These 'Warrior Dogs' Intimidate Even Bears and Lions

guardian dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sheep ranchers in the U.S. have historically used large, light-colored dogs of certain breeds to guard their livestock from predators, e.g., the Anatolian Shepherd
  • Three important traits in guardian dogs are attentiveness, trustworthiness and protectiveness
  • They must also be less aggressive and dominant than herding dogs, because their job requires that they blend in with the flock and watch for intruders
  • With the return of wolves to the American west since the 1990s, a number of guardian dogs have been lost, and many wolves have also been killed by government wildlife officials to protect livestock
  • To address this growing problem, a four-year experiment involving imported larger, more specialized guarding breeds has just wrapped up, and government scientists will publish several reports on the results over the next year

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Unless you know ranchers in the western U.S., you’re probably blissfully unaware of the constant battle they face keeping their livestock safe from predators, especially wolves.

Historically, sheep ranchers in this country have used large, light-colored guardian dogs, including the Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Anatolian Shepherd, Komondor, Kuvasz, Maremma, Polish Tatra and the Tibetan Mastiff. Many of the breeds are related.1 Since the job of these dogs is to guard versus herd, they have to blend in with the flock, thus the use of breeds with white or light-colored coats.

Guardian Dogs Start Living With Their Flocks as Young Puppies

Guardian dogs are introduced to livestock as puppies so they imprint on the flock. Ideally, the pups should start living among the flock or herd at 4 to 5 weeks because imprinting, which is primarily olfactory, occurs between 3 and 16 weeks of age. And despite what many people believe, the dogs should also have lots of human handling, preferably starting at birth.

Guardian dogs aren’t considered fully reliable until they’re 1 to 2 years old. Until then, they require training, guidance and close supervision as they learn the skills and rules of their job. Ideally, there are older dogs available to help train the youngsters.

Since they bond with the flock from an early age, the dogs’ guarding ability tends to evolve naturally. They don’t control the movement of livestock like herding dogs do. Instead, they blend in with them and watch for intruders. Male and female guardian dogs are equally effective protecting livestock.

How Guardian Dogs Work to Protect Livestock

There are typically at least two dogs with each flock or herd, depending on the number of livestock and the type, number and activity level of predators in the area. Occasionally, only one dog is required, but with large range operations and lots of predator activity, more dogs are needed. 

Interestingly, just the presence of a guardian dog keeps some predators away. The dogs use vocal intimidation such as barking, and aggressive behavior to chase off threats, and if that doesn’t work, they may attack or fight with a predator. And guardian dogs don’t just stand around waiting for threats to show up, either — they often actively look for predators to either catch or run off, and have even been known to lure coyotes to a source of food in order to catch them.

Fortunately, though guardian dogs have been known to fight to the death with predators, most often attacks are prevented by a display of aggressiveness toward the intruder. Believe it or not, the dogs are surprisingly effective at driving off much bigger, more powerful predators, including bears and lions.

And unlike trapping and poisoning, guardian dogs rarely kill predators. As an added bonus, their aggressive behaviors seem to condition predators to leave their flocks alone and instead hunt unguarded prey (typically other wildlife).

3 Important Traits of Guardian Dogs

Whereas herding dogs need to show dominance, guardian dogs need to be more submissive. Since they’ve been bred for generations for a decreased tendency to chase, their aggressiveness is limited. Even when they chase predators away, they stop once the threat disappears and return to their flock. The three most desirable traits in livestock guardian dogs are:

  • Attentiveness, so they can remain alert for threats by predators
  • Trustworthiness, so they can be depended on not to wander off or become aggressive with the flock
  • Protectiveness, so they will attempt to discourage predators

Since dogs, including those bred to guard livestock, are individuals with different personalities and temperaments, experienced ranchers often use these differences to their advantage. According to Wikipedia:

“Dogs, being social creatures with differing personalities, will take on different roles with the herd and among themselves: most sticking close to the livestock, others tending to follow the shepherd or rancher when one is present, and some drifting farther from the livestock.

These differing roles are often complementary in terms of protecting livestock, and experienced ranchers and shepherds sometimes encourage these differences by adjustments in socialization technique so as to increase the effectiveness of their group of dogs in meeting specific predator threats.

LGDs [livestock guardian dogs] that follow the livestock closest assure that a guard dog is on hand if a predator attacks, while LGDs that patrol at the edges of a flock or herd are in a position to keep would-be attackers at a safe distance from livestock. Those dogs that are more attentive tend to alert those that are more passive but perhaps also more trustworthy or less aggressive with the livestock.”2

Are Traditional Guard Dogs Still a Good Fit to Protect Livestock?

Wolves were reintroduced into western states in the 1990s, and since then there has been growing concern among ranchers and wildlife officials as to whether traditional guardian dog breeds are still the best fit to protect livestock. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Wildlife Services, from 1995, when wolves returned to Idaho, through the end of 2017, they killed 50 guard dogs and injured nearly 40 more. Just in 2017 alone, federal officials killed 56 wolves due to attacks on livestock.3

To try to address the issue, federal scientists imported around 120 dogs from three large breeds developed in Europe and Asia to be gentle with sheep and children, but vicious when confronting wolves. Officials with the Agriculture Department’s National Wildlife Research Center looked to regions of the world where dogs are bred to protect sheep from wolves and brown bears.

They settled on a large, lean, agile dog from Portugal called the Cão de Gado Transmontanos; the Karakachan, a dog developed by nomadic sheepherders in Bulgaria; and the Kangal, a powerful dog from Turkey with an instinct for guarding. All three breeds can weigh up to 140 pounds, which is about the size of a wolf.

Four years ago, the dogs were collected as puppies in their respective countries and delivered to ranchers in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon to guard 65 herds. The wildlife researchers are in the process of analyzing their notes and information collected from remote cameras and GPS collars, and will be publishing a number of scientific papers over the next year.

How the Imported Guard Dogs Performed

According to Julie Young, Ph.D., a Utah-based research biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center, overall the dogs did well keeping away wolves and better than traditional guardian dogs at deterring coyotes. She said the Karakachans tended to be more vigilant, the Kangals inclined to investigate and the Cão de Gado Transmontanos better at assessing threats.

However, one of the breeds was less successful than the others according to a rancher. Dr. Jill Swannack, a veterinarian and president of the Washington State Sheep Producers who has a ranch with about 800 sheep, received three Karakachans. “When we came home, they preferred to be home with us," she said. "They really didn't bond to the sheep." In addition, the dogs only grew to 70 or 80 pounds.

Swannack calls wolves a “phenomenal predator,” and her guard dog of choice is the Anatolian Shepherd, though she lost one to a wolf a few years ago. Ranchers can call for help from Wildlife Services to kill wolves that attack livestock, however, environmentalists are working to reduce those situations and view guard dogs as a big part of the solution.

According to a representative from Defenders of Wildlife, during most of the year, traditional guardian dogs are a great deterrent. However, in the spring, when mother wolves are raising their litters, their predatory behavior becomes more intense. Young suspects that when all is said and done, sheep ranchers might do best with a mix of dogs, including some that stay close to the sheep, and others that patrol the perimeter around the flock.

One of the scientific papers planned for later in the year will explore the relationship between dogs and sheepherders, many of whom are Peruvian. “There's a bond there," Young said. "Just from watching them and looking at data, the ones who were better bonded, the dogs just seemed to perform better."