The Great Pyrenees dogs of Patagonia Park do not come when called. They won’t sit, or give you their paw, or heel. These dogs are working dogs, part of Conservacion Patagonica’s livestock guardian dog program, and have been trained from puppyhood to protect livestock. The guardian dog program is part of Conservacion Patagonica’s efforts to mitigate conflict between ranchers and native predators. The program aims to peacefully protect livestock without harming pumas, foxes, and other predators that live in and around Patagonia Park.
The LGD program at Patagonia Park was launched after two years of research on programs that have operated around the world and some as long ago as 150 BC. Livestock guard dogs are different from herding dogs because instead of herding they become part of the flock, traveling with the herd and looking for intruders. Similar programs to our LGD program currently exist in Australia and Namibia (in Namibia, the dogs primarily protect livestock against cheetahs). Results from our program were immediate—after the program’s launch, the park corrals went from losing 30 or 40 sheep a month to almost none.
Conservacion Patagonica has raised, trained, and distributed trained guardian dogs to neighboring ranches since 2008. The first LGD in our herd showed results after just six months. Since then, the program has trained multiple litters, all of which have been sold and distributed to neighboring farms and ranches. The most recent litter of puppies, born in December 2014, has just started their training. Born to dogs Brisa (mom) and Lolo (dad), all eight puppies were born strong and healthy.
Once the puppies are 20 days old they are raised outside with the sheep. The puppies drink milk from the female sheep, sleep on sheepskin, and spend their days outside with the sheep. Once the sheep become accustomed to the puppies and are no longer aggressive (approximately two months), the puppies will live with the sheep day and night.
“You need to be constant [with the puppies], and do the same work everyday,” says park veterinarian Paula Herrera, “You can see the result quickly.”
“Our program is a mix of programs, combined with the realities that we have here,” explains Paula. “For example, we feed the puppies sheep milk to strengthen their bond. Some books say to do this and some say not to, but we saw a difference in the puppies who drank the milk vs. not.”
Raised as part of the flock, the guardian dogs become protective—sticking with the flock and guarding them at night against predators. The training process ensures that the dogs form an attachment to the sheep that will last the rest of their lives. The large stature and deep, menacing bark of the Great Pyrenees is effective in keeping away predators, though in reality the dogs are quite friendly and good with people. Additionally, the dogs will mark their territory around the sheep with urine and scat, establishing their presence to curious predators. At Patagonia Park, we have just one dog guarding 700 sheep because the valley’s open landscape is easy to patrol. Herds of sheep that live in forested areas or that have problems with packs of feral dogs require multiple guard dogs to be effective.
Filmmaker Jimmy Valdés Baigorria created a 22-minute documentary about Conservacion Patagonica’s Guardian Dog program (watch the video here!), which was distributed in several towns across Aysen. Conservacion Patagonica has received several requests for dogs from neighboring ranchers in Chile and Argentina. Though it always hard to say good-bye, we are confident that these dogs are making a positive impact in the world of livestock/predator conflict.