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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A story about a specific kind of working dog now - livestock guard dogs. There was a time when ranchers would set out carcasses laced with poison to kill predators, animals like coyotes and wolves. But that's not allowed anymore. And ranchers are using dogs to protect the herd.

NPR's Jeff Brady visited a ranch in Wyoming that raises them.

JEFF BRADY: When Cat Urbigkit arrives to check on her sheep, she's very popular.

(Soundbite of sheep bleating)

Ms. CAT URBIGKIT (Livestock Owner; Akbash Breeder): Hi, girls. Come here. Come here.

(Soundbite of sheep bleating)

BRADY: These ewes know Urbigkit often bring shortbread cookies with her. On the edge of the herd, there's a big dog, a white fluffy Akbash, named Love's Girl, lying low behind sagebrush.

Ms. URBIGKIT: She doesn't have a great interest in coming to see me. She loves her sheep far more than she loves any human, so the perfect dog.

BRADY: Urbigkit says she's probably napping. Guard dogs work all night when predators are active.

Ms. URBIGKIT: Hey, pretty girl.

BRADY: Finally, she comes over for a visit.

Ms. URBIGKIT: And if you'll look, she's winking both of her eyes at the same time, which is a very nice submission gesture. Good morning, Love.

BRADY: A couple months back, she gave birth to seven puppies that eventually will be sold to other ranchers.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

BRADY: The puppies have been out playing. Urbigkit notices one is whimpering.

Ms. URBIGKIT: Uh-oh. We have porcupine quills on our foot.

BRADY: A closer look and several of the pups have quills everywhere.

Ms. URBIGKIT: I'm sorry. On your very sensitive nose. Herman(ph). Okay, hold on. Hold on. Everywhere I touch you, I'm feeling one. Every litter or pups has to meet up with its porcupine. So - every year, I get the pleasure of pulling porcupine quills and making babies cry.

BRADY: That's part of becoming an adult guard dog. Another is bonding with sheep. As newborns, Urbigkit lays out tuffs of wool for the puppies to snuggle in. They spend a lot more time with sheep than they do with people. The Akbash breed has a guardian instinct, making them effective protectors, says Bill Andelt. He studies animal behavior at Colorado State University.

Professor BILL ANDELT (Animal Behavior, Colorado State University): Probably, if we compare them to trapping and if we compare them to some of our - going out and shooting coyotes; if we compare it to using frightening devices, I'd say that they likely are just as successful and perhaps more successful than some of those techniques.

BRADY: Wolf populations are recovering and these larger predators are moving into new territory. Andelt says guard dogs won't be as successful with them.

Prof. ANDELT: You know, if you have one guard dog and one wolf, the guard dog might fare pretty well in a conflict there or an encounter. But if we end up with only one or two guard dogs and if there's a half dozen wolves, I wouldn't bet on the guard dog.

BRADY: Some ranchers also use llamas or donkeys to protect livestock. Andelt says they're less effective but good alternatives in pastures next to a highway, where dogs might run into traffic.

(Soundbite of sheep bleating)

BRADY: Without her guard dogs, Urbigkit figure she'd lose many more than the couple of lambs killed each year now. And since she also raises guard dogs, there's a side benefit.

Ms. URBIGKIT: I have figured out a way to have puppies in my life almost all the time. And what could be better than that, you know?

BRADY: Those puppies sell for about $300 a piece, and there appears to be plenty of demand, as livestock guard dogs become a regular fixture on Western ranches.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

NORRIS: Cat Urbigkit is the author of children's books about Western ranch life. You can read excerpts and see photos from one of her titles, "Brave Dogs, Gentle Dogs" at our Web site, npr.org.

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