Too many livestock owners have experienced “predation” problems first hand. These people have discovered that a “predator” is not always a mountain lion or a hungry coyote. It can be a stray dog or even a family pet. When one of these predators strikes either in fun or with the intent to kill, livestock suffers. Goat and sheep owners are two of the primary groups concerned about predator control; however, they are not alone in their desire to control predators. It is an interest they share with small livestock owners, ranchers, farmers, and even suburbanites from Maine to California.
A number of animals have been used as herd or flock guardians, among them llamas and donkeys. However, where there is strong pressure from predators, these animals themselves may become prey. More recently, Dean Anderson of USDA and Dr. Charles Taylor of the Texas A&M University Research Station, Sonora, Texas, in conjunction with New Mexico State University, have worked with mixed herds of cattle and sheep. When these species are run together, they can “bond,” with the cattle becoming the herd protectors and readily accepting the sheep as herd members. Goats, however, have not been used in this research. Lacking a strong flocking instinct, goats can present a problem in a guarding situation. However, many goat owners have had great success using livestock guarding dogs.
A NEW INTEREST IN AN OLD METHOD
Predator control has always been a concern, but within the past two decades there has been increasing controversy about both the effects and the efficiency of traditional predator control methods (trapping, poisoning, aerial hunting, and scare tactics). In addition, with the current concerns about the eco-system and endangered predator species, there is now more desire to deter predators rather than exterminate them. Thus, for a modern answer to the age old problem of predation, the New World looked to the Old World, and to the livestock guarding dogs.
In this country, the United States Department of Agriculture and its Animal Damage Control division have long worked with ranchers and farmers facing predation problems. By 1986, the U.S. Experimental Sheep Station was at work gathering objective data in one of several studies of livestock guarding dogs of various breeds. The result has been valuable information for guarding dog owners and continued interest in documenting all of the livestock guardian breeds, including those lesser known breeds. Anyone interested in the results of those studies should contact their state Animal Damage Control Office and request a copy of USDA bulletin #588, entitled “Livestock Guarding Dogs”(4). A video by the same title is also available.
THE OTHER STOCK DOGS
Livestock guarding dogs are very different from the “other” livestock working dogs — the herding dogs. Herding dogs use intimidation and actual physical force to move livestock. These dogs are not usually left on their own with stock; they serve as the herdsman’s right-hand and typically remain with him unless sent after stock. When he is sent after the flock, the herding dog uses the “predator eye” to intimidate herd animals and move them away from him. When the “eye” fails, some dogs bark or nip to force stock to move.
Typically these herding dogs are small to intermediate in size and dark in color with prick (upright) or semi-prick ears. They also share a desire to please their owner, which results in breeds like the Border Collie being ranked high on lists of intelligence and trainableness. Those same lists rank the livestock guardians rather low. Most livestock guard dog owners will testify that it is a case of attitude rather than IQ that makes the guard dogs a challenge at times.
LIVESTOCK GUARDING DOGS
No one really knows where the first livestock guardian originated, but there is no doubt that they have been a part of agriculture since the earliest, prehistoric days. Early Greek and Roman writers, such as Varro and Columnella, describe two kinds of massive guard dogs already commonly seen in Greece (Epirus) and Italy, a dark dog and a white dog. The dark colored dogs were used to protect home and property from nighttime intruders, and the white “shepherd’s dogs” were used for guarding sheep. The color of the dogs was not happenstance. The dark dogs were better able to surprise nighttime intruders. The white dogs bedded down with the sheep were a surprise to predators but were easily distinguished by the shepherd from the darker colored wolves and bears.
The livestock guardian breeds tend to be large (25″ or more at the withers) with drop ears. There are some colored breeds, such as the Tibetan Mastiff, the Caucasian Mountain Dog, the Kangal Dog, the Yugoslavian Sarplaninac, the Anatolian Shepherd, and the Cao de Castro Laboreiro. Most of these are rare breeds with very little data so far concerning their performance in this country as livestock guardians.
