Many sheep producers, especially in Western states where flocks roam large areas, use “guardian” dogs to live with the sheep to deter predators. It’s difficult to completely protect sheep from large predators like wolves, bears or cougars, but a good guard dog can discourage coyotes—the common predator found in every geographic region.
Guard dogs are generally large (over 100 pounds) and tend to be unfriendly toward other dogs, keeping stray dogs away from the flock. They are bred to be work animals, not pets, living outdoors year ’round. They generally won’t harass or kill livestock; their focus is to detect and deter predators.
There are many breeds worldwide, but the Great Pyrenees is probably the most commonly used in North America. Originally bred by Basque shepherds in mountainous region between Spain and France, they are probably the least aggressive towards people and livestock.
In large pastures with many predators, the Akbash (a Turkish breed) is thought to be the most aggressive and protective even though on average these dogs are a bit smaller than most other guard dogs.
The Anatolian Shepherd (also from Turkey) is large and muscular, with reserved temperament. These dogs are extremely devoted to the flock, but may not be friendly toward humans. Historically, Anatolian dogs were left alone with their flocks for long periods. Being short-haired they can withstand hot weather. The larger Anatolian-type dogs, often called Kangals, are more able to fight wolves and big cats, being more athletic, faster, and more vicious in a fight than most breeds. A large male Anatolian or Kangal weighs 150-175 pounds.
The Maremma, also called Marremmano, originated in central Italy. These dogs are small (typically under 100 pounds) but fiercely loyal to their flock.
The Komondor, from Hungary, has long, heavy cords of hair like dreadlocks, providing protection from weather and bites from wolves. This thick coat requires a lot of care, and some people just clip it. These dogs weigh 80 to 100 pounds and are very protective and territorial.
Individuals vary, regardless of breed, and some work better than others. When starting with a pup, advice from dog breeders is to wait until it’s about 2 months old to bring it home, then put it with the flock so it can start bonding with the animals it is supposed to protect. Guard dogs must live with the livestock, not with people. They tend to guard and protect the animals they imprint on as a pup. It usually takes 12 to 24 months for pups to become effective guardian dogs.
They become a member of the flock, watching for intruders. Guard dogs confront predators by intimidation—barking, and displaying aggressive behavior—and may attack a predator if it doesn’t immediately leave. Some dogs actively look for predators within their territory, trying to catch and kill them. Some stay with the livestock all the time, while others prefer to roam the perimeter of the herd. Some are very aggressive and chase predators that invade their territory, and others just stay with the flock and bark to warn off predators.
The Soulen family has raised sheep for many years in southwestern Idaho. Predators weren’t a big issue until wolves were introduced in 1995 and expanded their hunting territories to include most of the range pastures grazed by Soulen sheep. The Soulen family then needed herders with their sheep bands 24/7 to protect them from wolves, and also needed more guard dogs.
“Our problems with wolves started just a year after the wolf introduction, with sizable losses,” said Harry Soulen. “We went through a number of years where we were losing 300 to 340 head per summer. We had to start herding our sheep differently than what we’d traditionally done, in much tighter groups. We give up some gain on the lambs every year because they can’t scatter out and graze as freely. We have to continually group them closer together,” he said.
The herders also learned what to expect when they hear wolves, or warnings from the guard dogs. The dogs make a different sound when it’s wolves than when it’s a bear or coyotes among the sheep. Some years back, their ranch foreman said that when wolves are around, the dogs cry. The dogs are afraid of the wolves, and very sensitive to when wolves are nearby.
The Soulens have lost guard dogs to wolves—even these big dogs don’t have much chance against this superb predator. The herders usually have four guard dogs per band and if it’s just a single wolf, the guard dogs gang up and the wolf usually backs down, but if there’s more than one wolf, they’ll kill the guard dogs and then the sheep.
The Soulens originally used Great Pyrenees dogs but then started using Akbash and Akbash crosses because they are a little more athletic and aggressive.
“We must have herders with our sheep (human presence), unlike cattle—which are turned out on large pastures, but having a person out there is no guarantee that you won’t lose animals,” Soulen said. They have been herding their sheep since the 1920s but that’s not always a deterrent to predators.
“In our experience, if it’s a single wolf or just a pair poking around, and you have good guard dogs, they may keep the wolves out of the sheep. But if a pack moves in, the wolves kill the guard dogs,” said Soulen.
Keeping these dogs is expensive, not only just to purchase them. “They are big animals, and eat a lot. There’s a major expense in dog food, vet bills and everything else involved. Then after the lambs are shipped, we have almost too many guard dogs for the rest of the year. We have to pen them up and keep feeding them,” he said. It’s an expensive aspect of raising sheep today.
Arlette and Allen Seib have a sheep farm in Saskatchewan, Canada and rely heavily on guard dogs because their sheep are out on the prairie with predators. “Fortunately, we don’t have very many large predators like wolves or cougars in this area, but we have plenty of coyotes and they can be really bad for sheep,” Arlette said.
“The guard dogs are remarkable and more fascinating than the stock dogs. It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s been great to finally get there and to see what it’s like when using these wonderful dogs,” Arlette explained.
“Our goal is not for the dogs to be out there killing coyotes; they just need to be here so that the wildlife can be there and not bother our sheep. The dogs’ presence is enough deterrent and this allows for coexistence,” she said. Without the guard dogs, however, the coyotes would be killing the sheep. — Heather Smith Thomas, WLJ correspondent