First a little background. We were fortunate enough to have two wolf biologists as our guides in central Spain – including one whose job it was to ensure distribution of mastiffs to producers in wolf country, especially into areas where the wolf population was expanding. These two, Yolanda Cortes and Juan Carlos Blanco, organized all our interviews with producers, and got us to wherever we needed to be. I doubt our trip would have been so successful without their insights and assistance. I hope our first work together is only a start. We have plenty to learn from our Spanish comrades.
Ranches, farms and estates are called “exploitations” in Spain, which we noted with some humor. The mastiffs are not called livestock guardian dogs, protection dogs or simply dogs, but instead are always referred to as mastiffs. To the Spanish producer (sheep, goat or cattle) there is simply no other animal comparable to the mastiff.
Most of the grazing areas we visited are unfenced, so the herder must stay with the herd in order to keep the animals from entering grain/cereal fields in the area. The herder stays with the herd until he’s ready to eat lunch about 2 p.m. At that time, the herd is placed into a centrally located pen, which in some cases has been reinforced with electrical wire to keep wolves out. The herder goes away for lunch, and comes back to let the sheep back out after a few hours. The sheep continue to graze, with the herder alongside, until it’s nearly dark and they are most often penned again. Larger herds (we saw one with about 1,000 head of sheep and 11 mastiffs) are not night-penned, but stay out with their mastiffs. The herders are almost always the owners of the animals and the ranch (I believe we only saw one exception to that). We also saw herders with burros and cattle as well, again for the same reason. More cattle were kept in fenced areas, but most of the areas were unfenced.
The Spanish mastiffs are absolutely huge, and most producers allowed me to pet and handle their dogs. The dogs were very tolerant, but quickly went back to work. We met dogs that had actively fought wolves, including one female who was still healing up from a battle a few months prior, as well as a big male dog who had killed a wolf. Okay, so they work against wolves, and they seemed not to be human aggressive, but were they really no danger to humans? We were soon to find out.
Our last livestock producer visit one afternoon in Spain was with Paulino, who runs 448 goats and about 300 cows. There were six Spanish mastiff livestock protection dogs with his main herd of goats, but he had another 60 mother goats that were out grazing in a separate herd, away from their penned kids. Paulino reported there was one mastiff dog with this bunch that he thought we would like to see. We arrived at the pen in the evening, and the mother goats were nowhere to be found. We walked through thick brush “hara” covering the mountainside, trying to find the herd, but couldn’t even hear their bells. Paulino decided to drop down into the canyon below in attempt to find the herd and place the mothers back with their kids for the night in the safety of the 8-foot tall wire pen, so we were to wait.
As it started to get dark,and we could hear the goat bells coming in the distance, we (wolf researcher Juan Carlos Blanco, Jim and Cat) walked back to the kid pen, opened the gates to let the goats in, and stepped back out of the way. We realized that if the goats tried to approach the pen and saw strange figures in the darkness, they would never enter the pen. So Jim and I stood very still next to Paulino’s vehicle, while Juan Carlos stood on the other side. The goats began coming to the pen, but they approached from both sides, so Jim sat down on the ground so he couldn’t be seen. Afraid to move, I just stood frozen in place.
Suddenly a large mastiff male approached the pen with the front of the herd, so the goats began to enter. The male stuck his nose to the ground and wheeled around looking in my direction. I warned Jim so he could get up off the ground, and began softly telling the very large dog what a “good puppy” he was. The dog barked loudly at me and came directly for me, but when he approached close, he simply sniffed my hands, which I quickly used to pet and praise him. He raked my hands with his teeth, and then passed behind the vehicle to meet Juan Carlos. I could hear Juan Carlos talk to the dog before the dog continued his circle to meet Jim. The dog raked Jim’s hands with his teeth as well, but did not bite.
That was a miracle. We had created the worst disaster scenario in which I was fully prepared to be attacked by a guardian dog, yet the dog did not bite anyone, and only showed mild aggression. He was very nervous, and although Paulino was talking to us, as we approached the goat pen, the dog continued to rake our hands with his teeth, taking our hands into his mouth in attempt to redirect our attention from the goats to him. Understanding his body language and what he was attempting, we walked away from the pen. This increased the dog’s comfort level and he went inside the pen to his goat herd, with we strangers safely locked out. Here's a photo of Paulino at the kid pen, before he went after the herd that evening.
It was too dark for me to get a photo, but this was a typical massive mastiff, only one year and two months old. Paulino’s mastiffs were not friendly mastiffs like others we had met, and did not want to be touched by strangers. This is probably a reflection of Paulino’s belief that the dogs should not be petted while they are being bonded to livestock as pups. His largest and most valuable mastiff, Leon, was always nearby, but lurked in the brush where we could never even fully see him. Leon was the only dog wearing a spiked leather collar as a defense against wolves. The collars are often reserved for the best dogs.
I was extremely impressed with the working Spanish mastiffs we met in Spain, and will recommend that livestock producers in wolf country in the United States try this breed. My hope is that we can get support to bring pups from working lineages in Spain to the Northern Rockies. Our wolf biologist friend Yolanda would be a logical contact for such a project, and could bring both the dogs and the knowledge of their husbandry to share with us in the United State.