LGD Pack Size Affects Success
The Numbers Game
By Brenda M. Negri, Cinco Deseos Ranch – When it comes to efficient predator control and livestock protection using livestock guardian dogs (LGDs), real success usually comes from running the right number for each situation. Sometimes it’s what you can’t see that proves the dogs are working and that you’re running them in the right numbers.
Kangal breeder Ed Bernell of Laurel, Montana, had filled his deer tags for the season when the call came from Montana Fish and Game asking how his hunting luck had run. Bernell gave them the required information and they chatted about hunting season.
Then came a question Ed wasn’t prepared to hear, “Did you spot any sign of or did you see any wolves during your hunt?” the agent asked. Taken aback by the question, he chuckled and confidently replied “Of course not! There are no wolves around my area.”
The shocker came next, “Oh yes there are!” The official reported not one, but several wolves had been sighted only four miles from Bernell’s 100-acre high plateau goat and sheep operation, surrounded by large tracts of open land. Ranchers were reporting wolves traveling through their ranches, wolf tracks were increasing, and there was no doubt the wolves were moving in from the Yellowstone area.
Perplexed, Bernell replied, “I’ve never seen any! But then I do have several livestock guardian dogs here … mostly Kangals.”
“That may be why you haven’t seen or had any wolves in your area,” the official suggested.
Prior to this phone call, Bernell’s main concern was coyotes and smaller predators. Faced with wolf packs, however, he’s decided to up his numbers of LGDs, increasing his protection level. “I also try to get across to potential customers how important it is to run the right number of dogs to fend off wolves. People seem to think one or two LGDs can do the trick. That’s wrong. You must fight fire with fire. Running more than just one or two LGDs also increases the chances of your dogs surviving a wolf attack. It protects your LGDs and your livestock.”
The appropriate number of guardian dogs differs from one situation to the next. Some of the many factors to consider include:
• Brush or tree cover
• Line of sight
• Size of area
• Number of livestock
• Predator load
• Predator types
• Stockman’s presence or absence
• Fences or lack of them
• Age, experience, health, and types of LGDs
• Additional predator control in use
Wolf packs can range from as few as three to 20 or more. For most ranchers, running 20 LGDs isn’t fiscally possible. However, many report success in repelling wolf attacks using as small a pack as four to six dogs.
A Suitable Breed Combo
Most successful LGD pack situations use a combination of breeds, with perimeter-patrolling dogs, plus breeds that “lie in” close to the stock. In my experience, there’s no single LGD breed out there that can “do it all,” or that is the “ultimate answer” to wolf predation. So I breed and run a mix of LGD breeds, from heavy, slower, powerful Spanish and Pyrenean Mastiffs, to the swifter Kangal and Anatolian/Maremma crosses. Each breed offers something special. If raised together from puppyhood in a pack, many breeds together can combine forces to make predators think twice about picking on “the dog pack’s livestock.”
The main goal is to dissuade the wolves from choosing an “easy meal” — to make them go elsewhere to hunt. Ideally, there is little if any confrontation between the two, thus saving the rancher the heartache of injured or killed LGDs — and humoring environmentalists whose dream is preserving predators.
Running LGDs in a large pack is part art and part science, tempered with some luck. Not all dogs work or meld well in a pack situation. And, if they were not raised among a pack of dogs as pups, it can take some time to transition a pup or young dog into a pack’s hierarchy.
As someone who breeds LGDs full time and runs an adult and adolescent pack of 20 to 22 dogs (not counting litters), I can vouch for the amount of work and owner dedication it takes. Ranchers or farmers must be extremely confident in their dog handling abilities or they won’t last long in this endeavor. Those not comfortable around very large (or giant) LGD breeds that have a reputation for thinking on their own, will probably not succeed. Or at best, they’ll have limited success running a large pack of LGDs, and would perhaps be better off trying to incorporate other means into their inventory of protection options for their livestock.
Successes are out there; Ed Bernell in Montana is one such case. The Lockhart Ranch of Debden, Saskatchewan is another, using a large pack of LGDs to protect sheep and cattle. There are many others. Since I began running LGDs in a large pack, the coyotes and lions have stayed clear of the area surrounding my ranch. My dogs have killed stray dogs attempting to attack either my livestock or my neighbor’s.
Pups Schooled By “Hard Knocks”
I’ve noticed pups coming up through the ranks of a large dog pack are by nature exposed to more conflict and “play fighting” than they would otherwise. From puppyhood, they learn how to tackle each other and defend themselves, just as they’d need to as adults if attacked by feral dogs, wolves, or lions.
I liken this to the proverbial “school of hard knocks”: What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. In that regard, clients tell me time and again that pack-raised pups seem to be more savvy, confident, and capable at earlier ages than pups from non-pack raised environments. Again, it’s not so much attributable to my having raised them, but to the lessons pups learn in my large pack.
Repelling predators is more than just picking the right color or breed of LGD, it’s much more than that. More often with LGDs it’s a numbers game, combined with other predator control strategies and as always, the willingness of stockmen to think “outside the box.”
Three Big Predator Control Breeds
The Kangal—Swift, intense, primitive, intelligent, and able to cover a lot of territory fast, this ancient Turkish breed is an excellent choice for experienced LGD handlers in big predator country. Their courage in confrontations with predators is legendary, as is their endurance and strength.
Spanish Mastiffs—Native to Spain, these heavyweights of the LGD world have enormous strength and power. Though slower than lighter breeds, they stay close to “their” livestock and are extremely formidable in a fight. A complex breed, they’re somewhat aloof — steady and trustworthy with their owner but usually highly suspicious of strangers.
Pyrenean Mastiffs—Another Spanish breed (related to, but larger than its French relative the Great Pyrenees), this docile-looking giant has tremendous courage, tenacity, and a fierce protective instinct. It’s also extremely intelligent. They’re very people-friendly as a whole and make a great LGD for smaller family farmsteads with more human presence.
Originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of sheep! and regularly vetted for accuracy.