The West Texas sheep and goat industry will soon be “going to the dogs” if a team of Texas A&M AgriLife experts has their way.
Dr. Reid Redden and Dr. John Tomecek, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service state sheep and goat specialist and wildlife specialist, respectively, and Dr. John Walker, Texas A&M AgriLife Research resident director, all of San Angelo, are heading a new year-long research project called “Understanding and Expanding the Use of Livestock Guardian Dogs in West Texas.”
“The goal is to place livestock guardian dogs on large West Texas ranches with ranchers who have never used them as a predator management tool,” Redden said.
Redden said 22 dogs, including two backups, arrived shortly after Jan. 1 from a professional livestock guardian dog breeder based in Montana. The dogs, specifically bred and raised to live with and guard sheep and goats, are composite crossbred animals comprised of five large breeds of dogs used for thousands of years for this purpose.
“Predation on sheep and goats on large West Texas operations is arguably that industry’s biggest problem,” Redden said. “For many ranchers, controlling predators has gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible to effectively conduct predator management by traditional lethal means. So we are looking at new tools for our area, and livestock guardian dogs are a tool that’s been used in other countries and elsewhere in the U.S., but it has not been used very much in West Texas. The main difference is management style, and this management style affects how the dogs work.”
Redden said the research project aims to investigate and work with cooperating ranchers, located from San Angelo west to Iraan and down to Del Rio, to better understand how livestock guardian dogs work in large expansive pastures.
“We have pastures in the project from between 500 and 5,000 acres,” Redden said. “These are large pastures where sheep can get scattered, making it easier for predators to do damage to the flock. It’s also difficult to spot a problem quickly in a large pasture, especially if it’s rough, brushy country as many West Texas pastures are.”
Redden said the dogs were placed with seven cooperators and on AgriLife property Walker directs. Some ranchers got two dogs and some got four. The dogs, all between six and ten months old and previously bonded with sheep, were placed on the ranches shortly after Jan. 1. Once the dogs were placed on an operation, they were put in a small pen to bond with the sheep on that operation. Then within a few days to a few weeks, they were put out into large pastures.
Throughout the year the dogs are being fitted with GPS collars to track their movements throughout the day and night to see how they are working as a predator management tool.
“The observations thus far on the project have been fairly positive,” Redden said. “Most of the cooperators we’ve talked to have had good luck with the guard dogs. There have been a few issues that needed to be addressed, which is common with guardian dogs. It requires effort and perseverance to make the program work. But we have not had any reported sheep losses from coyotes, the No. 1 predator in Texas.
“One rancher even commented since getting the dogs that he’s seeing ‘repeat appearances’ among his sheep. Before, when his ewes would leave with a lamb, many of those lambs were never seen again, but now he is seeing them again…thus they are making repeat appearances.
“Based on cooperator reports, the guardian dogs have changed the movement patterns among the predators. Overall, we think they are starting to show some real positive effects on all the ranches that we’ve put them on.”
The other part of the project Tomecek oversees centers around the use of game cameras left running throughout the year to measure the traffic of predators such as coyotes, foxes and feral hogs.
Tomecek noted the predator populations were camera-surveyed prior to the livestock guardian dogs being added and will continue to be surveyed throughout the year to understand how the dogs change the predator movement and patterns as the dogs move in and around the ranches.
“Primarily, these livestock guardian dogs are a tool that dissuade predators from getting in the livestock,” Redden said. “One of the things people think is that the dogs are aggressive and go out and kill predators, and that is very rare. Actually the dogs are bonded to the sheep, they stay with them. They are part of the flock, while at the same time they provide protection for the sheep.
“They bark throughout the night to warn predators to avoid the area. They dissuade them from harming the livestock, and the predators go back to their normal prey of mostly rabbits and other small rodents.”
Redden said from a personal standpoint that livestock guardian dogs have kept his family-owned sheep and goat operation going since the 1990s.
“They’re a fantastic tool,” he said. “They do take effort and work to get them implemented and bonded and working on the ranch. But I think it’s a fantastic return on the investment of time and money once guardian dogs are put into place and you understand how to use them and understand how they work. The peace of mind that predation is no longer a problem is the best benefit of all.”
The AgriLife team would like to see the program build industry knowledge and widespread acceptance of livestock guardian dogs. They hope the group of ranchers will evolve into livestock guardian dog ambassadors, willing to help others wanting to use the dogs to remain economically viable in the sheep and goat industry.
“The whole West Texas belief that loose dogs among sheep as always being a bad thing must change, because these dogs don’t behave as most dogs do and must be handled in a totally unique manner,” he said. “It will be a learning experience, not only for the producers involved with this work, but for the whole West Texas ranching community as well.”