Livestock Guardian Dogs

When we first decided that we were going to bring Nigerian Dwarf goats on to the farm, one of my immediate concerns was their safety. For one, we live in an area where the property can be frequented by animals such as grizzly bears, black bears, coyotes, wolves, foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions. Fortunately most of our neighbors who have livestock have not had a ton of issues, but due the extremely small size of Nigerian Dwarf goats I still felt uneasy thinking about them alone at night with a pair of glowy eyes lurking in the distance. I had first come to learn about livestock guardian animals while studying Animal Science in college back in Minnesota, but I had never done any in depth research on them until deciding that we needed one for the farm.

The first decision we made after choosing to move forward with a livestock guardian animal, was that we wanted ours to be a dog. There are all types of animals used as livestock guardians, from donkeys to alpacas, from yaks to dogs. The reason we ultimately decided on a dog instead of the other aforementioned options was because of the ability that dogs have to work in packs. Our intention has always been to grow and expand our farm, and livestock guardian dogs seemed to fit best within those parameters.

One thing I will mention about this decision is that livestock guardian dogs require a lot more work up front than say a donkey or a llama. If you buy a donkey or a llama and raise them with your animals, it is their instinct to protect those animals; end of story. This may not always be the case when you go the route of bringing home a livestock guardian dog (LGD).

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When we went about choosing what breed of LGD we were going to bring home, we did the vast majority of our research on the internet, which can be good or bad depending on your sources. Based on our climate, size of our property, temperament (the dog’s, not ours), and a few other factors, we came to the conclusion that a Great Pyrenees would be a good fit for our farm. We did a lot of research on breeders in our area but when it really came down to it we ended up driving 4 hours further than we needed to (meaning an 8 hour drive one way) to get our pup from a breeder that we just “had a really good feeling about”. Normally we are “adopt don’t shop” folks, but for an animal with a job as important as this one, we wanted to know exactly what we were getting. Fortunately we were able to find an amazing breeder who answered every question we ever had-which with me is ALWAYS a lot of questions- and who I could tell loved and cared for all her animals the same way we care for ours. That’s how we ended up with miss Rhona who came to us from Hergert Family Farm in Lingle, Wyoming.

Before we chose our livestock guardian pup, I had done a lot of research into different methods of training LGDs. It was always my hope that we would be able to bring this animal to the farm and that it could be both a guardian to the livestock and a friend to us. There are many people out there who believe that a livestock guardian dog can only be an LGD and that trying to ask them to be that in addition to your friend can create issues. I am sure this may be true for certain types and personalities of dogs, but we have been fortunate enough to have a dog that seems to have the ability to balance both. The thoughts and recommendations I express here a purely based on my experience with Rhona and may not be successful with all LGDs, but hopefully you will find it useful either way.

When we first began looking for a breeder to purchase our pup from, we put extra emphasis on the dog coming from a line of dogs that are currently used as livestock guardians. This does a lot of the up front work for you in a few ways; the first being that the pup is exposed to farm animals from a very young age, and the second being that a dog is typically going to be more receptive to training from another adult dog than they are from a human right away. A friend of mine who is a veterinarian is the first person who phrased it to me that way; and I have found it to be very true so far. Long story short, by the time we brought Rhona home at 11 weeks old she had already spent time with her mom among turkeys, chickens, ducks, cows, goats, etc. I personally feel this exposure set us up for greater success today.

Next, once we brought Rhona home, we spent the first few weeks taking her into the goat pen and chicken coop on a leash. We never allowed her to be around the livestock unsupervised and we corrected any bad behaviors immediately. Eventually we felt comfortable with her around the goats unsupervised so we would leave her in the pen with the goats all day while we were at work (with the ability to check on her via camera). I think this also helped her greatly with the chickens. Our chicken coop is inside our goat pen so we are able to lock the chickens up in the coop and Rhona can walk around the outside and sniff, watch, and get used to the chickens. Many of my more experienced LGD owner friends had warned me about LGDs with chickens. For some dogs, the instinct to protect chickens just isn’t there the way it is with animals like goats and sheep, so this portion of their training can require extra work on your part. If you are wanting more information on how to train an LGD specifically with chickens (or other birds) I found this article to be especially helpful.

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Once we felt comfortable with Rhona being around the goats and the chickens without worry, we started putting her with the animals full time. From when we first got her to this point was about 3 months of training. Everything was going really well and we had even added a new goat to our herd and Rhona transitioned to that seamlessly.  (another common issue I heard about from some friends was that their livestock guardian dogs did great with all of the animals that were on the farm with it as a puppy, but then when new animals were added or born, the LGD would perceive them as a threat. This can be especially difficult to handle).

