Much like on the set of a movie, a farm has a lot of helpers working behind the scenes to make sure everything runs smoothly. At Phoenix Farm Fiber, some of our “behind the scenes” helpers are our Livestock Guardian Dogs, or LGDs. Since man began shepherding, he has utilized the loyalty of man’s best friend to help protect his flock. Likewise, many modern farmers keep dogs to serve the same purpose.
When you own small livestock, such as sheep and goats, there are always predators that threaten their lives: coyotes, wolves, foxes, birds of prey, and even your neighbors’ dogs who would “never hurt a fly.” LGDs serve to keep these threats at bay. Though they are physically designed to and capable of confronting foe in an altercation, the best defense these dogs have is their size and their voice. In all of the years that we have had LGDs, we have not lost a single animal to a predator because our big dogs signal with their big booming barks that predators should stay away. When a coyote or fox or neighborhood dog hears the warning bark of an LGD, they consider their options and decide it best to hunt for their dinner elsewhere.
At Phoenix Farm, we have 4 beautiful Great Pyrenees dogs who do an amazing job of protecting our sheep, goats, and alpacas. They are 6-year-old Tucker (far right), 3-year-old Suju (right), 2-year-old Tank (left), and 9-month old Ruby (far left). Many have come before these four and I’m sure many will follow in the years to come, but ever since we got our first pair of Great Pyrenees, we were convinced of their protective abilities and deeply ingrained desire to work and protect. As long as we have a farm, we will have LGDs.
There are almost as many breeds of LGDs out there as there are breeds of sheep! We chose the Great Pyrenees breed because we love that they are fiercely protective, work well in teams, and are also very human-friendly. We didn’t just want a pack of guard dogs, we wanted loving companions as well. And though these extra large beasties live and work in the pastures, they are very much loved members of our family, as well. Great Pyrenees are a very loving and easy-going breed, but because of their nature, are best suited to working on the farm.
Many people fall in love with Great Pyrenees as soon as they meet them! The dogs are playful, beautiful, friendly, and generally good-natured. But they also LOVE to dig, swim, bark, and work. Did I mention they weigh between 80 and 140 pounds when full grown? Apartment dogs they are not. The temptation to keep a Great Pyrenees as a pet is great, especially when you look into the amber eyes of a rolly polly pyr puppy and he looks like a baby polar bear! But understanding the nature and needs of the dog, like with all dog breeds, makes for the best living situation.
Our dogs live outside in the pastures with their livestock (yes, the goats and sheep belong to the dogs from their point of view). They eat together, graze together, and sleep together. The dogs do not herd the livestock, but they can alert us that an animal is hurt or missing – the LGDs seem to sense when an animal is vulnerable and will stay close until a human understands. Last month, we had a goat get his horns stuck in the fence and found Tucker lying beside the goat waiting for us to discover the two of them and free the goat. Similarly, when new animals are born, the dogs stay close by the new arrivals and the post-delivery mother to keep these most vulnerable animals extra safe.
Many people have asked us how we train our dogs and we always laugh. There is a big joke among owners of Great Pyrenees that these dogs are notoriously untrainable. You instruct a Great Pyrenees to sit, shake, stay, or fetch and they look at you like you’ve gone crazy. But you drop one of these dogs into a pasture with livestock and those instincts kick in and they know just what they were meant to do. Their “training” is leaving them in their environment and trusting the older dogs to correct the younger dogs. It is an amazing dynamic to witness!
If you are thinking about adding an LGD to your farm, make sure to get your puppy from a reputable breeder who allows puppies to be born in and grow up in a livestock-rich environment. In our experience, puppies that are born in the pasture with goats and are exposed to them from a very young age will be the best LGDs. If you are thinking of adding an adult LGD, make sure that the dog has experience living with livestock; oftentimes a pet Great Pyrenees cannot make the transition from couch to farm without an experienced dog to help them along the way.
LGDs have not only increased the survivability of our herds, they have become an irreplaceable part of our family. We can’t imagine the farm without them.