The gang’s all here––a herd of the Great Pyrenees breed, other canine pals, and proud owners during the autumn meeting of the Metro Atlanta Great Pyrenees Club held at the Hottinger Farm just south of Waleska.
Say you were interested in moving from the city onto a small North Georgia farm. You wouldn't be long in discovering wild animals loose in the woods. And should you want to make your farm the working kind, the kind for raising goats, fowl, or cattle, you'd be quick to meet some woods creatures up close. Coyotes particularly might view your spread as a fine fattening pen for the live kills they most enjoy.
On 40 acres south of Waleska, Don Hottinger has discovered the Great Pyrenees breed of dog to be the godsend of coyote control. Hottinger once raised cattle and had a problem with coyotes killing calves, he said. Today he keeps goats, probably even more vulnerable. But with his Great Pyrenees dogs (three) ranging the farm and some donkeys ranging the pastures, no coyote inside the fence stands much chance of getting out again alive.
One of Hottinger's donkeys stomped a coyote flat after the predator found its way into a barn stall where a baby goat was sheltered. His three Great Pyrenees recently killed a coyote nearer the house, Hottinger said. These strong dogs are aggressive when they need to be but are gentle with humans, Hottinger said.
As I arrived at his farm to interview for this story, Hottinger's three guard dogs made the welcoming committee. They never barked as I stepped from the van, just gently stole close with an air of cautious investigation.
How did Hottinger and his wife Marcie happen onto these gentle giants? "We actually took a test on line to find out what kind of dog was best for our circumstances," Hottinger said. Marcie did most of the research.
The Internet will tell you the Great Pyrenees breed originated in central Asia but was present in the high mountain region between Spain and France by the middle ages. Mostly used as shepherd dogs in those Pyrenees Mountains, by the late 1600s, the breed became popular with French noblemen and has remained widely popular since.
These dogs are large, predominantly white and thickly furred. Their fur piles in two dense layers. A sort of lion's mane round the dog's neck provides a regal look and defensive armor. An attacking animal finds a weighty obstacle when trying a neck grab on a Great Pyrenees.
"They're very, very docile as far as temperament is concerned," Hottinger said. "These are true working dogs. Those dogs will run this fence, this property line, all night long," he said. "They're letting the world know they're guarding this place."
"They sleep in the daytime and bark at night," said Hottinger's daughter Elizabeth. "They are just constantly on patrol at night."
Don said the night-prowling nature of Great Pyrenees discourages some would-be owners, because night patrols usually involve barking. "It can be constant," Hottinger said. You may hear 15 minutes of barking, he said, followed by ten minutes of quiet before barking restarts.
Coyotes seem to know the drill, Hottinger said, harassing his dogs ("Peers" he calls them––his abbreviation for Pyrenees) from just off of the property. "It's almost like they know the Peers can't get to them outside the fence," he said. "There were coyotes within 100 yards singing last night."
Elizabeth recalled a time the Great Pyrenees defended the fence line from an invading stray, a German shepherd. They fought the intruder through a fence gate, Hottinger said. The fight at the gate left the intruder mauled, he said. The Great Pyrenees in the thick of the fight suffered little hurt, thanks to the thick mane about its neck.
First Great Pyrenees for the Hottingers was a dog called Moses about 12 years ago.
"Moses was our patriarch," Hottinger said. "Moses, he was a true gentleman. When we got Moses, Marcie and I got him for Christmas, and he was one year old. It was love at first sight, I think, both ways."
Moses came from an animal rescue group, Hottinger said.
"Peer puppies look just like a little polar bear," he said. "Six months later, the dog weighs 120 pounds, and they [overwhelmed owners] just can't cope. That's why they end up in pounds and everywhere else."
The Hottingers were so impressed with Moses they began rescuing other Great Pyrenees dogs. But Moses remains a stand-out.
"When that dog died, I cried for two days, and I don't mind admitting it," Hottinger said. "I loved that dog. He was so good. If there ever was a perfect dog, it was Moses. He was a special dog."
