Monday, September 23, 2013

The Pros and Cons of a Livestock Guard Dog

Choosing a livestock guardian – the pros and cons of livestock guard dogs

The choice to use a livestock guardian to protect your stock should be made seriously and with some forethought and planning. Using a living animal as a livestock guardian is not only a responsibility but also it requires you to gain some knowledge. It will ultimately require your commitment to an animal’s care, your regular attention, and perhaps some careful training. Acquiring this knowledge and some prior preparation before your guardian arrives will make the use of a livestock guardian more successful, as well.  If you are not sure which livestock guardian would make the best fit for you and your situation, here is a no-holds-bared and nitty-gritty look at the pros and cons of each potential guardian – dogs, donkeys, and llamas. This first post will look at livestock Guard Dogs (LGDs)

The pros:

  • LGDs can guard a wide variety of animals including poultry, sheep, goats, cattle, llamas and alpacas, miniature horses and other equines.  Guarding poultry presents a difference set of challenges than other stock, but it can be done successfully with attention to some training and the choice of a dog. Equines can likewise be problematical since the horse or donkey can have a natural flight or fight response to canines, but again, it has been done successfully.  LGDs can provide protection outside and around buildings that house other animals, such as poultry or rabbits. 
  • LGDs actually bond to their stock and will exhibit nurturing behaviors, especially to young animals.
  • LGDs protect stock against a wide variety of predators, both large and small, including the most dangerous such as feral hogs, wolves, bears, bobcats, and mountain lions. LGDs can work in groups. Owners who face serious threats by large predators often employ two or more LGDs together in a field. Most LGDs actively bark and chase large birds (eagles, hawks, owls, vultures and others) away from their stock. LGDs routinely protect stock from all small predators including foxes, coyotes, roaming dogs, raccoons, weasels, minks, skunks, opossums, and feral cats. Although LGDs usually provide non-lethal predator control, owners do, at times, find the remains of these smaller predators in their pastures and barns.
  • LGDs can work in very rough and large fields or pastures.  They will actively patrol and mark their territory, especially at night.  
  • LGDs have a graduated response against predators, which generally frightens or warns the predator away without the need for an actual attack. The dogs begin with barking, which becomes more frenzied if the predator does not back off, followed by posturing or charging.  LGDs attack only if the predator is not driven away.  Owners learn to interpret the barking so that they know when backup assistance may be needed. 
  • LGDs can provide predator friendly control rather than other lethal forms of control such as shooting, etc.  Your customers often appreciate this approach if you sell products.
  • LGD barking provides an alert to the owner about threats and disturbances.  LGDs also provide this alert about threats to family and farm, not just their stock.
  • LGDS provide long-term protection against predators.  Predators often become used to or habituated against lights, sirens, and other visual or auditory methods of frightening predators away. Predators don’t become habituated towards LGDs.
  • LGDs can work with their stock 24/7, which means stock can stay out to graze at night or when the owner is away from the property.  This also reduces human labor needed to bring flocks into a barn or protective paddock every night. LGDs are usually more active at night than during the day.
  • LGDs allow you to use a pasture with active predator problems in the area.  One summer, we used a pasture with a den of coyotes right outside the fence.  It was a summer of much barking and howling, but we did not lose even one tiny Shetland lamb to those coyotes.
  • LGDs are self-thinkers, which means they can analyze a potential threat.

And now the cons:

  • Good LGDs are valuable and they demand a relatively large purchase price. They are also slow to grow and mature if purchased as a pup. Young dogs need time and your guidance to become good guardians. You may be tempted to re-home dogs that have failed elsewhere or are offered cheaply. You might consider buying dogs from unproven bloodlines or breeders who do not do routine health checks, in an effort to save money. These are risky choices, especially if you are new to using a LGD. A good breeder will be a good mentor to you and is invaluable. Dogs from good breeders, who select for working traits, greatly increase your chances of success. I will go into more about selecting a good LGD pup in a later blog post. 
  • LGDs require good fencing. Really good fencing. LGD breeds were developed on open pastures and they worked in the company of shepherds day and night.  Their idea of their territory may be much larger than your pasture or even your farm.  LGDs can dig and climb and slither through amazingly tight spaces. If your fencing is poor, you will either need to reinforce it or add electricity – or choose another livestock guardian. On the plus side, good fences also protect your stock. 
  • Speaking of digging, LGDs often dig dens to protect themselves against heat or cold. You should provide appropriate shelter for them, which may reduce this need to dig their own.
  • LGDs will bark at night.  This is how they work because this is when predators are most active. Remember that they hear and see better than you. You can help teach your dog about appropriate barking, but if barking will seriously bother you or your neighbors, you need a different livestock guardian.
  • LGDs need dog food instead of forage or hay.  Their food needs to be provided for them in a protected way from weather and other animals. LGDs need regular veterinary care; preventative medications for rabies, heartworm, parasites and other diseases; and a certain amount of grooming, such as clipping claws or tending to long coats.
  • LGDs need to be handled and socialized. You need to be able to leash your dog, medicate it or tend to injuries, and confine it or transport it, if necessary. If this basic care isn’t taken you may find yourself with a very large, uncontrollable dog. Don’t choose a LGD to guard your flock if you are not comfortable working with very large dogs. 
  • LGDs may be aggressive to strangers on your property. This can be a liability.  It is a reason for good fences, educating your neighbors, and a posted sign that say Livestock Guard Dog at Work.
  • LGDs can be very protective of stock.  They will probably need to be confined when veterinarians or sheep shearers are working on their stock. They may not tolerate herding or other farm dogs.
  • LGDs cannot be used along with traps, snares, poisons or other forms of lethal predator control.