Ray Coppinger, who is widely credited with bringing the first working livestock guardian dogs to the U.S. in the 1970s, suggests that livestock guardian dogs display three types of behavior that make them effective predator deterrents: trustworthiness, attentiveness and protectiveness. Some of these behaviors are typical of any dog, while some appear to be genetically unique to livestock guardian dogs. All of these behaviors must be induced at some level by appropriate rearing conditions, training and management. Proper rearing of livestock guardian dog puppies is critical; improperly reared dogs cannot be retrained to become successful guardians. Similarly, dogs that come from working (as opposed to pet) lines make better guardians. As a sheep producer, I try to utilize the natural genetic and behavioral variations in these dogs to match them with our setting. For example, more athletic and aggressive dogs may be more appropriate where the predators are similarly athletic and aggressive.
I think many of us have a tendency to think of livestock guardian dogs as a "tool" rather than as a biological entity. We compare tools by function - a round-point shovel is used for digging, while a square-point shovel is used for scooping material. Accordingly, this perspective suggests that a Great Pyrenees is used for guarding, while a border collie is used for herding. Sure, some brands of shovels are better than others, but they function in much the same way.
Biology, on the other hand, is much more complicated. I've had border collies that are incredible herding dogs - and I've had others that had no desire (or ability) to work. Similarly, I've had livestock guardian dogs that have been outstanding at their jobs. I've had others that didn't fit our system or environment.
Over the last several weeks, I've been talking about livestock guardian dogs with other ranchers and with other researchers. These conversations have made me think about the dogs we've had - and about our success rate. Here's a summary (in chronological order):
- Scarlet was our first dog. We bought her as a puppy. During her first lambing season, she tried to steal lambs. We were able to correct this behavior. However, we probably treated her too much like a pet - before she was 3, she was hopping out of our electric fences and trying to hang around with people. We gave her to some friends in Colfax, where she had a great life guarding their home.
- Buck was about 2 when he was given to us. He'd been a guardian, but was not suited to the small pasture situation he was in. For the most part, he was an outstanding dog - despite his tendency to roam on occasion. He guarded our sheep until he became senile at about 9 years of age. He's buried at one of our leased pastures.
- Chester came to us as a puppy. He was a Maremma and came from another rancher. As a young dog, he was good. When he turned two, we couldn't keep him in - he'd jump our 42" electric fences with ease. We tried giving him to another rancher with taller fences - they had the same problem. We even tried donating him to the Folsom Zoo - he scaled their 6-foot chainlink fences and wandered the neighborhood. He would have been a good dog in an open range situation, but he didn't fit our operation.
- Boise also came to us as a puppy. He was (and is) an outstanding dog - but like Chester, he wouldn't stay in our electro-net. We gave him to a ranch in Rio Vista, where he worked well.
- Vegas was our first female dog after Scarlet. She worked for us for about 5 years, and then wouldn't stay in the pasture. We sold her to another farm here in Auburn - she doesn't stay in their pastures either, but it's apparently not a problem for them.
- Reno is an Anatolian we purchased as a puppy from a small-scale goat ranch in Nevada County. As a young dog, he was obnoxious - he chewed the ears off several lambs. However, he grew out of his puppy behaviors - and he's still working for us today. He's 8 years old.
- Rosie the First was the daughter of Boise and Vegas. We traded her for Boise (the Rio Vista ranch had bought her from us). She worked well for a couple of years, but started getting out and wandering. She now lives with our friends in Colfax (as Scarlet's replacement).
- Rosie the Second was given to us by some folks who raise chickens. She was too much of a pet - we used her for about 3 months, but she wouldn't stay in the electric fence. We gave her to a family in Georgetown, where she's inside 6-foot fences.
- Bodie is our newest dog - he's not quite a year old. So far, he seems great. He stays with the sheep even when we're moving between pastures. He is, however, still a puppy. He chews on ears. He doesn't chase sheep, but he bounces up to them enthusiastically. We'll see - the jury is still out on Bodie.
Looking at this summary, our success rate with dogs is 2 out 8 (as I said, I'm not ready to put Bodie in the success or the failure column). Reno and Buck were with us until their old age - none of the rest of the dogs lasted in our system.
Twenty-five percent is not a great success rate. These dogs aren't inexpensive - we've spent an average of $300 per dog to buy them. They cost us about $500 per year to keep (expenses are primarily dog food and vet bills). Based on our success rate and their direct costs, then, Reno and Buck cost us far more than their purchase prices. This is the issue that nonlethal advocates (who don't have livestock) don't fully understand. Not every dog works. And every dog that doesn't work costs the rancher money. By my math, if just 25% of the dogs I've purchased end up working, the dogs that work cost me $1200 (not including the expense of keeping them until we determine they won't work for us).
Economically, a $1200 dog has to prevent at least that much predation. I don't know how to measure this - after all, how do you measure something that doesn't happen?! Since virtually all of our predator losses in the 12 years we've raised sheep commercially have occurred when we didn't have a dog with the sheep, I assume the dogs are paying their way.
Ultimately, the decision to use dogs (or not) comes down to personal perspective. I couldn't sleep at night if I didn't have Reno protecting our lambing ewes right now. We graze our sheep in places where it's simply not possible to shoot all of the predators - and I rarely carry a rifle with me anyway. But this is absolutely a personal decision - and one that fits with my particular paradigm of coexistence. I think dogs will work - and so I keep looking for the dogs that fit my paradigm.