Friday, December 9, 2011

About Livestock Guardian Dogs

The year we moved to the ranch a mountain lion attacked one of the cowdogs, right in front of our house. We kept chickens in a kennel with a chain link top while we built a chicken coop. A Great Horned owl parked himself on top and terrorized the chickens every night. After we got the coop built, we caught a bobcat trying to tear the wire in the mid afternoon. We had to lock my goats in the kennel to protect them from the marauding large cats and coyotes who came into our backyard with regularity, hunting for an easy meal.
Then we got our LGD’s, or Livestock Guardian Dogs. There are specific breeds that fit within this genre. They are unlike any other class of dog.
Just as I would not employ a Chihuahua to guard me from an assailant or duck hunt with a Border Collie, I would not count on a non-LGD breed (Great Pyrenees, Maremma, Akbash, etc) to protect my livestock. Unlike other breeds which might do a passing job, running off intruders, LGD’s actually bond to the stock and become part of the herd. I lost a ewe last year and the pups protected her dead body for 6 hours in a storm. I had to physically remove them before they would allow someone to take her away.
 Even with the loose structure employed here, where the dogs are allowed to travel from pasture to pasture across as much territory as they desire, they are very attached to their animals. Cletus, in particular, each morning, lowers his head and works his way around, touching the nose of every lamb/sheep/calf/goat here. I have heard stories from people who have seen these dogs here and in other countries, leading enormous flocks down from  mountain meadows with no humans in attendance. They simply do their jobs. I know if my  sheep move, so does Cletus. He wants everything in his field of vision.
LGDs don’t rely on human direction, but make their own decisions and the relationship is not so much one of dog/master, as partners in a common goal. Indeed, there are many times I actually feel as if they are truly the ones in charge. 
A year ago we picked up our two Maremma pups, Bruno and Cletus.  We decided on two because the predator pressure here is so great. While one dog might possibly be able to hold off an intruder, he could not at the same time protect the stock behind him if part of a pack drew him off and the other part circled around for the kill, as we have seen coyote packs do to the cows here, resulting in the deaths of more than a few calves.
One dog alone, is not as likely to survive a run in with a mountain lion either, so a pair was decided on.
The result of generations of breeding, with amazing instinct, they bonded with our stock and ourselves and commit their lives to protecting. They aren’t even 2 years old yet but they have kept our goats, sheep and calves safe and raised 20 free range meatie chickens without losing a single one, despite the fact that only yards away, a family of large owls have taken residence in the top of the old barn and large predatory hawks scan our yard and pastures daily.

When I hear their low, deep bark, I know they are keeping something at bay and I can rest easy. They’ve used good discretion, learning who is friend and who is foe.The deer started coming back this year after a nearly 3 year absence. I think that is because the coyotes are no longer hunting by the houses here. The pups started to run the deer off and I assured them them I liked the deer. They now allow the deer to graze along with the sheep, unmolested. Amazingly smart dogs. Their intelligence boggles my mind. 
A few nights there have been long periods of barking and I have gone to see what the problem was. Interestingly, Cletus is usually left behind or sent back to push the sheep and small stock up by our house before joining Bruno in the confrontation. One particular such night, I went out with my flashlight. Cletus had already brought the stock up and he led me far out into the back pasture several acres away. I couldn’t see what was out in the tall grass, but both dogs had their backs up and their tails curled tightly. I shuddered, trying to imagine what would be brave enough to stand off over 200 lb of angry, barking dogs. They suddenly bolted through the brush after whatever it was and I quickly headed back for the ranch house, alone in the dark, feeling very vulnerable with just my flashlight for protection. Moments later, Bruno was at my side, walking with me. I could hear Cletus still running behind us, after whatever they’d had the issue with. Once I arrived at our back porch, Bruno turned around and bolted back out the way we had come, to back Cletus up. I was in awe. He had intentionally escorted me safely home, then returned to battle. The next day, one of the guys said he saw large cougar tracks at the pond near our house.
They are tolerant with the other dogs on the ranch, but allow none of them in with the sheep. There is one dog they do pick on, but in all honesty, he started the issue. The problem is, I am having a hard time getting them to stop it. He is pugnacious with other dogs and has several times scrapped with Cider, my old retriever and once, going out of his way, ran down to our house and attacked the pups when they were small. They have never forgotten.
The pups are now over 100 lb. each. They have never injured him even though they have engaged him and could just as easily have dispatched him. Thankfully, they only put the fear of God in him, because the boss’ wife told me one day she heard a terrible shrieking. Looking out the open front door, she saw that they were headed toward her house in pursuit of the errant dog, who was screaming bloody murder, who raced past her, through the open door, to hide under a desk. He had never been in the house before, being an outside dog. Point made, they headed back home.
I had taken them one at a time to the dog and forced them all to sit quietly while I petted and made over him, so they would understand he was no threat. For whatever reason, they aren’t buying it, so I put a citronella collar on them to correct them. They’ve been pretty good about leaving him alone since then.
Earlier today, I saw them simultaneously begin to charge in his direction. I hollered at them to stop. They both halted and looked my way. That’s when I saw what they were REALLY after. A large owl was heading low towards the yard. I then had to get them to resume their pursuit! They did, but of course by that time, the owl was far ahead. Luckily, the chickens were locked up. The pups have established a no fly zone over the yard where the chickens free range. They are pretty good about watching the trees for hawks and owls. They aren’t very fond of crows either, but they never bother the quail. I should have known better than not to trust them.
The electric fence on the long side of the sheep pasture is down because of a heavy windstorm and a bunch of tumbleweeds. Therefore, the sheep have been running amok. Cletus and Bruno have been spending more time out front because of it, as that is the direction the little woolies are wandering. When the goats were born last January, Bruno helped dry them off. He faithfully watched over them day and night, laying in front of the entrance to the barn, until the kids were old enough to go outside.

