When we decided to buy a small herd of Angora goats, there was one essential thing we didn’t consider – our herd would be vulnerable to predators. The woman we bought our goats from brought it up before we left her farm. “What will guard them from your area’s coyotes?” she asked. We pondered her question all the way home. As we let the goats out of the trailer and into the corral, we studied the distant woods. Suddenly our personal refuge seemed unsafe, and we didn’t sleep well that night. The next day brought an intact flock, but we also saw a coyote, in broad daylight, eyeing our animals from across the creek beside the pasture. Something had to be done. For us, herd safety arrived in the form of two llamas. They were free, healthy, and they have proven to be adequate guardians for our situation.
When choosing a guardian animal for your operation, keep in mind that no guard animal ensures complete safety for your herd or flock. Some guard species or breeds are specialists and best suited to protecting specific livestock breeds. And all animals have their own traits and personalities, so you might expect to apply a bit of trial and error to your efforts. Read the entries that follow for a glimpse of some good guardian animal options.
Good Guardian Dogs
Just because you’ve heard a dog will be a good guardian doesn’t mean you can expect it to instinctively know what to do. All guard dogs, despite strong instinct, need some training and socialization. Most should not be introduced to your flock or herd until they are between 8 and 12 weeks old. Until then, the dog can learn to know you and your family, which helps form a loyal bond. Guard dogs need a job. If they aren’t allowed to guard livestock, the dog will possessively guard property, you, your family, or other pets.
What makes a good guardian dog? They are generally large breeds that can intimidate a predator on looks alone. These dogs are often vocal and bark when anything appears suspicious or out of the ordinary. Their barking will accelerate as a threat grows larger. As a last resort, good guardian dogs will engage the predator directly. But, they tend to not be good inside pets. Most are good with children when properly introduced. Both males and females can protect equally well against bears, mountain lions, other dogs, coyotes, bobcats and wolves. They intimidate raccoons, skunks, possums, weasels and foxes.
Guardian dogs are used to protect cattle, sheep, goats, alpacas, miniature horses, llamas, poultry, rabbits, ponies and even ostriches. One dog can guard a large herd, but most large operations will want to employ two or more, as some predators will split the herd or flock to confuse the guardian.
Common Guardian Dogs
Maremma Sheepdog (Abruzzes, Italian Marremano)
Origin: Italy. Named after Maremma, Italy, where flocks of sheep abound. Historically, this breed was also used along the Apennine Mountain range, as well as in the Abruzzi Mountains.
Height: 23½ to 30 inches
Weight: 65 to 100 pounds
Life Expectancy: 11 to 14 years
Traits: The Maremma is a large dog that withstands winter well, due to its thick, typically white or cream-colored coat. This dog can be very affectionate with its owner and remains loyal. It is reserved with strangers and guards property well. The Maremma is highly intelligent and needs routine. It was introduced to the United States in the 1970s and is a popular choice for sheep, goat, alpaca and llama owners. The breed is popular in Sweden.
Cost: $350 to $750
Akbash Dog (Coban Kopegi, Akbas)
Origin: Western Turkey
Height: 28 to 32 inches
Weight: 90 to 130 pounds
Life Expectancy: 10 to 11 years
Traits: All white in color, the Akbash has superior strength and can stand up to coyotes, bears and wolves. It can be aggressive towards other dogs. Akbash dogs have excellent hearing and sight. Very nurturing and maternal, both males and females bond well with the livestock they’re protecting and are suspicious of strangers. Individuals of this breed have been known to fight to the death while protecting their charges. The Akbash needs plenty of room to run.
Cost: $300 to $500
Anatolian Shepherd Dog
Origin: Anatolia, the central part of Turkey
Height: 26 to 30 inches
Weight: 90 to 150 pounds
Life Expectancy: 10 to 15 years
Traits: An Anatolian is alert, watchful and makes a good companion. More slender and agile than other large guard dogs, the Anatolian can move fast. It adapts to the weather and grows a heavy undercoat in winter. Its color varies from the classic, light brown with black ears and mask to white, cream, brindle, black and gray. Self-confident and non-threatening (when not threatened), the Anatolian is very loyal, independent and affectionate and is a serious working dog.
