Where there are sheep, there are likely hungry predators looking for a fast meal, but livestock guardian dogs have successfully helped protect sheep from wolves for many centuries. Sheep are animals that don't have a very good reputation for being capable of defending themselves. Even if sheep aren't killed, they are very delicate animals who can die from sheer panic or from injuries sustained during a confrontation. Wolves aren't the only animals that predate on sheep though, hyenas, coyotes, bears and feral hogs are other animals who would happily feast on sheep given the opportunity. It is thanks to livestock guardian dogs that today many farmers can allow sheep to share the same habitat with their predators without the need to use inhumane methods such as trapping, shooting or poisoning.
3 Ways Livestock Guardian Dogs Protect Sheep
Is the predisposition to guard livestock a product of nature or nurture in livestock guardian dogs? Most likely it's a combination of both. Years of selective breeding from farmers has helped produce dogs with an innate predisposition to do the job they were bred for.
The best livestock guardian dogs who excelled in their work were bred so they could pass down valuable traits to their future generations. Dogs who performed poorly, or even harmed livestock, on the other hand, were pulled out of the breeding pool.
Livestock guardian dogs are often raised among sheep from a young age (litters of pups are often raised in beds made with sheep wool) so they have an opportunity to develop positive associations and bond, or at least, get to know sheep better.
These puppies may require a certain level of guidance and training at first so to learn not to chase or nip livestock and stay with the flock and not to wander away.
This early bonding process and training paves the path to a dog who willingly chooses to remain with the sheep and protect them. Following are three ways livestock guardians protect sheep.
"Although it is true that the guardian dogs “become members” of their flocks, the dogs do not have a mistaken belief that they are sheep. Claims that the dogs believe they are sheep fail to recognize complex animal social relationships, or canine cognition (such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment)."~Cat Urbigkit, Brave and Loyal: An Illustrated Celebration of Livestock Guardian Dogs
1) Their Mere Presence
Sometimes, mere presence is enough to deter attacks. Just like the presence of a uniformed security officer patrolling a parking lot deters thieves, the mere presence of livestock guardian dogs can be enough to deter predators from harming the sheep.
Instead of wearing a uniform though livestock guardian dogs boast an intimidating presence courtesy of their sheer sizes. On top of that, blessed with keen senses, these dogs demonstrate a high level of alertness. Even when they seem to be sleeping, they're attentive to their surroundings!
Livestock guardian dogs tend to patrol their nearby areas to detect any unusual activities. With experience, most livestock guardians learn that predators are more likely to be around in the evening and early morning, so they'll be patrolling more during these times.
Many predators will take notice and bypass the area when they notice the presence of guarding dog.
2) Scent Marking Behavior
Many livestock guardian dogs will start scent marking with urine and/or feces as they mature. In particular, they may focus on marking nearby the perimeters of a pasture.
According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, other canids, even those belonging to a different species, are capable of recognizing the boundaries set from the guardian's marked areas and will seek other places rather than invade the claimed territory.
"Predators (including coyotes, foxes and wolves) understand these odors just as clearly as we understand what giant billboards or stop signs tell us" explains Yvonne Zweede-Tucker, a longtime goat rancher and author of the book "The Meat Goat Handbook: Raising Goats for Food, Profit, and Fun."
) Barking and Posturing
Many people may think that the main way livestock guardian dogs defend sheep is by attacking wolves, but good livestock guardian dogs instead defend sheep mainly by barking.
Upon noticing a predator, livestock guardians will repeatedly bark in an intimidating tone, assume a threatening posture and eventually lunge towards the predator to encourage it to leave. They will place themselves between the livestock and predator. Most predators will retreat in face of this disruptive behavior at this point.
Sticking with the flock rather than chasing or fighting the predator is a good choice. Should the livestock guardians chase the predator, doing so would leave the flock vulnerable to attacks from other predators.
Not to mention, by chasing the predators livestock guardians would put themselves in a potentially life- threatening situation.
As a last resort, livestock guardians may be forced to choose confrontation over disruption in some cases. This is likely to occur when a predator is not responsive to their barking and posturing behavior.
"Asking a Pry not to bark, is like asking a fish not to swim. Pyrs are bred to bark to keep potential animal and human intruders away. It is their way of letting everyone know they are on duty."~ Great Pyrenees Rescue
Did you know? In Italy, Spain or Turkey, farmers let their livestock guardian dogs wear a special collar known as a "wolf collar." These collars have elongated spikes that are meant to protect the dogs from wolves trying to bite their necks.
- Defenders of Wildlife, Livestock and Wolves A Guide to Nonlethal Tools and Methods to Reduce Conflicts, retrieved from the Web on March 24, 2016.
- United States Department of Agriculture, Livestock Guarding Dogs Protecting Sheep from Predators, Agriculture Information Bulletin Number 588
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the County Commissioners Courts of Texas Cooperating, Livestock Guardian Dogs, retrieved from the Web on March 24, 2016
- The Meat Goat Handbook: Raising Goats for Food, Profit, and Fun, by Yvonne Zweede-Tucker, Voyageur Press; First edition (January 15, 2012)