The majority of livestock guardians today in the U.S. and Canada are members of the white guarding family. They form a “chain” of guarding dogs stretching form East to West: the Akbash Dog of western Turkey, the Maremma of Italy, the Komondor and the Kuvasz of Hungary, the Liptok or Chuvatch of Czechoslovakia, the Tatra or Podhalanski of Poland, and the Great Pyrenees of the French Pyrenees. These dogs have been described as sharing a triad of traits: tall, white, and courageous (2).
REASONS FOR OWNING A LIVESTOCK GUARDIAN
There are a number of reasons for getting a livestock guardian. The first is active intruder or predation problems, including those with domestic canines or human intruders. Another is potential problems. According to the U. S. Sheep Experimental Station in Idaho, livestock guardians have an 80% success rate; the Farm Center in Massachusetts reports a 79% success rate. When unsuccessful dogs are moved to a new situation, that rate jumps to over 90%. The explanation for this high success rate is probably the result of changes in herd-guard dog management and physical environment, such as size of pasture or range, age or type of livestock to be guarded, and the presence of other guard dogs.
GUARDIAN TRAITS – BONDING
The livestock guardian’s success is due to several unique characteristics, namely, the ability to bond combined with an “independent” disposition. Any goat owner who has bottle fed kids understands the principle of “bonding.” Bonding results in the kid regarding humans as “mother.” Likewise, the livestock guarding dog accepts the herd animals as his “pack” and accepts a subordinate rather than dominant place in the herd.
Many livestock guard dog experts today say that pups should be introduced to stock by 8 to 12 weeks. Many of those experts are working with pups that will be expected to “range” with sheep, goats, and cattle over thousands of acres with minimal human contact. However, numerous small land holders running stock on fenced acreage report excellent results with older guard dogs that were not introduced to stock until they were over a year, perhaps even several years old. Once puppies are bonded to a species of livestock, USDA studies show that removal for up to six months does not affect the bonding. Once bonded to stock rather than people, many dogs can be placed successfully with a different species. For example, livestock guardians raised with sheep and/or goats have successfully made the switch to the other species or even to camelids (llamas and alpacas) and ratites (ostriches and emus). Many guarding dogs are in situations where they learn to accept several species as part of their social group. Thus, even the most dog aggressive guardians learn to accept the herder’s dogs or the family’s pets as a part of the “herd.” They also become protective of the people they are associated with.
The bonding process results in the dog not only accepting the animals he guards as equal but even as dominant to himself. While the herding dog “eyes” stock and relies on dominating the herd, the livestock guardian will go out of its way to avoid confrontation with the animals it guards. For example, when an irate doe stamps her feet and charges, the guard dog will usually just move away or lie down and avert its eyes. In this way, the guard dog avoids making threatening eye contact. He seems to realize that his own success relies on being accepted by the herd.
Most guard dog owners feed their dogs in the pens or pastures with the stock. One danger here is that a young dog will let the goats or sheep eat his feed or even drive him away from it. However, most livestock guardians will learn to defend their food from their charges. Some dogs growl and snarl in order to fend off hungry (or curious) goats and sheep at feeding time. Others have different tactics. One guard dog owner reports that her dog reaches over and gently grasps the thieving ruminant’s muzzle in her mouth. The kibble-thief will then quit, disgusted at having had dog lips on her nose. As always, the herd owner must be aware of any potential problem, taking care to protect both the young dog and the herd.
Along with their size and strength, the livestock guardians share an independent attitude which can be frustrating to a first time guard dog owner. This attitude leads to the most common complaint, which is about their “independent” behavior. For centuries, these dogs have been bred to take care of themselves and their herd with little interference from humans. Visitors to a herd where there are guarding dogs often observe that the dogs do not seem to do anything. A good guardian should not have to do much. He will typically make his “rounds” at some time during the day, checking out the pasture or pen. He will spend much of his day lying where he can see both the herd and the surrounding area. Once a guard dog has decided what he should — or should not — do, it can be difficult to change his mind. This is when it is important that the owner has taken some time with his dog in order to establish himself as the “alpha” (dominant) member of the group.
