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Keeping Danger At A Distance — Winter 2010 | Out Here Magazine

Livestock guardian dogs take their job to heart

By Carol Davis
Photography by Mark Mosrie

Catherine de la Cruz clearly recalls the day several years ago when she heard a commotion in the barn of her neighbor's dairy farm. Fancy, her livestock guardian dog, rushed toward the sounds of distress.

A coyote was biting at panicked calves in individual pens, injuring ears, hindquarters, tails — anything he could sink his teeth into.

Until Fancy arrived. Driven by her deeply protective instincts, Fancy attacked the deadly coyote and fought until the coyote was dead, de la Cruz says.

The grateful dairy owner credited Fancy with saving thousands of dollars in livestock.

Rescuing those calves was just another workday for Fancy, a Great Pyrenees, one of the livestock guardian breeds. The most common Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) breeds are the Great Pyrenees, Akbash, and Komondor, though others include the Maremma and Anatolian shepherd.

Guardians typically live with their livestock — usually goats or sheep — to safeguard the vulnerable animals from predators, such as coyotes, rogue dogs, wolves, and even bears, depending on location.

Their duty is the safety and well-being of their flock, and LGDs, which bond with their goats or sheep, are determinedly single-minded in their work.

LGDs are not herders. Herding dogs, aided by their handler, drive livestock from one area to another by chasing, barking, and biting. The guardian dog's job, however, is keeping that livestock safe by staying with the herd and aggressively warding off predators.

They patrol slowly around and among the herd all night, listening and smelling for danger. They send out loud, deep barks to establish their "footprint" — warning potential predators that they're on the job.

"The farmer loves it because it means somebody is on duty," says Joy Levy, who was among the first to import Komondors into the United States in the 1950s.

Livestock guardian dogs became essential to American goat and sheep owners about 40 years ago. With the tightening of federal regulations on predator control in the 1970s on poisoning, trapping, and aerial hunting, American farmers and ranchers turned to an ancient method — guardian dogs had been used for centuries in Europe and Asia for livestock protection.

But for guardians, protection is more than keeping predators away, de la Cruz says.

"The value of a livestock dog is as much in letting you know something unusual is happening as deterring predators," she says. "If a goat's horns get caught in a fence or a heater falls over and traps a lamb, they'll tell you."

Levy knows this first hand.

Late one night, Duna, their Komondor, was creating a terrible racket with incessant barking. When Levy's husband got up to see about the commotion, the dog pulled him by his pajamas to the front fence, just in time to see flames erupt from the school across the street.

Not all guardian actions are so dramatic, of course, but the well-being of others is dominant in their mind. For example, while Komondors are not herding dogs, if they're out with a large flock and they encounter a hazard, such as bad weather or fire, they'll gather the animals and lead them home, Levy says.

Despite livestock guardian dogs' imposing size and fearlessness, most have a gentle side to their temperament, especially with animals who reside with them, Levy says.

"They fall in love with the animals," she says. "If it's yours, it's theirs."

Reprinted, in part, from Farm Dogs: A Celebration of the Farm's Hardest Worker by Out Here editor Carol Davis.