Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
In previous posts, we have looked at how guard donkeys work and we’ve examined the pros and cons of using a donkey as a livestock guardian. If you are contemplating using a donkey, let’s look now at how to select a good candidate and how to integrate him or her into your stock.
Donkey Traits and Behavior
You need to keep in mind the traits and behaviors that make a good guard donkey. Donkeys are alert animals and they are very territorial. They are generally willing to interact with other grazing animals. Most importantly, most donkeys have an instinctive dislike of canines. As a guardian, donkeys are not deliberately protecting livestock. They are primarily protecting their grazing area and themselves, although a jennie with a foal is a strong maternal protector. Neither do they patrol pastures looking for threats. If your donkey is somewhat bonded to your stock and chooses to stay with them as they graze, he or she will also provide the deterrence of a large animal among the smaller goats or sheep. Your stock, on the other hand, may come to see their donkey as a protector and gather near if they feel threatened.
It is important to assess if a potential guard donkey has a strong instinctual dislike of canines. Some donkeys will flee a predator if threatened and others will only confront the canine if they feel threatened themselves. However, if they do attack, donkeys can be fearsome and deadly towards a dog or a coyote. Despite this aggressive reaction, a single donkey cannot be expected to deal with multiple dogs and coyotes or wolves, bears, or mountain lions.
Donkeys and Dogs
If it is at all possible, test the potential guard donkey’s reaction to canines by presenting a strange dog to the donkey in a small corral or pasture. Be extremely careful not to endanger the dog. Donkeys can quickly kill a dog. Donkeys may not alert to familiar dogs, but be wary if the seller claims this is the reason the donkey is not reacting to his own dog. This may be true, but some donkeys may not react to any dogs. It is actually preferable that the donkey not be socialized towards any dogs.
If you already have a predator problem, choose a donkey that is at least three years old so that it is past the playful, rambunctious stage. Some users believe that placing a weanling donkey (6 months of age or so) with stock is a good method for fostering a bond with goats or sheep; however, a young donkey cannot be an effective guardian right away. A young donkey might also be bullied by the stock or play too roughly with young animals.
You do need to choose a standard-sized or larger donkey. If you have cattle to guard, definitely look for a donkey taller than them. Don’t ever use miniature donkeys to protect stock. Although adorably cute, they are extremely vulnerable to dogs or coyotes. Single donkeys are better than pairs, who may choose to stay together away from your stock.
A Jack or a Jenny?
Both gelded jacks and intact jennies can make good guardians. Intact jacks should only be handled by experienced people and they are much more likely to harass or be attack stock. Gelded jacks can actually have a more stable temperament than jennies. A jack should be castrated at least 90 days before you bring it home. A jenny is also a good choice, although occasionally a jenny in heat is unsettled or slightly aggressive towards other animals. Some users recommend buying a pregnant jenny to place with your stock, since she is likely to be very protective after her foal is born. Foals born with stock are often excellent and valuable livestock guard donkeys as they get older. However, heavily pregnant jennies will have difficulty protecting stock. In addition, some jennies will be over-protective of their foal or they will focus only on it.
If you are not familiar with donkeys or horses, you should take someone knowledgeable with you when you are donkey shopping. Obviously, you want a healthy and sound animal. He should be safe to halter and lead, as well as accustomed to routine care such as hoof trimming and immunizations. A donkey that is friendly towards people is certainly preferable to an unmanageable one.
You can expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a gelded donkey, unless he is an experienced guardian. Jennies may cost a little more. Purebred donkeys of breeding quality are more valuable. There are a few breeders who are raising donkeys specifically to work as livestock guardians. Cheaper donkeys are available at auction barns or through the Bureau of Land Management wild horse and burro program. Unfortunately, you will probably not be assured that these donkeys will safely guard your stock. Buying from a breeder will give you some sort of guarantee of health and temperament, as well as someone who can advise you when problems occurs and help you become comfortable with handling your new donkey. You can find donkey breeders on the websites of the American Donkey and Mule Society or the Canadian Horse and Mules Association.
Bringing Your Donkey Home
Many owners reports a 4-6 week adjustment period for their new donkey and stock to become accustomed to each other, although it can take several months longer for the donkey to become fully integrated with the herd. If the stock is already familiar with donkeys or the donkey is used to similar animals, things will go more smoothly.
The safest method of introduction is to place the donkey in a fenced area next to her new stock. Avoid placing her near other horses or donkeys during this time or later when she is guarding her stock. After a week or so, try leading her into the pasture for short periods of time. It is fine to let the animals sniff each other but don’t force confrontations. When you believe it is safe to try turning her loose, it is better to use a smaller area where you can observe her behavior as well as catch her if necessary. Avoid using very small areas and situations with crowded stock, so that you do not overstress the donkey or the flock. Do not leave her alone with the stock overnight or when you will be unable to monitor the situation. Before leaving them unsupervised, be assured that the donkey is not treating the stock roughly or protecting food or water sources. If undesirable behavior occurs, trying penning the donkey again to allow more time for adjustment.
If you are still having difficulties, you can try the isolation method. Isolate the donkey away from all other animals for 1-2 weeks. The donkey will be very unhappy – and probably very loud! You can visit him during this time to practice your donkey handling skills. Hopefully this isolation will make the donkey more willing to accept his new companions. Again, place the donkey in a pen next to the stock for a few days before introducing them again. Unfortunately, you can’t really train a donkey like a dog. If you have multiple failures over time, this donkey is probably not ever going to make a good guardian for your stock.
Donkeys who are successfully guarding stock usually don’t have difficulties changing pastures. Be very cautious when introducing a ram or buck into your flock for breeding. Guard donkeys can see the unfamiliar ram or buck and his behavior as aggression towards his pasture mates.
Photos by: donkey and sheep David B. Gleason, donkey grazing Adrian Pingstone