Ever since humans began keeping animals as livestock, predators have been killing livestock. In the old world, livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) have been used for thousands of years to protect the flocks and herds of animals.
In the United States, before the 1970s, shooting, poisoning and trapping were the predominant means of predator control. These methods came under increasing scrutiny. Trapping methods and poisons such as the infamous compound 1018 were outlawed or strictly regulated.
Conservation groups working to protect wolves, bears and other predators became politically active and opposed the killing of these predators. Wolves and Grizzly Bears were federally listed as endangered species in the mid-1970s.
Ranchers and livestock owners needed to find another solution. Livestock guardian dogs began to be imported into America and they have been used very successfully ever since. This management strategy has undoubtedly saved the lives of countless livestock animals and predators alike.
What are Livestock Guardian Dogs?
Livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) are working dogs whose purpose is to protect livestock from predators. Ranchers and livestock owners use guardian dogs to protect vulnerable animals, such as sheep, goats, and cattle. Livestock guardian breeds are usually large, athletic and capable of astounding speed.
Well-bred livestock guardian dogs do not have the “prey drive,” of other dogs. Instead, they bond with their livestock animals and have a strong instinct to guard them.
LGD’s are independent by nature. Most have good dispositions (if socialized) and possess amazingly acute vision and hearing. Breeds of Livestock Guardian Dogs commonly found in the U.S. include Great Pyrenees, Kangal, Anatolian Shepherd, Komondor, Akbash, Caucasian Ovcharka, Maremma, and Tibetan Mastiff.
There are several other lesser-known breeds in the U.S., including Karakachan, Sarplaninac, Central Asian Shepherd, Armenian Gampr, Pyrenean Mastiff, Estrela Mountain Dog, and Polish Tatra.
Most working livestock guardians in the U.S. are probably mixed guardian breeds.
What do Livestock Guardian Dogs Do?
Livestock guardian dogs live with the stock and blend in with them. Their mission is to protect their charges from all threats. Livestock guardian dogs work independently or in groups with other livestock guardian dogs. Depending on the setting, a shepherd, rancher or homesteader might be available to back up the dogs.
Some livestock guardian dogs, especially those that protect herds of sheep on rangeland, might be completely isolated from humans for extended periods of time
Not all LGD’s guard exactly the same. Differences in guarding style come from variations such as the breed, age, and individual dogs’ personality and temperament.
Some dogs are known for staying close to the herd or flock, others travel far from their livestock on long-range patrols. Certain dogs seem to be more focused on guarding their territory and others will be more focused on the livestock.
Do Herding Dogs Guard Livestock?
Despite a common misconception, herding dogs, such as Collies, Australian Shepherds and Heelers are NOT livestock guardians. Herding dogs serve a completely different purpose. They do not protect livestock from predators. The goal of a herding dog to drive livestock or keep them within an area. Herding dogs usually work with human supervision.
History of the Use of Livestock Guardian Dogs
Depending on who you listen to, livestock guardian dogs have been in use for roughly 4000-5000 years.
In the Biblical Book of Job, which dates to around 1500-1800 BC, Job mentions, “The dogs of my flock.” The Bible describes Job as being a very wealthy man who owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yokes of oxen, and five hundred donkeys. Lions, wolves, bears, and jackals inhabited the region of the middle east where Job lived.
Job surely dealt with depredation among his flocks. Job’s dogs (probably similar to modern-day Anatolian Shepherds) would have been an invaluable means of protecting his vast herds of livestock.
The ancient Roman writer, Columella (circa 70AD), wrote, “To buy and keep a dog ought to be amongst the first thing a farmer does because it is the guardian of the farm, its produce, the household, and cattle.”
In early America, Thomas Jefferson acquired and bred French “Shepherd’s Dogs” (likely similar to Great Pyrenees) to protect herds of sheep in the New World. Despite this early use of livestock guardian dogs in North America, their widespread use here did not begin until the 1970s. The largest number of working livestock guardian dogs in the U.S. are found in the northwest, where there is a lot of livestock and there are a lot of predators.
