Mar./Apr. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Steve Adler
Photos by Matt Salvo and Kim Riddle
Dogs, donkeys and llamas protect livestock
Tehama County rancher Kari Dodd relies on Annie, a 2-year-old Akbash and Anatolian shepherd cross, to protect her family's goats from predators like mountain lions, bears and coyotes.
Annie works without complaint 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Jennifer, who got her job through a newspaper ad, is never far from those she now considers family. And Socks wouldn’t hesitate to put her life on the line for those in her care.
But here's the twist: Annie is a dog, Jennifer is a donkey and Socks is a llama. All are guard animals that dedicate themselves to protecting livestock such as sheep, goats, cattle and poultry. In California, millions of dollars worth of livestock is lost each year to predators including coyotes, mountain lions and bears.
Guard animals have been used for thousands of years to ward off predators. And while onlookers are probably most familiar with dogs doing the job, farmers and ranchers also commonly employ donkeys and llamas to watch over their flocks or herds.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the best guard animals spend their entire lives around livestock and closely associate with the vulnerable animals under their protection.
A good example is Annie, a 2-year-old guard dog that protects a herd of 50 goats in a remote area of Tehama County that is also home to coyotes, mountain lions and bears. Annie, an Akbash and Anatolian shepherd cross, was born in a goat barn and has spent her entire life with goats.
Livestock guard dogs trace their roots to ancient breeds in Europe and Asia; Akbash and Anatolians have roots in Turkey. Other breeds of livestock guard dogs include Komondor, Kuvasz, Tatra, Maremma and Great Pyrenees. They range in size from 80 to 140 pounds and can be as tall as 3 feet high at the shoulder.
"When I bought Annie at 8 weeks old, she had been with goats her entire life. I just put her out there with my goats," said Kari Dodd, who operates the goat ranch with her husband Lance. "Annie was still pretty small, so I kept the goats in a small pen for a couple weeks so Annie could get to know them. They all just formed a bond and she loves them. I don't know if she thinks she is part goat or what."
The Dodds haven't lost a goat to predators since Annie assumed her role as chief protector. During a typical day, after keeping guard all night, the dog will arise before people or goats and do a preliminary check of the property, looking for anything unusual. If she finds something that isn't to her liking, she will keep the goats in the home corral.
"If everything looks OK, Annie will take the goats out into the pasture and stay with those goats throughout the day. She will even carry her orange bucket of dog food with her so she won't have to leave the goats. Then she will bring them home in the evening, and she stays alert and on guard all night long. We can hear her barking if she senses anything amiss," said Dodd, who is also manager of the Tehama County Farm Bureau.
In San Bernardino County, dairy farmer B.J. Van Dam uses Queensland heelers to protect his 700 Holstein milk cows. Van Dam has five heelers—Bert, Smokey, Penny, Stella and Gin—that herd the cows, protect them from predators such as coyotes during the day and then stand vigil all night long.
Queensland heelers, also known as Australian cattle dogs, have been employed at the dairy in Ontario for the past 40 years. The breed originated in Australia in the early 1800s when a rancher crossed his English drover dogs with dingoes (native Australian wild dogs) that he had tamed.
"The dogs are great," said Van Dam, who operates the dairy with his father Bert Van Dam. "They have a different bark for an alarm than the bark they use when they play. A lot of times they will actually come get us if they aren't right next to us."
B.J. Van Dam recalls that when he was young, Ontario was comprised primarily of dairies.
Queensland heelers Bert, Stella, Penny, Smokey and Gin herd and protect San Bernardino County dairy farmer B.J. Van Dam's cows during the day, and then stand vigil all night.
"Now you see empty land that used to be dairies and a lot of houses. We've had some of our dogs stolen because other people see a nice dog and they want it, too. So we have to keep them locked up at night," he said. "Now, when they see or smell a coyote, they will bark in alarm and wake me up and I go out there. Before, they would chase off the coyotes, but we can't let them run loose all the time now."
Yolo County rancher Jim Yeager has had success using donkeys and llamas to protect his sheep. Although both are effective guard animals, they work independently of each other and protect flocks in different locations.
Yeager found his donkey, Jennifer, through a newspaper classified ad. In the four years that Jennifer has been on the job, there have been no losses to predators even as coyote attacks have thinned nearby flocks.
"Jennifer has been around sheep from the day she was born, and I believe she thinks she is a sheep," Yeager said. "She is very protective and never leaves the flock. When the sheep move from one area of a field to another, Jennifer moves right along with them."
Yolo County rancher Jim Yeager knows that his donkey Jennifer will keep his sheep out of harm's way.
Donkeys are descended from two breeds of wild asses in North Africa that were domesticated thousands of years ago. Modern donkeys have well-developed senses of sight and smell that they use to detect predators. Their loud bray and quick pursuit will frighten away predators. If the predators put up a fight, they quickly become victims to the donkeys' slashing hooves.
In a field about a mile from Jennifer's area, Yeager's llama Socks stands guard over another flock of sheep. The llama is more aloof than the donkey, Yeager said. Rather than getting right in there among the sheep, the llama stands away from the flock.
"Socks is very watchful and she will patrol the fence line in search of danger. If a predator is spotted, she won't hesitate to go on the offensive and charge right at the intruder," Yeager said. "There was one occasion a few years ago when a couple sheep were injured by dogs while Socks was on guard. It wasn't the llama's fault because the dogs came in a pack and, while some of the dogs distracted Socks, others attacked the sheep."
Jim Yeager's llama Socks stands guard over a flock of sheep in a field about a mile from where Yeager's donkey Jennifer performs the same task. The llama typically stands apart from the flock, patrolling the fence line in search of danger.
Llamas can be traced back 5,000 years to the high Andes Mountains in Peru, where they were domesticated and used as pack animals. Llamas react to predators in a variety of ways. If it spots an intruder, the llama immediately sounds an alarm to alert the flock. It will instinctively go on the offensive, charging, kicking and placing itself between the predator and the flock.
"I have been using donkeys and llamas to protect my sheep and lambs for decades," Yeager said. "They are the best tools for the job and are a natural way of controlling predators. Jennifer and Socks are very loyal to me and protective of my flocks."
Steve Adler is a reporter for California Country. He can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.