Choosing livestock guardian dogs includes looking at predator solutions around the world
Riverton − As predator populations grow and spread across the West at an unchecked rate, Cat Urbigkit looked to Europe and Asia to find the perfect livestock guardian dogs to protect the sheep and cattle of Wyoming from threats.
Urbigkit is a Wyoming rancher and esteemed author, specializing in livestock guardian dogs. She was a keynote speaker at the Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days, held in Riverton on Feb. 6-7.
Search for perfect breeds
Following increased predator issues and complicated legislation, particularly surrounding wolves and grizzlies, Urbigkit looked to countries around the world to seek out breeds with centuries of livestock protection experience.
“We have to ask ourselves what people are doing differently where these great guardian dogs originate,” said Urbigkit.
“Our criteria for finding dogs was they had to originate from large carnivore country, have little to no history of human aggression and be large in size,” said Urbigkit. “We also have to consider the feasibility of importing these dogs. I would love to have some dogs from Afghanistan, but that’s just not logical.”
Using the criteria, she narrowed down her search to a handful of breeds hailing from Spain and the Balkan Peninsula.
“When I heard the Spanish mastiff had killed bears, I knew I had to have one,” Urbigkit said.
She noted even with the large amount of recreational activity in the Spanish countryside, there are no recorded incidents of the dogs biting humans.
The heavy forest and extreme fog in the Balkans also made highly desirable dogs.
“I was taken aback by how rough the terrain of the Balkans really is,” she said. “There are a lot of wolves and bears, and the dogs work as a pack to either remove the threat from the herd or kill it.”
The breeds Urbigkit found in the Balkans include the Central Asian Ovcharka, Turkish Kangal and Karakachan.
Choosing the right dogs
“We have to understand guard dogs are independent thinkers,” said Urbigkit. “They don’t need a human to command them to do something. They will handle a situation how they see fit.”
When we decide livestock guardian dogs are a good solution, there are many factors to consider.
Understanding the predator load in a specific area, as well as specific herd needs is very important.
“I find a mix of breeds, ages and sexes in dogs is the most effective means of protecting herds from predators,” Urbigkit said. “Often times, younger dogs will be more aggressive than older dogs.”
She noted some dogs are also more aware of avian threats than others, pointing out the Central Asian Ovcharka is extremely aware of large birds.
“Birds of prey, such as eagles, can be a huge threat to lambs and calves,” she explained. “If a rancher is struggling with large birds, there are dogs that can solve these issues.”
Urbigkit noted the most important aspect to consider when choosing dogs is lineage.
“We want to have dogs from working lineages, not pets,” she said.
“These dogs need to be highly canine aggressive,” Urbigkit noted. “If our dogs aren’t engaging wolves, the dogs and sheep will both be slaughtered.”
She noted wolves are very smart when it comes to getting around guard dogs in the herd. The wolves will often feel dogs out and habituate the dogs to their presence. Once the dogs are comfortable, the wolves are able to prey on the herd.
“It’s not abnormal to see guard dogs sitting by and wolves hunting within the herd,” Urbigkit said. “This is why it’s so important we have dogs that are canine aggressive and confront the wolves directly.”
Urbigkit noted Great Pyrenees dogs are killed more often by wolves than any other breed. It’s unclear if the dog is less effective or if the number of deaths speaks to the popularity of the breed in the United States.
“The problem we have is, our dogs are often outweighed and outnumbered by wolves,” she said. “Some dogs are going to be more aggressive and physically fight with the wolves, while others will make their presence known by barking.”
In her travels in eastern Europe, she witnessed guardian dogs working in packs to fend off the wolf packs.
“Many of the farmers have small barns where they would keep their livestock at night, but the wolves were able to get in the barn through the vents,” she explained. “The dogs knew to guard those specific places and were able to keep the wolves out.”
She noted one farmer she talked to was so confident in his dogs he never shot at wolves with a gun.
The farmer told her, “For me to shoot at the wolves would be an insult to my dogs’ ability.”
“Bears present a unique set of issues for ranchers in Wyoming,” Urbigkit explained. “Legislation makes it very difficult for us to defend our herds against grizzlies.”
Urbigkit explained, similarly to wolves, some dogs will actively engage bears while some will bark and make their presence known.
“We have to remember a guardian dog’s main job is to disrupt predators’ hunting pattern,” she noted.
Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.