Colorado Hikers and Bikers Under Attack from Sheep Dogs

Across Colorado, hikers and mountain bikers have been attacked, mauled, threatened, and harassed by sheep dogs — an unintended consequence of a law that makes it more difficult for the state’s sheep herders to trap, poison, or shoot wolves and coyotes.

From as far north as Vail and as far south as Durango and Cortez, the high country contains some of the best hiking and mountain biking singletrack in the nation, including the Colorado Trail, but also grazing lands where, because ranchers can’t use other means to fend off predators, shepherds have chosen to employ dogs for protection. Very aggressive dogs.

These aren’t the big, fluff breeds people might keep as pets; these dogs, often Great Pyrenees and Turkish Akbash, have been bred to be anti-social and to treat every outside presence as a threat.

In 2008, a mountain biker in Vail was mauled and this past summer there have many near misses. Letters in Silverton and Durango papers chronicled the dangers, including one from a hiker who said he was tromping along ten miles west of Molas Pass on the Colorado Trail when he was pursued by two snarling guard dogs who charged and nipped, baring teeth. The hiker had to head off trail and fend off the canines with his trekking poles.

A mountain biker wrote to the Durango Telegraph to describe being entirely surrounded by guard dogs on the Colorado Trail and having no choice but to desperately out-sprint them, fearing he might fall as they bit at his bike’s rear wheel.

“Nobody wants a problem,” said Bonnie Brown, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, to the Denver Post. Brown described efforts by shepherds to train their dogs on the differences between human strangers and predators like wolves and coyotes. Dogs are being taught to see mountain bikers as friendlier, with some ranchers having their herders pedal around the dogs to make them more familiar both with the profile of a seated rider and of the speeds a bike can attain.

Further work is clearly necessary, however, as grazing permits allow access to the same open space as hikers and cyclists, and as incidents with hikers show, this is not just about the dogs misidentifying mountain bikers as prey, but mistaking any other creature near the sheep as a threat.

There are education campaigns underway in Colorado, too, with signage posted indicating that sheep herding activities are going on and explaining how hikers and bikers should stay away — and how to deal with dogs if people do encounter them. But it’s not always easy to turn around, especially for a through-hiker on the C.T. or a mountain biker or hiker trying to get back to the trailhead before dark.

The BLM is considering changing its policies regarding grazing on public lands for next spring. Either moving sheep farther from trails, or requiring more handlers to be out with the animals and dogs and possibly implementing other measures as well.

This environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart

{ 31 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Jill

    Amazing….having a sheep dog doesn’t exempt them from socializing and properly training their dogs! Attacking people is inexcuseable!

    • j

      Socializing these dogs is counterproductive to the proper training these dogs need to do their job. They need to be handled, but minimally so that they bond with the herd, not the shepherd.

      A big difference about how these dogs are bred to protect makes it fairly easy to avoid getting bit if one encounters them. They are bred to enhance the mother’s (female) instinct to protect, even the males ‘mother’ their charges.

      The trick then is to exaggerate being non-threatening. Stand completely still, no eye contact, no smiling, no talking. The dogs will come close, maybe 5 to 10 feet away, and bark and posture very aggressively. Stay very still, as above. After a few very long minutes, when the dog realizes you mean no harm, the dog will settle down and let you move. Do NOT approach the sheep, do not attempt to touch the dog. If they are on the trail, either slowly back away to come back another day or wait for the animals to clear away.

      Remember, these dogs are not trained to be aggressive to people, but they are not pets and will not respond like pet dogs.

      • J.scott

        Proper socialization is integral for these dogs. Pyrs are at the bottom of the LGD scale, so they often are able to get by with minimal socializing. Socialization doesn’t mean you make them house dogs, but it does mean you properly expose them to many new situations, people, and things.

