What is the best livestock guardian?


Dogs, llamas, and donkeys have all been successfully used as livestock guardians on sheep/goat farms and ranches. There are pros and cons to each and not all make suitable guardians for sheep/goats. It is important to match the right guardian to the right farm.

Dogs are the most popular livestock guardians. According to 2014 USDA data, 23.5 percent of US sheep farms use livestock guardian dogs; 33 percent of goat farms. Dogs have been used for centuries to protect livestock in Europe and Asia. Globally, there are more than 30 livestock guardian breeds. Crosses with other breeds are ill-advised. Breeds most common to the US include Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Maremma, Komondor, and Anatolian Shepherd. The Great Pyrenees is the most popular and probably best suited to smaller residential farms, as it is the least aggressive breed.

One of the advantages to livestock guardian dogs is that they are effective against a variety of predators including birds of prey. In recent years, more aggressive breeds (Kangal, Karakachan, Transmontano) have been imported to handle the larger predators in the western US, such as wolves and bears. However, research has found little difference in behavior between breeds; the individual is more important than breed. Research has also found gender and neutering to have no effect on the effectiveness of livestock guardian dogs.

The key to having an effective livestock guardian dog is to start with a puppy that has been raised on a farm with sheep and/or goats. It is important that the pup bond to the stock at a young age (<16 weeks). Bad behaviors, such as biting, chasing, and wandering, need to be corrected immediately. Guardian dogs need to be socialized, but they can't double as the family pet. The biggest problems encountered with guardian dogs are failure to stay with livestock and mistreatment of the animals they are charged with protecting.

Donkeys and llamas
Donkeys and llamas can make effective guardians because they are herding animals with a natural dislike of canids. They are best suited to smaller flocks and pastures and flat terrain. They have numerous advantages over dogs. They are longer-lived and consume similar diets as sheep/goats. They don't dig, bark, or roam. However, donkeys bray.

Size is imporant. Alpacas aren't usually big enough for guardian duties, though some places have found success using them. Miniature donkeys are likely to be less effective than standard sized donkeys. Unlike guardian dogs, donkeys and llamas should be employed singly to make sure they stay with the flock/herd. Geldings and females are preferred to intact males, which may be too aggressive and interfere with breeding. No guardian should be trusted with lambing/kidding until they have proven themselves to be trustworthy.

According to Colt Knight, a University of Maine Livestock Specialist, mules can be trained to be guardian animals, too. According to Knight, mules have a better temperament than other guardians. They have a similar dislike of dogs.

The best livestock guardian animals stay with the livestock without harming them and aggressively repel predators.


Additional reading
Livestock Guardian Dog Program @ Texas A&M Agrilife
Livestock Guardians: Choosing a Guard Animal
Livestock Guardian Dogs - Texas A&M AgriLife
Guidelines for using donkeys as guard animals with sheep
Use of Livestock Guardians (PowerPoint)