Guard dogs run owner into court

The Anatolian shepherd, shown here in a photo from Wikipedia, is bred to be wary and watchful.

The owner of three Anatolian shepherd guard dogs — dogs brought to or bred at a Flint Hill sheep and cattle farm over the last three years specifically to ward off coyote and bear attacks — is scheduled be in Rappahannock County General District Court June 14 to address civil charges that the dogs are dangerous.

Two dozen neighbors of Over Jordan Farm along Bean Hollow and Bear Wallow roads, not far from where the Jordan River flows out of Shenandoah National Park, signed a petition last month asking that the dogs be removed. The petition followed at least three attacks on pets within a week in late April, according to neighbor Don Winland, who circulated the petition — attacks, he said, in which the dogs being walked by owners along Bean Hollow were seriously maimed, and at least one owner was injured in a fall while trying to rescue the pet.

No humans have been attacked by the Anatolian shepherds, a breed whose members are large (80- to 120-pound) animals that are specifically bred to protect livestock. The breed is described (on the website as “intensely alert and territorial dogs, bred to be wary and watchful. Their strong protective instincts must be channeled properly to make them agreeable members of the canine community.”

The dogs are owned by Mike Sands, who trains the dogs and shares management of the farm with his wife, Betsy Dietel. Dietel is the daughter of Bill and Linda Dietel, longtime owners of Over Jordan Farm, well-known philanthropists and supporters of schools and education programs in Rappahannock County.

Sands, who issued an email apology several weeks ago to most of his neighbors in which he outlined a plan to move three of the four dogs to a more remote farm in another part of Virginia, said this week he is hoping to resolve the case, and allay his neighbors’ fears, before the June 14 court date.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff said he has a copy of a letter in which the owner of a sheep farm in New Kent County offers to take two of the dogs.

Meanwhile, Sands said, three of the four dogs — an adult female and her two 18-month old offspring — are, since the summonses were issued, restrained in fields or barns. The fourth, a male and the younger dogs’ sire, “is not the subject of a summons, and has never been a problem. He barks at other dogs but has never left the field, and has never attacked another dog.” Sands says if his offer to re-home the other three dogs can go ahead, he and Dietel would like to keep the sire.

Over the past three years, according to the neighbors’ petition, “we have been dealing with issues where the guard dogs are no longer staying within the boundary of the farm. The problems this has created is any traffic (automobile, motorcycle, bike and foot) has been interrupted and/or threatening on the actual state maintained road where the guard dogs have escaped repeatedly off the farm. This has now gone from a threatened posture to maiming of family pets. . . . Usually 2 to 3 dogs are involved, and the wounds have been horrendous.”

Though there have been no livestock losses on the farm since the arrival of the dogs, Dietel said, game cameras on the property over the past several years show the frequent presence of both bear and coyote.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” said one neighbor who asked not to be identified. “No one wants to see any dogs destroyed, and everyone understands why the dogs are there, but walking along Bean Hollow Road next to the Jordan River used to be a wonderful experience, and now, especially if you’re walking your dog, it’s just scary.”

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