The Enduring Use Of Dogs To Guard Farm Animals

Canine Livestock Protection Brings Advantages And Risks
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Alexandra Stevenson (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Dogs play numerous roles in everyday life, from household pets to hunting companions to pillars of internet culture. When it comes to their place on the farm, dogs play another role that's just as relevant. 

In recent decades, ranchers and federal agencies have spent a lot of time figuring out how to expand and improve the use of dogs to guard livestock, especially sheep, from predators that include wolves, coyotes and foxes.

Michael Marlow, wildlife biologist at the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, advocates using guard animals in combination with other approaches to protect livestock from predators, as he explained in a May 21, 2016 presentation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Spooner Agricultural Research Station. In his talk, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place, Marlow discussed some of the practices and conflicts associated with the contemporary use of livestock guard animals.

Using large, aggressive and alert dogs to ward off predators can work as an alternative or supplement to management approaches like trapping or poisoning, especially when these lethal methods are covered under various federal and state restrictions. Marlow argues that lethal methods may still be necessary even where guard dogs are effective. Sheep ranchers can choose to birth and raise more lambs indoors — a practice known as shed lambing — but converting to such practices is likely going to be more expensive than training dogs to guard a flock.

However, using animals to guard livestock has its pitfalls. For all their advantages, dogs still need to be trained before they can be trusted to guard a herd. And livestock aren't the only creatures who could be in danger from poorly trained dogs, especially when they're grazing on public lands — hikers, bikers and others who pass through recreational areas where herds are grazing have had frightening run-ins with guard dogs. For Marlow, these problems reinforce the importance of ranchers having an integrated strategy to protect their livestock.

Key facts

  • Humans have used domesticated dogs as guards since first domesticating livestock. However, the use of dogs to protect livestock, mostly sheep, had a resurgence in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a result of federal restrictions on the use of sodium cyanide and other methods used to kill predators. Other factors contributed to this resurgence, including the shortcomings of other management techniques and some people's desire to have more non-lethal options.

  • Livestock protection dogs are most common on sheep farms, but are also used on cattle and poultry, among other animals. These guard dogs stay around livestock most of the time and work aggressively to repel predators. Livestock protection dogs are able to bond with the animals they're protecting, though this can be more difficult with cows than with sheep. Predators like wolves can adapt to some non-lethal methods of livestock protection. However, the use of guard dogs creates a state of vigilance that is harder for wolves to get used to.

  • Sheep are flocking animals whereas cattle typically graze over a wider landscape. This difference makes it harder for a given livestock protection dog or group of dogs to protect a herd of cattle.

  • Using guard dogs is cheaper some than other methods of livestock protection such as shed lambing and fencing, though it can be more expensive than lethal approaches like trapping and shooting.

  • Surveys of sheep ranchers have found that they were about as satisfied with the results of using livestock protection dogs as they were with results from shed lambing.

  • Ranchers need to invest not just money, but also time and labor to properly guide their protection dogs to maturity. Untrained dogs are not ready to properly guard livestock.

  • Guard dogs can sometimes end up killing livestock, particularly younger dogs that are too playful. Some of this behavior is the result of ranchers who don't properly train their dogs or feed them enough. Dogs may also harass or kill wildlife that doesn't threaten livestock. Guard dogs can be aggressive to strangers or other dog breeds. Additionally, dogs are prone to distractions, for instance if other nearby dogs go into heat.

  • Employing livestock protection dogs makes it more difficult to use other anti-predator techniques, such as putting out poisons or traps, as these methods can also end up threatening the dogs themselves.

  • Livestock protection dogs can get killed in regions like the northern Rocky Mountains where large predators like wolves are more plentiful than most other regions around the U.S. 

  • As more people use public lands for hiking, biking and other recreational opportunities — and sometimes bring their own domestic dogs on those adventures — that can create conflict with livestock protection dogs. In one of the worst examples, dogs guarding a Colorado sheep herd mauled a cyclist in 2008. The cyclist survived — after suffering injuries that required dozens of stitches — but the incident embodies the tensions that arise on public lands between ranchers and recreational users. The United States Forest Service has since developed materials to educate the public on how to avoid such incidents.

  • Some ranches have turned to llamas for livestock protection. A pack and meat animal domesticated in South America, the llamas is sociable, though it doesn't have quite the capacity dogs do to bond with livestock like sheep and cattle. However, llamas are aggressive toward predators, calm towards humans and live longer than dogs. Because llamas are tall, they can easily see potential threats. But they don't guard sheep quite as actively as dogs do. Llamas also don't like dogs, so it's tough to use both for livestock protection. When llamas respond to predators, it's more about protecting themselves.

  • Donkeys offer another alternative to dogs for guarding livestock. Donkeys are highly territorial, alert and aggressive toward canine predators (wolves, coyotes and foxes), and they boast excellent hearing and a wide field of vision. But like llamas, they provide indirect protection by mostly looking out for themselves. Donkeys also bray when threatened or for no discernible reason, so they can be just as irritating to farmers and their neighbors as barking dogs.

Key quotes

  • On the innate attributes dogs bring to livestock protection: "They're typically able to analyze threats and that's very important … [D]ogs are typically very intelligent, and so they're going to be able to perceive between an active threat and maybe just a situation that's not typically normal where they're not going to be vicious or potentially cause harm, where other types of animals could potentially react in a more negative way."

  • On a popular misconception about livestock protection dogs and herding dogs: "A lot of people think that these dogs actually think they're sheep. They don't think they're sheep. It's just the fact that they're comfortable around the sheep and they enjoy being around them, and so they're going to protect these sheep."

  • On making livestock protection safer for guard dogs: "Ethically, we don't necessarily encourage the use of dogs where we're seeing impacts of mortality to the dogs. But we're actually doing research to try and identify breeds of dogs that historically were used in Europe ... so we're looking at [a] more athletic, a larger, more vicious dog — canine-vicious, but these dogs had to meet certain criteria and one of those criteria was human-tolerant."

  • On the strong-willed nature of a donkey: "I'm not saying he's capable of fending off multiple predators, but he's definitely a worthy opponent."

  • On protecting livestock in an imperfect world: "You must recognize that there is no tool that's 100 percent effective in the realm of livestock protection … [I]t's being innovative, it's being creative, it's trying new things, it's trying new techniques, it's trying to just identify what is your vulnerability and how can I adapt to overcome that and to shore that vulnerability up."
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