Using Dogs to Help Around the Homestead
If I had to give a label to our Akbash/Great Pyrenees dogs or put them in one category, well, I just couldn’t do it. Our dogs mean so much more to my family and our homestead. I think people sometimes get stuck into the thinking that a specific breed of dog was only bred for one purpose and that’s all that they can do. I don’t agree with that thinking and hope to show otherwise. If I had to write up a resume for our dogs on my alpaca farm, it would go something like the following.
Livestock Guardian Dogs: A well-bonded pack of 8 livestock guardian dogs ranging in age from 1 ½ year to 13 ½ years. They have kept a zero loss to predation record on our farm for 13 ½ years straight. Predators threats for our Wyoming farm are mountain lions, stray dogs, wolves, fox, eagles, and hawks. These guardians have displayed successful experience at guarding our alpacas, horses, donkey, chickens, geese, and rabbits. They are gentle giants and serious protectors.
Sled Dogs: The guardians will pull a kick sled working together as a full team, in smaller groups, or as individuals. They know the basic commands of haw, gee, let’s go, leave it, whoa, and their favorites, Whoo-hoo! and Yea! They love going on outings ranging the mile round trip to the county road to pick up the mail, to excursions in the Big Horn Mountains.
Farm Hands: These large and powerful dogs help pull firewood and drinking water out of the mountains for us, thus easing our workload. They have also hauled hay up to our barn when it has overflowed into our garage.
Personal Protection: Each dog is tightly bonded to my daughter and I. We don’t have any fears of intruders of any sort to our farm.
Fiber Producers: The Akbash/Great Pyrenees dogs who live here provide fiber as soft as baby alpaca, that I spin into yarn and then finished products. They each give up their coats to us naturally twice a year. Fiber is collected by brushing them when they naturally shed.
Family Members: Our dogs provide unconditional love at all times. Each one has a unique and treasured personality. They are humorous, sensitive, loyal, gentle, athletic, and they keep us warm at night.
Guardians, Not Dogs
You have probably guessed that I love, respect and am thankful for the guardians on our homestead. I use the word guardians instead of dogs because there are some words that can’t be said on our farm and dogs is one of those words. Dogs, coyotes, fox, eagles, and hawks are the main predator threats to our livestock. Those words have also become naturally bad words that the guardians don’t like. Thus we don’t say them unless we see one in the vicinity of the farm. To accidentally let one of those words loose from our mouths, means that this pack of white-coated canines form an army and in an instant. Instead of calling them dogs, we call them by their individual names (Koda, Tacoma, David, Goliath, Solomon, Samson, Esther, or Ruthie), or puppies, guys, guardians… but never dogs.
Fencing in of the Guardians and the Runway System
Our guardians keep us safe, and it’s my job as their shepherd to keep them safe from all harm. That means fencing them in and keeping them only on our property unless on leashes or halters on excursions. The outside perimeter of our farm is 6-foot fenced while the inner alpaca pens, backyard, and the duck and chicken coops are also 6-foot fenced.
To give the guardians full access to our farm, while keeping some of our farm animals in individual paddocks, meant that I needed to develop a runway system that only the guardians and us could get through. When putting the runway system together, the goal was to allow the guardians access to all of the livestock any hour of the day and also be with us. That meant gates with entrances that alpacas couldn’t escape from but that the guardians could get through. This system has worked wonderfully for us. The guardians know where to be. They come and go as they please from the house to hanging out with all of the animals here.
Big Sled Dogs
It didn’t take long into our sledding interest to find out that the guardians were going to need larger sizes of some of the sledding equipment that was available for purchase. Some studies have shown that the ideal sled dog is right around a 50-pound range. One of my most eager runners and pullers, David weighs in at 160 pounds. The XXXL harness that I bought for him was simply too small. I needed to have one specially made for him from a dogsled equipment manufacturer.
I also quickly discovered that my dogs have big feet for dog sledding. Snow can build up between their toes when we are out running or sledding in certain types of snow conditions. All can be going well for five miles, and then if the conditions are right, snow will build up between their toes. I have had to remove the snowballs from their toes mid-run. It was time to get them some booties. Again, I ordered the largest size that I could find online which was an XL bootie especially made for dog sledding. These types of booties are simple contraptions that Iditarod dogs can wear out in a day or less.
I had only ordered 4 booties as an experiment because I wondered if that largest size would fit my dogs. That XL bootie ended up barely fitting my tiniest guardian, Ruthie, who only weighs 70 pounds. I’m presently sewing much bigger waterproof booties for the whole guardian team to wear out on sledding excursions. I’ll sew some extra to put on my farm website (Big Horn Mountain Alpacas) for sale. You never know when you find a little nitch business in the process.
When there is a task to be done, we incorporate anywhere from one to all of the guardians in helping us. From cutting firewood in the mountains and dragging out logs, to pulling spring water from a mountain spring in the winter on a sled to the main road, a guardian helps. Not only do the guardians make our life easier by helping out, but they are a great company. I don’t have any concerns taking off for the mountains or any back-country excursions knowing that we have full-time bodyguards as friends.
Dog hair has been found to be as warm and even warmer than wool. A fancier word for dog hair is chiengora. With eight dogs, we have lots of dog hair. Each dog gets rid of or “blows” their coats twice a year. When I notice a dog starting to shed, either my daughter or I will start brushing that dog. We will brush that dog every day until the undercoat is off of his or her body. Their hair is then placed in zip lock bags for storage. Then I spin their hair into yarn to be made into finished homestead products.
One year, I sent off a sample of Great Pyrenees hair from one of our dogs to be tested for fineness. At the time, I was sending alpaca fiber samples each year to the lab. It helped me to better market the yarn when I could label it as baby alpaca, a term given for how fine and soft the hair is, not necessarily coming only from young alpacas. The Great Pyrenees hair came back within a micron as soft as the baby alpaca.
Once washed, chiengora will have no “wet dog smell”. It is oil from the skin that produces that smell, not the hair itself. The finished product will look and feel much like angora rabbit hair. I know this because I also raise angora rabbits. People who see me wearing a chiengora hat and scarf will often comment that it must be from our angora rabbits.
Maximizing the Value of a Dog on the Homestead
As you can see, our dogs mean so much more to us than being livestock guardians. Yes, it’s true, that they keep our animals and us safe from harm. But these dogs have so much more to give. They are strong, eager helpers that are willing to pitch in on just about any chore. They are always up for fun adventures, too, such as dog sledding. Next time you take a look at your dog, think about the possibilities. I sometimes think of bored dogs in America sitting on couches with hidden talents just waiting to be exposed. In the end, uncovering that potential may just be a win/win situation for you and your dogs. I know that it has been for me and my family.