 When I brought the bummer lambs home, he adopted them as well and allowed them to snuggle up to him. 

The lamb we kept still runs to him when she sees him, or becomes frightened. Cletus, who is a bit more puppyish and playful, was beside himself, as he really loves his charges. We raised meat chickens this year and he actually grieved when we took them away. He still checks the horse trailer for them, as that is where he saw us load them up. Everything that comes into our pastures, the pups accept as their responsibility, be it a lamb, chicken, a calf, or a child. 

When our grandkids came to visit, the dogs faithfully escorted them everywhere, even though they have never been around children. They were amazingly gentle and submissive to our 3 year old granddaughter. 
They are incredibly loyal and intelligent animals. They are unlike any other breeds. As I mentioned, the LGD is a self directed and self motivated animal who has to think for himself. He will learn basic commands, but taking direction from humans is not their highest priority. Protection of their charges is. They don’t think, or respond like other dogs. They will fearlessly lay their lives down in protection of their charges, but use attack only as a last resort, preferring to bark and posture first. This minimizes a lot of problems, not the least being their own injury. They set perimeters which they patrol regularly, using scent to deter predators from advancing closer. When something dares to venture past the perimeter, they confront it and if necessary, dispatch it.

We interact more with our dogs than is common, because I need to be sure they are bonded enough to  respond to me in the event they mistake a visitor or a cowboys’ dog as a threat, when they aren’t. It's not likely to happen, but I prefer to err on the side of caution. Most owners only want the dogs bonding to the stock.  I sometimes walk down through the pastures and I feel a lot safer knowing they will watch out and protect me from predators as well, since in the past cougars have attacked with impunity by the houses. The pups are occasionally allowed to come in the house, to have cockleburrs brushed out of their coats or to be medicated, or whatever else I have to do that I don't want to do out in the cold. It is a source of constant amazement that I can turn the vacuum on and bash into them with it without them waking up, yet some unheard threat will rouse them out of a dead sleep and they leap into action.
Prior to our moving to the ranch our boss’ wife raised 200 sheep here every year. They had lost their Great Pyrenees to a heartbreaking accident and decided not to replace him. The following year she had 80% losses due to the cougar population so they sold all that was left. 
Since our Maremmas have been here we have not lost a single animal to predators or even SEEN one in the vicinity, other than the arial hawks and owls which the pups run off. They have run off other dogs seeking mischief, even escorted two pups all the way to their front door kiyi-yi-ing in terror but unharmed. They have acted as bodyguard to my old retriever and even kept the ranch cats safe. There are no longer raccoons in the orchard, as the pups don’t allow anything we don’t encourage them to. 
 It’s common practice for owners of poultry or small livestock to employ LGDs. Unlike many dogs who may bark from boredom or angst, they only bark when they have a sound reason. I have gone outside to a chorus of barking, to find it’s the 5 Border Collies on the ranch sounding off at who-knows-what and the Maremmas are quietly laying out where they can see the sheep. 

