Tuesday 15 November 2022

Other Guard Animals: Donkeys

A pair of standard donkeys hanging out with a flock of ewes in Northern Alberta.

Other Guard Animals: Donkeys
Louise Liebenberg (2022)
Written for The Shepherds Magazine

This month’s article is going to deviate from my regular column on livestock guardian dogs (LGD) and I am going to look at other guard animals to protect livestock. Typically, donkeys and llamas are the other “go to” animals used to guard livestock.  Very little research has been done regarding the effectiveness of these other guard animals and any that I can find, was done almost 30 years ago.  A lot of the information available is anecdotal and quite subjective, where owners “feel or think” that the guard animals are being either effective or not.
In this article I am going to focus on using donkeys as guard animals.

Donkeys that stay close to the flock can add a layer of protection to the flock against predators.

There is a tradition of shepherds using donkeys, going back to Biblical times. Many shepherds used donkeys to help transport products, shelters and fencing into grazing areas.  Donkeys carried supplies into the high mountain summer pastures and grazed alongside the sheep. In more nomadic tribes, donkeys, along with camels, were commonly found in their caravans. As donkeys lived near to the sheep flocks and their shepherds, it can be assumed that the donkeys might have started to display protective behaviours around the flocks. I have met shepherds in Europe who still use donkeys to help transport electric fencing, milking items and food supplies for the grazing period and they feel having a donkey in the flock is a positive addition as the sheep will follow the donkey on a flock move.

Donkeys are often found around sheep camps as they can be used to transport goods and supplies to high mountain pastures.

The effectiveness of using donkeys is a strongly debated topic.   As with LGD, some are great, and others simply do not work out. A study done in Ontario, Canada in 1995, reported that “about 70% of the donkeys being used were rated as either excellent or good in terms of providing flock protection. However, the donkeys’ effectiveness ranged from total elimination of predation, to having absolutely no impact on predation, while simultaneously causing other problems within the flock. In many instances, poor management practices and unrealistic expectations (too many sheep, scattered sheep, or pastures) are as much or more to blame for many failures as any shortcoming of the donkey(s).” (1995 Ontario Predator Study, Study 6: Donkeys as Mobile Flock Protectors, by Fytche Enterprises)

Although success is a difficult metric to define, I will define success as; the donkey has been reliable around the sheep and does not harm the sheep, the sheep are comfortable around the donkey and no/little predation has taken place. Donkeys seem to be the most successful on smaller groups of sheep and on open terrain, some research suggests a hundred ewes or less is the optimum number of ewes for a donkey to watch over.  This is logical because large bands of sheep spread out and it is hard for the donkey to be able to watch over this expansive area. As donkeys are taller than sheep, they do act more like a sentry and can spot predators further away. Ranchers have found donkeys to be less effective in bushy and hilly areas, where sight lines are obscured, and predators can do sneak attacks from a wooded area.

Some research suggests that donkeys are more successful if they are kept alone with the sheep. As soon as they have other donkey companions, they tend to buddy up with them and the sheep become less important. The donkeys will form their own little “herd” and the donkey may no longer feel protective over the sheep when danger approaches.  This could happen also when horses or even cattle are included in the mix. The donkey might feel more herd affinity towards these species, than to the sheep.

The most functional guarding donkeys are those that are bonded to the sheep, similarly to livestock guardian dogs. The donkeys that are raised with sheep from a young age and are bonded to the flock will tend to be more protective, in this way very similar to how LGD are bonded to the sheep as puppies.  The sheep intuitively will tend to congregate around the largest animal in their pasture, in this case it would be the donkey. Donkeys are regarded as more effective against predators than cattle or horses as they seem to have a more inherent hatred toward canines. Unlike LGD, donkeys tend not to be purposefully protective of the sheep, instead they react aggressively towards a predator in their territory, or a jenny might be protective of her own young that is within the sheep pasture.  

