Dog breeds studied for effective sheep protectionWritten by Natasha Wheeler
“Several years ago, some producers, many of them members of the American Sheep Industry, were having discussions with Wildlife Services about how they had been using livestock protection dogs,” comments Julie Young, lead scientist at the USDA Wildlife Services’ National Wildlife Research Center Predator Research Facility.
Research was done in the 1980s to determine the effectiveness of various dog breeds on predator management, but some producers were seeing more challenges with large predators such as wolves and grizzly bears.
“The dogs weren’t appearing to be as successful as they had been against coyotes, so these producers wondered if perhaps there were different breeds that should be used or if there were other differences in how they manage their dogs to make them successful,” Young elaborates.
Young and her team began a study looking at dog breeds commonly used in Europe but relatively unknown in the United States.
She explains, “We identified a few breeds that we thought would be successful and that we thought were significantly different from the breeds already being used.”
Concentrating on three European breeds, the study is collecting data for dogs that are typically much larger than popular Pyrenees and Maremma breeds often used in the U.S.
“The breeds we are using are the Kangal, out of Turkey, the Transmontana, which is out of Portugal, and the Karakachan, which is out of Bulgaria,” Young notes.
All of the breeds chosen for the study are currently used as livestock protection dogs in Europe on open range in mountainous areas, similar to terrain in the northwest Rocky Mountains.
“We didn’t want to use any dog breeds that were really popular in more arid desert-type environments, for instance, because they might not be able to withstand the winters that our producers live in,” she adds.
Dogs were also selected for their proven ability to bond with livestock.
“Right now we are only working with sheep, but all of the breeds that we selected to look at are being currently used in their country of origin with other livestock. Dogs are mostly with cows, but some are even with chickens and ducks,” she remarks.
To collect data, dogs have been placed with working sheep operations in multiple states to assess the effectiveness of protecting flocks against wolves and grizzly bears.
“We have dogs placed with producers throughout five states – Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. We are also monitoring some of the dogs those producers already have,” she says.
Most of the dogs were delivered to producers as puppies, although a few older Kangals, already in the United States when the study began, were also available.
“Most of the dogs are still under two years old. Some dogs were brought over this year, so they are still under one year old,” Young notes. “We have some that are three or four as well, so they do vary in age.”
Researchers will be collecting data from the dogs until they are at least two years of age or older.
“Dogs tend to be most successful after their first year and until they are about seven or eight. Then, some of them might slow down a little and may be less successful after that. We are just now hitting their prime years,” she explains.
This summer marks the second full summer that researchers have collected data.
It is too early to draw any conclusions, but the researchers and producers are beginning to see trends in the data.
“The more the producer, herdsman or our research staff can reward positive behaviors, the faster the dogs do their job properly,” she says.
Although the dogs have an innate ability to defend livestock against predators, proper training is still necessary to achieve desired results.
“Not surprising but very critical, these dogs do their job really well, but they do it the most successfully when people are involved,” she explains.
Producers are an important part of the study, both for their interactions with the dogs as well as for the observations that they make while working with them.
“So much of science and research is done in a vacuum, and this is really working directly with producers. Their willingness to be involved has been really helpful, not just from the scientific perspective but also from a logistic perspective,” she adds.
The dogs are also equipped with GPS collars, along with subsets of sheep, to monitor where the animals are in relation to each other.
“We collect data through direct observations, and the herders are really important, providing valuable information. But a lot of times, we don’t see things overnight, so we are collecting GPS data to be able to see more,” Young comments.
In one example, observations and data led producers to believe that their sheep were threatened by some of the dogs.
“So far, it’s been anecdotal, and we don’t have enough data to say anything statistically yet. The Karakachan dogs have a little bit more color to them, and we have had a few producers dye them white,” Young notes.
Because their colors are similar to coyotes, the sheep may perceive them as predators, she explains.
“Some of it might just be what we are reading into it,” Young comments. “Although, for the producers who mentioned this, the dying seems to alleviate the concern.”
Young and her team will continue to work with producers and collect data at least through the end of next summer.
“There are a lot tools out there for people to use to reduce their risk for livestock depredation, and no one tool works alone. But in combination, we can lower our risk,” she states. “Using dogs is one of the tools, and we are seeing if there is a way to make it work even better than it is already working.”