Conservation is Goin’ To the Dogs (or at least, Leaning Too Heavily on Lassie)

So let’s talk about dogs! Everyone loves dogs. In particular, let’s talk about Livestock Guarding Dogs (LGDs).

Young Maasai boy, with his dog.
A young Maasai boy in Kenya, posing with his pet dog. Photo by Alexandra Sutton, May 2013.

For those who have let lapse their subscription to Working Dog Digest, let me bring you up to speed: in the effort to save wildlife throughout the African Continent, a few conservationists have become interested in the potential value of livestock guarding dogs to ward off predators and prevent conflict with humans.

Two Maasai dogs, sleeping midday
Two Maasai village dogs, hard at work napping.

Sounds great, right? Particularly if you harbor romantic fantasies about the loyal hounds who helped save lives in the American West, the courageous beasts who went into battle with their Nordic masters, the sleek sighthounds racing across the Bedouin deserts, or the sheepdogs standing sentinel over Alpine countrysides and Caucasus fields. Ah, the majesty of man’s best friend.

It sounds particularly great if you imagine yourself as some sort of latter-day missionary, spreading the good news about the value of the working dog.

The trouble is that dogs – much like marmite or sweaters with horizontal stripes – aren’t for everyone. So I don’t love this faddish infatuation with implementing (imported) livestock guarding dog programs everywhere. Here’s why:
1) Efficacy
2) Sustainability
3) Health & Safety
4) Humane-ness (Humanity? Humane-ity?)
5) Culture

Maasai guard puppy
“I’m the most adorable guard puppy of all time!”

Concern #1: Efficacy
• Plenty of evidence has borne out the efficacy of livestock guarding dogs in protecting smallstock (i.e. sheep and goats) from small and mid-size predators (e.g. foxes, lynx, cheetah, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, jackals, wolves) – but how effective are LGDs at defending larger livestock (i.e. cattle) and against larger predators (e.g. lions, tigers, and bears – oh my!)?
• Some anecdata: at my own study site in Kenya, more than 90% of dogs killed by predators were killed in leopard attacks – the leopards just picked them off like snacks. And at another site I visited, the alert dogs were so terrified of leopards that they ran and hid, silently, in the loo rather than risk attracting attention with a bark. Granted, these were smaller-bodied dogs (~40 – 45 lbs) – but then does that mean that larger dogs are necessary to provide an effective defense? If so, please see Concern #3.
• Likewise, I question how effective are LGDs at defending livestock and smallstock against predators who operate in larger groups (e.g. African wild dogs, with an average hunting group size >10)?

Concern #2: Sustainability
NGOs and conservationists have used a number of protocols to introduce LGDs to various communities in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, and other places. In the absence of these NGOs and their infrastructure (often, they provide vaccinations, veterinary care, and education/advice on training), will landowners continue to breed, raise, train, and maintain these dogs? Or are the NGOs setting themselves up to permanently subsidize the cost of maintaining these animals?
• In places where a culture or region has no history or cultural legacy of dog husbandry, how likely are people to adopt (and internalize) a practice that is essentially a cultural import? What will the consequences be for the dogs themselves? See Concern #4.

A guard dog in Tanzania
“I bark sometimes!”

Concern #3: Human Health & Safety
• Rabies is still a significant threat to animal and human health worldwide, causing over 50,000 human deaths a year – 95% of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa (~43%) and South Asia. Further, wild animals can contract and suffer from rabies – the endangered African Wild Dog, in particular, has suffered in the past from outbreaks of rabies and distemper contracted from domestic dogs. Knowing that in many places of limited infrastructure, rabies vaccines for animals are limited (and for humans, even moreso), is expanding the population of potential infectious vectors a responsible choice?
Most village dogs throughout Sub-Saharan Africa live fairly unrestricted lives; they wander through the bush and the villages during most of their days, and sleep outside of the boma/rondavel at night. Stray and feral dogs are common, but their risk is limited by their generally small body size and fear of humans. Some of the dogs given as LGDs to landowners will undoubtedly fall to this fate. How might the safety of humans (particularly, children, who are most at risk of dog attacks) be impacted with the introduction of large-bodied dogs with a much higher intimidation threshold?