As with all guardian animals, they all have their “pros and cons”. One advantage to utilizing donkeys are that they do not require specialized feed, they eat what the sheep eat. They can be contained in similar fencing as the sheep and are not prone to roaming like some LGD.
Overall, donkeys are also cheaper to purchase, often live longer and are less expensive to maintain in comparison to LGD.

Problems that people have with donkeys are comparable to some of the issues people have with LGD. Some donkeys are not bonded to the sheep and do not feel protective toward them. It is also well documented that they can be very aggressive towards the sheep and lambs, stomping on them, picking them up and shaking them. Intact males can be aggressive toward the sheep and people, if not gelded.  Occasionally the guard donkeys will chase the rams away from the ewes in breeding season, which would require them to be separated during this time. Perhaps, the biggest downfall could be that they can be aggressive towards your own farm dogs, making it hard to use herding or guardian dogs around them.

As donkeys are prey animals, it is not fair to choose a mini donkey be used as a guard animal, they need to be at least standard or large size. While I was in Portugal, many of the shepherds were quite horrified to hear that sheep keepers in North America purposefully use donkeys to guard the livestock. Stories were told to me how donkeys were the favoured animal for wolves to eat, how sheep were passed by, and the donkey was killed. They all asked how a prey animal could be effective in guarding against large predators?

I personally believe that there is no one solution to reducing predation. Predation management involves layering of different forms of deterrents.  If you are not able to utilize LGD, then adding a large donkey might be a good alternative. Having the donkey, might not prevent predation but it might still work as a deterrent, particularly if you are in open areas, with a smaller flock and where coyotes or stray dogs are the main predators. Having at least one form of predation mitigation strategy in place is always better than none.
Combining the donkey with deterrents such as foxlights or electric fencing, all add additional layers of protection around the sheep. In certain circumstances, a standard or large size donkey may be the only way to provide some form protection to the flock, however one does need to remember that using prey animals to guard against predators may not be the most effective strategy and in some areas, where large predators are in abundance, the donkey might become food to these predators.

Some people suggest that having just one donkey with the flock might be more effective, however donkeys that have been raised with, and bonded to the flock, might be more important than  the number of donkeys. A jenny and her baby would certainly capitalise on her protective instincts to keep her own baby safe from predators.

Friday 4 November 2022

Bonding and Trustworthiness


Bonding and Trustworthiness
Louise Liebenberg(2022)

Written for The Shepherds Magazine

I have written many columns for this magazine on Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD) and the regular readers may be accustomed to me writing about the importance of understanding the nuances in behaviour and the use of language to describe this behaviour.  Terms are tossed around without fully grasping the differences or similarities. We cannot fully appreciate the level of working ability our LGD display, or even manage some behavioural issues that pop up, without fully understanding the differences in the behaviour. A lot of behaviours look similar and yet, they are not. It is in this gray area where confusion and misunderstanding can grow. I like to explain these subtle variations in the hopes to provide some more clarity on the behaviour these dogs display.

This article is going to dive a little deeper into two concepts and how they differ: bonding and trustworthiness.  The most successful livestock guardian dogs are those who are bonded, trustworthy, attentive, and protective towards the livestock. This is the gold standard in working LGD. Some LGD can be effective, to a slightly lesser degree, if they are perhaps not quite as protective or attentive toward the livestock. Less effective dogs can have a deterring effect on predators, but may no be as effective as some other dogs are. The problem arises when a LGD is not trustworthy, this is a total failure, as no shepherd can tolerate a dog that is harming the stock. Trustworthiness can be described as an absence of predatory behaviour towards the livestock.

Trustworthiness and bonding look very similar in normal LGD/ sheep interactions, a dog who is trustworthy can live with the livestock and will do them no harm. A dog can be trustworthy and yet, not be bonded to the sheep.
Many people struggle to differentiate between the two. This can be seen in the numerous comments on social media pages, where people talk about what a fantastic LGD their Pitbull is, or their Labrador. What these people are seeing is a dog that is trustworthy with their livestock, mostly through training and socialization. Rarely, do these dogs live full time with the livestock as our LGD do, so it is not really a true reflection on trustworthiness under all circumstances. Very many breeds, not only the LGD breeds, can become trustworthy around the livestock, the general farm dog is usually a trustworthy dog, but that alone, does not make him an LGD.

