by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Guardian donkeys may seem like simply pasturing equines along with the livestock; however, donkeys differ from horses in several ways.
Jan Dohner presented “Livestock Guardian Animals: Llamas, Donkeys and Dogs” as a webinar hosted by Food Animal Concerns Trust.
“Horses use their herd as protection,” Dohner said. “Donkeys are more alert and territorial and more instinctively aggressive to national predators than horses.”
Donkeys will bray, kick or bite for defense, she added, especially if they’re males.
“Jennies may be more maternal,” Dohner said. “The donkey is probably not deliberately protecting the herd, but itself. A single donkey is more likely to socialize with the stock if there are no other equines with them. Some people think two donkeys can deal better with threats.”
Donkeys offer several advantages as guardian animals. They’re naturally aggressive to canines, territorial, require only four to six weeks’ socialization, need similar shelter and food as stock, don’t challenge fencing or dig, live long, don’t cost much, and aren’t usually a threat to humans.
“Most domestic donkeys are docile, but are stubborn,” Dohner said. “Don’t hand feed snacks and treats. Forceful discipline doesn’t work but consistency.”
But donkeys have a few disadvantages, too. They’re also a prey animal and not protective against smaller predators like weasels or bird predators. They can be dangerous to pet or herding dogs. Donkeys won’t protect the family or the farm. They’re not effective for widely scattered stock, large pastures with dense vegetation, or rough terrain, extreme cold or wet. Donkeys lack the protective undercoat horses have.
“They’re less social than llamas,” Dohner said.
Though they don’t bark, they bray — loudly.
“Don’t reward braying,” she said. “If you check on them, you condition them to bray more.”
Dohner said guardian donkeys should be at least age three, as “they can be quite playful when young.”
She recommends a jenny with a foal or a gelded jack. A pregnant jenny may favor its newborn over stock or not be capable of defending the flock.
“Intact jacks are a danger to stock and difficult to handle,” Dohner said. “Get a standard size or larger. Minis are way too small. If possible, see if you can test their reaction to strange dogs. They usually don’t react to their owner’s dogs.”
As with llama selection, it’s helpful to talk with someone experienced with the animals and get some “lessons” on donkey handling. Feral donkeys can be difficult to handle and it may be impossible to provide adequate vet care.
Though donkeys need similar care as the herd, “lush pasture and rich hay and grain can cause founder,” Dohner said. “Keep them on a good diet and proper weight.”
Donkeys need equine salt blocks and shelter from wind, rain, and cold, because they lack a horse’s protective undercoat. Dohner said fences usually aren’t a problem. Like horses, their hooves need trimming and their teeth may need floating as they get older. Their medical care is similar to horses for vaccination and parasite control. Their coats may need clipping in the spring.
When bringing home a guardian donkey, it’s wise to keep it away from other equines.
“Don’t rush it,” Dohner said. “When you see they’re socializing through the fence, release them in a small area with some stock and see what’s going on. It should be small enough they can’t totally avoid each other, but in a small barn.”
If there are no problems, increase the socializing time. Watch for food competition and, for about a year, supervise birthing and breeding times.
“Common problems are aggression to the stock,” Dohner said.
If needed, stockmen can repeat introduction steps.
Guard dogs represent more commonly known guard animals. Guard dogs are specific breeds of animals, “not a job description,” Dohner said. “They’re selected to have specific traits.”
These include little to no chase drive.
“If they play or chase as a young dog, it needs to be stopped,” she said. “Their activity level is low, especially compared with herding dogs. They spend a lot of time chilling out. They can be very nurturing. They patrol and mark and bark to chase off threats. They may make charges toward threats and bark.”
Guard dogs may be used to protect a wide variety of stock against all predators, including birds. They also become protective of the farm and family.
“I know some that guard vineyards from deer,” Dohner said. “Owners learn very rapidly how to interpret that barking to letting a predator they’re out there to warning them off to a confrontation. They do all this without intervention.”
Dogs may work solo or in pairs or packs.
Livestock guard dogs offer a few disadvantages. They’re expensive because they’re slow to mature and train, unless the farmer purchases a mature dog. They require socialization and supervision. As dogs love digging, they’ll need good fencing.
“They do not boundary train,” Dohner said. “It’s not normal for them to be contained in small areas and they need to learn to respect fencing. Barking is part of how they work. It lessens with maturity as they gain confidence. If you have near neighbors, this will be a disadvantage. They’re not biddable like a herding dog.”
Aggression towards strangers or strange workers on the operation make obtaining a livestock guardian dog a bad idea. Although they usually accept family pets or herding dogs, they should not be left alone with them.
When selecting a livestock guardian dog, ensure that’s what you’re getting — and not something else.
“You need these inherited traits,” Dohner said. “Think about your own specific needs. If you have an immediate threat, you may need an adult dog now.”
Just as with a pet or working dog, livestock guardian dogs need food, shelter, coat care and medical care suited to the animal.
“They like to sleep with their animals, but local ordinances may require them to have their own shelter,” Dohner said.
It’s advisable to teach the dog to walk on a leash, accept tethering and riding in a car and being temporarily enclosed in a small area for vet care.
When bringing a livestock guardian dog home, prepare in advance with a safe enclosure. The dog should remain near the stock or with the stock from the very beginning. Give it plenty of attention where it works.
“Don’t let it sleep inside or on the porch, not even one night,” Dohner said. “They may cry like a puppy but it will last only a couple of days.”
As with other guardians, monitor breeding and birthing times for the first year