In our last few posts, we’ve been looking at the various breeds of livestock guard dogs. This is an important consideration since dogs can vary in size, temperament, cost, availability, and style of working; as well as their suitability to their possible roles as a full-time guardian, a farm guardian, or a family companion. Different breeds do have very different strengths and tendencies. But before you start looking at advertisements or litters of puppies, there are a few more questions for you to ask yourself. They are centered on two broad issues – your predator problems and your farm or homestead.
Do you have an immediate predator problem or are you facing potential or increasing problems? What kinds of predators do you have? Do you need one dog - or two or more to combat serious predator pressure? Are you looking for a puppy or an adult? Are you committed and prepared to raise and train a pup for a couple of years before they are ready to be a guardian? What is your dog handling and training experience? Are you considering a rescue dog for financial or other reasons?
What is your farm or ranch’s physical situation? Consider your climate, your style of husbandry, and what kinds of animals you need to protect. How many animals do you need to protect? How large and rugged are your pastures? How well fenced are those pastures or other areas the dog will use? Do you leave your stock out 24/7 or bring them into barns or paddocks at night? Will your dog work as a full-time livestock guardian or as a general farm guardian? Do neighbors, customers or other people regularly visit your property?
If you have an immediate protection from predators, an adult or late-adolescent dog is your best choice. This is also the most difficult dog to find. A good working LGD is highly valued by his owner. Occasionally these dogs become available when owners sell off their stock or farm. Be ware that some dogs are so closely bonded to their stock or territory that change can be difficult. The most successful moves are between similar situations and stock. A few breeders keep adolescent pups in training with stock and experienced dogs and then offer them for sale.
Sometimes a good dog can be found in a rescue situation, but you need to be aware that most rescue dogs have no livestock experience or may have working problems that caused them to be given up by their owners. If you prefer a rescue dog and are inexperienced with LGDs, try to choose one that has been evaluated or rehabilitated by an experienced LGD owner or LGD organization. You will still need to closely supervise adult dogs and, perhaps, re-train him. If you are inexperienced with LGDs or very large dogs, please take the time to meet the rescue or adult dog and assure yourself that you can handle him safely and confidently. In all cases, you will need a safe and secure area to keep the dog while adjusts to his new home. Both stock and dog need time to become accustomed to each other as well.
Do not expect a puppy to be a reliable guardian until it is 18-24 months old, or longer. LGD puppies grow rapidly and look like adults before they are a year old and so their owners expect far too much from them. LGD adolescents are truly like teenagers. This is also the age when most dogs are turned in to rescue or abandoned by their owners, because of adolescent problems. They can play roughly with stock, causing injuries or death if they are unsupervised. They are filled with tremendous amounts of restless energy or boredom, which also leads to problems. Adolescent dogs should never be left alone and unsupervised unless an older, completely trustworthy, and experienced dog mentors them. Choosing the stock your young dog is raised with is also important. A very small group of older, reliable animals can be excellent mentors to young dogs.
Don’t be lulled into believing your dog is different because as a puppy he was respectful or gentle with stock. Sweet puppies can turn into difficult teenagers almost overnight! People often say that their dog is a completely natural guardian but this is generally not true. All LGDs need guidance and training from you. And never, ever leave young dogs alone with lambing or kidding stock. Young dogs can easily harm babies out of confusion about birthing or a misplaced sense of protection. Training dogs to be safe around poultry is even more difficult. Young dogs should never be left unsupervised with poultry. These challenges of adolescent dogs are the source of most dissatisfaction with LGDs and yet they are almost completely preventable with proper supervision and training by the owners. You can find advice and problem solving tips from experienced owners or breeders, LGD clubs, Facebook groups or email lists, and LGD books.
The question of how many dogs you need is complex. A general guideline is one dog for 50-100 animals in a pasture of less than 20 acres. If your pasture and stock are divided into several small grazing areas, you probably need more dogs. Very large pastures or rangeland, as well as very rough grazing, demand more dogs. Pastures far from your house probably need more dogs since you will be unable to come help when the dogs sound an alarm. Stock left out during the night is more vulnerable as well. If your stock does not flock well and spreads itself out over a large area, you may need additional dogs.
How many dogs do you need? Pairs generally work well, often dividing up duties patrolling and staying with stock or confronting predators and protecting stock during an attack. However, intense or difficult predator pressure may demand even more dogs. A single dog cannot deal with a bear or mountain lion, or a pack of coyotes or wolves. Single dogs on a reasonable amount of pasture can deal with small predators such as raccoons, opossums, large predator birds, and occasional coyotes. When coyotes are depending on small prey, such as rabbits or rodents, or scavenged carrion, their social units tend to consist or just two or three individuals. They may raise a litter of pups. But when coyotes have regular access to larger prey, their pack or family size increases on a home range or territory. Packs of animals are difficult for a single LGD to handle, since they divide their attack on stock.
Be aware that you may need to experiment with combinations of dogs to get the individual dynamics right. Dogs are individual beings not tools, and may have personality or dominance issues. Opposite sexes generally work well in pairs, although same sex pairs can also function. Neutering is important in running larger groups of LGDs, unless you are able to remove dogs in heat, etc. Older dogs usually accept very young dogs without problems, reducing the potential for conflicts as the dogs age together. Two puppies raised without adult dogs create additional challenges. While some of their excess energy can be channeled into play with each other, they can equally get into more trouble together. They may need to be separated in order to bond effectively with stock rather than each other, as well.
Feral or roaming dogs can be a major threat to stockowners and they may be very difficult for single dogs to deal with. Dogs do much more damage to stock than wild predators because rather than taking a single animal, they often chase and mutilate many animals. The other reality of this problem is that the roaming dog or dogs are generally pets and not truly feral dogs. If the roaming dog doesn’t heed the LGD’s warning to stay away, they may fight your LGD unlike most wild predators. The real threat of stray dogs is the reason why we advise LGD owners not to allow them to play with other dogs, especially neighbor or strange dogs.
In our next post we will talk about the actual selection of your LGD puppy or adult dog.
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