Livestock Guardians: A Guide to Introducing Guardians to the Herd

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  • Guardian animals are some of the most loyal and intelligent animals you’ll ever own.
  • They should NEVER just be turned in a strange field with animals.
  • They will give their lives if need be to protect their charges.

Livestock guardians are used to keep predators and stray dogs out of fields, usually of sheep or goats. Without proper introduction and training the guardian can become the predator. Don’t make mistakes that cost you animals.

Recently I received an urgent plea to place two young guardian dogs – 8-9 months old. It seems the owner had alpacas and was going to run the dogs in the field to keep other things out. She did everything wrong possible – got the dogs, at night put them in the field (with animals they’d never seen before) and the next morning she found a $10,000 alpaca dead and another one chewed up. The sad part – it wasn’t the dogs’ fault. It was hers. And these stories are told far too often.

Two of the most popular livestock guardians are dogs and donkeys. They’re popular for a reason – they’re effective! They’ll guard not only sheep and goats but alpacas, llamas, poultry, deer, exotic livestock and much more. They’re effective because they’re territorial. When something is in their territory that shouldn’t be their instinct is to run it off or if need be kill it. So bringing a guardian home, sticking him in a field in the dark tells him “this is your territory.” How is the guardian supposed to know those animals BELONG there? They’ve never been introduced!

Even a trained, experienced guardian needs proper introduction to charges. A new one needing to learn is 100 times so. Until they are solid and trained leaving them alone is a risk. Introductions should be done in daylight!! You need to be able to observe them and if need be correct them!!

Guardian dogs may be several breeds, or combination of breeds. Great Pyrenees are popular as are Anatolian Shepherds, Maremmas, Kuvasz and several others. They are developed and bred for centuries to do what they do – live with and protect livestock. These breeds will automatically get wound up if you play a recording of a coyote howling…they tend to be barkers. Their first warning is to run something off. If it doesn’t run and is a danger to their charges or their people they can and will run it down and kill it. Anatolians have killed cougars. They don’t play fight – they are serious. When they grab an intruder that doesn’t run there is no mercy.

My dad’s previous Pyr – and there were no livestock involved – was agitated at coyotes being too close one night. His booming bark echoed across the field and a fight ensued. He returned in the morning covered with blood – and not a scratch on HIM. My guess is somewhere out in that field a couple coyotes lost their lives. Each breed is a little different. Generally Pyrs are more accepting of people – Anatolians are not.

The two I had if they didn’t know you then you do NOT go in the barn unescorted. NO EXCEPTIONS. They would die protecting their animals and their territory. In their homeland of Turkey it’s not uncommon to see dogs hit – one writer commented on the stupidity of dogs that were in the road then witnessed something. A flock of sheep were crossing the road with several Anatolians with them. A car approached the herd and to protect it the dog stepped out – they weren’t stupid they were literally giving their lives trying to protect their charges. They live for their herds. But young dogs still need trained – they still need corrected if they seen a flock member as a playmate. They need corrected if they try to run with the herd – they’re still dogs and still predators and the line between playing and killing is very fine.

Donkeys are also an effective deterrent of dogs. Jenneys (females) especially can do amazing things – I’ve seen them stand over newborn lambs and kids to protect them from being stepped on. They will chase, bite, strike and kick any dog they don’t know in the field. In an eight acre field I had a 42″ donkey who I never saw do much – until the day two known killer dogs detoured 1300 feet back, 300 feet across and about 800 feet back up the fenceline to avoid cutting through that field. Angel stood in the middle of the field and walked down the center as if to make sure they kept going. These were purebred Rottweilers – which could of been bad but apparently at some point they’d met her in the dark. I never lost a lamb, goat or bird when she was in the field but they were sure eager to avoid her.

When you bring a guardian home put him or her in a small pen NEXT TO what he’ll be guarding. Let him see his new charges…sniff them, get used to them. It instills in their brain who the guardian is and lets him bond with the herd without being IN the herd. Once he’s quietly accepting introduce him into the field supervised…perhaps during the day when you’re home. Observe him and correct negative behavior. A guardian should never chase, play with, mouth or roughhouse with a member of the flock. It’s your responsibility as flock owner and “head boss dog” to insure that they know this. Once he is reliable leave him out more until he’s with them 24/7. Make him EARN respect and responsibility.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven with experienced guardians don’t set them up to fail. Give them a private space to eat. A dog who is trying to eat while 30 goats crowd in trying to take his food is going to defend it – and in this you’re giving him permission to nip or threaten a goat in order to defend his food! This is NEVER ACCEPTABLE. The thought of having to defend themselves against their flock should never be introduced. You have to remember these dogs will give their lives for their charges – don’t undo that by having them turn on the animals they’re protecting. If there is an aggressive herd member eliminate it. Aggression in a goat or sheep isn’t good anyway, but an aggressive animal that constantly torments a guardian is setting the stage for retaliation – and it’s YOUR responsibility to keep that from happening. YOU put the guardian in the field – make it possible for him to do his job right!

You have to understand these guardians are on duty all the time. They live to work. They are focused on one thing – protecting their herd. If you cannot make concessions to help them do their job then it’s your fault for losses and really you don’t deserve the loyalty of a good guardian. The only thing they ask is food, clean water and a decent working environment. Many don’t even ask shelter – they’ll stay out in the snow or under an object in the rain so they can watch and observe for intruders. My Anatolian would not use a dog house or even sheds. They had access to 4X8 foot sheds with the goats – but if they were in there they couldn’t watch for incoming problems.

Training a guardian is not difficult – a good one HAS the instinct. All you have to do is properly introduce them and direct what the ground rules and boundaries are. Guardian animals are some of the most intelligent animals you’ll own. They think on their own, they evaluate if that person is a threat or a buyer, they sense things and notice things we don’t even see! You will not ever have a more loyal worker than a guardian animal. They don’t ask for much in return but DO need some early effort. Those not willing to learn and do this should not get one.

Did you know…Guardians normally have positions – if they see a threat one will go out and confront it while another stays with the herd. With multiple guardians the jobs are further split – this takes care of a threat while insuring others don’t come in behind.

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