Natural Livestock Protectors: Guard Llamas, Dogs and Donkeys

Turn to these reliable guard animals for a natural, sustainable method to keep predators away from sheep and goats.
By Jenna Woginrich
Dec. 4, 2008
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Some dog breeds, such as the Maremma shown here, will help keep coyotes and wild dogs away from the flock.
NICKY GORDON/ISTOCKPHOTO
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My personal introduction to raising livestock has been getting to know my scrappy trio of sheep named Marvin, Maude and Sal. As a farmer-in-training, I depend on them to teach me the ropes of shepherding 101. But sheep aren't my only mentors. Over the past few months I've been in cahoots with border collies and their handlers, and even the occasional donkey or llama. That’s how I ended up at Taravale Farms, where I met my first farm security officer, hot on the job.

Her name was Bella, and she was a maremma — a large white dog of Italian heritage. Maremmas have a goofy look, with floppy ears and a playful smile, but they also possess a true working dog stoicism. I was standing beside Bella near a fence, my fingers stroking her thick white fur. It felt as tough and weatherproof as the wool on the backs of the Scottish blackface ewes we were both watching from behind a gate. And Bella was as fixated on those ewes as a baby on Teletubbies. Intense stuff.

On the other side of the fence, border collies were herding sheep. Barb and Bernie Armata, the owners of Taravale Farms, have a fairly large flock and depend on their dogs to both serve and protect. This duty is split between two breeds. The collies are the farmhands and the maremmas, including Bella, form their own little cabinet of homeland security. The herders get most of the limelight around here, but I doubted Bella was impressed by the sheepdog trial ribbons on the fridge. After all, ribbons can’t offer much protection against a coyote.

Bella had a family to protect, which isn’t some overly dramatic way of stating her duty. Bella and countless other dogs, llamas and donkeys see their stock as siblings, and thus they effectively guard other farm animals, especially sheep and goats, from natural predators.

Why Do Farmers Need Guard Animals?

Farmers and homesteaders are quickly learning that livestock guardians are not only effective in their work, but also better for the flock (not to mention the farmer’s peace of mind). A watchful eye from one of these animals can scan the fence lines for coyotes, feral dogs or even wolves — and tangle with them if need be.

Livestock guardians are also a more sustainable solution to the problem of predation. They keep livestock safe 24-hours a day without farmers having to resort to poisons, lamb collars, rifles or other dangerous deterrents that have mixed results at best. Some ranchers even report that poisons only aid the coyote population around their property, by ensuring that the savviest bait-avoiding ’yotes make up a large part of the gene pool. So instead of putting up with fewer predators, they have to deal with progressively smarter ones.

So in lieu of standing in a guard tower with a .22, wrestling poison-baited collars onto  lambs, spending thousands on reinforced electric fences or building extravagant enclosed animal housing, more and more farmers are employing the ever-so-vigilant llama, donkey or dog. Perhaps one of these bruisers can help you watch over your own?

Determined Dogs

Dogs such as the Polish tatra, Slovak cuvac and Italian maremma are just a few of dozens of guardian dogs still being bred today. They are introduced to their sheep as puppies and grow up part of the flock. But unlike their wooly brethren, when danger rears its ugly head they don’t run away, they stand their ground. These dogs will work alone or in small packs, scaring off wolves, coyotes or wild dogs; some have even been known to bark at circling birds of prey. Dogs of these protective breeds have been doing this for centuries. Their ancestors trotted outside ancient Rome, Tibet and Turkey.  Some say these dogs are higher maintenance than llamas and donkeys, but they are usually the most effective livestock guardians out of those three species. It’s hard not to be intimidated by a full set of sharp teeth.

Low-Maintenance Llamas

While llamas are fairly new to the livestock guardian scene, they are proving to be effective and for a lot of people they offer the protection of a dog without the added maintenance. A llama will generally eat the same feed your sheep or goats would eat, so you might save a lot of money on kibble. (Most dogs aren’t satisfied when you point to a lawn and say bon appetit). Llamas also don’t bark, scare neighbors, gnash teeth or snap at wandering 3-year-olds. They also don’t seem to wander as often as their canine counterparts. (Wandering is one of the top reasons people lose their livestock dogs.) Also, a llama is more likely to respect that fence than a large leaping dog.

