Ask 10 people who use livestock guardian dogs (LGD) how they manage their dogs in winter and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. Some dogs remain out on pasture with livestock throughout the cold months, while some are moved with their livestock to a more confined area that often includes access to a barn.
The breeds most often used as guardians have been developed over centuries in countries where winters are harsh, in some cases far more severe than in the Northeast. Long-coated breeds, including Great Pyrenees, Maremma, Kuvasz, Akbash and Caucasian Ovcharka, have dense, water-repellent coats. Some of these breeds have a double coat – a long outer coat that sheds water, and a shorter, soft undercoat that provides warmth. Although the Anatolian shepherd has a shorter coat, the breed does fine in winter as long as the dog has had a chance to acclimate throughout the year.
It’s important for the dog to go into the cold season with a healthy, brushed-out coat of hair. The dog’s winter coat can trap warmth produced by the body, and in extreme cold, tiny muscles help raise each hair to create even more potential for warmth. However, if the coat is matted or full of burrs, the hairs are essentially flattened and pulled together, which exposes skin and makes it more difficult for the dog to maintain warmth.
If the dog’s coat has become muddy or wet, it’s important that the dog have access to a dry place until the coat is dry. Although the coats of most LGD breeds are smooth and somewhat dirt-repellent, it’s important to brush any dried mud out of the coat in order to maintain the natural insulating properties.
Winter air is dry, so it’s necessary to check paws for cracks. Cracks are uncomfortable and if left untreated can lead to deeper, more serious cracking. Although some extra nail length may help the dog gain traction on icy surfaces, don’t allow the nails to become overgrown. Keep an eye on the nails of double dewclaws, which can easily grow into the foot if not trimmed regularly.
There’s often higher predator pressure in winter, which means dogs might be working harder and burning more calories. As a result, they may require feed with higher energy and/or fat.
If the dog is young, old or has trouble maintaining weight, consult your veterinarian about adjusting your dog’s diet for winter. Be sure to make dietary changes slowly.
Although it isn’t necessary to check the dog’s body condition daily, it’s a good idea to monitor dogs, especially young and old dogs, for condition throughout the cold months. By the time winter weather arrives, the dog’s coat is at its fullest, and it may be difficult to determine the body condition visually. To check it, place your thumb along the spine and extend your fingers downward toward the ribs. The ribs should be easily felt, but without deep spaces in between.
The appropriate shelter for guardian dogs in winter varies depending on the farm situation. Like the livestock they’re protecting, dogs instinctively know how to stay warm and will seek shelter in harsh weather. Dogs can remain comfortable when temperatures drop as long as they have protection from wind. In cases where livestock are on pasture throughout the winter, dogs will tend to seek shelter with the stock in hedgerows or other natural windbreaks. When round bales are fed, dogs will often use the bale as a windbreak, even if other shelter is provided.
Some producers provide a calf hutch or large doghouse, but in many cases the dog will prefer to be out with the livestock. You should be able to move dog-specific housing such as a doghouse or calf hutch so it faces away from prevailing winds.
Water is as important for dogs in winter as it is in summer. If your dog drinks from a large stock tank in which an electric water heater is being used, make sure the dog (and stock) isn’t receiving a shock when drinking. It doesn’t take much stray voltage to deter an animal from drinking. Heated buckets are another cold-weather option.
If the dog is older and arthritic, cold weather may make it more uncomfortable. The guardian breeds are stoic and often don’t show signs of pain. To make sure older dogs are comfortable, provide the option of a soft bed – perhaps a calf hutch mounted on a solid base filled with discarded wool. If you’re concerned about arthritis, talk with your veterinarian about the best way to manage your dog’s situation.
The last consideration for cold weather is: How does this look? People who drive through rural areas and see livestock guardian dogs outside year-round are often concerned about the dogs’ well-being in harsh weather. Although you know that your dog has generations of genetic strength to endure tough weather, it’s important for people to see that the dog has options for shelter. The last thing you want to deal with is a humane complaint in the middle of winter.