In the past 12 years, Don and Marcie Hottinger have owned about seven or eight Great Pyrenees, Don said. More like 15 to 18 if you count all the ones they cared for before sending them along to newfound owners, he said. "We have a tough time saying no when it comes to Peers," Hottinger admitted.
"We ended up participating in the Metro Atlanta Great Pyrenees Club," he said. The club has four meetings each year, one yearly at the Hottinger Farm. "We've had as many as 30 dogs here," Hottinger said.
I asked Hottinger to tell me about the three "Peers" I met on arrival. Bo, Davis, and Holly, he said.
"Holly I originally rescued and found her a home," Hottinger said. "Eighteen months they kept her." Her then-owners could not stand up to the nights, he explained. "I ended up with Holly back."
“Bo was an abused animal,” Hottinger said. “He was just not cared for by the family that had him. Davis we got in a divorce situation. Three's enough,” he added. “We've had four.”
Davis is completely deaf yet still effective, Hottinger said. "The only thing that I can figure is that God compensated Davis with a sense of smell, because more than once Davis has sounded the alarm to notify the others."
"He's a bull," Hottinger said. "He's just so muscular. It's like he's been lifting weights. He is the one who did the fighting [with the stray] over the gate. We had him in for shots in the past month, and he was right at 148 pounds," Hottinger said. "It's basically 148 pounds of muscle."
Tallest of the three, Bo is the one out front meeting new humans. When I arrived at the farm, he nosed up first. "He is craving love. He really and truly is," Hottinger said. "Davis is the same way. He wants to be right against you to have that human contact. Holly is just the opposite."
Hottinger leaves the property to walk on a regular basis, he told me. On his return, his dogs all receive an edible treat. "Davis always gets the first cookie," Hottinger said. "Bo gets the second cookie. Holly gets hers on the couch."
Each of the three Peers gets to lounge on its own sofa inside the Hottinger garage. Couches come thrift-store-direct, their master told me.
Holly waits on the couch for her cookie, Hottinger said. "She wants it on her terms," he explained. "She expects her cookie to be delivered to her, and it works. She has me well trained," he smiled.
"There is something about the personality of Peers that is unbelievable," he said. "People think they lay around, but they've been working all night long. They have to have some rest sometime."
Their guard is not exactly down even in daytime. "When you came up the driveway, they let me know," Hottinger told me.
He said he returned to his property late one night, dropped at the head of his long driveway to test his guard dogs as he approached home. "When I lifted the bolt on the gate, I'm tellin' you, all hell broke loose," Hottinger said, "and all three of them were right there."
"Davis is five. Bo is three," Hottinger said. "Holly is nine years old, realistically only a year or so left." Great Pyrenees just live about a decade, he said.
Large dogs don't survive as long as standard-sized ones, he explained, though they cost more to feed and maintain. Due to the size of his Great Pyrenees dogs, each requires a double shot of the standard dose for monthly heart worm protection. Their dose would treat two standard-sized dogs, Hottinger explained, and it’s not cheap.
He figures it's worth it, haviing loved dogs all of his life. "I honestly and truly can never remember not having a dog," Hottinger said. As a boy growing up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, it was beagles, he said. "Rabbit beagles because I used to hunt," Hottinger said. "I can tell you their names," he went on. "I just always had a dog."
Surely a special dynamic exists between dogs and humans. What other animal so seeks to interact with a human or to serve as asked? What other animal so desires human interest or approval? In exchange, a person only has to take care of the dog to keep the bargain. Somehow it is almost impossible to do that without coming to care about the dog, too.
It just works that way, as if someone designed it to be so, designed it so humans would have dominion over the animals that serve them and would relate to those animals by taking responsibility for them.
"When it comes to animals, if you're gonna have 'em, take care of 'em," Hottinger admonished. "I fed two horses one winter 'cause I knew where they were, and they were starving, and I couldn't stand it," he said. "If you're gonna have 'em, take care of 'em."