Most livestock guardian breeds are not known for their desire to “perform” for their owners. However, because of the potential need to catch the dog and transport him (from pasture to pasture or to the vet), some leash training and commands are needed. Adrienne Foote, who runs Maremma and Great Pyrenees on range with sheep and angora goats, reports that leash training a dog allows it to be tied. There are also other benefits. When one of her guardians was caught in a fence snare designed to catch coyotes, the dog did not panic. Instead it stood quietly until it was found and released. A little training averted a tragic ending.
Commands such as “no,” “up” (into a trailer or truck), and “sheep” or “out” (to the herd) are easily learned and usually obeyed because they pertain to what the guarding dog does — go with his sheep or goats. “It’s okay” can be an important cue to let a guardian dog know that the situation is under control and that he can relax. Even “come” and “sit” will often get a response from the guarding dog if the commands are not overused. When it comes to “Fetch,” “Heel,” or “Catch the frisbee!,” get a Border Collie!
These breeds are undeniably intelligent, but they are “work-oriented.” Much of what they learn is learned by “on-the-job” observation. Livestock guardians can learn that only certain people are to open the gates or that no strangers can enter pastures or barns unescorted by family members. Some of the breeds are markedly canine aggressive. Their instinct is to react in a hostile fashion toward any intruding canine — domestic dog or wild coyote. However, these dogs can learn to accept herding dogs or family pets.
When he perceives a threat, the livestock guardian typically tries to position himself between the threat and his charges. If the intruder does not withdraw, the dog continues to warn and will finally attack. Experienced dogs will omit the posturing and warning stage and immediately attack a predator. There are documented cases of livestock guardians successfully defending their herds from predators as fierce as grizzly bears. Likewise, there are cases where they have also protected their herds from birds of prey and even from “two-legged coyotes.” As aloof and “laid-back” as these dogs may appear, when they are challenged, they are up to it.
BEFORE BUYING A LIVESTOCK GUARDIAN
Before getting a guard dog, the herd or flock owner should have a secure area where the young dog will be. If he cannot wander, he won’t. However, once the problem exists, it is necessary to stop it. USDA figures show that most livestock guard dogs in primarily western working situations are dead by the age of three. Being shot by hunters and being hit by cars while the herd is being moved are two common causes of death. If the guard dog stays home and in his pasture, he is usually safe.
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
Training largely consists of preventing problem behavior from developing. The greatest offense a livestock guardian can commit is chasing or playing with stock. If this behavior escalates, it results in stock being killed or at least injured. Most often this seems to happen in situations where the guarding dog is young and confined in too small an area or with young stock.
As a pup grows, he is usually put with older animals, bucks or rams and mature does or ewes, so that if he tries to play with the stock, he will meet with a firm rebuke. For goat and sheep owners, however, it is important to protect a young puppy from ill-tempered stock that could injure him. If a mature dog is physically attacked and hurt by an aggressive doe or buck, he may defend himself by using his massive size to knock the attacker to the ground or by actually biting an ear. Usually this signals the end of the “bullying” by the doe or buck, and peace based on mutual respect follows.
A young dog may chase out of boredom. Young sheep and goats will run. This encourages the young dog to chase and catch, just as he would do with another pup. If a dog is chasing, move him. Give him an area where he can have more room to exercise. Put him with older, more dominant stock that will not tolerate his behavior. However, avoid placing a dog with aggressive animals that he has to defend himself from. The goal is to build a lifetime friendship between the dog and the flock. If changing pastures and animals does not work or is not feasible, think about using a drag, one of the methods described to stop a dog from “traveling.”
If other family dogs are allowed to roam free, be certain that the young livestock guardian is not joining in and being taught to chase stock by those pets. While many of the breeds are dog aggressive, a young livestock guardian will usually accept family pets as his peers and will join them in their “fun.”
Another solution is reducing the amount of energy provided in the diet. There is now some evidence that a lower protein diet may be better for larger breeds. Not only does it help reduce the level of activity, but it also helps to slow the growth of the young dog to a normal rate, helping to prevent joint problems.
