Cody and Liesl Lockhart didn’t know a thing about livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) when they started ranching with Cody’s parents in southern Alberta. That all changed five years ago after moving to their own place near Debden, Sask., where they now own a flock of 1,200 sheep and custom manage 750 cattle year round with help from their pack of 11 livestock guardian dogs.
Predator pressure is high in this region of the Parkland bordered by the untamed wilds of Prince Albert National Park, a forestry management zone and First Nations land. Wolves, coyotes, cougars, bears — you name it, predation specialists have confirmed kills and the presence of all of them on their ranch.
“In the beginning we were losing a market lamb — 80- to 90-pound lambs — every day to coyotes. At the time we had 400 cows and when they started calving on pasture in April we started losing calves to coyotes, 12 for certain and I suspect more,” Cody says.
The economic losses and mounting stress were enough to put them out of business had they let it. “Even if you do manage to eliminate the problem population, a new breeding pair will come in,” he explains. “That’s when we started looking at dogs. Some people say LGDs don’t work, but we’ve found that’s just not true. The dogs take their job seriously and have become an important part of our overall risk management strategy.”
“The goal is to make our dog pack formidable enough that wolves and coyotes decide to find an easier meal,” Liesl says. The pack concept grew from their experiences as they learned about each breed’s instincts and capabilities. They don’t profess to be experts, but were willing to share their successes and frustrations with producers at predation workshops organized by Saskatchewan Agriculture and with a U.S. group that showcased how the Lockharts use dogs to mitigate livestock-predator problems in a video, now on the ranch’s website.
In a nutshell, they’ve found that success has a lot to do with expectations and time spent working with and monitoring the dogs. They have to be given work appropriate to their instincts and ages, taking into consideration pasture size, terrain, size and grazing habits of the livestock, and predator pressure.
Their sheep and cattle are out on pasture year round. The main sheep pasture is six-miles square, which proved too challenging for Great Pyrenees on their own. This white breed and the Maremma dogs added later, are great for staying with stock and are trained to the electric fence early in life. They bark a lot and try to round up the animals, but they’re not much of a match for a pack of coyotes or a wolf.
“Two Pyrenees could work great if you calve in corrals, but don’t expect that if you have a coyote problem and then get Pyrenees that two will work just as well,” Cody says. Likewise, you can’t expect two dogs to cover a 300-acre pasture, especially if it has rolling terrain and you have an existing predation problem.
For reinforcement, they brought in Anatolian Shepherds. These large tan dogs are more muscled, athletic and aggressive than Pyrenees. If they put the chase on predators, the white dogs will still stay with the stock to discourage predators sneaking in from other directions.
After losing two dogs to predators and some others ripped up, they invested in another tan breed, Turkish Kangals, after they were warned of wolves loitering a half-mile from their sheep.
Kangals are even more aggressive than the shepherds toward predators and will take on a pack when necessary. They tend to patrol the perimeter and if they start a chase, it’s not over until it ends, fortunately for the Lockharts so far, in eliminating the predator.
Three more dogs were lost by the time their Kangals reached working age, so they took the additional measure of protecting all the dogs with spiked collars. At $140 each the handcrafted collars made in Oregon, have been a worthwhile investment. They haven’t lost a dog since and their veterinary bills for stitching wounded dogs back together are way down.
“Since introducing the Kangals and spiked collars we don’t have any livestock losses when we have the right number of dogs. That’s quite a change from when we started,” Cody says.
Eleven working dogs seem to be the right number for their current operation and they always have pups in training because it takes about two years to develop a great working dog. The Kangals travel back and forth on their own between the sheep and cattle three miles away and seem to maintain an appropriate number at both spots.
“You’d think with 11 dogs, they’d pack up but they don’t; they come from all corners of the fields,” Liesl says. “The pack setting is very valuable for teaching new pups much faster and so they know how to behave around other dogs, livestock and people. The support of the pack helps because the dogs are not as likely to get killed by predators and they don’t have to work so hard.”
Socializing pups with people is part of the early training on their ranch. Firm boundaries need to be set so that they’re not hanging around the yard, but the idea that owners shouldn’t make eye contact with the dogs, pet them or praise them is old school.
“That just wouldn’t work for our situation (with three small children). There are bigger issues when you don’t socialize them,” Liesl says. “Everyone is uneasy around them and you don’t know how they will handle strangers, so for us, socializing and working go hand in hand.”
