Sheep Protection Dogs - Cornell Small Farms (2023)

Guarding means that the dog regards the livestock as members of its own pack.

Sheep Protection Dogs - Cornell Small Farms (1)

This is my current guard dog, a 2 year old Great Pyrenees named Simon.
Courtesy of Ulf Kintzel / White Clover Sheep Farm

In 2011, I wrote an article for Small Farms Quarterly about "livestock guardian dogs.” Over the past nine years, I have gained many additional insights and experiences that I want to share in this new article.

(Video) Northland Sheep Dairy - Milking

A severe loss of lambs caused by a desperate and mangy coyote prompted me to use a livestock guardian dog. After weighing options like a llama or a donkey, I settled on a dog. The US government was testing several breeds of guard dogs at the time. A lead person for these field trials was Dr. Jeffrey Green of the Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho. He was kind enough to take my call and after a long chat I was determined to get a Great Pyrenees. This was the breed that had not bitten a human in these tests involving about 300 dogs of different breeds. I was then living in settled New Jersey and renting public land to graze my sheep. I needed a dog that would be safe around people. I received literature on the breeding, training and understanding of livestock guardian dogs. At the same time I contacted a breeder in Tennessee and bought a 13 month old bitch who had started with goats.

There are many Old World guardian dog breeds such as Great Pyrenees from France, Maremmas from Italy and Akbash and Anatolian Shepherds from Turkey to name a few. They have several characteristics in common. First, they are all big. Most often they are light in color. Cattle, with their innate fear of the wolf, will feel less threatened by a lighter colored dog than by a dark or black dog. This means white dogs are more acceptable for a group of sheep to live among. In addition, guard dog breeds lack prey drive, making them less likely to hunt and hunt animals. This discourages a guard dog from chasing the animals it is supposed to protect, or at least greatly reduces the crowd. Shelter dogs are protective by nature. They are committed to protecting and defending the livestock they grew up with. This waking behavior is instinctive. It is not taught and it cannot be taught. Either the dog has it or it doesn't, in which case it will fail.

The fact that sentinel behavior is instinctive does not mean that the farmer has no role to play. It's not like you let a guard dog loose with the herd and that's it. Proper rearing of a puppy is important. Good behavior such as B. alert barking can be encouraged and bad behavior, such as chewing or chasing livestock, needs to be disciplined. For a guard dog to be successful, it must be raised with the herd rather than raised among people. A pen with a group of older sheep that are quiet or the lambing pen are good places to start with a puppy around eight weeks old.

A common misconception is that a herding dog could also guard. Another misconception is that a watchdog will tend the sheep. Guarding and guarding are mutually exclusive. Herding is derived from hunting. Herding is basically a controlled hunt. A herding dog sees livestock as prey. Guarding, on the other hand, means that the dog views the livestock as members of its own pack (hence the need to raise the dog with the livestock), just as a lap dog views a human as a member of its pack.

Sheep Protection Dogs - Cornell Small Farms (2)

Simon has outgrown his puppy-like behavior and can now fully entrust himself to the little lambs.
Courtesy of Ulf Kintzel / White Clover Sheep Farm

(Video) Tour of Cornell Small Farms Program Website Resources

In this article, I cannot address everything you need to know about how to raise the puppy, how to correct unwanted behavior, how to interpret certain behaviors, and so on. That would be a whole book. So here is a recent book that I own, Livestock Protection Dogs: Selection, Care, and Training by David E. Sims and Orysia Dawydiak. I highly recommend reading this book if you are trying to raise and use a guard dog.

When I first started using a watchdog, I had no idea at all. Although I had trained and used herding dogs for more than a decade, training a guard dog was something else entirely. I had to learn as I called, and with that came a lot of mistakes and misunderstandings. I applied my newfound knowledge and made changes over the years. The most notable change from them is the leash training. In the original literature that I received from Dr. Green clearly states that human interaction must be kept to a minimum. The reason for this is that the dogs would leave the herd to interact with humans if they had too much contact with them. Indeed, my first two guard dogs, Gertrude and Bertholdt, lacked that human interaction. I could trick them with food into jumping into my truck or a trailer I converted into a kennel. However, I couldn't touch her in the open field and I couldn't walk her on a leash. My third shelter dog, an Akbash named Ista, was a little more socialized and could be touched and petted, but was still not leash trained. Now I have my fourth guard dog, a Great Pyrenees named Simon. He is leash trained and interacted a lot with my family growing up and was walked on a leash by my kids. I changed my mind about leash training for two reasons. Firstly, if for some reason the dog needed to be vaccinated, dewormed or examined, it became difficult to get the dog. Secondly, over the last few decades I have seen shelter dogs with the right instincts who were human-social, petted and leash-trained while rearing, but as adults had little desire to follow the person around much, much less leave the herd. My Simon is now two years old and doesn't feel like leaving the sheep when he sees me. He comes and greets me (or one of my children and my wife) when I'm being fed or when I'm walking through the herd, and awaits his cuddles and praise. However, he makes no attempt to follow either of us as he leaves and is perfectly content to stay with the flock. Still, we don't interact with him the way I interact with my herding dogs. So in a way, human contact is still limited, but not nearly as limited as it used to be.

