Sunday 29 July 2018

How many LGD do I need?

Two dogs, out of a group of 4, leading the flock back into the nigh corral after a day of grazing.

How many LGD do I need?

©Louise Liebenberg, June 2018

 “How many Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) do I need?” is probably one of the most asked questions when people start utilizing LGD. The standard answer is typically two or more, however I think there are certain situations that require more thought and consideration than a standardized answer. There are some situations that certainly do not warrant a LGD, especially when the“cons” outweigh the “pro’s”. This article will look at this question in a little more depth.

The primary job of a LGD is to ensure that predators stay away from the flock, and they do this by patrolling, scent marking, barking and if needed, engaging the predator. These are instinctual behaviors and are “hard wired” in these breeds.  Most LGD are more active from dusk to dawn, the period when many predators are out looking for an easy meal. Many LGD are canine aggressive due to the very nature of their job, they are also self thinkers and are not prone to being very obedient. They can be stubborn, bold, and dominant; all characteristics that make them effective as a protector of the flock, however, it is also these characteristics that make it hard to keep LGD in certain situations. Not every location or enterprise warrants a LGD and this needs to be said, as many shelters are overflowing with roaming, barking and disruptive LGD.

 Over the past few years there has been a marked increase in the number of people turning towards LGDs for their micro-farm or mini homestead. These are folks living on a few acres, have chickens and possibly a handful of other livestock. Many of these mini homesteads are closer to towns, and other houses.  Trouble with the neighbors start when the dog barks through the night, when it roams beyond the few acres of the homestead and is threatening to the local delivery person. In this situation a LGD is perhaps not the best solution for the protection of the livestock simply because of its inherent nature and the proximity to other people. To keep the livestock safe, a well constructed chicken coop, a barn or even good fencing, is probably an adequate solution. If a person feels that there is a risk of predation and that a LGD is the solution, then usually one dog can handle this situation effectively. A single LGD would not be overworked when the area it is guarding is small, low numbers of livestock, plenty of human presence and a low risk for predation. I think many people underestimate the ability these large dogs have in deterring predators.

This Estrela is the only LGD protecting about 100 goats in the northern part of Portugal.
Making a good evaluation of your situation will highlight what your needs are.
Consider things such as:
Predation pressure?
Type of predators?
Have you lost livestock to predators?
Size of your land your animals utilize?
How many animals is the dog expected to guard, how many groups?
What is the terrain like? Open, hilly, bushy?
Do you have close neighbors?
What is your fencing like?
What is your livestock management like?
Are you prepared to work with dogs? Do you have time?

In the literature, the recommendations on the numbers of LGD varies enormously. I have heard suggestions of 1 dog for every 25 head of goats/sheep (on a 1000 head operation that would mean 40 dogs!), in Portugal it was typical to only see 1 LGD with the flock (a few hundred head) on rough expansive areas, in Macedonia the shepherds had more dogs with their flocks, we saw a few flocks with 2-6 dogs accompanying them.  Robin Rigg worked with the Georgia Carnivore Conservation Project on wildlife/livestock conflict and in that study, the average number of dogs per farm was 8.  In the USDA study conducted by Julie Young and Daniel Kinka, they suggest that 4 to 5 dogs are the “breaking point” for the number of dogs to run with a flock. Other people suggest that you just keep adding dogs until the predation stops.

There is certainly no magical formula to figure out how many dogs one will ultimately need. Each situation is unique, and there are too many variables to make a good estimation on how many dogs one needs. Acquiring the dogs, is a process that needs to built-up over time. The whole idea of an “insta-pack of LGD” generally does not work out well. Most people are looking for this instant solution once predation sets in, rather than making a long term planning regarding the use of LGD.
 In my experience and in our situation, it is always better to have a dog too many than, a dog too few. With that said, I also believe that there is an optimum threshold.  Having too many dog’s can result in ineffectiveness in their guardian duties, in-pack fighting, disruption in the dog pack structure, boredom, dogs being expelled from the flock, and them being more preoccupied with pack dynamics than protecting the flock.

Multiple LGD in a shepherd’s camp in Macedonia. These dogs are of varying ages and sexes.
The LGD pack structure is perhaps more important than the ultimate numbers. Having two dogs that work well together, can be more effective than four who are fighting all the time.  Effective dogs are those who are mature enough (18 months and older), experienced, work well together, bonded to the livestock, and focused on their job. The ability for the dogs to work together is a deciding factor in effectiveness to protect the sheep. A sheep rancher in Canada was having coyote issues with his flock, purchased 5 sibling LGDs. He felt he needed more dogs to solve the problem and getting all siblings seemed like a good plan. He got a discount for buying multiple pups and was told how well they would work together due to them being siblings.   These dogs ended up forming such a tight bond with each other, they never truly integrated into the sheep flock.  These dogs strayed and ended up killing calves at the neighbor. Ultimately, these dogs became feral and were shot. The rancher got out of the sheep business.
More is not always better or even more effective. We have found that staggering of ages and having familial lines (parent-sibling as opposed to sibling-sibling) work well in our situation. On our ranch we have 6-8 mature dogs between the ages of 1 and 10 years old, these dogs are divided up among various groups of livestock. We have the flexibility to move the dogs around depending on where the flocks are grazing and the predator pressure. We normally do not have more than 4-5 dogs in one group, as we find dog management becomes more complicated when we add more dogs to that group. Tensions between the dogs can run high, particularly with bitches coming into heat. Stress and tension between the dogs reduces their ability to guard the flocks.

I think for any average, pasture-based sheep flock in the USA (about 70-100 ewes) 2 LGD, staggered in age would be the best starting point. If these dogs are effective and no predation is occurring then this might be the optimum number, with a third dog being added before the oldest dog is retired.  If the predation risk is high, or you have en established predation problem, or dealing with larger predators such as wolves, cougars, and bears, then more mature dogs would be recommended.  In an ideal world the livestock keeper getting into LGD for the first time, would start with a mature, well bonded adult. Then add a pup once the new dog is settled in. Once the pup is past the teenage phase (18 months- 2 years) and is reliable, then add a third if needed. For those who like to start with multiple pups at the same time, remember that all those pups will be old and retired all at the same time. Staggering of ages will help ensure you have a continuous flow of mature experienced dogs working with the flock.

 On larger operations it is easier to run and manage more dogs due to the size of the flocks and the expansive areas they cover. It is more fluid. These dogs tend to form their own pack structures and the dogs are often free to move among groups of livestock and even various bands. 
Whatever the situation, a good evaluation of your needs is the best starting point. It takes years to build up a solid and reliable set of dogs. Adding a well bonded pup every few years will ensure you have a good age distribution, enough dogs, and a spread of experience to effectively protect the livestock for the next years.

A pair of dogs, ages 5 and 2, working well together. These dogs form a team and are effective in protecting their flock.

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