Concern #4: Animal Health & Welfare
• Rabies, distemper, and many other infectious diseases are a risk not only to the health of LGDs, but also to the health of wild carnivore populations. In the absence of strong infrastructure for disease prevention, is it really responsible to subject even more animals to the risk of horrible disease and death without the chance of veterinary intervention?
In a recent evaluation of an LGD program in South Africa, 22% of the dogs died premature deaths and 28% had to be removed from the program. The average length of time that a dog was in placement in a home was 2.3 years. In light of these disappointing facts, is it really kind, thoughtful, or responsible to introduce animals to these homes knowing that there’s only about a 50-50 chance they’ll make it through the first two years – and a much lower chance that they’ll make it beyond that at all? What happens to the dogs who don’t make it? Where do they end up (particularly if places like this don’t exist)?

African wild dog in Kenya
“Um…am I going to get rabies from this?”.

Concern #5: Cultural Imperialism
The earliest recorded presence of dogs on the African Continent is in 4700 BCE, in Egypt. By the Early Iron Age, dogs had spread to the south and were all over Africa. The presence of dogs on the Continent is nothing new, and dogs have been used for the same purposes as everywhere else in the world: companionship, worship, herding & guarding, hunting. People love dogs just as much as everywhere else in the world. However, everyone who loves dogs doesn’t love them in the same way.
• There is some evidence that indigenous African domestic dogs (aka African Village Dogs) are a unique-but-understudied breed, completely distinct from other, later-imported dogs. If so, is the introduction of further hybridization vectors a responsible action in light of the lack of knowledge we have about the existing indigenous dog population? If dogs are required for specific purposes, would not a better solution be the repurposing of indigenous dogs who display the necessary characteristics (e.g. allegiance to the herd), or the transplantation of other indigenous African dogs who have been bred for this purpose?

Now, the caveat: I’m not saying that guard dogs never work. I’m not saying that guard dogs can’t be a great, low-cost solution to the challenge of stopping livestock loss. I am saying that they’re not a panacea; that they don’t always work, and that it’s wrong not to recognize the limitations of their use. Further, I am saying that it is aggressively irresponsible to advocate a conservation intervention without considering its implications for the well-being of communities, the welfare of other living creatures, and the potential impact on cultural health.

We can’t just do the expedient thing, or the functional thing; we also have to do the right thing.

Maasai guy with his dog
Maasai gentleman with his dog. Photo by AE Sutton, 2013


Some terms of definition, because there are three types of dogs that often get mixed up in discussion. (From The Canid Specialist Group):

Guarding Dogs – Livestock guarding dogs work by being attentive to livestock and driving away intruders… LGDs display arrested development (neoteny) of predatory motor sequences and retain juvenile characteristics throughout their lives. This…also blurs species-specific recognition, allowing dogs to bond with livestock such as sheep.

Herding Dogs – Herding dogs, by contrast, retain predatory sequences which can be seen in their eye-stalk-chase approach to livestock, although these sequences are incomplete or inhibited (collies do not usually catch and kill livestock).

In short, LGDs behave towards livestock as if they were siblings whereas herding dogs behave as though they were stalking prey. (p. 7)

I would posit that there’s another category here:

Alerting Dogs – Dogs who, by virtue of attentiveness and territoriality (or resource guarding), will bark to announce an incursion to the perceived territory or resource.
(I’d argue that most African Village Dogs fall naturally into this category.)


Further Reading:
Vaccinating Dogs Against Rabies in East Africa – “The challenge is how do you get away from this model we have now, which is donor driven. It costs us about three dollars to vaccinate a dog in those regions and that’s not something that’s, at the moment, sustainable by either the individuals nor by the government.”

Owner Valuation of Rabies Vaccination of Dogs, Chad – “For the 2006 campaign, in which owners were charged, the mean vaccination coverage among all dogs was estimated at 24% (95% CI 0.13%–24.82%) (unpub. data). Vaccination rates for owned dogs averaged only 78% and 25% in the 2002 and 2006 campaigns, respectively.”

Complex population structure in African village dogs and its implications for inferring dog domestication history – “Village dogs from most African regions appear genetically distinct from non-native breed and mixed-breed dogs.”

Predator Patrol Infographic: North American Hobby Farms – “Depending on your protection needs, a guardian dog, donkey or llama can help keep predatory animals away from your flock or herd.”


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