Fast forward a bit; about 3 weeks ago we brought home a new Nigerian Dwarf Goat who is especially small for her age.  She is the same age as our other goats but about half their size and very docile. One day I wasn’t feeling well and came home early to get some rest; as I pulled in the driveway I saw Rhona dragging our new goat across the pasture by her hind leg.  YIKES! I could tell that Rhona thought she was playing with the goat, but in reality she was really hurting her. I took this new goat and one of our other does and separated them from Rhona and the herd immediately. After a couple days of separation the new goat’s leg had healed and I decided to put her and her pal back in with the herd. When I did this I sat out in the pen for hours with them making sure that Rhona didn’t show any signs of going after the new goat. When she didn’t, I decided all was well and went into the house for dinner. I had not been inside for even a minute when I heard a goat screaming. I ran to our bathroom window which overlooks the goat pasture and saw Rhona going after that same goat again! She saw me in the window and stopped immediately. It was then that I realized Rhona knew she wasn’t supposed to do that to the goats when I was around but she thought it was a free for all as soon as I left.

Admittedly this was one of the low points for me here in the first year of our hobby farm. We had been putting so much hard work and care into Rhona’s training that I felt she was betraying me by ignoring some of her training. I reached out to a lot of different friends and acquaintances and received plenty of good advice. Often times this behavior is triggered by the dog feeling that the livestock are his or her friends, and as a result they try to play with the livestock the way they would play with a dog friend. Unfortunately this cannot be tolerated. This is something that nobody mentioned to me up front when I was considering purchasing a livestock guardian dog, and so I hope this post can potentially save someone else from this upset. What I found when I reached out to friends who had livestock guardian dogs is that this issue is very common amongst LGDs; especially ones that are the first arrivals on their farm as they don’t have an older more seasoned LGD to show them that this behavior is wrong. After chatting with a lot of friends who have more knowledge of these animals than me, I received two main responses as to how to best deal with this behavior:

  1. If you have the ability to build a small pen for your LGD within your livestock pen, this can be a great way for your dog to still spend that necessary time with the livestock, but also protect your animals from becoming a puppy play toy. What most of my contacts told me, is that this is a behavior most pups will grow out of; so if you can discourage the behavior by separation in the meantime this may be enough to stop it all together.
  2. The second method my friends mentioned to me was shock collar training. I want to preface this by saying that there are certain types of personalities that you do not want to attempt shock collar training with; dogs who are especially timid or slightly aggressive are not good candidates for this type of training and you can actually end up regressing them further by using this method.

Fortunately for us, Rhona is a very happy go lucky pup and is neither timid nor aggressive in any way. Additionally, most “shock” collars come with a beep, vibrate, and shock option; meaning with some dogs you can be successful in training without ever having to shock them. I ordered a shock collar and when it arrived I read the manual cover to cover twice. As I said before, if not done properly, this type of training can cause even more issues for you. My hope in doing this training was that it would allow me to correct Rhona’s behavior without her seeing me and associating the correction with me as a person; but rather associating it as an undesirable result of her “playing” with goats.

Once the collar arrived (you can see the one I purchased here), I put it on Rhona and set the shock setting to level 10 (the shock levels go from 0-100 on the collar I purchased). I decided for my methods it would be best to use the beep tone to alert her when she was doing something wrong and then shock her if she continued the behavior. This way, once she understood how the collar worked, she would associate the beep with a shock and hopefully we could get to a point where the beep would stop her and no shock would be needed.

The first day we had the shock collar I placed it on Rhona and put her in with the goats. I then ran to our bathroom window where I have full visibility of the goat pen. As I predicted, she went for the little goat right away and I pressed the “beep” option on the collar remote. This stopped her in her tracks. However, once she realized there was no other repercussion she went after the goat again. This time I pressed the beep immediately followed by a shock. She stopped again. Then she tried one more time to go after our little goat and I repeated the beep and shock.  Rhona decided this was not her idea of fun anymore and sauntered off to lay in the sun. I allowed her to stay with the goats for about another hour (supervised) and then removed her. We did this on repeat every day for about a week before we finally saw the behavior stop altogether.

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It has now been about two weeks without incident and I feel that this method of training was successful for us. If you have or are experiencing a similar issue with your livestock guardian pup, know that you are not alone. The number of people I interacted with who had also experienced this was staggering; and some folks had even read or been told that once your dog started this behavior, they were “lost” as a guardian dog and would need to be replaced. I am not a veterinarian or a dog training professional but if the information provided in this post helps even one person to curb this issue with their dog, or even just to realize that they are not alone in this experience, then this will be worth it. As always, if you have behavioral concerns with your animals it is best to consult your veterinarian or another training professional.

Thankfully for us, I feel that we have turned the corner with Rhona on this portion of her training and we are so proud of her for learning so quickly. We are now to the point where she will stop whatever incorrect behavior she is doing with just the sound of the beep (no shock needed-YAY!). I am looking forward to her continuing to learn and grow as an LGD. In the future when we are ready to add another livestock guardian to our farm, Rhona will be a fantastic teacher for that pup. Training Rhona has been a learning experience for all of us, and when I think back on all that she has learned in her first 6 months of life, I can’t wait to see where she is in a year!

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