The Need for Livestock Guardian Dogs
According to the American Sheep Industry Association, “Coyotes, mountain lions, wolves, and bears kill tens of thousands of lambs and calves each year. Livestock losses attributed to these predators cost ranchers and producers more than $232 million annually. “
In the past few decades, increased efforts to restore populations of apex predators like wolves and grizzly bears have increased the number of livestock-predator conflicts.
Predators have their place in nature. Killing them by shooting, trapping, or poisoning them is often not the best solution. A capable guardian dog deters most predators from harming livestock.
The coyote is the predator with the most extensive range in the U.S. Lewis and Clark dubbed the coyote, the “Prairie Wolf.” Coyotes were originally found in the grasslands of the western U.S., but are now found everywhere in the country, including large cities and urban areas.
Coyotes have adapted to every habitat and environment by becoming more opportunistic. They are prolific poultry killers, but can and do kill goats, sheep, and cattle. Coyotes will attack horses and even kill them on occasion.
I believe without any doubt that they coyote takes the title of the top livestock killer in America. While I could not find any national statistics, I did find some telling stats from Idaho regarding sheep losses. In Idaho during the year 2007, wolves killed approximately 500 sheep, bears 700 sheep, lions 400 sheep, and coyotes an astonishing 7,200 sheep! In 2005, also in Idaho, coyotes racked up an impressive body count of 600 cattle.
Bears, Mountain Lions and Domestic Dogs
Bears and Mountain Lions are widely distributed in North America. While not as prevalent in the midwest, where the coyote is king, there are good numbers of these top tier predators in the eastern and western U.S.
Where I live, in the San Juan Range of Southwest Colorado, mountain lions, and bears are abundant. Within a half-mile of my home, numerous sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, and at least one llama have been killed by bears and lions. Thankfully, due to my Anatolian Shepherds, Samson, and Crazy Cora (recall the movie “Quigly Down Under”), I’ve only lost one chicken.
Another very significant threat to livestock is wandering domestic dogs. The threat is increased when feral dogs form packs. My neighbor down the road had two of her three pet goats killed by a couple of Pit Bulls. The third goat survived but was severely wounded.
If you live in an area with large predators such as lions or bears, strongly consider at least two guardian dogs. You may require more dogs, depending on the number of livestock, size of the range and type and number of predators in your area.
Wolves are very efficient killers of livestock and they are proliferating and expanding their range. Typically wolves work in packs of 6 to 8 animals, making them a very serious threat to livestock and LGDs.
In Idaho alone, “Since 1995, wolves have killed more than 980 cattle, 3,150 sheep and 53 guard dogs and have caused $1.6 million in damages” according to the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission.
In 2016 the Idaho Wolf Control Board asked for $200,000 to kill wolves in the state.
A 2017 AP news article out of Cheyenne Wyoming reported that 2016 was a record year for wolves killing livestock in the state. Wolves killed 243 livestock animals in Wyoming in 2016. Wildlife officials in Wyoming killed 113 wolves in 2016 that were confirmed as attacking livestock. Wyoming’s most recent wolf count was 786 in 2015.
It is no wonder the popularity of livestock guardian dogs is on the rise. I recommend Kangals, Anatolians, Caucasian Ovcharkas, or other large breeds if you have wolves in your area. I would have no less than three or four LGDs if they are to be guarding against wolves. Many livestock guardian dogs have been killed by wolves.
Livestock guardian dogs have also killed many wolves, but they need to have a fairly level playing field if they are to survive a wolf encounter.
We do not (yet) have wolves in my part of Colorado. Currently, there is an initiative on the 2020 ballot to introduce wolves into Colorado. It will likely pass, as Colorado’s politics are ruled by the highly populated front range and cities such as Boulder and Denver. The Weminuche Wilderness is at the top of the list of areas to received wolves. The Weminuche is practically in my backyard.