Defensive Donkeys

Another popular option is the lone donkey. A singular donkey placed with a herd treats its flock mates like its own. They are naturally defensive against dogs. If you disagree, let Rover walk up to any Jenny with her offspring! With those instincts to protect still very strong, donkeys make for fine security guards. Also, farm donkeys are a declining population in America, and sorely in need of revival on the modern farm. What was once the all-purpose ATV of the farm, used in everything from carrying packs to pulling canal boats along river edges, now has receded into the patchwork of the past. Employing a good donkey to watch your stock is a way to save this noble animal from entropy.

So if you’re interested in adding a llama to your life, an ass to your grass, or plopping down a puppy with this spring’s lambs — do your homework. While these animals are generally useful guardians, like any working animals, some work better than others. It depends on your location, your herd and the history behind the animal you’re planning to put to work. Some dogs, llamas or donkeys will hightail it for the barn when predators terrorize the neighborhood. So research your breeders! If you can, watch the prospective donkey or llama with its current flock. Ask for references from past customers so you can know how other dogs are doing with their current charges. You’ll save unnecessary stress by making sure your potential guardian, whatever the species, is true to its job. 

Or you could have Bella come by and give them the once over. I’m pretty sure she’s got an eye for this sort of thing. After all, it’s in her blood.

Have you tried employing one of these guard animals on the farm?  Share your experiences by leaving a comment below.


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Elizabeth_26
9/2/2009 7:51:31 PM
We purchased a Gt. Pyr. as a yearling from a family...never having been w/animals. She immediately was good w/the goats and chickens...but...really wanted to be with US. Her wandering brought about a broken leg, having collided with a truck, but now that we have secured fences all around the farm, she guards the home. Only the home. We adore her, and wish we'd had the good fortune to have known her at birth, so we could have trained her for the job she was born for. She even housebroke herself, while being confined w/cast on leg for weeks. What an angel is Angel!!!

Pedr
4/8/2009 9:02:32 PM
Hi All, I have had Pyrenean Mountain Dogs since the 1970's, a great stock guarding breed! They work a treat! I am Welsh, but lived in Norway for many years. About ten years ago I returned to West Wales and discovered our indigenous native Sheepdog, "The Welsh Sheepdog" if you don't know this ancient Welsh breed then see www.welsh-sheepdogs.co.uk There exist in Wales written records of this breed that go back to 14th century. I am now the proud owner of a red and white male, "Cochyn" and a tri-colour with a dash of merle female, "Brith" Welsh Sheepdogs, are probably, the hardest working Sheepdogs in the World!! they also work a treat! with all this in mind, I really thought that I had found my DREAM TEAM, CO-WORKER'S But, My large, friendly, and wonderful Pyrenean "Iorwerth" want's to dominate my "medium sized, very very brave, "I will not back down, If I am not frightened of bulls, do you really think that a large fluffy pyrenean frightens me!!" Welsh Sheepdog "Cochyn" In the past, and because "Cochyn" will not back down! Iori (Iorwerth) has given him a serious bite (and Cochyn, would still would not back down) if I had not managed to intervene I don't know if Cochyn would still be around today. Individually, both these dog's are well trained obedient dogs who love to please and are good around people and animals! (Iori has been known to have a problem with other strange dog's, having once been bitten on the nose in public, while minding his own business, by a squirrel sized, sausage type dog, Of course, Iori let's "Brith" the female Welsh Sheepdog jump up and lick his face even snap at him if he gets too fresh and does not bat an eyelid, no danger there, as far as I can see! I suppose its a case of us males being suckers for women? So what's the secret? how do you get your Herder's to work in

luann white
12/23/2008 11:06:47 AM
We purchased a withered Llama to protect our goats and Louie did great. He played with our buck, but was non aggressive with them. When eating, if our goats can to eat out of his bucket he walked away. We have just sold our goats, but Louie is still here. He is love to much to go! We have since added to other Llamas Ben and Jeri and they had a baby girl Dolly. We also have a gelded Jack that we use for cart pulling. elvis is a great carter, but horible with the goats. Make sure the donkey you get is good with them. Ours is not.

