Yesterday, some kind soul looked at my pictures on Flickr and sent me the following e-mail:
I love your Anatolians, and I thinking of getting one to be a companion to my little girl (she is 10).
I heard they are very good with children.
Little does this unsuspecting soul know that she's given me license to ramble on at length about one of my very favorite subjects. So I emailed her back, but the audience of one wasn't ultimately satisfying, so I'm going to share my thoughts on the noble Anatolian Shepherd with you unsuspecting blog readers as well (increasing my audience to about three, probably).
First, to answer the Flickr correspondent's question, are Anatolians good with kids? I'd say yes and no. From my experience so far (and remember x=2 here, so I'm not exactly an expert), Anatolians are quite fond of kids they recognize as part of their own packs, but not all that interested in kids as a general species. If you are considering an Anatolian as a pet, it's a good idea to remember that they're a fairly serious working dog. They come from a long line of dogs bred and raised to guard and protect flocks of livestock, and you can see this in their personalities even a generation or three away from actual work. They are watchful. They are serious. And they have a definite idea of who "belongs" to them and who doesn't. They have a lot of the same breed characteristics as other livestock guarding breeds, like the Great Pyrenees, but in my experience so far, Pyrenees are more playful and more affectionate. They're also more likely to be removed from actual working lineage. Anatolians aren't as common in the U.S., and they're more likely to be directly descended from working lines.
Which isn't to say that they aren't fantastic pets. Ata is nearly the perfect dog, and he just came that way--we've done hardly any work with him. It's not every day that you get a year old dog from the county pound and bring him home with no records and no information about his personality and get as lucky as we got with Ata. He's a naturally calm, mellow, sweet-tempered dog with few to no behavioral problems. He learns quickly and easily and he remembers well. He is completely content to spend most of his time lying in one spot, watching everything around him. He alerts to strange noises or people but he doesn't bark constantly. And he's very, very gentle. I would absolutely trust him with small children or frail elderly folks.
I guess one question is what someone means when they ask if a given breed is "good with children." Some dogs aren't, by any definition (many toy breeds, for example, are notoriously bad with kids). But many breeds are good with children in different ways. If what you are looking for a is a gentle, unassuming, completely committed protector of your kids, I'd say Anatolians (and probably also Pyrs, Wolfhounds, mastiffs, and St. Bernards) are great with kids. If you want a playmate, though, there are better breeds. If you want a dog to wear your kids out romping with them, a lab is probably a better choice (or even a pit bull, but how great I think pit bulls are with kids is a whole other treatise). Anatolians probably aren't ever going to play fetch.
Size is also a consideration. I personally love the combination of kids and big dogs, and I think I would even if the kids were mine. Big dogs make me feel safer, and I think they'd make me feel like my kids were safer, too. But there are drawbacks to having canines that are three or four or ten times the size of your children. People often think about this in terms of aggression, but I'm more concerned about run-of-the-mill clumsiness. A large dog who doesn't pay attention to where it's paws/tail/teeth are can really hurt a small child without meaning to or realizing it, and some dogs are definitely better than others both at realizing children are frail and at keeping their limbs and tails in check. This is another area where I am convinced Anatolians are a great breed. In general, they move more slowly and carefully than many large breeds and are more aware of their size and surroundings (comparing a young Anatolian's general behavior to that of a Great Dane will show you what I mean). I have no evidence for this, but I'd suspect that it's a product of spending generations guarding flocks of animals that are significantly smaller and weaker than the dogs themselves. Anatolians also have very soft mouths in my experience, which is great with kids (and great in general).
The National Anatolian Shepherd Rescue Network (a fantastic resource) says the following:
If you want a dog who...
-Is very large and rugged, yet agile and athletic
-"MAY" protect your horses, llamas, sheep, goats, or chickens
-Is steady and dependable, rather than playful
-Is serious with strangers, but not aggressive unless provoked
-Needs only moderate exercise
An Anatolian Shepherd Dog may be right for you.
If you don't want to deal with...
-A very large dog who takes up a lot of space in your house and car
-Providing enough exercise to keep him satisfied
-Massive destructiveness when bored
-Suspiciousness toward strangers
-Aggression toward animals who don't belong to his family (and sometimes aggression to animals within his family as well)
-Providing five to six-foot fences. These are not dogs that will "learn to stay home" without fencing. Also never taking off lead hiking or trail riding
-Strong-willed mind of his own, requiring a confident owner who can take charge. You will be living with a dog that is more "wolf-like" than "dog-like". Can you take on the role of the "Alpha Wolf"?
-Deep booming barks, especially at night when he hears a sound
-Legal liabilities (increased chance of lawsuits)
An Anatolian Shepherd Dog may not be right for you.
While I don't completely agree with this analysis (like I mentioned, we don't have much of a barking problem, and Ata is not much of a flight risk, though we do have a secure fence), I think it's generally all true. The shedding is not to be underestimated. The take-home point, though, in my mind, is that Anatolians are not, strictly speaking "fun" dogs. They're serious by nature and not particularly playful. This makes them great pet material for people like Mark and I, but may not suit them to families who have different ideas of canine perfection.
One final thought, about Anatolians or any other breed you're considering: while doing your research, reading books, expecting a dog of a given breed to act like s/he's a dog of that breed, is all great, dogs are just like people in that there is a ton of individual variance. This is one reason why getting an adult dog from a reputable rescue organization, where the dog has been in foster care, is such a great option--you have someone to tell you what that particular dog's personality seems to be like. That's something you're never going to get from a breeder, no matter how well that breeder says s/he knows his/her lineages.
If you're interested in getting an Anatolian, please start with the National Anatolian Rescue Network and seriously consider a rescue dog. Although Anatolians are not particularly common in the U.S., they are becoming more so all the time, and are increasingly turning up in rescue and shelters. Because of their large size, as well as unfamiliarity with the breed, they can be hard to adopt and there are always dogs in not-great situations that could use loving homes.