How to Protect Your Farm with Livestock Guardian Dogs

What Is a Livestock Guardian Dog?

A livestock guardian dog is a type of dog that is bred to guard livestock.  These types of dogs have been used around the world for thousands of years to keep flocks safe.  The guarding instinct is in their nature.  This type of dog should also be brought up in a way that encourages bonding to the stock.  A livestock guardian dog's primary job is to keep livestock from falling prey to predators.

Livestock Guardian Dog Breeds

There are many breeds of livestock guardian dogs.  Many people also like to have cross breeds of livestock guardian dogs.  However, it's important to make sure that you have only livestock guardian dogs in a cross breed.  You are gambling by taking a herding dog who likes to chase and breeding it to a livestock guardian dog who is bred to stay with the stock as a protector and not a herder.  It's best to stick with full bred livestock guardian dogs or cross breeds that are also livestock guardian dogs.  I'm going to go over some common livestock guardian dog breeds.  Pedigree is not as important as a pup coming from sound working parents.  This is not an exhaustive list of all the livestock guardian breeds, but rather some of the most popular breeds.

Great Pyrenees

Also known as the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, the Great Pyrenees is a large white dog originating in Spain. These are strong willed dogs who are gentle with even the tiniest of livestock yet brave defenders of their flock.  Weight range for females: 80-90 pounds, males:  110-120 pounds.  Life Span is 10-12 years, though I personally know of two outside now on duty as I write this that are approaching 13 years of age and going strong.

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Image Source: Mariann Foster

Akbash

A highly intelligent guardian dog from Turkey is the Akbash.  These agile large white dogs have greyhound (sighthound) roots that make them very fast.  Loyal, independent, brave, intelligent and silly pranksters are some of the traits of the Akbash dog.  Akbash come in both short and long haired variety.  Weight range for females:  80-95 pounds.  Males:  90-140 pounds.  Life Span:  9-11 years of age.

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Maremma

The Maremma originated in central Italy.   This breed has been used for centuries by Italian shepherds to guard sheep from wolves.  Weight range for females:  66-88 pounds.  Males:  77-99 pounds.  Life span:  10-14 years of age.

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Kangal

This livestock guardian dog breed originated in the Sivas province of Turkey.  Due to the Kangal's protectiveness, loyalty, and gentleness with small children and animals, this breed is popular for guarding families besides guarding livestock.  Weight range for females:  90-130 pounds.  Males:  110-139 pounds.  Life span:  12-15 years of age.

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Bernese Mountain Dog

Originating from the Swiss Alps, the Bernese Mountain Dog was once used to pull carts. However, this breed is now mainly used for guarding families and livestock.  Weight range:  70-110 pounds for females.  Males:  80-120 pounds.  Life span:  7-8 years of age.  Unfortunately this beautiful type of dog does not live as long as other breeds of livestock guardian dogs.  The Bernese Mountain Dog is more likely to get cancer than other livestock guardian dog breeds.  In U.S./Canada and UK surveys, it has shown that half of Bernese Mountain Dogs die of cancer. Nonetheless, this is a loyal guardian dog worth considering. 

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Spanish Mastiff

The Spanish Mastiff originates in Spain.  With a large and strong appearance, the Spanish Mastiff will fearlessly protect your livestock from wolves and other predators.  Weight range for females:  88-132 pounds.  Males:  110-150 pounds.  Life span:  10-14 years of age.

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Anatolian Shepherd

With its high speed and agility, this breed can efficiently run down predators.  This livestock guardian dog originates in Turkey.  Weight range for females:  88-121 pounds.  Males:  110-143 pounds.  Life span:  13-15 years of age.

Kuvasz

The Kuvasz is an intelligent dog and is often described as having a clownish sense of humor which can last throughout their puppy hood and into adulthood.  Weight range for females:  71-90 pounds.  Males:  99-115 pounds.  Life span:  10-14 years of age.

livestock guardian dog

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Estrela Mountain Dog

The Estrela Mountain Dog has coloring that is similar to the Spanish Mastiff, and is around the same size.  This breed has been developed in the mountains of Serra da Estrela, which is now called Portugal.  Weight range for females:  77-99 pounds.  Males:  99-132 pounds.  Life span:  10-12 years.

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Image Source: American Kennel Club

Karkachan

The Karkachan is bred as a livestock guardian dog, but recently it has become popular as a pet and guardian for families.  Weight range for females:  66-99 pounds.  Males:  88-120 pounds.  Life span:  12-15 years of age.

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Do I Need a Livestock Guardian Dog?

If you have livestock that predators in your area may consider a meal, you may want to think about investing in a livestock guardian dog.  Or if you have livestock threatened of being chased by neighbor dogs or stolen by people, you may need a livestock guardian dog.  A dog that is bonded with his livestock will want to protect and keep "his" or "her"  livestock safe from all harm.

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How Many Livestock Guardian Dogs Do I Need?