    • J.scott

      First off, they are not sheep dogs, they are LGDs. Secondly, I seriously doubt they are attacking people out of the blue. They are doing what they are supposed to and guarding the area that the livestock are in, most people are just too stupid and naive to see the warnings the dogs are giving. I’ve known LGDs (some of the best socialized dogs I have ever met) for years and years. When we go on hikes (and having strangers approach is simply NOT appropriate) more often than not, people will bypass my friendly dogs and head straight for the one that is warning them away.

      This article seems to have been written by someone who simply doesn’t understand the purpose of these dogs. “…Having no choice but to desperately out-sprint them..”, these dogs can run at tremendous speeds. And regardless of this particular moron flailing around and acting like a threat to the dogs, they still allowed him to flee, but instead of escorting him away – a known behavior with LGDs – they felt they had to give him an incentive to never come back.

    • Dana

      I disagree that socialization is counterproductive. A good LGD knows how to behave when they are working, regardless. Just come to my house sometime when I’m not there and go into my pasture. My normally friendly Pyrs do their job exactly as they should, and appropriately for the situation. I love that they have good, independent judgement.

  • D

    I was forced to shot and kill two of these dogs in Wyoming. They are very very aggressive and to be honest I am more scared of them then lions, bears, and wolves combined.

  • John Browning

    I’ve found dogs stop being aggressive around the discharge of a Hi-Power, usually playing dead rather convincingly.

  • Tracy Bassett

    It is important to understand the job these dogs do. This link is to a video (in French but reasonably easy to follow) which explains their job and how people should act around them so everyone can go about their business happily.

  • Heidi Stucki DVM

    As an owner of several livestock guardian dogs who protect my meat goat herd, I find that what should be emphasized is how hikers and bikers should LEARN how one who is an intruder must behave. These dogs are primarily present to protect their herds or flocks by intimidation of predators, not necessarily injuring or killing the threat. Human intruders must be at least aware of their position in relationship to the guardian dog & it’s herd and not continue on their merry way, alarming the dog . If the human does not know the way to behave around these magnificent workers, then they are bound to have problems. Too many hikers & bikers travel on their recreational paths unaware of the situations surrounding them & expecting forces of nature (this includes the centuries old use of guardian dogs) to allow the human to be an intruder & suffer no consequences.

    • Can you believe this skirt?

      No way honey.

      I am all glad that you got yourself some fancy dog medicine education and all. But let me tell you how things work in the real world.

      When the dog is with the flock on public land, it is an extension of the owner. The person who is going by is then menaced by dog, resulting in a situation where the owner is now criminally and civilly liable for assault. Add to this that dogs are known to kill people, and it can be enhanced to assault or menacing with a deadly weapon (10 yrs+ prison in most states.) Then the dog pursues and bites the bicycle rider or hiker? Now the dog owner is liable for battery (add 5 years or so to the sentence.)

      So now the dog owner is in jail for between 10 – 15 yrs because of their criminal action, what about their beloved farm? Well it is being sold to pay off the civil suit.

      Recovery for damages for dog bite = actual cost to make victim whole… lets say $50,000 – $100,000

      Recovery for damages for the torts of intentional infliction of emotional distress at $250,000+ per person menaced or bitten and negligent infliction of emotional distress at $100,000 per person who was at the scene or arrived shortly thereafter and before medical personnel arrived.

      So you have two people hiking, a gaurd dog growls at them (assault,) then the dog bites a person (battery.) The bite victim goes to the hospital and it costs $50,000 (not an outrageous sum by any means.) The other victim goes to the shrink and gets diagnosed with PTSD.

      After locking up the dogs owner for 10 years (it would have been 15 but he took the plea bargain) his widow sells the farm because here comes the suit.

      Recovery for bite victim = $50k hospital, $20k psychiatrist, $250k intentional infliction of emotional distress, $1,000,000 Intentional tort of assault and battery with a deadly weapon (the dog.)

      Recovery for other victim (who witnessed) = $20k psychiatrist, $100k negligent infliction of emotional distress, $1,000,000 Intentional tort of assault and attempted battery with a deadly weapon.

