For hundreds of years, people who raise sheep and goats have used guardian animals to live with their livestock and deter predators. Dogs, burros, llamas and occasionally large-horned cows or steers have served this purpose.
Any large animal that the flock can bond with and feel safe with can work.
It’s difficult to guarantee protection of livestock from large predators such as wolves, bears or cougars, but guardian animals can discourage coyotes—the most common predator in every geographic region. Whether you choose guardian dogs, llamas or donkeys depends on your situation, livestock, terrain and the predators in the area.
Guard dog breeds are generally large—more than 100 pounds—and unfriendly toward other dogs, keeping stray dogs away from the flock. They are bred as work animals, not pets; their focus is to detect and deter predators.
Most predators stay away from dog-protected flocks to avoid being confronted by the guard dog.
There are many guardian dog breeds, but the Great Pyrenees is the most widely used in North America. Originally bred by Basque shepherds in the mountains between Spain and France, this breed is probably the least aggressive toward people, but its thick coat makes it a poor choice for hot, humid regions.
If you have livestock in large pastures and a lot of predators, you might need a more aggressive breed. The Turkish Akbash is thought to be the most aggressive and protective, though it is a bit smaller than most other guardian dogs.
The Anatolian Shepherd is also from Turkey. This large, imposing breed is extremely devoted to the herd, but it might be unfriendly toward humans. Being shorthaired, these dogs can withstand hot weather.
The largest Anatolian-type dogs, often called Kangals, can fight wolves and big cats, being more athletic, faster and more vicious in a fight than other breeds. A large male Anatolian or Kangal weighs 150 to 175 pounds.
The Komondor from Hungary has long, heavy, felt-like cords of hair similar to dreadlocks; it protects against 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 as tall as 27 inches. They are very protective and territorial.
Raising Guardian Dogs
Individual dogs vary, regardless of breed, and some work better than others. If you start with a puppy, put it with the flock when it’s about 2 months old, so it can start bonding with the animals it is supposed to protect.
These dogs must live with your livestock, not with you, in order to be guardian animals. They 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 intimidate predators by barking and aggressive behavior, and might attack a predator if it doesn’t leave. Some stay with the livestock all the time, while others prefer to roam the perimeter of the herd.
Guardian dogs require very little care, except more feed (and feed of higher fat/energy content) during cold weather. Some people provide self-feeders for the dogs. These dogs often choose to stay outdoors in all weather conditions, or they might use the same shelter as the sheep they protect.
Donkeys or Burros
A disadvantage to dogs is the feed expense. Large dogs eat a lot of dog food, whereas donkeys eat what the sheep or goats eat and are self-sufficient. Donkeys also live longer than dogs and with good management might provide 15 or more years of protection.
It usually costs less to purchase and maintain donkeys than guard dogs.
Avoid lush pasture or high-quality legume hay; donkeys have a low energy requirement and can get too fat or develop metabolic disorders and laminitis (an inflammation of the lamina inside the hoof, aka founder) or hyperlipaemia (too much fat in the blood).
Donkeys do well on good grass hay and the same basic care you’d give any equine, including hoof trimming as well as regular vaccinations and deworming.
A donkey can deter predators because if it sees or hears one, it will bray. This loud response is often enough to make predators leave. Donkeys are very territorial and instinctively aggressive toward canines.
Donkeys can also be formidable—biting, striking, kicking and chasing intruders. Horses (being herd animals) tend to flee from danger before using their teeth and hooves to protect themselves. A donkey’s fight instinct is triggered more quickly because in the wild it generally lived alone.
If a donkey bonds to its flock and stays with it, flock members regard the donkey as a protector and gather near it if a predator approaches.
A jenny (female donkey) with a foal (offspring less than 1 year old) is the best guardian. She’s extremely wary of potential threats.
A foal raised with a flock usually becomes a good protector because it’s so bonded to and comfortable with its pasture companions. Not all donkeys make good livestock guardian animals. Some are overly aggressive with the sheep. Jacks (males) aren’t recommended.
Some people use llamas because the animals can bond with and stay with the flock and tend to approach any canine that comes near. A predator approached by this large, tall animal generally leaves. Llamas can guard for 15 to 20 years and don’t require special feeding.
Dog-fearing livestock readily accept llamas. Another benefit is their calm, docile disposition.
Llamas can become livestock protectors because they are social animals that don’t want to live alone. If one is the only llama in a pasture, it tends to bond with the other animals and be aggressive toward canines.
When the llama sees a predator, it often responds with a high-pitched scream, followed by posturing, spitting and moving toward the predator. Llamas might charge, strike or stomp on small predators.
Some llamas place themselves between the threat and their flock or try to herd them away. Llamas generally scan the surrounding area for potential danger or patrol their area. For a small herd near your house, llamas might be able to dissuade many predators but can’t deter wolves or cougars.
A single llama will have difficulty deterring multiple dogs or a pack of coyotes.
Not all llamas are suitable livestock guardian animals. Some ignore dogs. Others run from dogs and are vulnerable to attack themselves.
Immature llamas don’t have the confidence to guard successfully. A guard llama must be on duty at all times, so it can’t be a pet or a pack animal.
Females work best. Male llamas—even if gelded—might be too aggressive or might try to mate with the sheep.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.