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Good Guardians Are the Result of Proper Selection, Training and Time

By Shelene Costello

This year has been an interesting one on our farm in Central Nebraska. We raise poultry, horses, and dairy goats, and through the years have needed effective guardians to keep them safe from all manner of predators. This year, however, coyotes became a major threat, taking a good number of our free-range poultry and threatening our Nigerian Dwarf goats. A combination of increased pressure from an enlarging population of wild coyotes combined with the fact that our trustworthy Anatolian shepherds were quite advanced in age, made it necessary for us to look into purchasing additional guardians for our farm flocks and goat herd.

We knew of the differing types of livestock guardians, such as llamas, donkeys, and dogs, and researched each, with attention to the special considerations our situation required. My husband, Maurice, and I personally don’t really consider llamas to be effective guardians in a major predator push, because they are prey animals themselves. We know of many breeders who are very happy with their llama guards. Their curiosity and willingness to run up and check out the threat deters some predators who prefer easy farm pickings. They may be able to herd the stock into a safe area, or even kick or stomp a single animal or two, but up against a pack of coyotes, dogs, or even one mountain lion or bear, they are just as much at risk as the stock they are defending. With the coyote packs in our area, we didn’t really think they would be up to the job.

Donkeys are sometimes used, as they have a natural healthy dislike of canines of all types and many are very attached and protective of their pasture mates. But here again, they are still prey animals themselves, and in a situation of multiple animals attacking, we didn’t think they would work here. Then too, I had heard of donkeys stomping or killing baby goats in times of stress, and I just didn’t need that kind of trouble.

Considering our need of constant protection, we chose specialized dogs to guard our farm. We chose multiple dogs for the amount of predator pressure we feel. Some farmers can get away with one or two dogs, others need more, depending on their situation. We considered the different breeds available, and found there are plenty of breeds to choose from. Just a few we looked into were: Great Pyrenees, Anatolians, Caucasion Ovcharkas, Gampyrs, Polish Tatras, Maremmas, Akbash, Komondor, and there are several more. The things we took into consideration as we considered types and breeds of guardian dogs were working styles of the differing breeds (and the particular lines we looked into), the amount of coat, and the availability in our area as opposed to bringing in dogs from far away.

Artic, the seven-month-old Pyrennes pup visiting one-year-old, Polar Bear, the Pyr/Akbash cross who is still in the separated pen next to the goats. Artic - you can see his leash still hanging over his back as I let him wander through the does, but still supervised where I can catch him if I need to. He still plays a bit much so I occasionally need to grab that leash and remind him to be quiet and calm. Photo by Shelene Costello
Artic, the seven-month-old Pyrennes pup visiting one-year-old, Polar Bear, the Pyr/Akbash cross who is still in the separated pen next to the goats. Artic – you can see his leash still hanging over his back as I let him wander through the does, but still supervised where I can catch him if I need to. He still plays a bit much so I occasionally need to grab that leash and remind him to be quiet and calm. Photo by Shelene Costello

Years ago, when we got our first livestock guardian dogs, the Anatolians, we opted to bring in dogs from another part of the country because we found a breeder who was willing to work with us and would give good support after the sale in training help and advice. It certainly paid off for us. Additionally, finding a couple of lists on the computer of groups of people actually using the dogs and who were willing to help us and troubleshoot for us, got us off to a good start. This time we opted for something close by and easier availability, and found a few dogs that would work in our situation. We chose to go with several dogs of varying ages and stages of training.

We now have a Great Pyrenees/Akbash cross, a purebred Pyr and another Pyr cross. The last will most likely be more of a farm guardian, rather than a stock guardian, and the difference is that the livestock guardian dogs actually spend the bulk of their time with the stock. Our farm dogs spend more time with us humans and help us do chores and hang out as much by the house as with the stock. We want our livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) to stay out with the stock so they are there when a threat arrives, not having to run from the front yard out to where the stock may be located out in pastures quite a distance away.

We also wanted several dogs so they could better handle the threat of coyote packs coming up and attempting multiple entries at the same time. Our local coyotes have already proven quite ambitious as they have tried to lure our Lab mix out to separate her from the farm to kill her (she did not fall for that and stayed quite close to home). Other times they have tried coming from several directions at once trying to slip past the guard by creating a diversion on one side of the farm and sneaking in on the other side.

