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Why Donkeys Are (Often) Better Than Dogs At Guarding Livestock

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It’s not uncommon to see dogs in pastures with livestock to serve as protection from predators, but many people do not realize that donkeys can be excellent guards, as well. They are typically suited for protecting calves, sheep and goats, and will easily fend off canine attackers, fox or even bobcats.

Of course, as it is with dogs, they should not be expected to take on several attackers, such as a pack of dogs.

Why Use a Donkey?

The donkey’s ability to protect livestock comes from its naturally aggressive nature toward dogs and coyotes. They are known for attacking canines by charging, braying, biting and striking. While most donkeys will try to scare the predator away by charging at it, many also will confront the predator if it comes down to it. They often bite at predators while slashing their front hooves, or they even may turn around to kick their back hooves.

Although the donkey’s instinct to fend off predators is a purely selfish motive, it is enough to keep an entire herd safe, provided there is only one attacker. Because of this and the donkey’s larger size, smaller livestock tend to hang around donkeys for protection.

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One of the more notable advantages of owning a guard donkey rather than a guard dog is the fact that donkeys will stay within the fence and not roam. Of course, there are instances in which you may end up with a particularly mischievous donkey, but they are far more likely to remain in the pasture, living among the rest of your livestock. They also tend to live longer than dogs, and you don’t have to worry about them being aggressive toward people.

Choosing a Donkey

If you think you may be sold on the idea of using a donkey to protect your livestock, you’re going to need to know some basics before you get one. Choosing the wrong donkey could not only cause you to waste money, but it also could put your livestock in some danger.

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The characteristics that make a donkey such an excellent guard animal are found in a particular set of donkeys. For example, it is important to make sure that you purchase a donkey that is bred to be of standard size or larger. If the donkey is too small, it will have more trouble defending itself against predators, and it may even choose flight over fight.

It is also important to choose a gelding donkey or a jenny over a jack because jacks tend to be aggressive toward other livestock and are more difficult to handle. With the amount of care donkeys need for their hooves and medical purposes, you do not want a donkey you can’t handle.

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Though baby donkeys are cute, they obviously will not make good guardians. If you can’t purchase an experienced guard donkey, I recommend purchasing one that is at least a few years old. Younger donkeys tend to want to play with the livestock, which becomes dangerous as the donkey gets older and bigger.

Introducing Donkeys to Livestock

Having only one donkey makes introductions to other livestock much easier. They are not very social animals, but they will associate with your sheep, goats and calves gradually if they do not have another donkey. If you are nervous about putting them together right away, you may want to consider fencing off a small section for your donkey within your livestock pasture.

I would recommend that you leave the donkey in its own pen for several weeks. During that time, you should get acquainted and comfortable with it. Animals can sense when you are nervous or anxious, so the more comfortable you are with the donkey, the more relaxed and trusting it will be around you. When you finally do decide to put the donkey with the rest of your animals, I would recommend that you use a halter and lead, so you can have some control over the situation; however, you should still be very cautious and try to make the process as calm and relaxed as possible.

Donkeys can make excellent guardians for your livestock, but some are better at it than others. If you are seriously considering getting a donkey to guard your animals, you should do more research to make sure you choose the right donkey that will become a part of your herd.

Have you ever used a donkey to guard your livestock? Share your thoughts and tips in the section below:

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  1. True that. We found this out accidentally, as the pair of cows we have on our pasture would not consume a noxious weed that invaded the pasture. It began to crowd out the natural grass that the cattle would eat. We thought of purchasing a goat, but dog packs in the area made us reconsider. A friend recommended a donkey and after taking one of the noxious plants to offer to the donkey, it consumed it with no problem. Done deal – the seller even took the animal to our pasture as part of the buy.

    Donkeys are headstrong, and even bully the cows somewhat when it comes to feeding time. But the donkey is protective of them as well, so maybe it feels its earned it, lol.

    Keep track of the donkey’s hooves – a farrier may be required to keep them trimmed if the ground isn’t rocky enough. Other than that, they are easy to care for.