Lynn Bauer_2
12/15/2008 8:13:24 AM
Amy, As for your G/Pyrenees 5 month old pup - My husband and I have 2 GP's that are now 7 months old as as big as our full grown sheep. We received the pups at 8 weeks old and they were still pretty small - too small to put in with the sheep so we put them in with our 2 goats. Eventually ( well, sooner than you would think) they grew bigger and we would take them over to visit with the sheep at feeding time so we could watch them interact. On the way back, they would "interact" with out chickens, chasing them in a round-up type of fashion. Try putting your pup in with the sheep while observing them. The sheep will naturally try to control the situation by head butting the little one showing who is boss - nothing dangerous - but just setting things right. Once the dominance is established the pup should be OK. We were told not to pet our dogs too much or give them too much attention but we have, and they are fine. They protect the sheep and appreciate the praising we give them. The key is watching them as they get established and not being afraid to get them started with the animals. The sooner you do that, the better. Our GP's now prance and play with the sheep and each other but are serious about getting down to business whenever they think something is going on that they need to deal with. Good luck!

Shelby_1
12/13/2008 9:52:50 AM
Amy, If this is your first pyr, you can get tips, help, and advice through the Livestock Guardian Group. They have an online library of information and a list serv with many knowledgeable and very helpful members who own and work with LGD on a regular basis. http://www.lgd.org/ Shelby

Kris _1
12/12/2008 1:42:37 PM
When we moved to the Colorado foothills, we realized the llamas needed extra security. We were lucky to find NASRN--National Anatolian Shepherd Rescue Network, of Queen Creek, AZ. It's been a wonderful experience--all four rescues have been quick to learn their jobs, and have defended their llama charges from predators, with the added bonus of guarding us when need be. A word of caution-do your homework before adopting any livestock guard dog -the training and personality are different from that of your household pet! The same goes for llamas--check out rmla.com for great information there!

Sandie_1
12/12/2008 9:10:25 AM
I have had Anatolians since 1987 and have had the pleasure to watch these magnificent animals perform their duties on an ongoing basis. I have puppies that are guarding alpaca, goats, sheep, horses, chickens, cats and other breeds of dogs, along with several different exotics. As a breed, I feel they are more adaptable to the weather than most of the other livestock guardian dogs since, in Turkey, they have to put up with weather from 60 below to 140 above. The ones I have been priviledged to place in working homes have been some of the most effective LGDs around. Not all Anatolians are meant to be LGDs, so it is important to make sure you check out the breeder, but you really cannot get a better guardian for your stock and property.

Victoria Glynn
12/12/2008 8:43:26 AM
This is for Amy concerning her adopted 5 month Pyr. I hesitate to tell you your dog could NOT be trained to guard the pastures, and I'm sure there are success stories out there, but at 5 months, I would be disinclined to use her with animals. Pyr puppies are trained very young....they guard whatever they have bonded with. We put our puppies in with the sheep at 8 weeks so that they would form their attachments in the barn rather than with humans. If she is attached to you, she will make a fine guard dog for your home even if she never learns to stay in the pastures and barns.

Amy_4
12/11/2008 4:33:33 PM
We just rescued a Great Pyrenes at 5 months old. She has not been with livestock. Can she be trained to be with our sheep, and trusted with our chickens? Right now she wants to chase both( but not with ill intent, just being a puppy!) She is very sweet and smart. Thank you, Amy

Mary V
12/10/2008 6:23:53 PM
I adopted a starving Great Pyrenees in 2000; she weighed about 75 lbs. (She is now 133!). She has saved my chickens and goats several times. She has put the chickens away in the coop before a storm—somehow she communicated with them, because they were in a perfect line, marching into the chicken house, with her standing over them in a commanding pose! She saved a kid goat—it got out in the winter at night, I figured at daylight, surely the coyotes would have gotten it by then. I kept hearing what sounded like the cry of a predator bird, but every time I heard that, she would bark with her “something’s wrong!’ tone of voice. As she never did that with a bird cry, because of her response, I got out the binoculars, and found the goat way out in a farmer’s field next door, stuck in the snow. She knew! Bless her heart, she’s about 12-13 years old now, and still on the job, however, I know she’s getting quite elderly. I hate to not have a Pyr with my livestock, so I am certainly keeping my eyes open for another one or two Great Pyrenees.