Bonding on the other hand is the attachment the dog makes with the livestock, and this attachment is fostered through intense socialization with livestock from a young age. This attachment becomes the primary attachment for the pup. He learns that sheep are his companions and later, his charges. Bonding differs with trustworthiness in the (free) choices the dog makes. A dog who is bonded with the livestock will chose to be with the livestock, it will move with the sheep when they graze, they will want to be with the livestock rather than hang out elsewhere. I have a female LGD who is so bonded with her sheep, if she gets locked out the pasture (usually accidently) she will dig under the fence to get back in with them. When the sheep move around the pasture, she moves with them. She protects the sheep wherever the sheep are.  The bonded dog is attached to the sheep and not to the “space” (pasture, field, corral). A bonded dog can certainly be territorial, but when that territory changes, as it does with flocks grazing in open spaces, then it becomes important for the dog to want to stay close to the livestock. The LGD choses the livestock over being with people, other dogs, or the yard.

Bonding is not just the dog bonded to the sheep; the relationship is bi-directional. The sheep also need to bond to the dog. We must appreciate the level of trust the sheep need to have in the dog (predator) we place with them. To achieve this level of trust both species need to bond with each other. I can usually see on a sheep flock whether the sheep trust the dog or not. If the sheep give indications that the dog is not trustworthy it is important for the shepherd to pay attention to the dog. The sheep “know” if the dog is showing predatory behaviour.

What many of the folks who advocate to “raise them in the house” are doing, is simply training their LGD to be trustworthy around the livestock, but not allowing the dog to form a bond with the sheep. There are very many LGD who are trustworthy, but not bonded to the sheep. These dogs can still make excellent guardian dogs, even though they might not feel super attached to the sheep, the territorial instinct kicks in and the dog will protect the sheep within their area. Good fences usually facilitate this, as the dog can be contained in the area the livestock grazes.

People who have never owned a bonded dog, do not actually know, or see what the difference is between the two. They often mistake bonded with trustworthy, particularly when the dog is confined to a specific area.  We do not know, what we don’t know, and unless you have worked with dogs so loyal, devoted, and protective of their sheep one might never truly appreciate the difference.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a trustworthy dog is an amazing dog and that is what we strive for with the LGD. We need them to be trustworthy, but it is an amazing bonus if they are also truly bonded to the sheep.  

When it comes to poultry, the focus is simply for the dog to become trustworthy. LGD and chickens rarely actually “bond” to each other. When it comes to guarding styles most LGD working with poultry, guard more out of territorial protectiveness as opposed to being bonded to the animals. Most times, chickens are also fairly limited in their range that the move about in, so a trustworthy dog who is territorial will often work well in chasing small predators away.

Years ago, ranchers felt that the dog was bonded to the sheep when it only stayed close to the sheep, many ranchers felt the more perimeter style guarding meant that the dog was not bonded or even doing its job. I believe there are some breed differences here, where some breeds are staying naturally closer to the livestock than others. I also believe that difference depends on the level of boldness in the dogs, if they have a pack to support them, age, level of predator pressure and other factors will shape the style of guarding the dogs do.  Some breeds are more “looking for a fight” type, while others are content to stay closer to the sheep. A bonded dog will still patrol but will come back to the sheep and stay with them.

For many smaller homesteads who may be dealing with few smaller predators, having a trustworthy all round farm dog might be sufficient for their needs. On a larger range operation, shepherds are needing LGD who are bonded to the stock. Trustworthiness does not always mean bonded, but do not discount the value of a reliable dog!

It is heartwarming to truly see these deep relationships the dogs form with the sheep. The sheep look to the dog for guidance and direction, and the dog feels the need to protect them. This is the relationship we want to foster!


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