      Total cost to graze those animals on public property: 10 years (and $50k or so for attorney fees to defend against criminal charges.
      Monetary = A little under $3 million not including attorney fees to defend against the tort claims.

      Was it worth it grazing those animals and vicious dogs on public land? Maybe it is time to buy a yak to guard the flock.

      Of course I wont mind, I like taking 30% of tort claims, I would make $900,000 from the tort trial of this.

      • Heidi Stucki DVM

        To Mr. (I can only assume by your diminutive use of the word honey) “Can you believe this skirt”:
        By the hostile tone of your post and its over analysis of how the as you say “real world” works, I am recognizing that your “real world” is the “legal world” of an attorney . So you my fellow walker on this earth, are a person who also got some fancy human education in how the “law” works & how you apparently view this whole biker/hiker vs. sheep/goat herd protected by a livestock guardian dog(s) on PUBLIC land. The law as written is most likely in your favor. But dogs DO NOT attack WITHOUT warning. If you believe that a guard dog growling is assault, then by taking a parallel view, some one shouting to an oblivious unprepared fool who is about to walk off the abyss, “Hey you dumb f–k, walk the other way” that is considered assault? You are the attorney, I suppose you could get the money for the “victim” who apparently has no personal responsibility for his own actions.
        The point of my post is this: The dogs are with their herd to protect it. The dogs WARN the humans by growling (assault, really?) to GO AROUND not through their protective bubble for the herd. The hiker/biker should be knowledgeable about the risks involved with their chosen path – PERSONAL responsibility – I think that THIS is real world thinking – not the world of “I, human can do anything I want to do, no matter that I don’t have the skill or wisdom to deal associated situations, if I get hurt, then I’ll find the bottom feeder personal injury attorney who will get me money ” I know this must be your real world, but if humans would get a clue about the non human world and not just brashly walk through life leaving disaster in their wake, then oh my god! I guess I just put you, the bottom feeder out of a big payola! Sorry but I do take offense by being called a skirt, honey and having fancy dog medicine education. That is really a misogynistic, Stone Age way to begin a posted comment. You have no idea of my “real world” experience and my successful battles with bottom feeders over land rights and stupid human behavior. Just an added note- I have practiced veterinary medicine for over 36 years without ANY legal action against me. I am a situationally aware person who does not leave disasters in my wake and firmly know that if more humans followed this path, our world would be a more respectable place. I hope never to be in your distasteful atmosphere.

      • Lynn

        Tried to look up livestock guardian dog attack/ human death statistics in the US and didn’t see raging numbers of actual working LGD’s that mauled humans.
        I am not talking about domestic pet situations.

        It is nice that you can add.
        Hikers/ bikers should always carry bear mace in the mountains, also a good dog deterrent.

  • Donna Hunter

    The dogs you mention are not “sheep dogs” They are Live Stock Guardian Dogs. When they are with their flocks they are doing their jobs; looking at threats to their charges. If people would take the time to understand the breed, they would know to give them a wide berth, move slowly, no direct eye contact, no talking. These are wonderful animals that protect animals from predators. It has nothing to do with their level of socialization. If you were to come on to my farm as an unknown person, mine would create a perimeter around me. They would be doing their job.
    We all have to learn how to live in the world. We have to know what alley we can walk through. Just because they are dogs you cannot assume they will respond to you as their human buddy or pal like a golden retriever. To put it another way, if you were at work you would protect the product of your work from anyone you thought was a threat.
    Hikers go out into the woods with hiking sticks and bear spray. They learn about the threats threat may be out there. How about taking a few minutes get familiar with dog behavior. These dogs tell you when you have gotten close enough. But then again in a city alley the homeless dog that lives there tells you the same thing, you listen and move away.

