, 2015

Canine patrol provides security for vineyards

by Audrey Thomasson

KILMARNOCK—Janie, Daisy and Magnum happen to be expertly trained and lethal guards, using their eyes, ears and noses to detect potential trouble. Their job is to watch over and protect the investment of their bosses, Katie and Paul Krop.

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Paul and Katie Krop have enlisted the help of Walker hounds to protect their vineyards from varmints.

They are the dog squad.

They can sniff out the unwelcome odor of wild turkeys from across several acres of Good Luck Cellars’ gently rolling vineyards. The turkeys love the Krops’ prize Viognier, a white grape that originates in France and packs an aromatic punch.

At the first whiff of the birds, the normally easygoing Walker hounds turn into a pack of hunters. With a chorus of barks and clouds of dust, the hounds chase the turkeys out of the field and save the day, the crop...and the birds. Despite their ferocious bark, the dogs are an environmentally friendly way of protecting the vineyard, not by harming the wildlife, but by inspiring them to find other sources of food.

The dog squad is worth its weight in gold.

“We’ve had zero losses,” said Paul, a retired orthopedic surgeon turned farmer/vintner. “No clusters have been eaten off since we got the dogs.”

Turkeys aren’t the only varmints these hounds chase. They also keep a watchful eye out for vineyard enemy number one: the white-tailed deer. As everyone who has a garden knows, deer will eat anything right down to the root.

The dog squad, 11 in all, has scared off opossum, raccoons and a skunk, according to Katie, a nurse turned winemaker.

From left, Lucy and Freckles guard the vineyards from unwanted critters.

Before bringing in the dogs, the Krops tried other measures including electrified deer fencing. Peanut butter was placed on the wire to entice the deer to get a little shock to their tongues and scare them away from the grapes.

“It didn’t help,” said Katie. “Those deer eventually found a way through...with a clever airborne system” of entry.

Between the deer and turkeys, Good Luck Cellars was losing 25% to 30% of the crop over seven years of planting and cultivating the grape vines.

“All my turkeys were very well marinated until I got dogs,” said Katie.

Last year, they took in 11 rescue dogs—all abandoned Walker hounds. The Krops installed invisible fencing for each field and let the dogs loose to do what they love: Run and chase turkey and deer.

“Walker hounds are curious and have incredible snouts,” said Paul. They can smell an intruder from across the field. “When one dog takes off running and barking, the others follow.”

“They need to be in a pack; otherwise, if you just have one dog, they sit by the tasting room waiting to be petted,” Katie noted.

The vineyards are divided into separate fields. In one field are Lucy, Teddy and Bowman. Another field contains Murphy, Rosebud, Freckles, Rudy and Jake, while Daisy, Janie and Magnum guard the third field. With a new area planted in grapes, next week four more dogs will join the family business.

The dogs live in the fields year-round. Predators are likely to come round in the middle of the night, so domesticated dogs who sleep in the house won’t make it as successful members of the dog squad.

“It got down to three degrees last winter,” said Paul. The dogs spend the cold nights in their insulated dog houses where they snuggle together on rugs to keep warm. They did fine, he said.

The Krops feed them and take care of all their medical needs, including monthly heartworm and flea and tick treatments. It takes Katie about a week to train each dog to stay inside the invisible fence.

In addition to protecting the wine grapes from predators, anyone who wanders into their territory will receive an exuberant welcome. “They’re very friendly and will jump all over you,” said Katie.

Lucy relaxes near her custom dog house.

Most area vineyards get their dogs through animal rescue groups. The Krops work with Terri Dort who contacts the Animal Welfare League to locate unwanted Walker hounds. Dort screens the dogs for good behavior and rejects any that show signs of aggression toward people.

“Dogs are not chosen by age, but by temperment. About 90% of the hounds are very friendly,” she said. “You need friendly dogs in case visitors wander into the vineyards.”

The dogs “come to us scared and really skinny,” said Paul. Tin feeders placed around the fields help the pups get to proper weight and healthy condition.

In addition to crop protection, dogs are now being trained to sniff out vine mealybugs, an insect with the potential to stir up big trouble in the wine industry.

The insects are virtually impossible to see with the human eye as they feed on vines and contaminate grape clusters with larvae and egg sacs which eventually kill the vine. It takes a considerable amount of pesticides to get rid of the bugs, something that is unpopular with an industry moving toward the use of fewer chemicals.

While still in the pilot stages, the powerful noses of golden retrievers are proving useful in sniffing out vine mealybugs and other diseases, news the industry is excited to hear.

Increasingly, more dogs are working in agriculture as growers take advantage of their special skills. Free-ranging dogs have become an economical way to reduce crop damage and, at the same time, rescue a loyal pooch from a shelter and give him or her a second chance at life.

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