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Livestock Guardian Dogs for Improved Protection

Updated February 09, 2024
Professional headshot of Jaelyn Quintana

Jaelyn Whaley

SDSU Extension Sheep Field Specialist

Written with contributions by Heidi Carroll, former SDSU Extension Livestock Stewardship Field Specialist & Beef Quality Assurance Coordinator, and Kelly Froehlich, former Assistant Professor & SDSU Extension Sheep and Goat Specialist.

Most sheep producers will use a variety of methods to protect their flock, but one that has increased interest is the use of livestock guardian dogs (LGD). Predation losses can cost a sheep producer thousands of dollars every year. In South Dakota, coyotes are the predominant predator. Constant human oversight of a flock isn’t feasible, especially when running livestock on vast, open rangelands, but guard dogs can serve as continuous protection. Although limited, research on guard dogs shows that they can be effective tools in predator management and have ecological benefits.

What makes a guard dog successful?

Livestock guardian dog resting near a flock of sheep.
Courtesy: SDSU Extension

First and foremost, bonding these dogs as young puppies (8 to 20 weeks-old) to sheep is crucial in ensuring their success. Puppies need to build a relationship with the flock and know that remaining with the sheep is part of their job. If possible, it also helps when those puppies are whelped (born) in an area where they can hear and smell livestock. It is important to find a LGD with the right characteristics for your operation. Some dogs stick with the flock, while others patrol the perimeter. Level of aggression and docility also varies between dogs. When picking out the right puppy, take time to talk with breeders about the right LGD.

Another key factor to consider is human interaction and the extent that is needed to perform on your operation. It’s important to show the dogs that, as a producer, you oversee them and the sheep. There can be consequences if guard dogs are too attached to humans, and they may leave the sheep. Bigger problems can arise if dogs have no or negative human contact and become aggressive (for example, liability concerns if running sheep on public land).

There has been limited investigation on differences in characteristics between breeds. Commonly used breeds are: Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd and Akbash with many crosses and other breeds growing in popularity. Regardless of breed, finding a reputable breeder that raises LGD in a similar production style as your operation will be most-effective.

Ecological Interactions

White livestock guardian dog standing near a flock of white sheep.
Courtesy: SDSU Extension

Using LGD can also benefit rangelands and minimally impact nonpredatory wildlife. The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho found that the presence of LGD increased the flock’s land utilization. Groups of ewes that were accompanied by a guard dog traveled longer distances, grazing more of the rangeland. Guard dogs also have limited interaction with wildlife that are not a direct threat to the flock. In Central Texas, the presence of LGD reduced bobcat activity but did not influence skunk, ringtail or racoon activity in the area. Anecdotally, LGD have little interaction with non-predator wildlife, like deer and elk. It has been observed that LGD are effective at protecting sheep from coyotes, which develop their behavior based on positive and negative interactions. However, more research is needed on the behavior dynamics that exist between LGD and wildlife.

Cost of a Livestock Guardian Dog

Another common concern is the cost/benefit of LGD. Unfortunately, this varies across operations, landscapes and predator levels. Feed is the largest cost associated with LGD, and different feeding methods work for different operations. Hand feeding reduces waste but adds an additional daily chore, while free choice feeding (self-feeder) can create food aggression and increase wasted dog food. Additionally, utilization of multiple LGD is encouraged to ensure greater protection. Individuals should do a cost/benefit analysis for their operation and compare the cost of predator death loss with the cost of purchasing, feeding and caring for a LGD.

Much is still unknown about LGD and their behavior, but we do know that LGD can be with the flock to ensure their safety when we are unable to. Adding LGD to your operation can be an effective option for reducing coyote losses, while improving range utilization and having minimal impact on non-predatory wildlife. I heard it said best by Dan Macon, Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, “If you think LGD will work, they will. If you think they’re too much trouble, they will be!” If a producer is willing to put in the work bonding, feeding and caring for a guard dog, they will put in the work protecting their flock. Additional resources on LGD and recommended practices can be found on the American Sheep Industry website.

References:

  • Bromen, N. A., J. T. French, J. W. Walker, N. J. Silvy, and J. M. Tomeček. 2019. Spatial Relationships Between Livestock Guardian Dogs and Mesocarnivores in Central Texas. Human-Wildlife Interactions. 13:29-34.
  • Kinka, D., J.K. Young. 2019. Evaluating Domestic Sheep Survival with Different Breeds of Livestock Guardian Dogs. Rangeland Ecology & Management. 72:923-932.
  • Mosley, J.C., B.L. Roeder, R.A. Frost, S.L. Wells, L.B. McNew, P.E. Clark. 2020. Mitigating Human Conflicts with Livestock Guardian Dogs in Extensive Sheep Grazing Systems. Rangeland Ecology & Management. 73:724-734
  • Webber, B. L., K. T. Weber, P. E. Clark, C. A. Moffet, D. P. Ames, J. B. Taylor, D. E. Johnson, and J. G. Kie. 2015. Movements of Domestic Sheep in the Presence of Livestock Guardian Dogs. Sheep and Goat Res. J. 30:6.

Related Topics

Sheep Production