Boheem
12/10/2008 3:13:56 PM
I am not advocating the purchase of a German Shepherd as a LGD, BUT, I do have to say... my boys have done a wonderful job on many occassions. If you get a good working line GSD, you have a wonderful protector.. for home, family & farm animals. I would have to stress the need for a true working line and from Euro. lines, not American. The working Euro lines are smaller, must be SchH titled (which would assure you excellent/good hips and a sound mental status!) to be allowed to breed and I would most definately start with a pup. If they get bored, they will wander, so give them a job and you won't regret it. Currently, we have an American GSD from show-lines, (a rescue I could not pass up) and even he does a nice job. He's as sweet as can be until a wandering dog walks past, then it's all business even when the odds are against him.

Christine_2
12/10/2008 3:00:11 PM
Donkeys are also endangered on National Park Service land, as the NPS considers them 'alien' and shoots them on sight. So adopting one from one of the rescues that takes them off the NPS land or from the BLM is saving a life as well as gaining a farm guardian and helper.

Carolyn_1
12/10/2008 1:29:12 PM
I have a Maremma which guards my alpacas, and couldn't be more pleased. She is protective without being aggressive -she will put another dog on the ground rather than killing it. * If you get a dog, be sure the parents are 'hip certified'. * A dog WILL bark at night -that's part of the deterrent. * I know an alpaca breeder who lost animals guarded by a llama to coyotes -when there's multiple predators, a llama may not be enough.

heidi hudson
12/10/2008 1:09:00 PM
I would love to hear anyone's experience with the Akbash or Anatolian Shepherd. I've heard they are also really good livestock guardian dogs. I am going to be getting one to guard my animals. Heidi

ALAN JONES_1
12/10/2008 1:01:24 PM
I too have a Great Pyrenes. She tends to work 3rd shift. She has taken the whole farm under her protection. SO, be prepared for some mid night barking sessions.....

Renee_1
12/10/2008 12:27:21 PM
I am currently boarding goats with a friend, while looking into land purchase. I know that once I place my Angora goats on my land, I will want either a Great Pyranese, or a donkey. Frankly, my interest is higher for purchase of a donkey, but I have heard they will kick the goats they are guarding. I don't think I believe this, but thought I would take the opportunity to inquire...those of you who have donkeys, would you be so kind as to share your experience of them as guardians? What is required for their safety and comfort, what are their idiosyncracies, how are they with goats/chickens/cats/dogs? Any input will be greatly appreciated.

Victoria Glynn
12/8/2008 8:15:40 AM
My husband and I operated a small sheep farm in central Tennessee in the 1990's and coyotes immediately designated our place a smorgasbord. After a bit of research we found a breeder of Great Pyrs for guardian stock and got both a puppy and an older female. The female suddenly bolted past me one day and flew across the pasture to the barn...before I knew what had happened, she'd thrown herself in front of the sheep who'd been backed against the side of the barn by a small pack of feral dogs. She'd gone from lazy and sweet to ferocious as a tiger in a split second and she saved the day. As the puppy grew up, he began a nightly ritual of walking to the center of the nighttime enclosure where turning to each of the four directions, he loudly announced to the night that he was on duty. We had no more trouble with coyotes. Great Pyrenees dogs are otherworldly in their abilities as guardians however they do climb and they wander so traffic is a major risk to them. They are genetically disposed to think for themselves and if they think they know better than you what needs to happen they will simply stand and grin at you and go about their business. HIGHLY recommended. I love these dogs.

R. Rogers
12/5/2008 9:50:52 PM
Having raised goats near the Capitan Mts. of New Mexico and observed a Great Pyranees in action as a guard dog for the herd I must endorse that breed. We were on a hill top with the homestead and overlooked a number of valleys. One instance was 'PEEKABOO' chasing a Momma Lion with 2 cubs. He ran them out of the country and we never heard from them again. One other instance of merit was with a Mexican Eagle overhead. I had heard tales of 'kids' running to the guard dog for protection but had not, until then, witnessed it myself. 'Boo' was watching the shadow of the eagle on the ground and the kids ran to him and he stood over them until the eagle left. We are starting a new edventure in W. Texas soon and plan to get another Great Pyranees.








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