Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Using LGDs in Wolf Country: There Is No "Magic Bullet" Breed






Using LGDs in Wolf Country:
There Is No “Magic Bullet”

Brenda M. Negri
Cinco Deseos Ranch Livestock Guardian Dogs
Copyright  Brenda M. Negri and Sheep! Magazine
Published January/February 2016 Sheep! Magazine
Volume 37 No. 1


That wail of anguish you recently heard coming from the direction of Northern California, was most likely from sheep producers, cattle ranchers and hobby farmers upon hearing the news that the wolf is back in California.  As evidenced by recent game trail-cam photos of “The Shasta Pack” - so named due to its proximity to the legendary snowcapped peak that dominates the Siskiyou County skyline - the pack, consisting of five pups and two adults, is the first “official” sighting of wolves in the state since 1924.

Of all the large predators sheep producers must learn to deal with, perhaps none is feared more than a wolf pack.  Their complex and intriguing pack hierarchy has been studied and written about extensively. And because they run in packs, wolves present a special and problematic issue in terms of what really works to keep them away from livestock, and this includes Livestock Guardian Dogs.

The use of Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) as a deterrent to wolves was not considered back in the 1970s when the first trials of LGDs began in Idaho at the US Sheep Experiment Station.  This was of course, “pre-wolf reintroduction” times, and the wolf population was not on the rebound.  LGDs in their home countries had an impressive track record of being useful in keeping European wolves, coyotes, bears, fox, badgers and stray dogs away from sheep, goats and cattle.  But in 1970’s USA, once poisoning and trapping had been outlawed, producers were scrambling for alternatives to deal with the burgeoning coyote population.  Soon, one began hearing the term “non-lethal predator control” meaning the use of methods that kept predators at bay without killing them.  As word got out from the Idaho Sheep Station LGD experiments, the use of LGDs gained acceptance and popularity as one of the several “non-lethal” methods available to farmers in the USA. 

Since the wolf re-introduction program in the 1990’s, now sheep producer’s guardian dogs must often face wolves.  Many LGDs have been killed in the line of duty by wolves.  Why were they not more successful?  There has been much speculation, heated debate and grant funded experiments with “new” LGD breeds to see what works best in terms of the use of LGDs to keep wolves away from livestock.   

What is regularly left out, unfortunately, is serious, practical advice and training for the owner and solid information based on experience instead of wild speculation about “magic bullet breeds”.  And what is often missing is the “missing link” itself: in wolf country, LGDs should never be considered to be the sole and only line of defense for the stockman’s herd or flocks.


The “Magic Bullet “LGD Breed Fallacy

The “more aggressive LGD breed” idea is currently the theme song for USDA’s Wildlife Services.  At no small cost, they’ve been busy importing exotic breeds with hard to pronounce names over to the USA in an attempt to prove that a much more aggressive LGD breed will be the elixir and salve for the wolf-strapped sheep rancher in the USA. 

Some of these breeds are heavily bred for and fought in the dogfighting ring in their native countries.  Others are popular for use in military and police work and only lightly or recently used as stock guardians. 

This is where I, head bowed low in guilt, confess to being one of those duped early on (many years ahead of the USDA) by this same “meaner is better” theory.  I was suckered by an overseas breeder of a designer fighting Turkish breed who conned me into thinking that his dogs could out-fight and out-last any pack of wolves. I was gullible enough to swallow the bait.  At huge expense I imported specimens here, but quickly learned the more aggressive breed came with an ugly price tag: questionable temperaments, extremely dicey when living in a pack of other LGDs, and health defects so severe they quickly turned this much ballyhooed breed I brought over, into a high risk failure and a depressing money pit. 

In other words, be careful of what you ask for.  You may get it.

What is wrong with this “the more aggressive LGD breed will solve all your wolf problems” theory?  Several things.

What the USDA is not confronting is the very obvious added risk that comes with uber-aggression in breeds that often lack conformity in temperament because of their turbulent past as Molossers and “landrace” breeds. What often goes along with many of these hyped “better” aggressive LGD breeds is an alarming lack of predictable stability; intense, sometimes highly complex and complicated personalities incapable of being safely run with other LGDs; and the kind of edgy or iffy temperament that requires the owner to be constantly vigilant and on his toes around the dogs.  Again, I write this from actual experience – not armchair speculation. 

Is more aggressive what you really want? Moreover can you and do you want to handle that kind of grave dog ownership responsibility?  Is this what is really needed for Joe Hobby Farmer and his family on five, ten or forty acres? Or can they do better by milder and more popular breeds already in use here? The aforementioned issues can be especially problematic if the owner/operator is a rank newcomer to LGDs, not experienced around dogs, or of the “hands off, don’t socialize your LGD” mindset. 

Let’s not forget the larger commercial sheep, goat or cattle producer running on public lands.  Is a potentially vicious LGD what he really needs?  When recreationists come bounding across his public accessed allotment or forest area, startling his flock and LGDs, is he prepared to deal with a dog bite lawsuit should one of those foaming at the mouth Eastern Bloc breeds he is using decides to turn a hiker’s thigh into an appetizer?

There is no “magic bullet” LGD breed out there, no matter what Internet blowhards may be claiming.  Sheer aggression is not all that is needed in a well-rounded, reliable and serviceable LGD.  In a wolf vs. LGDs battle, no matter how aggressive the LGD breed, a wolf pack is probably going to make mincemeat out of your protection dogs, unless they have back up and many other support factors are in place to help give them an edge.  It takes more than just increased aggression from “the right breed” of LGD to succeed with these dogs in wolf country.

