Critical Components, Guard dog producers share their importance in sheep operations
“Most people with sheep use guard dogs, and some raise them. We raise enough to keep ourselves in dogs and I sell what we don’t need. There are those who raise them very seriously and keep them registered,” says Savery sheep and guard dog producer Sharon O’Toole.
“We bought a pair of dogs years ago at the National Ram Sale and started raising them. I stopped for a while, but kept losing dogs and couldn’t find any to buy, so I decided to start raising them again for availability purposes,” adds Otto sheep and guard dog producer Randall Jones.
Jones raises Pyrenees dogs and says today most dogs he sells go for pets. O’Toole raises Pyrenees/Akbash cross dogs and recently acquired three Russian Ovtcharka dogs to incorporate into her program.
“The Ovtcharka are more aggressive and almost look like a big bulldog. Pete Arambel got them for wolf protection, and we are going to cross them with our dogs – it’s about trying to achieve a balance of traits,” notes O’Toole.
The two producers utilize different training techniques with their dogs. Jones bonds all of his dogs with sheep as soon as they’re weaned. O’Toole relies on older dogs to teach younger pups what their job is. She notes that not all dogs are good guarders, and those that don’t excel can be sold as pets.
“I put the pups in a bonding pen with lambs and leave them there for two or three months. Then they are put by themselves in a small, irrigated pasture with sheep and run there for several months. After that they are moved in with the older dogs,” explains Jones.
“Once you get your first dogs working, the old ones train the young ones,” says O’Toole of how she manages her young dogs. “We have range sheep and they’re in camps with a herder. He will have a couple horses and two or three Border collies and two or three guard dogs. The young ones go with the adults and learn their trade.”
Both producers run sheep on a combination of public and private lands and say guard dogs are a necessary tool in predator management.
“I think I’m about like everyone else in that it wouldn’t be feasible to turn sheep out without them. In the fall our ewes run strictly with guard dogs. They stay out with the sheep and every day the herder will go out and make sure the sheep are together so the dogs can cover them.
“I have less loss running with the guard dogs than I ever had with a herder, even if he was with them full time. The sheep also do better, because the herder isn’t restricting their movement and they can get out and fill up better,” notes Jones.
“I don’t imagine people could survive without them. I don’t know what happened to the guy in Colorado, but I know that after pulling his dogs he just got slaughtered. They are a critical tool,” adds O’Toole.
Both producers believe in exposing their dogs to people to make them easier to manage and to reduce the chances of a human-related incident.
“I don’t believe in having feral dogs. Ours are all tame. I know there is a school of thought that says if they aren’t socialized with people they will relate to sheep better. But, they have been bred to guard things for thousands of years. It’s like a Border collie’s instinct to herd; it’s what they want to do.
“I don’t want a dog I can’t catch, vaccinate or put in a pickup if I need to. We also graze on forest permits in Colorado, and if someone goes by on a bicycle or motorcycle we want our dogs to be friendly. I would rather have a dog stolen than have him bite someone,” says O’Toole. She adds theft is a problem at times, both in guard dogs and Border collies.
“I think if you have dogs that are used to human interaction you are less inclined to have problems. One of the reasons I run Pyrenees is they’re a little less aggressive. I don’t think a Pyrenees would ever attack someone, and I think it’s more a matter of people being fearful of guard dogs because they don’t know what they’re capable of,” comments Jones.
Both Jones and O’Toole have had incidents with their dogs and the public.
“We had a lot of bear trouble this summer and in the middle of a big storm a Good Samaritan saw a dog on the side of the road with blood on him from a bear attack. So he stopped and loaded him and flagged down a Department of Wildlife guy, who recommended he take him to animal control in Steamboat.
“By the time we realized our dog was in the pound he had been listed for adoption, so to get him back they told us we had to adopt him. Then, according to Colorado state law, he had to be castrated, which was a problem because he was one of our stud males. Then the guy who picked him up was interested in adopting him.
“We finally called the sheriff and explained we just wanted our dog back. We wanted him back intact, and that from our viewpoint he was abducted, with good intentions, and we just wanted him back. In the end we paid $220 to get our dog back. We actually know the Department of Wildlife individual and he felt bad, but just hadn’t realized it was a guard dog in the storm,” explains O’Toole.
“The main issue I run into is conflict with sportsmen, hikers and recreationalists. Part of it is that people are afraid of them and the dogs will bark at them. I had one hunter say he was hunting deer near my sheep and the dog showed up and barked at him. He walked backwards for about a mile and a half to his pickup because he was afraid of the dog. I think the key is educating the public so they know what the dogs are there for and how to act around them,” says Jones.
While dogs are considered most effective against coyotes, O’Toole notes a story where a friend of hers had a herder attacked by a bear, and the guard dogs helped drive it away.
“My dogs killed a mountain lion who was killing lambs in one of my herds this summer. While flying for coyotes a dead mountain lion was found and they thought my herder had shot it. But upon closer inspection they realized the guard dogs killed it right after it attacked and killed a lamb. They make it feasible for me to continue running sheep,” adds Jones.
Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.