Best dog breeds for guarding livestock?

NTD Newsroom
By NTD Newsroom
January 20, 2017Style
Best dog breeds for guarding livestock?

Using guard dogs to protect livestock herds from predators like wolves is akin to using nature to fight nature. And that is something I can definitely get behind. It’s a way better idea than opting to shoot or trap or poison the predators; which has led to them being scarce across the landscape and has induced all sorts of trophic changes that altered entire eco-regions and systems. But what kind of dog works best to protect goats, sheep and cows? Surely not just any dog can face off with a bear or a wolf and convince the wild carnivore to turn back from a buffet of plump sheep or newborn-naive calves?

A new review paper searches the existing literature on livestock guard dogs and offers up some tried-and-true answers. The authors are two Wyoming sheep producers, and the review was funded by the Wyoming Wool Growers Association. It was published in the Sheep and Goat Research Journal (can’t say I’ve perused that one before!) which is backed by the American Sheep Industry Association. A sheep rancher, a livestock association — these are normally the entities you might see on the anti-predator side of a Notice of Intent to Sue letter threatening to petition to de-list an endangered carnivore, like wolves, from the Endangered Species Act. So I was pretty excited by the clearly progressive and forward-looking position taken in this paper, which is that carnivores are coming back, and big ones at that, so livestock producers need to up the ante and try using every tool at their disposal to protect their sheep, but to focus on tools that are non-lethal to the carnivores.

One of the problems posed by using livestock protection dogs, or guard dogs as I generally call them, is that they may die. And in general, if a rancher is making an investment in a pro-active method to protect her or his livestock, they want that investment to last. While you do have to acknowledge that the guard dog you put out there may die in a conflict with a bear or a wolf, you want to choose your dogs wisely and pick a breed that minimizes this risk. And for a wolf conservationists point of view, any sort of proactive method like this that prevents a livestock conflict or loss from occurring in the first place is a good thing, and a positive step toward livestock and wolves coexisting. 

So the authors, C. and J. Urbigkit, looked beyond the U.S. to examine what kinds of dog breeds are used in other countries that still have a healthy suite of predators, or that have recently worked to restore them. The authors note that while using guard dogs in the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. is a relatively new fad correlated with the reintroduction of gray wolves and protection of grizzlies, pastoralists and producers in Europe and Asia have been successfully using them for centuries or more. The authors write:

Agricultural producers in the western United States have the highest reported economic losses due to wildlife damage, and those losses occur on the patchwork land ownership of public and private lands (Messmer 2009)… While some advocate the adoption of new strategies and approaches to address wildlife damage concerns (Messmer 2009), we advocate the adoption of ancient approaches for use in this new world of large-carnivore recovery.

Bravo Urbigkits, I couldn’t agree more. The Urbigkits begin by stating that in the U.S., the most popular breeds of guard dogs so far have been great pyrenees, akbash and komondor. They note that with the return of wolves to the landscape, the great pyrenees breeds have suffered greater numbers of casualties. Apparently these guard dogs can hold their own fairly well against bears, but they are not a good match for wolves. In fact, the authors report that 61 percent of the documented fatal wolf attacks on guard dogs between 1995 and 2004 in greater Yellowstone area of the Northern Rockies were great pyrenees. It’s truly unfortunate not only for the dogs, but for the ranchers who thought they were using the right kind of dog to guard their stock. So the authors turn their attention to countries where livestock producers and pastoralists have coexisted with bears and gray wolves for centuries, to see what might be learned from them.

They looked for breeds that could be imported to the U.S., were aggressive to other canines but not to humans, had larger body sizes and that originated in areas with large carnivores. The breeds highlighted as the best potential wolf-fighting dogs are:  Central Asian ovcharkas (video), transmontano mastiffs (of Portugal), Karakachan dogs (ancient Balkan breed), Turkish kangals, and the shar planinetz (of Yugoslavia).

They also reviewed accessories to put on livestock guard dogs, and the iron spiked collar is apparently a favorite. It prevents a wolf from attacking the jugular of the guard dog, or otherwise trying to suffocate it by crushing the neck region. But the paper also raises questions about how to safely use these collars where woven metal and barbed-wire fences occur, and where there is dense brush. Clearly there is room for more research here, with performace data being sorely needed to prove the reliability of using guard dogs with spiked collars.

Other concerns that may need to be addressed are each breed’s attitudes toward meeting strange people. Because many ranchers in the West use federal or state lands to graze their livestock, lands with multiple purposes that often include recreation like hiking or ATV use, then it follows that any livestock guard dog used in these areas should have minimal aggression to people.

Their paper also gives an interesting snapshot of the natural history of guard dogs and the pastoralists and herders that bred them. I think this was a really nice touch, because it shows the relationship between these working people and their dogs. For example, the authors touch on how the spread of communism snuffed out certain livestock traditions:

The spread of communism in Europe and Asia brought with it an active campaign of collectivized agricultural policy, which worked to rid entireregions of its free people—the nomadic livestock cultures. Livestock and their guard dogs were killed or collectivized, and their nomadic herders and families were taken from the land (Gehring et al. 2010). When the herders became villagers, the cultures lost their old traditions (Ivanova 2009).

And as predators were hunted and persecuted out of existence in many areas, the need for livestock guard dogs plummeted while the demand for pet breeds rose. Some breeds, like ovcharkas, that were formerly used for guarding were bred instead for dog fighting in central Asia and Russia. These fights are unlike the Western tradition and the authors assert that these matches  rarely produce serious injuries. Rather, the matches are used to test the dogs for traits that would bode well for livestock guarding: dominance display, agility, and physical strength. Dogs that won’t participate, cry out or show submissive signs are pulled from the matches and the contest is ended. But the winners may be used as breeders. It’s very unlike the dog fighting as blood sport that occurs here at home. “In LPD matches, the fights begin and end quickly, and the result is a determination of the best dogs to fight wolves.” While I can’t say I like the idea of dog fights at all, what the authors present does seem fairly humane and presents a good test for selecting the best dogs to be used as livestock guards. Guarding stock is a performance job, and it makes sense to use performance-based tests — in a strictly regulated and policed fashion — to test the merits of potential gene-contributors to the breed’s lineage.

I’m excited to see this kind of proactive applied-research being published by the sheep industry. As someone who wants to see both wolves and ranchers out on the landscape, I am very encouraged by this paper. I hope that conservation groups will help ranchers to either get access to these kinds of dog breeds or help to facilitate outreach messages about these findings.