All of their dogs are now trained to sit in a kennel and be handled on a leash. Most often that’s a necessary skill when pulling porcupine quills and deworming the dogs every three months. Even then they still have to make occasional trips to the vet for repairs.
Feeding is part of the socializing process, too. They put out food, take it away and repeat so the pups don’t become aggressive about food. As mature dogs, they eat for about 10 minutes a day and then wander away. The cost for premium dog food to maintain good body condition is about $5,000 a year for the pack.
If you are buying trained LGDs they recommend choosing dogs that have been socialized because it’s difficult to change their attitude or train them to a leash the older they are.
In their experience whether they were buying trained dogs or training their own pups, once the dogs bond with livestock, that bond will hold with any group of animals they are given to guard.
“The bonding instinct is strong and you just have to nurture it so they work independently of you,” Liesl explains. The objective when training young pups is to match the tasks with a pup’s readiness and ability as it grows.
Bonding starts at weaning around four months of age with a bottle-fed lamb in a kennel run or an Electranet enclosure with a shelter. When there aren’t any bottle babies around the yard, they set the kennel out in the sheep pasture so that the first introduction between flock and dogs is through the kennel. Then they add an older lamb to the kennel as the pups gain confidence. The pup is let out under supervision until about six months of age when it’s ready for 24-hour shifts. Full-time duty at this age when a pup is still growing is too exhausting so it needs breaks from work until it is amalgamated into the pack. It’s important that the pup not be left to work alone and be monitored closely, especially when the predator pressure is high. Partnering a pup with an older dog works best, but two pups together can work, as well.
When no bottle baby is available pups can be put together in a kennel run with a shelter on the pasture, somewhere near water where they are sure to meet some cattle.
Alternatively, pups could be trained with one or two cow-calf pairs in a puppy-proof pen equipped with a safe place for the pups to get away from the cattle. It doesn’t take much for large animals to injure a pup and dampen his confidence. The pups should remain in a supervised area until five to six months of age when they are moved to a larger supervised pasture with a kennel to provide them with a secure home base.
Have patience when they hit the teen years because they can be a little too energetic for their own good and start roughing up the stock a bit. Don’t panic if a dog draws blood on an animal, it won’t ruin the dog as some say. Reprimand the dog verbally and, if needed, use a dangle stick or triangle-shaped PVC yoke collar. A dangle stick is a knee-length chain with a stick at the end attached to the collar so that the dog can’t run without knocking its knees. This stage seems to last for a couple of weeks to a month and then it’s smooth sailing.
“A six-month-old dog does lots of work for you deterring predators, but if a problem animal is coming in, it will try but it won’t succeed at killing a coyote. You’re asking too much,” Liesl says. “I’d say a dog isn’t fully working until it’s about two years old. That’s the age we trust them on their own and feel pretty confident we won’t have behavioural issues.”
Top tips for success
- Maintain the right number of dogs to cover your pasture and herd/flock size and deal with the predation pressure. There’s no such thing as a producer who needs one dog. LGDs seem to prefer to work in pairs and work together well, whereas a single dog might get bored and seek your company or burn out at a young age from working round the clock.
- Male and female dogs work equally well but they must be neutered or spayed. It doesn’t ruin their drive to defend livestock.
- Check the dogs daily when in the herd so you can deal with issues right away, such as removing deadstock so it won’t attract predators. Consider additional fencing, not so much to keep predators out, but to cut down paddock size for ease of monitoring.
- Secure the dogs well if you decide to trap, shoot or snare or call in someone to get rid of problem predators when your dogs can’t deal with them because that behaviour will get passed to the predators’ young.
- The greatest hazards are road traffic and neighbours. The Lockharts visit their neighbours to explain the dogs’ value to their operation and explain that while they look fierce, they don’t act that way toward people. All they ask is that their neighbour use the command “back to your sheep” to send the dogs on their way home, or call them to come and fetch the dogs.
In addition to wearing a spiked collar, each dog is spray painted with a large marking on each side of the body so the neighbours know they are the Lockharts’ dogs and, hopefully, hunters don’t mistake them for strays.
For more information about LGDs in general and Kangal pups for sale visit candllranch.com or call 306-724-4451.