Working Dogs

Most of us have seen Police K-9s and “Assistance” Service Dogs and been amazed at what they can do. Even the agility trials at the fair draw a nice big crowd. But almost no one I talk to, including other farmers, knows what a Livestock Guardian Dog is or what they do.

Mia our female Maremma Sheepdog
Mia our female Maremma Sheepdog

The short version is they give me piece of mind. I see on Facebook at least once a day “something killed my flock”. I don’t have to worry about that. Whether it’s a neighbor’s dog “playing” with chickens or owls and ravens hunting for food, I just don’t have to worry.

Most days the dogs don’t look like they are doing anything. They lay around watching the grass grow, and the sheep mow, as if they haven’t a care in the world. What they are really doing is making their presence known. The sheep trust their dogs and are calmer because they know they are protected. Less stress in the sheep means healthier animals, better fiber growth, and less risk of miscarriages.

Maremma Sheepdogs prefer to be near their flock.
Maremma Sheepdogs prefer to be near their flock.

Livestock guardians have instincts that tell them to protect the helpless herbivores and scare away all the omnivores and carnivores. They watch what we do and they do the same. If I snap my fingers or clap to scare off some ravens or magpies the dogs understand that I don’t want those wild birds here and they run and bark at ravens and magpies to keep them from landing. They learn from our examples.

When we bought our home it came with a fenced pasture. The neighbors told us we would be repairing the fence at least a couple times a year because the moose would climb over it and break it down. Moose can be dangerous. They are herbivores, yes, but they are also very protective of their young and will stomp a person to death if they perceive a threat. I’m not a fan of getting stomped, nor am I a fan of moose damage to fences or feeders.  You could actually say I’m really not a fan of moose on my property unless they are cut and wrapped for the freezer. The dogs learned that lesson early on.

When Al was about 7 months old we had a moose cow that kept getting into the pasture and she was always right on the path to the barn when I needed to feed chickens. Clapping and snapping had no effect, neither did shots fired into the air. So I grabbed a pot and a smaller lid, dropped the lid into the pot and bounced it around. The clanging was obnoxious to say the least, and it was just enough to move Ms. Moose off my path. Al watched that and realized I was not a fan of the moose. That was the last time that moose was allowed in the pasture. We have not had to fix a fence from Moose damage in 3.5 years.

Loose dogs are the single biggest threat to any farming operation. Cute little terriers, big bold huskies, hunting dogs, herding dogs, even lapdogs, almost all dogs have a prey drive. In livestock guardians the prey drive has been bred out over thousands of years. I have heard many people say their dog would never hurt anything or anyone, and sometimes that’s true, but it’s hard to hold a dead lamb or collect dozens of chicken corpses while the dog owner is trying to convince me that their dog is not a killer. Livestock guardians save me from having to shoot a neighbors beloved pet by keeping it outside the fence or dealing with it should it get in.

Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs, most dogs make wonderful pets. But I’m a realist, I own a Labrador. She lives in the house and is NOT allowed in the pasture under any circumstances. She has proven to have great birding instincts. Those instincts will kill my chickens, even if she doesn’t mean to. Prey drive is a scary thing. Our Maremmas do not harass the lab when she is in the back yard chasing tennis balls, but if a ball flies over the fence and she tries to get it they will attack the fence and drive her back. Fortunately, she is pretty well trained to sit and stay while we retrieve the ball for her in those situations. She’s a lover not a fighter. The Maremmas are the perfect mix of protection without aggression.

Al keeping tabs on his flock
Al keeping tabs on his flock

Livestock guardians are super intuitive. They can read their flock like a book. I can tell by their actions and their voices if there is something wrong within the flock. Mia will yip like a coyote when she needs someone with thumbs. Like when Matilda got her coat hung up on a fence post and couldn’t get free, Mia yipped until I came outside and then she took me right to the problem so I could fix it for her.

Mia finds any and all flaws on her sheep, and has even learned to gently remove the super sharp wild rose stems from the sheep fleece using her teeth to gently twist and turn the stem until it slides free. It’s kinda crazy how much care she takes of her sheep. New lambs get checked early and often, if they start to feel a little off Mia will let me know before the lamb shows any outward signs of distress. She’s a great midwife and will usually let me know when labor is coming. I just have to pay attention and read her signs.

Puppies choose to sleep outside the sheep pen where they can see their sheep.
The snow is melted where the puppies choose to sleep outside the sheep pen keeping watch.

Al always meets us at the gate, ALWAYS. The one time he didn’t I knew we had a problem. I could see him staring into the chicken run, and as I got closer I could hear him whimpering. Some young chickens didn’t get back in the coop before the automatic pop-door closed for the night. Al was not happy that his babies were outside but as soon as I tucked them into the coop he ran off to play with Mia before we served up his dinner.

Since getting the dogs our losses to predators have been zero. As an added bonus some of our neighbors have learned to respect our private property and keep their dogs out of our yard. Maremmas can be sweet and happy when we say “it’s OK” but uninvited guests don’t get such a warm welcome, whether they be two legged or four. I sleep well at night knowing these gentle giants are keeping watch over the flocks.


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