Overworked and Underpaid: The Livestock Guardian Dog

It has been two weeks since our livestock guard llama, Louise, passed away leaving her partner, Thelma, in charge of guarding the sheep. I’ve since come to realize, unlike Cagney and Lacy, the division of responsibility was never equal. Thelma isn’t security team material, she’s more like the bad teenage babysitter that is so concerned about what the young alpaca boys next door are doing she lets all her charges run wild. In an effort to pick up the slack, Willamina the Great Pyrenees has taken on the added responsibility and has been pulling a lot of double shifts.

Willa and I have had our differences over the years, but she does finally seem to be outgrowing her wild youth and maturing into a responsible adult. She still has the occasional outburst of energy. Now that she resides exclusively with the alpacas that are taller than her though, she doesn’t seem to want to play chase as much. It seems to only be the smaller animals that trigger that impulse, like the great chicken chase last summer. 

It happened during the routine nightly ritual of tucking all the animals in for the night. It was a complicated system; a certain order had to be followed to keep the peace amongst all the livestock residents. The goats needed to be tucked into their goat grotto first so that the sheep can cross the goat pasture to get to the barn. Only then could Willa be let out to start on her nightly patrol. The chickens had a pasture all to themselves so we didn’t have to worry about them. Chickens are smart enough to tuck themselves in at night so all a farmer has to do is shut the coop doors behind them. I had just finished shutting one of them that night when I heard the ruckus begin.

It seems Prius, a hybrid hen, had jumped the fence and landed in the goat pasture — where Willa was. I hadn’t noticed her out there because of all the tall grass, and frankly wouldn’t have been looking for her back there because we’ve never had one of the large breed hens jump the fence before. I’m not sure who scared who first, but all of sudden the dog was jumping up and down barking, the chicken was squawking and feathers were flying everywhere. There were at least 200 yards and two fences between me and the mayhem. In my panic, I actually thought for a second I would jump one of the fences as I took off in a flat-out run to save Prius. Then, almost as if I could hear the screeching tires in my head, I remembered that I don’t have super human strength or the ability to fly, and so I had to resort to going all the way around and through the gates; a much less direct route.

I was screaming at Willa as I ran to “leave it,” a command the other dogs grasped easily in obedience class but Willa never did. Even when I reached them she still didn’t want to give up the now lifeless chicken. It didn’t seem like a good idea to reach my arm into the jaws of a Great Pyrenees and take away its new found snack but I was only armed with an empty plastic coffee can in my hand that probably only weighed an ounce. I threw it at her anyway; she didn’t even notice. I was more than a little hysterical by this point. In the end it was my hysteria that finally got her to let go. It was if she stopped to say, “What is your problem, lady?”

I scooped up the chicken and stumbled back through the tall grass and brush to the chicken pasture. Prius wasn’t moving. She was wet with slobber and half her feathers were missing. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing or not because I was actually hyperventilating myself. I had witnessed the 100 pound dog pounce on the 2 pound chicken, so she had to be dead. I was beyond furious, having difficulty breathing and it was getting dark. I still needed to finish locking up the chicken coop so I left the lifeless little body just inside the door and planned to bury her first thing in the morning. I stayed mad at Willa all night. Mad because she chases chickens. Mad because she wouldn’t “leave it.” Mad because she made me throw the can at her.

It was raining the next morning when I walked out with a shovel, still angry. I opened the chicken doors and out scampered the chickens. Once they passed by I looked in to get Prius only she wasn’t there. Then my brain caught up with my eyes and I nearly gave myself whiplash when I turned to see that Prius had just walked past me with all the other birds. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “She’s ALIVE!” I thought. “What in the world?” Apparently chickens know how to play dead. Or she was in shock. Or she came back to life as a zombie chicken.

No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t stay mad at Willa. She was just doing her job; if that 100-pound dog really wanted to kill that 2-pound chicken, it really would be dead. I now think she was trying to help catch it. Since then we’ve locked the chickens up first and conducted a beak count before releasing the hound. We are still working on that whole “leave it” thing.

Unlike Thelma, Willa absolutely earns her keep around here. Each evening of late just after I tuck everyone in for the night I hear the blood curdling howling start; there is a pack of coyotes camped out in the ravine behind the barn. I suppose they are using the spring-fed pond as their winter watering hole. It sounds as if they are coming within feet, not yards, of the perimeter fence. Willa makes it emphatically clear where the boundaries are in case they’ve forgotten, going so far as to have created a rut where she patrols back and forth.

We are bringing another rescue llama in to keep Thelma company and hopefully refocus her attention back to the sheep, but it is Willa who allows me to sleep at night. Bringing up a livestock guardian dog from a pup isn’t easy, they will try your patience, they will bark at harmless croaking frogs for hours and they might even try to eat a chicken or two. Waiting them out is worth it though, eventually you will wake up one day and suddenly realize they have quietly become worth their weight in gold.

Published on Jan 19, 2012

Grit Magazine

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