The Dog Who Cried Wolf: Promoting Co-Existence With Carnivores Through Livestock Guarding Dogs

Centuries of folklore have made us wary of carnivores. Whether it’s the Big Bad Wolf, the Tsavo Man-Eaters, or the dingo that stole Lindy Chamberlain’s baby, horrifying tales of rare events have made us uneasy about them. Yet as ecologists constantly espouse, they are integral parts of any ecosystem, and the gradual return of wolves to many parts of the northern hemisphere represents a huge boost for biodiversity.

Many stories of the terrors of large carnivores are exaggerations, but there are some genuine threats that carnivores can pose to people’s livelihoods, one of them being their predation on livestock. While livestock grazing is already a problem for biodiversity, demand for livestock is not reducing fast enough. For the time being it’s here to stay. So how do we promote coexistence? 

Enter the Livestock Guarding Dog.

Livestock Guarding Dogs are larger (and often more defensive) than average dogs that are raised to protect livestock from predators. The dogs are raised around their charges from an early age, to the point they see themselves as part of the herd.

Beth Smith is an ecologist currently writing her PhD thesis at Nottingham Trent University. Beth is based in the Carpathian Mountains, Romania with Fauna & Flora International, and has been working with Romanian shepherds over the last year, investigating their use of the dogs and how they act in the field. I saw Beth’s presentation at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Conference last December and was fascinated by her work, so I interviewed her earlier this year on the topic.

“Here in Romania they’ll be bred from a pretty good stock of previous good dogs, and then from about 6 to 8 weeks of age, they’re typically brought up with sheep or goats. They form a bond.”

So how do the dogs actually do against the carnivores? “A lot of the time it’s just barking and chasing without any conflict, but if the predator is pretty persistent then they’ll fight. We’ve had a few dogs even just this summer that have had injuries, mainly from bears.”

Hold on. Bears? The dogs take on bears?

“In a way, they’re better against bears than wolves. Bears will wander in, have a scout about, and usually there’s only one of them. All the dogs will run at them and bark. A dog might get injured with the odd swipe but typically the bear will go away. Wolves can be a bit more persistent – they’ll employ a decoy tactic. They’ll bring a couple of wolves in to draw the dogs away from the sheep, and the other wolves will then go in and take the sheep while the dogs are distracted with the others.”

Beth with one of her local study subjects, a Carpathian Mountain Dog (Image Credit: Beth Smith, CC BY 2.0)

The anecdotal evidence suggests that the dogs are pretty good though. Yet there are other problems that the dogs present. While the chances of wolves attacking a human out on a hike are slim to none, accidentally coming between a large dog and its wards can be pretty dangerous.

“Even for me, the scariest thing on those mountains is not bears or wolves, it’s the dogs. You don’t want to be hiking and get in between the dogs and the sheep, it’s just not a good place to be.”

Yet that’s not what Beth’s work investigates. Beth is interested in whether that positive effect of bringing wolves back could be countered by the dogs themselves.

“What I want to know is if these dogs are chasing and killing wildlife. Are they hunting on pastures, where do they go, what do they do, how do they influence the behaviours of all the other wild species around. There’s a relatively large chunk of the mountain that is just covered in dogs over summer, and that must have some kind of ecological impact. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a negative impact, but there’s no way it’s neutral!”

It’s a tricky situation. If coexistence with wolves becomes more harmonious thanks to the dogs, the ecological effects could help the entire surrounding ecosystem. But if the dogs are out there disturbing local bird, mammal and lizard populations, it becomes a case of the lesser of two evils.

“I’m GPS tracking the dogs that belong to each shepherd, to study the spatial relationship between the dogs and the livestock. Especially to see where the dogs go at night.”

Monitoring the dog’s use of space gives an idea of the range they cover, and the number of species they can potentially disturb. But spatial association doesn’t imply interaction, so the team also analyses droppings and uses camera traps to understand the dogs’ behaviour more thoroughly.

“We’re also using go-pro cameras to see from the vantage of the dogs, see what they’re doing. So the idea of that is to see how they do interact with other wildlife, just from a dog’s point-of-view.”

The ecological impact the dogs may have isn’t just a concern for the local ecosystem, but for local gamekeepers, who are adamant that the dogs chase and kill species they’re supposed to be maintaining. It’s another reason why figuring out the impact these dogs have is a pressing research question.

If we’re to help heal ecosystems that are threatened by myriad other human activity, figuring out how to coexist with carnivores is a must. Livestock Guarding Dogs could assist that rewilding process, so here’s hoping that Beth’s work suggests that the dog’s effects pale in comparison to that of an ecosystem missing its crucial carnivores.

To read more about Beth’s work, you can visit her website at this link or follow her on Twitter @BethRSmith_.

Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and thinks that all Livestock Guarding Dogs are very good doggos (as are the wolves). You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

Title Image Credit: Beth Smith, CC BY 2.0

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s