  2. Dogs are better livestock guardians, and I will tell you why.
    Dogs are not prey animals, donkeys ARE prey animals
    Dogs guard a herd using their barks, their noses, and their patrols. Donkeys cannot smell a predator with the same advance notice that a dog can simply due to their olfactory abilities.
    Donkeys do not patrol a territory, they stay near the food and near the herd.
    Dogs regularly patrol, and work great as a team to keep predators far away.
    Donkeys will usually only be aware of a predator after it enters the fence, and sometimes all they will do is stare it down. Any predator or pack or predators will not be intimidated. All things considered, a donkey is as equally protective of its OWN life in a predator situation, they are just the last to leave the situation, making them often the sacrificial victim.
    When a donkey has been attacked, you will not hear it at the same level as a dog attacking another dog (or coyote or wildcat)
    This article perpetuates the myth as a donkey being a sole guardian of livestock. While they can be good additions and part of a multi-layer defence, they should never be used as the only defence.
    Donkeys need the same care and upkeep as a horse, routine hoof care every 8 weeks and vaccinations/wormings. They are easy keepers but still require this BASIC care, to allude to otherwise (as stated in this article, it seems there is zero maintenance required…this is profoundly untrue and careless to advise)

    • Thanks for the comment. The author was making the point that donkeys are better in some ways than dogs. Of course, nothing can truly replace a dog.

  3. This is a draft of an article I am working on about guard donkeys and why they are NOT a good choice and why why they should NOT be promoted as such:

    With all the coyote problems this year, the idea of a guard donkey has come up numerous times. People seem to be very enamored of the idea of a guard donkeys. It’s the classic underdog story: The fierce, brave and cute little donkey taking a stand against the big bad wolf in order to defend his much loved, but vulnerable friends.

    It’s a classic story and, like most fairy tales, there is often a grain of truth buried deep in the make-believe. Some people do indeed have excellent results using donkeys as livestock guardians – just enough success to keep the myth alive. However, using donkeys as guard animals has something like an 80-90% fail rate and, as always, it is the animals who suffer because of it. Especially the donkeys.

    Using donkeys as guard animals generally fails because the donkey’s own needs and nature are not taken into account. Here are a few things to think long and hard about before throwing a donkey out into a field full of sheep or cows:

    Diet. Proponents of using guard donkeys say that the donkey’s diet is the same as that of the sheep and cows. This is sort-of true except that the sheep and cattle raised on farms are almost always being raised for production, which means that they are pregnant, lactating, growing, fattening or a combination of all. When raised properly, they are on very rich grass meant to meet the very high energy needs of young animals or breeding stock. Donkeys, on the other hand, can get fat living on air. Most guard donkeys end up obese and foundered. If you actually care about your guard donkey, which many people don’t, this is a bad situation.

    Aggression. Some donkeys will form bonds with sheep or cows when they have no other company available and may become very protective of them. However, many donkeys find that sheep and goats make great soccer balls and calves are terrific fun to chase.

    Misplaced guarding. When donkeys do form attachments to sheep or calves, they often will try to protect them from invaders – this includes newborn lambs/calves/kids. From the donkey’s point of view, a newborn lamb is just as alien as a coyote and the donkey may kill it. Donkeys use scent to recognize their herd members and newborns generally have no scent, which helps protect them from predators when they are very small. However, a donkey cannot know this and cannot know that this invader is supposed to be protected. Guard donkeys should be separated from their flocks during birthing and they need to be given time in a safe environment to get used to new additions to the flock. Once the newborns have spent a few days with their mothers, they take on the smell of the flock and the donkey will accept them. Donkeys are not born with an innate sense of farmyard obstetrics and it is not fair to blame the donkey for doing their job, but blame they get nonetheless.

    Territory. Donkeys will drive away coyotes because donkeys are territorial and because they have an extremely strong sense of self preservation. If they are bonded to their sheep, it is only because they are social creatures who are desperate for company – any company. If they don’t bond with the sheep/cows, the donkey may or may not chase away coyotes depending on whether or not the donkey feels like it.
    What about the donkey? Donkeys do best with the company of other donkeys or at least another equine. Is it right to subject them to a life of solitude in conditions they are not suited for doing a job they are likely to fail at? Most farms would not do that to their cows or sheep because they know that animals forced to live in such situations do not thrive. The donkey’s well-being should be taken into account, but is most often overlooked.

