Predator control is an important management tool for sheep and goat raisers. Young animals make for easy prey, and predators will capitalize on the opportunity to target lambs and kid goats when given the chance. Predators can devastate a small ruminant operation by reducing survivability and ultimately decreasing revenue if control measures are not in place. In Texas, coyotes are the primary predator of concern, although mountain lions, bobcats, and feral hogs are also capable of targeting sheep and goats. Livestock guardian dogs (LGD) are becoming an increasingly popular choice for predator management in the U.S. When properly trained, LGD can effectively reduce predation by establishing territorial dominance and by physical confrontation if necessary. Six important considerations for implementing LGD on small ruminant operations are briefly summarized below.
The most common breeds of LGD in the U.S. are the Great Pyrenees, Antolian Shepherd, Maremma, and Akbash. Great Pyrenees are known to be the least aggressive of these breeds and are generally gentle-natured with humans. Akbash are among the most aggressive and can be especially valuable for large operations with high predator counts. Herding breeds like Australian Shepherds or Border Collies are not recommended for use as LGD as their instincts will be to herd animals rather than deter predators. Both male and female dogs are capable of being effective LGD, but each may have different behavior with females tending to spend more time near livestock and males tending to spend more time patrolling. While intact males and females can discourage predators, spaying or neutering can help prevent dogs from wandering off ranch property.
Puppies should be sourced from responsible breeders and will require one to two years of training before becoming reliable and effective LGD. The time investment and lack of training knowledge may dissuade some producers from selecting puppies. However, training puppies yourself will help ensure they bond to the livestock on your operation and that they are trained to your liking. Buying trained dogs may seem like the best option for those who want to see immediate results from their LGD, but they are generally more expensive and there is a greater risk of the dog not bonding to livestock and wandering from ranch boundaries. Whether buying a puppy or trained dog, be prepared for each to be a monetary investment. Buying cheap puppies or dogs will increase the likelihood of inheriting someone else’s problem.
The number of LGD required for adequate predator protection will depend on several factors, such as flock/herd size, acreage, predator load, and dog behavior. It is recommended to have at least 1 to 2 dogs per 100 ewes or does and reassess as needed. Dog-to-livestock ratios as low as 1 dog to 150 females may suffice for larger operations of 1,000 head or more.
Well-trained LGD will bond well with livestock, respond to basic obedience commands, respect ranch boundaries, and monitor threats with the appropriate level of aggression. Effective LGD will see the livestock they are protecting as an extension of their pack. It is important to establish this bond when they are young by keeping puppies around livestock from the time they are born. Puppies less than 16 weeks old should be socialized with dams and their young in small pens where they can be closely monitored. When possible, puppies should be exposed to and bonded with many livestock species to reduce the risk of the dog seeing neighboring livestock as a threat and injuring animals. During the bonding period, puppies should also be trained on basic obedience commands like “sit”, “stay”, “come”, “no”, and “leave it”. Once they reach 16 weeks old, puppies can be turned out in larger pastures, under supervision, to mature in their duties as LGD. Some dogs may be prone to wander and cross fences when they are released to larger pastures. This behavior should be discouraged through obedience training and the use of triangular PVC collars that prevent the dog from navigating holes in fencing. Dogs that roam will be more likely to meet an untimely death whether by accident or by the hand of a disgruntled neighboring landowner. If a particular dog continually struggles to respect ranch boundaries, he or she may need to be culled. Finally, an effective LGD will be aggressive towards predator species, but gentle with humans and non-predators. Dogs seen pursuing non-threatening wildlife should be disciplined appropriately.
Good nutrition is critical to maintain performance of LGD. They should be fed a high energy and high protein diet to meet the energetic demands of patrolling for predators and protecting their livestock. A good measure of nutritional status is body condition score (BCS) which is measured on a scale of 1 to 9, 1 being too thin and 9 being obese. Dogs with a BCS of 5 are considered to have ideal conditioning, and dogs with a BCS of 4 or lower are likely not receiving enough nutrients for their environment and activity level. For operations that feed daily, LGD can be fed at the same time as the livestock. Otherwise, feeding stations with self-feeders that are only accessible by LGD should be set up allowing dogs to come and go as needed. Varmints can target these feeding stations and cause excessive food waste which increases costs and leaves dogs without food if not checked regularly. While LGD can prey on small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, hunting for food will take them away from their charge, so ample dry dog food should always be provided.
Proper health care is essential to the longevity of LGD. Preventative measures, such as parasite control and geographically- and age-appropriate vaccinations, should be in place to protect dogs from common hazards and diseases in their range environment. Nutritional intake and performance will suffer when dogs are ill or lame, and a veterinarian should be consulted in these instances to get the dog back to good health as soon as possible.
Livestock guardian dogs can offer invaluable peace of mind when it comes to predator control for small ruminants. While initial costs of buying, training, feeding, and immunizing LGD seems high, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension estimates a 5-year-old LGD will only need to save 5 lambs per year to recoup costs. Additionally, canine species are the most territorial with other canine species, making LGD one of the most effective non-lethal means of controlling coyotes, the primary predator of sheep and goats in Texas. Lastly, neighboring homeowners or landowners should always be notified if LGD are working on your property. Provide them with educational materials on normal LGD behavior as well as who to contact if they spot LGD roaming off their home range.