I have been asked to write about Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) and llamas. One might say, "I thought llamas were Livestock Guardians" and of course you are right, they are. So why have dogs to protect your herd? Perhaps you live in a rural area. We live in rural Western Massachusetts. Our farm is outside of town and we do have neighbors. Our community seems to be filling up more and more, which we find sad, as we love the bucolic lifestyle. Vast woods and swamps surround our farm. There are coyote dens, black bears and dogs roaming and one known catamount den; the female has been spotted three times on our road by different neighbors.
I was given my first livestock guardian for my 40th birthday present. (I will not tell you how many years ago it was!) She was a fairly rare breed, an Akbash Dog. She had been bred by some friends of mine, was born in a llama barn. She was the first livestock guardian I raised and trained, all the while learning the ropes.
What exactly are LGDs and how do they work? Shepherds have bred LGDs for centuries in Europe and Euro-Asia. For the most part they are white dogs, so the shepherd can differentiate their dog from a predator and in a fight situation can shoot only the predator. LGDs are known for being very calm dogs who mostly lie around the farm doing nothing. They tend to be a nocturnal dog, which is when they go to work. We have found LGDs not to be the type of dog who will play fetch with you. (My dogs wouldn't know what to do with a stick or ball!) It is important that the LGD's temperament be submissive to the species they guard. I find llamas react well to this. We all know that llamas will stomp a dog that makes eye contact too strongly. Llamas perceive this as a threat and will react as a protective measure. LGDs have been bred for centuries to think on their own, to assess a situation and decide on the best way to protect their flock. That could be simply walking in-between a stranger and their herd in a non-threatening, even friendly way, or to stand at attention down by the road in-between a car of 'llama lookers' and their herd. LGDs will bark and carry on threateningly, getting someone to leave the farm.
The different breeds of LGDs do have different guarding habits. Some use their voice and bark, others tend to bite or attack directly. This can be a key issue due to the possibility of having a dog bite a human, and then being sued! After a lot of thought I have settled on the Great Pyrenees breed because they tend to use their voice for warning off predators. My dogs work the perimeter of my farm all night long. They sit on top of a high place and if they hear anything they bark into the night, waking us to the possibility of trouble.
The old school thinking on raising these dogs was to have as little human socialization with them as possible, so they would totally bond with the flock they were to guard. That, however, did not seem right to me, so I did not follow that school of training. I felt in the Northeast, where you have such a high density of people, they would have to be very tolerant of people, and still able to perform their guardian duties. We live in walking distance of three Inns, and our farm is one of the destinations for the tourists to visit. I often find people walking up our driveway and into our yard uninvited. I must have dogs that will be able to differentiate between a friend and a foe. My dogs are loving and accepting of people, both big and small, and very able to keep predators away from our herds.
It is necessary to consider your fencing because LGDs believe the whole neighborhood theirs to protect unless your farm has a well-defined perimeter. Therefore, we have both stock fencing and invisible fence to keep our dogs in our fields and our property.
I have developed a training method for my young pups. First, with a puppy, you have to give them a safe place to be with the animals they are going to be protecting, while keeping them safe from being stomped by the llamas. We have a kennel right in one of our llama fields, where the pups can safely see our llamas. I feed my herd right around the kennel. I also bring a pup out on a lead with me as I work and protect it from getting thumped. As I do chores, the pup frisks around the llamas and me. It is sweet to watch and a good learning exercise for both pup and llama. As they get a little more comfortable with each other, I graduate to a longer lead line, such a lunge line for horses. That way I can bring the young dog back to me quickly (that also works for teaching 'come'). Eventually I let them run around with the lead line dragging behind, so if they get too frisky, I can step on it to settle them down or stop them from going where they shouldn't. When I have to go indoors, or do work where a puppy would not be welcome, I put the pup back in the kennel. In the winter or on cold spring nights, my young pup is housed in the barn with the llamas. The pup is in a stall to keep it safe and still be close to llamas.
As you can see, it takes work to make a good guard dog. They really need to be bonded to their humans, so that you can correct them whenever they are misbehaving. Finally the day will comeat around 6-8 monthswhen you will notice the pup beginning to "play" with your llamas. That is not to be encouraged, as a dog can get rough. A training trick I use when I see objectionable behavior is to grab my dog by both sides of its face, force them to the ground on their back, and then yell at them, "NO, BAD", right into their face so they know how mad I am. (Mother dogs do this to their young to teach them right from wrong.) I have never hit any of my dogs and don't believe in it. My training methods are effective because my dogs adore me and never want to make me unhappy. One of the old-fashioned methods of calming an overactive dog is to give them a lower protein feed. This can help bring their energy down. I switch my dog kibble to a lower protein. Many breeders switch their pups to a good quality adult food at around 4 to 6 months of age. If you still are having trouble, try lowering the protein level to a good quality dietetic dog food. I had to do this with my first LGD, but only for a short while and then I was able to switch her over to regular adult dog food.
Now to answer the question, "Do I believe my dogs have actually worked for me against predators?" Yes. One spring we were awakened in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of our dogs franticly barking, and other strange sounds. We went outdoors to see what was happening. My three dogs were running back and forth barking at different sections of our farm. We soon discovered that coyotes were trying to attract our dogs to a 'wounded animal' so they could sneak on our farm from a different direction and make off with a meal. Our dogs assessed and understood what was happening and worked beautifully as a team, driving away the coyotes and saving the value of our herd. On another occasion we heard barking and did not think anything of it, nor did we go outside. That morning I got up and went to the barn to check my herd, my elderly Akbash was in the barn. I walked by her and into the barn office to look out the window at my herd. As I was walking out to go back to the house, she started barking ferociously. There in the corner trapped was a coyote! She had kept the coyote there all night long. I ran to the house and got Tom, who took care of it. I was so proud of my dog. Her work ethic was so strong that even in her failing health; she put herself on the line to protect the farm.
LGDs are great dogs. They are tender with the llamas; they sleep in the hay feeders all day with the llamas munching all around them; they work the farm all night to make sure "the things that go bump in the night" stay on the other side of the fence. I love my dogs!
by Liz Marino