In a January 2020 report, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed at least one wolf pack is already present in northern Colorado.
Smaller predators such as bobcats and foxes can kill young lambs or goat kids. A local wildlife officer told me that bobcats will sometimes attack and kill larger animals such as goats or sheep.
Raccoons and foxes can be particularly deadly to poultry. Once a fox gets a taste for chicken or turkey, there is no stopping him from coming back for more. Chicken owners have reported raccoons entering chicken coops and biting each chicken on the head, killing them all. Some skunks also prey on chickens.
Are Livestock Guardian Dogs Effective?
Thousands of years of shepherds using livestock guardian dogs as a vital part of protecting their animals give credible witness to their effectiveness. Scientific studies published online show that the use of livestock guardian dogs decreased depredation on livestock anywhere from 25% to more than 95%. Sheep producers in the U.S. routinely use livestock guardian dogs and report them to be economically effective at reducing losses.
According to the USDA’s website, a 2010 American Sheep Industry survey indicates that guard dog use is only second to shed lambing at effectively reducing depredation. Shed lambing is the costly practice of raising lambs exclusively indoors. Many commercial sheep producers reported that they would be out of business if not for the livestock guardian dogs.
More Evidence to Support Effectiveness
The Western Producer is the largest Canadian publication for farmers in Canada. They endorse the use of Livestock guardian dogs for livestock producers. An article by the publication states, “There are many guard dog breeds, but prairie producers tend to favor Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd, Maremma, Akbash, and Sarplaninac.”
USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center also endorses the use of livestock guardian dogs. They recently conducted a four-year study regarding livestock guardian dogs.
The purpose of the study was to determine whether larger European dog breeds, such as Kangals, Karakachans, and Cao De Gado Transmontanos, are more effective at protecting sheep from predation by brown bears, cougars (mountain lions) and wolves. It appears that these breeds show a lot of promise.
In My Corner of the World…
Where I live, in a rural area of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, a lot of my friends and neighbors have livestock. Within a half-mile of our property, I know of a half dozen sheep and goats, numerous chickens and turkeys, and one llama that has been killed by black bears or lions in recent years.
I am also familiar with accounts of numerous other unguarded livestock being killed by predators in our county in the past few years.
I have two Anatolian Shepherds that guard my small herd of dairy goats and my poultry flock. At least twice, neighbors have seen my dogs barking at lions looking in from outside the fence.
We have a high predator population in our area, including coyotes, bears, mountain lions, bobcats, lynx, and foxes. In six years of having livestock and my guardian dogs, I’ve only lost one rooster to a predator. The predator, in that case, was a bird of prey.
Training a Livestock Guardian Dog
If a livestock guardian dog comes from good breeding, it will have an instinct to protect the livestock it is bonded with. This protective personality might be apparent in the pup. Or, it might not develop until the dog matures, up to two years or more in some dogs
I am not saying that no training is required. However, guarding livestock should come naturally to a properly bred and bonded LGD.
The dog owner will need to be responsible for correcting bad behaviors and teaching the LGD some basic obedience. One thing about an LGD though, typically, he will take your commands more like suggestions. Independent thinking is critical to their job performance.
A livestock guardian dog must bond to the livestock you want him to protect. The ideal method of bonding a guardian dog to its livestock is to have the dog around livestock, poultry, or whatever it is to protect, from the time it is a puppy.
This does not mean throwing your eight-week-old pup in a pen with a bunch of horned nanny goats. They will mercilessly pummel him and possibly kill him. This is especially true if the livestock not used to having a dog around.
An excellent first step would be placing a pen for the pup within sight, sound and smell of the livestock, but separated by a barrier. This way the livestock cannot harm the puppy but can become accustomed to him, and he to them.
You can then gradually introduce direct contact between pup and livestock under supervised and controlled conditions. Goat kids and baby lambs that are about the same size as the puppy can also be useful in getting the pup used to livestock.
