Readers share stories of how their brave homestead companions patrol pastures and keep predators at bay.
Sarplaninacs, the dog breed shown here, are smart, strong-willed guardians requiring plenty of exercise and firm, confident masters. They are not suited to hot or humid climates due to their heavy coat, which makes them appear larger than they are.
Illustration by Carolyn Guske
For years, Sara and Adam Bryda of BlueMoon-N-Farms in Massachusetts valiantly fought off an assortment of predators determined to chow down on the family’s goats, sheep, ducks and chickens. “The hawks were a nightmare, the foxes were chewing on the coops, and a bear was circling the fence lines,” Sara says. They tried lights, predator urine, taller fences and deeper wire, but to no avail.
Then, Trinity and Mara — a pair of female Great Pyrenees — entered the scene. Hawks? “Gone, they vanished overnight.” Foxes? “We still see their tracks now and then, but they mostly stay far, far away.” Bear? “It came by one night, and I heard an explosion of sound. I ran outside, but only saw it running away. Since then we haven’t had a bear issue,” Sara says. “The girls have kept these creatures away from the livestock when all other methods failed. I don’t know what I would do without them.”
Homesteaders like Sara are discovering the benefits of employing dogs, donkeys, llamas and other livestock guard animals. Fencing doesn’t always keep threats out, and many stock owners are reluctant to use poison or firearms. Looking after livestock can be especially problematic in regions where animal predators have shifted or expanded their ranges in response to changing climate or suburban sprawl. While no protection plan is foolproof, agricultural studies — and MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers — report that certain animals make extremely effective livestock guardians. As a bonus, this age-old arrangement is (usually) nonlethal to wildlife. To gain insight about the advantages and challenges of using animals for homestead security, we asked Mother Earth News readers to share their experiences. Here’s what they had to say.
Dogs — the most common farm defenders — have protected humans for thousands of years. Some researchers believe that modern livestock guardian dogs descended from breeds that accompanied nomadic shepherds in the Caucasus as early as the sixth century B.C. The job of these helpers is not to herd (as Border Collies do), but to bond and live with livestock, looking after them night and day. It takes a special dog; temperament varies with breed, but even within breeds, individual personalities make some dogs more suitable sentries than others. (For guides on selecting breeds, see Resources.)Effective stock guardians share three traits: attentiveness, loyalty and protectiveness.
Attentiveness. Demonstrated by walking and sleeping among the livestock, attentiveness reflects the tight bond that develops between a dog and its wards. Many readers shared incredible stories of this relationship. “I believe my Šarplaninacs know each one of my hundreds of sheep, and they always recognize a new one,” says Louise Liebenberg, a rancher in High Prairie, Alberta.
Loyalty. When first introduced to sheep or other livestock, the dog should be curious or submissive — not aggressive or predatory. A loyal dog respects all parts of its master’s farm, including other animals. Robyn Poyner of Purdy, Mo., who has kept a variety of guardian breeds for more than 20 years, looks for this trait when adding a new dog to her goat farm. Most of her working dogs are rescues, whose suitability for the work needs to be determined. Poyner introduces the newcomer gradually by confining the dog in a pen for the first week or two. “From there, it can see me interacting with the other dogs and goats,” she says. “When I bring over a goat, the dog should show interest or submission by lowering its head. It needs to know that it must protect what’s mine.”
Protectiveness. If faced with a potential predator, the dog should bark forcefully and place itself between the intruder and the defended animals. Often, a guardian dog’s vigilance extends to the family’s children, too. “When our son was 8 or 9 years old, our Tibetan Mastiff was his personal bodyguard,” says Theresa Wegner of St. James, Mo. “The dog followed him everywhere.”
While livestock guardian dogs have been selectively bred for generations, all require training. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking they can just throw the dog out in the field and it will know what to do,” says Wegner, who has worked with guardian dogs for 24 years. “I don’t advise putting pups in with lambs that are the same size, for instance, without supervision. Like other dogs, they need guidance to learn right and wrong.” The dogs must quickly bond with the stock, but safeguarding instincts might not fully develop until maturity. “Set the ground rules early. No chasing or playing with the stock,” Poyner says.
Livestock guardian dog breeds differ in size, coat length and temperament. When choosing a breed, consider the type and number of animal predators in your area, your climate, the terrain, and your own personality. In some cases, several dogs of different breeds will be most effective.