    Farrier care. Donkeys NEED it. They need it on a regular basis and will suffer terribly without it. Any environment that will support sheep is NOT natural for donkeys. Their feet will not wear naturally in such an environment and will need routine farrier care to stay healthy.
    Donkeys are prey animals too. I can’t tell you how many gruesome pictures I have seen of donkeys that have been mauled by dogs. A lone donkey cannot protect against an entire pack of aggressive dogs or coyotes any more than a single guard dog can.

    Cattle and horses are every bit as aggressive towards coyotes as donkeys are. Coyotes will prey on the weak and vulnerable, they are no match for an enraged mom cow or frightened horse. My own horse is far more likely to attack a coyote than my donkeys are. She protects them, not the other way round. The best way to protect calves and lambs is to have strong, mixed herds. Diversity is a far better deterrent than a lonely donkey.

    Does this mean that donkeys can’t be guard animals? Not necessarily, some of them do indeed excel at being guard animals – even if they suffer for it.

    If all of the above is taken into account and you are committed to caring for the donkey’s needs, then adding a couple of donkeys to a farm can certainly help keep predators at bay. However, throwing a donkey out into a field and expecting him to protect your flock is neither reasonable or humane. Like Cinderella, every now and then, the glass slipper actually fits, which is just enough to keep the fairy tale alive. In real life though, the glass slipper usually just shatters and cuts your feet to shreds. In the case of guard donkeys, the shattered slipper means neglect, founder, dead lambs, dead calves and a quick trip to an auction house or slaughter plant for the donkey.

  4. From my blog, an article about Dispelling Donkey “Myths”: Donkeys are herd guardians. Now, here’s a sticky ball o’ wax. Because as soon as I bring this up, ten people will contact me saying their donkey is the best guardian ever, and just killed a coyote the other day. Donkeys are prey animals, not predators, which means that they are not hard wired to protect anything in the way, say, a dog is. Donkeys do have a very strong dislike for new, smaller, and carnivorous animals entering their areas, and, if they bond with a herd of sheep, may either alert or defend themselves and the others from an attack. However, this is not “fun” for the donkey, it is extremely stressful. While a livestock guardian dog may really enjoy the responsibilities of looking out for their herd or flock, a donkey is just being a donkey, and being on high alert for predators is extremely stressful to ANY prey animal. Uneducated donkey owners may think their donkey is really peaceful and happy because donkeys are very stoic, and oftentimes don’t show stress as clearly as a horse. But it is there. Also, donkeys often get harmed trying to protect themselves from stray dogs or coyotes or other large predators. Minis never are ok to leave as herd protectors, and even a mammoth can be taken down by a determined dog (two of mine were nearly gutted and killed by an uncontrolled pit bull, and amazingly survived). For every person I hear tell me their donkey is an excellent guardian, I have 5 more showing me photos of noses ripped to shreds, tendons bitten, ears torn off. Also, donkeys are really meant to be with other donkeys, not by themselves with a bunch of cows or sheep. So keeping them alone so that they will bond with another species isn’t really in the donkey’s best interest. Yes, sometimes it works and things are fine…until they are not. My first donkey I was given because he was supposed to be guarding a flock of goats, and he picked one up by the neck and swung it around to play with it! The same playful and territorial tendencies that people rely on for their guardian donkey to keep predators away sometimes backfires, and newly born calves or sheep etc may also be put under attack. They are new and small and not part of the herd, in the donkey’s mind. I have seen SO many donkeys up for sale because of them not working out as guardian animals having killed many of the livestock they were supposed to protect. Another reason not to keep donkeys in with a herd of cattle or sheep, depending on the area and type of forage available, is that donkeys are desert dwellers with very thrifty digestive systems. They are not meant to eat lush grass and alfalfa, and will get obese and potentially founder, which is a life threatening condition. It’s just not a good idea!! Have a fantastic guardian donkey? Great. I do hope it works out for you both. But I wouldn’t do it.—Rachel Karneffel, Foghorn Farm Donkey Training, Colorado

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