Problems with hungry, free-roaming dogs can look like a no-win situation for livestock owners — and sometimes dog owners, too.
“Other than we humans, the dog is the most widespread and abundant predator in Kansas. Compared to our native coyotes, dogs typically are also more difficult to control or keep from causing injury,” said Charles Lee, wildlife specialist with Kansas State University Research and Extension in Manhattan.
Unlike coyotes, however, dogs that are hunting for themselves may not be truly wild (feral). They may have an owner who provides at least some regular care, Lee said.
“That can really complicate a situation. If someone can locate them, a dog's owners are likely to have real trouble accepting the idea that good ol'Fido is roaming around, stalking livestock,” he said.
“At the same time, the livestock owner is likely to hesitate about antagonizing neighbors by accusing their dog of being responsible for the attacks — much less by just shooting their pet.”
This situation is far from rare.
“The fact is, over the 20-plus years I've spent dealing with dog-livestock conflicts, I've learned that most cases in Kansas, at least, are caused by domestic dogs — ones that have a home and owner,” Lee said. “When captured, many of these four-footed trouble makers are calm and may even wag their tails.”
With such dogs as the culprits, Kansas law can further raise the tension between pet and livestock owners, he warned. One statute says that if a dog kills, wounds or worries any domestic animal, the dog's owner will be liable for all damages. Another says that anyone at any time can kill dogs found injuring or attempting to injure livestock.
The legal definition of “livestock” in the state includes cattle, swine, sheep, goats, horses, mules, domesticated deer, and all members of the ratite family that are not indigenous to Kansas (e.g., ostriches, emus, rheas). The definition does not include any wildlife that may be subject to dog attacks, Lee noted.
Besides the domestic dogs that roam, Kansas does have actual feral dogs, the wildlife specialist said. They don't rely on humans for anything. They typically respond to capture by crouching, snarling and lunging to bite — much like a wolf or coyote. Some were born and raised in the wild. Some are survivors that got lost or ran away from home long ago.
A third category of dogs on the loose is the canines that cannot rely on humans any more. They are pets, abandoned by their owner in the country and expected to fend for themselves.
“That kind of thoughtless or misguided abandonment can be fairly common near towns with transient populations — people who have to move, but can't or won't take their pet along,” Lee said.
Abandoned dogs are the least likely to do well in the wild, he warned. They don't have the fallback position of a home base. They may have a hunter's instincts but won't have the practiced and honed skills needed to survive in the wild. They also won't know anything about their dangerous new locale.
At best, they may be able to find and to be accepted by a free-roaming dog pack that includes skilled hunters. At worst, they'll starve.
“If they can, abandoned dogs will gravitate toward what they know.
After all, they have little fear of humans,” Lee said. “So, a number will end up eating from garbage cans, stealing other pets' food, or killing house cats and other pets. Strangely, though, they'll rarely eat all of their prey.
“They'll simply be alley and yard raiders, in danger from humans all of the time.”
Devices designed to frighten, capture or kill predators can sometimes be effective in helping owners protect their animals from injuries or even death.
“In town and country both, however, good investigations by local authorities can be even more important,” Lee said. “The long-term solution to this problem isn't simply to destroy dogs.
“Sometimes better livestock management can help — such as penning sheep at night. We also need better education for dog owners about their responsibilities. Think about how much trouble we could avoid if owners simply kept their dogs contained — protected from becoming predator or prey — particularly at night.”