A bodyguard that barks

As puppies they are cute and cuddly but at just a few months old they are ready to take on bears and wolves to protect the sheep entrusted to them. We’re talking about herd guard dogs.

Handling these dogs is a tradition that dates back centuries in both Europe and Eurasia and it’s a well-tested method for transhumance shepherds protecting their flocks. The subject of hot debate here in Germany recently, it passes without comment in Slovakia, where the wolf was never wiped out. In our interview, our project partner, Michaela Skuban, an expert on both bears and wolves as well as sheep farming, tells of her experiences with herd guard dogs, the differences between Germany and Slovakia and the joy of working with experienced dogs.

Dog is protecting goats
© Miroslav Kutal/Hnuti Duha

What experience have you had with herd guard dogs and how good are they at preventing wolf attacks?

The shepherds I work with report lots of positives. Recently a shepherd told me proudly that his six-month-old dog had already frightened off a wolf by barking at it and had even chased after it. The older the dogs are, the better they become at doing their job. But of course, there are certain individuals that are not suited to being herd guard dogs. They are either too affectionate and would probably rather try to cuddle a wolf than drive it away or they are simply too scared to stand up to a large predator.

Puppies in the barn

Hard to believe that these fluffy pups in Slovakian will be standing up to bears and wolves. These young are born in barn so that they get used to sheep or goats from the start of their life.

© Michaela Skuban

What training is given to herd guard dogs?

A similar training programme to the one for herd guard dogs in Germany is not provided in Slovakia. The pups are usually born in a barn and so they get used to sheep, goats and cows from the start. In the weeks that follow, they pick up a lot by watching their parents; at the same time the shepherd keeps a close eye on the way the animal develops, but he will not usually intervene very much. His role is more to just reinforce good behaviour and try to discourage bad behaviour.

What happens after the puppy stage?

Quite often the shepherd will take dogs out with them for the first time at just three to four months old, to get a better idea of how they behave. There they immediately come into contact with predators, not necessarily face to face, but they pick up the scent of wolves and bears from droppings and scent marking, for instance. Experience like this is absolutely essential for the young dogs. At about one year old they will have enough practical experience to be able to defend a flock from attacks. Nevertheless, some animals are ready for this much earlier, as already described. By the age of two and a half, the dog’s character will have settled down.

The shepherds have to be able to rely on their dogs. How would you describe the relationship between them and their four-legged companions?

The herd guard dog is more than anything else a working dog, like a colleague. Although I would call the relationship close, even warm at times, there is no cuddling or snuggling up to the dog. Of course, the animal is praised and stroked for good work, such as when it’s responded well to being called back. But that’s pretty much it for rewards. When the dog is two to three months old and getting to the awkward age, some dogs develop a habit of nibbling the sheep’s ears.  As this can seriously damage the sheep, the shepherd sometimes needs to take more radical action and will give the dog a smack. However, it’s important to say at this point that the dog is not beaten: a shepherd who beat his dog would no longer have the dog’s trust. The cooperation between man and dog is based on mutual trust, something which is hugely important out in the field.

A herd guard dog is not a cuddly toy. Lots of shepherds and their families have a lapdog at home for cuddling.

Michaela Skuban Michaela Skuban
A Wolf in Winter

Wolves have roamed the forests and mountain landscapes of Slovakia for centuries. Unlike in Central Europe, they have never been exterminated here.

© Joachim Flachs

In Slovakia, there is a relatively high game population. So why do wolves attack livestock at all?

Like all large predators, wolves are focussed on hunting in the most energy efficient way possible. If they spot a new-born calf or an inadequately guarded flock of sheep or goats, they may strike. There are also occasional cases of packs of wolves that have become specialised in hunting livestock. Of course, that is disastrous, but it is extremely rare.

In contrast to Germany, in Slovakia it is legal to hunt wolves up to a certain number which is set each year. Would more hunting of wolves solve the problem of livestock being ripped apart?

That’s too much of a sweeping statement, as when the hunting quota increased by several multiples in Slovakia, it actually had the opposite effect. The indiscriminate shooting of wolves weakens the pack structure which consists of adult wolves, their young from previous years and the pups. If, for instance, the parents are killed, there is an increased danger that the inexperienced young wolves will be go for easy prey and get a taste for livestock. I once saw a mother desperately trying to cope with raising her young on her own. At some point, she then began increasingly to hunt for grazing animals. It’s a fact that sometimes it is necessary to eliminate real “livestock hunters” but you must be extremely careful and identify the guilty party correctly. For us, the best protection out in the field comes from herd guard dogs working together with the shepherd on the spot.