Sheep Protection Dogs - Cornell Small Farms (3)

The first of two major changes I made in raising my guard dog was to allow for a more humane interaction with the dog.
Courtesy of Ulf Kintzel / White Clover Sheep Farm

(Video) How to Raise Small Ruminants Profitably and Sustainably - Steve Hart

I have been told on several occasions that guard dogs work in pairs that I should have two. I only ever had one guard dog at a time. However, I see the benefits of having two. They can play with each other if they feel like playing. With just one, the playfulness of a puppy or young dog is at the expense of the sheep and the dog requires much more supervision. Such behaviors as chewing or hunting need to be corrected. The way guard dogs act when defending themselves in a pack is also different. So I clearly see the point of having two guard dogs and don't deny the benefits. I've only ever been happy with one dog. That's because I don't rely solely on my guard dog. In addition to my guard dog, I also have a high-strength fence made of high-strength wire mesh and my indoor fences are electrical nets that are always well erected, never deteriorate, and are always heavily charged. I also change my sheep once a day for most of the year. This allows coyotes, who like to scout ahead of what they're going to hunt, to spot a pattern or weakness in the fence because it's different the next day. I also don't leave dead sheep and the like lying around that would potentially attract coyotes. As such, the coyote pressure on my herd just wasn't strong enough to prompt the thought of a second guard dog.

Where to get a guard dog and what breed should you choose? You are well advised to look for a dog from working parents, i.e. a puppy from parents who both herd livestock. There are puppy millers who produce large numbers of guard dogs without conducting a selection process for suitability. This is always the case when a person breeds dogs in large numbers. What the parents are guarding, be it poultry, sheep or goats, is rather irrelevant as long as they are guarding some type of livestock. This is, in my opinion, the most important part of choosing a guard dog - far more important than deciding which breed to choose. However, for personal reasons, the greater handler sensitivity of Great Pyrenees compared to Akbash made me want to return to this breed. Also, the Great Pyrenees as well as the Maremmas stay much closer to the herd, while Akbash and Anatolian Shepherds are more territorial and will explore and roam your property more. So keep that in mind when choosing a breed. Some breeds may be a better fit for you or your situation than others.

Sheep Protection Dogs - Cornell Small Farms (4)

The second major change I made in training my guard dog was leash training.
Courtesy of Ulf Kintzel / White Clover Sheep Farm

(Video) Why Forage First? (Cornell Equine Seminar Series, November 2022)

Having a guard dog doesn't mean your dog often gets into fights with coyotes. The dog is more of a deterrent, it could rarely get into a real fight. While exceptions apply, coyotes are opportunists. They do not hunt in organized packs like wolves. A dog that marks the pasture and is nocturnal, barking at any potential intruder, already does more than 90 percent of the job. Most coyotes will not bother entering a pasture where a barking guard dog or two is in a defensive posture. It is not worth. Barking is indeed a big part of deterrence. So if a barking dog annoys you, don't get a guard dog!

Additionally, the risk of pet dogs — who are not properly watched or leashed by their irresponsible owners — entering your flock can be even greater than a coyote attack. Also, even if you have a guard dog in the herd, I recommend building fences properly and, in the case of electric fences, electrifying them well. You double your chances of coyotes leaving your sheep alone.

Almost every season I hear lots of coyotes all around me. I've seen a few in broad daylight, quite intrepid. Well-meaning hunters and trappers have offered to kill coyotes near me. I declined. Why did I do this? There's a school of thought that says you should leave coyotes alone when they're not preying on your sheep. If they are killed, other coyotes will occupy that area over time. These coyotes may have developed a taste for sheep elsewhere. I haven't had a coyote kill since I arrived here in upstate New York. I will leave the coyotes alone as long as they leave me alone.

(Video) Be Unconditional: Life as a Livestock Vet

Finally, I would like to put this article of mine in perspective. I wrote this article based on my experience. I have had guard dogs for about twenty years now. I currently own my fourth protection dog. I am by no means an expert. I am only sharing what I have experienced and observed.


1. Kingbird Farm - Layer Management & Egg Production (2 of 2).mov
2. Silage Tarps to Reduce Tillage on Small Farms: Farmer Experiences
3. Growing Ginseng with Success - Webinar Recording
4. Want to make money with sheep? Greg gives full year of management practices.
(Greg Judy Regenerative Rancher)
5. Muddy Fingers Farm - Irrigation
6. Tree Fodders in Silvopasture, 11/2018 Webinar
(Wellspring Forest Farm)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Terence Hammes MD

Last Updated: 05/06/2023

Views: 6651

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (69 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Terence Hammes MD

Birthday: 1992-04-11

Address: Suite 408 9446 Mercy Mews, West Roxie, CT 04904

Phone: +50312511349175

Job: Product Consulting Liaison

Hobby: Jogging, Motor sports, Nordic skating, Jigsaw puzzles, Bird watching, Nordic skating, Sculpting

Introduction: My name is Terence Hammes MD, I am a inexpensive, energetic, jolly, faithful, cheerful, proud, rich person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.