This is a common question but a question that will get a variety of answers even among expert shepherds.  If you ask me, the answer is 9 because that is what I have.  I love each one and they work as a team to keep my family and farm of alpacas, horses, ducks, chickens and geese safe. But how many you really need will depend on how many animals need protected, what type of livestock you are wanting guarded, how many acres the livestock will be on and the degree of threat from predators.  In general, livestock guardian dogs work well in pairs or groups. The more livestock you have, the more livestock guardian dogs you should have.  The more predators you have in your area, the more dogs you may need.  You will never want to put a single dog out in a large area with the presence of grizzly bears and wolves.  On the flip side, if you live on 2 acres in a suburban area, with an occasion coyote sighting you may only need 1 to protect your dozen chickens.

livestock guardian dog

Image Source:  Mariann Foster

Caring for a Livestock Guardian Dog

Unlike other ways to deter predators such as high fencing or motion detector sound alarms, a dog is a living being that will need cared for.  I'm going to go over some basic needs that livestock guardian dog will need.

Food

Many shepherds feed their livestock guardian dogs dry kibble.  This is an easy staple since pound for pound it is lighter in weight than fresh meat.  Kibble can also be stored in bags or containers without needing refrigeration.  You may also want to consider a raw diet or partial raw diet.  Raw meat has many health benefits for the dog including promoting healthy teeth, organs and coat of your dog.  Most dogs love raw meat, so that is a bonus especially when you want to call your dog to you for feedings.  My livestock guardian dogs will usually come running when I call them in for a snack of raw meat.

Water

Dogs will need a fresh supply of water at all times.  If your dogs are in the mountains caring for sheep, cattle or goats, you will need to assure that you have a natural water supply such as a spring or a man-made water supply such as a stock tank.  Dogs on farms and ranches can drink out of automatic water devices, stock tanks or dog bucket/dishes filled with fresh water.

Veterinary Care and Vaccinations

Livestock guardians will need rabies shots, wormed and cared for when they are sick or injured.  Some of this care can be given by the owner, but there are times that you may need a veterinarian to do the work.  Rabies shots for example must be given by a veterinarian.  Some vets may allow you to give the shot if they are watching.  State laws may vary on this.

Alterings

If you will be running a female with males, you may need to spay or neuter your dogs unless you are planning on puppies.  Unfortunately, many livestock guardian dogs and puppies are found in shelters across the country, so be responsible when allowing breeding to occur.  Make sure that you will be able to provide good homes for all of the puppies unless you are planning on keeping them.  Litters as high as 10 or more are not uncommon, so if you are wanting a pup from your working pair, make sure that there is a demand and need for the others to go to good working homes.  Keep in mind that you will need to pay for puppy shots, worming, and care for the pregnant mom.  If you want to keep your dogs unaltered for health reasons make sure to remove the female in heat from the presence of intact male dogs or puppies will likely appear.  Females generally go into heat twice a year for a couple of weeks at a time.

Containment

You will need to keep your dog safe from highways, other people's properties and safe from all harm.  On my farm, a barbed wire horse fence with 4 foot dog fencing attached has done the trick to keep my guardians on my property, but it's wise to put up 5 to 6 foot fencing.  A guardian dog will want to stay home with his stock, but may think it's ok to expand his territory if given the chance.  This summer I'm raised my perimeter and inner fencing to 6 feet just to be safer. Don't assume that your dogs will be safe roaming to your neighbor's property to protect their livestock too.  Many states allow dogs to be shot on site if they enter someone else's property.  Don't take that chance.  Fence your dogs in or make sure they are out on a large range if in the mountains away from highways and dangers.  Some people have good success with electric perimeter hot wire fencing.  Underground fencing and shock collars have a high rate of failure and malfunction. It's best not to use this type of fencing with livestock guardian dogs.

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Image Source: Mariann Foster

Nature of a Livestock Guardian Dog

By nature livestock guardian dogs are independent thinkers.  This is a characteristic that makes them valuable as a guardian.  They won't need to look to a human for commands, when a predator enters their domain.  While this is wonderful, keep in mind that a livestock guardian dog isn't the best breed for doing tricks or listening to commands.  For my own dogs, they will normally come to their name, and also sit and lay down when I ask them to.  But if a perceived threat enters our field, they will take matters in their own hands rather than listen to me.  The degree of this trait will vary from individual dogs, but all in all, these dogs are made to take think for themselves and not look to a human for directions.  That is what makes them good at what they do.  I can give many accounts of when I was wrong and they were right about a perceived threat.

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Image Source: Mariann Foster

Full Time Livestock Guardian Dog Versus Farm Dog

There is much debate on what makes a good livestock guardian dog.  When I was buying a male a couple of years ago, I talked with owners who believed a good livestock guardian dog should never have had any contact whatsoever with a human being.  One owner said he had some wonderful livestock guardian puppies that would need to be shot with a tranquilizer and then transported and let loose on my farm.  They had never been handled by a human.

