February 14, 2010

ASI proposal threatens livestock guardian dogs

Livestock guardian... er, protection dogs protect sheep from coyotes, wolves, bears, eagles, domestic dogs and thieving humans. This is good. But federal lands are public lands, and on federal grazing allotments conflicts may arise between flock guardians and someone who, for example, happens to be riding her mountain bike through the flock after dark, screaming hysterically.

In that sad case a woman was mauled and the flock owner, whose LGDs were confined during the day of the mountain bike race and released at sundown, was convicted of owning vicious dogs. His guardian dogs were killed. [Read the ongoing discussion on the Sheep Production Forum.]

At the American Sheep Industry Association's Annual Convention in Nashville last month, the ASI working group on Livestock Protection Dogs was feeling the heat:
ASI strongly believes that the use of LPDs on federal grazing allotments is in serious jeopardy, and anticipates three possible outcomes: 1) Federal agencies develop their own mandatory regulations for the use of LPDs on grazing allotments; 2) Federal agencies completely eliminate the use of LPDs on grazing allotments; or 3) ASI takes a proactive management position and adopts a stringent LPD certification program that sets high industry standards for the use of LPDs with the intent to effectively manage and maintain the use of LPDs on federal grazing allotments.
That quote was taken from a five-page document the ASI is calling its draft management program for livestock guardian dogs. A certification program is recommended, and there are guidelines for everything from socialization and training to coat care and mandatory neuter. [I suffered AB 1634 flashbacks.]

Sheep Production Forum owner Bill Fosher doesn't like the proposal either, and he's a sheep producer and guardian dog owner. He writes:
While I can understand and appreciate that the ASI is trying to take a pro-active stand, I believe that its proposal will do more harm than good. You can read it for yourself here. ASI is seeking input, and I believe that every sheep producer who uses livestock guardian dogs should read the document carefully and comment extensively.
Go to the Edgefield Sheep blog to read Guard dogs under threat, Bill's excellent commentary on the ASI proposal. And if you raise sheep and rely on livestock guardian dogs, please send your comments on the proposal to the ASI.

[In the photo: woman meets livestock guardian near Cabrales, in northern Spain. She's a dog person, but this working mastiff growled at her husband, who kept his distance (and used a zoom lens while she examined the spiked collar). The blog post he wrote about the encounter and about the return of flock guardians to the Spanish countryside is called La Torna del Cancerbero (The Return of Cerberus).]


Bill Fosher said...

Thanks for giving this issue some additional exposure, Luisa. The guideline that made my blood boil was one that recommends that sheep producers not breed guard dogs; that this be left to "reputable breeders." Whatever that means.

For my money, the only reputable breeders of working livestock guardian dogs must be sheep producers. How else could the breeding stock be put to the test?

Rinalia said...

I'm not a huge fan of grazing on public land or of allowing large, aggressive flock guarders to be on the same public land as hikers, bikers and other dog owners. I should not have to worry about legally biking on public land, screaming because I'm happy, sad, mad or whatever and then being set upon by two unrestrained, dangerous, large canines. No one should. Had those other campers not been around and she'd been by herself, she'd be dead. That's a high price to pay for legally biking down a hill and making what those dogs considered an inappropriate sound. Of course, I imagine the likelihood of being mauled by flock guardians is much lower than being mauled by a)the resident dog or b) someone else's "house/yard/neighborhood" dog.

But is their value in preventing the death of sheep more important to us, as a society, than their ability to cause significant damage against humans (or their companion dogs), including killing them?

I'm not unsympathetic to the rancher or other ranchers facing similar problems, and perhaps a compromise should be made to balance the two. If people want wool and lamb and mutton, then they have to want the investment in space raising those animals require, possibly to the exclusion of opening the land up to the public if flock guardians are considered a necessity for the flock's survival.

What about donkeys or llamas? They use them around here (mid-northern CA against coyotes and even the wayward mountain lion, but I don't know how they fare in, say, Colorado's terrain.

I've only met a half dozen flock protectors. The scariest involved being charged by a Kuvasz protecting his goats. I was on the new sanctuary property with my dogs and oh man, did I see Mina's life flash before my eyes. No way would she survive an encounter with this dog. Thankfully he rammed into the field fence, it held, Mina bluffed her awesome strength, and we slowly backed away (*I* slowly backed away. Celeste was oblivious. Mina was all I WILL KILL YOUUUUU BUT PLEASE DO NOT HURT ME!!!!!).

