As any livestock producer understands, protecting your animals from opportunistic predators is a constant concern. And while fencing and other non-lethal measures are effective in many situations, livestock guardian animals have been a first line of defense for eons.
With dogs, llamas, and even donkeys used to watch over vulnerable animals, choosing the right guardian for your situation depends upon the livestock, the predators in the area, as well as the terrain.
The iconic sheep dog
Dogs are the iconic symbol of protection for thousands of years in Europe, although they’ve been used in the United States for less than a half a century mostly to ward coyotes away from sheep. With the increase in large predators, such as grizzlies and wolves, in many parts of the West, the question arose on whether particular breeds performed better at keeping their wards safe.
Understanding the behavioral characteristics of guardian dogs, as well as looking for the proverbial “magic bullet” of a dog breed that is effective against wolves and other large predators, were key aspects of Daniel Kinka’s doctoral dissertation in ecology.
According to Kinka, who is also the wildlife restoration specialist at the American Prairie Reserve, the whitedog breeds, such as the Pyrenees, Akbash, Maremas and Anatolian shepherds, are the predominant dog choices for most American producers. Yet, since shepherds have dealt with wolves and other large predators for as long as there have been sheep and goats, they brought in more obscure breeds (to the United States), including the Turkish Kangal, Karakachans from Bulgaria, and the Cao de Gado Transmontano from Portugal.
Working with producers throughout Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, Kinka devised a series of tests to understand whether these particular dog breeds worked more effectively against large predators, as well as gaining a general understanding about specifically how guardian dogs worked.
“The overarching theme is there’s not a silver bullet dog that we found,” he said. While this wasn’t a surprise, he discovered differences in their behavior that is useful for producers who incorporate guardian dogs into their protection measures.
Kinka said because the interaction between guardian dogs and predators is extremely difficult to observe, particularly since it often happens at night, he created decoys using a PVC skeleton covered with either a wolf or deer hide (a non-threatening animal) with respective vocalizations of wolves howling or elk bugling. He said they wanted to see how they responded to the different stimuli.
“Largely, behaviorly speaking they seem to be very similar,” he said. “But we found the Bulgarian Karakachan breed was more vigilant when faced with the decoy. The Kangal was a lot more likely to investigate.”
This is important information for producers because, as Kinka pointed out, “You really want both.”
A second key question in Kinka’s study involved learning how and why dogs work in the first place.
“A sheep by itself is pretty defenseless,” he said. “Adding the guard dogs turns it into a highly defended prey.”
Using cameras, Kinka determined that when the sheep with dog bands were present, “We found they significantly displaced the wolves.” During the time the sheep/dogs were in the area, which was typically 7 to 10 days, they were less likely to see wolves.
Kinka believes one reason is the risk-to-benefit factor is great enough that instead of tangling with the dogs (which are typically 3 dogs per about 1,000 sheep), even though the wolves could easily overtake them physically, the wolves move to another part of their home range giving the band a wider berth.
Conversely, when the wolves moved away, coyotes, foxes and bobcats were observed more frequently, there was no difference noted with bears.
The increase in mesopredator observations might be because the smaller predators took advantage of the wolves being gone, so they moved into the area, albeit temporarily, or it might be they were simply more visible in the absence of wolves.
“Wolves are a keystone predator,” explained Kinka. “They’re keeping the coyote and smaller animals in check. They regulate the ecosystem from the top down.”
This is also a critical piece of information for livestock producers since coyotes are the primary cause of depredation on sheep. “For a guard dog, you have to physically guard against a coyote,” he said.
The bottom line is livestock guard dogs do help keep sheep and other livestock less vulnerable to predators. And even though a single breed wasn’t determined to be the answer to every predator issue, Kinka’s study revealed how balancing the traits of dogs with tendencies to both stay to guard the herd, as well as examine potential threats, producers have a better chance of keeping their animals safe.
For Kristin and Matthew Jensen of Fort Shaw, living in a coyote-rich environment meant needing some sort of protection for their large herd of goats. For the Jensens, donkeys made sense to bring onto their farm as a guardian animal.
“We didn’t want to do dogs because of the food,” said Kristin Jensen. “The donkeys eat what the goats eat. They’re more self-sufficient.”
“We have lots of coyotes up here, but they never come through. If a donkey sees one, they’ll bray,” she said. “No goats have been killed by coyotes.”
This primal emergency response catches the attention of everyone within earshot and is often enough to cause predators to continue moving.
Keeping donkeys as part of the herd has not been a difficult experience for the Jensens who never owned them prior to bringing them home to live with the goats.
“They’re probably easier than horses — and smarter,” she said. “Sometimes the donkeys have an attitude once and awhile. But I haven’t had any issues.”
They separate their herd into two groups with a donkey watching over each one. “We have 52 breeders so there will be lots of babies,” said Jensen.
Since kidding is a busy time, it’s helpful to have an extra set of eyes and ears in the herd to let you know what’s happening. She said, “Mae (one of the donkeys) stands by the mama and baby until I get out to them.” And last year, when a kid died in the shed, Mae stood by it until she took it away.
Their other donkey, June, had been around goats before and is very nurturing. “June brays and tells me when there’s a new baby,” said Jensen. “And when one of the babies was wandering off, she nudged it back to mama.”
For anyone interested in using donkeys at livestock guardians, Jensen recommended using only jennies, not jacks because they can be too aggressive. Donkeys require the basic care of any equine, including hoof trimmings several times per year, as well as regular vaccinations and wormings, but for the most part they are gentle and vigilant and an excellent protector for their goats.
No drama with llamas
Lisa Wilson of Great Falls loves her llamas for their fiber but can appreciate their value as a guardian animal in certain situations.
“Llamas appear to be more effective when they are in areas closer to home and not too spacious,” she said. “I’ve seen mine approach a single dog, coyote, or fox, and the predators turn tail and run.”
One of the benefits of llamas is their docile disposition. Wilson said they don’t tend to bolt and are generally calm. Plus, they are champions when it comes to clearing weeds.
“Mine have eliminated my Canadian thistle problem, and they can wipe out cockleburs like nobody’s business,” she said.
Wilson said one of their drawbacks is they are naturally curious and like to get a good look at things. “The only real issue is if you have a fence crawler or a jumper,” she said. “I have one who will wander, but not far, and being a chow hound she’s easy to catch.”
Llamas may not be the answer to all predator issues, but they do have their place on some farms.
“Predators tend not to take a great deal of risk unless they are desperate, starving, or have babies to protect, so just having large animals moving toward them is a deterrent,” Wilson said. “But, in my opinion, llamas really don’t have the size or the ferocity to be greatly effective except in limited circumstances.”
For a small herd close to the house, llamas could be a good option to dissuade smaller predators.
Choosing a guardian animal for your flock is almost as personal as the animals your raise for production. Pair the best option for your operation, and you should experience less predator issues in the long run.