Correcting bad behavior
Although you don’t have to train a well-bred and bonded livestock guardian dog to protect, just as a small child, he will misbehave. You will need to constantly correct problems and provide guidance until he reaches maturity.
An owner should monitor his dog and reinforce positive behavior. You should also watch for negative behavior and swiftly correct it. Unwarranted chasing or biting is an example of improper behavior that should immediately be corrected.
The frequency and severity of correction that the dog needs will vary by the individual dog and the seriousness of the infraction. Never hit the dog. You can use verbal correction or possibly grab the dog by his scruff in tougher cases.
Before correcting the dog, however, an owner should attempt to ascertain the reason for the behavior. Is it rough or inappropriate play? Or does the dog have a legitimate reason for its actions?
Livestock guardian breeds are intelligent and extremely intuitive. My male Anatolian Shepherd, Samson, even at a very young age, would rush in and chase fighting chickens away from each other if he felt their quarreling had crossed the line. He did not harm the chickens when he did this, and he stopped his chasing as soon as the fight broke up.
I did not discourage his intervention in the chicken brawls. He now does the same thing when his goats fight (usually just roughhousing with each other), but only after he perceives that things have gotten out of hand.
If Samson sees a threat, he briefly chases his goats towards the safety of the barn before he turns to address the threat. The goats respect his judgment and comply.
The point here is, before you scold the dog, you should try first to realize his intention. There will be times, however, especially when he is young, that he will step out of line.
LGD Obedience Training
As for obedience training, you should realize that your guardian breed is never going to be a crack obedience dog. You don’t want this anyway. The more you train him to obey a multitude of commands, the more he will look to you for guidance. You want him to act independently and according to his intelligence and instincts. You won’t always be around to tell him what to do.
When your LGD goes to the vet or needs his nails trimmed, you will be glad if he has a few manners. A minimum of obedience training is required, such as getting the dog to come when called, sit and walk on a leash.
Don’t expect a lot. When I call my Anatolians they come. Their reaction to any commands beyond that, such as sit, stay or lie down, is to roll over on their backs and wait for their bellies to get rubbed.
Your dog should recognize you as the “Alpha” of his pack. If he does not, he might challenge you someday.
There are two main schools of thought on socializing livestock guardian dogs. The “old school” thinking, is that the dogs should have bare minimum contact with people. On the opposite end of the spectrum, are those who allow their dogs time in the house and let them go on trips to the feed store.
I think that the best approach is to have a dog with limited socialization. Livestock guardians should always be with the livestock. However, a wise guardian dog owner will socialize his dogs to his pets, family members, friends, and neighbors.
You don’t want to have a dog that is vicious towards everyone it encounters. You will have times when you have others in the pasture with you. At times, you will need a neighbor or friend to feed your dogs when you leave town. Most likely the dog will still be suspicious and on guard, even when you are present.
Pet owners should introduce family pets to their livestock guardians also, preferably when the guardian dogs are puppies. Be careful, however, of over socializing them with other dogs. If your livestock guardian sees every dog as a potential playmate, it may not keep other dogs out of your pasture.
Do I Need to Get a Purebred Livestock Guardian Dog?
The short answer is no, as long as any breeds in the mix are livestock guardian breeds.
A controversy exists over livestock guardian breeds being raised as AKC registered pets or for the show ring. Those who want to preserve the working qualities of the dogs fear that the abilities the dogs were initially bred for will disappear as the pet and show industries prioritize looks over function. The Great Pyrenees is one breed of significant concern.
Breeders of show dogs select for particular physical characteristics and appearance. The pet industry likewise breeds for looks and companionship qualities.
Most livestock guardian breeds originated as landrace breeds. Landrace dogs were not purebreds but came about naturally within a particular region. An example is Anatolia (Asia Minor, located in modern Turkey). Dogs were selected based on their guarding capability and desirable (functional) traits.
