What Guards Livestock Guardian Dogs?
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Livestock Guardian Dogs, or LGDs, protect our goats … but what protects our LGDs?
Like many ranches, we couldn’t exist without our LGDs … we have 13 of them!
Knowing this, it is imperative for us to protect them. Not from predators but from precedents. For many ranches, the biggest threat to guardians is the law.
Livestock guardian dogs, by nature, bark and bite in the course of doing their job. Since this behavior is contrary to what is acceptable for companion dogs, an LGD owner must be familiar with state laws and local ordinances pertaining to dogs — and what exceptions might exist for guardians.
Even though they lived in an area zoned “rural-ag,” Paul and Nichoel Farris were cited under a noise ordinance based on an audiotape of a dog barking. The alleged barker was Sheriff, a professionally trained Great Pyrenees, employed to protect their apple orchard from intruding bears. Not only did bears destroy apple trees, they devastated the beehives used to pollinate the orchard. Since bees and trees are not considered livestock, the Farrises could only employ other than non-lethal measures to protect them. Sheriff, named for his duty to “protect and serve,” was integral to their operation.
Upon receipt of the citation, Nichoel researched and learned about federal and state Right to Farm Laws that exist in all 50 states. Rather than pay a fine and serve time — up to one year in jail — they opted for a bench trial in November of 2019 to defend their LGD. They had 20 days to prepare their case. Just because these laws exist does not mean a guardian is protected. They still need a solid defense. “We had to show that we were an established farm with an established threat.” Furthermore, she produced evidence that when Sheriff, her LGD, was not on duty, there was an established loss. Bears were shown on video with a time stamp, breaking trees.
The Right to Farm defense for barking had never been brought before the court in California. The judge was unaware that it existed. Nichoel enlisted support from her community of farmers and ranchers, as well as the extension office, realizing that if Sheriff lost, it wouldn’t just be a loss to them but a loss to the agricultural community and ranchers everywhere. It would set a precedent that would be difficult to overcome. She decided it would be best to represent herself, to make it personal. Lacking a legal background, she joined the Farm to Consumer advocacy group (farmtoconsumer.org), who reviewed her exhibits and preparation. “They gave a lot of great pointers and made sure we were calling the right witnesses and making an argument that would be heard.”
They were heard. The courtroom was standing room only with community members wearing Sheriff t-shirts. Their defense not only vindicated Sheriff but served to educate many on the use of guardians. Nichoel clearly established that “Guardian dogs are an essential tool for nonlethal control of a growing predator population. Depredation permits are not easy to come by. If there is a nonlethal way to protect your way of life — that right needs to be protected.”
We wish every case ended as happily as Sheriff’s, but unfortunately, they don’t. There was a case in Vail, Colorado that went to the state Supreme Court (Legro v. Robinson, 2008) where a cyclist, Renee Legro, participating in a bicycle race, was attacked by guardian dogs protecting a herd of sheep grazing by permit in the same area. She sued under the dog bite statute, by which the dog owners are liable for damages. Within the statute is an exception for dogs working as predator control dogs. The caveat in the appellate court was whether the property was under the control of the dog’s owner. Because the grazing permit on the National Forest land was non-exclusive, and other activities were permitted, control could not be established. The Supreme Court further questioned the grammar of the statute: whether it required the land to be under control, or the dog. The same week, another biker was attacked. The dogs were euthanized, and Sam Robinson was convicted of unlawful ownership of a dangerous dog, fined $500 plus restitution, and sentenced to 200 hours of community service. Aggressive LGDs can be not only civil liability but also criminal.
In the Colorado case, it was noted that awareness of the presence of LGDs might have prevented the tragedy. When employing LGDs, it is recommended that signage be posted on boundaries that may intersect with the public, indicating their presence. If you are adding guardians to your operation, inform your neighbors, and provide contact information for them to reach you with concerns or in the event your dog leaves your property.
Signage and boundary definitions are particularly important to farms offering agrotourism. Reasonable measures must be made to inform visitors of and protect them from hazards, including dogs. Some states have specific signs citing agritourism statutes. Our ranch is posted with all of the signs, including a sign specific to livestock guardian dogs, clearly stating not to put hands or body through, on, or against the fence. Despite this, visitors regularly attempt to reach over the sign to pet the dogs. We are obligated to strictly enforce our signage by requesting compliance. If we were to allow a guest to reach through the fence, in violation of the posted warning, we might compromise our protection under the law.
While the complaint is not as common, LGDs can also be cited for their effects on non-predatory wildlife. There are areas of the country where wildlife is protected from harassment by state and federal law, and some under the Endangered Species Act. Wildlife biologists in your state can identify any risks in your area, as well as advise you on how contact can be minimized.
Livestock guardians live with the animals they protect under conditions typical for livestock. This can be a source of misunderstanding for those that view them as pets. As a result, advocacy groups are forming, such as Coalition for Livestock Guardian Dogs, established to lobby for basic protections, humane management, and livestock declassification. It is important to be informed of the statutes regarding the humane and proper treatment of animals pertaining to shelter, veterinary care, and tethering. Some areas have defined exceptions for guardian dogs; others do not.
In any case involving a livestock guardian dog, it is critical that the owner can establish that the dog is a working dog, not a pet. Many of the laws and ordinances hinge on this nuance.
1. Document the dog performing its duties with videos and pictures.
2. Document evidence of predators: tracks, scat, photographs from game cameras on the property.
3. Know the laws, and definitions under the law, to determine which laws apply to your dog and your operation.
There are local ordinances, state laws, and federal laws to consider. While Right to Farm Laws may offer protection, an operation having livestock and dogs may not meet the criteria of the definition of “farm.” It is also possible that the term “livestock guardian dog” may not extend to a dog that is not one of a specific class of recognized breeds.
As much as you depend on your dogs to know their jobs and protect your herd, your dogs depend on you to know the law to protect them.
Karen Kopf and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Troy, Idaho. They enjoy “goating” together and helping others goat. They raise Kikos primarily but are experimenting with crosses for their new favorite goating experience: pack goats! You can learn more about them at Kopf Canyon Ranch on Facebook or kikogoats.org
Originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.