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Livestock Guardians Protect the Flock



protecting_flock_NCATPredation is the leading cause of death in American sheep flocks, but there are a number of actions producers can take to prevent this loss.

A good fence can help and is an essential first step. Powerful electrified wires may deter dogs and coyotes. However, savvy predators may figure out how to avoid shocks, and once they do, the fence will not be sufficient protection.   Also, a fence cannot protect from avian predators, such as eagles or turkey vultures.

Penning livestock near the house at night can help if predators are wary of humans. This leaves animals more prone to “little predators,” however, as internal parasites become a serious problem where manure builds up.

This is where livestock guardian dogs, donkeys, or llamas can show their value. By using livestock guardian animals, you can give your animals 24-hour-a-day bodyguards, and allow the animals to stay out grazing and spreading manure on the land. Effective guardians prevent injuries and deaths, and give the farmer peace of mind. They are well worth the cost.

On the other hand, not all livestock guardian animals are effective, and when they are not, they can cause losses and strain neighbor relations. So, how can you increase the odds of getting a good protector and not another problem?

  • donkeybitingcoyoteChoose the right guardian animal for the terrain, predator pressure, size of pasture, proximity to neighbors, budget, availability of animals, and your personal preference.
  • Have the animal neutered or spayed to cut down on behavior issues.
  • Only use animals that have been bonded when young to the species they will be protecting.
  • Test a prospective guard donkey or guard llama by putting a dog in the pen with them. If they don’t seem to notice, they are likely not a good prospect. You want a guardian that is antagonistic toward strange canines.
  • Do not expect to get a good dog (or donkey or llama) for free; the animals that you want have been raised on a farm with sheep (or goats). An animal that is not bonded to the stock may avoid associating with the stock and may injure or kill the stock rather than protecting them.
  • Plan to spend what it takes to keep healthy guardian animals. Vaccinations for dogs, hoof care for donkeys and llamas, shearing for llamas (and perhaps for Great Pyrenees dogs), dental care for donkeys and perhaps llamas, and food for dogs should all be figured into the budget.
  • Use the right number of animals. Using more than required is expensive and counter-productive.
  • It is okay to combine different species of guardians. Llamas or donkeys can work well with guardian dogs, and this can be a kind of hedging.
  • Llama guarding sheep. Photo courtesy of Farm Friendly Neighbor.
    Llama guarding sheep. Photo courtesy of Farm Friendly Neighbor.

    Dogs must be taught their territory and taught to stay with the flock or herd. This should be done when they first arrive at your farm.

  • Supervise any guardians during lambing or kidding, especially when they are young. You must correct any bad behaviors and may have to separate the guardians until they gain maturity.
  • Count your animals so you will know immediately if you are missing any.
  • Feed your dogs properly so that they are not tempted to snack on baby animals. Do not allow them to feed on dead lambs or kids; the small savings in dog food is not worth you teaching them bad habits.
  • If you are getting a livestock guardian dog, be sure to choose a dog that is “all guardian”—both parents are the type of dog with the proper instincts.
  • Choose a guardian animal that you enjoy. If you have never liked horses, then a donkey may not be the best choice for you.
  • Dogs that are guardians must be kept with the animals. It is okay to pet them; you need to be able to catch them, take them on a leash, get them yearly vaccinations, and feel safe with them.
  • Talk to your neighbors about the guardian dogs. Be sure your dogs are identified so that if they do roam, someone can let you know.

Once these basics are in place, livestock guardians can be fairly trouble-free and real assets to the farm. They make it possible to raise small ruminants in a wildlife-friendly way, and to protect the livestock (and profits) from harm.

Learn more about livestock guardians from the following sources:

Predator Control for Sustainable and Organic Livestock Production
Livestock Guarding Dogs: Protecting Sheep from Predators, USDA Bulletin 588

Langston University’s Web-Based Training Courses:
Predator Control  and Livestock Guarding Dogs

For more information and free, online publications about sheep and goats and other agricultural topics, visit www.attra.ncat.org. Specialists can be reached by calling 800-346-9140.

We’d love to hear from you about your experiences, suggestions or questions. Share them below

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Linda Coffey
Linda Coffey is a Sustainable Agriculture Specialist, focusing on sheep and goats. She grew up on a diversified livestock farm in central Missouri, where her family raised cattle, hogs, and sheep. Linda has a master’s degree in Animal Science from the University of Missouri. She is a member of the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control (ACSRPC), American Dairy Goat Association, and Gulf Coast Breeders Association. Linda and her family run Maple Gorge Farm near Prairie Grove, Ark., raising sheep, dairy goats, and a few laying hens. A couple of calves, three livestock guardian dogs, and occasionally hogs complete the farm.


  1. OK. I’m gullible but suspicious, but what’s the story of the donkey with the coyote. I assume it done with Adobe Photoshop?

    • Here’s the link to the story about this donkey. http://www.gon.com/news/buck-the-coyote-stomping-donkey. Seems that it’s real. I had a donkey whose job was to guard my goats. He was raised with my horned males, and when I added does that had no horns, he seemed to think that they were dangerous to his herd. He would pick them up like this and sling them around but only when I wasn’t around. At first we thought they were being attacked by a fox or coyote based on the bite wounds on their necks, but eventually someone saw him in the act and we figured it out and removed him from the herd.

  2. As the popularity and use of these great dogs increases sadly their misuse and bad breeding practices have increased quantum fold. There is now rampant breeding of non-LGD breeds with LGDs in the mistaken thought that the dogs will guard livestock – they will not. No one should invest in an LGD thinking it will be a one stop, solve all problems solution, and running them in the right numbers is absolutely essential as Matt Barnes points out. Also using other deterrents is key. Hands on rearing of pups is a must. Breed selection and the honest assessment of the owner’s actual abilities to own and responsibly use these dogs, are paramount. Not every place needs or should use an LGD; do your homework to see if they are best for you. This is as much about training the owner as it is the dog, if not more. I recommend watching the film linked above, and buying from ethical, established, reputation LGD breeders who vet out potential homes with an application process and offer support to buyers. You get what you pay for.

  3. Livestock guardian animals, particularly livestock guardian dogs, are now starting to be used in places that have not only coyotes and cougars but also wolves and grizzly bears. They’re also starting to be used with cattle as well as sheep. If you’re in wolf country, you’ll need a pack of dogs that can stand up to a pack of wolves.
    Check out the short video “Livestock Guardian Dogs – Working on Common Ground” made by People and Carnivores (a non-profit developing and promoting solutions that work for people, land, and wildlife) at:

  4. When I started the flock in 1989 we went 5 years before losing a lamb to coyotes. Then it increased dramatically once predation started. A lamb an evening. Night penning in electric netting was the only thing to stop it. The following season the coyotes shifted to day time hunting rather than twilight. Tried a donkey without success, llama worked well, but we are in a high meningeal worm environment, eventually went with livestock guard dog and have used these successfully for over 20 years. Guard dogs have different working styles, some stick with the flock others like to patrol and mark boundaries, bother can be effective.

    In SW Wisconsin we have coyote, mountain lion, black bear, wolves, and eagles. The guard dogs are effective against everything accept the eagles. We could not graze sheep without them.

    Beware the unscrupulous breeder looking to cash in indiscriminately breeding these dogs.

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