In Turkey “Coban Kopegi,” which means, “Shepherd’s Dog,” has included many variations for thousands of years.
In the case of these shepherd’s dogs, there was some influence in the breeding by shepherds. Color, the ways his tail hung, or ear shape didn’t matter, judging from the variations that came about. Some traits, such as speed, size, or a coat to match a particular climate were considered desirable. A dog’s guarding ability was the primary concern.
In most instances, the dogs bred naturally. I highly recommend the book, “The Sheepdogs of Anatolia,” by Yoruk Koucis and Guvener Isik, for an in-depth and fascinating look at these dogs and their history.
Selecting a Livestock Guardian Dog
When looking for a livestock guardian dog, look for a dog that comes from working lines. A dog from proven working lines is better than a dog with papers, or an impressive pedigree. A dog that can prance in a show ring and hold his tail just the way the judges want him to does not a good guardian make.
A wolf or a mountain lion won’t be asking to see your dog’s papers. I doubt any of Job’s dogs had papers from the AKC or would have won the Westminster Dog Show.
It’s okay if a guardian dog is a “mixed breed” but make sure the mix contains only livestock guardian breeds. The predatory instinct is bred out of these dogs and if another breed’s genetics are introduced, it will likely reintroduce this trait. Pyrenees and Anatolian crosses are very popular and have proven their guarding ability.
Be wary of adopting an older dog (even a guardian breed) that has not been raised with livestock and trying to make a guardian out of him. I am not saying this would be impossible, but it would more than likely be a recipe for trouble. The dog might not bond with the livestock and won’t protect it. Worst-case scenario, the dog could injure or kill your livestock.
Do Livestock Guardian Dogs Make Good Pets?
With the rising popularity of many LGD breeds, many people want to know if livestock guardian dogs make good pets. This is a touchy subject. These dogs were bred to be working dogs that live with and guard livestock animals.
However, most LGD breeds are also friendly towards people and great with kids if they get a little socializing. The shepherds of old didn’t want dogs that were aggressive to people and were difficult to handle.
There are many fascinating and unique breeds of LGD’s that are, big, lovable teddy bears who will bond with their owners and families and will give their lives to protect them. It’s only natural that people would seek out LGD breeds as pets.
Because of their instinct to fiercely guard any people or animals, they are bonded to, extreme care must be taken. Something like an unfamiliar friend or family member picking up and hugging a child might provoke a strong protective reaction from the dog.
Another argument against keeping LGD breeds as pets is that some nonworking LGD’s are being bred as pets and show dogs. The guarding abilities of breeds suffer when they are bred for size, color, disposition, how they hold their tail, etc, and not for guarding capability.
Some LGD breed clubs have fought to keep their breeds off of the AKC registry in an effort to preserve the guarding capabilities and breeding heritage of the dogs.
Other Reasons LGDs Might Not Be Ideal Pets
Be aware, most LGD breeds bark a lot. Sometimes a whole lot. Barking is their first-tier method of warning off whatever they are suspicious of. If you have neighbors close by (within a mile) and you plan on keeping your LGD breed pet outside, this could be a problem.
Most breeds are large or very large and they are prone to heavy shedding.
LGD’s are also diggers and can make a well-kept lawn look like the surface of the moon in no time.
Some LGD breeds and individuals are very prone to wander. These dogs believe the territory they protect spans for miles and they feel they must patrol it all.
Keeping an LGD breed as a pet comes with special challenges and is probably not a good idea for anyone not thoroughly familiar and experienced with the particular breed they want to keep.
Where Else Can I Learn About Livestock Guardian Dogs?
Hopefully, this article has given you a basic education and some useful knowledge of livestock guardian dogs. If you are thinking about getting a livestock guardian dog, I highly recommend you learn everything you can before moving forward.
Consult with any acquaintances who have livestock guardian dogs, search the internet, watch videos, join Facebook groups for owners, and read some books. I can recommend the following books:
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