Jenny Glen said...

I think the point keeps being missed, this is not the bikers fault and this is not the LGD owner or shepherd's fault. This is the fault of the race organizers. I spoke to the owners of the Meeker sheep who graze in Colorado areas similar to the area in which this attack happend. I was told that when the biker's bike broke down, she was offered a ride by the race orgainzers. She refused and wanted to finish the race. Why didn't the race organizers tell her, No? They had told the shepherds to tie up the dogs during the race. The shepherds did but when they thought the race was over (dusk) they let the dogs off to do the work they need to do. The race offcials knew there was a potential problem and they should have told the biker that she couldn't finish the race if it was going to run that late. They knew those dogs were there and they were the ones who should be liable.
The trouble with making these guardian dogs passive to strange dogs on leash or running loose but non threatening, is that they become passive to all dogs. Our guardian dogs are trained to allow many dogs around because we have our own herding dogs and customer dogs. Unfortunately, even tho they do a good job with the coyotes they allowed two stray dogs to attack our flock. Range LGD's must have more of an edge to them. How many hikers allow their dogs to roam while they hike? Those guardian dogs must know that they can stop those pets.
I do believe that guardian dogs need to be socialized to people. However, it gets difficult to keep that socializing up when the dog is working on the range. Guardian dogs were not meant to guard the sheep from people but the very nature of their independence and solitary work (very needed in their job) makes it more likely that they will become agressive towards people who come on their "territory". I often have people visiting give treats to my LGD pup (11 months) to insure that he stays friendly but range LGD's don't have that opportunity. We could not have sheep out on the prairies without our dogs and I think this incident has made most LGD owners more aware and that this will police itself.

Luisa said...

I agree - the race organizers were responsible for what happened. They should have been able to contact the flock owner or the shepherd and say, "Everyone is accounted for -- you can turn the dogs loose now." If cell phone communication was impossible, there should have been a cutoff time: all racers to be off the trail and signed out by [x], no exceptions.

Jenny, thanks for your comment, and would you please give Skid a pat for me? [I heart Skid.]

Bill Fosher said...


Just as you would not go into a bull pasture waving a red flag, riding a bike through a flock of sheep, screaming is a bad idea -- guard dogs or no. At the very least, you subject the animals to needless stress.

The core principle of the multiple use doctrine is that all users must respect each others' right to be there, and recognize that multiple use means that everyone must do a little bit to accommodate other uses. For instance, hikers shouldn't camp in active logging areas, and loggers and graziers must adjust their operations to avoid endangering critical wildlife habitat.

It's not as if grazing allotments are handed out willy-nilly. Some ranches have been using the same allotments for four or five geneartions. Without them, the high meadows that provide vistas for hikers, graze for elk, and edge habitat for all kinds of birds and other wildlife would not exist without the presence of grazing livestock. Removal of grazing livestock also increases the risk of wildfire by increasing the amount of fuel.

This is an environmental niche that was once filled by the great herds of bison, which, sadly, aren't going to come back.

With the re-introduction of top-level predators, shepherds were forced to develop deterrents to protect their sheep. Each thing they have tried (some of which were spectacularly bad ideas) has been banned or restricted to the point of being ineffective. Guard dogs are pretty much the last hope for maintaining the open spaces in the wilderness and the habitat and recreational opportunities they provide.

Yes, guard dogs can be dangerous. But wouldn't you think that a little caution is warranted if you love the places where you hike, bike, ride, and hunt?

Bill Fosher said...

Oh, and donkeys and llamas won't work. They are generally only effective in small areas protecting small groups of sheep, usually within fences. And even then, most of them are not really up to the task when the chips are down. If I had a dollar for every story I've heard where a llama quickly learned that it didn't have to outsmart the coyote, but rather just avoid it until it ate a sheep, I would have more than a couple of Starbucks. And if you think guard dogs are dangerous to domestic dogs, you should see what donkey damage looks like.

Very few guard dogs will actually kill or even attack. Like a good police officer, their MO is to end the threat. There are times when that means force -- even lethal force -- but those times are rare.

YesBiscuit! said...

I understand there is no small controversy about grazing sheep on public lands where Bighorn Sheep live. One group apparently says regular sheep spread disease to the Bighorns and another group says it's the other way 'round.

HTTrainer said...

Who would bear responsibility if the rider was attacked by a wolf or a coyote? If an LPD dog scared off a predator, would it then be a hero?