Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I’m very happy to feature a guest post on using livestock guardian dogs to protect poultry. This is perhaps the most challenging task we ask of these dogs, since poultry are not their traditional stock.
I’m so pleased that Anna Abney offered to share this useful information with Mother Earth readers. Anna Abney is the founder of the popular Facebook group Learning About LGDs and a professional dog trainer in upstate South Carolina. She also raises laying chickens, meat ducks, meat rabbits, and pack goats as well as working Central Asian Shepherd Dogs.
Livestock Guardian Dogs and Poultry
Many modern homesteaders and farmers are turning to livestock guardian dogs to protect their chickens and ducks and other barnyard fowl. Poultry are particularly vulnerable to predators, which often limits the poultry farmer's ability to free range her flock. A well-trained, reliable LGD can prevent losses from predators and allow the poultry farmer to achieve a more natural, healthy lifestyle for her birds. However, poultry are not traditional livestock for LGDs to protect so using them with birds presents special challenges. Not every LGD will turn out to be a trustworthy poultry guardian even with the best training and genetics but there are a few things you can do to maximize your chances for success.The first step with any working LGD is to purchase a dog from a reliable breeder with good references who can prove the working heritage of her dogs. If you can find a breeder with dogs already experienced with poultry that is the best bet. More information on selecting a well-bred LGD can be found here.
As with training any LGD, prevention is key. Puppies and adolescent dogs already struggle with bad decision-making skills and a flapping, squawking chicken can be an irresistible toy for a young dog. If they are able, many puppies will inevitably kill a chicken or other bird simply by playing with it to death. This killing is rarely deliberate but unfortunately a small bird doesn't stand up so well to a large, playful puppy. So in the beginning the ideal is to keep the pup and the poultry completely separated. This means the pup's area needs to be as inaccessible as possible for the birds. Chickens are notoriously birdbrained and will fly into a puppy's pen even after they have witnessed their own flock mates held down and all their feathers licked off. Trimming the birds' flight feathers can prevent this, as well as stringing bird netting across the top of the puppy's enclosure so the birds can't “throw themselves to the wolves.”
Like with any stock, the puppy also needs to practice calm, gentle behaviors, so taking the puppy out into the area with the poultry is a good idea. Praise the puppy for ignoring the birds, lying down, walking slowly around them and away from them, and anything else that involves the puppy relaxing and not becoming involved. Unlike other types of livestock, dogs rarely truly bond to poultry, so I generally don't encourage the puppy to meet my birds like I do with my goats. I want them to view the birds as totally off limits, so I am happiest when a puppy doesn't even look at them - just another thing on the farm, nothing to worry about or get excited over. Any attempt to play with, stare at, bark at, or bounce towards the poultry results in a stern scolding and an immediate return to the pen. I do have one exception to my rule about no interaction and that is if I have a mother hen or duck with a brood. In that state mother birds are fiercely protective and they are often much better at teaching a puppy to mind his manners with poultry than I am! So I will sometimes let a pup get a little too interested in one of my Muscovies or laying hens with a brood and just let the mama provide a walloping lesson in avian personal space. If your birds are tame enough, it can also be helpful to hold them and pet them in the dog's presence, making it very clear that they belong to you and only to you and are off limits for dogs.
The training phase for raising a poultry guardian often lasts well into their second or even third year. During this time you want to be extremely vigilant so that your young dog doesn't develop bad habits. Any inclination to chase or play should be sternly corrected. But if you or your puppy make a mistake and a bird is injured or killed, don't lose heart! It's normal to lose a bird or two during this time and most puppies will still go on to become reliable poultry guardians provided the training continues to progress. I do strive to protect my puppy from bullying by roosters or drakes during this time as puppies can hold a grudge if they are excessively frightened. It's also important to remember that a young dog may need to experience two or three hatching seasons before he understands that the tiny new fluffy things are just as off limits as the bigger feathery things. My male Central Asian Shepherd Lennon killed a handful of ducklings and chicks his first couple of years just because he wanted to see what they were. He would put his huge paw on them as they walked by in an attempt to investigate and unfortunately huge dog paw plus tiny duckling equals squished. Just like with the adult birds, I scolded him soundly and then put him in a time-out and ignored him. He is now four years old and is wonderful with my birds.
The failure rate for poultry guardians will always be a bit higher than for more traditional hoof stock, but so far I have been successful using the techniques outlined above. I would not be able to keep such a large free-range flock of Muscovy ducks and laying hens if I did not have my Central Asian Shepherds on duty. I have not had a single loss to predators with the dogs on the job!
Anna founded the Facebook group Learning About LGDs to help people with their everyday questions and problems with working livestock guardian dogs. You can find out more about Anna and her dogs at her Facebook page Thunder Mountain Central Asian Shepherd Dogs.
With more than 35 years of hands-on LGD experience, Jan Dohner writes for Mother Earth News and Storey Publishing. She is the author of Farm Dogs, The Encyclopedia of Animal Predators, and Livestock Guardians. For more information visit jandohner.com. Read all of Jan's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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