Vet ethics: guardian dogs

I recently attended the annual AVA conference in Melbourne. In one of the talks, Chris Johnson, a Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Tasmania, discussed the use of so-called guardian dogs to protect livestock on Australian farms. This idea involves a new approach to a longstanding animal welfare and farming problem.

Livestock such as sheep and lambs are sometimes lost to predation from foxes, dingoes and wild dogs. A traditional approach to this problem is to lethally cull potential offenders. Methods of culling include shooting and baiting with poisons. The 1080 poison causes muscle tremors, convulsions and death. Few people would doubt that baits have significant welfare implications.

Yet predation of livestock also has welfare consequences. The mauling of lambs not only harms the lambs but also creates great anxiety for the farmers, both because of concern for their animals and for their own livelihoods.

When solutions to problems have become entrenched, they can sometimes be taken as the only possible ones. Creative and critical reassessment of such problems can thus be difficult. While it may be acknowledged that culling does result in poor welfare, it is sometimes treated as less of an ethical problem than it is.

Of course, that does not mean there are always ethically acceptable alternative solutions to lethal culling. The question raised by Professor Johnson’s talk was whether guardian dogs do or don’t represent a morally more desirable approach.

Guardian dogs such as Maremmas have been selected many years to have qualities conducive to protecting livestock. For example, Maremma sheepdogs bond closely to animals of other species with whom they have been raised from an early age. When they connect with a particular herd or flock, they live their lives largely independently of human beings. The dogs are also of sufficient size and strength to repel wild dogs, dingoes, and other animals.

Guardian dog abilities were depicted in the popular Australian movie Oddball. The film showed the impact a Maremma dog had on a penguin population threatened by foxes in a National Park reserve island. Traditional methods of maintaining the penguin population had failed. The protective effects of the dog were discovered accidentally. Furthermore, the presence of the guardian dog created controversy amongst the local people.

Nevertheless, scientific evidence exists that guardian dogs can have positive impacts on vulnerable animal groups. Furthermore, guardian dogs appear to have some advantages over traditional methods. While the dogs do not stop all predators entering properties, they can reduce the killing of livestock. They have been shown to patrol the farms where their nonhuman beneficiaries live, thereby deterring wild dogs and other predators from the local area.

Even farms adjacent to the property can benefit from the presence of canine guardians. Studies have also demonstrated the presence of flow-on effects on native animals. For instance, fewer feral cat and fox incursions can help boost the local population of small native mammals.

One objection to the use of guardian dogs is that the dogs simply move predators on to other locations. Culling, by contrast, removes individual animals permanently. However, a key problem with culling is that it does not, and perhaps cannot, eliminate predators from the Australian environment.

Indeed, culling programs can permit neighboring populations of predators to enter and reestablish in an area that is devoid of competing con-specifics. There is a case, then, for saying that the use of guardian dogs is ethically preferable on several levels: It is more successful in controlling predation; it may confer superior ecological outcomes; and it reduces the increasingly controversial use of welfare-harming culling methods.

Are there any drawbacks to the use of guardian dogs? There is a limit to how many sheep, goats, or cattle a guardian dog can successfully care for. This means that farmers will need to invest in multiple guardian dogs to guard larger flocks or herds. However, it may still be economically feasible for them to do so.

Guardian dogs tend to spend relatively little time around the farmhouse or human habitation (unless imprinted on a human group). Farmers may leave out meals on the property. Consequently, farmers may have relatively little contact with the guardian dogs.

That may not be a problem in itself for the guardian dogs, given that they are happy living and interacting with their interspecies group. A practical ethical issue here is the physical health and well being of the dog. Presumably, it is in the farmers best interests to provide good veterinary care for their “canine employees”.

Still, these nonhuman employees are not exactly pets or animal companions. Indeed, the case of guardian dogs is potentially different even from that of the working Kelpie or Heeler, with whom the farmer may have a closer relationship. Will the welfare of guardian dogs be more at risk than the welfare of working dogs that have stronger relations with us?

Nonetheless, the case of guardian dogs represents one way of thinking creatively about alternatives to traditional lethal methods of predator control.

For further information on guardian dogs, see Linda Van Bommel’s comprehensive manual online .

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