue taking photos.
I watched two hikers pass through one herd. They just kept going, looking over their shoulders, as the dog barked a warning. It got me to thinking that part of the problem may be that some people encountering sheep herds are not familiar with dog behavior and unintentionally do not give the dogs the respect they deserve. These dogs are working, or as one of the hikers 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 would go a long way toward avoiding a conflict.
An even greater concern, would be unaware hikers walking into a sheep herd with their own dog. Coyotes are the No. 1 predator of sheep. These great white dogs are smart, but expecting them to accept that your pet won’t hurt their sheep is asking a lot.
I hope my observations will help others see the sheep and the dogs as part of the cultural heritage of the San Juans and that warnings by the guardian dogs will be respected rather than feared. The Forest Service supports the dogs as nonlethal predator control. The ranchers now are socializing puppies so they are more accepting of hikers. Now it is up to us, the public, to acknowledge the protective role of the great white dogs and act accordingly.