article image

For the Love of the Akbash Dog

A friend once told me that dog lovers often have a once-in-a-lifetime dog. Mine was a very unique dog I met as a puppy and then ultimately rescued from her circumstances of injury and deprivation. 

My Keeva grew into a large, behaviorally challenging, extremely unusual dog. Having trained my first dog to competition level obedience as a child, I was plenty dog savvy but had never heard of the type of dog she was. 

When she was a year old, I was approached in a pet store and asked, “Where did you get your Akbash?” 

“My what?” I asked. 

I looked down at my shoes and clothing to see if I was wearing whatever this man was asking about. 

“I mean your dog, your Akbash dog,” he said.

He began to tell me about the breed: A rancher friend of his used them to guard sheep. As we talked, something fell of a shelf and startled Keeva. He told me once she matured, she would instead act aggressively by posturing and barking, if startled.

Akbash dogs are livestock guardian dogs, possess a fierce guard instinct, ancient genetics, and are on the lookout for threats at all times. The more ferociously they posture, the less likely they are to have to engage in a physical conflict. They are a working dog in rural and mountainous areas, used to guard, not herd, livestock.

Herding dogs like Australian shepherds respond to human commands and training to do their work. Livestock guardian breeds, however, do not guard at human direction. Very territorial, they are awake at night and sleep during the day and are naturally aggressive to predators like coyotes, wolves, bears, and mountain lions. Therefore, they do not do well in urban environments. The constant noise and small territory make them uncontrollably anxious and aggressive. They belong in quiet settings, on acreage, with their natural job of guarding. 

Starting a Rescue

Akbash dogs were brought to the United States from their native Turkey in the 1970s. Hunting bans were in effect against the big predators, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture promoted the use of guardian dogs. Unfortunately, the need for proper care and handling of the dogs was not part of the promotion. 

Most ranchers are used to gruff, physical, and nonverbal ways of dealing with animals. Possessing a strong sense of self, these dogs will defend themselves, even against their owner. So many ranchers just do not handle them, keeping them feral.

These “range dogs” will leave the sheep and have pups in a den. When the sheep are moved seasonally, some dogs follow them; the rest are abandoned. Often not fed on a regular basis, they survive by hunting or scrounging. They die young due to infected wounds fighting predators, from cars, being shot by ranchers when they wander near neighboring livestock, or from starving. Excess puppies are often killed or die abandoned in remote areas. On occasion, they are found by a hunter or recreationalist and enter the companion dog world. 

The ranching organizations have rejected attempts to change the way the guardian dogs are cared for. Currently there are no regulations on the dogs’ treatment and care. 

Appalled when I first became familiar with the problem, I thought about starting the first working dogs rights movement in the Unite States. 

Keeva was the offspring of range dogs. She had been found as a pup in Wyoming by some teens driving across the country. Adult dogs were looking for food at a truck stop along the interstate running through most likely the largest patchwork of public and private sheep grazing lands in the United States. Since the puppy came to the travelers, they put her in their van and brought her to California.

Complex, emotionally sensitive, and brilliant, Keeva lived to be 13. She required my constant companionship and management to keep her out of trouble. 

When she passed, I thought of volunteering for rescue work. There were no 501(c)(3) breed-specific rescues in the United States for Akbash dogs. The majority of them were being rescued by many of the Great Pyrenees groups. After spending 10 years rescuing and re-homing Akbash dogs, I was able to obtain 501(c)(3) status in 2014 for Akbash Dog Rescue Inc.

Impounded as strays in ranching areas, Akbash dogs are seldom reclaimed by owners, because dogs that wander away from livestock are no good to ranchers. In shelters, the Akbash dogs become depressed and anxious and miserably fail behavior testing. The genetic characteristics that make them good livestock guardian dogs make them difficult, or outright impossible, as a typical companion dog, so shelters are often reluctant to adopt them. 

Livestock guardian dogs have no genetic memory of looking to humans for direction and are considered a primitive wild dog breed. They cannot be trained to follow commands on a reliable basis. Such dogs have not been genetically changed by generations of breeding for companion dog traits. They are the ultimate independent-minded dog. A German shepherd trainer once said to me of guardian dogs, “They are not man dogs” — a simple but true way to put it. 

