Keeping your Dog and Livestock Safe

We believe that no responsible dog owner wants their pet to harm or kill livestock and yet seemingly innocent family pets are capable of chasing, injuring or killing livestock as news reports reveal.  

This guide offers you an overview of the law as well as some practical tips and suggestions to help you ensure you keep both your dog and livestock safe. It is a criminal offence for a dog to worry livestock, that is where a dog barks, chases or bites a farm animal. Livestock worrying is believed to happen more frequently than is currently reported.  

And yet it remains a problem. Sheepwatch, a campaigning organisation set up to try to solve the problem, reported 2,474 deaths of sheep in 2017, among them 408 pregnant ewes, but since the crime is likely to be underreported nationally, it is believed the figure could be as high as 15,000 sheep annually. In its 2018 rural crime survey, the National Farmers Union reports dog attacks on livestock are estimated to cost £1.6m a year

While some livestock attacks happen with an owner is present or nearby, a large number of reported incidents are by dogs running free, suggesting those dogs have escaped from gardens or yards.  

Aside from the unnecessary suffering caused to livestock and the financial cost, many dog owners are unaware of the risks to their dog should it attack a farmer’s sheep. Your dog could be shot if it cannot be brought under control.  

Between 2013-2017, five police units across the UK reported 92 dogs were killed for livestock worrying.  The peak times for livestock worrying are during the lambing season of January to March however attacks can happen at other times too.

Can any dog chase livestock? 

Yes. It comes down to the dog’s natural urges. In the wild, a dog would chase livestock in order to kill for food, but the modern pet dog is generally well fed, if not overfed, so it is not chasing livestock to fulfil a primary need. Why then do our pet dogs chase livestock? The answer is simple – they enjoy it. 

Predatory chase of this nature tends to be an impulsive action with no real goal in mind. The action of the chase stimulates the part of the dog’s brain which is associated with arousal and what’s known as the seeking system (the derivation of pleasure in natural behaviours such as chasing, stalking, herding and running) and bypasses the parts of the brain associated with reason and choice. 

The act of the chase releases the pleasure-seeking chemical messenger dopamine into the dog’s brain so he gets a real high of pleasure. This is the reason dogs will become repeat offenders, not because they have ‘tasted blood’, but because it becomes an addiction to pleasure seeking, indeed the thrill of the chase. 

Predation is intrinsically rewarding and studies show it is almost impossible to interrupt an intrinsically rewarding behaviour. Remember the YouTube video of the dog Fenton chasing deer in Richmond Park? The dog was ‘in the zone’ and completely oblivious to his owner’s frantic calls. 

When in that ‘pleasure zone’, some dogs just chase sheep until the sheep reach a point of exhaustion, but there is not a single dog bite on the sheep, suggesting the chase element is the most rewarding to those dogs. 

Other dogs will bring down sheep and partially dissect and consume them, suggesting they have an entirely different motivation.

Your dog, livestock worrying and the law 

It is against the law to let your dog run and chase livestock. There are a number of laws used to control the problem but two that dog owners should be most aware of are: 

Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953

It is a criminal offence for an owner (or person in charge) to allow a dog to worry livestock on any agricultural land. The definition includes attacking livestock as well as chasing them in such a way that a dog is expected to cause injury or suffering and simply being at large in a field where there are sheep. You can read more information here.  

Animals Act 1971

This is a civil liability for keepers (meaning not just owners) of dogs for the damage their dogs cause by killing or injuring livestock. Even if the situation occurred as a result of a dog owner accidentally letting the dog off the lead, you will still be held liable under this law.  It is this law where the owner of the livestock can kill the dog/s concerned to halt the attack as a last resort. Read more here

Advice on how to stop your dog chasing livestock  

The only solution is to avoid putting your dog in a position where he can chase livestock. Here are four ways to keep your dog and livestock safe: 

1. Always keep your dog on a lead in fields and farm land or other places where farm animals graze. If there appear to be no animals grazing or there is no signage to say keep your dog on a lead, always do a proper visual check first before letting your dog off, just to be on the safe side. Farmers will sometimes put up and take down signage so keep an eye on what is being displayed.  

2. Be mindful of letting your dog off lead, even in suburban/semi-rural areas. Cattle and sheep are often used for managing areas of open land. Make sure you read the signage and carry out thorough visual checks first before letting your dog off the lead.  

3. Make sure your house and garden is secure. Many attacks happen through dogs escaping from gardens. Make sure your fencing is high enough and your garden is secure, and do not let your dogs out in the garden unsupervised, especially at night. 

4. Make sure your dog’s recall is good.   

You can take a deeper dive into recall training by watching our webinar with The Canine School of Science featuring TV trainers Jo Rosie Haffenden and Nando Brown.

Happy walking and remember to be safe out there!