Since the dawn of time, man has found refuge and comfort in his partnership with dogs. For millennia, these loyal friends have shared our hearth-fire, hauled our heavy loads, assisted our hunts, and protected our families from harm. However, one of the most interesting services that these faithful companions have provided over the generations has been the protection of our vulnerable livestock from threats, both large and small.
Livestock Guardian Dogs (or LGD’s), have a long and fascinating history with mankind, spanning thousands of years, and hailing from nearly every corner of the globe. Anywhere that you find humans raising livestock, you’re likely to discover a specialized breed of LGD dutifully living and working alongside their masters.
Skeletons of dogs and domestic livestock, such as sheep and goats, have been found side by side in archaeological sites, dating back at least 6000 years. Varro’s classic Roman text on agriculture, written around 100 B.C., lends support to this early use of dogs as guardians, asserting, “It is of great interest to those of us who keep fleece-bearing flocks, the dog being the guardian of the flock, which needs such a champion to defend it. Under this head come especially sheep but also goats, as these are the common prey of the wolf, and we use dogs to protect them.”
The dogs that Varro spoke so highly of in his texts were likely the same big, white Maremma dogs still seen guarding flocks across Italy today. Similarly, to this day, one can find Great Pyrenees dogs patrolling the mountains of France, Spanish Mastiffs battling brown bears along the Cantabrian Peaks in Spain, and dread-locked Komondors fending off packs of wolves in the Carpathian Mountains.
Closer to home, LGDs have developed a loyal following among farmers and ranchers in North America. Louise Liebenberg is one of those devotees.
Louise has raised and worked with LGDs for decades, and in many different environments around the globe. She worked as a professional shepherd in South Africa and the Netherlands, before settling into her current home in Alberta, Canada, where she keeps over 500 sheep.
She has learned a lot about LGD behavior, over the many years of close partnership she’s shared with her Sarplaninacs, an ancient breed from Kosovo. “There are a number of techniques that the livestock guardian dogs use to deter predators,” she says. “One of the primary ones is simply claiming territory. When LGDs live within a group of sheep, that area becomes the territory of the dog pack.”
She explained that the LGD will claim their territory by scent marking, patrolling the perimeters, and barking to make their presence known. They sometimes even speak the language of the wild canines they are defending against. “A common dusk activity is when the coyotes and wolves howl, the LGD will respond back. Sometimes howling, sometimes barking.” She continues, “We have seen our dogs respond to a serious threat by positioning themselves strategically around a flock of sheep. The intensity and focus with which the dogs do their job is amazing. For both the dogs and the predators, it’s not so much about engaging with the predator, it’s all about deterring. The dogs and the predators know that in a serious encounter with each other, they can be injured or even killed.”
Louise tells a story about an overly enthusiastic coyote that made the dire mistake of jumping into the sheep pen, and was promptly killed by two of her dogs. She recalls the event with sadness, but says such incidents are, luckily, a rare occurrence. “Overall, the best protection for the flock is provided when the LGDs form a barrier, and the predators simply avoid the area.”
Tim and Natalie Thurman raise Tibetan Yaks and Nigerian Dwarf Goats near Missoula, Montana. They, too, have experienced first-hand the value of LGDs on their farm. “We have neighbors with sheep, cattle, and alpacas. They have had major injury and losses of stock from the local cougars, bears, and wolves, but we have been very fortunate to have zero stock losses since the addition of our LGDs. We currently keep two adult dogs and an adolescent, and plan to import two more Sarplaninac dogs from Macedonia in 2016.”
Louise and the Thurmans’ experiences with these dogs certainly aren’t unique among livestock stewards. According to a 2004 report from Colorado State University, the most recent significant study, LGDs have been found to have a profound impact on rates of livestock loss among ranchers who use them. According to the report, sheep producers in Colorado who did not use dogs lost about six times more lambs to predators than producers who did keep LGDs with their flocks. The report states, “A total of 125 producers in Colorado estimated that their 392 dogs reduced predation losses by $891,440 in [a single year]. Thirty-six producers in North Dakota reported guarding dogs reduced predation on sheep by 93%.”
Experience shows that predation is not a problem that can be easily fixed by simply killing the bears, cougars, and wolves that live alongside farms and ranches. Research shows when a predator population is reduced, or temporarily eliminated, an empty niche is created that will be filled. Another pack of wolves will move in, a new cougar will claim the territory, or strange coyotes will take up residence. They will also, in many cases, double-down on their reproduction, causing the population to grow even faster than it would without human interference.
Additionally, if an adult female is killed that has half-grown youngsters back at the den, the likelihood increases that those babies will grow up and stay in their home territory, instead of moving out when they reach adulthood, as they normally would. Instead of having an adult cougar or wolf in the area with an established routine and territory, it is common to discover that there are now yearling cougar cubs or wolf pups without adult guidance, getting hungry, confused, and looking at our pets, kids, and livestock as easy meals.
According to Rob Wielgus, Senior Director of Washington State University’s Large Carnivore Research Laboratory, “We observed that when a wolf was killed, the chances of livestock getting killed increased the following year in that area — by 5 to 6 percent for cattle and 4 percent for sheep. With each additional wolf killed, the chance of livestock attacks rose further. The trend didn’t reverse until more than a quarter of the wolves in the state were killed in a single year. Then, livestock losses started to decline.” He has strong suspicions that the issue is caused by changes to the pack structure, social behavior, and hierarchy. “Packs are led by a male and female breeding pair,” he explains. “If one or both of those wolves is killed, the pack will often break up, giving rise to several breeding pairs—and thus an uptick in the wolf population.”
Wielgus and his team have not only studied wolves, but have also researched cougar behavior in areas where hunting and livestock clashes resulted in removal of the big cats. Cougars tend to establish a sizable territory for themselves, which they will often maintain for their entire lifetime. They will patrol, kill or chase away younger cats who try to come in and create chaos. If the established adult cougar is killed, Wielgus explains, “about three of these young guys come for the funeral and take up residence.”
As Wielgus and his students’ research shows, when new predators move in to fill a vacant niche, they don’t know the territory, don’t know the boundaries, and don’t respect human rules.
That’s where the dogs come in. A good LGD isn’t put in place to kill or injure predators, though they will certainly take that step if it becomes necessary. Rather, their job is to establish the territory as human ground. The local predators learn to give the dogs’ territory a wide berth, forcing them deeper into the woods and away from valuable livestock. The dogs aren’t eliminating the threat. They are setting boundaries, and giving these predators an incentive to search elsewhere for their food.
While there are many predator-friendly management solutions available to livestock owners, statistically and anecdotally, the clear winner among these has shown to be the Livestock Guardian Dog. Many producers report that they’ve not had a single loss of livestock to predators since their dogs arrived, and are finally able to sleep through the night without fear of prowling threats. To most farmers and ranchers, that’s the greatest measure of success possible.
Right now, a three year study is underway involving Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana sheep ranchers hoping to identify the dog breeds best suited to protect livestock from wolves. The study is being conducted by the National Wildlife Research Center in Utah and the findings are due out sometime within the next year.