Livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) are one of the most effective means of predator control. This very old method of protecting sheep, goats, or cattle is once again essential to coexisting with predators on our landscape. LGDs live full time with their animals and make independent decisions about potential threats to their charges. With their increasing use on private and public land, encounters between these working dogs and humans are occurring more often. Occasionally these encounters cause issues, especially between recreationalists and ranchers.
Owners of LGDs want you to be safe, but we all need to behave appropriately around these serious working dogs. Knowing how to react is essential — whether you are hiking on shared public recreation and grazing land or even when visiting a farm with a LGD.
LGDs are naturally and defensively protective and they take their job seriously. They primarily work by warning off threats and that might include you. If you are at a distance from a flock, the LGDs may calmly stand up and watch you as you pass by - perhaps coming slightly closely to observe you. If the dogs believe their animals are threatened, they will respond in a series of graduated steps - barking, bluffing, and charging. Most LGDs are discerning about true threats, but some dogs proceed through these steps quite rapidly. These threatening actions deter almost all large predators so that actual physical encounters are uncommon.
Visiting a Farm
If you are visiting a farm or passing by on a road, you may see an LGD behind a fence with his stock. The dog will likely bark and may rush up to the fence, especially if you have a companion dog with you.
• Don’t attempt to reach through the fence, pet, or feed the dogs. LGDs are naturally aloof to people they do not know and they do not want to make friends with you. Their owners strongly prefer that people not feed their dogs. Ignore the dog and continue on with your business.
• Don’t throw things at the dogs or verbally harass them in a threatening manner. This is also important if you have a working LGD in your neighborhood. Antagonizing or yelling at working or barking LGDs will not make them stop.
• Absolutely don’t open gates or enter the area without the owners’ presence and permission.
• Look for signs announcing the presence of an LGD at work.
• If you drive up to a house or barn and a dog comes up to your car, wait for the owner to control the dog or introduce you.
• Avoid bringing your pet dogs to a farm with a working LGD. Do not let a pet dog out of your vehicle without permission.
Recreation on Public Land
Hiking, biking, trail riding, hunting, fishing, or camping on open or public land may result in an encounter. LGDs on western grazing lands may be more on edge in areas of ongoing and active predator pressure on their flocks.
• On public land, always look for informative signs that LGDs are present with grazing flocks or herds before entering a trail. Also check informative websites (BLM, US Forest Service, etc) for current maps where flocks or herds and LGDs may be found. At times, areas may be closed to recreation due to their presence.
• If you encounter moving or trailing sheep, don’t attempt to walk or bike through them. Wait quietly at a distance until they completely pass by.
• If you encounter a grazing flock or herd, you might not see LGDs at first. Wait a few minutes to allow any dogs to notice you if they are present.
• If you observe LGDs with their flock, do not approach the animals or the LGDs. Your goal is to disturb the dogs and grazing animals as little as possible. In all cases, stay at a distance and alter your path to move widely around the flock or herd and not through them. Never make sudden threatening moves towards the animals or the dogs.
• If the LGDs approach you or bark - keep calm, do not run, and do not harass the dogs. Stop walking and give the dogs time to see that you are not a threat. Avoid eye contact and speak softly to the dogs if they come near. Some dogs may respond to a command to “go back to the sheep.” Do not wave a hiking stick at the dogs, throw objects, or yell at them. The dogs may return to their flock after a short time. They might follow you at a distance or remain alert until you leave the grazing area of their animals.
• If you are uncertain, anxious, or the LGD remains upset or blocks your progress, walk back the way you came.
• Do not pet or feed unusually friendly LGDs as this will encourage them to confront other people in search of a handout or attention. This may provoke escalating events.
• It is definitely not advisable to take a companion dog into an active grazing area. LGDs are always more disturbed by hikers with dogs, as they rightly see the dogs as a threat to their animals. Dogs are the second largest threat to livestock after coyotes. If you have a pet dog with you, keep it on a short leash, and never allow it to chase sheep or other livestock. If your dog is attacked, it is more prudent to drop your leash to prevent injury to yourself.
• Grazers who use LGDs on public land often expose and socialize their dogs to all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, and bicycles so that they are seen as non-threatening. Nonetheless, because they are fast moving and silent, bicycles often surprise LGDs. Never ride through a group of animals. Disismount from your bike, speak calmly to the dogs so that they recognize you as a person, and walk your bike. Keep it between you and the dogs with their flock. Retreat if the dog remains upset or blocks your path.
• Occasionally, you may encounter a LGD far from his flock. Do not attempt to rescue it. At times, LGDs patrol out and around their flock or herd.
• In the extremely rare case of an aggressive LGD, pepper or bear spray is an appropriate defense.
Coexistence with Predators
Supporting the use of nonlethal predator control requires us all to learn new skills, whether you are a livestock owner or a visitor to a farm or rangeland. Respecting the valuable work of these dogs and knowing how to behave appropriately will benefit everyone.
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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