  • Laura Faley -- Hidden Meadow Ranch

    People in the US, as a general rule, are behaving less courteously towards dogs than they have at times in the past. Even with my pet dogs I find that people swing their hands at them, put their faces down near them, and children rush into their space. There has been a lot of public information on exerting dominance over dogs, and not a lot on being polite and respectful. For the guarding breeds, this presents a problem. They recognize a code of conduct that respects territory and avoids conflict. I’ll bet the hikers and bikers that got into trouble challenged their authority, did something dumb like trying to pet them or pet a sheep, or were aggressive in body language.

  • M

    Honestly these dog are not “very aggressive dogs” as this article tries to portray for some extra fear. They are working dogs, in this case they probably are not well socialized and they should be if they are near trails and such. But biking into a flock of sheep and screaming like that one woman who got attacked might cause any dog to go after her. Go around, change direction as you would do with any obstacle. I own two of these Livestock Guardian Dogs. They are not sheep dogs nor do they herd them, chase them etc, they job is to protect their animals and they do protect my livestock. Mine are use to humans and are not agressive, they will run over if someone other then me is messing with the stock and making the animal yell. Some are raised poorly just thrown in with the flock and left to their own devices, it is an old timer way of training the dog to bond to the animals and not humans. So that does fall onto the owner to raise them better. But people also need to use their heads and not run through or ride through a flock of sheep. If they run in fear that could also cause injury. This is a 50/50 issue.
    This article was not researched before it was published. This author did not bother to look up anything about Great Pyrs, Akbash, or Guardian Dogs. It just makes people who read this continue on with their misconceptions. Ten minutes of research would have helped them not look foolish as to they “very agressive sheep dogs” http://www.lgd.org

    • steve casimiro

      @M: Your perception of these dogs and their putative personalities has nothing to do with the fact that people were indeed attacked.

  • Judy Steffel

    Yep, folks do need to do at least a little bit of research before publishing – or posting – on a topic.

    People who have actually lived with livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) for years are not just describing their “perception of these dogs and their putative personalities”. I currently live with 12 and have lived with as many as 16 LGDs. I’ve watched their behavior with their goats, wildlife, human intruders, and with one canine intruder that was stupid enough to come over a fence.

    They are not inappropriately aggressive; they *are* fiercely protective. They don’t “lay in the weeds” waiting to pull sneak attacks. They warn off any and all intruders. They scent mark their territory and issue frequent desultory warning barks to keep four-legged intruders away. “Big dogs here; don’t bother coming around.”

    If two-legged intruders happen along, the barking soars to amazing volume and will be accompanied by a charge if the offenders don’t have sense enough to stop in their tracks. Woe betide any stranger who tries to intimidate these dogs! Think of them as four-legged, hairy cops… They’re much more interested in keeping the peace than in getting into physical confrontations. (For human cops, getting physical means paperwork. For the dogs, it means physical exertion and possible injuries.)

    Just out of curiosity, how many of you folks complaining about the presence of LGDs would prefer that we return to the days of slaughtering all four-legged predators? My dogs and goats and I live in the midst of wolves, coyotes, bear, and mountain lions (not to mention roving domestic dogs who are usually far more dangerous to small livestock). They all know we are here and think those goats would be very tasty – but not worth the risk of dealing with the dogs. So they go elsewhere for their meals and we live in harmony… What a concept, eh?!

  • Gail S. Dash

    Kuvasz Fanciers of America has been involved in breed rescue and public education for over 25 years. A working Livestock Guarding Dog is ONLY aggressive if the intruder fails to heed its numerous warnings. The LGD is hard wired to protect its flock, it is a defender, not an aggressor. Fighting an intruder is its last choice as it leaves the flock vulnerable from other directions.

    I have found ALL the LGD breeds to be VERY fair in giving many warnings, as opposed to other breeds that enjoy the bite or might sneak up from behind and bite. The problem for people (and especially children) comes when people do not recognize these warnings and continue to “threaten” the dog’s position or flock.

    You can not expect dogs to be smarter than the human hikers and bikers who are invading its working space.

