Dog/livestock conflicts stem from a hard-wired reality and a human inability to recognize the import of that reality: predator-prey interactions.
Practitioners of almost any profession have words or phrases that strike dread into their hearts, the “we-have-to-talk”s of the workday. A conversation guaranteed to ruin the day of a ranch animal veterinarian contains the words “dog,” “pasture,” “chased,” “blood,” “torn up,” and the inevitable kicker, “hell of a mess.”
Translation: A dog -- or more commonly dogs – entered a pasture of goats or sheep, sometimes horses or, less commonly, cattle. Somewhere along the line, the predator switch flipped to “On” and playtime changed to lunchtime. Those key words always told me what I would find at the ranch: shocky, bleeding animals – some dead, some near death; pregnant animals at risk of aborting from stress; and furious humans. There’s no way to paint a pastoral scene on a blood, hair, and dirt-soaked canvas of shredded skin and torn muscle.
What happened? Bad dogs? Poor fencing?
Even when dogs are their own bouncy, happy selves, they can cause unwitting havoc in the country. Loud noises or sudden movements from dogs on rural trails can spook horses, injuring horse, rider or dog, or a combination thereof.
On the flip side, my small animal colleagues have their own horror stories of dogs with broken legs from being stepped on by horses or cattle, or fractured skulls from livestock kicks. Vicious horses? Rogue bull? Mad cow?
No. Dog/livestock conflicts stem from a hard-wired reality and a human inability to recognize the import of that reality: predator-prey interactions. Dogs are predators; even the cutest and fluffiest of our canine friends has a hunter buried somewhere inside. Livestock are prey. They eat grass, have hooves instead of claws, and have eyes set on the sides of their heads to detect movement (i.e., a threat) rather than to zoom in on a target.
Livestock harassment by domestic dogs is a serious enough problem that many states have provisions such as this one:
Code of Virginia § 3.1-796.116. Dogs killing, injuring or chasing livestock or poultry. It shall be the duty of any animal warden or other officer who may find a dog in the act of killing or injuring livestock or poultry to kill such dog forthwith whether such dog bears a tag or not. Any person finding a dog committing any of the depredations mentioned in this section shall have the right to kill such dog on sight as shall any owner of livestock or his agent finding a dog chasing livestock on land utilized by the livestock when the circumstances show that such chasing is harmful to the livestock.
As boundaries between city and country diminish, interactions between pets and livestock become more frequent. Many pet owners move to or vacation in the country in hopes of providing their dog with open space to sniff, explore and play. No one wants carefree exercise to end in tragedy.
Is it possible to live in or visit rural areas with your dog and keep both predator and prey safe from unwanted interaction? Sure.
- Acknowledge capability -- Recognizing the survival forces that drive both dogs and livestock is the first step toward harmony. A dog that chases or attacks livestock is not necessarily a bad dog. While some breeds may have greater predatory instincts than others, all dogs are capable of predator behaviors. I once sutured a pygmy goat kid that had been attacked by the neighbor’s Pomeranian! Owners who acknowledge that their beloved, furry dog is capable of undesirable behaviors can take steps to minimize the opportunities for those behaviors to kick in.
- Get to Know the Neighbors – Find out what animals are being raised in the area. If you are a resident, learn the breeding cycles of neighboring livestock. Learn when new babies (the most vulnerable group) are most likely to be on the ground. Let your neighbors get to know you and your dog. Show your desire to be good citizens. This may lessen the catastrophe should the unthinkable occur. If your neighbors have horses, find out where they ride and ask about times when you may cross paths. Ask if you can introduce a horse to your dog while your dog is on leash and a distance from the horse. Dogs who are used to horses are less likely to bark and lunge.
- Fence it in – The thought of moving to the country and still housing the family dog indoors and in a fenced yard isn’t terribly appealing, but fences save lives. Dogs who are not allowed to roam unsupervised will be less likely to be involved in livestock harassment, kicked by large livestock and hit by cars.
- Monitor Fido’s playmates – Dogs are pack animals, and predator/prey conflicts between dogs and livestock are more likely to occur when the dogs are running in groups rather than alone. Yep, your dog is susceptible to peer pressure, too!
- Love the leash – It’s not a popular stance, but I believe that the best tool for promoting canine safety is proper leash training. Voice training is excellent and necessary; however, sometimes excitement overwhelms reason, particularly if a dog is in unfamiliar territory. At a minimum, owners should have a leash with them at all times when exercising a dog in rural areas, and should use the leash when near livestock or if the dog shows signs of developing the sudden, selective deafness of teenagers faced with curfew.
- No cohabitation – I don’t care how much you think your pet lamb or goat kid needs a buddy or what species hung out together in the latest taking-animal movie; in the real world lion and lamb won’t lie down together and neither should dog and lamb. “But they love each other,” someone always says. Sure they do. For now. Then Rover has a buddy over for a play date, and instead of duct taping the wooly-coated sibling and stuffing him in the closet, Rover and Fido play chase-the-lamb and someone winds up in the emergency room. I once treated a pet goat that was attacked by the family dog when the goat got too close to the dog’s food bowl – while they were both eating in the kitchen!
None of this means that dogs don’t have a place on the ranch or near livestock. Great Pyrenees and Anatolians have been used as guard dogs in sheep flocks for centuries. A good herding dog is worth his weight in gold on a sheep or cattle ranch. Dogs accompany horses and riders on trail rides and in hunts to the benefit of all. However, it takes careful planning, supervision, and professional training to keep dog and livestock interactions looking like a scene from ssie rather than Cujo.
- A horse’s brain is the size of a human fist. Make a fist. That is controlling a 1,000-pound animal.
- Horse vision is designed to catch movement, not depth or detail. Those big, wide-set eyes are ideal for spotting predators sneaking up from the side. They aren’t good for identifying the specific predator. That’s why horses may bolt or kick first and ask questions later.
- Horses have blind spots directly in front and directly behind them. Always approach from the side or from an angle.
- Horses (like people) respond best to calm, low, slow, soft movements and voices. Like people, they respond unpredictably and dangerously to fast, loud, shrill and sudden.
- Horses are not vehicles. Human safety comes first. Always make eye contact with a rider and secure your dog before you and your dog approach or pass a horse on a trail.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.