Who Let the Dogs Out? A Warning

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By Linda Coffey, NCAT Livestock Specialist

In 2022, I enjoyed “The Year of the Dogs,” as our son Cameron’s dog gave birth to nine (!) puppies on January 2, 2022. We already had two livestock guardian dogs (LGD) out in our pasture, and we haven’t had a pet dog in years, but I cared for puppies, found homes for seven of them, got everyone spayed and neutered and vaccinated. I loved watching the puppies and taking them for walks. We weathered parvovirus with three of them; thanks to our veterinarian, all survived. I took hikes in our woods with all the dogs, bought a lot of dog food and treats, and spent time in training, walking, just being with them, admiring their athleticism and rejoicing in their sweet dispositions and companionship.

But dogs on a farm can also be bad news. These dogs took to roaming—bothering the neighbors, exploring too far, once being picked up by a neighbor and another time by Animal Control. It was clear that they needed to be confined. We used the old hog pen to contain them, only letting them free when I was home with them.

Ewe with missing ear after being attacked by dogs

Ewe #219 is a pregnant yearling and will always be picked out of a crowd, since she now has one ear.

On March 2, I let them out to play in the yard, intending to take them for a walk later. I had work to do in my office and didn’t go back outside till 2:00 p.m. That’s when I heard frantic barking and ran to the field to find disaster. All five dogs (three pets, two LGD) were near a downed ewe. She had been attacked and was bleeding profusely from multiple facial wounds. One of my adorable puppies had blood on her chin; the other two were clean but had jumped in the nearby pond when I came racing out, so they may have washed off the evidence. To my shock, the LGD had not intervened to protect the sheep!

Thanks to a capable veterinarian, the yearling ewe survived the shock and injuries and did not lose her pregnancy. She’s lost an ear, but her cuts are healing well. She serves as a visual reminder that you cannot trust pet dogs around livestock. I am telling you this ugly story so that you may avoid my mistakes.

  1. Too many dogs=problems. One dog would likely not have attacked; the pack mentality is dangerous.
  2. LGD should not be too friendly with your pets. As I had seen them snarl at the puppies for getting too near the LGD’s food, I assumed they would discipline the pups if they were out of line in other ways. I was wrong.
  3. Don’t be complacent about the safety of your livestock. Playful puppies can seriously injure stock.
  4. Control your dogs. Roaming dogs—even on their own farm—can be devastating.
  5. People always say, “MY dog wouldn’t do that.” But don’t be so sure. Just because they are sweet with people does not mean they can be trusted with livestock.
  6. ALL of this could have been avoided if the mother dog had been spayed in time! Her pregnancy was thanks to a roaming neighborhood male dog. See point 4.

I am trying to rehome the guilty pet, and she’ll be great in a home where she gets walks and attention and is prevented from crossing boundaries. My family is discussing whether all the pets need a new home or if I can keep my favorite. We have a responsibility to our livestock and to our neighbors, as well as to our dogs. We must make hard choices. In 2023, I’ll be saying a sad goodbye to some dogs. I hope this warning helps you to make good decisions regarding dogs on your farm.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Livestock Guardian Animals: Protecting the Flock or Herd

Episode 169. Livestock Guardian Dogs

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.