A Love-Letter to a Natural Born Killer

My dog just killed two coyotes. I'm sad for them, but in awe of him.

Posted Apr 08, 2018

I was outside with Kandor, our 140-pound Anatolian shepherd dog, when suddenly he took off with a roar, and—despite that he is all of 8 years old (late middle age for a giant breed canine)—raced about 50 yards, whereupon he promptly engaged two coyotes, who didn't stand a chance. Both were dead within 30 seconds, having been expertly grabbed by the neck and briskly shaken, breaking the neck of each in turn. And Kandor? Not a scratch on him. Moreover, he immediately transformed into the calm, friendly and (almost) submissive creature he had always—well, mostly, been.

David Barash photo of Kandor
Source: David Barash photo of Kandor

Anatolian shepherd dogs are not a well known breed in the US, although they are renowned in Turkey, where they are considered among that country's national treasures, and where they were selectively bred to protect sheep and goats from their natural predators, especially wolves and bears. Turks I have met claim that they, known in their native land as Kangals, are the only dog breed of which one individual can drive off an entire pack of wolves. I'm still not convinced of that, although having seen Kandor in action, I'm less incredulous than I was previously. (We named him Iskandor, Turkish for Alexander, and Kandor for short, out of respect for his geographic and ethnic ancestry.) Sometimes, out of yet more respect, we call him "Iskandor effendi bey pasha," and approach him only on bended knee.

Kangals are among the oldest dog breeds, and deep in their DNA flow several rivers of behavioral inclinations. For one, they are profoundly, incorrigibly independent, predisposed to make their own decisions, regardless of what human beings might prefer, suggest, implore or demand. Standing guard up there for centuries in the mountains of Anatolia, and without benefit of cell phones, they weren't bred to report back to their alleged masters, "Four-legged intruders in sector 15-C. Awaiting your instructions." And that's where the second river flows. They were bred to take the initiative immediately, which in their case means kill said intruders, or, failing that, drive them away. Those who did so were especially prized, so they and their genes were selected to propagate the next generation. 

The result? Kangals like Kandor are natural born killers of any four-legged creature with the temerity—and foolishness—to intrude on their domain, thereby threatening their dependents. They're not psychopaths, although they, like other animals acting in response to their biological imperatives, certainly don't show any signs of remorse. Nor should they. 

Do I feel sad about the coyotes? Yes. If I could have done so, I'd have cheerfully escorted them off my property, where they might have gone about their own predatory ways, killing and eating rabbits and the like. After all, coyotes were here long before Homo sapiens and their best friends.  But Kandor precluded any such rescue.

A nifty side-bar: There is another Anatolian shepherd dog living near us, who was recently stolen from his yard; for all their vigorous territorial defense, these animals are generally quite amiable with people, even helpless little ones such as our grandchildren: 

 personal photo of Kandor
Source: David Barash: personal photo of Kandor

Nonetheless, their stubborn insistence on "doing their own thing" makes keeping a Kangal challenging indeed for those unfamiliar with the breed, or unwilling or unable to deal with an enormous dog with an equally enormous mind of its own. Sure enough, a few days later, the stolen Anatolian was unceremoniously returned to his yard! (Dear reader, if you haven't already done so, you might want to read O Henry's terrific story, "The Ransom of Red Chief.") 

 personal photo of Kandor
Source: David Barash: personal photo of Kandor

In addition to my professional interest in animal behavior and in the human implications of evolutionary biology, I am particularly concerned with—make that, appalled by—deterrence, notably its nuclear manifestation; two of my recent writings in that regard can be found here, and here. I am not, however, opposed to conventional deterrence, especially the kind demonstrated by Kandor and his ilk. We live on a 10 acre horse farm, surrounded by an electric fence to keep unwanted intruders out and our own four-legged colleagues, including Kandor, in.

From early puppyhood, interestingly, when we would walk around our horse meadow, our other three dogs would stay with us of their own volition, but Kandor - even as canine equivalent of a toddler - would insist on patrolling the perimeter, by himself. As he got older, his perimeter defense became even more pronounced. But occasionally, even this particular conventional deterrent fails, and when it does, Kandor takes over, whereupon the outcome—albeit devastating for the intruder—doesn't incinerate our farm, the neighborhood, the county, the state, the country, the Northern Hemisphere, or the biosphere. 

And so it is with both humility and appreciation that I thank Kandor and his fellow voyagers in conventional, biologically based deterrence, and wish them continued vigilance, success and long life.

David P. Barash is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, Through a Glass Brightly: using science to see our species as we really are, will be published summer 2018 by Oxford University Press.