Recently, Cletus was beside himself barking and posturing by the front gate. He was clearly very upset. I kept looking and seeing nothing. I brought him in the house to quiet him down, but he continued barking and woo wooing at the window. I finally relented and let him out, to show him nothing was there. He darted across the way, then began to circle warily, behind one of the trucks. His back up and lips curled he stood glaring, at something on the ground. I eased over and found that one of the kids had shot a coyote and thrown the body down behind a pile of rocks by the truck. Once Cletus determined it was no longer a threat, he took it by the tail and began to drag it away. Afraid the boys planned to sell the pelt, I discouraged him. He came back, unhappy to leave the evil thing so close to the house and well within their territory, but seemed at least satisfied it was no longer a threat.
Most nights I will hear the pups bark for a few minutes, then all is quiet the rest of the night. Without them, I could not have stock, as there is no other way to keep them safe. The dogs were an expensive investment, but they have paid off in a big way.
Many people live in situations where their property butts up to a neighbor. In unfortunate cases, they sometimes have intolerant neighbors who want to live in the country, without what the country has to bring. Crowing roosters, lowing cattle or a working Guardian Dog become a target to be eliminated. Fortunately, in MOST rural communities, Right to Farm laws are set up to protect the people who live there and take advantage of their freedom to raise their own stock.   Some officials are ignorant, not only of the laws, but of the nature of LGDs and their effectiveness. Such is the case with Joyful Farms. They are forced to hire an attorney to protect their dogs and their right to farm, at great expense.  In other areas, there might not yet BE Right to Farm laws. In this case, there needs to be precedent set to protect small operations like theirs, or perhaps yours.
The above widget on my upper right hand is to make donations to assist them in paying their attorney fees. This case is important not only to them personally, but to all  of us who own small livestock. If the right to own Livestock Guardian Dogs as part of small farming is not protected, neither will the right to own your stock be safe. A crowing rooster, or bleating goat, or whinnying horse can be labeled a ‘public nuisance’.
 If you are able, please join me in donating to the cause of all small farmers by helping these people out. Every dollar counts. Please feel free to post it on your Facebook page, or install the widget on your own blog. This is a battle we all need to engage in together.

*modified* I was having problems with the widget. Here is the link to donate.


Joyfulheartsfarm won their court case. Their dogs will remain and their stock and family will be safe. Thank you to all who donated to help this case. It will help set precedent for future attacks on LGD's and small farmers.


  1. Thanks Petey for a great blog and for sharing this with us. Awww...Bruno and Cletus are not only incredibly smart but very good looking dogs too!!! :)

  2. I will see what I can do. A very important cause, indeed. I think that picture of Bruno with the lambs is my favorite picture of all. I would much rather live near a dog that barks when there is danger around, than a dog that barks because it is neurotic.

  3. Those animals are incredible! Wouldn't it be wonderful if humans were as protective of their young as Bruno and Cletus?! Great blog, Petey!

  4. Great susan! It IS an important cause. It doesn't bother me if a dog is working, but I have known dogs that bark just to make conversation...they are a lot like people that way hahaha!

  5. Great Blog - Great Dogs - Great Cause!

  6. If you have the right environment and a support group to help understand the different nature of the LGD, they are fantastic dogs!!

    1. They are beautiful, intelligent dogs that do their job. That is worth whatever the price was for these wonderful dogs.

  7. Where is the "widget" for donations? I must to be blind...I feel for these people, because I was in similar situation.
    Needed to battle one neighbor in a Court. I won the variance, but they still harassing me now and then for “animal noises”. As friendly as I’m, I wish they got old and deaf as soon as possible ~lol~
    Now my daily ritual is to read your excellent blog – I love it! You have a way with words! Are you a professional writer or just have this heavenly gift?
    While I was at your reading yesterday, husband glanced on my computer screen, when I had your beautiful picture of the mountains open and he asked; what are you looking at? I told him briefly about you. And he says; oh, this kind of people will survive! In case of some worldly disaster. I’m doing a lot of things like you and am of the same beliefs, but not fortunate enough to live on such a vast & magnificent terrain. Sorry for not too grammatical writing, but English is my second language. My roots are European. I was born on a farm though :)

  8. I'm sorry maria, I had some problems with it and had moved it...It didn't occur to me anyone would still be reading this page...I'm always amazed anyone reads my stuff. It is a pleasure to meet you, and thank you so much for your kind words! I will put the widget back on, as they are still fighting this battle.

  9. We have always had Great Pyrenees. I miss them such wonderful dogs. We now have a Caucasian Ovcharka as a LGD. We have had bear move in and too many strangers driving by our property we needed a larger more aggressive dog.

    1. I hope the wolves don't make it down this far, because I would have to employ more aggressive dogs too and it worries me in our situation how much problems that could cause!

  10. I have 2 GP and they will not stay in the field w/ the goats and run the county side! I am so stressed out about this as we now have to keep them in a kennel. I love them both to death but I feel that they stay too confined. What can I do? Fences don't even keep them in :( ! Can you give me any suggestions I am even looking to rehome them if I they have to stay in a kennel all the time it isn't fair for these beautiful beasts!
    Thanks Frustrated,

    1. Good fencing is key, especially with GP's. They are often called "Disa-Pyrs". I would use field fencing and put hot wire top and bottom. Putting a piece of raw bacon on the hot wire will help train them to stay away from it, as they will recieve quite a shock from it. They are amazing animals but sometimes we have to make some concessions to get it all to work smoothly with them. Good luck Emma, and please keep in touch and let me know how they are doing. I would highly recommend joining the FB page "Learning About LGD"s" There are some VERY experienced people on there with LOTS of good advice! It's definitely the best LGD page on the web.