“Traveling” or wandering off the property is the second greatest problem. Traveling may mean that the dog has set a large territory for himself to guard and that he may in fact be guarding neighboring pastures, as well. A northern California goat dairy realized that their young guard dog was crossing a busy road to patrol the pasture of a neighboring Holstein dairy. While the neighbor enjoyed having stray dogs run out of his pasture, the guard dog was endangering her life and her owner’s investment.
There are other possible causes of traveling. One is the approach of breeding season. Neutering male and female guardians is the solution to this particular problem. However, roaming may also be caused by boredom or may indicate a dog that is not really bonded to his stock. If it is boredom, a change in the environment (relocation or the addition of another stock guardian) or preventive measures (improved fencing or a drag) is in order. Not being bonded to livestock is more difficult to cure. Here is where purchasing from a reputable, experienced breeder is the best solution. That breeder’s advice may make the difference between success and failure.
Electric wire is an effective deterrent for a dog that is going over a fence or digging under. Less sophisticated means of discouraging escape are “drags,” tires or logs tied to the collar of the dog. Another remedy may be isolation. When a dog leaves the flock and goes to the house or barn, personnel at the U.S. Sheep Experimental Station recommend locking him up, by himself, away from stock and people for two or three days. This has proven to be effective. This isolation may need to be repeated before the dog learns that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between leaving the flock and being isolated.
Another problem sometimes arises when a livestock guard dog is first introduced to stock. The sheep or goats may not accept the dog. When the dog tries to move close to them, they may simply move away. This can be a real problem for herds on range. In those situations, the dog or dogs should be introduced when the stock is confined, such as during lambing or shearing time. Another alternative is to raise the dog with a group of younger animals that will eventually be turned out with the larger herd.
Nighttime barking can be a problem for more suburban owners. The livestock guardian seems to know instinctively that predators are a threat after dark. Young dogs are particularly prone to excessive barking; it is a form of posturing, warning any would-be intruders that a guard dog is on duty. It works on the same principle as “whistling in the dark” for humans. Livestock guard dog owners who live in populated areas recommend bringing the dog indoors or crating him (in the barn or pen) if repeated reprimands have no effect. This is rarely a complaint with dogs out on pasture, possibly because they outgrow this behavior before it is noticed.
Remember: the guarding breeds are intelligent. They respond to verbal and even hand signals. Reprimands rarely need to be physical. In fact, the livestock guard dog may resent being struck. These dogs should, however, be accustomed to being handled and lead. The owner should always be able to restrain his dog. If the dog is accustomed to this, he will be easier to handle if an emergency arises.
Judy Nelson, an Akbash Dog breeder for over twenty years, suggests that rolling the livestock guard dog over on his back, then petting and handling him is a “massage” designed to gently assert the owner’s dominance and build trust at the same time. The livestock guardians live very much according to the rules of the wild canine pack; there are “alpha” dogs just as there are “alpha” goats. In both cases, the owner simply needs to be “the most alpha of all.”
WHICH BREED IS BEST?
There is no easy answer to the question of which breed is best, but the best answer is “It depends.” Just as in goats, very often the first question to ask is “What is available and affordable?” Most goat owners want a herd guardian — not a foundation for a breeding program. Talking to breeders and owners is a step in the right direction. One recommendation that is often given to goat and guard dog buyers is “Pick your breeder!” However, just as Nubians generally vary from Saanens and Alpines from LaManchas, there are some breed differences.
In a study of 763 livestock guard dogs and approximately 400 herdowners conducted by the University of Idaho, behavioral differences were seen between different breeds, but ultimately the success rate was similar. More Komondors were reported to have bitten people, fewer Great Pyrenees injured livestock. In addition, Great Pyrenees seemed to mature faster (outgrew their playfulness) than the other breeds, notably the Komondor and Anatolian. However, the Great Pyrenees left their herds more often than Akbash Dog and Maremma. When it came to being aggressive toward predators, Akbash Dogs were aggressive 100% of the time as were Kuvasz. When it came to being aggressive toward intruding dogs, the Akbash and the Maremma topped the list (compiled from Livestock Guarding Dogs, USDA Bulletin number 588, 1990 and 1993 revised). The Tatra and Tchuvatch numbers were either so low or non-existent in the study that no conclusions could be drawn. [See additional information provided by USDA researchers on livestock guard dog breeds in charts based on current information in 1996.]