    Bottom line, whether it’s hiking and the weather turns bad, or going out of bounds on the slope, or biking thru areas with working dogs, if you are not prepared for the environment, you should be smart enough not to be there.

  • Shelene

    I too have and use these dogs as they were meant to do. They can be very gentle with their own family and stock and fierce, though NOT aggressive with predators. People are predators and many act just like one. The glaring, making loud noise, trying to intimidate, all shout danger to a dog, or for that matter any animal.
    Better to shut up, back off and be quiet and slow in your movements and do NOT stare at them.
    Use the brain that was given to you, learn how to behave around all animals and you’ll find out that many so called aggressive animals are not, they just try to take care of themselves.
    Seriously, would you threaten and try to out agress a bear or wolf? No, you’d back off and hope to get away quietly and slowly. Do the same for the dog who is just doing his or her job.

  • Tracy Bassett

    One of the problems I feel is that these days many people are so divorced from living with animals that they don’t know how to act around them or how to live peacably with them any more.

    ‘Nature’ is more than just trees and mountains.

  • Marlene

    livestock guardian dogs like the Great Pyrenees as well as the Turkish dogs have worked for thousands of years in open range situations as described in this article. If they were indeed dangerous to humans, they would not have lasted in this type of job for all these years. The problem lies in the humans who do not recognize that the dogs’ aggressive display is a warning to stay away from their flock. The dogs have no intention to attack humans that are no threat to them or their flock. If the human intruders confront the dogs in an aggressive manner by walking towards them, shouting at them, waving arms or sticks, they make themselves look like they are a threat to the dogs and the sheep. Common sense should tell a person to back off from a dog that is defending it’s flock. I grew up in an area where dogs were protecting flocks of sheep in a freerange situation with people living nearby, in all the years not once did a person get injured by those dogs, but then back in those days people had the sense not to challenge a dog that clearly signaled to stay away.
    I hope that the hikers and bikers learn to show some respect towards these ancient working dogs and appreciate that these dogs really prefer to live in peace. There is a reason they are considered non-lethal predator control. They will use the least amount of force necessary to keep a predator away, fighting is the last resort if all warnings have been ignored.

  • Dana McDonald

    I also use Pyrenees dogs as LGD’s. Mine are friendly with people–when I am home. If I’m not, I hear they look plenty threatening. It’s their job.

    On the other hand, I think that public land that has popular trails running through it may not be the most apporpriate place to graze livestock. Perhaps a combination of moving the grazing a bit farther from trails, along with educational material handed out at trail heads about how to behave if you do encounter an LGD (or bear, or whatever) might go along way to preventing conflict.

  • Teri

    I have 4 LGD. Mine are not human aggressive, but would kill a stray cat or wild animal. They would confront a stray or unfamiliar dog that got onto the property near the goats. Mine are very human friendly, but that may just be due to the fact that they have been exposed to humans quite a bit since they were babies. They don’t know a stranger, run up to any human and sit down in front of them waiting to be petted. Mine are Pyrs which is a softer breed too. Akbash, Kangals, and Anatolian are lot harder breeds of dog and more intense in their protection efforts. I don’t know how my GP would react to a strange biker on the property near their goats though. They might not recognize a biker as human. Dogs aren’t born to know everything, they have to be socialized and taught to a certain extent.

    I have to honestly say that it is not wise to graze the sheep on public lands where the public comes across in bikes or jogging. LGDs are protection dogs, not aggressive per se, but bred to protect their family and flock. If the dogs think a biker could be a predator that would harm their flock, they would protect their flock. That is what they were bred to do. They have to be taught to like humans and see them as friends not predatory animals. I would never send my flock and dogs out into the public area where bikers, dog walkers, children in strollers, and other possible issues might exist. It just isn’t a wise, responsible thing to do.

    LGD are very gentle with human children and young animals. But they have to know that they are human rather than mistaking a stroller for a predator. They have to be exposed to humans from a young age to see them as human. I have to agree that it’s just wrong to put the dogs onto public property with not supervision and no socialization. It would be better for both dogs and public to keep the sheep fenced on private property with their guardians rather than letting them run on public lands.

