Guard dogs an important segment of sisters’ operation
SNOWVILLE, Va. — While searching for a solution to livestock predation on their Southwest Virginia farm, two sisters added another facet to their operation in breeding guard dogs.
The answer for them was Karakachan dogs, which originated in Bulgaria and revered in their homeland for their instincts to protect livestock.
Sarah Smiley and her sister Cindy Smiley Kolb operate Syncope Falls Farm in Pulaski County, Va., on 150 acres of steep hilly land surrounded by both farms and the lakeside community with domestic dogs as well as wooded mountainsides that are home to packs of coyotes and black bears.
The carnage to their livestock started early in the operation which consists of a herd of myotonic or fainting goats, Kathadin sheep and chickens. Just before their first lambing season in 2006 about half of their sheep were killed by neighborhood dogs, Sarah said.
“It was horrible,” she recalled with a shudder.
That was the beginning of a search about 10 years ago that led them to the Karakachan dog, which they have found to be the best breed for their purposes.
They now have eight dogs guarding their animals and raise and train puppies to sell to other livestock producers in need of their protection.
Several of their dogs are imported from Bulgaria where the sisters have visited four times to bring dogs back to the United States.
Sarah stresses they prefer the dogs from Bulgaria that have been bred for centuries to guard livestock. She added these dogs are born with the instincts to be working dogs rather than pets or show dogs.
The sisters’ farm is the first, and still only, U.S. breeder recognized by the International Karakachan Dog Association, headquartered in Bulgaria. All of their dogs are registered through the association. Their breeding and guard dog program adhere to the Bulgarian guidelines to ensure development of excellent working dogs, Sarah said.
In Bulgaria, where the sheep and goats are the source of livelihood for many shepherds, the dogs are essential parts of the agriculture industry there. Flocks can number between 300 to 450 head.
Sarah said from her experience, the Bulgarians treat the dogs as part of the family and are very hands on with them. Some livestock owners here have the opposite approach, she said.
“When the dogs are turned out with the livestock, with no training or management, and expected to protect the animals, there is not a lot of success with this approach,” Sarah said. “Just a lot of frustration on behalf of both the farmer and the dog.”
The sisters take the Bulgarian approach, keeping close to their dogs and spending a lot of time working with them and teaching them where their animals are and what their territory is.
“You get out of the dog what you put into the dog,” Cindy said.
They said the puppies’ mother does much of the training and by the time they are weaned the puppies know a lot of what they are supposed to do. It is also important to start with quality dogs for breeding and have the puppies raised with various livestock, they said.
They said these dogs first approach of defense is barking to alert the other dogs and their owners to dangers as well as try to drive the predators away.
“The dogs will usually herd the livestock to a safe spot and then deal with the threat,” Sarah said. If barking doesn’t deter the threat, they engage the predators in combat.
It’s been working for the sisters as they have not lost any animals to predators since bringing Karakachans to their farming operation.
They have also placed their beehives in the pastures patroled by the dogs and this has effectively stopped their hives being raided by black bears.
“The dogs usually tree at least one bear per year attempting to come into their territory for honey,” Sarah said.
The dogs sell as puppies starting around $800. A mature, quality dog would sell for $2,000 to $4,000 each.
The guard dogs get some protection of their own as well. Smiley and Kolb use metal collars made by hand by Bulgarian shepherds to protect the necks of the dogs from enemies like bears and wolves.
“The purpose of the collar is to protect the Karakachan livestock guardian dogs throat from injury in an encounter with a wolf pack or other predator,” said Kolb.
Depending on the shepherd, location of the flock, and the time of year, can determine if the collars are placed on the dogs.
“Some shepherds that we spoke with told us that only dogs that have killed a wolf in the past are honored with wearing a metal collar. Others have said they used the collars on their dogs during lambing/kidding season which correlates with wolves whelping and attacks being higher.”
She added the collars have to be checked often to be sure the dogs have not outgrown them creating a danger for choking.