Differences in disposition are not the only differences seen between the livestock guarding dog breeds. There are physical differences as well. Coats may vary from “corded” or matted on the Komondor, to rather long, thick, and wavy on the Kuvasz or Great Pyrenees, to smooth as is seen in some Akbash Dogs and Maremma, two breeds which allow both long and smooth coats.
There are also differences in height and weight; however, there is often great variation between individuals of the same breed. A chart has been provided to summarize some of these traits. Perhaps the most important think to remember is that these breeds have a successful history of livestock guarding in North America.
The USDA studies have shown that both intact and neutered males and females work equally well (4). The instinct to reproduce does not determine the instinct to protect. In fact, there are practical problems with intact dogs of both sexes. They are more liable to roam when the instinct to breed interferes with the instinct to guard. In the case where both males and females are used to guard a herd, when a female is locked up away from the herd to avoid an undesired breeding, the male may also abandon the herd and bed down near the female until she is released again.
A dog (male) may be very protective of a female at this time and even become aggressive toward stock or people that “intrude” into the area. Some sheep and goat owners have reported that neutering has been one solution to the problem of young male guarding dogs chasing ewes and does. Most people prefer to keep neutered stock as livestock guardians. The demand for pups is limited and the cost and trouble of maintaining breeding dogs is more than most livestock people want to deal with.
HOW MANY IS ENOUGH?
Once the potential livestock guard dog owner asks, “What kind of dog should I get?” the next question is often, “How many dogs do I need?” Again, the answer is “It depends.” The number of dogs needed depends on the size of the flock or herd, the size and type of terrain the flock will be on, and the amount of predator pressure in that area.
A good livestock guardian will take on the responsibility of guarding several hundred acres. If there is no serious predator problem, that dog can do an effective job. On the other hand, when predators, such as coyotes, are very active, a lone guard dog is inadequate and quite possibly at risk. A common tactic is for the coyotes to come in and split the herd or flock. When the single guard dog goes with one bunch, the coyotes hit the second, unprotected group.
Even two dogs pastured with a single herd may be inadequate. One Texas sheep and goat producer recounted a situation in which coyotes split the herd in two, with each of her two Great Pyrenees going with a group. The coyotes then attacked the group guarded by the female, the smaller of the two dogs, killing her and several goats. Realizing that a single dog would certainly be at risk, the herd owner quickly got a replacement guardian, a neutered female Akbash Dog.
Now she has had to confront a new problem. The new guard dog is more predator aggressive and has killed several coyotes but has also been attacked and injured by coyotes. She has started confining this dog to the barn at night for fear that the dog will be lured out and killed. Accessing the situation, the herd owner has decided that what is needed is a third dog who will back up the new, aggressive livestock guardian up in a fight. The old dog just is not doing that. While the herd to be protected is less than 200 head and in a fenced pasture of several hundred acres, the wooded terrain and the aggressiveness of the coyotes has created a situation where a number of dogs are needed.
Nowadays health care for dogs is more convenient than it used to be, and health care for livestock guardians may be even more important than for family pets. These dogs are more likely to be exposed to diseases carried by wild animals. Rabies is certainly a serious concern throughout the U.S. today. Likewise, canine parvo virus is often carried by coyotes and can be devastating. Annual vaccinations are a must. Heartworm is another genuine health threat, which can easily be avoided with a preventive once-a-month treatment.
Because all of the livestock guarding breeds are large, hip dysplasia is always a concern. Most livestock guard dog breeders have their breeding dogs tested for hip abnormalities with OFA (the Orthopedic Foundation of America) or the Genetic Disease Control Center in Davis, California. However, all too often people who simply decide to raise a litter or two do not. Canine hip dysplasia can be a completely disabling condition and is certainly one that every livestock guard dog owner should be aware of.