  • Ryan

    You can’t just dump your animals on public land and then throw your hands in the air when they attack other people using that public land. They have as much right to use that land as anyone else.

    • Sean

      The animals aren’t “dumped”on public lands. The ranchers lease the public land for grazing. The flocks are accompanied by shepherds who live with the sheep. However, a flock of 1000 sheep can be spread over a pretty wide area.

      The livestock guardian dogs are, for the most part, not inappropriately aggressive. Their preferred method of protection is to bark and warn off potential threats. Their second preferred method is to charge the threat while barking to cause them to stop or back off. It’s a rare occasion when they attack, usually only when attacked or when the threat refuses to move off.

      Many people using public land are ignorant. They see their right to recreation as taking precedence over other people, and creatures’, right to use the land. Rather than sitting down on the trail and letting a herd or flock to pass, they’ll try pushing their way through the middle of them and then are surprised and shocked when they get hurt.

      I’ve seen cyclists in CO ride through a flock of ewes with lambs and scatter them rather than wait 15 minutes for them to pass.

      A dog allowed to roam off leash can kill or injure dozens of sheep in a very short time. Wolves, coyotes and bears can decimate a year’s lambing in a few nights. As others have said, Livestock Guardian Dogs allow livestock and wildlife to co-exist without hunting or trapping the wildlife. If humans had a bit more patience and educated themselves better, they too could peacefully co-exist in the backcountry with LGD’s.

  • Sarah

    The level of understanding of what these dogs do (or lack thereof) by some commentors and also the author is utterly mystifing..I learned in fifth grade when you write a story, you actually do research on the topic at hand..calling them sheepdogs merely proves my point. :(

    My Pyrenees issues a warning to anything intruding or threatening my flock of sheep..she is not some aggressive,foaming at the mouth killer as this article would lead people to beleive. She is doing her job. To many people nowadays have no idea how to behave around a pet dog, let alone a working dog. While I do not excuse dogs “attacking”..I have to wonder what precipitated the dogs pursueing the hikers and bikers? If they behaved like so many people do behave around dogs these days..I am not the least bit surprised at the outcome.

    EDUCATION on LGD’s is key..along with perhaps keeping grazing lands further off the public trails. I can say with 99% certainty what my Pyr will do in a situation..now people on the other hand..the percentage is MUCH lower..

  • Jeff

    This is the humble opinion of an old Colorado guy who remembers when there were “sheep dogs” and “cow dogs” rather than LGDs or whatever they’re calling them now, so I’m very likely wrong. (“socializing” a sheep dog?..really?) I also remember when ranchers and shepherds shot coyotes and wolves and other predators. People understood the balance of things instead of wringing their hands and moaning “something must be done” every time something upset them. Folks around here were wringing their hands about protecting the coyotes and prarie dogs until the coyotes started eating their precious little dogs. The problem (again in my opinion) is not grazing on public land, guard dogs, or coyotes. The problem seems to be well meaning, do gooder, self centered people who can’t see past the end of their own egos.

  • Lynn

    What is to be noted is that I see no actually ATTACKING in the article, but being surrounded is an LGD behavior and as an owner of several LGD’s what I find is that these hikers many times will go TOWARDS the sheep/goats to “pet” or take a closer picture of the livestock and LGD will go to discourage them. Surrounding, or closing in on someone is a tactic to get people to move away from a dogs herd.

    These are working animals and not pets.

  • Stan Ford

    I have 3 Great Pyrenees, they are not aggressive, but they are loud. They bark at bikers and run along the fence, but the neighbor kids have all learned about them and I take 1 to the FFA petting zoo every year to teach people about them. Biggest problem I have is people just being afraid of a big dog. Mine are fairly well socialized though as I am not on the prairie. But if a biker drove their bike into my sheep, I would probably shoot the tourist. You can always get another, a good dog is hard to find.

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