Visiting an Indian encampment during his journey through Florida in 1775, the man known as America’s first naturalist, William Bartram, observed a dog that looked much like one of the local wolves guarding a herd of horses. Following the Spanish custom for creating livestock guard dogs, the dog had been raised from birth with his charges. The Spanish dogs were generally larger animals of the mastiff type, but what mattered was the bonding that took place between dog and sheep, goats, cattle or horse.

The dogs were integral in the Old World to the system of transhumance, the movement of herders, dogs; and their charges from the lowlands to the highlands each spring to take advantage of the fresh, nutritious grass, whose arrival was assisted by human-set fires.

The tradition ended in the British Isles with extirpation of the wolf in the mid-17th century. Quick herding dogs were employed in place of the large guard dogs, and that style of shepherding became dominant in North America’s British colonies. Yet the big Spanish dogs were renowned for their devotion to their flock and their ability on a signal from their shepherd to find one sheep out of hundreds belonging to another flock. They would then usher out the interloper. In the United States, there was a long running debate among sheep producers in the 19th century over whether the big Spanish dogs were superior to the English herders, with the notable exception of the Navajo, who continue to this day to raise their randomly bred, medium sized sheep guarding dogs the Spanish way.    

But after extermination of the wolf from nearly all of the lower 48 states and the banning in 1972 of Compound 1080 which killed wolves, coyotes and anything else unlucky enough to encounter it; a few ranchers began using big Eurasian livestock guarding dogs for protection of sheep and goats from coyotes, who had proliferated with the demise of wolves. With backing from the USDA, the use of what are now called “livestock protection dogs” began to grow.

Livestock protection dogs watch over their flock.

USDA photo of livestock protection dogs at work in the San Juan National Forest, Colorado.

Yet without the benefit of tradition, guided initially by the notion that the big dogs were genetically programmed to bond with and protect sheep, many early adopters and proponents of the dogs overlooked the central importance of the dogs’ initial socialization period from three to about twelve weeks of age (now called a critical period). During that time, puppies easily form strong bonds with humans and other species to which they are intensively exposed. For thousands of years, long before people had identified and named "critical periods,” they knew enough to raise puppies from birth with their future charges.

Often dogs raised in that way are not inclined to listen to people and may be overtly hostile, making it difficult to provide them with veterinary care and vaccines. Over the years, researchers have worked to identify how much and when bonding must occur with livestock and humans during that first critical period.

In addition to dogs, ranchers have experimented with putting llamas and donkeys with their flocks, with varying degrees of success. 

As use of the dogs to guard sheep spread, so did the notion that the dogs would not work with cattle, much less horses. 

But the return of wolves to the Lower 48 states and the revival of wolves in Europe has brought new impetus to finding non-lethal ways to reduce predation on livestock, especially cattle, and block transmission of pathogens from wildlife to cattle, writes Kurt C. VanCauteren of the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, in a paper appearing on-line July 16, 2012 on the website of the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Pathogens can travel the other way, as well, but this program is dedicated to protecting livestock, not all animals.

With colleagues here and in Switzerland, VanCauteren developed protocols for using "livestock protection dogs" (LPD) with cattle. While laying out a program for integrating dogs into a herd of cattle, the researchers also correctly and honestly point out that each dog is different and must be dealt with individually.

When utilized with planning and forethought, the dogs can work quite well. In this study, dogs deployed on six farms in northern Michigan performed excellently over several years, allowing no wolves or coyotes to take calves or cows form their herds. In Switzerland, three calves fell to wolves, who in a clever tactical maneuver split a herd guarded by one dog in half. The guard dog protected the wrong half, but to be fair, let me say that the dog had no hope of choosing he right half. The researchers do caution that livestock protection dogs have been known to attack strange humans, including hikers.

Dogs have worked to protect livestock for thousands because they do it well. In places where that tradition never existed or was lost, work like that of VanCauterner helps people just turning to dogs succeed. It also serves as a reminder of how much more can be done to make full use of the talents of dogs, whose domain is the border zone between the natural and human-built.

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