The best recommendation is to research the breed you are interested in. Write to the registering association (many of these breeds are not registered with AKC). Talk to your veterinarian, breeders, and owners. Then pick a breeder that inspires confidence. Talk to them about specific health concerns or genetic problems with hips, shoulders, or eyes. In general, however, the livestock guardians are relatively free of genetic problems. That is due to the fact that any condition which hampered a dog in its guarding quickly lead to the elimination of the dog. This was certainly true in their own countries and is still true of dogs on range today in this country.
While livestock guardians are “guard dogs” in a sense, most of them regard their role as a preventive, defensive one rather than an aggressive, offensive one. Just the presence of a large, less than friendly canine will deter most intruders — human or animal. These breeds tend to be slow to mature; thus, a young dog that is very aggressive towards people or other dogs is not desirable. Imagine what he (or she) will be like at the age of maturity when a real sense of protection and territory has developed. However, even pups as young as three months will bark at changes in their environment or intruders in their territory.
Just as with livestock, management goes far toward determining the success of the livestock guardian, and the herdowner is a great determiner in that equation. Just as a sheep or goat producer must understand certain basics about the needs and behavior of his stock, the owner of a livestock guarding dog must understand his dogs. It is important to remember that many of these breeds are long-lived, some reaching the age of thirteen or fourteen years. Thus, an investment in a livestock guardian is a long term investment and commitment, one that should profit the herdowner and the livestock guardian, as well as the livestock.
A NEW DIMENSION
Today the reintroduction of native predators into many areas where they have long been absent has added a new dimension to stock keeping. Residents in many areas are having to re-evaluate how they do things on a daily basis. Carol Wood, a Tatra breeder, recently received a call from a fellow Washington resident who runs a Tatra with his cashmere goats. He reported wolves were making their presence known in his area, in an area where they had not existed for decades. “I know they are wolves; they don’t hunt like coyotes, and they don’t sound like coyotes. I have seen them. They are wolves, and I need at least one more livestock guard dog.”
The mountain lion or cougar is increasing in numbers in various parts of the country thanks to the often controversial efforts of conservationists. Livestock guardians have long been used to protect sheep and goats. Larry Allen, a Colorado sheep man, says that one year he lost over ten thousand dollars of lambs to mountain lion on his winter range in Utah, but putting Akbash Dogs guardians with the herd reduced losses dramatically. It is now unusual for him to have a lion kill. Another threat to stock is certain birds of prey. Livestock guardians have proved to be affective against eagle attacks in Texas and Montana, when the sheep and goats are confined to a pasture rather than running on range.
No one can predict what the future of the livestock guardians will be. At a time when many sheep producers are cutting back operations, alternative livestock producers are discovering these incredible dogs. Today there are more livestock guard dogs working than ever before. The demand for guardians has increased and the level of public awareness has benefitted the dogs, their charges, the livestock owners, and even the Animal Damage Control, whose livestock guarding dog program has often faced opposition from advocates of the old-time “poison ‘em and trap ‘em” school of predator control. Livestock owners, however, are not the only people with a growing interest in livestock guardians. With mountain lion attacks on local residents and campers being reported in states as widespread as Montana, California, Texas, and Washington, guard dog breeders are reporting more inquiries coming from people who live in rural areas or who spend a great deal of time out of doors in those areas.
Many people have discovered that livestock guardians are for flock, farm, and family. As one experienced livestock guard dog owner commented, “Livestock guard dogs are not for everybody. I am one of the lucky ones. They are for me.”
BREEDS — PHYSICAL TRAITS
|AKBASH DOG||TURKEY||30-34||28-30||120||90||long or short|
|MAREMMA||ITALY||27||25||100||80||long or short|
|KOMONDOR**||HUNGARY||min. 25 2||80-100||long and corded|
|KUVASZ||HUNGARY||28-30||26-28||110+||70+||4-6″ straight or
100 male – 85 female
straight or wavy
|TCHOUVATCH or LIPTOK||POLAND||25-28||85-105||long|