Our young Pyr/Akbash just started to work last fall at just over one year of age. The young Pyr pup was started in guardianship training for five months with his parents on a working sheep and cattle ranch, and he had already taken part in coyote kills. The baby Pyr mix pup came straight from his litter at eight weeks of age and will not be working for some time yet, but can learn from the older dogs with supervision from us.

Training is needed, no matter which type of guardian is chosen. No animal is born knowing all it needs to know, including the regular farm dogs not of a particular guardian breed. We chose to introduce our pet dogs to the LGDs and let them be friends because my pets are all trained to be safe with the stock at all times and are not left unsupervised. If our other dogs were not safe with the stock we would not let them mix, as we do not want to teach our LGDs to allow any other dogs to maul the stock. Some people have had experience with their LGDs letting their pet dogs maul and maim the stock while they sit and watch or worse, help. If we had herding dogs, we would train the LGDs to let the herding dogs work the stock, or take the LGDs and lock them up while the stock is being herded, depending on the individual dogs involved.

Our training strategy starts by putting the pups in a pen in with the stock, but separate, so they can learn the normal behavior of the stock and the stock can get used to the normal behavior of the guardian without the pup doing undesirable things. They are put together when they can be supervised so that no one gets hurt and so we can encourage proper behavior on all parts and prevent unwanted behaviors. We walk them on a leash around the area to patrol and mark territory several times a day, as we have the time.

One must consider the type of guardian one has when training. Llamas stomp and kick when playing and fighting (intact males will also throw down other animals trying to breed them, and that is why intact males are not recommended for guarding). Donkeys bite, kick and stomp, dogs bite, chase and crush; they also shake their prey. Knowing what kind of behavior can be dangerous to their stock, owners can watch the animals interact and prevent undesired behavior from beginning. Reward good behaviors and calm demeanor around the stock, along with gentle interest. Also reward the guardian for alerting on perceived threats, being willing to come out in the dark of night if need be to reinforce good alerting, barking, and correcting random boredom barking. Often we humans cannot tell if something is really out there, so we make a policy of checking things out and telling the dogs how good they are to alert, even if we don’t see anything.

The first kidding (lambing, calving, etc.) season or two the dogs (or other guardian animals) need close supervision and maybe even separation. Some guardians perceive the newcomers as intruders, others become so enamored with the babies, they steal them from their mothers, resulting in dead or weak kids and possibly injured moms. As the dogs get more trustworthy, we let them spend more time with the stock unsupervised, until they are mature and can handle being with the stock 24/7.

We have no problem if the dog wants to eat the afterbirth after the mom is done cleaning up the babies, or even if they help clean them up, as long as they let the mom take care of the babies. Those breeders who pull and bottle raise their kids may well like their LGDs to clean up and care for the newborns. Some dogs really love the newborns and not only tolerate them, but enjoy them. Others just tolerate them.

We introduce all new animals on the farm to the LGDs, telling them they are "mine" as we do. We supervise the introduction period as the new animals acclimate here and into our herds. There is always some fighting going on until the herd order is established, and we don’t want the dog to hurt the newcomer while protecting their own animals. Often we find the stock begins to look to the dog for protection. They will sleep with them, and look in the direction the dog barks. They may well run for cover when the dog starts after a threat, or even back them up. Goats often congregate behind the dog and act in a threatening manner as well. Those with multiple dogs may find as we do, that the dogs work in shifts or split the work so that certain dogs stay with the stock and others go out on patrol or chase the threats away. We find it amazing that many of the LGDs, once settled into their herds, understand the myriad details of herd behavior and will mediate between herd members.

The Maremma mix we had years ago would put her paws on the two combatants’ faces and look like she was pleading for peace. Our current Lab mix will break up fights among the roosters and drakes, first by rushing through to disturb them and then if that does not work, she grabs the aggressor by the wing and gently flings him away. So far that has worked every time. She tried it with the cats, but got more scratched up than the cats did. We see our Pyr/Akbash now leaning through the fence (she is still in the separated pen as she is a bit too excitable with the goats during play times) and trying to stop butting contests.

Having guardian animals is a big help on the farm. With proper training, selection and time, we can rest easy knowing that we have our stock protected 24 hours a day. We certainly hope the coyotes get the message that this is no longer a place for easy pickin’s.

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