Livestock Guardian Dogs
It occurred on a spring morning in the mid 90s in New Jersey. I had lambing season. I drove out to my flock to the pasture I rented from the state. When I arrived I discovered a devastating scene. The flock was clearly disturbed. The field was littered with dead lambs. A couple of sheep were injured. I did not know what had happened at the time. I had not been long in the United States and was unfamiliar with natural predators for sheep. I investigated the lambs but could find no mark on them. It was a scene that can make a grown man cry. I spoke with a local trapper and showed him the scene. Without hesitation or doubt he told me that this was the work of a coyote. He had killed the lambs by grabbing them by their throats and suffocated them. The trapper found the track where the coyote had come in and set his trap. Since this individual coyote was starved, mangy, and desperate it took only one day to trap and kill it.
The question became what should I do moving forward? I had heard about the tremendous losses sheep farmers out West had suffered due to coyotes. Many of them had been put out of business because of these losses. I feared I might become one of them. Black Bears were also multiplying in New Jersey at that time. I felt I had to do something. I researched my options and it soon became clear to me that I would not settle for a donkey or a llama. I had used herding dogs for many years, I was very much a dog person, and it had to be a guard dog. But where should I begin searching for such a dog? What breed would suit me? I knew absolutely nothing about them.
In my search for answers I came across a government employee who was part of the guard dog field trial the USDA conducted in the 80s in Idaho and at a second location in Massachusetts. I wish I could recall his name to give him full credit for a comprehensive introduction to guardian dogs and the time he was willing to spend with me on the phone. A description of the field trial and research of farms and ranches that were already using guard dogs can be found at this website.
The information on this website can also be found in a brochure called “Livestock Guardian Dogs: Protecting Sheep from predators”, United States Department of Agriculture, bulletin number 588. It is the most comprehensive and most accurate information that I have come across in a world full of misinformation about guardian dogs. Using guardian dogs is actually an ancient form of protecting livestock which has experienced a resurgence in the past few decades. The fact that many means of killing coyotes have become illegal as well as the growing numbers of coyotes have contributed to that.
Raising and training a guarding dog. After being weaned from its mom the guardian dog is raised with the sheep – or with whichever livestock it has to guard. That starts most commonly at the age of eight weeks. Just like our companion dogs view us humans as pack members, the guardian dog learns to see the livestock it will later protect as its pack. Raising the pup with the sheep must be done at a young age when this imprinting takes place; it cannot be successfully done with an adult dog. The ultimate goal is that the dog will seek the presence of the flock at all times, has no or little desire to leave it to go other places, and in fact only feels comfortable when being with the flock. When raising the pup with sheep it is advisable to do it while having little lambs to have “age-appropriate” companions for the young dog. It should also have a place where it can retreat, i.e. when being pushed around by protective sheep mothers.
The desire to guard is an instinctive behavior. Guarding dogs have usually very little prey drive and a strong innate desire to protect. It cannot be taught; if the instinct is not there the guardian dog will be useless. The training of a guardian dog is limited to stopping undesired behavior like playing too rough with sheep, chewing off docked tails that are about to fall off and the likes. The training methods are fairly simple. One just has to correct the dog when caught in the act and an appropriate command should be given simultaneously, i.e. “leave it” or “no”. When the dog is straying too far from the flock just chase it back and shout “get back” at it – it should soon seek the comfort of the flock.
There are many more details about raising a guardian dog, what behavior to expect, why it is okay that the protector of the flock may eat an already dead sheep but not kill one. But it would go beyond the scope of this article to address them all. I would like to defer to the brochure about guardian dogs that I previously mentioned. Almost all the answers to your questions can be found there.
When the dog reaches adulthood it should become an effective deterrent. Keep in mind that coyotes are opportunists and not brave hunters like wolves are. Between the electric fencing that I use and my current guard dog “Berthold”, a four-year-old Great Pyrenees,I can sleep well at night, even when the coyotes are literally hauling in my backyard.
Misconceptions. The most common misunderstanding I run across is the desire to have a herding dog as well as a guardian dog in the same dog. That is impossible. Let’s examine that. A guardian dog sees the sheep as its pack, its own kind so to speak. Herding is a form of hunting. The herding dog sees the sheep it herds as prey. Any serious herding dog would do all kinds of undesirable things to the sheep if not controlled and corrected by its owner. In short, a guarding and a herding dog show interest in the sheep for very different instinctive reasons. These reasons are mutually exclusive.
A true guardian dog is protecting the livestock and not its territory. That means it will protect the livestock wherever it is and not its familiar territory. That is especially important when the flock is not stationary, when it grazes at least temporarily away from the home farm. Protecting its own territory can at times look like the dog is protecting livestock. However, these dogs may fail to protect the sheep when they are on pasture that is not part of the dog’s territory.
Using a guardian dog will reduce your predator losses but predator loss may not necessarily be zero. If you continue losing a sheep or lamb now and then it may not at all mean that your guardian dog failed. If the acreage is too large, too hilly, or too overgrown, a coyote may outsmart your guarding dog at times. In fact, the guardian dog may have never known the coyote was there. Keep your pasture smaller in order to avoid it or use more than one guardian dog.
The most controversially discussed topic of raising a guardian dog is whether or not the dog can be part of the family as well as a true guardian dog. In other words, should the guardian dog be with and obey the farmer or should human interaction be avoided or at least limited? I am in the latter camp. While my guard dog may follow me around when I am in or near the flock and while he is certainly happy to see me, I cannot call or touch him. He will avoid me. I feed my dog in a little trailer that I can close up should I have a need to examine or treat the dog. A guardian dog that is too attached to the owner may want to leave the flock to be with the owner or his family. That is perhaps okay when you just have a few acres and a few sheep. The dog will be still near the sheep. However, that may become a problem when one farms several hundred acres and when the pasture is miles away from home. There is certainly a happy middle ground. After all, at times Humans need to be able to get a hold of the dog. But keep in mind what the dog’s purpose is. It is to guard the livestock and not to be a companion dog for the farmer or the family.
Copyright 2010 Ulf Kintzel. For permission to use either text or photographs please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.