There was an urgent need for rescues to get Akbash dogs out of shelters and place them properly. When I first started the rescue, I took every Akbash dog in the United States I heard about, getting them out of shelters and  into foster or boarding. I worked each case out any way I could from my computer. I spent long hours and a lot of money on each dog. With calls and e-mails coming in from across the States, there was no time for much else.

More experienced rescue people told me, “You cannot save them all.” That is not something a new rescue volunteer can hear.

I travelled around the country to see and rescue the Akbash dogs. Often I had a short time to get a dog out of a shelter before euthanasia. If I could get them in my car, and I always could, I would figure out the rest.

Some of the Luckier and Unluckier Ones

Once I had a half hour before euthanasia was set for a big male who had never been leashed. A wandering, unfixed working dog, he was shot with a tranquilizer gun to impound him and had tried to bite anyone trying to handle him. 

I have learned how to appear nonthreatening and to communicate I am there to help. I was able to get him out and eventually placed him on a horse ranch in Nevada.

It was a depressing high-kill shelter, and employees were astounded he was getting saved. They were so happy and on their cell phones to spread the good news. There is immense satisfaction in saving and placing a dog into a great home. 

Marlowe, a gigantic Akbash, lived for two years under a tiny old freezer on a Virginia farm. His owner had inadequate fencing, so Marlowe was chained and forgotten. When the man died, a neighbor remembered the dog and called me. 

I placed him on a 350-acre farm in Tennessee. The family adored him, and I got wonderful photos and updates over the years. 

One dramatic rescue made the front page of a large newspaper in Montana. I got a call from the girlfriend of a ranch hand who relayed that the owner of the ranch had created a huge problem by having four unfixed guardian Akbash and Great Pyrenees dogs. 

In just a few years, this had produced 300 big white dogs on the ranch. It was chaos, with half-hour dogfights when the woman would occasionally dump a bag of kibble down. Packs were roaming and aggressive; many were in poor health or injured. 

After being unable to reach her again, I called nearby animal control. They knew of the rancher, so an officer went to check. She called me back aghast and said when she drove up there it was a “sea of big white dogs.” 

The neighboring ranchers told her they knew where many were buried, after being shot. She complained to me that no one had ever called animal control. Local shelters wanted no part, having just taken in hundreds of Malamutes from a breeder. It took many rescues to place the dogs. At one point, the county sent a backhoe, planning to just dig a huge hole and shoot them all. 

Understanding the Breed

My best adopters have been those who had been previous Akbash owners. However, whenever I would list a dog, I inevitably would get inquiries from people who had never heard of the breed, but their “breed research” online had led them to conclude this would be the “perfect” dog for them. 

Sadly, much online information is mere breeder promotional material that focuses on the ideal characteristics, not the realities. If one wants to really understand a breed, contact breed rescue volunteers for a reality check. 

In my rescue career, I have come across far too many Askbash dogs people got as puppies who wound up needing re-homing. One man, a burly Washington state special forces guy, said restraining his Akbash took all his strength when she wanted to chase something.

There was a young woman in Colorado who wanted an Akbash dog. Her husband traveled, she had a new baby, and another dog. I explained an Aksbash was not an appropriate dog for her. I was so worried she would get one any way that I called her again to convince her. She cheerfully announced she could not talk, as she was on her way to go get a puppy, one listed in an ad in the paper from a man who used working dogs with his goats. She called me a few months later wanting to re-home her 6-month-old Akbash puppy. 

While some may find the adoption screening process frustrating, it is crucial to make a good placement. I always tell people you cannot “train and socialize” your Akbash puppy to grow up to be an easygoing Labrador. All Akbash puppies grow up to be adult Akbash dogs. Livestock guardian dogs reinforce all my beliefs about dog behavior: Dominance and force training will lead to worse behavior.

Some of the calls I get come from people who obtained puppies and dealt with emerging aggression with shock collars, alpha rollovers, and dominance type trainers, and I have helped them with the fallout from that type of handling. 

De-escalating the dogs’ behavior by changing the handling and environment is the only way to get the cooperation of these dogs. They teach great patience to the humans. In the past couple of years, I have slowed down my rescue activity considerably. Unfortunately, knowing the profound need for rescue volunteers and good shelters never ends.

Janet Davis is national director of Akbash Dog Rescue Inc., or ADR Inc. Learn more at www.AkbashRescue.blogspot.com. She is the former board chair of Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter, FAAS.

Main article photo by: Photo of Keeva by Janet Davis