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Susan Schoenian’s livestock guard dog, Maggie, touches noses with a lamb. Maggie recently died.

Nowadays it’s not uncommon to cremate our pets. I have a collection of boxes. I recently added one.

Maggie was my Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dog. She died unexpectedly on June 19. Under a tree. Cause unknown. She was 8 years old. Short of her life expectancy, but not by too many years.

I wonder how many other sheep and goat producers have boxes with the ashes of their livestock guardian dogs. As for me, I couldn’t bear the thought of putting Maggie in the compost pile with dead lambs and afterbirth. It seemed like she deserved better.

On our small farms, livestock guardians are often stuck somewhere between working dogs and pets.

You have to be careful not to make pets out of them. They’ve got a job to do.

By the same token, they are still dogs that crave attention. At least some of them do.

I figure as long as they stay with the sheep, don’t eat them, and don’t get out of the fence, they are doing their job, even if they want an occasional treat or pat on the head.

Maggie was a sweet dog. My experience with livestock guardian dogs (she was my third) is that they are gentle giants. I have always marveled at the way they interact with their charges. Lambs totally trust them, sometimes play with them. The ewes seem to accept them as flock members and only waver a bit when they have newborns to protect.

Gentle Guardians

Livestock guardian dogs are tough when they need to be but calming at other times. I slept better at night knowing that Maggie was watching over my flock and farm.

Not just any breed of dog (or any dog) makes a suitable guardian for livestock. They are special dogs, specific breeds. Great Pyrenees is one of the more popular breeds. Most of the guardian dog breeds are old European breeds that have guarded livestock for centuries.

Livestock guardian (or protection) dogs are much newer in the U.S. They didn’t become a thing until the 1970s. Now they are commonplace on sheep and goat farms throughout the U.S. Another place you might find these dogs is pastured poultry farms.

Most livestock guardian dog breeds are white or light colored. This seems to be the most acceptable color to the livestock they live with (especially sheep).

Livestock guardian dogs lack the predatory instinct of other breeds. They protect and defend the livestock they’ve grown up with. The behavior of a guardian dog is instinctive. It is not taught. It cannot be taught. All you need to teach a livestock guardian dog is some basic dog obedience.

I will miss Maggie. She was an effective guardian for my flock and a good dog. I think of her when I see her box sitting on the shelf. At the same time, I need to find a replacement for her.

Susan Schoenian is a sheep and goat specialist with the University of Maryland Extension.

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