  • About Michaela Skuban

    Researcher in a cave
    © privat

    Dr Michaela Skuban has lived in Slovakia since 2006 and is currently employed by the country’s nature conservation authority. As a biologist whose doctoral thesis was on the influence of mankind on the behaviour of bears, she has responsibility for the areas of sheep farming and research into predators. Michaela Skuban also works for EuroNatur’s partner organisation CWS (Carpathian Wildlife Society). For a while, Michaela Skuban worked as a shepherd herself. She knows all about the hard work and economic problems in this business as well as the conflict with large predators, but she was equally able to enjoy the marvellous experiences that this work entails.

Let’s get down to the financial side: how expensive is it to buy a herd guard dog? And do shepherds get any subsidies?

A pup costs about 300 to 400 Euros without any pedigree certification. Most livestock farmers are not that interested in a dog’s pure pedigree. What is more important to them is to see the young dog a number of times and watch its parents outside in the fields. However, if someone wants to get involved in breeding professionally, a certificated pedigree dog would cost about 400 to 600 Euros. With the average wage in Slovakia at only about 800 to 900 Euros, such a purchase is an expensive item, especially as they do not usually stop at one dog. When shepherds are moving through areas with high numbers of wolve and bears, they will need at least 3 or 4 experienced dogs.

Unfortunately, there are no subsidies for the protection of flocks and herds in Slovakia. Livestock farmers have to fund it themselves.

Portrait Michaela Skuban Michaela Skuban
big dog barking at the chain

In winter, when the farm animals are inside, herd guard dogs will be outside guarding the shepherd’s farm. No lapdogs these; many of them will spend most of this time on a chain (pictured a Karachatkan guard dog).

© Gunther Willinger

As you have already said, herd guard dogs are not cuddly toys. Do they represent a danger to hikers and cyclists?

That depends on the situation. If a hiker gets into the middle of a flock, it can lead to a confrontation. In fact though, a herd guard dog soon realises that people acting inadvertently are no danger to the life of its flock and it will not usually bite. However, the dog’s potential to act aggressively will be increasing. It can be more dangerous if the hiker has a dog with him, particularly if it is not on a lead. The dog will be seen as a potential threat. Mountain bikers can sometimes be attacked. Their sudden appearance can confuse the guard dog at first. A completely new phenomenon for us in Slovakia are the quad bikers. The dogs have hardly any experience of them. And a herd guard dog can run surprisingly fast…

How can clashes like this be avoided?

Firstly, it must be said that in all these cases, despite the potential for conflict, there are hardly any incidents. That is mainly because there is always a shepherd with the flock who can quickly call the dog back. And, as already mentioned, the dogs are continually trained to obey the signal to come back. However, if the flock is spread out over a wide area at some point and perhaps the shepherd hasn’t realised a cyclist is approaching, it is important that the rider doesn’t panic and keeps as much distance as possible between him and the flock. However, there are likely to be occasional clashes in the future as a result of the increase in tourism in Slovakia’s rural areas.

herd guard dog on a pasture together with goats

At all times everything in view: There is a long tradition of working with herd guard dogs in many countries in Eastern Europe.

© Miroslav Kutal/Hnuti Duha

Finally, a personal question: what has been your best experience so far with herd guard dogs?

Oh, there are so many! Seeing the young pups in the barn is always great. But it’s almost better still to see how the dogs develop. I do have one dog who’s a bit of a favourite: a nine-year-old Podhalanský Čuvač bitch called Bibi. This dog is incredibly experienced and confident, and she not only works perfectly with the shepherd but is very good at training the younger dogs. She knows exactly when to patrol the edge of the forest and when she can afford to take a break. She is wonderfully gentle with the sheep, but at the same time she stands up very well to predators. It is very moving to see how the sheep gather round Bibi in the knowledge that she will protect them from all danger.

Ms Skuban, thank you so much for this interview!

How you can help

Future needs nature. EuroNatur cares for it. Please use your possibilities to help. With your donation you will make an effective contribution to a more livable environment.

Sustaining membership

EuroNatur focuses on long-term nature conservation projects instead of quick fixes. With your regular donations, you give us the planning security we need.