Asian and Eastern European breeds, which require more socialization and assertive handling, are not for everyone. “Know your capabilities,” says Poyner. “If you’re not assertive, you may not be able to handle the stronger-willed Asian breeds.” On the plus side, sharper-tempered dogs are usually more effective against bigger predators. “The Šarplaninac has a little more attitude,” Liebenberg says. “It will stand up to wolves, foxes and any other predator. We know the dogs are successful because of the lack of predation among our stock, when neighbors are losing up to a quarter of theirs.” Liebenberg uses eight Šarplaninacs to guard 600 ewes and 40 cows inside pastures surrounded by portable electric fencing. “It’s important not to under-stock your dogs,” she says. “A pack of six wolves might not be intimidated by one or two dogs, but the wolves would have to expend a lot more energy to take on an equal number of dogs in a fenced area — and it would be easier for them to go somewhere else.”
Keep in mind, however, that you need to provide care and housing for each dog, and feed and veterinary costs can add up quickly. Also, be cautious of imported dogs advertised as “territorial,” warns Poyner. Some have been bred with fighting lines, making them unpredictable and hard to control. “Guardian dogs must have self-control and show a measured response, barking first, then backing off, before escalating.”
In rural Missouri, where coyotes, feral hogs, mountain lions, eagles and bears are a threat, both Wegner and Poyner prefer a mix of “bonders” that hang back and stick with the stock (such as Maremmas and Estrela Mountain Dogs) and stronger perimeter dogs (such as Armenian Gamprs, Central Asian Shepherds and Anatolian Shepherds) to patrol. Several readers report that having dogs of mixed ages can also be useful, as older dogs may show younger ones the ropes.
When researching dogs, you’ll notice organizations dedicated to rescuing specific breeds, including Great Pyrenees and Anatolian Shepherds. Many readers report excellent results with rescues; the very traits valued in a guardian dog — including nighttime barking and perpetual watchfulness — explain why some are abandoned by urban and suburban families who wanted a mellow indoor companion.
Phyllis Christy and her husband raise goats, chickens, ducks, horses, rabbits and pigs on their 30-acre fenced ranch in the heart of New Mexico, where coyotes, stray dogs, raptors, and the occasional bear and mountain lion prowl. The Christys rescued and rehabilitated a donkey that now works as their lookout. “If she sees something, you can hear her distinctive alarm call 2 miles away! Nothing can sneak in.” Donkeys are reputed to dislike dogs, but Christy says her guard donkey can accurately discern predatory dogs and coyotes — and will take them on — while tolerating the family dogs.
In the Flint Hills of Kansas, Jackie Wilt and her family successfully teamed donkeys with an Anatolian Shepherd to protect goats. With multiple yards and pastures, a division of labor proved a smart strategy. The donkeys guard the outer pastures, while Silas the dog stays close to the goats. “In our 11 years on the farm, we’ve never lost any livestock to predators,” Wilt says.
Some readers report that a donkey can be too rough with young animals. “We’ve never had that problem, but we move the does that are ready to kid as a precaution,” says Wilt. “That’s why we got Silas — he was raised with the goats and loves babies!”
The Christys also work with llamas as livestock guardian animals. “Llamas are excellent protectors because they see predators miles away, and sound an alert that all of our animals recognize. They’re clean and easy to maintain, too,” Phyllis says. After sounding the alarm, the male also herds the goats into their shelter and then stands guard. The Christys enjoy llamas because of their versatility — besides producing wool, llamas clear overgrown brush, pull carts and work as pack animals.
Atypical guardian animals have shown impressive skills, too. Jeff Rideout in Oconomowoc, Wis., used to lose half of his laying hens to weasels, foxes and other critters. But since adding five geese, he’s not lost a one. “Papa gander seems to be doing the job,” he says. Sandy Tarnowski in Paulden, Ariz., welcomed a vigilant peahen to her flock of chickens. An unexpected resident, the peahen flew into her yard and now defends the chicks against crows. Meanwhile, in Sandy, Ore., Anne Sheldon thinks her good-natured guinea hogs put a stop to the loss of her chickens to predators. Clearly, those predators have discovered what happens when you wrestle with a pig.
Choosing a Livestock Guardian Dog Breed series by Jan Dohner
Best Farm Dog Breeds from Grit Magazine
Selecting a Guard Llama by Jan Dohner
Anne Hallowell Interview: Working Llamas by Caleb Regan
Guard Donkeys Protect the Herd from Grit Magazine
Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.