After we lost our second chicken to a fox, the last being while the donkey was on guard, we knew we had to do something else.  After more research and discussion, we laid out our goals, one of which was to live in harmony with wildlife, rather than just killing any predators, and another was a determination to not pen up our laying hens.  We wanted to them to free-range, even if that made them vulnerable to predators.  So, our next step, was to try a livestock guardian dog. 

We got Athena, a 10-week-old livestock guardian pup (1/4 Anatolian Shepherd, and 3/4 Great Pyrenees), figuring it would be a few months before she would much use.  In the mean time, we planned to utilize our old, but large and gentle, house-dog, Will, to watch over the chickens.  We quickly noticed a few differences between the dogs and donkey.

Dogs are a lot different than donkeys, as they are predators themselves.  Therefore, they defend their entire, perceived, territory rather than just the immediate.  Anything that the dog considers as part of their pack–be it human, chicken, goat, or whatever, will be effectively protected and defended by a good dog.  A good dog will give its life to protect if necessary, no matter how big or impossible the threat–be it canine, feline, bear, human, or even a threatening non-living object (ie vehicle).  This fact is not necessarily limited to livestock guardians. 

A difference in dogs bred to be guardians is their instinctual independence and drive to patrol and protect.   They typically only bark when there is a perceived threat.  The barks are very distinctive, and we can tell if Athena is wanting to play with a goat, or warning us of a threat.  90% of the time, if we hear her “threat” bark, sure enough, we will usually see a fox off in the woods, or strange people walking in the distance somewhere.  As soon as she understands the threat to be gone, she will stop barking.  And, as every one told us, it is not  the annoying bark of a yappy, bored dog.  It is reserved, used with purpose, and not wasted.  Even our children have noticed the difference, and will check on things when they hear her threat bark.

Not only do the dogs bark, but, unlike the donkey, the dogs will literally “patrol” the entire territory.  They circle the perimeter, or close to it, mark it with their urine and poop, and you can tell they are always on alert.  I believe this in itself deters the fox, as he seems to sense when the dogs are in the pasture, and we have never seen any sign of him when they are out.  Athena has rarely barked while out to pasture that I can recall.  Something about the dogs’ mere presence keeps the fox away very well. 

I have observed several other things with Athena in particular.  While she never really stays with any group of animals (which shows her confidence and independence), I will observe her coming over, as if to check on them, very frequently.  She will go back and forth from the fenceline, where she stands and looks around, to the goats as though to check up and take a head count, to the chickens, into the woods, into the clearings, then starts all over again.  Once in a while, she will lay down and rest, but she is always alert and aware, and she never seems to stay down long–even as such a young pup.  I have heard the older, more seasoned dogs will appear to sleep most of the day, but they are still always alert as to their surroundings. 

Oddly, I have noticed that, on occasion, Athena appears to gently “herd” our chickens together and towards the coop.  She has only done it a few times, and only when they were very scattered over a large area of the pasture.  She never barked, ran, or otherwise acted playful.  Rather, she simply approached them and then circled them, until they clustered together, and then she walked behind the flock, “pushing” them slowly toward their coop.  Once they got about 20 feet from the coop, she eased off, and returned to her patrols.  She also doesn’t do it every time they scatter.  I have not figured this out, but wonder if she senses a predator on nearby territories, and brings the chickens to a safer area.  She has also done a similar thing with the goats on occasion, if one of the doelings seperates itself from the other goats.  Athena will sometimes gently “push” the kid back to the older goats. 

Another interesting fact I have read about in several sources is how the dog will “clean up” its territory to prevent attracting predators.  If it finds dead animals, it will eat or bury (usually eat) it.  During birthing season, the dog will often sense a laboring female, hang close by to protect it, eat any dead babies, and even eat the afterbirth, thereby removing all smells or predator attractants.  Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to give the dog any desire to maliciously kill live animals for food (assuming it is properly fed on a daily basis). 

Dogs, however, have downsides too.  They require food that is different than the animals they protect.  Some owners choose to feed free-choice.  We feed twice a day since we use a BARF (all natural, lots of fresh,raw meat) diet.  Dogs have more of a tendency to roam.  Unlike “pets” that can be taught where invisible boundaries are, a true lgd’s instinctual nature causes it to always desire to expand its territory.  Property lines mean nothing to a lgd, and Athena has proven time and again that she will very quickly roam off if we don’t watch her closely when outside the pen.  They will respect fencelines, but only if taught to do so early on (we use electric wire).  Many a good dog has been lost by jumping over or digging under a fence.  They do bark, which as a general rule is a bit more obnoxious than a donkey’s bray.  Younger dogs have been known to be overzealous in play and accidentally injure or kill young lambs, kids, or poultry.  Older females have been known to want to be too involved in birthing-season, and will sometimes steal a new baby from its mom.  Though no harm is intended, like the donkey, if she won’t let mom nurse the baby, then the baby will die.

Furthermore, and probably more important, dogs are predators, and they can chase.  We caught Athena chasing the chickens several times.  If she caught it, she would just pounce on it, then sit and watch it.  We scolded her, but, being the independent breed she is, she completely ignored us.  Although she wasn’t attempting to harm the chickens, she was certainly beginning to stress them at one point.  We also caught her chasing a new doeling one time.  So, I had to do some minimal training.  I’ll do another post about that.  A little training goes a long way with these dogs though, and she caught on quickly.  Now, at roughly 14 weeks old, she is patrolling the pasture even without Will, and doing a very good job of it. 

To summarize, a dog is an excellent option for a guardian, if you are aware of a few factors.  A lgd is not considered mature until 2-3 years of age (depending on breed).  Unless you buy a mature, proven dog, or have an already trained dog, then you may need to do at least minimal training to teach it some boundaries.  It will need to be supervised during the first baby-season or two, to ensure it doesn’t pester mom or baby too much.  It will bark, and it will patrol any type of terrain.  It is very aware of its surroundings, so you must be careful about scolding a dog that is giving a legitimate alerting “threat” bark, even if you don’t see the threat.  You have to be aware that they are naturally very independent, and will not answer or obey like a house pet breed.  This can be frustrating.  However, if you think you can handle all that, then a livestock guardian dog may be perfect for you!