Tips on buying, training and maintaining livestock protection dogs
Livestock producers gearing up to turn sheep out to pasture for summer grazing have many considerations to keep in mind. While vaccinations, deworming, fixing fence, and pest and weed control are on the summer turn-out checklist, another obstacle is protecting livestock from predators. Traditionally, guard dogs help keep the flock safe from coyotes, fox, mountain lions and wolves, but there are some keys to be aware of when buying, training and maintaining the investment of these dogs.
“Sheep producers are just as passionate about managing their guard dogs as they are about their sheep,” said Peter Orwick, executive director for the American Sheep Industry (ASI). “We are seeing an increased number of predators across the U.S., so guard dogs are important.”
A livestock protection dog is one that stays with sheep without harming them and aggressively keeps predators at bay. Steve Clements, a rancher from Philip, SD and president of the South Dakota Sheep Growers, offered some tips on using guard dogs to protect livestock.
“At the ASI meeting this year, we were told that most of us aren’t running enough dogs to handle the threat of wolves,” said Clements. “While most of us maintain anywhere between one and three dogs, ASI recommends five dogs. The number of dogs you run with the flock is dependent on how many sheep you have, how large of an area they have to watch and the population of predator animals in the area.”
While dog breeds is a personal preference, Clements uses Anatolian Shepherds to watch his flock. They weigh between 120-150 pounds, and he says their size is intimidating to a coyote.
“You have to use what kind works for you,” he said. “We don’t have many neighbors or sheep around us, and our dogs don’t wander too much. The Shepherds takes more work; they can be more feisty and take a little bit longer to get used to people and unfamiliar things. Our dogs bring in dead skunks, raccoons and even badgers. They work well for us.”
For livestock producers, the task of training and managing guard dogs can be intimidating, but Clements said the best thing to do is just get the dogs with the flock. Little formal training is required, as the puppy instinctually becomes a lifelong member of the flock.
“The main thing when getting a new dog is to keep them with the sheep,” he advised. “Keep them out there, so they socialize and believe they are one of them. Once they bond, they are pretty much hooked. As far as food, we put a self-feeder for them outside in a moveable dog house, so they have access to feed and shelter no matter what pasture they are put in. There isn’t a lot of training involved; the dog will do the job naturally. The real challenge is keeping them out with the flock doing their jobs; a lot of times, they like to come up to the house or wander off.”
Clement reminded producers the importance of maintaining good health in the guard dogs.
“The big thing is to keep the dogs vaccinated,” he advised. “They should have a rabies shot every year. These guard dogs need to be vaccinated annually. Consult a veterinarian for recommendations on vaccinations and deworming.”
Because many flocks are in the open range of public grounds, there are special considerations to keep in mind when the flock is near houses, outdoor enthusiasts and recreational areas.
“In some of the public land states, we have had to spend more time working with sheep operators on signage,” said Orwick. “If sheep get close enough to recreational areas, there can be issues with four-wheelers, bikers and campers. We try to teach people not to pet the dogs and to give these protection dogs space.”
Getting the guard dogs off to a good start, keeping them out on the range with the flock, maintaining their nutritional and health requirements and educating neighbors about these animals are all important considerations for livestock producers using dogs to protect their herds. With these tips in mind, guard dogs can help reduce predation, increase utilization of acres, improve self-reliance in managing predator problems, increasing profit potential and add peace of mind.
Editor’s note: ASI created a brochure to help educate neighbors and visitors to public lands about how to react when near a flock of sheep that is being protected by a guard dog. Access it at: http://www.sheepusa.org/Sheep_Industry_News_Detail/newsID/5069.