Others believe livestock guardian dogs need handled by the shepherd and family frequently so that they can easily be handled for veterinary care or transported from one area to another. Much of this will have to do with what you will be using your dog for.  A full time livestock guardian dog on the range, may only need to know the shepherd. However, for a farm and ranch livestock guardian dog you may want them to accept visitors to your farm with you present. Some breeds and individuals will always be wary of strangers while others may seek out farm visitor attention.  My guardians like to be with the livestock, are wary of strangers, accept visitors I say are ok,  and also come to me and my daughter for snuggles, play and interaction/bonding time with us, "their" humans.  

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Image Source: Mariann Foster

Other Considerations

Barking

One of the ways that livestock guardian dogs keep their flocks and herds safe is to bark.  This may be all fine and good if you live on a 1,000 acres away from a near neighbor, but this may be a problem if you have a close neighbor in a subdivision setting.  Make sure you know the law on noise ordinances and try to be considerate of neighbors if you want to keep things friendly.  Some dogs can be trained to tone it down and only bark at threats. But keep in mind that what you perceive as a threat and what they perceive as a threat are two different things.  If barking is a problem in your area, you may want to consider other ways of protecting your livestock other than a livestock guardian dog.

Shedding

Dogs shed.  Big dogs with long hair shed a lot .  If your livestock guardian dog will have free roam of your house and fields too, expect some hair a couple of times a year when the dogs blow their coats.  I have the long hair variety and I look forward to the hair to spin into yarn and finished products such as hats, scarves, hair scrunchies, shawls, etc.  What is a treasure to one person may be a nuisance to another.  So if you will have an indoor/outdoor guardian consider your feelings about hair.

Exercise

A livestock guardian dog running with a guardian pack or on large acreage will exercise on her own while on patrol and at play.  However, keep in mind that if you are on small acreage, with a single dog, he or she will need to play and blow off steam, especially a young dog.  Livestock guardian dogs are not the right type of dog to live in an apartment and only go for a daily walk on a leash.  They are active dogs that thrive when they have a guarding job to do full time.   Unless you are adopting an elderly dog, livestock guardian dogs of young and middle age need a safe place to run each day.

livestock guardian dog

Image Source: Mariann Foster

Bonding to Livestock

A pup should be introduced at a young to the livestock he or she will guard. Depending on the individual dog and type of livestock he will be guarding, the time frame of when you can leave this dog with livestock alone full time will vary.  Many experienced livestock guardian dog owners believe for example that a pup can't be trusted with livestock such as chickens until around age 2. This will vary by individual and how it was raised.  A pup raised by a working livestock guardian dog will usually learn much quicker from the parent of what is permissible and what isn't.  My dogs have always been able to be trusted with all sizes of livestock by around 8 months of age. But I was either always around when they were young and learning, or an experienced livestock guardian dog was with them who taught them the do's and don't of being a livestock guardian dog.

Training or "Disciplining" a Livestock Guardian Dog

A large dog such as a livestock guardian dog should not have a timid owner.  But on the other hand, never use a heavy hand on a livestock guardian dog.  You should never hit a dog, nor yell at him or her too harshly.  A simple and firm, "no" or "leave it" will suffice.  There should be few times that you should need to say no, or correct a livestock guardian dog.  They should never chase livestock but other than that, consider why you will need to correct a dog often.  If they are in the proper environment they should be given freedom to do their job.  Their job may involve barking at perceived threats, digging large dens and laying in the dirt to cool off.  My livestock guardian dogs respond best to positive reinforcement such as "good boy/girl" "time to eat" or "good morning."

livestock guardian dog

Image Source: Mariann Foster

Final Thoughts

Livestock guardian dogs can be a valuable asset to your farm.  They also can cost you some money in food, and vet bills and lots of time while growing up.   With that being said, I can't imagine my life without my livestock guardians.   They roam our acreage and our home.  Mine are wary of strangers, guard the livestock and also happy to cuddle up on my lap with me for visits and playtime.  Dogs will vary by breed and how they are brought up.

Before adding a livestock guardian dog, make sure that you are up for a commitment of at least a decade. I have two great pyrenees that are approaching thirteen years of age, that I've had since pups.  One of the saddest things for me to hear, is of a livestock guardian dog that ended up in a shelter because the owner didn't realize it's nature nor how big it will get, how much shedding it does, the tendency to expand it's territory if not fenced and/or that it barks by nature.  Once you do make the commitment to bring one into your farm family, make sure the dog bonds with the livestock and be patient.  Your rewards will be a 24/7 security system and trusted friend to your livestock and family.

Image Source: Mariann Foster

Mariann Foster

I am one of our content writers for Everything Backyard. I am a mother and business owner of Big Horn Mountain Alpacas in Wyoming. I love farm life, cutting my own firewood in the mountains, and participating in local trail run races.

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