Cost: $350 to $800
Komondor Dogs (Hungarian Sheepdog)
Origin: Hungary. Believed to have been brought over from Siberia and descended from Tibetan dogs.
Height: 25½ inches and up
Weight: 80 to 125 pounds
Life Expectancy: 10 to 12 years
Traits: A Komondor is a very proud breed, and rightly so. It is completely covered with a corded coat of white hair that can grow 8 to 12 inches long. For this reason, a Komondor blends in well with sheep and Angora goats. Pretty looks aside, the Komondor is aggressive, serious, alert, highly territorial and protective. It is calm when not threatened, has a strong bite, and is not recommended for families unless it’s been extremely well-trained and socialized. This breed possesses more hair than any other dog breed and requires a clean country home. It can withstand most climates.
Cost: $600 to $800
Origin: France, Asia, Siberia
Height: 25 to 40 inches
Weight: 85 to 100 pounds
Life Expectancy: 10 to 12 years
Traits: One of the most common guardian dogs in the United States, this breed is large, white, solid and muscular. A gentle and loyal giant, it can be very affectionate. A Great Pyrenees needs a lot of space and prefers cooler climates. It’s a serious worker that can be very independent. It has a calm nature, loves attention and considers itself part of the family. A Great Pyrenees has excellent hearing and sight and will defend its charge with its life.
Cost: $150 to $350
Whether you love or hate them, the fact is donkeys can make excellent guardians. They live a good, long life – 25 to 35-plus years. Donkeys are highly territorial, instinctively dislike canines, and love to be part of a herd. Unlike dogs, they cannot wander. A donkey is recommended for smaller herds or flocks, but if you’re lambing or kidding, monitor how your donkey interacts with any new additions. Calm and affectionate, the donkey has won many owners’ hearts, especially as they can switch off their sweetness when a predator looms near. A donkey has hard hooves, a strong neck, jaws and teeth, and they will use them all to protect their charges. Braying loudly first, a donkey will chase, kick and stomp a coyote, dog or wolf. They are intelligent and can be friendly with strangers. With proper care, a donkey will be a good guardian for many years. Another plus: They eat the same things as sheep, goats, or llamas – grass, hay, grain and minerals. They need a companion, such as another donkey. They best protect sheep and goats. A good donkey can be purchased for $200 to $600.
A bit of controversy is related to whether llamas make good guardians – some say they do and others say no. For best results, individual farmers need to choose a guardian llama carefully. Ideally, the prospective llama should have some guarding experience before being placed with your flock or herd. They must be old enough – at least 18 months – and large enough to adequately protect.
Llamas tend to be independent and aloof, yet proud and regal. Geldings and unbred females make good guardians against coyotes and dogs but not against cougars, mountain lions or bears. They show a high level of curiosity and are highly aware of their surroundings. When danger is sensed, a llama will give a shrill alarm and become very restless. Presented with a predator, a llama will advance, snort, spit, chase and stomp. When guarding alone, llamas should only look after smaller herds or flocks. A single llama will not protect well against packs of predators. Llamas can be purchased for $300 to $500.
The Bottom Line
Choosing the right guardian requires good research, but the time and investment can save you plenty of money and even more heartache and frustration in the long run. No one wants to face herd losses from predators, and who knows, you might discover that you enjoy raising guardian animals as much as other livestock.
Heidi Overson writes from her rural Coon Valley, Wisconsin, home. On her writing breaks, she trots down to the barn to hug her Angora goats and llamas.
Maremma Sheepdog Club of America: www.All-Animals.com/dogs.html
Akbash Dog Association of America: www.AkbashClub.com
The Anatolian Shepherd Dog Club of America: www.ASDCA.org
The Komondor Club of America: Clubs.AKC.org/kca
The Great Pyrennes Club of America: Clubs.AKC.org/gpca
South Central Llama Association: www.SCLA.us/guard_llama_guidelines.html
Donkey information: www.OMAFRA.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/sheep/facts/donkey2.htm