Protect Your Poultry With Livestock Guardian Dogs
By Brenda M. Negri, Cinco Deseos Ranch LGDS – Free-ranging poultry is all the rage these days as cage-free eggs from “happier, healthier hens” bring premium market value and health benefits for the consumer. With this freedom, however, comes risk: free-ranging fowl is a predator magnet, often drawing in foxes, raccoons, feral dog packs, coyotes, birds of prey, and in some areas even mountain lions, bear, and wolves. So what is the homesteader to do when predators are attracted to your flock for their next meal?
Enter the Livestock Guardian Dog, or as they are commonly referred to as, LGDs. These breeds from the Old Country are highly coveted for their instinct to guard livestock against depredation. Breeds such as the Great Pyrenees, Maremma, Pyrenean Mastiff, Anatolian, Spanish Mastiff, and others, have for centuries protected sheep, cattle, horses, swine, and goats in their native countries of Spain, Italy, France, and Turkey. Now a regular sight on many family farms, with proper selection, care, and training, LGDs can also keep prized hens, guineas, turkeys, and other fowl safe from predators.
Washington State hobby farmer and heritage Buckeye chicken breeder, Barbara Judd was a first-time LGD prospective buyer and owner when she contacted me querying about the availability of pups. My Pyrenean Mastiff female Atena had just produced a whopping 16-puppy litter out of my Great Pyrenees male, Peso. There were two small females I affectionately dubbed “the Pockets” whom Barbara immediately fell in love with and named Lucy and Patty.
When she explained to me what her goal was — rearing these pups to protect chickens — I cautioned her, as fowl are typically the most difficult to train LGDs on. Clucking and flapping and fussing hens present a temptation few pups can resist chasing! But luckily for Barbara, I’d started introducing this litter to my flock of 40 layers, so the prospect of her plan, although a challenge, was one I was up to and excited to see how the pups would fare.
Once Barbara took home her pups at about 10 weeks of age, she continued Patty and Lucy’s training. She was a first-time LGD owner with zero exposure to LGDs — breeds who are entirely different than pet breeds in their makeup, instincts, and behaviors. She became a beacon of hope and a shining example of what a person can accomplish if they follow some basic guidelines.
Here are Some Key Points and Solid Tips for Bringing up LGDs to Guard Fowl:
TIP 1: Buy healthy, vaccinated, and de-wormed LGD pups from proven, working parents. Make sure parents are both recognized LGD breeds; crosses with non-LGD breeds are high risk and unpredictable.
TIP 2: Breeder track record and credibility are important for future support and advice. You want pups with early exposure to fowl before you take them home at 10 weeks or older.
TIP 3: Plan on daily “Chicken 101” training for your pups. Make it a “reward” time with positive reinforcement — Judd typically gave her pups a treat before every “class,” and soon, they were reminding her it was time for school.
TIP 4: Get the pups tired out with activity such as a perimeter walk of your barnyard or active play before you engage them in training.
TIP 5: Use older, less flighty hens for training. Stay in the immediate area with the pups, but allow both chickens and pups to have freedom of movement.
TIP 6: Facilitate, but never force interaction or proximity. Begin training with a harness and leash to assist keeping pups in line, and for correction. Graduate from tighter control to dragging a leash, and eventually to no harness or leash as they mature.
TIP 7: Aim for the pups to ignore the chickens. If you catch them staring at chickens, turn their heads or put your hand briefly over their eyes to divert their attention.
TIP 8: Discipline any inappropriate behavior from the start with a consistent noise you make to show dissatisfaction. Don’t tie a dead chicken around a pup’s neck as punishment: this is confusing to the pup and does not discourage or accomplish anything.
TIP 9: Make the chicken area a calm, quiet area. This means no yapping pet dogs, no screaming toddlers during training time. Keep distractions to a minimum.
TIP 10: Positively reinforce their good behavior by giving them big soup bones to chew on while they lay quietly in the coop vicinity. This can be done while chickens are penned up and safe, and the pups outside the chicken run.
TIP 11: Do not force the class for a given period of time. Expect these to be somewhat intense but short training sessions where you are right there, not yards away. This is you participating, hands on. Observe, correct, praise, discipline. Start with 0-15 minute classes.
TIP 12: End class on a positive note. If the pups appear to be getting tired, irritated or annoyed, end the session before anything “awful” happens.
TIP 13: Don’t let misbehavior discourage you. Mistakes are part of the process.
TIP 14: As the pups progress, you will be able to extend the distance you can be from them, and the amount of time they are with the chickens. Progress slowly and mindfully.
TIP 15: If you have pet dogs regularly harassing your fowl, don’t let them mingle with your LGD pups as they’ll impart bad habits. Keep them away from the fowl at all times.
TIP 16: Protect the chickens by keeping them in a secure enclosure. Once the LGDs are trained, you can go back to a longer free-range time, but until sufficiently trained and while there is predator danger, the chickens will need to be protected.
SUMMARY: With consistency and patience, Barbara Judd has helped Patty and Lucy reach an impressive level of success as solid chicken guardians. Barbara was willing to do what was necessary to support her pups’ natural guarding ability and has been rewarded a thousandfold. They are an integral part of their farm and family. An LGD, or even better, a pair of LGDs can become partners on your farm as well, as long as you are willing to put in the time.