Multiple Protection Efforts Key to Reduced Losses

Some of those support factors include you being a hands-on shepherd and keeping vigilant eye over what’s going on in your fields, not just casually checking every other day or once a week.  You may need to be bringing flocks closer, using electrified fence to “night pen” them or bring stock entirely in at night instead of playing Russian Roulette when a wolf pack is moving in.  You should regularly check on your dogs, making sure they are fed and watered and healthy and no one is sick or too stressed or exhausted to perform their job. 

Using protective or spiked collars on your LGDs in wolf country is strongly recommended.  They are still no guarantee the dogs will survive an attack, but can help give them those extra seconds to perhaps cut loose when attacked, and run and live to see another day.

Most importantly, and an area where most American farmers fail miserably at, is that the operator must be running enough LGDs to make them a viable deterrent, not just a wolf’s next easy kill.  Regardless of the LGD breed, they don’t have a chance if there are not enough of them.  This means you don’t expect two LGDs to do the job of nine or ten.  Running LGDs in the right numbers is crucial for their success; it’s a topic I have previously discussed in sheep! Magazine (The Numbers Game: Guardian Dog Pack size Affects Success, May/June 2013, Volume 34, Number 3). 

Prudent selection of LGDs in wolf country should entail other factors besides amped up aggression.  Lets also talk about guarding style.  What has been shown in studies is that wolves are brilliant tacticians.  Wolf packs can and do, strategize.  As if they’d lifted a tactical maneuver out of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, wolves have been known for sending in a few of their ranks to decoy and lure LGDs off from their flock, while the rest of the pack sneaks in the other side to raid and plunder the sheep. Meanwhile, the few LGDs lured away from the sheep, typically suffer a cruel, quick and bloody end at the paws of the wolves that duped them into leaving their flock.

On that note, is it really that smart in wolf country to have only LGD breeds that assertively patrol hundreds of yards if not miles away from your flock, hunting predators, while leaving the flock open to attack?   If you are a smaller homestead or hobby farmer in wolf country, are you better off with breeds that are predisposed to close guarding and not continually wandering miles away?

Ideally, the producer should build a stable, solid pack of LGDs made up of the breeds that best suit his farm or operation, which in reality may include a combo of far off patrolling dogs and calmer, but more closer guarding breeds.  Each sheep, goat or cattle set up and situation merits its own in-depth “study” by the producer for the right solutions, and no one should consider the results of a grant funded government experiment to be a blanket end-all-problems solution to their own situation. What works for one, may not for the other!

Let’s look at some proven and recommended livestock management protection solutions that – used in conjunction with LGDs – can increase your success rate, help out your guardian dogs and help reduce depredations in wolf country.  

Handy Handbook for Reducing Depredation

Some years back I befriended Steve Primm, Field Rep for the People and Carnivores organization that works with ranchers to help them co-exist with and find solutions to, live and farm side by side with predators.  Subsequently my Livestock Guardian Dog operation was featured in a critically praised and award winning film produced by Primm and Conservation Media called “Working on Common Ground: Livestock Guardian Dogs” (you can watch this short and educational movie online by accessing this link here:  https://vimeo.com/60354527). 

Recently People and Carnivores teamed up with wolf specialists Nathan Lance, Kristine Inman and others from the Brainerd Foundation, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Wildlife Conservation Society to publish Wolves on the Landscape: A Hands-on Resource Guide to Reduce Depredations. 

The handbook has a permanent link on the MFWP page.  It is in a PDF format easily downloaded and printed from your computer for your reading ease and pleasure.


What instantly struck me about this handbook was its comprehensive and realistic approach.  This handbook is full of some very practical measures the producer can take, all the while reminding us that just like with LGD breeds, there is no one, singular “magic bullet” solution.  What resonates here is the acceptance of the fact that just LGDs alone, won’t be enough.  Just fladry won’t be enough.  It takes more than one device or practice, and YOU must be part of the solution.  The farmer with the capacity to think out of the box and be flexible and realistic, is the one who will prevail.

Each chapter in this booklet goes into enough detail to give the producer a good start to implementing more proactive measures against wolves, and hopefully, sparks some ideas that they can enact and thus, reduce losses.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of their prescribed methods and management tools presented in their guide that can be used in addition to LGDs in wolf country:

Management Intensive Grazing (MIG)
Livestock Guardian Dogs
Livestock Guardian Donkeys
Carcass Management
Riders and Herders
Fladry/Electrified Fladry
Scare Devices
Managing Livestock on High Risk Landscape
Herd Composition

Reality Check

In Nevada, they have a saying: if you shoot one coyote, three will come to its funeral.  Wolves are no different in that their complex pack hierarchy and family structure means that if the wrong wolf is taken out of the equation by being killed by the sheep producer, it can in reality, actually increase depredation and problems for the rancher, not decrease them.  Think on that before you pull the trigger.  “Shoot, shovel and shut up” is not always the best answer.

The reality is: like it or not, the wolf is here and not going away. How you and your sheep operation fare in the end, will entirely rest on your willingness to think out of the box and to become more involved.  And this includes your Livestock Guardian Dogs. 

In the Old World, the shepherd interacted daily with his flock and his guardian dogs.  The American “hands off” training and owning of LGDs was never practiced in Europe where dogs slept with their owners and flocks and sometimes ate from the same dish.  LGDs were treated as workmates and with respect.  LGDs were never meant to be reduced into a disposable tool to be tossed out there and left on their own to try to save the world.  Especially when a pack of wolves comes calling! LGDs need your back up, strategy and help, too.  They can be a successful part of many methods to deter wolves, if you are willing to use them in the best ways they should be used, with plenty of support and an open mind for using other means as well.  Hopefully the methods shared in this article and in the wonderful referenced resource guide can get you going on a better wolf deterrent plan soon that can compliment and enhance your guardian dogs program…

AND promote co-existence!