We utilize two livestock protection dogs (LPDs) to protect our sheep from predators. We live in an area that is rich with wildlife and predatory animals, including coyotes, cougar and bald and golden eagles. All pose serious threats to our sheep and lambs.
“Moses” the Kuvasz
Moses is a “career change” show dog who did not like showing! He joined our farm in the spring of 2010. Though his transition to pasture living was tough for about a week, in the end he settled in famously and serves as an excellent farm guard. The quiet, simple days and wide open spaces seem to suit him much better than the hubbub and frequent travel of dog shows. He is now very happy here. He doesn’t entirely “get” the fact that he’s supposed to guard the sheep (and, in fact, doesn’t even really like the sheep); but he guards the property, which has the same desired result. The upside of having a retired show dog as an LGD is that he is well trained, obedient, and friendly with escorted farm visitors. The downside is he has a tremendous coat which is hard to maintain.
“Brinsa” the Maremma
We bought Brinse from a very large ranch in Eastern WA. She came to our farm as a pup in 2016, replacing our older and very valuable Maremma, Bronte, who tragically died from bone cancer at age eight. Brinsa is still a pup-in-training, so she is often wearing a drag chain or stick dongle, to help curtail her urge to chase the sheep.
The Maremmano-Abruzzese breed traces back over two thousand years in Italy, bred for the sole purpose of livestock guarding. This breed is not AKC register-able and is not shown or exhibited in the U.S.- their only use, to this day, is guardianship. This has meant that there is no genetic “drift” away from the breed’s original purpose and design, as is the case with most show-bred dogs.
Maremmas are equipped with a heavy double coat, which keeps them warm and comfortable in extreme winter weather. But their white color and seasonal shedding allows them to still stay cool in the heat of the summer. Brinsa requires very little grooming, just a few minutes of mat trimming in the spring is all she needs, most of her coat sheds naturally on its own. Maremmas are large, typically weighing over 100 pounds.
Good LGDs are Both Born and Made
Domestic dogs are generally quite malleable, adjusting to whatever environment in which they are born and raised, and bonding to whichever social groups are available to them. That’s why dogs generally make such fine companions to people. Their natural instinct to bond with other dogs easily transfers to bonding with humans instead; especially when we remove them from their mother and littermates at the artificially young weaning age of twelve weeks or less. (Puppies in a natural state would would otherwise stay with their dam and rearing group until they reach yearling age, or longer.)
Maremmas are traditionally whelped in a barn with sheep and lambs, and initially raised away from humans and other dogs, so that their natural primary bond is with their sheep flock. They have strong inborn guarding tendencies, but also enjoy snoozing much of the day! Our Maremma is no exception to this rule, and though she enjoys visits from us and our other dogs, she prefers the solitary life of a guardian, and is learning to hang out with her sheep as her primary social group.
Maremmas Are Not Pets…
It is strongly recommended that Maremmas never be kept as pets, as their guarding tendencies, large size, heavy winter coat, and need for space and a job make them a training and management challenge outside of a working environment. Brinsa is also a testament to this reality: she is a chewer, a digger, a barker, a threat to un-escorted strangers, and very rough at play. While she does well in a large pasture where she can entertain herself all day by digging up and eating rodents and barking at passers-by, she would be quite unmanageable in the house as a pet! You can read more about the breed at the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America site.
People often inquire about our guardian dogs, expressing concern for their welfare, living in the pasture year-round. We get a lot of funny questions, like “how do you feed them?” or “aren’t they lonely?” It is a different mind set to get used to the lifestyle of an LPD, compared to the pet breeds which we’re accustomed to having as family companions in the house. But, LPDs are actually very happy in their element, they are made to do this job, descending from hundreds of generations of stock selected for their independence, hardiness, and guarding instincts and traits. Our dogs do have dog houses with straw bedding (but they rarely use them), and of course, water and daily food and visits. We feed all our dogs a homemade, natural diet. This level of care and interaction is all they require, and thrive doing their jobs day and night, rambling in their pastures and keeping an eye out for passers-by and wildlife. Much of the year, the dogs have the opportunity to spend time together- but they rarely do. They occasionally enjoy a wrestling match, and greet each other at gates, but typically prefer to spend most of their time alone, napping or patrolling the pastures.
The Ultimate Protection for Sheep and Goats
Small ruminants are very vulnerable to predators, they have no defense mechanisms and are easy for even a thirty pound coyote to kill and eat. Eagles find it’s trivial to pick up ten pound lambs, and cougars can haul a whole sheep or goat over a fence and into a tree in order to dine on it. Loose-running domestic dogs are also a huge threat to small ruminant herds. Predator loss is the #1 reason farmers abandon ranching sheep and goats in the U.S. – so guardian animals are a critical component to success.
You may notice a llama in one of the above photos, pictured with our first Maremma, Bronte. We did also utilize her as a guardian for a few years, but found her to be less effective than the dogs. Llamas are protective of flock mates and attempt to chase away threats, and can be quite scary-looking to coyotes. But in large pastures, we realized it was difficult for one llama to protect a large mob of sheep. Coyotes are clever enough to split the group and run a few sheep down. Llamas may be more suited for guarding in smaller paddocks and with small groups of sheep.
Having big dogs living in our sheep pastures has been an excellent deterrent to coyotes. We often seen our dogs chasing them along the fence line when they’ve tried to approach the pasture. The bark and physical size of LGDs is enough to shoo most people and animals away from the pastures. They are worth their weight in gold for the job they do in protecting our farm assets! And they love their lives, for sure.